Eight Men Out




Eight Men Out

On the 14th day of the 4th month of the year 2024, eight men came together for a four-hour degustation of seventeen courses, paired with Champagne, White wine, red wine, Port, Armagnac, and Cognac. “Eight Men Out” refers to the Black Sox scandal in 1919, when as many as eight Chicago White Sox players were said to have conspired to throw the Major League Baseball World Series for a payoff from illegal gamblers. All were barred from playing professional baseball for life. The ‘eight’ players are depicted in the movie Field of Dreams, where Kevin Costner’s character is told “If you build it, they will come”, and after creating a field on his farm, the Black Sox players turn up out of nowhere to play ball.

Our host was the irrepressible Thomas Bianco, an F&B/Hospitality legend in these parts, the venue his beloved Le Royal Hotel. Le Royal Hotel -now approaching its centenary- is a veritable Tardis, a portal to another time, not a shrine, this is living history, like an emersion at Tirta Empul, one becomes a part of its history -you can feel it in your pores- by being a part of its present.

Designed and constructed in the late 1920s by French architect Ernest Hebrard, the hotel was officially opened in 1929 with a lavish ball, attended by His Majesty Sisowath Monivong, King of Cambodia. On the route of the grand tour during the colonial period, wealthy Europeans would travel to Singapore and stay at the Raffles Hotel, to Rangoon to stay at The Strand, in Bangkok one would stay at The Oriental, in Hanoi it was The Metropole, in Hong Kong The Peninsula and in Phnom Penh one always stayed at Le Royal.

An integral stop on the route to Angkor, the hotel attracted such luminary guests as Charlie Chaplin, W. Somerset Maugham, Andre Malraux, French President Charles de Gaulle, and former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to name but a few.

In the grand dining room under majestic chandeliers, and the hand-painted ceiling by royal artist Assasax, is a large portrait of Princess Norodom Buppha Devi (1943 – 2019), daughter of King Norodom Sihanouk and the late Neak Moneang Phat Kanhol, elder sister of Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Her official title was Her Royal Highness Samdech Reach Botrei Preah Ream Norodom Buppha Devi, and she was prima ballerina and then director of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, a senator and Minister of Culture and Fine Arts. Her daughter, the very charming Princess Norodom Chansita is today the ‘Raffles Cambodia Ambassador’ for the hotel.

Here we were eight men out in Phnom Penh celebrating the Khmer (sidereal) New Year. Thomas Bianco had created it, and we had come.

As noon approached we slowly arrived and gathered in the foyer before making our way to the dining room. We are all well aware of Thomas Bianco’s professionalism, talent, and absolute eye for detail as an impeccable host, yet none of us seemed entirely aware of what an epic culinary journey he had in store for us.

As we took our seats at the large circular table looking out into the garden, Champagne flutes were quickly filled, the one menu, like an old piece of parchment, was slowly passed around, quickly followed by sharp intakes of breath, raised eyebrows and utterances of “wow!”, “oh wow!” and even an “oh my!”. It was immediately made obvious to each of us -as we took turns reading that menu- we were in for something extraordinary, rare, and altogether incredible.

You could have dined here -just like this- 95 years ago and it would have been something special, and you could dine here in one hundred years from now, on this very menu and it would be just as impressive, if not more so. Here we were, on a Sunday afternoon, about to embark on the fine dining brunch of a lifetime. As eight friends, we may never get to eat like this together again, as individual epicureans you live to eat like this, to plan or create, or be a part of dining this grand and this fine, this unforgettable, it really was that special.

As the trolley of various house-baked breads arrived to announce the commencement of proceedings, we were reminded that all wines were free flow and as you pleased. The Champagne was Champagne Henriot. The Henriot family have been in Champagne since 1640, with Apolline Henriot founding her own Champagne House in 1808. The Henriot Brut Souverain is a beautiful cuvee de Maison, usually around 45% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Meunier. Henriot uses up to twenty-nine different crus in the blend, and there is an incredible level of finesse and elegance in the wines. I love the biscotti and brioche notes with beautiful tension between the rich creamy mousse and the structure and poise of the wine. What a brilliant way to start and a perfect accompaniment to the Sturia caviar, salmon roe and blinis with sour cream.

As the impressive selection of house-cured and house-smoked fish arrived, (the salmon a revelation) I paired it with the Pascal Jolivet ‘Attitude’ Sauvignon Blanc 2022, Jolivet is a brilliant producer, a master with this variety. The wine showed aromas of lemon curd, tropical fruit, ripe passionfruit, and a hint of Acacia, all with a touch of typical flint and gun smoke. The fruit is very precise and linear, with a squirt of tropical richness mid-palate, wrapped up in flint and schist minerality, a very enjoyable wine.

