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Monday, December 3, 2012

La Festa: Party Pooper

Ever since the news broke in the middle of last year that Grand Victoria Hotel invited the Michelin one-star chef, Igor Macchia, to collaborate on the Italian restaurant, I was curious to try. I am not sure why I waited over a year to finally go to the restaurant, La Festa, but recently my wife, Maria, and I took our two kids for a family dinner on a Sunday night. We had high hopes for the restaurant, but in short the dinner was thoroughly disappointing.

The restaurant is inside a long rectangular space on the second floor of the hotel. The are two rows of tables and one row of booths. The tables are large and spacious, but the booths were a little tight and not too comfortable. Overall the decor was okay though I wasn't too impressed with the ceiling mural depicting the horse race in Siena.

We ordered two starters: the Uovo Morbido, a slow cooked egg with porcini mushroom sauce and the Minestrone soup. The egg was cooked to a nice temperature, I am guessing around 62°C. However, the dish was severely under seasoned and didn't have much flavor. The same can be said about the soup. The vegetables in the soup were chunky and more abundant than the soup itself. The dish was not refined and felt more like a home-cooked meal but without the heartiness.

For our main course, we went with a pizza and a calzone for the kids and two pastas for the adults. The 8-inch pizza (NT$500) with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes was awful: little flavor and undercooked crust. The calzone with Bolognese sauce was a little better but not by much. Frankly, Pizzeria Zoca on the other side of the town does both things better. My spaghetti (NT$780) with sea urchin and a tiny dusting of bottarga was under seasoned, lacking in flavor, and very little aroma. The spaghetti was cooked to the right texture, but frankly that's not too hard. The pasta was served with snap peas that didn't quite go with the rest of the ingredients. Maria had the Agnolotti del Plin, which were served on a napkin. The little dumplings were too dry and without much flavor either.

We ordered a gelato for the kids to share and I skipped dessert and asked for an espresso, which was pretty good. The service was pleasant throughout the night and was probably the only positive aspect of the meal. I do have one issue: I ordered a glass of wine and would have preferred for the wine bottle to be shown and for the wine to be poured in front of me.

We did not leave La Festa in a festive mood. I don't know how much involvement the Michelin-starred chef has with the restaurant. However, if I am the Michelin inspector and La Festa is an acceptable standard by the chef, I would take away his star. The food didn't have much flavor and didn't even smell good. Unless some changes are made, I am not going back.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Arrivederci Chef Angelo Aglianò

In late October Chef Joël Robuchon came to Taipei for his annual visit at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon. My cousin and I, along with other friends were there to see Chef Robuchon again and to sample some new dishes. Besides his usual traveling companions, including the new Iron Chef French Yosuke Suga, Chef Robuchon also brought Xavier Boyer, who ran the L'Atelier in New York after Suga. It was an all-star team in the open kitchen and needless to say, the dinner was spectacular. However, the night was slightly diminished when I was told that Boyer is scheduled to replace the current chef de cuisine Angelo Aglianò in November.

I was disappointed when Suga left Taipei over two years ago and now I am disappointed to learn that Aglianò will leave. While I am sure Boyer will keep the restaurant being the best in Taipei, nevertheless it is always a bit sad to see a friend leave.

Before Aglianò left L'Atelier, I decided it was only right to go have dinner one more time and to say goodbye. My wife, Maria, and I asked a couple of my friends to join us. As with my first dinner with Aglianò, I forwent the menu and asked him to simply cook for us.

We arrived a little early but our friends were running late. As we waited at our seats at the counter, Chef made some tapas for us: ground pig trotters and ears on toasted baguettes; they were delicious. The sommelier Benoît Monier walked by and said this tapas is one of his favorites and that the kitchen should make it more often.

Shortly after we finished the tapas, our friends arrived. Dinner started with an amuse bouche of foie gras mousse. This was followed by a Robuchon classic, caviar with crab meat served in a can. Aglianò gave the dish a little twist in the ingredient and it was great, made even better with the champagne that Benoît kindly poured for us.

Since I have some pictures of my first dinner with Aglianò, I broke with my usual practice of not taking photos at dinner and put my iPhone to work. The next course was a seafood medley: squid stuffed with bacalao, scallop topped with sea urchin, and pan-fried mackerel. This was a very refined dish with delicate flavors. A beautifully presented multi-component dish that is great to have at a restaurant, since it would be too hard to do at home.

Risotto is one of Aglianò's specialties and the one he served this time was off the charts in terms of smell and taste. The risotto was cooked perfectly and layered with the fat from the Iberico ham, topped with girolle mushrooms, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and white truffle from Alba. In short, it was an umami explosion.

The last savory course for the night was a bit of a surprise: local pork from the nearby Yilan County, Tetragonia (New Zealand spinach), and polenta in lieu of the usual mashed potatoes. The pork, especially the fat, was simply delicious, and balanced a bit by the slight bitterness and crunchiness of the spinach. Instead of reminiscing, this dish suggests some sort of things to come.

Dessert was a new concoction by the pastry chef Kazuhisa Takahashi: profiteroles served on top of a chocolate disc and floating on VSOP jelly. I love modernized classic French dessert. The presentation was beautiful - the chocolate disc with circular openings of varying sizes could easily be incorporated into an architectural model of a modern design. This dessert was a great way to end the memorable night.

After a few sips of my espresso, I briefly chatted with Chef and thanked him for all the wonderful meals I had in the past two years at L'Atelier. It's no secret that L'Atelier is my favorite restaurant in Taipei and I look forward to eating Chef Boyer's food. However, Chef Aglianò will be sorely missed. Grazie mille Chef and until we see each other again.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Egg Caviar

Every great French chef seems to have a signature egg dish. One of my favorites is Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Egg Caviar, which he inherited from his mentor Louis Outhier. The dish was created in 1978 and it is still great and remains on the menu at Jean-Georges' eponymous restaurant in New York City.

