Even though The New York Times has declared that a real Christmas tree is more green than a fake tree, we still got a fake tree. We didn't do it for environmental reasons. We didn't have much of a choice. A friend of ours told us that this year only a hundred or so real Christmas trees were imported by Taiwan. Most of them were sold to hotels, hence there were very few trees left for the average consumer. Even when one is lucky enough to find a real tree, the prices are crazy. While a friend of mine in New York City can get a six-foot tree for US$45 at Whole Foods, in Taiwan the price for a similar sized tree is more than ten fold.
Since I am unwilling to spend five benjamins, we have a sustainable, artificial tree (actually made in Taiwan with ten year warranty); the ornaments are real.
Today I am presenting Kevin Chen, my great friend, as my blog's first guest blogger. Kevin is very opinionated and we often banter about everything, ranging from politics to pop culture. Now he is finally making some of his thoughts public. His first post is on one of our favorite subjects: sports.
You Can't Buy Luck
By Kevin Chen
As the Yankees, Red Sox and other high-spending teams continue their shopping spree in the off-season, it is interesting to ponder: given how much the Yankees outspend other teams, how come they don’t win the World Series every year? Or, at least every other year? And how come the Red Sox, the second highest-spending team, don’t win the majority of times that the Yankees don’t? The answer is simple but not very sophisticated: luck is a bigger determinant in the outcome of any baseball game than in most other popular sports.
Luck, or randomness, is a major part of any baseball game because unlike most other sports, the rules of baseball do not reward “progressive accuracy” – the general idea that the closer you get to doing something exactly right, the more you should be rewarded. The clearest example of progressive accuracy is taking a test. Let’s say the perfect score is 100 and there are 100 questions on the test. If you miss 20 questions, you will get an 80, which is a B-. If you miss only 5 questions, you will get a 95, which is an A, which is better than a B-. In sports, things are not this clear-cut, but still, logic dictates that one wants to set up the rules such that the same principle applies. In basketball, if you shoot a ball perfectly accurate, the ball will travel through the rim touching nothing but net, and in this case you will score 100% of the time. But, if you shoot it slightly off, the ball may barely touch the rim, but the less off you are, the lighter the ball will contact the rim, and the greater the chance you will score rather than have the ball “rim out”. This isn’t a perfect correlation – sometimes you can get a lucky bounce off the rim and score even when you’re way off, and other times your ball will barely graze the inside of the rim and somehow still bounce out (those agonizing “half way down and out” shots). This is luck at work. Still, in most cases, progressive accuracy is rewarded – you will score more often if you shoot the ball more accurately – meaning the closer your ball travels to the center of the basket, the greater the chance you will score.
Now, let’s look like one of the most fundamental aspects of baseball – hitting. This is where progressive accuracy is thrown off. Most of the time, the goal of the batter is to hit the ball as squarely and solidly as possible. But, if you don’t hit the ball perfectly squarely or solidly – it’s a home run when you hit it perfectly – the element of luck runs amuck in determining the outcome. Let’s look at some of the possible outcomes, from the wildest miss to the perfect hit (home run). If you miss the ball completely, it’s strike and maybe a strikeout. If you barely touch the ball, it’s either a strike or a do-over (with two strikes). So far, progressive accuracy is rewarded. But, if you do slightly better and hit the ball somewhat better than barely touching, chances are you will make an out – instead of being so off that the ball flies out of play and therefore you get another chance, you hit the ball accurately enough for it to land in the field of play, but not accurately enough for it to be a hit. Here, progressive accuracy is completely off. Then, if you hit the ball even better, you will improve your odds of getting a hit, but even here, you can potentially hit into a double-play. Most double-plays are very solidly struck balls that just happened to be hit at a specific fielder, and instead of being rewarded for making solid contact, the batter receives the worst possible outcome – worse than if he had completely missed the ball, and worse than if he had barely hit the ball. One can argue that the double-play ball was simply not hit accurately enough because if it had been truly accurate, it would have traveled between fielders rather than at someone. While this is theoretically true, no one even at the Major League level can realistically claim to be so accurate that he can intentionally aim a hit, say, slightly to the right or left of a specific fielder. The most a hitter can realistically try to do is make solid contact (except in the case of a bunt or a sac fly, but those are exceptions), and generally try to pull the ball or hit it the opposite way. As for exactly where that ball lands when you try to pull or go the opposite way – whether it is directly at the second baseman or two feet to his left/right – that is not just a realistic level of precision.
In essence, going back to the example of a test, what we’ve got in baseball is the following equivalent. If you get it perfectly right, you score 100 points (hit a home run) – no problem there. But, as you start to miss questions by varying degrees, the outcomes become murky. If you miss 10 points, instead of always getting an A-, there is a chance that you will end up with a C, or even an F, and if you miss 40 points, instead of a D, you may get to retake the test (but you’re stuck with a C or F if you miss 10 points). It’s not hard to see how in this system, the best students will not necessarily get the best grades because grades are not perfectly correlated with how well one does in tests.
By the same token, under a similar system, the best baseball teams will not win as often as the best basketball or football teams, as luck and randomness are greater factors in baseball than in those sports due to rules that do not reward progressive accuracy. In football or basketball, can you imagine an outcome where the two teams that made the championship final (Giants and Rangers) had a smaller combined payroll than a team that lost in the semifinal (Yankees) and a team that didn’t even make the playoffs (Red Sox)? That is only possible in baseball because you can’t buy sheer old dumb luck.
Recently an architect friend of mine pointed out to me that Mies van der Rohe's famous aphorism, "less is more" was actually adopted from Robert Browning's poem "Andrea del Sarto" of 1855. Surprised, I looked up the phrase on Wikipedia, and sure enough the website confirms my friend's claim.
However, can we believe what's on Wikipedia? While Mies claimed to own three thousand books before he moved to the United States from Germany, was he really familiar with line 78 (Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged) of the dramatic monologue by the Victorian poet?
I started to look through all the books I have on Mies, curiously none of them made any mention of Robert Browning. Therefore, if Mies didn't adopt the phrase, then who made the connection?
If Mies didn't know the phrase via Browning, did he come up with it independently? Moreover, did the phrase even come from Mies? While Fritz Neumeyer has shown in TheArtless Word, that Mies shared Romano Guardini's penchant for dialectical structure in his writings, there's actually no evidence that Mies ever uttered or written the phrase, "less is more." The first time the phrase was linked to Mies was in Philip Johnson's seminal book, Mies van der Rohe, published in 1947 by the Museum of Modern Art. Therefore, the phrase can only be attributed to Mies by Johnson.
If the famous aphorism was actually constructed for Mies by Johnson, did he adopt it from Browning? This is hard to verify since Browning may not even be the originator of the phrase. In 1774, the German poet and writer Christoph Martin Wieland wrote the phrase "Und minder ist oft mehr, wie Lessings Prinz uns lehrt", which translates as "And less is often more, as Lessing's Prince teaches us." If this quote from Wikipedia can be believed, then did Browning or Johnson both adopt the phrase from Wieland?
