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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Au Revoir Chef Suga

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.

Friday, October 8, 2010


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.