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Sunday, April 28, 2019

Impromptu by Paul Lee

As I sit down at the counter of Impromptu by Paul Lee, a server places a small white card with a light grey mat underneath in front of me. On the card is a definition of the word impromptu: done without being planned or rehearsed. I don’t know what compels the restaurant to remind the guests about the meaning of the word. I find the emphasis on the idea of impromptu a bit strange. Impromptu is actually a misnomer because everything done at the restaurant is planned. After the server removes the white card, the grey mat is meant for the diners to put their mobile phones; nothing should be out of place. The restaurant is about control.

The person controlling everything is chef Paul Lee. Tall and handsome, he wouldn’t be out of place on the movie set of Crazy Rich Asians. Standing in the open kitchen he is dressed not in the standard white chef’s jacket but in a dress shirt, similar to the three-Michelin-star chef Alain Passard. Except Passard is usually in a white apron while Lee is in a blue apron that is for the commis in a French kitchen. Perhaps Lee is signaling that he is still learning.

While he may be humble, Lee is a very experienced chef. Born in Taiwan and studied at California’s Blue Ribbon Culinary School, Lee trained at Joël Robuchon's restaurants in Las Vegas with Tomonori Danzaki and in New York City with Xavier Boyer. He also worked at Martin Berasatagui’s Michelin-three-star restaurant in Spain. Prior to returning to Taipei, Lee was the executive chef at the fine dining restaurant Patina in downtown Los Angeles. Working with Joachim Splichal he changed the menu at Patina to an all tasting menu format. At age 37, Lee is one of the few chefs working in Taiwan with extensive experience in fine dining restaurants.

Impromptu only has one tasting menu. Every diner eats what Lee wants to cook. For anyone imagining Impromptu as a place where one can have a conversation with the chef, and he would create a special or new dish on the spot, one would be wrong. This is not like Pierre Gagnaire where he may improvise in the middle of dinner service. After all Lee trained at Robuchon and Robuchon didn’t believe in running specials. Robuchon believed that frequent menu changes meant one is trading perfection for variety. The menu at Impromptu doesn't change everyday and not even every month. Even when the menu changes after a month or two, it is not wholesale.

As Impromptu doesn't offer an à la carte option, it is not a restaurant that one can visit frequently, unless one wants to eat the same dishes over and over. Since the restaurant opened in late summer of 2018, I have been there twice. The visits were six months apart with different menus but in a similar format. I enjoyed both of my dinners.

The restaurant is located at the southeast corner of the shopping mall in the basement of Regent Hotel. From the corridor of the mall, a sliding door of translucent tinted glass opens into the restaurant. On the right is a small bar that doesn’t seem to be used much by the guests. On the left are tables with banquettes. In the middle of the space and in full view of the diners is the kitchen and counter seating.

The restaurant is small. There are 14 seats at the counter and about the same number of seats at the tables. There is also a private room in the back that can seat up to ten people. The ceiling is a bit lower than one would like but this is not the fault of the restaurant; the ceiling of the entire shopping mall is too low. One design flaw of the restaurant is the choice of the chairs for the counter. The seat is not wide and is made more restrictive by the armrests. Armrests for the chairs at the table are fine because the diners are usually talking across the table. The situation at the counter is different as one’s dining companion is on the side. The armrests make turning to the side to talk quite restrictive and uncomfortable. It would be nicer to have seats without armrests like at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon. The alternative would be to have swivel chairs.

The size and setup of the restaurant seem like a Japanese kappo restaurant, but the overall feel is not. The color palette of the restaurant is quite neutral with off-white, taupe, and light and dark wood. While wood is used for the surfaces, the appearance is not natural but more synthetic. The ceiling is mostly exposed except for the area above the counter. The design reminds me a bit of the restaurant designs by the late David Collins, albeit with a lesser budget. The table setting is simple, with no charger plate nor placemat. There’s just a napkin folded in a square, a water glass, and a wine glass. Small vases with flowers dot the counter. The overall feel of the restaurant is quite pleasant.

Depending on the season, the tasting menu starts with one or more cold dishes. For my first dinner in the summer, there are three cold dishes in a row. The first course is hamachi, watermelon, aguachile. The second is scallop, sakura shrimp, whey, and cucumber. The third is ayu fish, guava, and Sichuan peppercorns. The touch of Sichuan peppercorns is very interesting and done with great precision - just the right amount of numbness in the flavor profile. If one of the criteria for being a good chef is coming up with his or her own combinations of ingredients, then Lee certainly hits the marks.

Lee calls his food new American cuisine and this sounds like a good term. He is trained in the French tradition but his food is multi-cultural. He uses many Asian ingredients such as shaoxing wine, fermented black bean, Chinese sausages, Sichuan peppercorn. He also takes ideas from all sorts of cuisines. In a single tasting menu, there is Chinese noodle, Italian truffle pizza, yakitori, Vietnamese sandwich, French blood sausage, and South American chimichurri sauce. Throughout the dinner the ingredients don't repeat and all the different ideas and tastes go very well together. I really appreciate and like Lee's global outlook, which is more interesting than the narrow focus on Taiwanese flavors of some restaurants in Taipei.

