“It is my first time in Indonesia,” related the Illinois-born chef-author, as we waited for the waiter to take the picture. “But I have been to Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. I was in Bali and I am going back tomorrow. It is a wonderful place. My wife and daughter are still there; they love it there. Then we fly to Washington.”
The phone camera clicked.
“Thank you. I look forward to seeing you in Napa,” he said and was escorted to the next table.
Affability aside, Chef Christopher Kostow already had me at his canapés. No, it was actually before the canapés when my gaze fell on his poster that announced his dinner at Orient 8 on November 13 & 14. His youthfulness masked a culinary expertise that is mind boggling: the announcement also said 3-star Michelin chef. For the uninitiated, a Michelin chef is one that adheres to a high standard in creating food by using only high-quality ingredients in dishes that are beyond delectable. Moreover, the dining experience is astonishing.
Chef Kostow began his culinary journey by going against the grain. “There is no cutlery for the canapés as Chef Kostow wants it. He wants you to savour them,” explained Philip Saunier, head of Team Orient 8, on the chef’s behalf. The first of the trio to march out from the kitchen was Kale chip flavours of chorizo, or deep fried kale with garlic and shallot, and blended with tapioca, which was crispy and flavourful. Close at its heels was the Potato matsutake pine. It is a dish to be shared with your dining buddy with each one getting two pieces of baby potatoes enveloped with julienne pine needle and matsuke mushroom. Each bite burst with potato freshness bundled up in strong mushroom taste.
Completing the trifecta was the Lardo clam avocado, a single Javanese clam with avocado sitting atop an espresso-like cup packed with sea salt.
“You eat it like an oyster,” instructed Fajar, who alternated with Philip on annotating the dishes that the guest chef from The Restaurant at Meadowood sent from the kitchen.
With appetites whetted, the first of the main menu that came clearly carried the Kostow mark of excellence. The Caviar sunchoke sea lettuce brown butter – grilled spring lobster on a bed of seaweed and drizzled with brown butter – took centre stage in a black ceramic bowl. Its small portion was ample to satisfy the palate with its exciting melange of grilled (fresh lobster) and saltiness (the caviar that popped in the mouth).
Kostow’s superb touch was relentless as the Mackerel escabeche celery root cream sorrels was laid before me. I had to re-read the menu to ascertain it was mackerel, which I was not particularly fond of, but which I finished in gusto as the succulent matchbox-size mackerel teased the taste buds with a sweet tangy taste.
The Napa Valley-based chef was on a roll. Next was the Abalone eggplant smoked pepper, which Philip and Fajar, one after the other, divulged as having been flown in all the way from California especially for the dinner at Hotel Mulia. It was abalone from a different perspective. Cooked with young spring garlic, it was a radical departure from the usual abalone swathed in a sweet thick brown sauce I was used to. It was an explosion of a mild garlicky flavour that blended well with the tender South African abalone.
Surprises were definitely the order of the night, as the 38-year-old chef left no stone unturned. The fourth course on the menu was a jaw-dropping scene-stealer. Setting up the table-stage, a cup was placed in front of me by Ibu Nuning, another Team Orient 8 member, after which chrysanthemum flowers were cut into it. Intriguing was the word that leaped to mind. Liquid was then poured over the cup until the tiny yellow petals floated to the surface. As if on cue, Philip made his entrance to explain the amazing dish-drink: “That is broth of duck leg and wing poured over edible Japanese chrysanthemum. Enjoy.”
Then it was time for the fifth dish of which I had the duck version of the original menu item, Aged beef grilled shiitake chewy turnip. Both duck and beef were marinated in sake for 24 hours, and each cut into the duck or beef was a succulent bite-size piece bursting with sake-turnip pulp flavour. My dilettante knowledge of duck is it could become dry and the chances of that happening are always high if it’s in the hands of a tyro. But the hands that handled the intricate duck (and beef) recipe were far more adroit – check the stars.
Desserts aren’t that easy to prepare either with all the complexities of the ingredients that a chef has to deal with. One mishap is enough to tarnish the chef’s reputation and ruin the dining experience. Focus is paramount as well as a je ne sais quoi which weren’t lacking in the sublime chef. The first of his sweet triumvirate was Taleggio “butter” apple jelly.
“The Taleggio cheese is from the Lombardio region and the napkin was brought in by the chef,” explained Fajar.
Philip came in shortly after Fajar’s departure and added, “Chef says the best way to eat it is to spread the cheese and top it with the apple jelly. The apple jelly is made with Granny Smith apples.” It would have been sacrilegious to disobey Christopher and miss out on the wonderful balanced tap dance of sweet and sour on the palate of the cheese and apple jelly nestled on the soft wheat bread.
For the second dessert, Date cream walnut oil completely transformed the Bahrain dates into something extraordinary. Whipped into a soft, creamy texture and swathed in walnut oil, its peanut butter-look belied a delicious surprise of the taste of mocha ice cream.
Christopher’s final culinary act was a sweet coup de grace that sealed eternal adulation in my heart. Simply called Chocolate babka, the rolled and twisted bread topped with partially torched chocolate was a panacea for all of life’s vicissitudes. By the time you’ve eaten through the square, you’d tell yourself that all is copacetic in the world.Titles are tricky. They can either be a badge of honour or a mark of empty pomposity. Nowhere is the latter indicative of Chef Kostow. His Michelin-star status is a mark of a virtuoso in full control of his kitchen and a culinary journey with him is a superb experience.