Google Analytics

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Le Palais: The So Called Michelin Three-Star Restaurant

On a rainy night I arrive at the top floor of Palais de Chine Hotel with an umbrella in tow to eat at Le Palais. The hostess for the restaurant stands in front of the long desk to greet me. Before leading me to the foyer, she asks if I want to stick my umbrella in the vessel with the red mat next to the entrance. I follow her request, but surely there’s a more elegant way to store umbrellas. As I walk into the main dining room, she cautions me about running into the vase blocking the center of the door. Perhaps the architect is trying to be Post-Modern by making the center as a solid rather than the classical void. Or maybe the vase is just a good prop for pictures. The placement of the vase makes the path too narrow and uncomfortable.

The hotel and restaurant may have Palais in their names, but it is really a misnomer as there isn't any grandeur. In France, the finest hotels are given the status of Palais. In Taipei, the Palais de Chine is a mid-range hotel inside a mediocre commercial development. Although the hotel is near Taipei Train Station, it is literally and figuratively on the other side of the tracks. Just getting to the hotel entrance on the ground floor from the subway station requires a convoluted path of traversing through the underground of Taipei Station, passing through the entire length of the shopping mall, exiting to the outside, and then stepping back inside.

Upon entering the hotel, I’m not greeted by a staff but by a horse statue in a small dark space. The dark lighting continues into the elevator lobby and to the restaurant. Perhaps the light level is meant to evoke the ambiance of a palace in Europe during the candle-lit era. But the effect is more eerie than elegant. There is little contrast in the lighting since all the spaces are dark. The overall feeling is of an owner trying to save on the electric bill. Or perhaps the hotel thinks everyday should be Earth Day.

Putting up with unpleasantness is part of the experience of dining at Le Palais. I wouldn't be at Le Palais if Michelin didn't anoint the restaurant as the only three-star in Taipei. When Michelin announced the rating this March, I was beyond surprised. When I was interviewed by Topics Magazine in late 2014, I said if Michelin comes to Taipei, they wouldn't find a three-star restaurant. I wonder to myself: have things changed that much in less than four years? Based on the chatters on the Internet, I am not alone in thinking Taipei would be like Bangkok and be without a three-star restaurant. Instead, Taipei is similar to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai, with one three-star restaurant for the inaugural edition. Moreover, the restaurant that Michelin selected as the best in Taipei is one that I have never been to.

Prior to Michelin's arrival, I have heard good things about Le Palais from friends. But even they don't think the restaurant is worthy of three stars. I have to find out for myself. In a span of less than two months I go to Le Palais twice for dinner: first with a small group sitting in the main dining room, and another with a large group in a private room.

The interior of Le Palais is laid out like a traditional corporate office, with private rooms around the perimeter monopolizing the view to the exterior. While the public dining room inside has no views, the interior designer smartly devised a window behind each table, which provides an illusion of an exterior street. The ceiling of the restaurant is low. If the chef is any taller, his high toque will probably hit the beam. In the main dining room, the ceiling has a mirror finish which at least provides some sense of depth. While the private room has windows with views to the outside, the feeling is borderline oppressive due to the heavy-looking metal light fixture. The side chair in the private room is one of the most uncomfortable chairs I've ever sat on. The back has a vertical hole like the end of an massage table. But instead of a massage, the hole cuts into my backbone when I lean back. The settee in the main dining room is not comfortable either. The only comfortable chair seems to be the armchair with cane back in the main room. 

The tables in the main dining room are all rectangular and set in alcoves. The restaurant doesn't use any tablecloth, instead sets the table with individual plastic placemats with a greenish tint. The Chinese painting and calligraphy on the placemat are matched by the tablewares. The overall impression is less of luxury but kitschy and of products purchased from a local museum store. The napkin is folded in an double star that looks outmoded rather than quaint. Instead of a decent sized hot hand towel common in high end restaurants in Asia, a tiny disposable towelette is hydrated with warm water in a small glass. This is just one step above the individual plastic wrap towelette handed out at all the cheap restaurants in Taipei. A single toothpick is also offered and is carefully aligned to the bottom edge of the placemat. One certainly doesn't use the toothpick to eat and it remains unnecessary until at least after a few bites of food. Over the course of the meal a diner may need more than one toothpick, why be so stingy? Why not offer the toothpicks in a box as other high-end restaurants do? At Le Palais the toothpick is an eye sore and accentuated the overall cheapness of the entire table setting.

The service at Le Palais is wanting, certainly below the expectations I have of a Michelin three-star restaurant. While I don't expect the service to be perfect, Le Palais is so far off from perfect that it is almost laughable. At one of my meals, I ask for some tea while waiting for others to arrive but the tea never showed up. Then at our table for ten persons, the server pours nine glasses of wine, leaving my glass empty. We order a dish with Marble Goby fish and noodles, which comes in a large pot with table side service. After portioning out six large bowls, the server runs out of noodle and serves the other four guests with smaller bowls without noodle. Shortly after, when the wok-fried beef with Chinese kale is placed on the lazy susan, the server does not give us any individual plates to eat with. At the end of my other meal, the hostess accompanies us to the elevator. After we step inside the elevator she asks with a little panic, does one of us have an umbrella? I smile and show her the umbrella in my hand. I take the umbrella out of the vase and rip off the tag myself. The hostess completely forgets about the umbrella until the elevator doors are about to close. 

Anyone who has dined at three-Michelin-star restaurants in Europe or in the U.S. will be shocked at the standard of service at Le Palais. Fortunately, for Le Palais the stars of Michelin don't account for interior decor, table setting, and service; they are rated with fork-spoon. Michelin awarded Le Palais with just two black fork-spoon (out of a maximum of five), which is the lowest amongst all the Chinese three-star restaurants in the world.  

Michelin has stated repeatedly that the stars are only awarded for the food on the plate. Besides the often repeated phrase of "worth a special journey," Michelin also defines three stars as "cooking elevated to an art form." Even with these definitions, what constitutes three-star food is still very vague. Michelin is very smart to maintain their cryptic ways allowing them to forego any accountability. Ultimately, Michelin is just a travel guide and the consumers can choose to agree or disagree with their judgment. If I live abroad, I wouldn't make a special journey to Taipei just to eat at Le Palais.

Dinner at Le Palais doesn't start with an amuse-bouche, but rather with a shot glass of vinegar with unknown origin. The vinegar looks like the same one that my neighborhood tonkatsu joint serves at the end of a grease laden meal. I don't enjoy drinking vinegar and leave mine untouched. Le Palais doesn't provide any mignardise to end the meal either. Most cheap Chinese restaurants in Taipei provide a complimentary fruit plate after the savory courses are finished. Even schlocky Chinese restaurants in the U.S. give a fortune cookie to their guests. Amuse bouche, mignardise, and bread (in a western restaurant), signal a sense of hospitality from the restaurant. While they are not itemized on the bill, the diner is paying for them indirectly similar to electricity and rent. When every bite of food is charged, the meal feels like a transaction. Why doesn’t the three-star restaurant want to project an illusion of generosity? 

Unlike restaurants in Hong Kong, Le Palais serves dim sum at dinner. We order the shrimp dumplings and abalone shumai. Both are excellent. However, the server refuses to provide any condiment. In fancy Cantonese restaurants guests will be offered some soy sauce, vinegar and house made XO sauce. There's nothing at Le Palais, why be so miserly? At Le Palais vinegar is only for drinking rather than eaten with food. The server says we should enjoy the "original taste" or 原味. But can't the diner have a choice? I also try the turnip cakes and the "original taste" is bitter and not enjoyable at all. The idea of "original taste" is a bit disingenuous. If the chef is serious about the idea, why serve the turnip cake with slivers of frisée?