After the cold dishes, bread is served as one of the course. The bread is way too hot as I can barely hold the bread comfortably with my bare hands. Anyone who made bread knows bread should not be eaten straight out of the oven. One needs the bread to cool down a bit for the crust to develop. I assume the bread at Impromptu is baked earlier in the day and reheated during service. While having a hot bread seems satisfying it doesn’t allow one to get the full taste of the bread. In my first dinner, the bread and butter are served as a stand-alone course, and as such they are not special enough. I don't understand why this type of bread or why just one bread. In my second dinner the same bread and butter are served with the soup, which makes more sense. Nevertheless, the role of the bread in the set menu is a bit unclear. It seems the restaurant feels a meal should include bread, but without a baker, the bread program seems a bit half-hearted.

One savory course in the set menu provides the diner with a choice. To choose an alternate entails a supplement. At both of my meals I go with the supplemental charge but I wish I hadn't. For my first dinner, instead of Taiwanese pork, I added NT$550 (a quarter of the price of the entire menu) to have a thin slice of Japanese wagyu beef of unknown grade. It turns out to be the worst dish of both dinners. My dining companion orders the pork and is much better. In the second dinner I forego the truffle pizza and instead spend an extra NT$380 for lobster noodle with burnt scallion. While the lobster noodle is better than the wagyu sukiyaki, the noodle isn't that interesting.

The sequence of dishes build up to the main course, a large format  protein dish that is shared by multiple diners. The first time I am there, the main course is roast goose. A cook presents the goose in the beginning of our dinner, prior to serving the amuse bouche. The large bird looks impressive, beautiful, and delicious looking.

However, by the time the goose is served, each guest only receives a very small portion - about the size of my two fingers. If the idea is to leave the diner wanting more, it certainly succeeded. The contrast of before and after is simply too jarring. Despite the size, the goose is very nice.

In my second dinner, the pièce de résistance is roast pork loin. Again the large pork loin is first presented whole to the guests.

The individual serving of the pork loin is bigger than the goose, but still a bit on the small side to my liking. The loin is nicely roasted and the boudin noir, eggplant, and kale on the side are all very nice. I just wish there is more of it.

A reinterpretation of bahn mi is served on the side. Instead of baguette the sandwich is with fried steamed bun. This is very delicious but again the portion is tiny -  more like a finger food served at a cocktail party.

The set menu has two desserts. One of them is a fruit. For my first dinner I have the fig with aiyu and shiso, which recalls David Chang's comment about figs on a  plate. The second time the fruit is strawberry with Sichuan peppercorn and lemon marigold. The fruit desserts provide some interesting flavor combination, but they are not technical.

At both of my dinners, six months apart, the main dessert is a white chocolate bread pudding with frozen foie gras. The dish reminds me a bit of the frozen foie gras at Momofuku Ko in New York City. At Impromptu, the foie is chilled quickly with liquid nitrogen in front of the diners. This must be a signature dessert of Lee since it stays on the menu. I enjoy the dessert, but I don't need to eat it twice in six months. Dessert at Impromptu is good but not elaborate and without much wow factor. I suppose the restaurant doesn't have a dedicated pastry chef.

After a petit four and a milk tea, Lee personally hands a menu to every guest and asks about their meal. Once service is over, Lee is more relaxed and happy to talk about his ideas. The menu comes in an envelope but is not printed à la minute. In one of my meals there is a glitch. Lee is not able to procure the sweetbread and serves a squid instead. However, the menu still says sweetbread. I wish Lee would really embrace the idea of impromptu to change and print the menu daily.

There’s a small wine list, totaling less than 30 bottles. The majority of the wines are between NT$2,000 and NT$4,000. The mark-ups of the wines are reasonable. For instance, a bottle of Billecart Salmon brut rose is on the list for NT$3,800. The same bottle is priced at NT$9,200 at Mandarin Oriental Taipei. The corkage fee is $750, less than other comparable restaurants. Wine or cocktail pairings are also available. The beverage program is friendly but, compared to the food, it is not as interesting.

The price of the menu is NT$2,200. This number seems to be carefully considered. While it may not be deemed as cheap, it doesn’t feel expensive for the number of courses offered. However, besides the aforementioned small portions, the ingredients are not expensive. With just one menu, Lee can offer a better price and be sure the quality is consistent for a small number of people. The restaurant is not big, but it is not small like a restaurant in Tokyo where the chef and an assistant can do everything. Perhaps at this point the restaurant simply doesn't have the staff and capacity to change the menu everyday.

Operating a western restaurant in Taipei is difficult. The business and personnel aspects of the restaurant will always be challenging, yet I cannot help but think the cooking part is a bit too easy for Lee. Impromptu just has dinner service and many of the dishes are not highly technical. Lee has the experience and talent to operate a grand restaurant. Maybe Taipei may never have the market for real luxury. But wouldn't it be nice if Lee can open a restaurant where I can have the lièvre à la royale, my friend can have the turbot, and we can order another dish to share? After being opened for less than a year, Lee has already gained one Michelin star. I want to know what's next?

Saturday, February 23, 2019

10-Year Anniversary

Ten years is a long time. I find it hard to believe that I have been blogging for that long. While my output has decreased every year, I haven’t stopped.

I started blogging for three reasons. First, to let friends and family in New York City know what we were doing in Taipei; the inaugural blog post was about buying a television for my new home in Taipei. Second, to have a place to deposit ideas on design and architecture; I thought eventually I could develop some of them into articles to be published in a magazine. Third, to have an alternative to sharing the news on Facebook; I wanted more control over the graphic and format of the presentation of the information.

