Zoom cooking demos, cloud kitchens, takeout bentos and cuisine that’s more homestyle than haute — for many fine-dining chefs, pivots have been a well-documented feature of the global pandemic.
But so too is introspection. Faced with lockdown closures, disrupted supply chains and a precipitous decline in international patrons, many of the world’s top chefs took the rare opportunity of time to deep-dive into R&D, re-evaluating their entire approach to cooking and even food itself.
When three-Michelin-starred Mirazur — number one on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list — temporarily closed last year, its chef-patron Mauro Colagreco retreated to his gardens for solace but found inspiration.
It’s little wonder he did. Mirazur’s gardens in Menton, France, are located on sweeping terraces adjoining the restaurant, with panoramic views of the glittering Mediterranean. Here, the French Riviera’s perennially sunny climate induces the explosive growth of over 150 plant species, from thimble-sized wild strawberries and over 35 tomato varieties to Menton’s famously tasty, IGP-certified lemons and the oldest avocado tree in France.
The whole operation is watered from mountain springs and managed according to biodynamic principles, which advocate the use of natural fertilisers and sowing and harvesting crops following the natural rhythms of the moon.
“Produce served at its peak according to the lunar calendar tastes infinitely better,” says Colagreco, who reopened Mirazur last June with an all-new outlook.
Gone were the traditional tasting menus. In its place is an ever-changing Lunar menu that’s divided into four “universes” or themes: Leaves, Flowers, Roots and Fruits. Following this approach of capturing fleeting points of perfection, every meal, from dish to decor, could be unique.
“The entire experience, from the restaurant design, the menu, to the littlest touchpoints, are evolved according to the universe,” says Colagreco.
In May, Mirazur’s first pop-up in Singapore launched at Mandala Club, which took over the former Straits Clan and officially launches later this year. (Dine-in restrictions due to Phase 2 Heightened Alert mean the three-month pop-up will be extended until September.) Kicking off with Leaves, each theme will run for three weeks, with the option of a six-course lunch or nine-course dinner.
I tried the Leaves-themed lunch degustation and overall, I found the experience impressive and true to the spirit of Colagreco’s philosophy, although a few dishes will surely prove divisive.
While Singapore’s Bukit Pasoh, where the pop-up is located, is worlds away from the French Riviera, the mise en scène conveys Mirazur’s new direction.
The first thing diners see upon entering Mandala Club are four giant, glowing moons, each representing a different lunar phase. The former Clan cafe and Kin restaurant have been renovated, with new furniture, tableware and decor brought in specially for the pop-up. Swathes of local eucalyptus and acacia (common to Singapore and the south of France) by local botanical design studio This Humid House dangle overhead, while the walls are adorned with surreal junglescapes supplied by Singapore-based art consultancy The Artling.
Colagreco, who’s not new to Singapore (having debuted gourmet burger restaurant Carne here earlier this year), says he’s “really enjoyed discovering local ingredients” and encourages his team to pay regular visits to local markets (such as Tekka and Chinatown) and work with local producers, such as Kok Fah Technology Farm, beekeeper Nutrinest, Crab Lovers Farm and online grocer Bootle’s.
“Our team brings back fresh produce every day. If there’s an excellent ingredient we want to use in our menu, we will develop a new dish on the spot, even if it is one hour before service,” declares Colagreco, no doubt influenced by former mentor Alain Passard, who’s known for adapting dishes based on the morning’s delivery.
Prefacing lunch, the canapes arrive in rapid procession, each alternately “fresh” or creamy. There’s a shiso and scallop tartlet resembling something picked off a forest floor; a comté cheese canele; a deep-fried chard and parmesan mini ravioli; and a translucent, trembly little cube of emerald vegetable aspic with a single, tiny clam suspended within, like a miniature Damien Hirst artwork.
The bread is accompanied by a signature side of poetry, a Neruda poem.
Then the first course arrives, and it’s a true showstopper. Fresh, delicate filaments of Sri Lankan crab resting on sorrel cream are topped with a thin, clear gelee disc containing neat rings of green, heart-shaped oxalis leaves. This is the most beautiful presentation I’ve ever seen — and demands so much enthusiastic photo-taking that it’s a good thing the crab is served cold.
Next comes a splayed cross-section of humble celtuce (or Chinese lettuce) sourced from Kok Fah Farm. Its tender, crunchy leaves are dressed with an unctuous, creamy Baldoria vermouth sauce given jolts of acid from pickled turnip and lily buds — a dish you’ll either love, or not.
“We need to challenge the traditional idea of luxury ingredients,” says Colagreco, anticipating those who might find inexpensive local vegetables incompatible with fine-dining. “There’s a luxury in having fresh, seasonal produce that’s grown locally,” he adds.
A blade-like wedge of Brittany turbot — an impression reinforced by its wrapped fermented shiso-leaf “handle” — is served with a sake-infused sauce. The fish is neither cold nor warm, and apart from its striking presentation, is not particularly memorable.
In contrast, a fat, perfectly-cooked Hokkaido scallop dish is on point and makes a strong case for choosing the wine pairing. Topped with uni and a “coral” of hay-smoked hollandaise sauce, it’s even more delicious enjoyed with Domaine Pignier Savagnin 2016 from Côtes du Jura, one of the pop-up’s head sommelier Juliana Carrique’s favourite pairings.
“This wine goes through a long finish that gives a very unique profile of complex aromas and flavours. It flirts with nuttiness, saltiness and a delicate smokiness,” says Carrique, who has curated an intriguing list of mostly biodynamic wines, many not well known outside France.
Lunch ends with a pork mille feuille with a side of sticky, treacly pork jus, a siew yoke-like cut topped with a hodgepodge of locally-sourced leaves like wolfberry and Okinawa spinach adhered with seaweed mascarpone and hidden under a dehydrated, veiny shard of Savoy cabbage (“proper cabbage”, my French server assures me lest I mistake it for its lowlier cousins).
It’s all left me rather curious about Mirazur’s other three themes, as I’m interested to see how Colagreco’s lens will refract local ingredients like “pandan leaves, fresh peanuts, banana blossom, curry leaves and fresh local fish like grouper”, which he plans to incorporate soon, pandemic or not.
“Of course there are challenges, but I choose to live in hope, not fear,” declares Colagreco. “I want to focus on the positive side, celebrate gastronomy and bring an exceptional experience to Singapore.”
The Mirazur residency runs till Saturday, 4 September; mandala.club