There are two signature dishes of duck at Le Palais: Flaming Duck 火焰片皮鴨 and Roast Baby Duck 先知鴨. Just about every table orders one of the two. The Flaming Duck is the more dramatic dish. A cook wheels a trolley with the duck affixed to a metal rod standing on an industrial-looking metal pan. This reminds me a bit of the American beer can roast chicken. The cook then flambés the duck table side. The server suggests we turn our camera to video mode to capture the moment. This cook must be the most Instagrammed cook in Taipei in the past months. Fire always makes for a good show, but unfortunately the food doesn't have the same wow factor. The duck is served three ways. The first is duck skin served in the traditional manner. This is good but the same cannot be said for the second serving: duck skin with romaine lettuce and fried mozzarella stick. The combination is awful. Is it inspired by California Pizza Kitchen? I cannot finish my portion. The server then brings over a plate of leftover duck meat with sauce on the side, this is just boring.

While the Roast Baby Duck is less pervalent on the Internet, the dish is the better of the two ducks. Chef Ken Chan 陳偉強 created this dish when he was still working at the My Humble House Restaurant at Le Meridien Hotel. Since Baby Duck in Chinese doesn't sound elegant, the owner of Le Meridien Hotel named the duck 先知鴨. The Chinese name is taken from a poem by one of China's most famous literay figures Su Dongpo (1037-1101). The poem was written in 1085 to compliment a painting by the monk Huichong, which depicted a scene during the spring time in the Jiangnan area of China. The first two verses are 竹外桃花三兩枝, 春江水暖鴨先知. Spring is arriving as peach blossom is starting to emerge; The temperature of the river is becoming warmer and the ducks are the first to know. With his words Su elevated the painting by adding another dimension to the drawings: the temperature of the river, which is very difficult to describe with paint brushes. The chef and the restaurant is very proud of the literary connection. Before the duck is served to the guest, the server has to recite or sing the poem. Regrettably, the view out to the windonw isn't peach blossom but an ugly concrete and metal metropolis. And the duck is not joyously peddling in water but dead and lying on a plate that is a little too small. Since the scene described in Su's poem is not present at all, why recite the poem? When I order a Tournedos Rossini or Pêche Melba in a French restaurant, I don't need an opera aria to be sung. I rather learn about the the cooking techniques behind the preparation of the duck. As the server recites the poem, I can't help but think, just make sure the duck is served hot. The taste of the breast meat is superb: well seasoned, juicy, and with crispy skin. The thigh and legs are good but not as flavorful.

The carcass of the roast baby duck is made into a second dish with a choice of porridge, soup, or wok-fried in typhoon shelter 避風塘 style with chili and garlic. We choose wok-fried and I regret the decision. The typhoon shelter style was invented by the boat people of Hong Kong. When a large storm is coming the boats retreat to the safe harbor. While waiting on the boat, they cook crab stir-fried with chili and garlic. Subsequently, this dish has migrated on shore and chefs have used the style to cook it with different fresh seafood. 

Instead of fresh seafood, the chef of Le Palais chops up the leftover duck into small pieces of bones and tendons and stir-fries them in the typhoon shelter style. Unlike other fine dining restaurants where chefs elevate humble dishes for fine dining, the chef at Le Palais does the opposite and makes the dish even cheaper and less edible. The duck is not only twice-cooked but there is very little meat left to eat. The tendons are essentially not chewable. The meat from the neck can be gnawed on but it is more suited to be served at a beer house than at a three-star fine dining restaurant. 

I understand the idea of not wasting food. For the roast duck of a larger size, the leftover carcass and bits of meat can make another dish. But after the baby duck is cut up, not much is left. Why not just let it go, or use it for a staff meal? When I eat the Poularde en Vessie at Paul Bocuse, they don't take the leftover chicken carcass and stir-fry another dish to serve to the guest. Three-star restaurants are about giving the finest pieces of ingredients to the guests. When I eat at a three-star sushi restaurant, the chef serves me the best pieces of fish from a large cut. The chef is not giving me every little scrap of the fish as another dish. 

Some of the dishes Le Palais serves don't belong in a fine-dining restaurant. Chef Chan likes to boast about his creativity and it often means using cheap ingredients in novel ways. Besides the aforementioned duck carcass in typhoon shelter style, on television he demonstrates a dish by frying the junk food, dried squid strips. Another of his signature is stir-fried spicy pork tendon from the pig's eyebrow. Chan likes to tell people that these tendons used to be thrown away by the vendors because no one wants to buy them. Now he charges NT$780 for them. The wok-fried dishes at Le Palais are done with good techniques. The cooks at the wok station are definitely well-trained. But many of these dishes are more suited for late night bar food rather than cooking elevated to an art form. Le Palais should consider opening a bar room to serve these dishes. Follow the examples of some Michelin-starred restaurants in New York, where a separate bar room or salon is setup for cheaper and more experimental dishes. 

As with the ducks there are also two types of char siu for order. I try both and I prefer the crispy sugar coated version. This is slice thinly and served with even thinner slices of lime. This is also cheaper. The more expensive version is almost double the price at NT$1,480. The pork is sliced thickly into only six pieces and served on a wood platter. I find the meat to be less flavorful and the untrimmed tendon inside that makes it harder to chew. The expensive version looks better in photo. Maybe I’m paying for the presentation.

At one of my dinners, the chef offers to make an off-the-menu dish of crab with meat pie. Meat pie is a Cantonese classic where the pork is usually paired with fermented rather than fresh ingredients. With fresh crab the chef seems to be trying to do something new, but it doesn’t really work. The fresh seafood doesn't have the concentrated flavors required to season the pork. The crab and the meat pie seem to be two separate things without much integration; simply not enough flavor. Furthermore, the idea of ugly-delicious hasn't caught on in Taipei, because this dish was just ugly.

If anyone fancies a crab dish, I suggest ordering the stir-fried crab with glutinous rice. This is delicious and packed with flavors.

Alternatively, order the wok-fried rice noodle with crab meat and egg 強哥炒米粉. This is probably my favorite dish of my two meals at Le Palais. Great flavor, light, pretty, and cooked perfectly. This dish is served near the end of the meal. Even with a full stomach I can still easily finish this dish.

The dessert menu has seven items and three of which are made à la minute with a waiting time of 20 to 30 minutes. I want to order Almond Milk but the server says they are out of it. This dessert is on the so called "Michelin Three-Star Set Menu”. How does the restaurant run out of this three-star dessert? Instead we have the Sesame Balls and Deep Fried Dough encrusted with cheese. Both are freshly made, served piping hot, and very good. These desserts are well executed, but they are essentially dim sum and street food rather than some imaginative creations. I wish chef Chan had channeled some of his creativity into the desserts. The meal at Le Palais doesn’t end on a high note.

I have written in a previous blog entry about my suspicion of Michelin’s inaugural guide for Taipei: by taking on the sponsorship from the Taiwan government, Michelin was obligated to find a three-star restaurant in Taipei. This is purely my conjecture as I have no proof. Ever since Michelin anointed Le Palais as three-star, the media has been filled with stories about how Le Palais accomplished the feat. But the more stories I read, the more suspicious I get about the three-star rating.

The General Manager of the hotel said a Michelin inspector came to Le Palais in September 2017. After his meal he toured the kitchen and spoke with the chefs. But at that time many of the dishes I had at my two dinners were not on the menu; they were added or modified in October and later. As Michelin was inspecting the restaurants in Taipei, Le Palais made many changes to its operation: buying better ingredients, not using frozen products, refining the presentations, and reducing the number of seats. The restaurant even closed for renovation for over a month, and reopened on the date of Michelin's announcement. Furthermore, the restaurant raised prices before Michelin's announcement, and anticipated a boost in business with a good rating. All the moves made by Le Palais seem to be guided with some inside knowledge of Michelin’s operations.

Two months after Michelin’s arrival, the local TV network TVBS ran an hour-long program on Le Palais. In the show, a manager of Le Palais claimed Michelin sent 150 inspectors to the restaurant before awarding the three-star. When the Hong Kong guide first launched, the then Director of Michelin Guide Jean-Luc Naret said the inspectors visited Lung Keen Heen in the Four Seasons Hotel 12 times before awarding the restaurant with three stars. Even if every visit was a table of ten, the number wouldn’t amount to 150. But somehow, when Michelin came to Taipei, they made 150 visits? It is very strange for Le Palais to make this claim. How would they know how many visits Michelin made? It is as if Le Palais knew many people question the three-star rating, and felt the need to justify the result by exaggerating Michelin's process. However, Le Palais' claim was so absurd that any rational person would conclude the restaurant was lying and something was afoot.

