Lafite diners recall the good old days.
WHEN it opened in 1985, the Shangri-La Hotel, Kuala Lumpur drew a coterie of diners to its restaurants. Lafite, Shang Palace, Nadaman, Gourmet Corner and the Coffee Garden made a mark on the epicurean sensibilities of gourmands in Kuala Lumpur and well-heeled travellers.
Lafite shone as the quintessential French restaurant with its elegant decor, impeccable service and excellent food. Nothing but the best sufficed for this restaurant, with its bergere furniture, crystal wine glasses and silverware.
“It was the best fine dining restaurant, where people would come for celebrations,” said Datuk Rosemarie Wee, area director of communications of the Shangri-La Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. “It was the top choice for everyone. Corporate people who wanted to impress their clients would bring them to Lafite.”
Shortly after its April opening in 1985, Datuk Kok Wee Kiat, aformer Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry, was invited to dinner by Tan Sri Robert Kuok, founder of the Shangri-La Hotel & Resorts Group.
“He was gracious enough to invite me to dinner,” said Kok when contacted. “Robert was and has been a fervent lover of French wines. Asked how the name of Lafite was picked, he simply said: ‘Chateau Lafite is my favourite wine!’
“Lafite was the first restaurant to serve authentic French cuisine. Its preparation and presentation of dishes by a French chef was nostalgic to me, a then yearly visitor to France. Nouvelle cuisine had just begun to be in vogue, and it was drawing diners with no experience of France.
“I can’t recall the ambience; the last and the renovation before of Lafite have blotted my memory of the original. The service was impeccable by KL standards then, and to my joy, Lafite boasted a sommelier who actually knew the wines he recommended to pair with the food in the menu.”
Kok was then a top lawyer and politician. He was head partner of Mah-Kok & Din and one of three Vice Presidents of MCA. “It was a year later in 1986 that I was elected a Member of Parliament and appointed Deputy Minister of Trade & Industry.”
For C.S. Tan, a regular diner at the hotel, Lafite was the epitome of good service. “It was a very elegant restaurant. It was pretty, tasteful and understated with pinstriped wallpaper in burnished gold. The service team was fantastic. They were outgoing and personable. You dined there once or twice and they remembered you and what you liked. The service was impeccable. Their fluency and product knowledge was wonderful.
“Those who have left there have all become F&B directors or managers.” For her, the strength of the hotel lies in the members of the staff who give unobtrusive, understated service. “The service is so good, you don’t notice it.”
Tan recalled the special coffee – Café Royale – she was served at Lafite, and how Huza Radzi, then the restaurant manager, would drizzle brandy down a ribbon of orange peel and flambéed it over a glass of coffee (the rim of the glass had been dipped in caramelised sugar before this). “He made a spectacle of this, with flair and elan.
“The Lafite team was incredible; their service was equivalent to the kind of service found in Michelin-star restaurants.”
The food also matched up with the service. From the cuisine of the first French executive sous chef Pelligrineus to the first Malaysian, Otto Goh, who was executive sous chef from 2002 to 2004 and other chefs who helmed the restaurant such as Frederic Chabert, Kevin Cherkas, Damon Campbell and John Nash. They were chefs of standing and great talent, and Tan wished they had had longer stints at Lafite.
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Tan recalled a dinner which she was invited to by a friend whose brother was going to pick up the bill (he wasn’t at the dinner). There were eight of them and they filled up on foie gras, and each of them had two glasses of Chateau Lafite. When the brother was presented with the eye-popping bill later, his sister explained that they had the house pouring wine, which was then at RM360 a glass! “What kind of house pouring wine is this?” he asked.
Tan remembers fondly the food of Lafite’s Chef Damon who is now executive chef at Shangri-La Toronto, especially his sole fillets in lemon sauce and his Lemon Tree dessert. “He was very inventive and talented.”
Lafite took care of the “ladies who lunch” crowd, too. One day in a month, there would be a ladies’ buffet. “Thirty years ago was also about eating healthy, too,” recalls Wee. “Ladies have always been very health-conscious, so the food was worked around this.