In short, there is a lot more to "less is more", too much for one night's musing.
A few weeks or so ago, a good friend of mine told me that a new Italian restaurant, Osteria by Angie, opened near my office. Shortly after, the restaurant was featured in the weekend section of China Times. My interest was piqued enough that we made a reservation for a family weekday dinner.
As we walked into the restaurant, we were greeted by a hostess who couldn't find our reservation. I thought that was not a good sign and unfortunately, it would not be the only problem for the night.
Since the restaurant was not full, no reservation was not a problem, moreover, the hostess seated our party of four at a table for six. We were given a table right next to the front door. This would have been fine except the door didn't always close properly. Throughout the night, there was constantly a draft directed towards me.
Notwithstanding the problem with the door closer, the decor of the restaurant is actually quite pleasant consisting mainly of white walls and dark colored furniture. It is clear the owners cared quite a bit about the appearance of the restaurant, including the choice of the dinnerware. The owners even blogged about their unwavering choice of Staub as serving pieces, though I don't quite understand the reason for using ceramic instead of steel. While the silverware has nice shapes, they are a bit too small and cute, especially the spoon, thus making them less enjoyable to eat with.
After a look through the menu, we decided to order a seasonal salad and a fritto misto to share as appetizers. For the main course, we ordered a pasta with tomato and pancetta for the kids, I had the risotto with beef cheeks, while Maria ordered a margherita pizza.
The salad came first and it was just tasteless, totally bland. While the ingredients were fresh, they were severely under-seasoned, almost as if the chef forgot the salt. The fritto came a little later, and the dipping sauce was also bland.
Similar to the starters, the three main courses also came at different times. For my risotto, the beef cheeks were cooked well with good flavor. However, the rice was simply not creamy enough. I am not sure what the problem was, maybe not enough was done at the mantercatura stage; there just wasn't enough emulsification. I also didn't understand why the chef decided to serve the risotto in a small casserole-like dish rather than a shallow bowl or plate.
The pasta for the kids came shortly after and the casarecce was cooked well and the sauce had good flavors. At least the kids were happy.
The pizza didn't arrive until roughly ten minutes after I finished my risotto. Considering a pizza should cook very quickly, this was really unacceptable. While we were waiting for the pizza to show up, and asked the server to check on it multiple times, we saw the chef, out of the kitchen, wondering around the restaurant and even exchanging a glass of wine with someone, presumably his friend. What was worse, the pizza wasn't good. There simply wasn't enough of a crust. The bottom of the pizza was barely charred; I suspect the oven wasn't hot enough.
After the pizza we lost any interest in trying the desserts. I even skipped my usual espresso and simply asked for il conto.
With a few thousands NT$ lighter in the wallet, what makes the whole experience more disappointing was the fact that we were sitting at a table right across the aisle from the owners. The husband and wife were wining and dining their four friends and seemed oblivious to what was going on at the rest of the restaurant. It was then that I realized this is not really a restaurant for the general public, but rather a place for the owners to entertain their friends. If the owners are serious about being restaurateurs, they ought to show more care towards their paying customers. Until that happens and when the chef finds the salt box and some more heat, I will not return.
A months or so ago my wife, Maria, and I were back at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei again. After another splendid dinner, where we met the friendly new sommelier, Benoît Monier, we were told by Grendy, the always lovely manager, that in October Chef Robuchon will come back to Taipei and be at the restaurant for five days. Upon hearing that, I was eager to make a reservation so I may finally meet the Chef of the Century. I also thought five days seem like a long time to visit to see how things are going. Later I learned the Master's visit is not a routine one, rather he is coming to install a new executive chef, the Italian Angelo Agliano, to take over the restaurant from Chef Yosuke Suga, who will head to Paris to work on another project.
As I wrote in my previous posts on L'Atelier, Maria and I are very happy to have Suga as the chef of the restaurant. While we don't know him personally, we feel a sense of connection. He was the chef at L'Atelier in New York when we lived in Manhattan. He moved to Taipei the same year when we moved to Taipei. While I didn't expect him to stay forever in Taipei, it was still a slight shock to hear he will leave with Robuchon. All of a sudden, the excitement to meet Robuchon is tinged with a bit of sadness.
For this hello-and-goodbye dinner I asked four friends to join us. While we were a large party of six, I still chose to sit at the bar, which is more fun than sitting at the tables far removed from the actions in the kitchen. The restaurant prefers large parties to order from one of the three set menus, two of which contained three to four choices for each course. After confirming with my friends that they eat everything, I asked the restaurant to just cook a four course menu for us. Instead of choosing the dishes for each course, the six of us will eat the same thing: whatever the Chef wants to serve.
While four of us arrived punctually at the reserved time of 7:00PM, two of my friends showed up almost an hour later. While I was annoyed and embarrassed, Grendy and her team could not have been more accommodating and relaxed about it. As we waited, we munched on the typically delicious breads; I assumed my good friend Emily's cousin, Alan, made some of them. Benoît introduced us to Antoine Hernandez, the Head Sommelier of Robuchon's operations and one of Robuchon's partners and traveling companions; Benoît calls him the human wine list. Benoît, knowing I didn't want to break the bank, picked out a nice white wine for us: 2006 Domaine Robert Denogent Pouilly Fuissé "Les Reisses". While we waited, Vincent, the manager introduced us to another partner of Robuchon, Philippe Braun, who speaks English very well, thus making it easier for us to chit chat.
Robuchon showed up before my tardy friends. Before he greeted us he actually first looked at the wine bottle to see what we were drinking. I was just glad I let Benoît and Antoine pick the wine. After a slight nod of his head, I assumed this meant he approved, he said a quick hello.
Dinner began with an amuse: a steamed custard with small pieces of chicken topped by a wasabi foam. The first course seemed like a new dish, at least for me, a beautifully composed plate with rolls of shaved foie gras terrine, large chunks of artichokes, shavings of parmigiano cheese, julienne of radishes, and thin slices of toasted baguettes. The combination of cheese and foie was a nice surprise for me.
The second dish was a pumpkin velouté with three spinach ravioli that contained mushrooms and Fourme d'Ambert cheese. I really liked this wonderful autumn dish with vibrant colors of yellow and green. The slightly sour and bitter taste of the blue cheese gave a nice contrast and sharpness to the sweetness of the smooth pumpkin soup.
The pièce de résistance of the night was the Poulet de Bresse au vin jaune. Months ago, Chef Suga told me he was going to order some chicken from Bresse because he found the local chicken to be too tough. I eagerly wanted to have a taste of this famous tricolore chicken from France. It is hard to get to eat a Bresse chicken outside of France. Even in New York, fancy restaurants don't import Bresse chicken, and typically use the American blue-foot chicken. As Benoît explained, the chicken pieces were cooked with Chateau Chalon wine in a Staub cocotte, and that was how it was first presented to us. The servers then brought the chicken back to the pass to be plated. This was a very fragrant dish. The chicken was meatier than I imagined. The chicken was served with a light jus with mushrooms and Robuchon's famous mashed potato. My friend wondered how much butter was in the potato. This seems to be a question on many people's minds, even Anthony Bourdain asked Robuchon about it in his meal at L'Atelier in Paris. The portion of potato to butter is roughly 4 to 1 in weight; I suspect Robuchon is probably tired of answering this question. It is often been said that sometimes the simplest things are also the most difficult. The dish of chicken with mashed potato was a simple and classic dish beautifully executed by a confident team at L'Atelier. This delicious dish is often not served in fancier places in the current age of molecular gastronomy and celebrity chefs; just a pleasure to eat it at L'Atelier.
