A Night of Bubbly with Antoine Roland-Billecart at Origin Grill
There were many reasons that drew me to dinner at Origin Grill. It could have been the mere prospect of enjoying a 4-hand dinner, prepared fastidiously by two Shangri-La chefs, guest Chef Daniel Smeenk from AZUR in Beijing and hosting Chef Heidi Flanagan. Or, it could have been the precursory word ‘Champagne’ before ‘Dinner’ on the invite, that triggered some form of verve. Yes, I assume heaven offers a blissful situation of free-flow bubbly. Primarily, it was a man’s presence at dinner that was the wing beneath my soon-to-be inebriated wings. Monsieur Antoine Roland-Billecart, sixth-generation scion of the family-run Billecart-Salmon house, as I learnt later, was a chick magnet. His anecdotes, I didn’t care for (sorry), but that prestigious cuvée—2002 Cuvée Nicolas-François Billecart—created as a tribute to the co-founder, formed the core for many of my drunken memories later. Let’s pop the cork, shall we?
The starry evening begins with you traipsing across the smooth marbled lobby of Shangi-La Hotel to the gold and teal, velvety tones of in-house grill restaurant, Origin Bar. The team, who seemed genuinely happy, such a relief in our lacklustre hospitality climate, leads you past closed doors to the private room. Pushing pass heavy doors, trepidation sets in, as your eyes settle on a ridiculously long table in the uncluttered room with name placards placed with military precision, denoting identifiable characters. What if I’m seated next to Antoine Billecart himself? What would I say? That brief moment of panic passes the moment a cold glass of NV Billecart-Salmon Extra Brut is pressed into your semi-sweaty paws. It’s charmingly fruit forward, finishing with a full minerality on the palate. Marvellous.
Turns out, I was seated right opposite the host himself. Not that it mattered since the fine bubbles of the Billecart Salmon had dispatched its social lubricant aid. Dinner hit the ground running with the starter plate of Chilled Fresh French Oysters graced with cucumber granita and olive oil pearls. It is great produce and all it took was for Chef Heidi Flanagan to introduce subtle flavour nuances to push it over the edge.
A straw yellow, Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve is poured next. An effervescent spirit with a playful mousse, push past ripe pear aromas to savour a buttery sweet potion. It is paired with my favourite course of the evening, the Alaskan King Crab Roll, which pompous presentation betrays it’s big-hearted Lousiana roots or so I imagine. My snobbery was put to rest the moment my lips navigated the clever combination of the sweetness of the crab with the astringency of grapefruit meringue kisses and spicy avocado puree, engaged in a slow sensuous dance. It was refined, the gentle pad of well-shod waiters unabashedly topping up your flutes between light-hearted conversations working to muffle any disconcerting thoughts.
Two plump sea scallops arrived draped in a translucent nappage of orange blossom dressing. Certain deadpan pairings aren’t shaken off here and the seared pucks are accompanied by San Daniele prosciutto chips and garden pea puree. To match, the 2007 vintage Billecart-salmon Brut picks up the salinity and sea-worthiness from the dish. The wine, made of 85% pinot noir tempered with the elegance of Côte des Blancs Chardonnay displays great characters strengths. Due to a 20% percentage vinified in oak, this process lends it great elegance and a structured mouthfeel. Straight off the bat, I got stone fruits, toned with a citrus restraint and a quizzical additional of marzipan which added a much-needed flourish to the monotonous scallop dish.
As you might expect from a Champagne pairing dinner, the next course threaded on safe ground yet again with the Pan seared fillet of Japanese sea bream with mussels, radish and fennel in saffron sauce. I’ve always been one not to be too taken by rosés and similarly, this made a lukewarm impression. The protein was a hardly crisp, noncommittal piece of fish that would have fared better in a French Moules Marinières types stew then plated incongruously with saffron sauce, braised daikon and mussesls. At this stage of the game, aside from the sparkling company, the food situation was looking rather dire. Breaking the streak of the seafood courses, the kitchen showed some resolve with their final savoury dish—the Sichuan Peppper Crusted Duck. Sadly, that subsequently claimed the throne to title of the most insipid course. Not to be disrespectful, but the slice, coloured a Warsaw shade of grey was a challenge to slice through; the ominous sheath of un-rendered fats under the chewy skin, slightly more pleasurable than the mealy manifestation.
Thank goodness for the highly acclaimed 2002 Cuvée Nicolas-François Billecart that we were bestowed with. It would take great mental resistance to not knock back your first glass in hope that you’ll be rewarded with a second serve of the limited champagne. I did so with grace, enthusiasm and bit of humour injected, or at least, I think I did. If I didn’t do so, I blame it on the champagne googles (no, not the kind you don when you’re about to be sprayed with bubbly on the podium). I love the fine malty nose perfumed with mandarin zest and it’s warm musky melon finish percolating the taste buds with tenacity.
Dessert segregates the room into schools of lovers or haters. The Valrhona Chocolate Creme is a mess of dish, built of deathly assertive herbaceous burnt rosemary and violent hits of acidity. It’s obvious which camp I belong to.
Trips and failures do not detract from the brilliance and flourish of the exquisite showing of champagnes from the house of Billecart-Salmon. In fact, it’s almost refreshing to see a Champagne house that has chosen finesse over brute strength and I might very well have been recruited as the newest member in their cult following.
Lobby Level, Tower Wing, 22 Orange Grove Rd, 6213 4959