The Serious Game
“We have had Scandinavian chefs participate before," remarked Han Wetterberg, the organiser of Simply Scandinavian week, “But never in this class – Chef Sayan Isaksson is outstanding." How right he was – for in April, Isaksson put on a breathtaking display of Swedish creativity at Mandarin Oriental, Kuala Lumpur’s Mandarin Grill, in a gastronomic celebration of Simply Scandinavian’s 30th anniversary.
Not for nothing has Isaksson’s much-lauded (but recently closed) restaurant in Stockholm, Esperanto, held a Michelin star since 2007 – and it also bears mentioning that he was chosen to prepare the menu for the prestigious Nobel Prize banquets in 2015 and 2016. Even thousands of miles away from Sweden, he produced a menu that – in the spirit of Esperanto – crossed frontiers with a culinary language rooted in inventiveness, authenticity, and passion tempered with balance.
The spirit and traditions of Swedish cooking, particularly techniques used to survive those famously merciless Nordic winters, ran through each of his dishes like a vein. An unctuous, jewel-like quail egg came smoked with straw as an amuse bouche, alongside roe-filled potato doughnuts dipped in cultured cream, and a light organic waste broth (Swedes are experts at recycling) made from leek and cauliflower scraps. Likewise, an entree of Japanese amberjack the colour of a blush pink rose – one of Isaksson’s favourite fish – arrived air-cured and cold-smoked, topped with horseradish, delicate slices of pickled daikon, and a seed and oyster shell dashi.
“Food is exciting to me because it is always evolving," the executive chef and owner of Esperanto explained as he presented his ingenious ‘Oyster Pearl’ entree: his most playful course yet, and arguably his most memorable. Within an edible shell crafted from rice flour sat an oyster topped with preserved elderberries and Oscietra caviar – a dish that elicited multiple double-takes before it was devoured with glee. This, too, was the fate of an earthy, comforting porridge of buckwheat, millet, mushrooms, and preserved butter, and an unconventional (but delectable) main of aged sirloin served with a chlorophyll puree, shredded lettuce, dried kale, and grilled cabbage.
The sheer genius of Isaksson’s ability to throw a new light on familiar ingredients emerged once again through his ‘Pommes de Terres’ dessert – a subversion of the link between apples, potatoes, and the earth that connects them. In his hands, the humble potato took centre stage as a sweet attraction, transfigured into a generous sphere of roast potato ice cream, resting on a soil base of crumbs and apple peel, and surrounded with juice extracted from grilled apples. With a menu filled with food that brought joy and wonder, this collaboration was one of Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur’s best yet, and a clear demonstration that Isaksson is indisputably at the top of his game.