A Wild Ride at Mampuku

A few nights ago, Ben and I got together with a couple of friends to try out Mampuku, near Porte Cailhau. After what was one of my favorite Bordeaux restaurant experiences at MILES a few months ago, I was eager to try its sister restaurant, an (even) less-formal, but just as cerebral, collaboration between Japanese Ayako Ota, Israeli Gil Elad and French/Vietnamese Arnaud Lahaut. Similarly to MILES, Mampuku offers no à la carte, opting instead for a kind of “dining adventure” alternative. But, while at MILES the chefs dictate what you eat and in which order through one of two surprise set tasting menus, Mampuku is a tad more democratic. Out of the 10 options scratched up onto a chalkboard on the wall, you choose 4 or 6 or 8 to share. Here, it’s all about sharing. The dishes are served family-style and the portion is adjusted to the size of your group, so everyone can try everything. The four of us opted for the 6-dish tasting, which ended up being just a bit too much. It wasn’t just that the portions were more generous than expected or that we weren’t famished upon arrival. It was moreso that by the end of the meal we were feeling so overwhelmed, having been razzle-dazzled by such a complex and cerebral combination of colors, textures, flavors and cultural influences… Also, we spent almost 4 hours eating, arriving to the end only around midnight.

The 10 dishes to choose from are around equal parts Vietnamese, Japanese and Middle Eastern in influence. The three cuisines are (very pleasantly) not fused in each dish. Instead, each dish offers a creative twist on a traditional Vietnamese OR Middle Eastern OR Japanese dish, or on a classic combination of ingredients representative of those cuisines. Each of the dishes included elements I had never tasted or heard of before – a special type of Vietnamese pork sausage here, a Middle Eastern mango condiment there… Each one a perfectly harmonious composition, with never an acid, never a crunch, never a touch of color missing. The wine list is also quite ecclectic, with something there to match each of the dishes seperately, and bottles of light reds and bold whites to go with them all. We ended up with a natural Cabernet Franc from Anjou, with the perfect amount of barnyard on the nose (not a lot), and a very nice, clean, slightly spicy palate. Like its big brother MILES, Mampuku offers a culinary adventure that proves exciting, even for the most jaded of palates, and at prices that are very reasonable, bordering on unreasably inexpensive for what it is. Just like its big brother MILES, Mampuku is a restaurant I will actively recommend.

MASU. A plump and juicy chunk of trout was perfectly under-cooked, to where the interior remained slick and rare, though completely warmed through. The skin looked to have been bruléed with a blowtorch, and seemed perfectly crispy and edible, but was also very easy to slide off. The powerful flavors and rich, oily texture of the fish was complimented nicely by the crunchy Japanese stir-fry of carrot and burdock root (gobo), along with tender bits of preserved shiitake mushroom clinging to the surface. But clearly the winning element of this dish was the thick and smooth cream of smoked chestnut brushed onto the plate, adding a wonderfully nutty, earthy and naturally sweet touch to an otherwise very savory dish.

HU TIEU MI. Basically Vietnam in a bowl, and probably my favorite dish of the night. This was a drier version of a Hu Tieu Mi, which is traditionally served as a soup. Here, a generous mound of perfectly tender and glossy rice vermicelli was hydrated by just a shallow pool of incredibly flavorful Vietnamese broth. A colorful array of ingredients layered over the top offered many different flavors and textures. Delicious pork shoulder was marinated, roasted and roughly sliced, offering both crunchy bits and bundles of glossy white fat. Next to that was a slice per person of giò lụa, a Vietnamese sausage made with pork pounded into a paste and mixed with fish soup, then wrapped in banana leaves, and boiled. It held a very pleasant, smooth and bouncy texture, reminding me a bit of spam. The dish combined pork with tender and smoky grilled prawns, along with delicate quail eggs, flavoring them with pickled red onion, quite a bit of fresh green lemongrass and a wonderfully piquant and spicy red pepper sauce to add at your will. A beautifully simple yet texturally complex one-pot wonder.