Since I can only go to Jean Georges now perhaps once a year, I don't get to eat the egg too often. I miss the dish, hence the only way to cure the craving is to make it myself. I served the dish as a first course for my recent dinner party. The recipe is in Jean-Georges' book, Simple to Spectacular, written with Mark Bittman. In fact, the dish is on the cover of the book.

The dish is actually not too difficult to make. Start by cutting off the tops of the eggs with an egg cutter. The empty shells are sterilized in boiling water, cooled, and placed on egg cups. Next, heavy cream is whipped and spiked with some vodka, cayenne pepper, and lemon juice, then placed in a piping bag. The eggs are then poured into a small pan, whisked constantly over medium heat with some butter and seasoning until just scrambled. The assembling starts with spooning the scrambled eggs into the empty egg shell, layering with a couple of rings of cold cream, and topping off with some caviar. Since I can't be regal and dollop with osetra caviar, I use the much cheaper oeufs de lompe instead. Nevertheless, it is a delicious and beautiful dish.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

New Keelung Harbor Service Building

Neil M. Denari Architects + Fei & Cheng Associates have won the competition for New Keelung Harbor Service Building.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


"Do you remember Dana?" Benoît Monier, sommelier at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei,
asked me a few months ago over dinner. Seeing a puzzled look on my face, he added, "She used to be a cook here. Now she is the chef of a new restaurant and you should go check it out sometime." Before I was able to make a reservation at the new restaurant for myself, I was invited to dine there twice by friends - lunch and dinner in a span of three days.

The name of the restaurant is 風流小館 L'Air Café Néo Bistro and it is a collaboration between Chef Dana Yu and Susie Lin of Boite de Bijou. The restaurant is located on the ground floor of an apartment building in an alley behind Xinsheng Elementary School and next to Jinhua Park.

Lunch was via the invitation of my architect friend who helped designed the restaurant. Given the limitations of the site, program and schedule, he did a great job. I particularly like the fact that he put in a new glass facade allowing views of the adjacent park from the inside. The look of the restaurant from the outside with the black window frames and awning actually remind me a bit of L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Saint Germain. The space of the restaurant is rectangular with the tables spread out along the windows. Part of the kitchen is open at the back of the restaurant. A small staircase leads to a room in the basement that can seat around 10 people. While the space in the main hall is simply designed with a limited palette of black, white and grey, the atmosphere is cozy and quite comfortable.

For both lunch and dinner the restaurant offers the same tasting menu and à la carte. The tasting menu consists of five courses for around NT$2,200. For à la carte there is around five starters and five main courses that range from around NT$200 to NT$800. I ordered à la carte for both of my recent meals, mainly because my friends did as they didn't want to eat too much with the tasting menu.

The meals started with bread and some nice butter. The bread is nice and warm but served only one piece at a time. This was followed by an amuse bouche of salmon topped with roe. For the lunch I went with the salad with fig and proscuitto as the starter. The ingredients were fresh but a little under seasoned for me. Moreover, the lettuce was cut into too small of pieces that made them hard to eat with a fork. For my main course I ordered the duck breast, which was served with a piece of foie gras and raspberries. This was a very nice dish as the different components were perfectly executed with nice flavors. For the dinner I started with the foie gras terrine that was layered with eel and served with toasted brioche. This was good and reminded me a little of a similar dish served at Robuchon. My main course was a fish filet that was also cooked well with crispy fish scales. The fish was accompanied by ham, squid, mussels, endives, all very beautifully plated. The savory dishes on the menu show the ambition of the chef and the restaurant, which is certainly more than a café or bistro as the restaurant's name suggests.

In contrast, the dessert selection on the menu is not as interesting as it only consists of crêpes. For my two meals I had the crêpe Suzette and crêpe with banana and chocolate sauce. Both of the crêpes were nice. It would have been more fun if the crêpe Suzette was lit up at the table, which it wasn't. There were actually more choices for bottled water than desserts on the menu. Even with just crêpe one can play with things like mille crêpe as a variation. Given that the restaurant is associated with the pastry and bread shop Boite de Bijou, I expected a bit more diversity of choices with the dessert.

Service is friendly and attentive but with one big problem: dishes don't come out together. For my two-person lunch, my duck came first and my friend's side of the table remained empty. My friend asked me to just eat first and I was a quarter of a way through finishing before my friend's fish was served. Our two orders of the crêpes for desserts also came in succession instead of together.

L'Air is a nice addition to the western restaurant scene in Taipei. I can quibble about the small size of the napkins and the light fixtures hung a bit too low above the table blocking views of my dining companions. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my meals at the restaurant. The chef is good and the place is quite pleasant. The restaurant has been opened for about four months and I am sure it will only get better. I look to go back and try the tasting menu soon.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Back on Hallowed Ground

Recently I visited the 9/11 Memorial and it was the first time since prior to 9/11 that I stepped on this hallowed ground. The Memorial is still a partial construction site and the visit required a timed-entry ticket.

Currently the Memorial is only accessible from the southeast corner after passing through security checks. Upon entering the Memorial, one encounters the rows of trees of the plaza. I quite like the simple and elegant landscape design.