After the pre-dessert, Chef Kazutoshi Narita sent us a new dish that he has been working on. Narita explained that typically in France, diners tend to split into two camps: some prefer to finish dinner with savory cheeses while others may prefer the sweet desserts. He wanted to offer something in the middle, thus taking elements from both sides. First of all, it was a visually attractive dish. Different curvilinear elements: dices of poached in-season quince, circular puff pastry tart with fresh cheese, quenelle-shaped sorbet, individual berries, and chopped pistachio nuts were placed linearly on different horizontal lines, almost like a musical score. The composition was served on a round plate with rectangular indentations, echoing the compositions of the dessert. The combination of the sweet and savory were further emphasized with some drizzles of olive oil. Since the different elements were laid out individually on a plate, it allowed the diners to play with different combinations themselves. I enjoyed the dish very much and it was a revelation for me.
After we finished our espressos and caramel macarons, I briefly talked with Suga, along with Robuchon. Suga introduced me to Robuchon as the blogger who thought all the food was good but complained about being served too fast; he still remembers my first blog entry on the restaurant. Robuchon joked the problem must have been the chef is no good and that's why he is leaving. I tried with my rudimentary French to explain to Robuchon que je ne suis pas un "real" blogueur. C'est dommage que le restaurant est parfait maintenant, mais Chef Suga quitte Taipei.
Outre le délicieux dîner, il s'agit d'une soirée mémorable et amusant. Au revoir Chef Suga. Merci pour tous les merveilleux repas à L'Atelier. Nous nous reverrons à Paris.
Recently we worked on a new project for an old client. When the client, who is always very supportive, saw the design, he half jokingly said, it looks like the project we did for him a few years ago. Since the programs for the new and the old projects are the same, and we only had three weeks to work on the design, we used the old project as a starting point. While we didn't reinvent the wheel and certain characteristics of the old project are evident, the skin, siting, contextual relationships, circulation, and concepts about materials are all new. Therefore, unlike the client, we thought of the new project as very different from the old. Nevertheless, the client raised an interesting question about repeating oneself.
To some degree, every architect not only repeats him or herself but others. This can be at the level of detailing or on much larger scales. The best example of repeating oneself is probably the late work of Mies van der Rohe, who famously said, "One does not reinvent a new architecture every Monday morning." Even Rem Koolhaas who prides his firm on their abilities to invent new things, recycled and reworked the design of a house for the Casa da Música in Porto.
It seems this question is asked more often than I thought as I read an interview today that Renzo Piano did recently with Metropolis Magazine:
LIFSON: You’re criticized for repeating yourself in your work.
PIANO: Of course we repeat; we repeat what we like! It’s not because we are lazy people; it’s not because we want to repeat ourselves. But as an architect, you rely on your own experience. It’s like a writer or a painter or a filmmaker.
Therefore, the next time when a client says we are repeating ourselves, maybe I should be less defensive about it and just repeat Renzo's answer.
I wrote about my disappointing experience at the restaurant in an earlier entry. In short the lunch experience was definitely not four-star. I am glad to learn that Chef Daniel Humm and General Manager William Guidara agree with me. As they said in the Times article, the à la carte menu that was served for lunch was a "disservice to the diners who make a gastronomic pilgrimage to the restaurant." Mr. Guidara went on to say, "they might have a completely different experience than they would have at dinner. That doesn’t feel appropriate.” It is nice to see them contradict many bloggers' glowing reviews of the lunch at the restaurant.
According to the Times, they knew about the problems for quite some time and decided to make the changes early this year. It was too bad the change didn't come early enough for me. Nevertheless, I applaud their decision to change course and fix the problems. I am glad they convinced one of the owners, Danny Meyer, to support them. While the restaurant isn't broke, it can and should be better. Just when I thought I would never go back to the restaurant for lunch, now there is a reason to. Hopefully the next time, they will serve us some petits fours.
Recently I went on a business trip to Qingdao. It was my first trip back to the city since 2007 when I was still working at Tsao & McKown. I used to go to Qingdao periodically as I was the Project Architect for the IMC Centre.
The last time when I was at the site, the project was just starting to come out of the ground.
The design of IMC Centre actually started at the end of 2004. This large project, roughly 200,000 square meter in total floor area, consists of four levels of basement, and above grade, a 51-story office tower and a 29-story residential tower linked by a four-story retail podium. It is a very difficult and complicated project. Nevertheless, I was very happy to see the project again. Below is a picture of the project taken in August by my former colleague, who is still on the site trying to get what we designed built properly. Construction will probably continue until early next year.
My wife, Maria, and I have been to Per Se a few times and we always have a great time. Therefore, it was inconceivable to us to make a trip back to New York and not visit the restaurant. It has been over a year since we last ate there and even the chef de cuisine has changed. Nevertheless, this was the most anticipated meal of our trip.
I made the reservation two months in advance. I used to call the restaurant to make the reservation, which required some redialing and waiting on the phone. Now I tend to make the reservation through opentable.com, which is much easier if it is for a four-top, but in my experience, more difficult for a table for two.
A meal at Per Se takes about three to four hours, therefore, it is best to go with some friends, people whom you will enjoy conversing for that long. This time I asked my good friends Dino Wu and Yichih Lin to join us. It was their first time at Per Se and Dino brought a camera. As the main dishes started to arrive on the table, Dino couldn't resist pulling out the camera to photograph them. I don't photograph my meals at restaurants; I am not a real food blogger. However, since Dino's photos turned out so well, I will break with my usual routine of words-only reviews.
The four of us decided to have lunch instead of dinner as it is just easier to arrange for a babysitter during the day. Per Se serves the same menu for lunch as well as dinner. With lunch, there is actually an additional option of a shorter five-course menu. Since we were there to enjoy ourselves, we went with the nine-course tasting menu.
We were seated at a table in the main area of the restaurant, which I prefer over the upper tier. I just like the closer view of Central Park and the cityscape. The tables in the restaurants are large and well-spaced. The ladies get the armchairs while the men's chairs are without armrests; I have never figured out why this is the case. In any event, the setting is very comfortable and conducive for hours of lingering.
A meal at Per Se always starts with a gougère followed by Thomas Keller's signature salmon cornet. I just love the salmon tartare cone; seeing this canapé is like seeing an old friend. It is a refreshing way to begin a meal with great flavors and contrasting textures. A few bites of the cornet also express clearly two of Keller's ideas about food: the law of diminishing returns and the importance of reference. For the first idea, as much as I love the cornet, as well as the gougère, Keller insists on serving just one. He believes in leaving the customer wishing for more. As for the second idea, Keller likes his food to refer to other more familiar foods and to invoke our memories of them, in the case of the cornet the reference is a simple ice cream cone.