The media in Taiwan have glorified the two chefs of Le Palais and anointed them as heroes. Chef Ken Chan 陳偉強 and Matt Chen 陳泰榮 are both Cantonese. Chan started Le Palais in 2010 when the hotel opened. Chen on the other hand joined Le Palais in 2017, the year Michelin announced the launch of the Taipei guide. They are certainly experienced and considered to be two of the best chefs in Taipei. But throughout the media frenzy, the two chefs remain very humble about their achievement. At almost every interview, they said they felt lucky to receive three-star from Michelin. Michelin's rating seems to have exceeded their expectations.

In my mind Le Palais feels more like a two-star (worth a detour) restaurant than a three-star (worth a special journey). While the chefs are very creative, not all of the dishes taste good. Some of the dishes feel more like works in process rather than Michelin’s definition of three-star: cooking is elevated to an art form and destined to become classics. The dishes lack consistency in quality. The more classical dishes don't have the wow-factor. The food at Le Palais also lacks a central principle. The chefs need an editor to tighten the focus or reign in the ideas. Finally, many of the dishes still have room for refinement. The food at Le Palais doesn't seem to be the pinnacle of Chinese cooking yet.

While Michelin's stars only apply to food, the interior decor, service, and table setting, have a profound impact on our perception and enjoyment of the food. In this regard, Le Palais is far from being an elegant restaurant to dine at. Very little thoughts have gone into the various details that contribute to the overall feel of the restaurant. A three-star restaurant should strive for a higher standard. Moreover, Le Palais doesn’t feel generous nor hospitable. Nevertheless, the business at Le Palais is booming. After Michelin announced the rating, Le Palais said they received thousands of phone calls requesting reservation. Someone even booked a table for Chinese New Year Eve in 2019. At this point Le Palais probably doesn’t care about feedback from the average customers. I doubt the chefs will change their ways either. What do ordinary diners know about cuisine and service? After all Le Palais already have three stars from Michelin.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Michelin Guide Taipei

“Michelin is the only guide that counts," said Paul Bocuse. The great chef might be a little biased since he is French and his restaurant has been rated three stars continuously by Michelin for over 50 years. Since Michelin's inception in 1900, its supremacy has constantly been challenged by other restaurant guides: Gault and Millau, Zagat, Gambero Rosso, World's Best 50, La Liste, Dianping...etc. In cities around the world, local arbiters of tastes, such as the New York Times Restaurant Critic, may hold more sway with their local diners. While these different guides, crowd-sourced websites, and critics have all garnered enormous power, none of them have the same global influence and prestige as the Michelin Guide. The stars of Michelin is a global currency that doesn't require any translation.

The general public may debate the importance of the Michelin Guide, but chefs care deeply about their Michelin stars. Gordon Ramsay claimed to have cried when he lost his two Michelin stars in New York City. I didn't see the tears but I believe him. Last year, the Japanese sushi chef Mitsuhiro Araki wept openly at the Michelin ceremony in London. He had regained his three-star rating, but it felt like he found his lost child. When he hugged his wife and his lone assistant, they were all beside themselves; their hard work has been validated. It was an extremely moving scene. I didn't know a Japanese chef cared that much about the Michelin Guide.

The Michelin Guide is also the only guide that governments in Asia are willing to pay to come evaluate their restaurants. The Guides in Seoul, Hong Kong, Macau, Bangkok, and Singapore are all commissioned. The specific terms of each sponsorship are not known. The press in Korea reported that the Korean Tourism Organization pays Michelin around US$370,000 a year for four years to release a guide for Seoul. The press in Thailand claimed the Tourism Authority of Thailand pays Michelin close to US$1 million a year for five years to release a guide for Bangkok. The public may never know the real cost of the sponsorship as the deals with Michelin are kept secret. But clearly the governments in Asia see the benefit of commissioning the Guide to attract tourists and to market themselves to the world.

Despite the sponsorship, Michelin Guide is not a money-making business. The Financial Times once reported that the Guide loses US$20 to 30 million a year. This is a small amount for the Guide's parent company, which has net sales of over US$20 billion a year. However, the continuous losses mean, similar to other traditional publications, Michelin has not figured out a way to monetize its digital content to compensate for the decrease in sales of physical guidebooks. As such, Michelin likely will continue to rely on sponsorships to offset the cost of issuing the new Guides.

Ever since Michelin launched the Guide in Hong Kong and Macau in 2008 there had been rumors that the Guide would come to Taipei. Instead, Michelin went to Singapore, Shanghai, Seoul, and Bangkok. The persistent chatter in Taipei was the local government had been unwilling to pay for the Guide. Finally in late 2017 Michelin held a press conference to launch the Guide for Taipei, with sponsorship from the Tourism Bureau of Taiwan. The press in Taiwan reported the cost ranging from NT$50 to 80 million. While the money for Michelin is from the taxpayers, the exact price of the sponsorship is not made public. The government only says Michelin will be in Taipei for at least five years.

What did all the money buy? The inaugural Guide for Taipei, published in March of 2018, recommended a total of 126 restaurants and 25 hotels. Of the 126 restaurants, 20 are starred (1 three-star, 2 two-star and 17 one-star). When the list was announced, many people were surprised, shocked, or incredulous. This was inevitable because Michelin's list will never match anyone's own list. I had my own knee jerk reaction to the result. But the reality is, like most residents of Taipei, I have not been to all of the starred restaurants. Even for some of the ones I have dined at before, the visits were not recent. For instance, I have been to RyuGin only once and it was three years ago. At that time I thought the restaurant was a solid one-star. Has the restaurant improved to two-star as shown in the Guide? I cannot say. Until I visit all the restaurants in a limited span of time, I cannot judge fairly whether the restaurants deserve the stars or not. Nevertheless, I still have some problems with the list produced by Michelin.

Michelin defines one-star as a very good restaurant in its category. When Michelin was rating just the restaurants in France, the categorization of restaurants was quite simple. But ever since Michelin ventured outside of Europe, the idea of a starred restaurant expanded and no longer means a fancy or formal place. Interior design, tableware, and service, which had previously been thought of as an integral part of the criteria for Michelin star, have been downplayed.

This gave rise to casual restaurants being ranked the same as fine dining restaurants. In the first New York City Guide in 2005, the gastropub Spotted Pig was awarded one star, the same rank as Babbo, at that time the best Italian restaurant in the City. For chef Mario Batali who partly owns both restaurants, this was inconceivable. He said at the time, “[Michelin is] blowing it. They can’t put the Spotted Pig on the same level as Babbo.” Little did Batali know, Michelin was about to greatly expand the range of the one-star restaurant.

When Michelin Guide arrived in Tokyo, not only can casual restaurants receive a star, but even yakitori, ramen, tonkatsu joints have garnered one star. They have the same number of star as Maison Paul Bocuse in Daikanyama, Tokyo, a restaurant with a battalion of cooks in the kitchen and tuxedo-clad waiters in the dining room. In Hong Kong, the dim sum specialist Tim Ho Wan became the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant. This was superseded later in Singapore when Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle received a star; forget tableware, the place doesn't even have a dining room. The signature dish chicken with rice costs less than US$2.

The need to separate restaurants into categories is understandable and perhaps necessary. Similar to the Academy Awards for Motion Pictures, the Oscars are awarded in different categories. It is not necessary to compare a short documentary with a feature film. Both can be great and both can have an award. Similarly there is no point in comparing restaurants across categories. But if one cannot compare restaurants across categories, how does Michelin determine if a restaurant is worth one star or not? The criteria for the one-star restaurant is too wide and random for the public to understand. If we simply accept Michelin's idea that any type of food establishment (including hawker stalls) can get a star, then surely there are more one-star restaurants in Taipei than Michelin has found.