In the first few years, the blog contained various observations of Taipei, such as Paper and Plastic and Information Overload. Occasionally these observations were on food and restaurants, for instance the first of several blog posts on L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei. There were articles on design such as the furniture by Maarten van Severen and shirt by Comme des Garçons. There were also articles on my own architectural work including one of my favorites, Repeat. There was a mixture of subjects in the blog. I was once asked what was the theme of my blog? I answered that it was about me.

As the years passed, the subjects of the blog gradually shifted toward food and restaurants and focused less on design and architecture. This is mostly due to two factors. First, articles on design and architecture are hard to write, partly because it is my profession; I cannot pretend to be a dilettante. I feel that any articles that I write need to be good enough to be published in a trade magazine or an academic journal. Second, articles on design and architecture simply don’t receive as much interest from the general public. Google provides some rudimentary data on the number of hits each blog post get, and it is clear that the articles on food far exceed any other subjects.

In my earlier blogs on restaurants I didn’t post any photographs. I was against taking photographs during my meals in the restaurants. My reluctance was partly technical as I wasn’t able to take good photographs with my early iPhones; I certainly didn’t want to carry a large camera to a restaurant. I figured if people really want to see the images of the dishes I described, they could always find them on the Internet anyway.

Eventually I changed my mind. Many friends wanted to see pictures of the food. The camera on the iPhone improved significantly and took better photographs in low-light conditions. I also found that people in the restaurant industry took just as many photographs at restaurants as anyone else. I used to think the chef would be bothered if I take pictures of the food. A few years back some restaurants, such as Momofuku Ko in New York City, even banned the guests from taking photos of the food. Now if I don’t take a picture of the food, I wonder if the chef might be unhappy or thinks there’s something wrong.

While occasionally I still write about design, architecture, and fashion, for better or worse, the blog has become essentially a food blog. As a food blogger I have decided on some directions. In world of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, where images and blurb dominate, I have opted for the long form. Behind every restaurant is a lot of hard work and a significant financial investment. Restaurants and their staff deserve a more nuanced and balanced judgment instead of a snap impression. As much as possible I try to visit a restaurant more than once before writing about it. Judging a restaurant based on a single visit is a bit unfair. Anyone can have a bad day at work. Furthermore, consistency is one of the most important quality at a restaurant, which requires more than one visit to determine.

I try to write criticism instead of just complaint. I try to find the sources of my dissatisfaction or pleasure. I try to be objective and put aside personal taste. I try to be factually correct about ingredients and prices. I try to put the food in context. I try to understand what the chef is looking to accomplish and to judge the results on his or her terms. I try to imbue each article with a theme, a thesis, or a main idea, so it is not just a documentation of a meal. I may not always succeed in all these attempts, but these are my aspirations.

I am never certain who really reads my blog since there is limited feedback; a critic can actually use some criticisms. In this fast digital age, I suspect few people will take the 15 minutes or so to read my articles. I am grateful to the people who enjoy reading my blog. I am not sure how much longer I will keep writing. Will there be another ten years of blogging? I don’t know. But as long as there are a few dedicated readers out there, I will continue.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Bencotto with Iacopo Frassi: The Mind and the Heart of Italian Cooking and Eating

"Because the French cook with their brains, it's intellectual. Look at the Italians, it's from the heart, isn't it? It's more emotional, and that's the difference between the two cuisines," remarked the great British chef Marco Pierre White. The observation is an oversimplification of the two cuisines, but there certainly are differences; just consider the French cuisine's tendency to recreate natural forms versus Italian's indifference towards imitating nature. However, since France and Italy share a border, most of the cuisines in the two countries fall between the two extremes. In making the claim, perhaps White was merely reflecting on himself as having the best of both worlds. He was born by an Italian mother but professionally trained by the French; even his names Marco and Pierre are a combination of the two languages. White's claim triggers a question in my mind, is the best kind of chef a combination of opposite approaches? In other words, is good cooking ultimately about finding a balance between the mind and the heart?

The question kept surfacing on my mind when I ate the food prepared by chef Iacopo Frassi at Bencotto, the Italian restaurant at Mandarin Oriental Taipei. Frassi took over Bencotto as the Chef de Cuisine in the late summer of 2018. The main concept of Frassi's cuisine is declared on Bencotto's website: "contemporary interpretation of timeless Italian culinary heritage". This statement seems to be a mind bender since the idea of timelessness is antithetical to modern re-interpretation. Nevertheless, Frassi is keen to creating new Italian cuisine by reworking the classics. This is a significant shift from the previous iterations of Bencotto, which touted itself as a place for "Home-cooked Italian Cuisine". There is a re-balance of the mind and the heart.

The previous chef of Bencotto, Loris Pistillo, has moved back to Seoul after less than two years in Taipei. Pistillo's cooking was simple and graceful. While Pistillo wasn't a traditionalist, he wasn't overtly trying to re-conceptualize Italian cuisine. The cooking felt from the heart. To emphasize the heart of Italian cooking, twice during his tenure, Pistillo even invited his mother Angela to make pasta at Bencotto. The pastas were delicious and everything one imagines Italian cuisine to be; truly the Italian nonna-style. As one ate the pasta, one didn't think about the need to re-invent Italian cuisine.