The seafood platter was a visual extravaganza, a towering ice castle of lobster, prawn, and oysters, fresh, clean, and exceptional in quality and preparation. The toughest decision here was whether to stick with Sancerre and revert to Champagne, with the latter taking line honours as the preferred option.

Beef Tartar -prepared tableside on the gueridon trolley- moved us back onto dry land, the combination of spices and herbs, sauces and oils, the balance of meat to fattiness, and the overall fresh clean aromas and flavours of this dish were impeccable.

And then, just as one was starting to feel the strain of the waist belt, there was a slight pause in service until a light and perfectly executed Cesar salad was prepared on what was beginning to look like an endless stream of gueridon trolleys. The salad was presented at the table, its lightness and freshness appreciated as was the slight pause in service giving one time to wash down remnants and regain composure.

Cured meats followed and hailed the entrance of the first red wine to the table, the always impressive Chateau Haut Selve 2019, (Thomas always has the right vintages) from Graves on the Left Bank, the wine is 55% Merlot and 45% Cabernet Sauvignon. The structure is all silky fine tannins and there is a hint of tobacco and mint leaves on both bouquet and palate, there is also plenty of ripe forest berries and depth. I am always captivated by the quality-to-price ratio of this exceptionally fine chateau.

The soup du Jour was a delightful green asparagus with intensely smoky pork bits that had me diving back to the Sancerre Blanc, this soup and this variety being something of a classic pairing in some parts, I found it absolutely perfect. Again, as one began to question their ability to do justice to all seventeen courses, here was the perfect dish at the perfect time, and with an appropriate pause in proceedings.

The signature egg dish was a mini eggs benedict construction, again perfectly executed and an easy excuse to go back to bubbles as an accompaniment. A poached egg -done just right- is a thing of beauty and here, the hollandaise was an essay on just how it is done. As we entered the second half of this enchanted culinary journey, this was a little moment of bliss, sheer joy, uplifting, so that all of a sudden we were not thinking about what had gone behind us and were now firmly fixed on what lay ahead.

As the gueridon trolley, laden with foie gras, travelled on its arc from kitchen to table the sighs were of utter contentment and satisfaction. Served both as a terrine and seared this course took us over the top, here was the Aria in Le Royal’s Magnum Opus, as we sat there, eight men out for brunch looking out over our plates at each other, we knew we were now blessed by the New Year angel, and this might just be as good as it gets.

How do you follow a dish as exquisite as foie gras, a daunting task, but no challenge for our esteemed host, bring out the Hokkaido scallops, perhaps the finest scallops in all the world, given an impressive sear, as they are flambeed table side and served with a creamy butter sauce and a carrot puree that worked magnificently well, (as did the Champagne).

The next gueridon trolley was adorned with a large cake of egg and salt that housed the most moist and tender seabass you have ever tasted, perfect with a little creamed spinach and the Sancerre.

It was time for the ‘Butcher’s Cart’ and a beautiful piece of roast beef, cooked to perfection before being carved table side and served with carrot, cauliflower, broccoli, and asparagus. There were three options of ‘house gravies’ and I opted for the Kampot pepper version, which was just perfect with the wine.

The Brunier family have been producing the legendary Chateauneuf du Pape wine, Vieux Telegraph for six generations, it is one of the world’s great wines and certainly a favourite. Today, we have their Vaucluse red, a blend of 55% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 15% Carignan, 8% Cinsault, 7% Mourvèdre, this is a medium-bodied, easy-drinking, juicy, spicy dry red with plums, raspberries and strawberry fruit given a little complexity with fresh herbs, and a black olive and wet stone finish. This is a delicious wine.

The cheese selection has to be one of, if not, the finest selection in the Kingdom and we swapped back to the Bordeaux to wash it all down until the Port arrived, a perfectly adequate Ramos Pinto Tawny.

There was a sorbet in there somewhere, a welcome refresher that was ‘topped off’ with Champagne and then as the Chateau de Laubade XO Armagnac was being poured, a lemon tart attracted my attention on the dessert cart.

Laubade is one of the most awarded and acclaimed Armagnac producers, their XO is one of the very finest examples of what fine Armagnac is or can ever hope to be. Beautifully smooth, intense, complex, and balanced there is orange peel, apricot, prune, spices, almond and vanilla. This was a mighty fine coda to a command performance.

As I looked at my dining companions, their smiling faces, their laughter, fun and sheer happiness after four hours of eating and drinking; and felt emotions washing through me, it was heartwarming, in a world gone mad, it was a world still capable of creating such joy and sharing and friendship.

I thanked Thoms and marveled at his skill, knowledge, and ability, at the selection of dishes and flow of the menu, the quality of the food, the pacing of the service, the brilliance of wines selected. The whole thing had been a performance piece, a work of art for all the senses, a culinary journey we would never forget and always share in the memory of together. Here we were, eight men out and what an outing it had been.

Darren Gall

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