Of the 20 restaurants with stars: six are Japanese, seven are Western, and seven are Chinese. The number of starred Western and Chinese restaurants seem disproportionate to the restaurant scene in Taipei. Compared to other cities with Michelin guides, Taipei is not a city with a strong western food scene.  Instead, Taipei has more varieties in Chinese food than others, including Hong Kong and Shanghai. The Chinese food culture is far more established than Western cuisine. Yet a visitor from abroad would not understand by looking at the list of starred restaurants in Taipei.

Michelin always seems to have a hard time judging Chinese restaurants. Part of the problem may be that the dining format of most Chinese restaurants simply don't suit the operation of Michelin inspectors. The majority of Chinese restaurants are not setup for single or two-person diners. Furthermore, most Chinese don't order tasting menus of little individual portions; most restaurants don't even offer a tasting menu. Instead, the typical Chinese diners share a variety of dishes that provide an overall balance and contrast of different ingredients, textures, and flavors.

Sometimes, I am simply puzzled by Michelin's choices for starred Chinese restaurants. This is especially pronounced for the starred Chinese restaurants outside of Greater China. For instance, currently there is only one Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant in New York City, Café China. The restaurant has maintained its one-star rating for several years. Last summer I purposely made a trip to try the restaurant. The food was a bit disappointing. There was very little refinement nor elegance. If Café China can earn one star, many restaurants in Taipei should certainly have one star as well.

The Director of Michelin Guide, Michael Ellis, says Taipei shouldn't feel there are too few starred restaurants (20), because the initial guide for Hong Kong only contains 22 starred restaurants. However, he fails to mention the discrepancy in the number of two-star restaurants. Hong Kong's first Guide contains seven two-star restaurants, while Taipei only has two: the Guest House and RyuGin. Close to one-third of the starred restaurants in Hong Kong has two stars. In contrast, the percentage in Taipei is just one-tenth. A comparison with the introductory Guide to Shanghai yields a similar discrepancy. Shanghai has a total of 26 starred restaurants, of which seven are awarded two stars. This is more than one-quarter of the total, also far more than Taipei.

The small number of restaurants in the two-star level is my biggest objection to the inaugural Michelin Guide for Taipei. Two restaurants in particular, Ya Ge at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon at Bellavita, deserve more than one star. They are both superior to the other restaurants in their categories.

Ya Ge and Three Coins are in the same category as both restaurants serve Cantonese food. Michelin awards both with one star and this is simply misguided. The food at Ya Ge is more refined than at Three Coins. Even without considering service and decor, Ya Ge is a superior restaurant. Furthermore, Ya Ge is on par with the two-star Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong that I have visited.

The same problem exists in the French Contemporary category, where La Cocotte by Fabien Vergé and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon both have one star. La Cocotte is a very good restaurant. Vergé and his wife surely deserve the one star. They have toiled for years doing things their own ways, and it is heartwarming to see their efforts recognized. Nevertheless, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon is clearly the better of the two, starting from the bread all the way to the dessert and the wine list. Moreover, L'Atelier in Taipei is comparable to its two-star sister restaurant in Shanghai. Many of the dishes, such as the Beef Rossini and Caviar with Crab and Lobster Jelly, are the same.

Before Michelin launched the Guide for Taipei, I didn't think there was a three-star restaurant. But Michelin found one at Le Palais in Palais de Chine Hotel. The conspiracy theorist inside of me thinks it was imperative for Michelin to find a three-star restaurant in Taipei. The reason is Shanghai's first Michelin Guide has a three-star restaurant. It would be inconceivable for the Tourism Bureau of Taiwan to spend millions on commissioning Michelin to come to Taipei, only to tell the local taxpayers that the restaurants in Taipei (Taiwan) is not as good as the ones in Shanghai (China). Nevertheless, it takes two to tango. Michelin's desire or need to find a three-star restaurant still required a credible candidate.

Le Palais seemed to be clued into Michelin's intention and actively changed the restaurant to fit the bill. Le Palais opened in 2010 and was not a remarkable place. In fact, even less than a year ago the restaurant was not at the three-star level. But as Michelin was ramping up the operations in Taipei, Le Palais remade itself, starting in 2017, with luring chef Matt Chen 陳泰榮 away from Le Meridien Hotel to join forces with chef Ken Chen 陳偉強. The quality of the ingredients improved significantly. The hotel opened up the purse string and allowed the chefs to buy better ingredients. As chef Ken Chen said in an interview, as long as the owner is willing to spend money on ingredients, he can make good dishes. As such the dishes have also changed. For instance, the Shrimp Dumplings now have lobster as part of its filling, and are no longer served with the inelegant plastic syringes of red vinegar plunged through its center. More costly ingredients also mean higher prices. The dumplings used to be NT$280 a few months ago, now it is NT$360. The price of the Char Siu used to be NT$680 and is now NT$1480 and smaller in portion. After receiving the three stars, Le Palais pledged that it would not raise prices. This was a bit disingenuous since the restaurant had already increased the prices before Michelin's announcement. It was as if Le Palais anticipated the recognition.

When the Hong Kong Guide first launched, the then Director of Michelin Guide Jean-Luc Naret said the inspectors visited Lung Keen Heen in the Four Seasons Hotel 12 times before awarding the restaurant with three stars; the first Chinese restaurant to ever garnered that distinction. Did the inspectors for Taipei make that many trips to Le Palais? The current Director did not say. I have my doubts because if the inspectors went to Le Palais six months ago, they probably wouldn't have found a three-star restaurant.

I have not been to the new and improved Le Palais. I cannot say whether I agree with Michelin or not. I simply find Michelin's process of awarding three stars to Le Palais to be too casual. In France, Michelin puts chefs through the ringer before awarding them with three stars. When Alain Ducasse completely revamped the restaurant at Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris, he was first downgraded to two stars before gaining back three stars. When Joël Robuchon opened the gastronomy restaurant in Bordeaux with his trusted chef de cuisine Tomonori Danzaki, who earned three stars in Tokyo and Las Vegas, he was awarded only two stars. When Marc Veyrat, who at one point had six Michelin stars total, started his comeback at La Maison des Bois, he had to settle with two stars. These superstar multi-three-star chefs must be amazed to know that a restaurant in Taipei can simply remake itself in a span of a few months and become a three-star restaurant.

Michelin works in mysterious ways. It doesn't reveal its process nor criteria. We will never understand how the inspectors arrive at their choices. Did the Tourism Bureau of Taiwan provide Michelin with a list of restaurants to start or exert any influences on behalf of any restaurants? We simply don't know. Maybe one day we will find out on Wikileaks. While we may question whether Michelin is reliable or relevant, the benefit of the Guide is very tangible. The restaurants awarded with stars and Bib Gourmand have all seen increases in their revenues. Good luck trying to make a reservation in the near future at the new three-star Le Palais. Not only has business at the restaurants picked up, the stock prices of the parent companies of the restaurants have all seen a bounce. The only restaurant that didn't benefit was La Cocotte by Fabien Vergé. Despite the recognition, Vergé and his wife have decided to close La Cocotte; Michelin came too late for them. Notwithstanding, Vergé is and will always be referred to as a Michelin-starred chef wherever he goes.

At the Michelin Gala dinner that followed the announcement of the starred restaurants, the Director of Michelin said the launch of the Michelin Guide is a very special day for the chefs. I wholeheartedly agree with him. Michelin has put a bright spotlight on the chefs of all the restaurants. This is especially important for the chefs in the Chinese restaurants. Prior to Michelin's arrival, most of the diners don't know and perhaps don't care who is cooking their food in the kitchen. None of these Chinese chefs cook in an open kitchen and are almost never seen by the guests. Stories about the chefs need to be written. While Michelin may not make 陳泰榮, 陳偉強, 林菊偉, 楊光宗, 謝文, and others into household names, they deserve more recognition than previously given. They are now part of the global network of chefs. I hope foreign, as well as local dinners, will seek them out. Instead of having Michelin-starred chefs come to Taipei to be guest chefs, perhaps we will soon see the Michelin-starred chefs of Taipei traveling abroad to showcase their talents and promote our food culture.