New ideas may be good and interesting, but they are not necessarily better or more delicious. Given that traditions in Italian cuisine are so strong, attempts to create new Italian dishes are extremely challenging. In contrast to Pistillo, Frassi is more of a risk taker and as such, the rewards might be bigger but so are the pitfalls. Notwithstanding, Frassi's food is more intriguing and poses more questions than answers for the minds of the diners.

Frassi is a young chef, not even 30 years old. He hails from Tuscany, Italy. Prior to coming to Taipei, he spent almost two years as the chef de cuisine at the Italian restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel in Tianjin, China. The short stay in Asia hasn't impacted his cooking significantly yet. His cooking mainly reflects his training in Europe. It probably won't come as a surprise that Frassi not only trained with Italian chefs in Italy, but with a French chef. In his formative years, he was a chef de partie at Alain Ducasse's three-Michelin-star restaurant in London. The connection with France goes beyond Frassi himself. Frassi's masters in Italy also trained with French Michelin-star chefs: Antonio Guida with Pierre Gagnaire and Giuseppe Mancino with Alain Ducasse. While it is hard to quantify how much the French way of cooking and thinking have influenced Frassi, his cooking is different from a chef trained solely in the Italian traditions.

Since Frassi took over Bencotto, I have dined at the restaurant five times on various occasions: lunch with business associates, dinners with family and friends, dinner with a large group, with and without Frassi in the kitchen. I didn't like everything I ate. In fact my first time at the restaurant under his helm, I came away a little disappointed. I wondered to myself, did I order the wrong dishes? But in subsequent visits, I have increasingly come to like the food more. Perhaps I am starting to understand what the chef is trying to do.

Frassi proposed his first menu in October of 2018. Several dishes on the previous menu, more representative of traditional and simple Italian food, are no longer present; the salumi platter, mozzarella salad, pizza, panna cotta, have all disappeared. The new menu is more concise, and organized in the familiar four-course Italian cuisine of starter, pasta, main course and dessert. While many dishes on the menu sound familiar, such as Polpo e Patate, Astice alla Catalana, Diavola, Rossini, and Carbonara, they are not what they seem to be. Each of these classic dishes have been re-imagined.

Instead of the traditional Pollo alla Diavola seasoned with cayenne pepper, Frassi replaces the chicken with the more luxurious saddle of lamb. The meat is topped with a spicy pesto and a rustic Ndjua sauce. The Astice alla Catalana is enhanced by a corn sauce poured table side in addition to the lobster sauce in the middle. The combination of corn and lobster reminds me of the flavors in American cuisine. The presentation is quite elegant and is certainly not your average lobster tartare. These dishes show that Frassi has a tendency towards complexity by layering condiments with sauce or having two sauces in one dish. While I enjoyed these two dishes, some of Frassi's other twists of traditional dishes didn't work as well.

A dish that was more interesting in concept than in taste was the Ravioli alla Carbonara. The idea seems to be derived from the combination of two Italian classics: Spaghetti Carbonara and Tortellini en Brodo. Instead of coating the pasta on the outside with carbonara sauce, the egg mixture is encased inside. Instead of chicken stock, the soup is infused with pancetta. While there are only a few ingredients, the dish felt a bit much, mainly because of the combination of two types of sauces of different viscosities. The ravioli with a sauce inside is almost a bit like a soup dumpling. I don't think another soup is necessary on the outside.

For a ravioli dish I prefer Frassi's two-tone ravioli with shrimp and lemon. This dish is more complex than the Ravioli alla Carbonara, yet the taste has more clarity and is very nice.

Another dish that I understand in concept but not in taste is Baccala alla Rossini. As the name suggests the dish is inspired by the French classic Tournedos Rossini: filet mignon topped with seared foie gras and served with truffle and Madeira sauce. Instead of beef, Frassi reimagines the dish with black cod. Besides the classic ingredients, he adds the local spice Sebastan Plum Cordia (破布子), which the Taiwanese uses with steamed fish. Instead of crouton, the local vegetable under the dish provides a little crunch. The flavors are not balanced enough and taste is too sweet. Perhaps my palette is biased, but I don't like seafood with sweet sauce. While in the classic Rossini the filet is tender, the black cod is more tender, making the overall texture of the dish too soft. The use of local ingredients are nice, but they didn't really work for me. The dish seems too disconnected from Italy. My impression is Frassi thought too much about the concept of the dish and made it too complicated. Creativity and deliciousness don't aways go hand in hand.

I prefer the other fish dish on the menu, Dal Giappone alla Toscana, red garoupa with eggplant miso chutney, pickled vegetables, and Cacciucco sauce. While miso is not a traditional ingredient in Tuscany, the use of eggplant, pickled vegetable, and the Italian fish stew sauce certainly evokes Italy.

There are two risotto on the menu One is a reference to the ingredients of pizza while the other is with seafood. While both risotto are well executed, I prefer the one with seafood. The Risotto alla Pizzaiola looks fun and is a more interesting idea in terms of presentation. But at the same time, the effect is more forced and actually feels less Italian. Perhaps one of the reasons I like the seafood risotto better is the use of more luxurious ingredients of oyster, sea urchin and red shrimp; the dish is much more expensive. I also like the fact that the rice is served table side, and covered the seafood in a more natural and casual manner. It is as if the chef is saying the ingredients are good enough that he isn't worrying about the presentation.

