Winter (And Autumn) Is Here
I have admired what Raymond Tham has done with his mod-Malaysian restaurant Beta for the past two years, but I will admit that rarely has my gaze focused on Skillet At 163, his sanctum to contemporary European food. While I was in the media, by some circumstance, I never dined at Skillet. And I wouldn't get the opportunity only until recently.
My first real taste of Skillet's food was during the first Malaysian lockdown when I tried their first three-course DIY home cooking kit. I enjoyed the entire experience, but it felt like a snapshot of the restaurant's real character. Although I was impressed, the restaurant once again took a backseat to its sister restaurant Beta when Raymond invited me to try the fantastic Tour of Malaysia menu, which also my inaugural review for Chew On This, back in August.
Earlier this month, Skillet unveiled its new Autumn/Winter 2020 degustation menu (RM430++) and Raymond invited me to have a proper sit-down. Naturally, I did the only logical thing that came to mind. I applied for leave and went excitedly hurried off to the restaurant to finally have the chance to have a meal and to see how it stood up to my glowing experience of Beta.
The Glasshouse is a new addition to the restaurant, replacing what was once a smoking-friendly room with an air-conditioned space that invites natural light and just the right amount of seats to maintain a cosy vibe. The bright sunlight bathing the dining area was great when I was there for lunch, but I could also easily see the space as a suitable date night spot. If you can, do request a table here.
Slices of sourdough served with truffle and mushroom butter, ikura tartlet with bell pepper chutney, and a charcoal pomme soufflé with duck roulade was first to arrive.
Let me go on record saying that I do enjoy Skillet's truffle and mushroom butter despite my usual disdain for truffles. It was funny to note that Shaun Ong, Skillet's restaurant manager, did offer me a truffle-free version of their butter because he knew I disliked truffles. Still, I respectfully declined as I thought it would be best to have the entire experience as intended. I did, however, appreciate the thoughtfulness!
The ikura tartlet was surprising. I expected a more oriental flavour composition due to the presence of ikura but was taken aback by the dominant taste of sweet bell peppers that tasted like ratatouille. A word to the wise, if you're being served the pomme soufflé as part of your amuse bouche when you're dining at Skillet, eat this first. After I had done taking photos and notes of the tartlet, my pastry had, unfortunately, lost the airiness that makes a pomme soufflé so attractive in the first place. Inside, a light hint of duck and cherry softened the charcoal taste of the pastry.
Hokkaido scallops always make for excellent appetisers, thanks to its delicate saltiness and its varying texture – firm and meaty when grilled or soft and sashimi-like when raw or slightly cooked. Skillet's first dish's approach took on the latter, comprised of autumn truffles, edible flowers, Jerusalem artichoke, ikura, sea lettuce, and a sizeable scallop.
While the crustacean was prepared à la sous vide, the taste of the scallop was surprisingly quite strong, which had a semi-solid texture that played nice with the other earthly and oceanic delights presented in this dish. Taking a little bit of everything in one bit was terrific. First came hints of floral lightness from the edible flowers, then mild earthiness from the freshly shaved truffles and artichoke, salty umami from the sea lettuce and ikura, smokiness from the artichoke purée, and finally the taste of the sea that was the scallop. You have to take a little bit of everything with this dish. And surprise surprise there's toasted quinoa for texture crunch, an ace in the hole I've noticed Raymond incorporating into both Beta's and Skillet's repertoire more and more.
Every plate of food that came after the first dish was ramped up to eleven, beginning with the next course – king crab cooked two ways. The crab came presented as a salad and torched with mornay sauce, a yin yang approach to the flavour spectrum. I was instructed to eat the salad first, the crab mornay second, and that rinse and repeat. After my initial run, it was easy to understand the reasoning behind this back and forth.
The salad was refreshing, light and slightly tart thanks to the use of grapefruit, with a lot of crunch coming from the use of fennel and quinoa. The torched crab, on the other hand, had a delightfully strong taste thump on the palate thanks to the mornay sauce's béchamel and cheese working its magic. The distinction between the two was night and day, the salad with its light approach and secondary purpose of refreshing the palate and the torched crab a full-on flavour assault of the senses. The dab of shellfish aioli served in between the two takes seemed unnecessary to me. While it did taste rather appetising, the torched crab already perfectly suited the role of flavour bomb and I didn't need an additional source of flavours to enhance what was already a well balanced dish in my mind.
