Taking dessert to new highs
DINERS get their just desserts with new restaurants that are sweet on after-dinner delights.
Opening in July
At the rate pastry and dessert-related cafes and shops are popping up like meringue mushrooms after a downpour of powdered sugar, it's amazing that we're not all rolling down the streets like human choux puffs. While everything from cronuts to nitrogen ice cream have done their bit to ramp up our sugar levels, we haven't quite reached the level of the Japanese with their love of wagashi and green tea.
Wagashi, or the Japanese version of sweets, is more of an acquired taste for those used to a slice of butter cake and a cup of orange pekoe. Instead, picture tiny, rainbow-coloured confections usually made of mochi and sweet bean pastes - artfully crafted and numbingly sweet - which are not meant to be eaten as is, but paired with thick, frothy and bitter green tea.
It recalls the art of the tea ceremony - a formal, near-religious affair that involves trying to sit with your legs folded under you as the artisan pours, swirls, turns and eventually hands you this exquisite handmade bowl filled with this mysterious intoxicating, bitter brew.
The principles of wagashi - if not the formal execution - will be at the heart of Hashida Garo, which will open a couple of floors above Kenjiro Hashida's successful high-end sushi restaurant, Hashida Sushi.
The sushi eatery is consistently rated among the best in Singapore.
The new set-up won't just be a place for dessert. Like the name Garo ("gallery" in Japanese) implies, it's also a showcase for artists as well as a cafe for casual fare that reflects the principles of washoku, that is, Japanese ingredients and cooking methods.
After two years building up Hashida Sushi, chef Hashida - or Hatch, as he's popularly known - wanted to expand as well as do something more personal that combines his love of food with art and dessert. While trained in washoku, he's a self-taught wagashi chef who would "observe and try different wagashi places and then experiment in my own kitchen", he says. "Over the years, I built up a repertoire, but with my own style."
His plan for Garo comes from his desire "to share and showcase more of what my team can do".
"Over the years, we tested different ideas in the kitchen but because we want to keep Hashida Sushi as authentic as possible, we didn't serve those dishes. We will be able to do this at Garo and show other elements of Japanese dining culture," he says.
The heart of Garo will be a raised tatami platform with space for just 20 people around it which will act as a stage for tea ceremonies, art displays or floral arrangements. "These elements help set the tone to enjoy wagashi - some traditional, some modern - in an elegant and authentic ambience," he says.
There'll be a resident tea master, as tea will take pride of place along with sake and wine. Sake will also figure prominently - chef Hashida even commissioned a brewery in Ishikawa prefecture to produce a house label for him. There'll be a range of otsumami (salty Japanese bar bites) to go with it.
The dessert menu will kick off with around eight items, "some very traditional and some with interesting twists", he says. "The traditional ones will include Fumaju and Dorayaki and, of course, Japanese-inspired macarons. As for other items, let's keep them as a surprise!"
The wagashi menu will be an all-day affair. "Tea time in the Western context is already well-understood in Singapore, so pairing wagashi with Japanese teas will be a direct transposition. High-quality teas have a depth of flavour and astringency. The limited seating means a more intimate space for people to interact with the tea master, and get a better understanding of tea and the balance of flavour-pairing with the desserts.
At the same time, diners will also get to see the works of art that the chef created in his younger days, as well as those of the artist friends he made "in my more 'carefree' days of travelling and experimenting with art". He knows "how tough it is to find good exhibition spaces (which I could afford), so this is my little way to give some help to the local art community, at no cost to them".
With his desserts, casual savoury cooking, teas, sake and even a takeaway section, chef Hashida hasn't only managed to combine his personal passions with business savvy, but he's also created a new sense of la dolce vita for the sweet-toothed among us.
TARTE CHERYL KOH
1 Scotts Road, #01-12 Shaw Centre
Open: 10.30am to 7.30pm
It started out simply. If a dinner guest was celebrating a birthday at upscale French eatery Les Amis, pastry chef Cheryl Koh would bring out a strawberry or chocolate tart, and see all the faces at the table light up. "I would prepare it during the meal, because I like the idea that it's made fresh and served a la minute."
That is the same approach she is bringing to Tarte by Cheryl Koh, the restaurant group's newest and cutest outlet dedicated to freshly made artisanal tarts. Which is good news to the growing number of fans who want more of her tarts and other baked goods than she can possibly make at the restaurant itself.
The 300 sq ft hidey-hole between Caveau and La Strada is all minimalist chic, with just a display case of colourful pastries and a sleek, pink sign that looks like piped buttercream spelling out the word Tarte. In the modest-sized showcase is a colourful line-up of delicate, crisp sable cookie bases bursting with all manner of fillings: chocolate, strawberry, coffee creme brulee, lemon, hazelnut, pistachio and whatever fruit there is in season.
Priced from $8 to $9 for individual tarts and $30 for a full-sized version, you'll also find dainty carolines - mini-eclairs - packed in boxes of eight, and more items will come onstream when the business is more settled.
Chef Koh doesn't feel at all threatened by the proliferation of indie patisseries that have popped up all over town in the past year or two. "I don't think there are many which are focused on tarts in the way that we are, in terms of the ingredients and the way we make them."
She uses the same quality ingredients that Les Amis would use: Italian hazelnuts or pistachios that cost $100 a kg, Japanese or French Gariguette strawberries - whichever are at their peak.
Hence, while the tarts are not cheap, she reckons she's giving value for money as "I'm giving quality to people who appreciate it". Forget about her ramping up production even if demand warrants it, as she's dedicated to keeping the product artisanal as well as training young chefs in the fine art of pastry-making.
As a group, Les Amis offers training opportunities for young chefs, and she would like to use Tarte to do just that. "Other places might not be able to do this, especially at a time when hotels and restaurants can't find enough staff and they see so many suppliers trying to sell them ready-made tart shells, cakes and breads that they don't want to invest in the extra person to make from scratch. It's quite sad for my profession."
That's why she's grateful that the Les Amis group is one of the rare employers which gives her carte blanche to do anything she wants in the pastry realm, from cakes to breads to desserts and, now, the chance to run her own shop. She still remains the pastry chef at Les Amis, but has hired a team of young chefs to help her with operations.
For now, Tarte will open until 7.30pm, and is connected to Caveau so people who pop in for coffee during the day can also order tarts to eat in. It will also supply the other restaurants including Les Amis, which will solve the problem chef Koh had when she had no space or resources to do more than six tarts a night.
In the long term, though, chef Koh's dream for Tarte, "which I haven't told anyone yet", is "when we close in the evening, we can have some seating and turn into a dessert cafe". She adds: "We have a full kitchen with fridge and freezer, so potentially, we can evolve into that as well."
It may mean splitting her already thin frame even more as she juggles her different responsibilities, but she's more excited than daunted at the prospects. Looking around at her spanking new shop and the young chefs busy putting the final touches to the carolines, she gives a satisfied smile. "This is a good place to be."
THE BUSINESS TIMES
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