After passing through the greenery I made my way to one of the on-site kiosks to locate a name, Arkady Zaltsman, a former colleague at SOM who perished on 9/11; he was attending a meeting at the south tower. I didn't know Arkady well as we worked on different floors and in different departments of the firm. However, I still vividly remember being told by a partner in the firm that a member of the office died on that tragic day. Therefore, whenever I looked at the World Trade Center site, I cannot help but think about Arkady and my ordeal on 9/11.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

My First Challah

When I was living in New York City, my Sunday brunch typically consisted of challah French toast at the neighborhood diner. The Jewish bread, challah, along with the bagel were two of the staples of the City. In Taipei, I can find bagels in stores, but no one seems to sell challah. What to do? It is pretty clear that the only way to get challah is to make it myself.

I use the recipe by Maggie Glezer and it is relatively straightforward. First mix a little flour, instant yeast with warm water and allow them to ferment for 20 minutes. Whisk in 3 eggs, a little salt, oil, and sugar. Then I use a large spoon to incorporate the rest of the flour into the mixture. Since the dough is too large for my small food processor, I knead it by hand for around 5 minutes or so. Afterwards the dough is placed in a lightly oiled bowl covered with cling film and allowed to rise for around 2 hours. Punch the dough down and cut it into 3 equal parts and roll into three long tubes for braiding. I use the three-strand braid but I don't quite have the technique down yet. Let the bread rise again for another 2 hours or so until the bulk doubles.

Afterwards just brush the dough with some egg wash and bake in the oven at 325F for around 40 minutes. The result is a delicious loaf of bread that costs less than NT$60 and certainly great for French toast on the weekends.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Chang Dai-ch'ien's Residence

Chang Dai-ch'ien 張大千 is arguably the most famous Chinese artist in the twentieth century. He was born in 1899 and lived in many parts of the world until 1977 when he moved to Taiwan and remained there until he died in 1983. Afterwards his family donated his residence to the nearby National Palace Museum as a memorial.

Chang's house is named 摩耶精舍 or Abode of Maya. While the residence is open to the public, the visit requires advance booking and the tour is limited to less than one hour. Recently my wife, Maria, booked a tour to take overseas guests to see the house. Since I have never been there before, I tagged along and was eager to see the home of this great artist, who is known not only for his art, but for his love of food and his exquisite taste.

The house is located in a gated residential neighborhood within walking distance of the National Palace Museum; Chang chose this location as it is the place where a stream splits into two. Our group of five people were greeted at the front door of the house by a tour guide, who started the tour at the front courtyard just inside the gate. The first thing to see was actually Chang's limo given to him by the government, which is parked in an open garage. We then proceeded to step inside to tour the two-story building, which was designed as a four-sided courtyard house.

The more public functions of the house are placed on the ground floor. The first room we visited was the dining room, which has a large round table and a few simple chairs. On one corner of the room is a small table with a large television on it. I suppose Chang was into watching television while taking his meals. A framed calligraphy of a menu for a dinner party is hung on one wall, except it is just a copy as the original is owned by a private collector. Next to the dining room is the parlor where Chang received his guests. The room consists mainly of large sofas, photographs of Chang with dignitaries, and some of the scholar rocks from Chang's extensive collection. This room is linked to Chang's large studio where he paints and teaches. A wax figure of Chang stands next to his large desk. The space is a bit awkward and Chang stands in front of a green fabric door that tour guide didn't know what it leads to. On the way to the small sitting room, we passed a wall with a collection of Chang's walking canes, which are just beautiful objects.

The small sitting room was where Chang's wife entertained her guests: a simple carpeted rectangular space with a few sofas and some more of Chang's scholar rocks on display.

The courtyard in the middle of the building is a bit messy and crowded with plants. The large outdoor garden is located behind the small sitting room. The garden is stretched out with varying levels and views of the hills on the east side and overlooks the split of the stream. This is also where Chang is buried. Chang also has a small birdhouse on one side as well as a hibachi grill. The tour ended with a visit to a cage on the second floor where a couple of monkeys reside. The monkeys are sort of like stage props; I am not sure if it is all that necessary. This was the extent of the tour as the rest of the house is closed to the public.

In short, Chang's house was a big disappointment. It is clear Chang's house is preserved as it was at the time of Chang's death. By now the whole place just feels a bit run down. It also doesn't help that all the paintings that are currently hung on the wall are copies of the originals. While the house may look like the way Chang has left it, the feel of the space is definitely not the same. Moreover, I was disappointed with the setup of the house. Chang didn't seem to have much interest in designing and decorating the house. The spaces are not very interesting. The garden at the back with the collection of rocks and bonsai trees is perhaps the nicest part of the house, yet there is very little link both spatially or visually to it from the various rooms of the building; Chang cared more about his garden probably because they serve as inspiration for his paintings. Overall it was just a very banal house. For someone like Chang, who carefully crafted his appearance, often with a traditional Chinese long robe, tall hat, and a sculpted walking cane, the house doesn't seem to quite fit the image. Perhaps Chang's interest lies only with the imaginary spaces in his art. As an artist, Chang has few peers and his paintings certainly rank as some of the bests in the history of Chinese art. In contrast, his residence is not really worth a visit.

Monday, April 16, 2012

China Academy of Art at Xiangshan

We took a long weekend trip to Hangzhou, China in early April. It was my first time in the city, the hometown of my maternal grandmother. The city is certainly beautiful and one can understand why it has often been referred as heaven on earth.

On one of the afternoons we went to visit the China Art Academy in the Xiangshan district, mainly to see the buildings designed by the new Pritzker Prize winner, Wang Su and his partner Lu Wenyu. The campus is about a 45-minute drive from the West Lake. Prior to the trip and the Pritzker Prize announcement, I didn't know much about Wang and Lu's architecture and ideas.

