You could say it was a blind date. What else would you call it? We didn’t know, obviously, each other, and we both were putting our trust in the universe that we’d actually like one another. The date was set at the posh Hotel Mulia at 12noon at Orient8. It is one of the restaurants of the independently run hotel that specialized in French and Pan-Asian cuisine and evokes an ersatz Napoleonic-French ambience with its drapes, black-white floor tiles and majestic chandeliers. Adding a tongue-in-cheek touch to the formal air of the restaurant was Bonaparte, with shades, printed on the back of the vests of the courteous service staff. I came on time, as is my usual conduct, and was graciously escorted to a table with a garden view.
Picking up the menu, I was surprised to read that he is based in Singapore, which was home for me then for more than a decade. Perhaps it was serendipity. The universe was finally colluding, not on a bad joke, to give me a wonderful surprise. The lunch began with the perfunctory introduction that was far more pleasant than I had expected. Coming from the kitchen, dressed in his chef’s uniform, his name Stephane Istel emblazoned in yellow gold French script on his left chest, his ebullient greeting was that of someone welcoming a long-lost friend.
“Thank you for coming,” he said jovially in that melodious French accent, a smile crinkling the sides of his ocean-blue eyes. “I hope you like the meal. I will be back later on to chat with you.”
That cooking is his métier is obvious. Chef Stephane Istel has inched his way from the back of the kitchen to the front since he picked up a knife or spatula at 15. The Alsace-born chef officially cemented his foothold in the culinary world when he travelled to St. Tropez, recreational home of the wealthy, famous, jetsetters and fashion models, at 22 and trained under his first mentor, Michel Royer. The “Maitre Cuisinier de France” unselfishly shared with him the secrets of the trade and tips on how to manoeuvre in the culinary world with ease. He has, since then, left his mark in the culinary landscapes of Savoie, Côte d’Azur, the Caribbean, New York, and Vancouver and, recently, in Jakarta where he hosted a two-day culinary event last March 22 and 23. The lunch and dinner events showcased his signature Bistrot-style French cuisine.
His opening salvo was La Tarte Flambée or Alsatian tart flambée with Munster Gerome and Caraway seeds. It’s Stephane’s version of the Italian pizza albeit with a thinner crust and a smaller slice. Divided into four little squares, the tart – served on a cheese board – an exciting mix of crispiness and smoothness on the palate. I never thought miniaturised pizza, which, in my experience, was insipid, could be bursting with flavours, I said to myself, slightly thunderstruck at the new taste that danced in my mouth.
Our date was going well, if I may say so. The food was exciting and the conversation was interestingly enlightening. Fortunately, there were no faux pas or awkward moments yet. He followed up his impressive first course with Le Carpaccio de Saumon, a well-plated salmon carpaccio with lime and pink peppercorn marinade, sourdough cracker and water cress Chantilly.
“It’s a bit acidic, and fruity and sweet,” explained the May birthday celebrant (he turns 35) of his next master piece. “It’s great to whet the appetite.”
He continued, his arms miming branches of a tree: “I like taking an ingredient, twisting the recipe a bit and creating branches of tastes. Bon appétit!” Then he scurried off to the kitchen to prepare for the third course.
I was wondering where the salmon was and was gobsmacked when, with my knife and fork, sliced through the orange-ish bed underneath the cubed and sliced daikon, caviar and sour dough cracker. Eureka! I found the salmon! The paper-thin salmon was carefully interlaced with each other in a circle and, eaten with the tangy sauce and garnishings, was a heady way to make one want to get on to the next course. Bring it on, I mumbled to myself. It was absolutely a good decision to clear my Saturday for lunch with Stephane.
There was no stopping the chef who, by the way, is ready to welcome diners to his restaurant, Baroque, in June this year in Singapore. After 17 years, his childhood dream of owning a restaurant where he hopes to let people experience the feel of partaking of home-cooked meals will become a reality.
My choice was the four-course menu, but Stephane had other plans. He sent to my table – with his compliments – a bowl of La Soupe De Topinambour that had me rethinking about artichoke. The artichoke soup had Black Truffle Royal and parmesan twist, and everything was just right: Not too watery, not too creamy, not too rich – just right.
The fourth item on the menu was brought in – Le Foie Gras Grillé, a sumptuous grilled foie gras brioche “French Toast” with apricot duo, mache salad and duck jus. My last memory of eating foie gras was that it was a bit dry and the sauce overpowered the foie gras that it completely put me off eating it. I dared to try again and my decision was right. It would have been a travesty if I hadn’t. First, the foie gras (it came all the way from the south of France) was moist on the inside and crisp on the outside. Second, it partnered well with French toast. Third, daubing the bite-size foie gras and French toast with apricot sauce, and adding in a few apricot bits spelled a silky, moist and fruity flavour tap dancing on your tongue.
His pièce de résistance was about to make a grand entrance. Shortly after the empty plates were cleared, Le Boeuf Aux Carottes followed suit. The black Angus beef tenderloin was topped with bone marrow crust and served with crispy braised oxtail spring roll with heirloom carrots variation, shallot confit and bordelaise sauce. Juicy and flavourful are adjectives that come to mind when asked to comment on the dish. The Angus beef , braised in red wine, was well-done to perfection – it was evenly cooked and retained its succulence – while the crispy braised oxtail, shredded and wrapped in spring roll wrap, was crisp and not oily (as I’ve experienced with most spring rolls).
Stephane was truly full of surprises that day. With his compliments again, the waiter rolled in a trolley cart for Le Pre-Dessert. He lit up the mini stove, heated up a portion of Grand Marnier, and poured it gently over the chocolate and pear ice cream. The Baked Alaska was subtle in clearing the palate of the meaty entrée and prepping it up for the sweet coup de grace, which, incidentally, is one of my favourite parts of any meal.
“How is the meal so far?” Stephane asked, his ocean-blue eyes brimming with enthusiasm, as he caught a breather and sat at my table.
I was truly enjoying a wonderful dining experience because it was one pleasant surprise after another. I felt like a birthday girl fêted to the hilt! And he was in top chat form. “I hand carried four kg of carrots,” he shared ebulliently. “They said no at first but I told them I needed those carrots. I left my knives at home. My friend over here has a good set of knives.”
Stephane is on a natural high. He loves being in Jakarta (“It’s an up and coming city”), his culinary event in Indonesia is a success (his best friend, head chef of Hotel Mulia, hooked him up with the management and the culinary event was launched), and his dream restaurant is taking form (it’ll be located in Tanjong Pagar and will feature a huge rotisserie). After a few minutes, he dashed back to the kitchen for the finale of his culinary event, which he accomplished with the help of his mum. Revealing the secret for his dessert, however, would be a problem. His mum wouldn’t like it, I suppose, so I settled for digging into the La Tarte Aux Pommes. The Alsatian apple tart was rich in taste or simply put, Stephane didn’t resort to the cost-cutting technique of scrimping on the apples and overdoing the flour. He let the apples’ and the flavours rise through the crust, which intensified with the cinnamon streusel topping. The taste went up a few notches in lusciousness when paired with vanilla ice cream. Obviously, dieting is pushed to the backseat.
Stephane still wasn’t done. Close in the heels of his apple tart was the mignardises paired with a nice cup of hot Japanese green tea. And he was back at my table again without a hint of fatigue on his face.
“How was everything? I hope it went well. Shall we have our photo taken?” he asked.
Before I left, “I shall see you in Singapore in November at Baroque. I promise to take care of you,” he said and disappeared into the kitchen again. His culinary dinner event was in less than three hours.
Stephane, it’s a date.
Additional photography by Rico Falcunitin