FREEKEH. The most earthy, subtle dish of the night was the Freekeh, based on a kind of North-African/Middle Eastern cereal. Green durum wheat is roasted, smoked and rubbed to release a heavenly toasted, forest floor flavor, quite similar to Russian buckwheat kasha. This sturdy, wholesome base was dressed up with so many indulgent and seductive ingredients: juicy hearts of artichoke, a kind of Lebanese drained yoghurt thing called kishk and a single poached egg, which oozed its gelatinous whites and smooth yolky interior all over the bowl, holding the ingredients together in a slippery web of protein. This melange of sober and plush ingredients was flavored with freshly torn mint, some dried lime and spices. Bits of almond brought a nice crunch and dried fruit (cranberries) added a chewy texture, along with a pop of acidity.

MENCHI KATSU KARE. Another fantastic Japanese dish was the Menchi Katsu Kare, whose focal point was the menchi-katsu, Panko-coated and deep-fried croquettes of minced beef, a type of yōshoku foods adopted from Western cuisine (menchi = minced, katsu = cutlet). This dish is traditionally served with chopped cabbage, which appeared in Mampuku’s version as well. The little balls of meat were divine, golden-brown and crunchy on the exterior, with a smooth, juicy, luscious pulled beef filling. They were served on a bed of rice with another preparation of what I think might have been the same cut of beef (shoulder? jowl?) Juicy fibers of pulled beef were served in a very mild Japanese curry sauce and paired with fukujinzuke, a kind of crunchy and tart pickled daikon, which perfectly complemented the flavors of the curry. I really enjoyed this dish, although I found two such complex preparations of beef to be a bit overwhelming when served on the same bed of rice. I would have maybe preferred the menchi-katsu on a separate dish, as an appetizer with a dipping sauce.

SHAMBURAK. Hands-down the most comforting dish of the lot was the shamburak, a kind of half-moon-shaped Curdish empanada. This is a deliciously doughy (yet crispy, around the edges) pastry, dotted with perfectly caramelized white and black sesame seeds, and filled with slow-cooked beef cheek (which happens to be my favorite cut of meat), slippery-smooth and sweaty confit onions, and creamy mashed potato, which soaked up the beef and onion juices like a pro. To dip the pastry in, a shallow pool of bright orange amba, which is a kind of tangy mango condiment popular in most Middle Eastern countries. Adding hints of bright green to this already colorful canvas were the bundles of what tasted like chimichurri, bright green parsley mixed with tons of minced garlic and zaatar spices. Plumped up little yellow raisins within these green mounds added a wonderfully bubbly texture and a bit of sweetness.

TALEH. And finally, the Taleh, one of the most interesting and exciting dishes of the evening. None of us gave it the attention it merited, because by this point we were really just overstimulated and very full. Four incredibly juicy, plump, dense and moist lamb meatballs were beautifully seasoned, practically melting on the palate and leaving behind its a bleeting, gamey lamb flavor. The balls were served with a few pieces of slimy, wonderful okra, cooked to a perfect al dente and offering a nice snap to contrast the baby-soft balls. There were also some beautiful chunks of roasted squash, whose flesh practically melted off a crunchy, charred skin. The plate was drizzled with a deliciously nutty tahini sauce, which picked up the toasty flavors of the pine nuts also sprinkled on. And for a touch of acidity to complete the composition, a dash of lemon here and there and a few juicy, exotic, pink-flavored pomegranate seeds.

MATCHA. For dessert, I chose Matcha, which came with a fluffy gâteau roulé stuffed with a very light whipped cream and dusted with bright green matcha powder. Around the cake were some pools of ripe mango sauce and very tart diced passion fruit, mixed with popped rice for a snappy texture. There were also some hints of white chocolate, which matched the mango beautifully – I think it came from liquid white chocolate drizzled onto the popped corn?

We left very content, if a bit frazzled by the complexity of our meal. A truly unique dining experience in Bordeaux.

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