Since my young kids were not terribly interested in looking at architecture, I wasn't able to spend too much time at the campus and only walked around a few of the buildings in the Phase 2 of the master plan. Below are some pictures of the buildings that I took. Just about all of the buildings are rectangular in plan. Some of the buildings such as Buildings 11 and 18 are organized to have open courtyards in between the volumes.

While the buildings are very simple in their floor plans, the elevations and sections are often more angular and varied. Furthermore, the elevations of the buildings are often given a seemingly random pattern of windows and openings.

The openings on the long sides of Building 13 consist of irregularly shaped openings reminiscent of Chinese garden architecture. The short side of the building is designed with horizontal sun shading constructed of roof tiles often seen in vernacular buildings.

Besides Chinese architecture, to my eyes, Wang and Lu also seem to be influenced by the works of Louis Kahn with the combination of exposed concrete and wood panels.

The building I like the best is No. 14: a pair of rectangular volumes linked on one end that protrude on to a reservoir. The shape of the roofs recalls the local traditional architecture. The exterior walls  on the different sides are given different expressions. The south facing side consists to a glass facade with vertical sun shading, which reminds me of the the windows at La Tourette by Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis.

The facades facing the courtyard inside are in wood.

Below is a view from the inside towards the courtyard through the irregularly shaped portal.

Most impressive are the exterior walls that are made of recycled materials such as bricks and roof tiles from dismantled buildings. The result is not only an interesting visual effect, but a powerful material presence, especially up close.

While I didn't get a chance to spend much time at the campus, I like Wang and Lu's works. Their buildings at the Academy seem to be very economical and practical, especially in the floor plans, yet at the same time the buildings are raw, sculpted, and dynamic. The designs also have a nice sense of scale and very good use of materials. Next time when I am in Hangzhou I will be sure to find time to visit more of their buildings.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

To STAY or to Go

In late March, Chef Yannick Alléno was back in Taipei again. Since I wasn't terribly thrilled with my dinner at STAY in December, I was a bit reluctant to go back. However, after speaking with a good friend, who said I should give the restaurant another try, I went ahead and made a reservation for two.

My wife, Maria, and I arrived at the reserved hour and was promptly seated at a table near the communal table. The sommelier, Yohann Pinol, who recognized us from our previous visits, came by to say hello. For dinner, Alléno was running a special menu for NT$4000, which I promptly ordered; I thought the price was very reasonable. Maria went with one of the regular set menus. In short, the special menu was really good and the regular menu was unremarkable. I said to Maria that it felt like there were two different teams cooking.

The special menu had 5 courses. First was a sea urchin topped with whipped cream and caviar. The dish was excellent and I told Maria that "now we are talking"; it was also nice to finally see some caviar at STAY. This was followed by a basil soup, which was light and flagrant. The third course was a braised sea bass covered with a thin layer of squid and topped with caviar. On the side of the plate was a little lemon cream, which provided a nice acidity to the dish. The fish was served with a small bowl of creamy cauliflower purée on the side. This was perhaps the best dish of the night. The fish was perfectly cooked, the flavors were good, and the dish, except for the caviar, was a study in the color white. It was a very impressive dish. The last savory course was pork cheeks with diced black truffle and wrapped in a cabbage. I was just telling a good friend a few days ago that I don't know why Alléno doesn't have pork on the menu, given that Chinese people like pork and Taiwan produces good pork. Therefore I was very happy to finally see some pork on the menu. The cabbage was bright green and the cheeks were just delicious. The pork was also served with the cauliflower purée and this was the only strange thing of the night. The cauliflower was absolutely delicious, but I didn't need to eat it twice. What's worse, when it was first brought to the table I asked the server if this was the same cauliflower purée. The server said, no, it was a potato purée. After a few tastes, Maria and I were pretty sure it was not potato. We asked the server again and she said she would go and check with the kitchen. Few minutes later, she came back and said it was the same cauliflower purée and it was a "gift" from the kitchen. Maybe this was a test to see if we could tell the difference? It was just strange and a bit random as no spoon was offered to eat it with either; the service was not quite there yet. Dessert was essentially a deconstructed mille feuille, which was nicely plated. The cylinder-shaped vanilla cream and ice cream were both excellent. It was a good dessert befitting the restaurant and not just a pastry placed on an empty plate or a little disc. Through out the meal I kept wondering if they will put some of the dishes on the special menu onto the regular menu.

In contrast, Maria's regular menu was not so great. The first dish, burrata, was perhaps the best. The chestnut soup that followed was a bit too sweet and the texture of some of the components were too hard. The third course, the eggs, were good but the last savory course, roasted veal tenderloin, was a bit overcooked. Maria thought the dessert, brownie, was a bit too sweet.

Near the end of our meal, a captain came by and asked if the meal was better than the last time we were here. I didn't remember seeing this captain last time, so I was intrigued by the question. Does this mean everyone knew I wasn't so thrilled with my last meal at STAY? If they really cared, perhaps they should have noticed that Maria didn't finish her veal, nor her dessert?

Before we left, Alléno came by and sat down and chatted with us. We talked to him about his new bistro in Paris and his new "hot dog" dish. I also asked him to sign two of my books. Alleno seems like a great guy and he is a tremendous chef. I am sure he can do the special menu in his sleep. The special menu that I had was at the level that I expected STAY to be at. It is a menu that makes one want to go to the restaurant, and for us, worth paying for a babysitter to keep the kids at home. If the restaurant can remain at that level, I will go back more frequently and be quite happy. The current and soon to be replaced menu was just a bore. I told Alleno that the special menu was fantastic but we didn't have the heart to tell him that the regular menu was really not so good. Perhaps they know already and it wasn't worth it to keep beating a dead horse. Alléno said a new menu and a new chef de cuisine will be in place in April. I haven't seen the new menu yet. However, I wish the restaurant will push harder and operate at a higher level. I really want to like STAY and I hope they will let me.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sweet Tea

Sweet Tea by Yannick Alléno opened recently on the 4th floor of the Taipei 101 Mall, not too far from STAY. So far I have not sat down at Sweet Tea and only purchased a couple of things to go and I quite enjoyed them.