One of Frassi's signature dishes on the menu is the Piccione Toscano. Just based on the appearance, one can tell this pigeon main course requires a lot of skills in the kitchen. While this is a multi-component dish that is complex, I like it. The pigeon is cooked very well and is very tasty. The only problem is with the small bites, the food doesn't stay hot enough.

Sometimes when Frassi doesn't overthink the dishes, the results are wonderful as in the main course Manzetta Tartufata, Australian Wagyu beef striploin with morel mushrooms, black truffle, and licorice mayonnaise. The beef is cooked well and the flavors are great.

Another spectacular dish at Bencotto is the pumpkin gnocchi with chestnut, cheese, and white truffle. The flavors of the seasonal ingredients go well together. And there is a simplicity and heartiness to the dish that make it deeply satisfying.

One problem I encountered over the many meals at Bencotto was the inconsistency in the the seasoning for the savory courses. A beef dish I had was a bit salty while the Osso Buco that accompanied the risotto was a bit under-seasoned. I suspect the reason is the chef hasn't been able to calibrate to the palette of the local diners. While I have a high tolerance for salt, most local diners do not. Many feedback from the local diners in the earlier months of the chef's tenure probably were about saltiness of the food. This issue happens to many foreign chefs when they first arrive in Taiwan, but will likely be resolved as time passes.

Desserts at Bencotto are more delicate now than before. I enjoyed a dish named Bianco Mangiare, or Eat White. The name doesn't reference another dish in Italian cuisine. As such I can simply enjoy the yogurt mousse, pine nuts, banana gelato, and crispy yuzu as the taste themselves. The white crisps are broken in pieces of different sizes and geometry that don't feel fussy, yet produce a sense of mystery that is nice.

In contrast, the dessert called Il Tiramisu is less interesting, and consists of a Mascarpone sphere with a quenelle of Italian espresso gelato, and pieces of sponge cake (perhaps made with the Albert Adrià microwave technique). The Tiramisu at Bencotto is technically more sophisticated than a classic Tiramisu, but not as satisfying to eat. The great thing about the classic Tiramisu is the sum is better than the parts. Together the mascarpone, sugar, egg, ladyfingers and cocoa powder create a bite of flavor that is magical. By separating the Tiramisu into distinctive parts, the presentation is elegant, but the taste is not better than the messy classic version. Once the components are separated, the Tiramsu loses its raison d'être. Bencotto’s version begs the question, at what point is the reference to the classic dish no longer valid or necessary?

In the four years that Bencotto has been in operation, many mid-range Italian restaurants have opened in Taipei: La Mole, Il Mercato, La Locanda, Botega del Vin, Cantina del Gio, Di Vino...etc. While the food and decor of these restaurants are not as posh as Bencotto, they are also not as expensive. In terms of value to the diners, the gap between them and Bencotto is not that far apart. This is perhaps one of the reasons that the management of Mandarin Oriental Taipei has decided to re-orient Bencotto as a fine dining restaurant. Another reason might be the arrival of the Michelin Guide in the spring of 2018. The hotel wants another star restaurant to bolster its standing as the best in Taipei. Bencotto already has the infrastructure for a fine dining restaurant: a fancy interior, a dedicated sommelier, and an experienced front of house team. The management of the hotel has also eliminated the buffet lunches on the weekend; I can finally go to Bencotto for lunch on the weekend again. The repositioning of Bencotto has already paid dividend as the restaurant was awarded one fork by Gambero Rosso in November of 2018.

A meal at Bencotto now starts with a trio of appetizing amuse-busches. This is followed by an excellent house-made bread served with a choice of three olive oils and two types of balsamic vinegars. Furthermore, when the bread and bread sticks are placed on the table, the server spritzes from a bottle made by Antonella Bondi to simulate the smell of freshly baked bread. The food fragrance is fun but a bit forced and gimmicky.

As with a Michelin-star restaurant, the meal ends with a trio of mignardises, which are all very good.

Elevating the food also means elevating the prices. The main courses at Bencotto used to average around NT$1,000. Now they are around NT$1,600 and with a pigeon dish exceeding NT$2,000 (around US$67). While not as expensive as the three-Michelin-star Italian restaurant in Hong Kong or at Frassi's mentor's restaurant in Milan, some of the prices at Bencotto are not too far off from other Michelin-starred Italian restaurants. For instance, a main course of striped bass or halibut at the two-Michelin-star Marea in New York City costs around US$58 (including tax and tip) or NT$1,800. The main course of garoupa at Bencotto is NT$1,738 (including service charge). A four-course meal à la carte at Bencotto now can easily run over NT$4,300 inclusive of the 10% service charge (around US$140): with a appetizer at NT$980, pasta at NT$880, main course at NT$1580, and dessert at NT$480.

Instead of ordering a la carte, the better way in terms of cost may be to go with the set menu at lunch time. The three-course lunch of appetizer, main course, and dessert is NT$1,488. All the dishes in the à la carte menu can be selected and are just served at smaller portions. There are no supplemental charges. So for anyone looking for the best value, just order a foie gras terrine to start, followed by the pigeon as the main course, and chocolate cake as the dessert.

The service at Bencotto has improved from the last time I wrote about the restaurant. Part of the reason has to be members who have been there since the opening have gained more experience and grown with the job. The sommelier Alex Tsai has also been at Bencotto since the opening. He has always been very professional and seems more relaxed now. I enjoy talking to him about wines.