The arrival of the Michelin Guide to Taipei is a momentous event for the local food culture. For a city like Taipei that is without credible restaurant critics, sizable crowd-sourced websites, nor enough respect and appreciation for the people in the food industry, Michelin is a most welcomed addition. While Michelin will surely continue to confound us in the future, the Guide will drive the restaurants to improve and raise the public's awareness for restaurant professionals. If Taipei follows the pattern established by Michelin in other cities, the number of starred restaurants will only grow. And for the restaurants currently with one star or two stars, many will certainly look for ways to move up the rank. A few of them may even lose a star should the quality drops or if the chef leaves. The game of Michelin star has started and the Guide will be a positive force for the restaurant scene in Taipei.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Eight Years at Seat No.17: L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei

Eight years have passed since L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon opened in Taipei. I still remember vividly my first dinner at L'Atelier in December of 2009. My wife, Maria, and I were celebrating our wedding anniversary. We sat at the middle of the counter and ordered the tasting menu that started with oyster and ended with the sugar sphere. It was clear after the first dinner that L'Atelier was the best restaurant in Taipei, period. At that time it was the only restaurant that could be compared to other fine dining restaurants in major gastronomic cities in the world. In the past eight years, many new restaurants have opened (some have since closed) in Taipei. The overall standard in the city has risen, and L'Atelier has become better as well.

Since my first dinner at L'Atelier I have become a regular. Over the years I can see how the restaurant has steadily evolved. The owners have made additional investments into the restaurant to keep the appearance fresh: new placemats on the counter, fancier clocks on the walls, redesigned uniforms, and more artistic plates from Bernardaud by Prune Nourry and JR. The menu has become more varied and flexible; the most noticeable change is the addition of a vegetarian tasting menu. There are numerous minor changes that all contribute to elevating the quality of the restaurant. But the main reason that L'Atelier in Taipei has improved is because of the continuity of its staff.

This is quite remarkable in an industry where the turnover of personnel is high. Consider the following: the best hotel in Taipei, Mandarin Oriental, has been open for less than 4 years and has already gone through changes in staff on all levels, from General Manger to chefs and managers for the various restaurants; the hotel's Chinese restaurant Ya Ge is on its third chef already. In contrast, the main personnel at L'Atelier: Chef de Cuisine, Sous Chef, Pastry Chef, Sommelier, General Manger, Operation Mangers and Captains have all been at their jobs longer than Mandarin Oriental Taipei has been in existence; some have been at L'Atelier since the opening eight years ago. The simple fact is by gaining experience on the job the staff has become better at doing their jobs.

At L'Atelier I almost always sit at seat 17 which is just to the left side of the center of the counter. From the seat I have a great view of the open kitchen and can see my meal being prepared, starting from the garde manger to the fish and meat stations. Only the pastry station on the left side is slightly obscured. I also get to peek at the dishes coming out from the kitchen for the other diners. Since I sit directly behind the pass of the kitchen, the Chef sometimes delivers the dishes personally and explains the cooking techniques to me, as if we are in a small Japanese restaurant.

For the past four years the Chef of L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei has been Olivier Jean. He is the fourth chef to take the rein at the restaurant and the one with the longest tenure. When Jean arrived in Taipei in 2013 he was the youngest chef in the Robuchon group. Now the chefs in Singapore and Las Vegas are even younger. Taipei is the first time Jean became a head chef. Although he wasn't as experienced as the previous chefs, he made up the difference with more energy and hard work. He has trained his cooks effectively to maintain a high level of standard. His efforts have paid off as Joël Robuchon asked him to assist in opening new L'Ateliers around the world. Last year Jean traveled to Montreal and this year to New York City to train the staff and transmit the Robuchon method.

While Jean is strict with his staff in Taipei, he also readily acknowledges the effort by his team, especially his right hand man, Frederic Jullien. He has also been cooking at Taipei for 4 straight years. Previously, Jullien was at Taillevent in Paris and steeped in the classics. He is a very skilled chef and after four years cooking in the Robuchon manner, will probably be promoted to head chef should an opening become available.

A friend once asked Jean what is Mr. Robuchon like? Jean replied succinctly, Mr. Robuchon wants everything to be perfect. While perfection seems like a state that can only be strived for rather than reached, Robuchon's dishes seem pretty perfect. For instance, at L'Atelier, one can order the Robuchon classic from the days of Jamin, Gelée de Caviar à la Crème de Chou-Feur.

The three-Michelin-star chef and former Robuchon apprentice Eric Ripert wrote in his autobiography 32 Yolks: "I still remember the first time that Robuchon taught me how to make a lobster gelée, which we served carefully layered, caviar first, then the lobster gelée, then cauliflower cream, in a tall Japanese bowl lined with brilliant dots of chlorophyll that I had extracted through a complex process that began with puréeing herbs in the Robocoupe. When I first tasted it, I literally scratched my head and said, I have never seen or tasted a dish that good in my life." Thirty years later, after I saw and tasted the dish I had the same reaction as Ripert.

The same can be said for a more recent creation, Le Filet de Bœuf et Foie Gras en "Rossini". Instead of cooking the filet and foie gras separately in the manner of Marie-Antoine Carême, the two are bound in tubular form and cooked together by sous vide. The technique is ideally suited for the lean filet and retains the fat of the foie gras. The dish has superb ingredients, harmonious flavor, and perfect execution. Served on the side is Robuchon's signature La Purée de Pommes de Terre. Is there a more perfect side dish? What's remarkable about the potato and butter emulsion is the transformation of humble and simple ingredients via brilliant technique, making the dish simultaneously extravagant and soulful.

While Jean and Jullien faithfully execute Robuchon's dishes, there is still room for personal expression within the system. After all, the word Atelier means a workshop or an artist studio, a space to create things. Again to quote Ripert from his autobiography about his time at Jamin, cooking with Robuchon's righthand man, Philippe Braun (also known as the Californian surfer): "For so long, my time with Robuchon had been about executing the boss’s vision. But with Philippe, I began to see that you could still have a vision of your own. It was up to each of us to imbue the work with our own meaning and style." Often times, instead of choosing from the menu, I simply ask Jean to cook for me omakase.

Jean and Jullien know I love the classics and anything en croûte or with puff pastry. Over the years, they have made several off-the-menu dishes for me. I like to think the first Beef Wellington or Filet de Bœuf en Croûte Jean made in Taipei was for me and my mushroom-averse friend two and a half years ago; Jean replaced the typical duxselles with chestnut. In the past years Jean has made numerous Beef Wellington, especially for large parties. Now, Beef Wellington is also offered in the L'Ateliers in Shanghai and New York. Wellington is a classic but it is not necessarily easy to make. Often times Jean sears the beef and assemble the ingredients himself. Jean had also once made a Vol-au-Vents with Sweetbread, a recipe that dates back to the 18th century. When the weather gets a bit colder, Jean and Jullien will make a Pithivier or Tourte with duck and foie gras. I am enamored with traditional dishes especially ones that have been perfected. I am always reminded of a slogan used in an advertisement 20 years ago by the American television company, NBC: “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.” There are so many historical dishes that people of my generation or younger have never enjoyed. Instead of chasing the latest trend such as eating ants on a plate, why not enjoy the classics?

Traversing in the aisle in between the counter and the kitchen pass is the sommelier Benoît Monier. He has been in Taipei for seven years and with the Robuchon group for over 20 years. Prior to Taipei, Monier spent years in Hong Kong and Tokyo. He is certainly familiar with customers of Asia, but Taipei is probably his biggest challenge. Taipei is an extremely tough city to sell wine in the restaurants. The L'Atelier in Taipei is probably the only restaurant in the Robuchon group where the table setting doesn't include a wine glass, at least until Robuchon opens a branch in an Arabian city. The problem with customers in Taipei is two-fold: one, most people didn't grow up drinking wine with food, thus don't see wine as integral part of the meal; two, instead of letting the sommelier help select a wine to pair with the meal, the customers like to bring their own wines.