The first time I went I bought a St. Honoré and it was excellent, just as I remembered when I ate it at STAY. The pastry is priced at NT$190, which seems to be a better deal than eating it at STAY. The packaging is also very beautiful and fancier than a Hermes tie box: a square box with magnetic closure, light grey on the outside and green on the inside. The pastry sits on a folded cardboard with handles that that can be lifted out of the box. The St. Honoré was just delicious and beautiful to look at.

The second time I went I bought a box of macarons which are priced at NT$80 each with a box of eight at NT$580; the prices are very reasonable. There are eight flavors to choose from and all of them are quite good. The packaging with the pink color lined sturdy box is also very nice.

While I didn't really like STAY, I am quite happy with Sweet Tea. It is a nice addition to the pastry shops in Taipei and certainly on par with two of the bests in town: Salon de Thé de Joël Robuchon and Pâtisserie Sadaharu Aoki. I look forward to buying more things from Sweet Tea.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

My Three SOM Projects in Singapore

In my six years at the New York office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), I worked on a variety of projects in many places including six in Singapore. Of the six, only three were built. While I was at SOM, I never visited Singapore; only the partners and the senior associates made the trips. It wasn’t until recently when we vacationed in Singapore did I finally see my projects in person: Changi MRT Station, One George Street, and the roof of Changi Terminal 3.

Changi MRT Station was the first project that I ever worked on at SOM. The design started in 1997 and the project was completed in 2001. The main task of the design was to connect the planned underground station with Terminal 1 and the yet-to-be-designed Terminal 3. Our solution was to create two large rectangular glass boxes at the two ends of the station to house vertical circulations that connect the airport terminals to the subway terminal. The platform for the subway is at basement level 2, and basement level 1 is for passengers to transfer between Terminals 1 and 3. For this connection we designed an illuminated glass bridge that spans the length of the concourse. 

The walking surface of the bridge is also in translucent glass with illumination from below. Above the two ends of the bridge and the top of the escalators coming from the platform level are large glass skylights, which look good and work well.

The atria are oriented perpendicular to the glass bridge. Inside are two sets of escalators, one to the departure level and the other to the arrival level.

The exterior walls of the atria consist of a double glazed wall with point fixing glass. In between the glass are sun shadings made with steel mesh that can also be walked on for maintenance.

I was happy to see some of the little things in the project that we designed were realized, such as the glass box for the fire hose reel. In many instances, we didn't have a say in the locations or amount of equipment required. We simply had to do our best to make them look good.

One George Street is a Class A office building located near Raffles Place. The client for the project is Capitaland. Prior to engaging SOM, Capitaland had already asked a local firm to plan the building and develop the core. Before we started design it was already determined that parking will be above grade; the location of the car ramp was also fixed. Capitaland, being an experienced developer, knew very well what they wanted in terms of total floor areas, typical floor efficiency, floor heights, tenant requirements, costs...etc. They even told us that the main part of the building have to be a rectangle with only 90 degree corners. In short, we had a lot of restrictions with the design. Our solution was to make the massing into a sculpted block. Since Sinagpore’s zoning code encouraged sky gardens in buildings, we cut out a few multi-storey volumes. The upper levels are set back to provide a few floors of smaller floor plates for executive offices along with a long sky garden. The facade consists of clear glass with a screen of custom shaped louvers for the offices.

The screen continues on the parking and mechanical levels to produce a unified appearance. The shape of the lobbies took the cue from the circular car ramp. The multiple lobbies on the ground floor allow some of the anchor tenants to have their own lobbies. One George Street was completed in 2005. It was nice to see the building in person and be able to walk around the lobbies. The building looks to be in good shape and well maintained.
With the success of the Changi MRT Station, SOM was engaged to design the exterior envelope of Terminal 3. We worked with Bartenbach LichtLabor to develop the skylights. We nicknamed the design "The Cloud". The idea was to create an atmospheric effect of light inside the departure hall. Instead of employing the curvilinear trusses that are so prevalent in recent airport designs, we used simple rectangular trusses with an industrial feel. This was contrasted by the planar and curved shape louvers that were placed in a seemingly random fashion, all done manually in the pre-Rhino and Grasshopper era.

Terminal 3 was completed in 2007. As I walked in the space, the results seem quite good. Natural light permeated the space and it was comfortable. The only downside is someone, not SOM, decided to paint the columns brown, which I don’t understand at all. The floor pattern, which we did not designed either, seemed too busy and unnecessarily tried to echo the “clouds” at the ceiling. 

Whenever I visit my projects I cannot help but notice the little mistakes and problems and the history associated with them; most of these things are never noticed by lay people unless pointed out to them. One always strive to make things perfect, but of course things are never perfect. Nevertheless, I have to say these three projects turned out quite well. While in my mind I know the buildings very well, it was still extremely satisfying to see them in person.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Convent on the Hill 山丘上的修道院

A few months ago a poster for the book, The Convent on the Hill - Le Corbusier's Last Vision  山丘上的修道院, was sent to our office. The book is by photographer Nicholas Fan, 范毅舜, and is mainly about La Tourette designed by Le Corbusier. Intrigued by the image on the poster and with La Tourette being one of my favorite buildings by Le Corbusier, I ordered a copy via I spent a bit more money and bought the limited edition with the slipcover; I can't help it as I am a sucker for any book in a slipcover.