Since we are not VIPs we didn't get any soup or meat canapé. This was too bad, because on our second visit to the restaurant years ago, we were served a soup and it was excellent. Therefore, shortly after, the server placed mother-of-pearl spoons in front of us, signalling the arrival of the famous first course, "Oyster and Pearls".
The restaurant used to also serve the cauliflower panna cotta in lieu of "Oyster and Pearls"; we had the panna cotta a couple of times years ago. However, looking at some of the recent menus, it seems "Oysters and Pearls" have become the permanent first course. This is understandable as the dish is a masterpiece and I certainly don't mind eating it a few more times. The dish is also a good introduction to Keller's propensity to use quotation marks in the menu, not just to make references but sometimes just to have some fun. In the case of "Oysters and Pearls," because pearls, here represented by tapioca, come from oysters, they are paired together. They are bonded by a rich sabayon and punctuated by salty caviar; a very sexy dish.
The next course was a compliment of the house, truffle custard, which looks just like the picture in the French Laundry cookbook, except now served in custom-designed dinnerware by Keller with Raynaud. The egg shell is cut off at the top with a thin potato chip protruding out; it is an extremely fragrant dish with nice contrasting textures between the crispness of the chip and the softness of the egg custard.
The second course on the menu is usually a choice of salad or foie gras and all four of us decided to have foie. The server asked if we prefer hot or cold foie, since we all said hot, they went off the menu and served us a large piece of seared foie. It was just rich and delicious.
In contrast, the next course was lighter: Sea Bass Fillet "en Persillade." The fillet was perfectly cooked. The "persillade" sauce is essentially deconstructed into garlic confit and parsley mousse. The pickled small onion provided a nice acidity to the dish.
This was followed by the butter poached lobster, served with turnip and a little pasta. I believe this was actually the first time I had rolled pasta at Per Se. The lobster was perfectly tender and I assume it was cooked with the sous vide technique in a butter bath as described in Under Pressure.
We then moved into the poultry section with roasted squab served with a corn cake, corn, blueberries and a wine reduction sauce.
The last savory course was the beef, which was just a perfectly cooked piece of meat balanced by glazed carrots, mushrooms, radishes, and croutons. It was just an outstanding dish with great flavors. Even though I was starting to be full, I easily cleaned the plate and wished there were a few more bites.
The composed cheese course was called "Fouchtra." The name was quite memorable as we were trying to learn the pronunciation from our server. It was a piece of goat cheese served with a potato salad, artichokes, and mustard seeds. It was a strong dish in terms of flavors, more than what we expected.
In contrast, the next course was very light: a plum sorbet paired with tea foam served over a bed of crushed sablé.
The chocolate dessert was a sculptural and geometric composition of lines, dots, rectangles, and cylinders. I wish my buildings can look this good. At this point our server asked if we wanted some tea or coffee. Maybe because we are Chinese, all four of us asked for tea, which is included in the fixed price of the menu, along with the service charge.
A tray of chocolates was then offered. While the ladies at the table selected two each, Dino and I went with three. Actually, I used to be more greedy and always asked for four.
After we ate the chocolates, the servers brought out another signature dessert: "Coffee and Doughnuts." It looks like this dish has replaced the crème brûlée and pots de crème that the restaurant used to serve. I am certainly not complaining, as "Coffee and Doughnuts" is one of my favorites. The "coffee" is actually a cappuccino semifreddo. This time it was served with a slight variation: no doughnut but just the doughnut "holes."
It is interesting to note that the meal at Per Se now bookends with two of the famous Keller dishes from the French Laundry: "Oysters and Pearls" in the beginning and "Coffee and Doughnuts" at the end.
Together with the doughnuts there were the "Mignardises": candies, chocolate covered hazelnuts, macarons, and chocolate truffles.
By now we have been in the restaurant for about four hours but it didn't feel long. It was just a great way to spend an afternoon, catching up with friends about kids and work, and of course, a little discussion on architecture, this time on Brad Cloepfil's design for the Museum of Arts and Design, which was visible from our seats. We were all completely full and the restaurant gave us bags of cookies to go, which we savored the following day.
Before we left the restaurant, the captain led us into the kitchen for a quick tour. Unlike most restaurants, Per Se's kitchen is not directly connected to the dining room. The two spaces are separated by a corridor called the "breezeway" that allows the staff to transition between the different settings. Needless to say, the kitchen was immaculate. You don't need a health inspector to see how clean it is. The center of the kitchen is the $250k custom Bonnet stove. There is also a live video feed of the kitchen at the French Laundry on one side of the walls. Separating us from the stove is the pass that is covered in white table cloth to mimic the tables in the dining room.
As we walked out of the kitchen, we could see a sign with the definition of the word, "finesse," placed on top of the entry to the kitchen. Our meal was definitely an example of "refinement and delicacy of performance, execution and artisanship."
There may be other restaurants somewhere in the world that are better, but I have not been to them. I haven't been to the French Laundry so I cannot compare the two; I just know Per Se is more expensive. Maybe I am easily satisfied, but my meals at Per Se always exceeded expectations. I walked in expecting the best meal and the restaurant always delivered.
Before going to New York, my good friends have been telling me that I should give Eleven Madison Park another try. I have been to the restaurant a few times before. I always liked the high ceiling and airy room, but I never found the food to be something to write home about. Chef Daniel Humm runs the restaurant, which used to serve egg benedict and oatmeal for brunch on Sundays; the restaurant had a different personality on the weekends. Now there is no brunch and the restaurant is closed on Sundays. It is clear from many bloggers that the restaurant has changed and improved a great deal. Even the New York Timesawarded Eleven Madison four stars.
I didn't have time to go to Eleven Madison Park for dinner so I had to settle for lunch. This was most unfortunate because from what I gathered, dinner at Eleven Madison is far superior than lunch.
A friend of mine joined me for the lunch. The lunch menu at Eleven Madison is divided in two parts: tasting menu of six courses and à la carte. Many bloggers have described the à la carte lunch at Eleven Madison Park as a great deal: two courses for $28 and three courses for $42. I suppose it is pretty good, but not necessarily better than what's offered at Bouley or Jean Georges.
I thought the lunch worked like Jean Georges, because even though the à la carte menu is written in three parts, our server told us that we were not bounded by that format and could order from any of them. My friend and I were both hungry so we decided to go for three courses. Since two courses is $28 and an additional one is $14 extra, the math seems to suggest that all the courses are the same and cost $14. This was not the case. While one can choose any two courses, Eleven Madison still serves them as one in appetizer portion size and other as a main course. The additional course is actually another appetizer. We found this out the hard way.