French food is meant to be paired with wine. The Chinese has a saying, 畫龍點睛, which translates literally as to paint a dragon and dot in the eyes; add the touches that bring an artwork to life. Wine is like the final touch that elevates the food. Since Monier is trained as a cook before choosing to be a sommelier, he has a great sensitivity for wine and food pairing. Customers not having a conversation with Monier about wine really misses part of the joy of dining at L'Atelier.

Monier once remarked to me that anyone can recommend an expensive bottle of wine. It takes more skill to find a bottle that is reasonably priced, aged properly, and ideally suited to the food. I couldn't agree more. Once he asked me, do you know Romanée-Conti? I said, of course. He said, I am going to pour you a wine that's next to Romanée-Conti but at a fraction of the price; tell me how you like it. Another time he asked, do you know Petrus? Try a glass of wine from the vineyard (Vieux Chateau St-Andre) owned by Petrus' winemaker, Jean-Claude Berrouet. Sometimes he pours two different glasses of wines for me to try with the same dish, to show me that the expensive bottle doesn't necessarily work the best with a particular food.

In the early years, Monier always asked about my preference for wine. I invariably said I was happy to drink any wine he picked and for two reasons: I have no preference. I like most wines just like I eat everything; second, if I go to a friend's house for dinner, I am not picking out the wine. I will drink what my friend has selected. I suppose my only preference is to not have too many repeats. I trust Monier's judgement. But Monier has taught me to trust my palette, develop my own judgement, and to look beyond the famous vineyards. While in a blind tasting I still won't be able to distinguish the difference between Pinot Meunier from Pinot Noir, I have grown to appreciate wine, especially when taken with food.

The pastry station on the left side of the kitchen has been under the direction of chef Kazuhisa Takahashi since 2012. He took over the position from the opening pastry chef Kazutoshi Narita. While Narita's signature dessert, Sugar Ball, is still on the menu, Takahashi has now made more variations. Instead of a pure form, the shape has become more figurative, such as apple and pears. The imitation of nature fits within the longstanding tradition of French cuisine. These blown sugar creations never fail to impress and always elicit a wow from me. The contrasting texture of the sugar shell and the custard inside is just perfect.

In Ripert's autobiography, he wrote about Robuchon's observation of Japanese chefs after one of Robuchon's trip to Japan thirty years ago. Robuchon told Ripert and his colleagues: "You all suck! In Japan, the chefs are ten times better than you. They’re more humble than you. They are more skilled, more precise, more gifted. Better, better, best! They are better, and they are the best!" Thirty years later, the quote is still valid and Takahashi certainly seems to fit the description. The desserts at L'Atelier Taipei always seem to be flawless.

The dessert menu at L'Atelier changes frequently with new creations. But while Takahashi has one foot in the contemporary, another foot remains in the historical world. Some of classic dishes from the 19th century, such as Baba and Soufflé can usually be found on the menu. A perfectly executed Soufflé brings me a great deal of joy every time. What was good will aways be good.

For my wedding anniversary dinner in 2013 he made a pulled sugar flower to accompany a cake. The flower was so pretty that I took it home. Kept in a glass jar with silica gel, the flower has sat on my bookshelf, a version of the Enchanted Rose from Beauty and the Beast. Most of the time the memory of a meal only exists in the mind and in pictures, but with the rose I have a memento.

The ringmasters of L'Atelier Taipei are the General Manager, Vincent Hsu, and his deputy, Grendy Yang. They have been at their positions since the opening of the restaurant in 2009. They are the two most professional front-of-house restaurant personnels in Taipei. Unlike many restaurants in Taipei, Hsu and his team provide a level of service that is on par with fine dining restaurants in major cities in the world. Sometimes providing good service is the easy part, the challenge is how to handle adversities and problems that inevitably arise. On the rare occasion that I have a complaint, Hsu is always available to listen. He doesn't avoid criticism. And I appreciate that the restaurant has a person in charge that I can always turn to.

I always marvel at Robuchon's ability to have all the L'Atelier operating at a high level. Taipei was the seventh L'Atelier that Robuchon opened. There are now 12 L'Ateliers in the world, with two more to come in the next years. While other three-Michelin-star chefs, such as Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller, run their restaurants groups like fashion designer Giorgio Armani with different lines (Giorgio, Emporio Armani, Collezioni, and Exchange) at different price points for different clienteles, Robuchon doesn't operate cheaper and simpler restaurants such as a bistro. He only has one mode: three-Michelin-star. Although L'Atelier is casual in setting, the standard for the food and many dishes are the same as the formal restaurants.

While Robuchon's standard is the same for the L'Ateliers, according to the Michelin Guide, the quality of the restaurants are different. Of all the L'Ateliers that are inspected by Michelin (some cities do not have a guide), the ratings range from from three-star in Hong Kong, to two-star in Tokyo, Paris, Shanghai, and Singapore to one-star in London and Bangkok. I haven't been to all the L'Ateliers and cannot dispute Michelin's ratings. Clearly there's a range.

In March 2018, the Michelin Guide will debut its Red Guide for Taipei. It will be interesting to see how Michelin rates Taipei's L'Atelier. The Michelin inspectors work in secrecy, but the criteria by which restaurants are judged are well published: quality of the products; mastery of flavor and cooking techniques; the personality of the chef in the cuisine; value for money; and consistency between visits. Of the five criteria, three are the same for all the L'Ateliers: the personality of the chef is all Robuchon; the techniques are the same; and the price across the various Atelier is about the same. The eight-course Menu Decouverte is 189 Euros (about NT$6,650) in Paris, 1,498 RMB  (about NT$6,800) in Shanghai, 318 SGD (about NT$7,100) in Singapore, and NT$6,880 in Taipei. The two criteria that may be different between the L'Ateliers are the quality of the products and consistency.

Since Hong Kong is the only L'Atelier in the world with three stars, one can only assume the restaurant is consistent and uses the best ingredients. All the top restaurants in Hong Kong can get frequent and regular air shipments of the best ingredients from around the world. This is reflected in the prices as Hong Kong has the costliest Menu Decouverte of all the L'Ateliers at 2080 HKD (NT$8,000). Nevertheless the city has enough clientele who appreciate these ingredients and can support the restaurant.

Some of the quality of the products used in L'Atelier in Taipei cannot match the ones used in Hong Kong. The reason is not entirely monetary. Compared to Hong Kong, Taiwan has far more restrictions on the import of food. For a long time, it was illegal to import Jamón ibérico from Spain. Only in the past few months did the government allow Wagyu beef to be imported from Japan. Previously, the restaurants can only used Australian Wagyu. The L'Atelier in Taipei uses a number of local products. While some of them, such as pork, can be considered one of the best in the world, others cannot. For instance, the ducks from Yilan County are of a high quality, but they have a very different flavor from the famous ducks in Challans, France. The same can be said for the local chicken, which is not as good as the French chicken from Bresse. For the criteria of "quality of the products" Taipei probably will not score three stars.

In terms of the final criteria of "consistency between visits", I can say as a regular customer, I never had a bad meal at L'Atelier. My theory is the restaurant is unfailingly consistent because it has more capacity to meet the demand. The disheartening fact is the quality of the restaurant doesn't guarantee success. On most days L'Atelier is not completely full. Furthermore even when the restaurant is full it doesn't turn table. The irony is since the restaurant is not super busy, the staff can take very good care of the guests. Sometimes on a slow night, Chef Jean can even cook a few dishes himself, instead of just standing at the pass expediting, finishing, and inspecting the plates. The same be said for the front-of-house staff, often times one can see multiple servers looking over the guests.

Based on my own experience and analysis, I have my own idea about the number of stars L'Atelier Taipei should receive. But the Michelin Guide works in mysterious ways and we will just have to wait and see.

