Feasting on black gold

Updated: 2012-04-09 14:53

By Pauline D. Loh (China Daily)

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Feasting on black gold

Four courses designed by chef Alleno Yannick for his Beijing STAY Restaurant's truffle dinner (clockwise from above left): Oyster in Gelee with Leeks and Black Truffle; Australian Beef Sirloin Aiguillette Black Truffle Sauce; Milk Chocolate in Crispy Dark Chocolate Tube Shaved Black Truffle; and Duck Foie Gras Stuffed Cabbage and Black Truffle. [Photos Provided to China Daily]

They are tiny black chunks that are, frankly, not the most immediately attractive morsels. So why do chefs and gourmets wax lyrical about truffles? Pauline D. Loh eats her way through the discovery.

Alleno Yannick flew into Beijing on a Friday with 3.5 kg of black truffles. By Tuesday, when the Michelin-starred chef left for Paris, he had managed to use it all up. Eight food writers were among the fortunate few who had gladly helped him demolish his entire stock over one weekend.

Yannick had flown in to design the spring menu for his STAY Restaurant at the Shangri-la Hotel Zizhuyuan, and took the opportunity to host a black truffle food and wine dinner for some lucky diners.

Patrons who did book the dinner were those who do not normally examine menu prices before ordering.

STAY at the Shangri-la is a good place to gather with a few friends who enjoy good food and wine. It has several seating areas, but the one that attracts is what Yannick calls his communal table, a huge table that seats eight to 10 and has plenty of surface space for the various dishes you can order and share.

Set apart in a little alcove by the side, the table location does provide some privacy in case the party gets a bit loud.

The chef believes good food can also be enjoyed at a more casual setting and he makes this possible at STAY, which is the acronym for Simple Table Alleno Yannick.

With the right setting, half the battle is won before even the first appetizer was served. But the pair of oysters set before us gleamed in their light coat of gelee and the little matchsticks of black truffle stacked on top had some writers fishing out cell phones and cameras.

It is a delightful mouthful. If the first oyster told us the faintly metallic taste of fresh shellfish paired well with the woody fragrance of truffles, the second oyster reinforced the message that it was a good marriage.

Sometimes, it's all in the detail, and you can tell it is a carefully crafted morsel. The leek puree that sits on the shell under the oyster and its gelee coat left a pleasant herbal aftertaste that was also a palate cleanser.

The second course was a personal favorite. Thick aromatic celery soup was set before guests at the table before Chef Yannick went around with a large truffle and a microplane, shaving wafers of truffles onto our bowls. It is a very sensual experience, especially when the chef smilingly offers you a whiff of the precious lump.

Sweet scallops layered with more truffles set into a terrine were the next visual treat. It is almost too pretty to eat, although we would never dream of wasting a morsel.

When every course in the meal is of such decadence, you can luxuriate in the experience, assuaging your conscience by telling yourself it is rare indulgence.

But Yannick is not finished with his guests yet. He comes around with a perfectly formed stuffed cabbage on a platter, and we all admire it accordingly. Perhaps we are going vegetarian?

But no, when it comes out again, the stuffing inside the wedges of stuffed cabbage is revealed - foie gras, a whole goose liver.

It is everything a top class foie gras should be, and Yannick says his supplier is a local farm run with French expertise.

Another generous slice of foie gras tops the Australian beef sirloin that comes after the cabbage. The warmth of the meat coaxes the truffles into releasing their fragrance, and the rich red meat and the intensely aromatic fungus silence conversation on the table.

There is almost an awed hush as we all quietly demolish all that is before us. And occasionally, there is a quiet sigh of satisfaction.

It is pretty hard to beat that, but the chef has one final surprise - a chocolate tuile tube filled with milk chocolate cream and topped with the final shavings of more truffles.

Only Yannick's exquisite desserts can raise the next chorus of ohhhs and ahhhs, and he pulls out all the stops, loading the table with profiteroles, sable cakes, the classic Saint Honor for which STAY is famous and exquisite chocolate butter cookies that melt at a touch.

Perched at Yannick's communal table, enjoying truffles and foie gras and the sophistication of the meal and the chef's expertise, I almost forget I am in Beijing. This is what the capital needs - a vote of confidence from Michelin chefs, such as Alleno Yannick,

The world already gathers at Beijing, and they want to dine not just on fine Chinese food, but also on the best international cuisines. We need more chefs like Yannick.

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