Both of us ordered the scallop as our middle course and we each got one scallop. It was large and beautifully cooked. This seemed fine until we looked at the table next to us where one of the two customers ordered the same scallop course and received two scallops. I couldn't help but asked why we only got one. The server said it was because the table next to us had the scallop as the main course. Since our scallop is not the last course of the meal, it is considered an appetizer. I didn't want to argue with the guy; I just thought whatever.
The bread service at the restaurant is also a bit odd. Each of us were served two different breads at the beginning of the meal. Since both were very good, we finished them rather quickly, more or less during the first course. As our bread plates sat empty, none of the servers bothered to ask us if we wanted more bread. This lasted until after the main (third) course was served. When we asked for more bread, the server didn't bring a bread basket for us to choose, but brought out a silver tray with two plates and exactly four more breads, two on each plate, nothing more and nothing less. By this time probably one bread would have sufficed. Anyway, it was as if the restaurant didn't want to be bothered and dug up four breads from the kitchen for us. It wasn't exactly stingy but it felt strange.
Despite some strange things, the food was actually very good. The restaurant started us off with some gougères and a couple of amuses. For the first appetizer, my friend had the taglionini with king crab, which was just delicious. My first course was the taboulé salad, which was beautifully plated with very good flavors. Our second appetizers were the aforementioned scallops that were cooked perfectly and served with succotash. For my main course I went with the bouillabaisse, which was nice but not as good as my friend's cochon. The dish consisted of three different cuts of pork, and all were perfectly executed. It was the best dish of the whole meal.
In contrast to the main course, the dessert at lunch is a bit of a let down. The restaurant doesn't offer a dessert menu but rather a trolley full of house-made tarts. I haven't seen an old-school dessert trolley in a while. It feels like the pastry chef at the restaurant doesn't work the lunch shift. My friend and I wanted something sweet to finish the meal so I ordered a Kouign Amann, which was served with some sour cherry and vanilla cream. My friend had the apricot tart. They were both delightful but charging $12 for a slice of tart was a bit much. I much prefer the dessert that Jean Georges serves at lunch, which for $8 one get two little desserts that are more composed and plated with multiple components. Even at the Modern, the dessert at lunch is also $12 but one get a more ambitious and composed dish.
I read on several blogs that for dinner the restaurant is very generous and even offers unlimited Cognac to finish the meal. Unfortunately, lunch is a different affair all together. The restaurant didn't even offer any petit four; no macarons for us. It was just the check and goodbye. Again, I thought it was strange and felt whatever. Normally I would have asked for some coffee, but for some reason, we didn't feel like staying any longer.
The food was very good and well executed. I suppose it is priced nicely except for the dessert. However, the cheaper price at lunch also translates into a lesser experience. I just felt the restaurant didn't put its heart into the lunch service; the restaurant didn't seem to enjoy serving lunch. The meal was very professional but business like. For a Danny Meyer restaurant, it is a little odd at times and not warm nor welcoming, thus not a terribly pleasurable experience. Since everyone else seems so positive about Eleven Madison, I can't help but wonder that perhaps we went on an off day. Maybe the restaurant would have been more hospitable if we had order the tasting menu? It would have only been $24 more than our $54 four-course meal. I don't know, but it was definitely not a four-star lunch.
We were in Beijing and after a visit to the Forbidden Palace, I decided to have lunch at Maison Boulud (布鲁宫). Besides lunch, I wanted to take a look at the Legation Quarter, the complex that Maison Boulud is housed in. When I was working at Tsao & McKown, we were interviewed for the design of the redevelopment of this complex and did some preliminary work. While we didn't end up doing the job, I was curious to see how things have turned out.
The Legation Quarter used to be the old American Embassy and is located just off the southeast corner of Tiananmen Square. When I arrived inside the complex I was a bit disappointed to see that not much is going on in there. Some of the planned retail spaces do not have any tenants yet.
Maison Boulud is located at the center of the Legation Quarter and inside the main building. As I walked into the restaurant, I was surprised to see Daniel Boulud, the Big Homme, on his way out with his luggage in tow; probably flying out to visit another one of his many restaurants around the world.
For lunch Maison Boulud offers a three course prix fixe menu at RMB 188 as well as an à la carte menu. The prix fixe, which Maria and I both ordered, have three choices each for the appetizer and main course and two for dessert. For Vera we ordered an Orecchetti Bolognaise from the à la carte menu; not quite the French food as we were expecting, but Vera really enjoyed it. As for Ava, she was sound asleep and hence missed a very good meal.
The restaurant started us with two amuse-bouches, both were delightful. I chose a breaded sardine for my appetizer, which was nicely pan fried to a golden crisp crust and served with an onion marmalade. This was followed by a slow baked cod that was perfectly cooked on a bed of vibrant vegetable with a fragrant sauce. Dessert was a lemon chiboust. As for Maria, she had the salmon to start, followed by the signature DB Burger, and ending with a chocolate dessert. The staff was also very nice to bring Vera a couple of scoops of ice cream (vanilla and chocolate) compliments of the house.
The meal ended with some petits fours as well as warm mini madeleines, just like the flagship restaurant Daniel in New York. Overall it was an excellent meal, very well executed. The service was faultless and warm. The interior of the restaurant is also very pleasant and the tables are nicely spaced. It is to easy to see why the restaurant was voted by Time Out Beijing as the Restaurant of the Year 2010.
My only complaint about the whole experience was one item on the bill: the cost of San Pellegrino, which was charged at RMB 90 per 750ml bottle. I must say I did a double take when I first saw the bill. I understand the margin on food is small and the restaurant needs to make money from drinks, but over US$13 plus 15% service charge for a bottle of sparkling water? Come on, that's really too much, more than 4.6 times the retail price of RMB 19.50. Whatever happened to the more "reasonable" 2.5 to 3 times the retail price? We had two bottles of San Pellegrino and that more or less equaled the cost of the prix fixe lunch. It is so unfortunate this crazy markup left us a bit soured from an otherwise excellent dining experience.
One thing I miss about living in New York is the food. Therefore, when I had a chance to spend a couple of weeks this month back in the Big Apple, one of the main activities I did was to eat. Given the limited time, I went to a few of my old favorites, such as, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, and Per Se, and I tried a few new restaurants, namely, Má Pêche, Marea, ABC Kitchen, DBGB, Co., and Rouge Tomate. Besides the restaurants, I also got my fix of bagels and doughnuts from Ess-a-Bagel and Doughnut Plant respectively.
Ava turned two and we had a small birthday party for her at our apartment.
As with Vera's birthday last year, I made the birthday cake. Again, I went with a recipe in Dorie Greenspan's book, Baking: From My Home to Yours. This time I chose the Perfect Party Cake: a lemon scented layered cake slathered with buttercream and coconut powder. It is not a difficult recipe and allows for a lot of variations. Since I didn't have any berries, I played it straight using raspberry jam and buttercream between the layers. The cake turned out quite well.
Since I wasn't sure if Ava would like the cake, I baked another one that I know she likes to eat - Banana Cake; the recipe is also from Greenspan's book.