The wine list at Bencotto has expanded and even received an award from Wine Spectator magazine. However, the wines at Bencotto are still too expensive. For instance, some of the bottles at Bencotto are more expensive than the three-Michelin-star restaurant Per Se in New York City. Consider a bottle of Barolo Carobric 2001 by Paolo Scavino. At Bencotto the price is NT$12,500 (including service charge), and at Per Se the same bottle is around NT$11,000 (including service charge and tax). The Barolo Brunate 2009 by Vietti is NT$16,500 at Bencotto and NT$15,800 at Per Se. Per Se has one of the highest mark-ups for wines in New York City, and it is unthinkable for Bencotto to be more expensive.

The prices at Bencotto are crazier if one compares them to restaurants less fancy than Per Se. For example, a bottle of the non-vintage Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose is NT$10,120 at Bencotto and around NT$7,600 at the two-Michelin-star Italian restaurant Marea in New York City. A bottle of Barolo 2013 from Pio Cesare is NT$9,350 at Bencotto, but NT$4,950 at a fine dining French restaurant in Taipei. The Pio Cesare Barolo 2013 can be purchased at, an online wine store in Taiwan for NT$2,635 (15% off the retail list price). Assuming Mandarin Oriental can buy the same bottle at wholesale price, the markup at Bencotto for the bottle is around 400%. Why do the prices at Bencotto have to be so high? I understand the need to mark-up wines at a restaurant, but at least do it at a reasonable rate that I can swallow.

​The corkage fee at Bencotto is NT$1,000 per bottle. The corkage fee at Per Se is around NT$4,600 (US$150). If Bencotto’s prices for wines are more expensive than Per Se, why not charge the same for corkage? The restaurant is basically encouraging the local diners to bring their own wines. I am not a tuhao (土豪) nor do I like bringing wines to a restaurant with a sommelier. Therefore, I usually just order a wine by the glass with my meal at Bencotto. It's unfortunate the pricing at Bencotto discourages the diners to order and enjoy the wines by the bottles.

While the cuisine and service at Bencotto have evolved, the physical environment has changed very little since I wrote about the restaurant four years ago. The uncomfortable chairs at the tables surrounding the center piece in the backroom are still there. The awkwardly located sitting area remains unoccupied by guests. At least the flat screen TV showing Italian football is thankfully no longer present (hidden behind the cabinet doors). The wine tasting room near the back entrance is now set up as a semi-private dining room. Previously this room with a beautiful wall of wines behind glass was just be a space to be admired rather than used. While the interior of Bencotto is nice, there is room for adjustment. After four years in operation, it is clear that some of the intended purposes and functions in the original design didn't pan out. And since the service at Bencotto is changing with the food, for instance more carts are wheeled around the dining room, it is time to rethink the interior layout. This may require more time, after all physical environment is more difficult to change than the menu.

Bencotto is in a period of transition. The restaurant is changing for the better and moving in the right direction, but it is not there yet. Frassi is a young chef but someone with passion and technical prowess. He is still developing his style. The desire to go beyond the classics and to create new dishes is necessary. After all, what is a classic but an invention that worked? The road to making new classics are paved with failed experiments. Re-inventing Italian cuisine is especially difficult because many iconic Italian dishes are so delicious and entrenched in people's minds, that often times the new dishes feel too foreign or pale by comparison.  

Italian cuisine always seems to project a sense of tradition and an authenticity that does not change. However, this is not entirely true. Many things in Italian cuisine that we deem as sacred are not historical but modern inventions. For instance, Spaghetti Carbonara is not a dish from the 19th century but rather an invention from the 1950's. The Tiramisu was first created in the 1960's. The Ciabatta bread that we often see in Italian restaurants all over the world was created in the 1980's. None of these things are in Pellegrino Artusi's iconic book on Italian cuisine, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, published in the late 19th century.

Whether old or new, Italian cuisine is about finding the balance between creativity and simplicity. The mind and the heart are not always compatible. Frassi's cooking right now seems more conceptual than visceral. Many of the dishes are too complicated with too many components. The techniques and capabilities of the cooks are impressive, but they don't necessarily increase the level of deliciousness. Some of the dishes make references to the classics, but I don't know if the connections are necessary. By framing the dishes via the classics, the diners' reactions are bounded; diners are asked to intellectualize the dish (connect the dots) rather than react from the heart. However, eating is not always a rational act but also an emotional one. At Bencotto, I find myself wanting to just enjoy the food without thinking about them too much. The restaurant doesn't quite allow me to do that yet, but it is a very interesting place to dine. I am curious to see how Bencotto will evolve.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Is Rosewood the Best Hotel in Beijing?

Naming a hotel as the best is always a risky proposition. After all, I haven't been to every comparable hotel in Beijing. But using the phrase, "one of the best", is too non-committal. Recently, I stayed at the Rosewood Hotel in Beijing for a few nights, and I greatly enjoyed the experience. The location in the central business district is very convenient. The design of the hotel has an understated elegance that nicely combines Chinese and Western elements. The service is on point and not overbearing. While the hotel is not perfect, I believe it is the best in the capital of China.

The 282-room Rosewood Hotel occupies the first 23 floors of of a 52-story all-glass modernist tower, Jing Guang Centre. The tower was designed in the mid-1980's by the Tokyo-based Nihon Sekkei and was the first skyscraper in Beijing. The tower is owned by the Hong Kong-based development group New World. In 2011 New World Group purchased the America-based Rosewood Hotels and Resorts. The hotel in Beijing is Rosewood Group's first property in Mainland China and opened in late 2014.