No matter how Michelin decides next year, the impact of L'Atelier can be felt through the entire restaurant industry in Taiwan. L'Atelier has not only set a new standard for Taipei but became a trailblazer, unleashing a number of Michelin-starred chefs, including three-star Yannick Alléno and Seiji Yamamoto, to setup restaurants in the city. L'Atelier also trained numerous local cooks and front-of-house staff. Many took what they learned from L'Atelier and went to other restaurants or opened their own places. Some cooks probably needed more time at L'Atelier before venturing out on their own. But overall, the western dining scene has benefited enormously from L'Atelier.

Eight years is not a short time. Operating a fine dining restaurant in Taipei remains as difficult as ever. In the past couple of years, Alléno's STAY has opened and closed already. Angelo Agliano, the former chef at L'Atelier in Taipei, has also closed his eponymous restaurant with aspirations for Michelin stars; Agliano has moved to Hong Kong. The French restaurant at Mandarin Oriental has abandoned all ambitions for fine dining and became a buffet restaurant. The market for fine dining in Taipei is shrinking and may get worse with the recent decrease in tourists and the dormant economy. While the overall environment may get darker in the near future, I am glad that L'Atelier remains a beacon of light and is shining brighter than ever. For me, dining at L'Atelier is a mini-staycation and a refuge from daily life. When December comes around, I will be at L'Atelier sitting at No. 17.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Fortune of My Blog According to I Ching

In recent months I took three introductory classes on I Ching 易經, sponsored by the Hong's Foundation for Education and Culture 洪建全基金會. The classes were taught by Professor Pei-Rong Fu 傅佩榮. Prior to his retirement from National Taiwan University, Fu was the Chair of the Department of Philosophy and had written numerous books on Chinese classics. I Ching is the oldest of the Chinese classics with ideas that underpin many aspects of Chinese thinking for millenia. As with most Chinese, I know bits and pieces of I Ching and read parts of the book when I was younger.

Since the three classes on I Ching were only one and half hour long each, Fu could only provide an overview of I Ching. Fu said learning the entire text of I Ching would require around 40 classes. Obviously, I only scratched the surface of I Ching, but I have developed a greater appreciation of the text.

In the last class, Fu demonstrated the traditional way of using 50 sticks to derive a Guà 卦 (hexagram). Afterwards we were asked to try the method ourselves to seek our fortune. First we wrote down the questions and then used the sticks to derive six numbers, writing them down from the bottom to the top. The six numbers I drew were, 8 6 6 9 7 7. Each number forms a line (Yáo 爻): odd number means an unbroken line (Yang 陽 ) and even number is a broken line (Yin 陰). The Guà 卦 I got was the 12th one named Pǐ 否. Since the numbers 6 and 9 denote change, I also received a corresponding Guà 卦 (之卦): 57th Guà 卦 named Xùn 巽.

Deriving the Guà 卦 and looking up the related texts in I Ching are not difficult. The interpretation of the texts in relation to the question posed requires deep knowledge. After writing out the Guà 卦, Fu said because 3 of the 6 numbers I drew denote change, my fortune would be based on the texts of both Guà 卦. Furthermore, the focus should be on the main texts of the Guà 卦 rather than the specific Yáo 爻 (line).

Fu asked what was my question. I said, Will my blog make any money?

Fu said with Pǐ Guà 否卦, you probably haven't made any money from your blog. I replied, I never made a single dollar. Even without knowledge of I Ching, one knows the character Pǐ 否 is not good. Fu explained, 否 Pǐ means stagnation. The lower trigram is earth, Kūn 坤, and the upper trigram is heaven, Qián 乾. Heaven and earth are at their usual place but the two are separate and not connected.

But all is not lost as we need to examine the corresponding Guà 卦. Xùn 巽 consists of two trigrams of wind 風. The texts for the Guà 卦 reads: 小亨,利有攸往,利見大人. Richard Wilhelm and Cary F. Baynes translated the Chinese text as: Success through what is small. It furthers one to have somewhere to go. It furthers one to see the great man. Fu explains, my blog may be able to have a small fortune since the wind is starting to blow. However, I will need help from an eminent person.

While Xùn Guà 巽卦 offers a glimmer of hope, it is still the corresponding hexagram rather than the main one I drew. In terms of the overall fortune Pǐ Guà 否卦 is weighted a bit more. In other words, my blog is unlikely to make any money.

Actually ever since I started blogging, I have never imagined the blog would make any money. I didn’t even think the blog would last this long. I am just happy that my blog has a cult following; “cult” sounds so much better than “small”. I’m grateful to know that somewhere in the world someone is interested in reading my thoughts. And that’s plenty rich for me.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

T'ang Court in Shanghai

On a 40-degree Celsius summer day I made my way to the Langham Hotel in Xintiandi in Shanghai. I didn’t come to stay at the hotel, nor to see the architecture designed by the New York-based firm KPF. The only reason I was there was to try T’ang Court, the only three Michelin-star Chinese restaurant in Mainland China.

T’ang Court was awarded the highest distinction in the inaugural edition of the Michelin Guide Shanghai in 2016. This year the three-star rating was reconfirmed. In 2016 the Director of the Michelin Guide Michael Ellis said of T'ang Court, "In the cozy atmosphere of this restaurant where only six tables are set, the talented and creative chef Justin Tan offers cuisine in which traditional Cantonese dishes rub shoulders with some very modern dishes. Some specialties really amazed the palates of our inspectors."

Shanghai is a city of over 24 million people with a long tradition of Jiangsu-Zhejiang (Jiang-Zhe) cuisine. However, for Michelin the best restaurant in Shanghai doesn't serve the local but Cantonese cuisine. It is as if a Chinese restaurant guide shows up in Paris and decides the best restaurant is an Italian restaurant that serves Roman food; the distance from Shanghai to Canton is roughly the same distance from Paris to Rome. Moreover T'ang Court isn't a unique restaurant and instead has the same name as its sister restaurant (also Michelin three-star) in the Langham Hotel in Hong Kong. Perhaps there isn't a Shanghainese restaurant in the city that deserves three Michelin stars, but is T'ang Court worth a special journey?

T'ang Court is on the fifth floor of the hotel. The elevator opens to a small but nicely decorated reception overlooking an outdoor terrace. The receptionist led us through a long curved corridor passing the private dining rooms on either side; my friends and I didn’t reserve a private dining room. At the end of the corridor is the main dining room which, as the Director of the Michelin Guide pointed out, only has six tables and a total capacity of 20 guests. The small number of tables belies the true size and nature of T'ang Court. The main part of the restaurant is actually the private rooms which seat a total of 90 guests.

I wished I had booked a private room. The small communal dining room felt like a leftover space. While the ceiling is high the size of the room is not large. The space felt like a large living room of a large apartment. On one side of the room is a floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking an outdoor terrace. On the other side is a wood panel wall with niches and awkwardly installed recessed speakers near the top of the wall. The tables are placed either next to the wall or the exterior glass with circulation in between.

Our table was comfortable but would have been better if it was a bit larger. The tablewares are elegant. The decorative rim of the charger plate seems to echo the pattern of the drapery along the window. The tables are set with wine glasses, which feel more western than Chinese. Instead of wine, I ordered a tea which was served in a small individual pot with a small cup. I quite appreciated the small cup as the tea can be sipped hot; very few Chinese restaurants give much thought to tea service.

My friend is a Hong Kong resident, and a connoisseur of Cantonese cuisine, hence he did the ordering. Like any self-respecting Chinese diner, he forwent the tasting menu, instead discussed the menu with our waiter to see what are the best dishes to order. We started with two amuse-bouches, which appeared simple. The taste is clean and you get the direct flavors of the ingredients. The characteristics of these snacks foreshadow the main dishes.

Our first dish was a wok-fried Wagyu beef with spring onions. I was a bit surprised the beef was served first. Nevertheless, both the quality of the beef and the execution were very good.

The sea cucumber was cooked nicely with just the right texture and was delicious. There's an austerity and simplicity with the presentation that is quite refreshing.