Ava seemed to enjoy her party, let's just hope she won't be too terrible in the upcoming year.
Due to the FIFA World Cup, Boulangerie Paul in Taipei is having a two-week long promotion for its Pain Flamand. Typically the bread sells for NT$600, but with the promotion there is a 40% discount if one buys two at a time. With a price of NT$360 one would think Paul is being generous. That is until a quick search on the internet shows the same bread costs 3.50 euros (roughly NT$135) in the Brussels branch of Paul. Even with the discount the bread still costs 2.6 times more in Taipei.
I am not sure why Paul in Taipei needs to charge NT$600 for a loaf of bread. I understand the bread is made from a central kitchen in France and airfreighted to Taipei, thus there is a premium associated with that. However the bread is probably 80% baked, cooled, and shipped as a frozen bread. While I actually have no problem with parbaking, I cannot understand charging customers in Taipei more than 4 times the price in Europe. After all, it is a relatively simple bread, not a luxury item.
The pricing of Le Pain Flamand is particularly jarring because while the other items in Paul Taipei are more expensive than in Europe, none of them has such a crazy premium. For instance, a tartelette frambroises costs 3.1 euros (about NT$122) in Paris and NT$155 in Taipei, a premium of 27%; a croissant is .95 euros (about NT$37) in Paris and NT$48 in Taipei, a premium of 30%; the big macaron is 2.8 euros (about NT$110) in Brussels and NT$250 in Taipei, a premium of 127%. All this pales in comparison to the 344% premium for the Pain Flamand.
Nevertheless, with the promotion (167% premium), I bought a couple of breads to try: Le Pain Flamand aux 2 Olives and Le Pain Flamand Emmental Mimolette. It is unfortunate Paul chose to translate Flamand phonetically. In Chinese, Flamand becomes the more romantic 法藍夢, which sort of means French Dream; maybe Paul is being honest that with the price of NT$600 per loaf, it is a dream, though not a particularly good one. Flamand is French for Flemish, so the bread is just a simple Flemish bread.
The breads are actually pretty good and flavorful. The texture is dense and chewy. However, it is not something to write home about and probably not worth the price even with the discount.
SANAA: Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa had an exhibition of their architectural models at 士林紙業加工間 in Taipei a couple of months ago. By chance the exhibition coincided with the announcement of Sejima and Nishizawa receiving the Pritzker Prize. Therefore, the show was elevated to a higher profile and took on more prominence than perhaps it was meant to be.
Before going, I certainly had high hopes for the show. Generally I like the works by SANAA, however the show in Taipei was a disappointment. To start, the space was essentially an abandoned factory. I understand the appeal of a rough and old industrial structure, but I expected a little bit more transformation than hanging a few fixtures and putting in a scrim to separate the reception area from the exhibition space. A new finish for the floor would have been welcomed, at least to prevent any tripping accident.
As for the models by SANAA, it was sort of a combination of study and presentation models and objects, with materials ranging from wood, plastics, metal, and cardboard. The models tended to be abstract and rough, and would have come across more as art objects in a pristine setting, perhaps like a typical SANAA designed space. Instead, in the borderline dilapidated space, the models looked less like they were in an exhibition but more in a generously-spaced storage. What made things worse were many of the models were dirty and dusty with parts either detached or coming unglued. Since the show consisted only of models, it was quite minimal. Unfortunately the show didn't project the refined minimalism that one has come to associate with the works by SANAA.
I have the Kindle app from Amazon on my iPhone, but the screen is too small for me to read books comfortably. With the iPad, I can now read e-books more like a physical book; who said size doesn't matter?
The first e-book I bought is The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain. It was on sale at Amazon for US$3.32 with no sales tax and no delivery charges; instant gratification.
I don't know if I would call iPad the Jesus tablet but it is an extraordinary device. I no longer have to sit at my desk to surf the net. Now I can just kick back on my Eames lounge chair and have the Internet in my hands. In fact I am writing this blog entry on the iPad. I can also read the New York Times with my morning coffee, almost just like the old days.
Recently I invited some friends over for dinner and I opened a bottle of red wine: 2007 Wallace by Ben Glaetzer. It was really delicious.
I actually knew nothing about the wine when I bought it. I simply saw a promotion for the wine at City Super and it wasn't expensive. I just regretted only buying one bottle; a few days after the dinner party I went back to City Super to buy more, it was all sold out.
Recently, I went to see a show on Richard Rogers' architecture at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. It was a good show and I will write more about it at a later time. For now I just want to comment on a piece in the show, a row of color bars done for the Madrid Airport project.
Rogers' bars of colors remind me of the bars of chocolates at Sadaharu Aoki's boutique.
A colleague of mine was on a business trip to Europe and couldn't return as scheduled due to the Icelandic volcanic ash; she was stuck in Paris for six extra days. I suppose if one has to choose a place to be stuck in, Paris is a good one. It also meant she wasn't able to contribute as much to a competition we were working on. Nevertheless, a crisis is also an opportunity.
Given that she had time to spare, I asked her to swing by Pierre Hermé to pick up something to bring back. She stayed on la rive droite so she only managed to go to the boutique on Rue Cambon and brought back a box of chocolates. They were great and reminded me of why I like Hermé so much.
Unfortunately Hermé doesn't have a store in Taipei. But why not? Some of his famous colleagues, namely, Eric Kayser, Joël Robuchon, and Sadaharu Aoki are already here. Therefore, I would like to make a plea to Chef Pierre Hermé. If you ever decide to open another boutique, please do it in Taipei.
In a blog entry a while ago, I wrote about my disappointment with Lang Lang's performance in Taipei. However, I must say the video below of Lang Lang playing the Magic Piano on the iPad is pretty cool.
I recently went back to Sadaharu Aoki to pick up a goûter. This time I got the Chocolate and Salted Butter-Caramel Tart: pâte sucrée crust filled with caramel and topped with a soft chocolate mousse. The salt in the caramel enhanced and contrasted with the sweet flavors. The tart was excellent.
Since I ended my last post on L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon with the hope of returning as often as I can, Maria and I didn't wait too long and went back twice recently on different weekends for lunch.
I like going to lunch at restaurants for several reasons. One, we don't have to ask our baby sitter to work overtime. Two, many restaurants offer a cheaper menu. Third, unlike dinner, lunch provides more possibilities and variations depending on the plans for the rest of the day. The British Chef Fergus Henderson puts it best, "Lunch is the first aperitif of the day. By the time you have lunch your body is totally woken up. Supper is the punctuation mark of the day before you go to bed, whereas lunch is about the rest of the day, about the potential ahead. Lunch is a launch pad for who knows what- it is fantastic."
In short our two recent lunches at L'Atelier were both fantastic.
Similar to last time, we asked to sit at the bar instead of at a table. It is more fun and closer to the action, not too different than being at a sushi restaurant. Actually, L’Atelier is setup for customers to sit at the bar, unless it is a large party, sitting at the table defeats the purpose a bit.