“In 1988/89, we also started the champagne brunch on Sundays.”
Later, there was the daily showcase lunch which was extremely popular, especially with the ladies, where they could help themselves to a “showcase” of appetisers and desserts, and order a hot main course.
Lafite was the place for visiting celebrity chefs, such as from Le Cirque in 2000, and the Ritz, Paris in 2003. I read the Menu de Gala from the Ritz, and I swooned over the food and the wines again, as I was at this dinner.
Renowned chefs like Sylvain Portay from Alain Ducasse cooked at Lafite (in 2005), as did several other celebrity chefs from France. They would bring their own sommeliers, and wines to match the food.
The visiting chefs would conduct a cooking class in Lafite’s kitchen and the response to the classes was usually overwhelming, and came from even those who didn’t cook!
“We have a wine cellar with more than 700 labels, with premier French wines like Chateau Lafite and Chateau Latour,” said Wee. Most memorable for her was the event when eight women sommeliers from France came and cooked with two French celebrity chefs who are brothers (the Pourcel brothers).
Then there was the food promotion with Christie’s in 2003, where diners were led through a tasting of some of the most precious French wines like Chateau Lafite, before going in to dinner.
A performance by Cossack dancers preceded the launch of a Russian food festival at Lafite in 2003, with three chefs from the award-winning Hotel Baltschug Kempinski Moscow.
International celebrities who have dined at Lafite include Nancy Reagan, Piece Brosnan and Robert De Niro.
Lafite has evolved through the years. There was a barely noticeable change in the colour of the upholstery as time progressed but in 2002 it was given a refined contemporary feel by world renowned interior architect Adam Tihany. His design portfolio includes Le Cirque in New York, Wolfgang Puck’s Spago restaurants, The French Laundry in California, and other acclaimed restaurants. He gave Lafite an art nouveau ambience in a distinctive design accented with blue, cream and brown, with a floor-to-ceiling glass wine display credenza, a circular main dining area with curvature curtains, and a unique structural water feature.
Lafite’s most memorable service professional is Huza Radzi, who started as a waiter in 1992, and worked his way up to guest services manager and maitre d’hotel.
Huza has vivid memories of his time in Lafite.
“Lafite has two different ‘eras’ in terms of conceptual styles: there is the Classic French approach (1985 to the 2002 renovation) and the Contemporary Avantgarde style (2002 to the present day).
“In the first, Lafite had a classic French chateau look and layoutwith crystal chandelier and French furniture. The service team suited up in tuxedo and bowtie. Guests were ushered to a lounge area upon arrival to enjoy pre-dinner drinks and pre-ordered their dishes. The service team was trained to perform the art of silver service and Gueridon service from a trolley by selected, highly-skilled F&B leaders. Regular patrons were given VIP recognition: their tables were reserved with an engraved personal name plate.
“The Contemporary Avantgarde period saw Lafite at the pinnacle of its achievements – both financial and in terms of reputation. The team made history. Among its achievements were two major awards in a single year in 2003 (from TDC and HAPA), first restaurant in Malaysia to receive the Best of Award of Excellence (in 2008 and 2009) for its wine list and service from the international Wine Spectator magazine. We also sold the most expensive single bottle wine in a restaurant at RM98,000.”
Huza, who went on to win many industry awards, left the resort group in March, 2007. (Read about his time with Lafite on April 25.)
Jean-Philippe Guiard is now chef de cuisine at Lafite. For its 30th anniversary, he has created a four-course traditional French menu inspired by that first menu in 1985.
“The Eighties was the beginning of nouvelle cuisine,” said Jean-Philippe. “Before this, the main dish was put in the centre of the table and was not plated. There were also many courses.”
The number of courses was reduced, the dishes became less heavy with less fat. The trend of nouvelle cuisine has continued till the present day, though it is not recognised as such.
The anniversary menu, a throwback to the nouvelle cuisine style, is being served till April 30. On its birthday on April 20, the Shangri-La Hotel, Kuala Lumpur is giving a 30 per cent discount on food in all its restaurants, including Lafite.