Next course was a soup with grouper and vegetables. Again, quality ingredients, well- made, and refined flavors.

Our last savory course was a crispy salted chicken.The skin was crispy and the meat was flavorful; just a delight.

For dessert, we ordered the signature swan-shape custard pastries, which were well made and delectable. However, the swan neck was unnecessary, as it didn't add much to taste of the pastry. I am not sure why the pastry was kitschy which was in direct contrast to the savory dishes.

Is T’ang Court a Michelin three-star restaurant? The short answer is yes. If the Michelin Guide awards a restaurant three stars then it is; the stars belong to Michelin. But is T’ang Court, as Michelin’s definition of three-star restaurant, worth a special journey? I would say no. For a visitor to Shanghai, especially a first timer, it would be more interesting and rewarding to dine at a Jiang-Zhe restaurant. Shanghai is the largest city in this region known as the fish and rice country. Besides the abundance of produce, seafood and the freshwater ingredients, this region is home to many of the famous Chinese products: Jinhua ham, Shaoxing wine, and Zhenjiang vinegar. Dining at T’ang Court doesn’t connect a visitor to the local land and flavors. T’ang Court is a very good restaurant — the service is pleasant and the food is well executed. I enjoyed my lunch. However, T’ang is not a destination restaurant, certainly not worth a plane ride.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sugar Pea

"How did you know about this restaurant?" My friend asked as we were waiting to be seated at Sugar Pea. I jokingly replied, "You don't know chef Sandy Yoon, the 2014 Best Chef in Shanghai from That's Shanghai Magazine?" My friend looked at me with a sense of puzzlement. Frankly, I don't remember how I found out about chef Yoon and the restaurant. Perhaps it was during a conversation with chef Kin Ming Lam of Chou Chou and Achoi. Yoon and Lam both worked for 3-Michelin-star chef Jean Georges Vongerichten in Shanghai, where Yoon was the Chef de Cuisine at Mercato and Lam was the Executive Chef at the flagship Jean Georges. I don't know how Vongerichten lost both of them to Taipei, but his loss is my gain. I am very happy that they have set up shops in Taipei.

Chef Yoon opened the door to Sugar Pea in late 2016. Situated in a small alley behind Cathay General Hospital in the eastern district of Taipei, the restaurant is on the ground floor of a nondescript 7-story apartment building. The exterior of Sugar Pea consists of white siding and white window frames. The main door looks like an entrance on an old house with stiles, glass panels, bottom panels, and two sidelites. The design of the exterior reminds me of the white clapboard houses on the East Coast of the United States. The entrance is raised up slightly on a dark wood terrace with several potted plants.

The domestic feel of the restaurant continues on the inside. A tall dresser serves as the hostess stand. The floor is mostly in light colored wood planks. The walls are principally painted white or light grey with white baseboard. The ceiling coves are lined with white moulding.

The restaurant is not large. The open kitchen is located in the back in an L-shaped space: one deeper side for the hot stations and the other shallower side for the preparation of desserts and drinks. Both sides are clad with white tiles and white marble counters. While the kitchen is not fancy, it is quite pleasant with fruits, cakes, and dinnerware spread out on the counter. One can always see chef Yoon working behind the counter in a blue chef jacket and white apron; the reverse of the typical white jacket and blue apron.

The tables are in light wood veneer with white round base. The chairs are the classical-looking Windsor side chairs in light wood color, which again remind me of the houses on the east coast of United States. The dining area is not large and there are essentially three seating areas similar to different rooms in a house: solarium near the street, the library with views to the outside, and the kitchen. The three areas have different feel and they are a bit like first, business, and economy class on an airplane. The solarium is the most pleasant with views, daylight, and plantings, where most of the Instagram photos of the restaurants are taken. The library area is slightly removed from the exterior, but still has daylight and views; the objects and books on the built-in shelves provide the sense of being in someone's home. Unfortunately for me, for all of my three visits I sat in the economy class kitchen area which is mostly interiorized. While the kitchen is across the aisle, the view is reduced due to the height of the dining chairs and further obscured by the heat lamps above the counter. The feel of the three different areas are less of an issue at dinner but more pronounced at lunch.

While the quality of the space varies quite a bit, the food is consistently good. The snappy tagline on Sugar Pea's menu is "wholesome, seasonal, simple cuisine" and the food is precisely as advertised.

My first meal at Sugar Pea was a Sunday night dinner. The menu at Sugar Pea is not really structured for a standard three course meal that I prefer to have for dinner. Instead of a proper appetizer, there are three choices of crostini. I tried the crab and avocado toast, which was simply delicious. The crostini tasted fresh with a nice combination of different flavors and textures. Furthermore, there was a delicateness, perhaps one could even say feminine touch, that was refreshing.

The main course at Sugar Peas are salads or bowls with grains, vegetables and a protein. I tried the Chipotle chicken bowl. There were probably over 10 ingredients in the bowl, including red quinoa, black beans, corn, cherry tomato, and avocado. Every ingredient was well prepared and the color was very lively. I really enjoyed the bowl.

There are only two desserts on the menu, a crumb cake and some cookies with milk. Both desserts were simple but well made. While I didn't grow up in the U.S., I can imagine a child eating these desserts after school or on a leisurely weekend. They were very comforting.

Besides the two desserts, our waitress said we could also order the pancake with banana as a dessert. I know some people like to have breakfast items at all time of the day, I am not one of them. If there is a breakfast item that I would eat as dessert, it would not be the pancakes but the French Toast or Pain Perdu. I hope Sugar Pea would offer a Pain Perdu or the Spanish version Torrijas Castellanas.

I would try the pancakes on my second visit, a lunch on Sunday. Sugar Pea opens for lunch at 12pm, even on the weekend. I wish the restaurant would open at least an hour earlier so the meal feels more like brunch than lunch. I ordered the Pancake Sliders which is a sausage patty with cheese and fried egg sandwiched between two pancakes. The combination of sweet and salty hits the spot and is what I like about American breakfast. The salad on the side is fresh and dressed perfectly. The seemingly simple task of dressing a salad, which many restaurants in Taipei can't do properly, shows the care placed in the food by the kitchen.

Sugar Pea offers three cold pressed juices and two smoothies. Every time I dined at the restaurant I ordered one of them. The combination of the ingredients are always interesting. For example, the juice called Green Glow contains cucumber, celery, spinach, herbs, kiwi, and lemon. Another one mixes green apple, red beets, ginger, and lime. The price of the drinks are around NT$180 which is roughly half of the cost of the Pancake Sliders. Nevertheless I tried several of the drinks and I liked all of them.

On my third visit, a lunch on a weekday, I ordered Yoon's version of the Korean mixed rice dish, Bibimbap, for my main course. The beef was flavorful, the vegetables were fresh, the egg was runny, and the Korean chili sauce served on the side provided just the right amount of heat. It was a pleasure to eat. I long for Sugar Pea to have a hot soup on the menu, which I could have as an appetizer. Soup can be prepared ahead of time and shouldn't be too taxing on the staff. Instead I ordered the crab toast once more, which I liked very much and certainly didn't mind eating it again

I enjoyed dining at Sugar Pea. While the ambiance may be casual and homey, the food is precise and well- considered. The service is also professional and always provided with a smile. Nevertheless, I wish the restaurant's menu have more variations. Perhaps this is my quirk, but I prefer to eat certain items at certain time of the day and day of the week. I would like to see the lunch menu be slightly different from dinner. Since my kids are not fans of salad or cooked vegetables, it would be great if the menu would have a few children-friendly dishes such as pasta. I wonder if the menu will become more ambitious. Chef Vongerichten once tweeted that Yoon "amazes me with her talent and creativity." In Shanghai Yoon was in charge of a high profile restaurant with over 180 seats. In comparison, Sugar Pea seems a bit too small and simple for Yoon's talent. Perhaps, she has bigger plans and they will take time. As of now Sugar Pea is only open 5 days a week and dinner service ends at 8:30pm. While Yoon seems to be limiting her output, I am happy with everything she has to offer; but I am hungry for more.