As usual, the restaurant started us off with a variety of different breads in a basket; to be precise in a silver Alessi Mediterraneo holder designed by Emma Silvestris. All the breads were good, even better than last time; maybe Robuchon’s theory that a boulangerie requires seasoning is true. I was particularly fond of the epi with bacon. I also liked the small baguette. Both of them had crisp crust and good chewy structure inside. The breads were so good that I had to remind myself not to finish them all and fill up my stomach before the food arrived. In fact I was not the only one with this problem. The person sitting next to me had the similar concern and actually asked the server to remove the bread basket since he didn't trust his self control.
The menu for lunch and dinner is the same: à la carte, Menu Club, and Menu Decouverte. For lunch there is an additional Menu Express, which consists of one main course and a dessert. Given that we had the Menu Decouverte last time, for our first lunch we opted to order à la carte. Since I don't take pictures of my meals at restaurants - I believe that takes away from the enjoyment of the meal - I will just have to describe them from memory. I am sure there are photos of the dishes somewhere on the Internet.
The amuse for both lunches was a shot glass of diced chicken with steamed egg topped with a wasabi foam; good flavor with a little hint of heat which provided a nice start to the meal.
For my first lunch, I went with the Le Canard: a gorgeous slice of pâté with duck meat and foie gras served with a small salad on the side and two slices of toasted baguette; L'Oeuf: a soft boiled egg served on top of a spicy eggplant stew. The egg was perfectly cooked with a velvety yolk; L'Amadai: a pan fried piece of fish with a crispy skin with scales. The scales popped up considerably and provided an interesting textural contrast with the filet. The fish was served in a yuzu broth with lily bulbs. It was a subtle and very fragrant dish. It was also one of the rare instances where I actually enjoyed eating the scales of a fish. I couldn’t help but recall that Gordon Ramsay said Guy Savoy always insists leaving the scales on the fish as he believes the flavor is better.
Maria’s lunch consisted of L'Oursin: sea urchin on top of a carrot mousse; Le Foie: a piece of sautéed foie gras served with a grapefruit mousse; Le Cochon: pieces of roasted suckling pig served with its own jus and a little mustard and topped with some crispy cracklings. This was an excellent dish as the pork was very good and well cooked. It was also a well balanced dish in terms of flavors and visual composition.
Similar to the previous meal, the sommelier César Román, picked out red and white wines by the glasses to compliment the dishes.
The end of the savory parts of the meal was followed by a small pre-dessert: fruit compote topped with coconut cream. For desserts I tried Le Baba and Maria had Le Soufflé. One thing I find interesting with the desserts at L'Atelier is chef Kazutoshi Narita plays around with the classics, dishes that sounded old but are modernized. Le Baba is actually almost equal part baba and caramel ice cream. Both are topped with a rum sabayon. The soufflé is served unmolded with a scoop of ice cream and fruit compote.
For my second lunch, I ordered the Menu Club, which has four courses, each with three choices. I went with L'Asperge: a panna cotta-like cold dish with asparagus; Le Foie: a consommé with foie gras ravioli. The fragrant broth came with chiffonade basil and mint and was thickened with whipped cream spiked with a bit of pimentón. The spices and the richness of the ravioli contrasted nicely with the soup; Le Veau: braised veal cheeks that were perfectly cooked with just the right balance of fat and lean meat served in a thick red wine sauce. The dish was served with Robu’s famous purée de pomme de terre; L'Île Flottante, the dessert of the day was my last course. The meringue was well cooked with good texture. While I enjoyed this dessert I thought it was perhaps a bit too simple, at least compared to some of the other ones offered on the menu.
Maria ordered à la carte again and she had Le Foie, same as mine, and Le Burger. Maria's burger was excellent, so I was told. I couldn’t verify the verdict, as it was so good she refused to share any part of it with me. The dish is actually two sliders. Each slider had a nice piece of foie on top of the meat; almost impossible for it not to taste good. Maria was full and chose to skip dessert and went straight to coffee and mango macaron.
For this lunch instead of having wine by the glass, we ordered a bottle. I asked César to pick out a low priced red wine and he happily obliged.
Meals at the L’Atelier in Taipei are not cheap. Basically, the menu prices are more or less like the ones in New York. For instance, Le Burger is NT$1280 in Taipei and US$38 (roughly NT$1210) in New York. L’Amadai is NT$1180 in Taipei and US$36 (roughly NT$1150) in New York. Desserts are NT$580 in Taipei and US$17 (roughly NT$540) in New York. Since one has to add the sales tax of 8.875% and the 15 to 20% service charge in New York, while in Taipei the tax is included and the service charge is 10%, the final prices one pays in Taipei are a bit lower. I suppose one can ask the question that given the cost of labor and overhead are typically lower in Taipei than in New York, why should the prices be the same. However, if one compares the prices in Taipei with the ones in Hong Kong, they are not too far off. While Le Veau is a little more expensive, NT$1480 in Taipei and HK$330 (roughly NT$1350) in Hong Kong, Le Foie is a little cheaper, NT$780 in Taipei and HK$198 (roughly NT$812) in Hong Kong. The desserts are also a bit cheaper, NT$580 in Taipei and HK$150 (roughly NT$615) in Hong Kong. I will leave the discussion on the economics of restaurants to another day. Moreover, prices can always change. I remember when L’Atelier first opened in New York, the desserts were US$20 instead of the current US$17. For now I will just say the quality of the meals in Taipei is no different than the meals I had in New York a few years ago.
Unlike last time, these two times there were no problem with the pacing of the meal. It was actually just right, not too fast and not too slow. There was enough time between the courses for us to have some conversations without dragging the meal too long. It seemed to me that perhaps after a few months, the staff is a bit more at ease as well.
After our second lunch, we had a chance to speak briefly with Chef Yosuke Suga, who watched over both of our lunches. We asked if he had to change his cooking to adapt to the local taste. We were relieved to hear he didn’t have to change anything. So often western restaurants in Taipei don't stay true to their flavor profiles and try to adapt to the local tastes. In the process of doing so many restaurants lose their identities and tend to decline in quality. This is not the case just in Taiwan. One only has to look at the various Chinese restaurants in New York to see how inauthentic they are; most of them acknowledge that they are cooking for the westerners and not making the real food they believe in. I hope L’Atelier will continue to stay true to its own standards. As the seasons change, I will surely return and hopefully try some new dishes. Next time maybe we can forgo the menu and kitchen will just cook for us.
The November/December 2009 issue is the last one for Dialogue. On the one hand it is certainly sad to see the end of a magazine. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that the magazine actually lasted for 12 years. I have been involved with Dialogue on and off as a writer and editor for around 10 years.
My first encounter with Dialogue was actually not as contributor but as a participant in an idea competition that the magazine sponsored. This was in October 1997 and I was fresh out of graduate school and working as a junior architect at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in New York. Back then, I didn't know much about the magazine. I decided to submit something for the competition just for fun; moreover it gave me something to do at nights and weekends. Since the magazine was called Dialogue, I invited my good friend Emily Sun to work with me. Emily is not an architect but a scholar in comparative literature. I thought the two of us could engage in some sort of dialogue and generate some new ideas about architecture. For our submission, Emily wrote a text and I created an imaginary space. The work was titled Movement Towards the Forgetting of Architecture: Dialogue and Difference Between Theory and Architecture. Emily came up with the great title and we actually collaborated two more times, adding two more Movements. Ideas about movements in architecture remain a great interest of mine. We were awarded an honorable mention for our entry, which was published in the 12th issue of Dialogue, in March 1998.
