Google Analytics

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Retour à L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei

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.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

On Dialogue

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.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


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."