Ah, the next dish. Where do I even begin? How about the concept? I was told that this dish was created out of Raymond's love of having a pastry and a cup of coffee in Paris, which already sets the tone for what you'd expect from what was arguably my favourite dish of the meal. And that was a tough act to follow given how darn good the crab was.
Simply called Forest Woodland on the menu, the dish was a two-parter – a mushroom tart and a cup of mushroom broth. The five mushrooms crucial to making this dish such a success are portobello, shiitake, morels, porcini, and eringi.
Let's start with the tart, of which I ate with my hands just as you would with any other pastry. At the bottom was a homemade puff pastry made with liberal amounts of French butter, followed by duxelles, and then topped with portobello. Even with all that wonderful mixture of mushrooms, I could still smell the strong, inviting aroma of butter. A bite revealed a Portobello-dominant taste, followed by a palatable composition of other mushrooms. A sip of the broth, which tasted of a mild, pure distillation of all the mushrooms found in the tart, further prolongs this journey into the cool, crisp, earthy forest.
Already incredibly pleased with the dish and its creativity, what I found more impressive was the delightfully long finish that lingers long after the dish was done. The balance of this course was also something to be applauded, with so many mushrooms present, I am confident that it took a considerable amount of fine-tuning to get each ingredient to play nice with one another.
After such a high note, I was curious to see how Skillet's kitchen would follow up on such a spectacular dish. The answer I sought arrived in one of Raymond's favourite ingredients, foie gras, which took centre stage in a rich custard dish that was completed by freshly shaved truffles.
The first thing that caught my eye was the colour of that liquid that hovered at the surface of the dish, which I discovered was chicken and truffle jus. The jus was bold and was the very first thing that my palate picked up with the first spoonful before detecting the taste of custard, foie gras, which was interspersed through the custard, and finally the freshly shaved truffles. The use of chives to round out the dish was also welcoming.
While the foie gras custard did ramp up the umami levels from the last serving, resulting in a good follow up act, I still found myself drawn to the magic of the mushrooms.
And so my other favourite dish of the meal, which is an off-the-menu item that was recommended to me by Shaun because I adore duck, arrived. It's a simple dish, but one that shines thanks to its simplicity and fantastic quality – aged Cherry Valley duck, which I was amused to learn originated from a farm up in Penang, baby cabbage, pomme purée, pickled cherries, and cherry jus.
I love duck, sometimes more so than beef, and this seared duck breast was astonishing, with just the right layer of fat, enhancing the taste of the four- to five-day aged duck to ethereal heights. When coupled with a tart and meaty cherry jus, it made for probably one of the best duck dishes I've ever had hands down. The mashed potatoes were velvety smooth and buttery, enriched by the jus' qualities. The charred cabbage, served with a sprinkling of salt, provided balance and crunch. The pickled cherries, however, which were used to make kombucha, I found too tart for my taste. But I was just nitpicking at this point considering how delicious the entire package was. Kudos! This now tied for the best dish together with the mushroom tart.
On-the-menu options for mains include lamb with gochujang and raisin, venison with crépinette and walnut koji, codfish with sauce américaine and romaine, or M7 wagyu with koji and jus (RM60 supplementary cost). I do urge you to ask your waiter if the duck is available if you are looking to having this menu at Skillet. Trust me, you won't be disappointed.
The autumn/winter 2020 degustation ends with a trio of desserts, starting with a palate cleanser made of rice wine granita with pear and osmanthus. This had Asian influences written all over it, made with that beautiful rice wine inspired by Raymond's grandmother. The inclusion of sweet pear and osmanthus jelly, a nod to ingredients typically used for desserts found in Cantonese cuisine, made for a refreshing dish break after such flavour-rich courses.
Up next came the signature texture of chocolate entitled Le Mythe 2020 Edition on the menu. Given Raymond's background as a chocolatier, I wasn't surprised to find an intriguing dessert. Chocolates in various forms made the dish, which gave it a compelling mouthfeel and textural variation. I like chocolate just as much an anybody, and I think most people would easily enjoy this as well.
The last thing on the menu was a deconstructed carrot cake and cherry kombucha as the petit four. I...am not a fan of carrot cake and the praise that I will give the deconstructed carrot cake is that it well...tastes like carrot cake, especially with that cream cheese, white chocolate and nuts. The cherry kombucha, on the flip side, was tasty with a refreshing quality. The cherry it came with was just as tart as when I had it when it came with the duck, so those averse to sour things beware.