The hotel was designed by the Melbourne-based BAR Studio. I am very impressed by all the components of the hotel, especially since the project is a renovation of an old building that surely came with many limitations. I actually visited this building more than ten years ago, well before Rosewood took over. I still remember the old design with the awkward stone base. Therefore, I am just amazed by the transformation. The design feels luxurious and doesn't scream for attention. In other words, the occupants still take the center stage. The various materials are well chosen and mixed harmoniously. The spaces and circulations are well proportioned and logical. There are a lot of attentions paid to the various details. As an architect I know this level of quality relies not only on the skills of the architect, but more importantly the strong support and care of the owner.

Rosewood Hotel is located at the northwest corner of the intersection of East Third Ring Road and Chaoyangmen Outer Street. Diagonally across from the hotel is the CCTV Headquarters designed by OMA. The vehicular entry to the hotel is on the Third Ring Road. A quick bend in the driveway leads to a forecourt that puts away the hustle and bustle of the City. The space is defined by the plantings on the perimeter and a shallow reflecting pool in the center with Chinese decorative motifs. While the overall feel is modern, the manipulation of the space reminds me of the strategies employed in traditional Chinese garden design. A blue Tesla Model X is usually parked in the forecourt. The attention-grabbing electric car is an amenity for the hotel guests who have lounge access and provide rides within a three-kilometer radius.

The lobby of the hotel is a sunlit triple height space. Inside, the console table with flowers and books on top, the four-seat leather sofa with pillows, and the area rug, make the space feels more like the living room of a large apartment rather than the lobby of a fancy hotel.

On the right side of the lobby, behind the columns and the screen are the counters for check-in, porter, and concierge. On the left side of the lobby is Bistro B Lounge Bar, where an afternoon tea is served everyday. The space is nicely designed and very pleasant. The large glass facade allows abundant sunlight to filter in. Sitting inside, one also has a view of the entry garden and the Beijing skyline in the background. The counter in the back has a beautiful display of ice creams, macarons, and other pastries.

Behind the three-story mural of the lobby are the six elevators to access the guest rooms. On the typical floor of the fan-shape plan of the tower, there are 18 guest rooms of varying sizes ranging from 45 to 75 square meters. I stayed at the 15th floor in the corner Manor Suite. The room measures 65 square meters in plan and feels very large. There are exposures on two sides. The long expanse of glass facade on the curved south side provides a great view of the CCTV tower and the China Zun designed by KPF. During evening rush hours, the car lights of the traffic jam on the Third Ring Road actually make for a beautiful tableaux.

The suite is a bit like a small loft with four areas for living, working, sleeping, and bathing. The room is elegant, comfortable, and warm. The overall color palette is beige, taupe, dark wood, and white. A large walk-in closet adjacent to the bathroom is to the right of the foyer. The living area is on the left side. The space can seat four people comfortably with two single-seat sofas and a double-seat sofa. The 50-inch TV on the credenza with soundbar is large enough for watching sports. The minibar is tucked into an alcove with Nespresso coffee machine and bottles of Voss water. The middle of the room is a round wood table with leather swivel chairs; a very comfortable place for in-room dining or work. Placed on the table when I walked in was a delicious pastry and a welcoming note from the manager of the hotel.

The bedroom can be separated from the living area with a large wooden sliding door. Next to the window is a built-in tufted leather lounge chair that is a great place to enjoy the view, read a book, or watch TV. A brown headboard frames a large and very comfortable bed with Frette sheets. The controls above the bedside tables are easy to use to control the lighting and the drapes. This was expected. But I was truly surprised when I saw the hotel placed monogrammed pillow cases on our bed. I've never experienced this level of personalization at a hotel.

The bathroom is very large and can be entered from both the foyer and the bedroom. The middle of the bathroom is a white marble counter with a large mirror that partly doubles as a TV screen. On the right side of the vanity is a separate room for the electronic toilet. On the opposite side is a large bathtub and a glassed enclosed walk-in shower with Lorenzo Villoresi toiletries in large hexagon-shape bottles. My only complaint is that for a large suite, the bathroom should have two sinks instead of just one.

Artworks and decorative objects are carefully selected and placed in the room. There are paintings on three of the walls in my suite. The shelves have Chinese acupuncture model, calligraphy brushes, and Chinese vases. Just outside the door to the room is another vase on a high pedestal. The mostly Chinese decorative objects provides a nice balance to the western-style furniture and light fixtures.

All the public spaces of the hotel are decorated with artworks. The installation is done in a tasteful manner in just the right amount. There is a nice mix of Chinese and Western art. I was happy to see artwork even in the fitness room.

The spa and the swimming pool are on the 6th floor of the hotel. I never go to a spa and didn't have time for a yoga class, so I cannot vouch for the service. However, the swimming pool is wonderful. The heated pool is 22 meters long. On the opposite side of the entrance, there are five cabana-like spaces. On the side of the pool is the jacuzzi. While the pool is indoor, the spaces feel like the outdoor since the roof is almost entirely in glass. The space is serene and detached from the rest of the city. The vertical green walls and the tropical-like planting make for a lush ambiance.