Only when I received the book did I realize this is more than just a collection of photographs. Fan wrote quite a bit of text to accompany his photographs. For the most part the text is fine. The story is essentially divided into two parts: the history before Le Corbusier received the commission and the design of La Tourette. The main protagonist of the first part is Father Marie-Alain Couturier, who was instrumental in hiring Le Corbusier to design La Tourette. Father Couturier was a visionary who pushed for the church to be the patron of the best contemporary artists and architects. It is very nice to see Fan discussed extensively about Father Couturier since great architecture cannot come to fruition without a great client.

While I enjoy reading about the first part of the story, I am disappointed with the second part - the design of La Tourette. Fan wrote admiringly about Le Corbusier's design. He  said that the first time he visited La Tourette in 1991 he hated the design. However, going back twenty years later to photograph the building, he has modified his views. In one caption to the photograph, Fan said he changed his attitude about Le Corbusier after seeing nature through the undulating glass surfaces (page 192). I can't help but wonder if Fan realizes that the windows were actually not designed by Le Corbsuier, but generally acknowledged to be the work of Iannis Xenaxis. Fan also made a big deal about Le Corbusier's creativity with the light canons, however, these were also credited to Xenaxis. In fact, the the seven light canons at the sacristy were also designed by Xenaxis.

To write about La Tourette but make no mention of Xenaxis is really unacceptable. A simple search on Wikipedia will provide some basic insights on Xenaxis' involvement in the design of La Tourette. Furthermore, even Le Corbusier had acknowledged the contribution by Xenakis.

Nevertheless, while I find the text to be wanting, I thoroughly enjoy looking at Fan's photographs as they are quite beautiful and capture the space and the life within the building. The book is certainly still worth buying for anyone interested in La Tourette.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Restaurant Andre

The first time I heard about chef André Chiang, 江振誠, was from an article in The New York Times in early 2011. Chiang's eponymous restaurant was one of the ten restaurants deemed by the article as "Worth a Plane Ride." Intrigued, I read more about him on the web and found out he was actually born in Taiwan and later spent fourteen years in France training with some of the best chefs: Pierre Gagnaire, Joël Robuchon, Jacques and Laurent Pourcels, Michel Troigros, and Pascal Barbot. He opened his own restaurant in Singapore in late 2010 and quickly garnered many accolades.

The opportunity to go to Restaurant Andre came in 2012. With a week-long Chinese New Year holiday in Taiwan, our family decided to spend a few days in Singapore. Once the plane tickets were purchased three weeks in advance, I emailed Restaurant Andre to ask for a reservation for dinner for two. The restaurant manager Stepan Marhoul responded promptly and asked for a credit card number to secure the reservation. After faxing the required information, my reservation was set and Stepan said he would personally welcome us at the restaurant.

Restaurant Andre is located on 41 Bukit Pasoh Road near the Chinatown. Housed in a refurbished shophouse and setback slightly from the street wall, the restaurant is actually quite small and seats only 30 diners. My wife, Maria, and I were greeted by a hostess outside the door and led to our table in the main room on the second floor. This is an intimate room with only 5 tables that seat around 12 diners. On one side of the room is a wall paper of trees, while the opposite side consisted of dark back-painted glass with white wall trims. The sheep sculptures are actually used for ladies' handbags. On the ceiling are two beautiful white chandeliers by Jason Miller. The carpeted room is quite comfortable and the small scale feels more like a home than a restaurant.

After we sat down, Stepan came to greet us and to explain the concept behind the cuisine. There are no menus to choose from and the S$288 set dinner is based on the chef's Octaphilosophy, which is essentially eight savory dishes based on eight themes: Pure, Salt, Artisan, South, Texture, Unique, Memory, and Terroir. Normally, I don't take pictures when I am at a restaurant, but since the menu didn't contain descriptions of the dishes, I made an exception and snapped away with my iPhone.

The dinner started with a number of amuse-bouches, snackings as Stepan called them, and all of them are somewhat playful: a box of edible "dirt" made from chocolate and garlic, two dimensional mushroom chip, popcorn, tuna tartare wrapped inside paper, and chicken skin with marsala flavor. This was a fun way to start the meal and also a display of the range of techniques.

The first course of the Octaphilosophy was Pure. Stepan explained to us that this dish had no seasoning and cooking. The ingredients - mussels, shrimp and cold pressed zucchini juice - were meant to speak for themselves. The dish was light and with good and clean flavors; a very elegant way to start a meal.

The second course was Salt, an oyster draped with seaweed and paired with an apple foam. The brunoise of apples make for a nice decoration on the plate.

The third dish, Artisan, celebrates the farmers, in this case with a corn grown outside of the City of Taipei. The corn was just simply charcoal grilled which added a slight smoky taste to the natural sweetness. The serving plate was designed and made by the chef.

The next course, South, refers to the time the Chef spent in the southern France. This was probably my favorite dish of the night, which actually came in two parts: a salad on the left and a seafood risotto on the right. The vegetables were fresh and flavorful and the risotto was well executed.

The fifth course, Texture, was the most playful and deceptive dish of the night. Stepan described the dish a "risotto", except the creamy white "rice" at the bottom is actually made of diced squid. The black chip on the top was a charred vegetable and rice cracker that didn't use any squid ink. This was served with a cauliflower puree and some parmesan cheese dusted at the bottom.

Stepan told us the seventh course, Memory, is a dish that chef André has been serving for over fourteen years: a warm foie gras mousse topped with black truffle jelly. After eating the dish I can understand why his regular customers wouldn't let him take it off the menu. The dish was delicious with great texture and flavors.

The last savory course, Terroir, was a lamb which was cooked perfectly and served with squash puree and Chinese artichokes.