A few months afterwards, as I was just settling into my job at Skidmore, I got a call from my good friend Gene King. He told me he had just become the Editor-in-Chief of Dialogue and asked if I was interested in being an overseas consultant. I asked what I had to do as a consultant. Gene basically said just keep Dialogue informed of new things in the U.S. and I was free to contribute anything I was interested in. With some hesitations, since I have actually never worked at a magazine, I said sure.
My first article for Dialogue was on Paul Rudolph’s own house. This was published in the September 1998 issue. Paul Rudolph had died in the year before and at that time his house was being sold. I have always admired Rudolph’s work and thought he didn’t receive enough attention. I took the opportunity to see the house on Beekman Place in New York City, with a broker no less. I thought the house was amazing and beautiful and those impressions formed the first article. This also shaped my desire to look for subjects slightly outside of the mainstream publications.
My second article, published in the October 1998 issue, was actually not on architecture, but on Rachel Whiteread’s Water Tower sculpture. At this point I had begun to formulate the idea that I wanted to write about things outside of architecture. Part of this was I didn’t want to keep thinking about architecture after getting off from the long hours at Skidmore. But more importantly, it was just a desire to engage other disciplines around architecture and to learn from them.
This line of thinking led me to the November 1998 issue on structure, my first one as a guest editor. I wanted to do an issue on structure because I felt architects knew too little about the subject, especially the cutting edge designs. Without awareness on what’s possible with structure, I felt architects were closing themselves off from new configurations of space. For the issue on structure, I first contacted my colleagues at the Chicago office of Skidmore for their work on the structure for Frank Gehry’s Bilbao. I then cold called Cecil Balmond’s office in London to see if he was willing to let us publish an article on his work; he readily agreed. Gene contacted Kunio Watanabe for the structural design of Tokyo Forum. Once we had secured these three major works, the magazine issue was mostly set. I would then write an editorial to explain concepts.
This first one I guest edited was the most difficult. First of all, I didn’t know how much work was entailed and working with a publication deadline was even more intense than one for a building. Second, because I was intent on doing things slightly outside of architecture, I didn’t have a network of previous contributors to draw on. Therefore, I spent a lot of time cold calling people and explaining the magazine as well as the ideas to them. Nevertheless, this first guest-edit issue would set the work process for producing subsequent issues that I did.
Besides guest editing issues and writing occasional articles, the other main thing I did was to interview people. This all started when Gene had the idea of featuring different schools of architecture in the magazine in 1999. Since I just graduated recently, we decided to start with Columbia University. I didn’t want to write about the School, so I thought, since the magazine is called Dialogue, let’s do an interview with my Dean Bernard Tschumi. While I spent three years at Columbia, I actually didn’t know the Dean well and didn’t have much contact with him. Therefore, I sort of cold called again. I was glad Dean Tschumi agreed without any hesitation. It was my first interview and I had absolutely no experience prior to that; I didn’t even have a tape recorder. I had little skill as an interviewer and I mostly read from a series of prepared questions. I wasn’t a good listener and therefore didn’t ask too many follow-up questions. I would gradually improve in my subsequent interviews but it took some time. Once the interview with Tschumi was published in May 1999, it became easier to land other interviews. In the subsequent years I did numerous interviews for Dialogue, including ones with Bruce Mau, Cecil Balmond, Ron Arad, Mary Miss, Ingo Maurer, Terence Riley…etc. Many of them were about topics slightly outside of architecture.
My involvement with Dialogue was greatly reduced starting in 2005. I did some interviews and guest-edited one last time for the July 2008 issue. Part of the reason was we had our first child in 2004 and I just didn’t have as much free time anymore. The other factor is I didn’t have too many new ideas and thought I was starting to repeat myself. I always remember when Le Corbusier closed down Esprit Nouveau, he said, “Five years is a lot for a magazine, one ought not to repeat oneself continuously. Others, younger people will have younger ideas.” Instead of five, I was involved for around ten years. I am extremely sad to see Dialogue cease publication, since it was not only one of the leading magazines on architecture, but one of the best publications in Taiwan. However, I also see this stoppage as an opportunity to think about some new ideas and to see how they can be expressed not only in print but also on the internet. Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to start again.
Recently I spent a whole day writing a short text for the design concept of a project; it was a struggle. While I couldn't believe how long it took, I was reminded of an interview David Remnick, Editor-in-Chief of The New Yorker, did with Princeton Alumni Weekly. He was asked, "Are you doing any writing now?"
He replied, "I had a piece in the magazine about a month ago. But there’s only so many hours in the day. I have three children and recently moved. I’m a fairly quick writer, but you can’t just say, “Here’s two hours and I’ll get two hours of writing done.” You need eight hours in order to get two hours of writing done. You need to screw around, you need to stare at the screen, you need to walk to the refrigerator."
It is hard to believe that I have been blogging for a year now. All of this started with a modest post letting the world know that I bought a new TV. Actually the blog was intended for friends and family in the U.S. to see what we were up to. I started my own blog because I didn't want to use Facebook; I want my own space and some control over the format; after all I am an architect. But just for fun, let's compare Facebook with my blog. Facebook gets over 260 billion page views a month, while my blog generated 5,633 page views in this past year.
Roughly halfway into the first year, I set up an AdSense account which placed a few automatically generated ads on the right side of my blog. I was just curious whether my blog will miraculously make some money for my 529 accounts. On this anniversary, the result of the experiment is actually pretty funny. I have a total estimated earning of US$0.39. Therefore, I am going to take the ads off. I better stick to my day job.
While my blog doesn't rank anywhere in terms of page view, it is not a blog with an audience of one, at least not yet. I do have a cult (sounds much better than "small") following. While my blog is not their home pages, I want to thank them for checking in regularly. These dedicated fans are enough for me to continue.
Sadaharu Aoki has opened a shop in the basement of Bellavita. Needless to say I am extremely happy about it. Unlike Robu's Salon a few flights above, Aoki's shop is not an enclosed space, rather it is part of a large food court. The shop is in three parts: a large L-shaped glass enclosed counter for pastries such as macarons, chocarons, eclairs, and cakes; an open area for baked goods; and a back area with a few tables and chairs with table service. Since the back area is small and people tend to linger, it is hard to get a table to sit down. And unfortunately, despite the abundance of space, Bellavita doesn't really have places to sit down either. Therefore, I find the easiest thing to do is to just buy the pastries and go home to enjoy them with some coffee.
Aoki's packaging is really beautiful: white square box with curved planes and an elegant typography.
For our goûters Maria got an éclair and I had the matcha millefeuille.