Staying at the Manor Suite comes with access to the Manor Club, Rosewood name for its executive lounge. The Club is on the 7th floor of the building and is open 24 hours a day. At over 800 square meters, it is one of the largest lounges I have ever encountered at a hotel. The Club is divided spatially into different parts. At the front are conference rooms for business meetings and a space with low sofas suited for casual meetings. The middle area is more for eating and drinking with an open kitchen, serving tables, and dining tables at different sizes and heights. At the back is a few cigar room-like spaces with leather couches, fireplaces and a red billiard table. One can easily imagine having a nightcap there or in my case, watching the World Cup matches.

The Club serves a breakfast buffet from 6:30 am. While the selection is not as large as the restaurant downstairs, it was more than sufficient for me. In addition to the buffet, I had an omelet cooked to order. I really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere in the morning with daylight filtered through the window shades. A few good Viennoiseries, good coffee, and a paper New York Times in hand, I am a happy man. The service at the Club is very attentive and they are very good at remembering the guests. In my few days at the Club, the servers remember my preferences for juice and coffee in the morning.

Throughout the day, the Club serves a light meal. Everyday from 5:30pm to 8:00pm is cocktail hours. The ambiance of the room changes and even the servers' uniforms switch from beige to black. Three types of sparkling wines are available by the glass. There are a variety of canapes and a different cake everyday. The desserts at the Manor Club are always excellent.

The Manor Club is really an extension of the guest room. The large size of the Club ensures that atmosphere never feels crowded. The variety of furniture setup and spaces allows for different functional requirements at different times of the day to be met. While a stay at Rosewood Beijing would be very nice without access to the Club, it really enhances the experience, especially if one doesn't plan to venture outside of the hotel for the whole day.

Besides dining and camping out at the Manor Club, there are 4 restaurants in the hotel, Bistrot B for French Bistro cuisine, Red Bowl for Chinese hot pot, the House of Dynasties for Cantonese cuisine, and Country Kitchen for northern Chinese food.

In my short stay, I only tried Country Kitchen. Since I was in Beijing I wanted Northern Chinese food. My dinner was on a Saturday night and the restaurant was completely full. Just like the other spaces of the hotel, the restaurant is nicely designed with a mixture materials, granite, wood of different shades, metal screens, and terracotta. The lighting is a little on the dark side for a Chinese restaurant, but comfortable and intimate. Before getting to the tables, all the guests walk through the main corridor with open kitchens on either sides.

The wood tables are mostly in round shape with a lazy susan in the middle; this feel like a dining table at a large country home. However, the table setting with the custom design logo napkin, the copper-plated water jug, and the two-tone soup spoon, shows a lot of care has gone into the various details of the restaurant.

The food was pretty good. Many of the staples of Northern Chinese cuisine, such as dumplings and noodles were excellent. The only downside was the prices were on the high side. A bowl of the very good Zha Jiang Mian was RMB 75. For a traveler from New York City, the price is probably a bargain. But a similarly good bowl of Zha Jiang Mian at Da Dong can be had for just RMB18.

The stir-fried vegetables were simple, vibrant in color, and fresh. The grilled skewers of lamb were well-seasoned and perfectly cooked. The scallion pancakes were also very good. The only disappointing dish was actually the Peking Duck, a signature dish of the restaurant. The duck was carved table side with a task light. Some of the skins were served first and they were wonderful. But the rest of the duck was a bit dry and not as flavorful as I would like. The Duck at Country Kitchen is not significantly more expensive that the other restaurants in Beijing, but I prefer the Peking Duck at Da Dong. The service at the restaurant was pleasant, more so than most restaurants in the City, such as Da Dong, but there is still room for improvement.

The Chinese restaurant Country Kitchen is the only part of my stay at the Rosewood that I feel can be better. Overall, the guest room is really excellent and one would be hard pressed to find faults. I just have two minor criticisms. First, since I still prefer to read newspapers in physical form, I wish the hotel would deliver newspapers to my door in the morning. Second, while the "Do Not Disturb" sign is electric and turned on via a button, the "Please Make Up Room" is not. I still need to put a tag outside the door when I step outside. I would think an electronic system will improve the efficiency of the room-cleaning staff.

The hotel industry in Beijing is not only competitive but constantly growing and changing just like the city itself. I am sure every few years will bring newly-designed and fancier hotels. However, the design and the physical environment of Rosewood are excellent and will withstand the fashion and the trends. As the city of Beijing grows more sophisticated, I suspect the service and operation will actually get better. For the moment and the foreseeable future, Rosewood is the best hotel in the Beijing.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Rencontrer Monsieur Robuchon

Pour une personne intéressée par la nourriture, une rencontre avec Joël Robuchon était semblable à une rencontre entre le pape et un catholique. En 2013, j'ai eu la chance d'avoir une ”audience privée du pape”. Je ne me souviens pas de ce que j'ai dit à M. Robuchon dans mon français rudimentaire qui l'a fait sourire. Mais je me souviens encore qu'il m'a dit de manger le homard avant qu'il n'etait froid. Sa priorité a toujours été la qualité de la nourriture et le bonheur des clients.

Pendent que M. Robuchon soit extrêmement strict et exigeant avec son équipe, il était toujours très amical avec les clients. Depuis 2010, j'ai eu le privilège de le rencontrer lors de ses visites annuelles à l'Atelier de Taipei. Je chérirai ces rencontres pour toujours. Le monde a perdu le meilleur chef et une personne spéciale. Il me manquera.

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 are 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.