Afterwards, three types of cheeses from Bernard Antony were served with jam, crackers and biscuits. All the components were nice and it was a pleasure to be served some cheese after the savory courses.

A pre-dessert followed the cheese course, and then came the dessert, chocolate in many different forms and textures. This was a highly enjoyable dish. The chocolate dome in the front actually contains runny chocolate inside.

After dessert we were served a plate of mignardises: mini-madeleines, pâtes de fruits, marshmallow, and popcorn that echoed the beginning of our dinner. As we finished our meal with a couple of espressos, chef André came by our table to say hello and asked about the meal. We asked him about his work experience, being in Singapore, and some of the techniques involved with the dishes. We found chef André to be a thoughtful and engaging person, and asked him to sign the menus for us.

We thoroughly enjoyed the dinner. While chef André didn't work with Thomas Keller, the dinner reminded us of our meals at Per Se - not just with the number of courses, the emphasis on ingredients, and the precise techniques, but also the playfulness of some of the dishes as well as the references to personal history, places, and memories. The meal at Restaurant Andre was certainly the highlight of our trip to Singapore and worth a special journey.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Galette des Rois by Lalos

Since Lalos Bakery by Frédéric Lalos opened in the basement of Taipei 101 Mall in late October, I have frequented the store regularly to buy the assortment of baked goods. I really like the bakery and it is a welcomed addition to food scene in Taipei. In late December, after our dinner at STAY Taipei with some great breads by Lalos, we came down to the store to buy some more for breakfast. I noticed they made the Galette des Rois and promptly ordered one with a fève inside to be picked up on the Epiphany.

The galette was freshly baked on the day. The 8.5 inch galette we ordered was NT$520 and it came with a paper crown.

Lalos' version was quite traditional: puff pastry layers with a dense center of frangipane. When we sliced the cake we found a 招財貓 as the fève, which was quite fun. The cake was quite good and our whole family enjoyed it. This year our younger daughter Ava got the piece with the trinket inside and she happily wore the crown for the rest of the night.

Monday, January 2, 2012

STAY Taipei

Last year's most anticipated restaurant opening in Taipei was STAY, an acronym for Simple Table Alléno Yannick. News about the restaurant emerged earlier last year and a formal press conference was held in May to announce the opening. The reason for the enthusiasm is obviously Yannick Alléno, the second three-Michelin-star chef after Joël Robuchon to open a restaurant in Taipei.

Alléno is one of the most ambitious young French chefs (born 1968). Not only does he run the three-star restaurant at Le Meurice, he is also responsible for the two-star restaurant Le 1947 at Cheval Blanc. In 2008, he established Groupe Yannick Alléno and began to expand on a global scale. In addition to the aforementioned Michelin-star restaurants, or Grand Tables as labeled by Alléno, there are now a total of four Simple Tables (STAY), including the one in Taipei. Besides the restaurants, Alléno also runs Sweet Tea, a tea salon. Furthermore, he publishes the eponymous magazine YAM or Yannick Alléno Magazine, which is intended for chefs. Needless to say, with Alléno's accomplishments and reputation, the expectations for STAY Taipei are high.  

STAY is located on one corner of the fourth floor in the shopping mall at Taipei 101, adjacent to the Bulgari boutique. Getting to the restaurant essentially entails going through the mall. The restaurant is open to the mall without doors and some of the seats in the restaurant actually can look out at people going up and down the escalators.

The restaurant seats 90 people plus three private dining rooms. Unlike STAY Dubai and STAY Beijing, where the decor is more luxurious in appearance, STAY Taipei is relatively simple and muted, but not in a good way. Compared to its other sister restaurants, the tables at Taipei are spaced closer together. The main dining room is a relatively high-ceiling but window-less rectangular space. There doesn't seem to be an overall theme to the design. For instance, the walls on the four sides are completely different. On the entrance side there are the vertical white fins that act as a screen. Opposite to this is a gridded wall of geometric tree branches above the banquette. One of the short sides of this rectangular space consists of different fragments of picture frames in light-colored wood stuck on dark-mirrored glass in some inexplicable pattern. The other short side is perhaps the pièce de résistance of the room: glass jars of pastries sitting on a marble countertop and behind it a beautiful glass closet with illuminated shelves holding more pastries. While there are aspects of the design of the restaurant that are quite nice, the various parts don't seem to come together in coherent manner.

The restaurant opened to the public in early November. My wife, Maria, and I booked a table for two for dinner in late December. After we settled down at one end of the banquette, the two of us were handed only one set of menu: one sheet for à la carte and the other for the various sets. Since we were not familiar with the menu, the two of us kept passing the menu back and forth to study what was offered. Frankly, it was extremely annoying to share a menu.

We decided to order à la carte. Maria started with the Fregola Sarda Pasta followed by the "Café de Paris" beef. I had the Duck Foie Gras, followed by the Parmentier Soup, and then the Poached Mahi Mahi. The prices for the dishes in Taipei are a little cheaper than their counterparts in Dubai. For instance, the Fregola Pasta costs Dhs$60 (around NT$495) in Dubai and NT$460 in Taipei. The Foie Gras is priced at Dhs$120 (around NT$990) in Dubai and NT$880 in Taipei.

The server first brought over a square box of bread: two each for three kinds. The bread is supplied by Lalos, which has a store at the basement of the Taipei 101 Mall. All three kinds of bread were very good. In fact we finished them relatively quickly, however, seeing the empty box the server did not ask if we wanted more.

We were asked if we wanted some wine. We said yes, and was handed the wine list and told the sommelier would come over to help us. The wine list is on a single sheet of paper and consists only of full bottles and some magnums. Since the two of us don't drink too much, we asked the sommelier to recommended some wines by the glass. We told the young sommelier the dishes we ordered and he picked out a couple of nice red wines for us.

The meal started with a trio of amuse bouches, which were all in round shapes with one being half an egg; the three bites were all delicious. Maria's pasta was shaped in a disc-form and dusted with parmesan cheese and botarga. The fregola was cooked well, however the dish was a little under seasoned. My foie gras came in a disc-shape as well. Just to emphasize the circular form even more, the toasted brioche that accompanied the foie, as well as the salt and pepper on the plate were all in round forms. It is safe to assume that the circle must be Alléno's favorite shape. However, the fascination with the round form doesn't really extend to the design of the restaurant except for the light fixtures. The foie gras was beautifully presented with a layer of passion fruit jelly on top and sprinkles of gold leaves. I thoroughly enjoyed the dish and it was clear the Michelin-starred chef worked a little magic into it. My parmentier soup was poured table side and it was also delicious.

When the server brought our main courses, she got our dishes switched around and served me the steak instead of the fish. This was not a big deal, but it was another one of the many little things that annoyed us; there were more to follow. Maria's steak au poivre came sliced and was cooked to the right temperature. The sauce was very good and so were the french fries served on the side. My mahi mahi à la Dugléré was also cooked well, but the whole dish, including the round shaped potatoes were a little under seasoned. The flavors didn't quite come through. Half way through our main courses, our server came to ask how we liked the food. We replied the fish and the pasta earlier were both under seasoned. Instead of just acknowledging our comments, the server said the two dishes were meant to be light. I didn't want to get into an argument with the server but I had to repeat to her that the fish was under seasoned and I already helped myself with the white Peugeot salt mill on the table.

After the main courses (Café de Paris versus Café Anglais), our server asked if we wanted to take a break before she showed us the pastry library. We said yes as we were quite full. While we waited she brought a couple of  mini-pastries, pre-desserts I suppose; both of them, the lemon tart and the cream puff, were delicious. The small lemon tart had a good crust and a tasty filling. Shortly after another server brought over some mini-madeleines that were served on sticks. They were okay but I would have preferred the mini madeleines be served warm like at Daniel Boululd's restaurants. As we waited for our server to take us to the pastry library, she told us there would be another surprise, which turned out to be a Gateau St. Honoré. This was a very nice little gift from the restaurant and it came with a little candle and a chocolate disc with the message, "Happy Birthday". Our server even told us to make a wish. The problem was it was not anyone's birthday but our wedding anniversary, which I informed the restaurant when I made the reservation via email. Again, not a big deal but it just added to the annoyance. After our server laid down the cake on the table she said she would bring over two plates for us. The plates never came and after waiting for a while, we just ate the cake. The vanilla cream, the choux pastry, and the puff pastry base were all delicious. The cake was also beautifully constructed. After we finished the St. Honoré, we waited to be taken to see the pastry library. However, a tour was never offered. Since we were quite full, we didn't ask to see it either and simply ordered some coffees. The espressos (NT$180 plus service charge for a single shot) were quite good and they were served with a couple of nice cookies.

The dinner at STAY was pretty good but I expected more from Alléno. Given that Alléno is a three-Michelin star chef, a comparison with the other three-Michelin star chef's establishment in Taipei is inevitable. Whereas L'Atelier harbors aspirations to be a three-star restaurant (the Hong Kong branch received its third star last year), STAY seems to aim much lower and is less ambitious. At L'Atelier one can order tête de veau, ris de veau, cheese, steak tartare and many other items that are not necessarily popular with the local palette. While these items may not sell well, there is no dumbing down with the cuisine. At L'Atelier, around half of the seating is at the bar. While most people in Taipei prefer a table and private rooms, L'Atelier makes few concessions to the local preference. In fact Robuchon was quoted in the local press that he is confident the locals will eventually like the bar seating. There is an attitude of: this is what's good and even if you don't understand or like it now, you will, which I appreciate. STAY seems to decide to serve crowd pleasers or things that will go down easy: steak, lobster, grilled salmon, roast chicken...etc. While there is nothing wrong about catering to the local dining preferences, I do wish STAY will aim higher and push the boundary a bit.

The food at STAY should be much bolder. The steak au poivre that we had is probably the best peppered steak in Taipei. However, that is not saying much, especially for a chef as ambitious as Alléno. Overall most of the food at STAY simply doesn't excite nor dazzle. While I am not expecting STAY to serve dishes as complex as the ones served at Le Meurice, the restaurant in Taipei can do more. For instance, in the current issue of Alléno's own magazine, under the section of Simple Table, there is a recipe for Civet de Pigeon, Céleri Fondant aux Fins Lardons. The pigeon breast and legs are cooked sous vide at different temperatures and served on a bed of celery. One cannot help but wonder why a dish like that isn't on the menu, especially given the fact that Alléno is one of the early adopters of the sous vide technique. Moreover, even STAY in Beijing is fancier with the checker board of pureed ham and butter for the bread and a starter of sea urchin and caviar.

The lack of excitement also extends to the pastry library. While the St. Honoré that we had was excellent, it was just a pastry served on an empty plate, not unlike at a tea salon. We didn't get a chance to order the pastry ribbon, which was just as well, since we probably would have been disappointed with it. Half a meter of ribbon with 4 pastries would have cost NT$1,580 or NT$395 per pastry. This is almost double the price for a piece of pastry at Robuchon's Salon de Thé. Furthermore, by limiting the dessert course to simply pastries, Alléno essentially eliminated all the warm desserts in the French repertoire: soufflé, tarte tatin, crêpe, fondant au chocolat, roast fruit, pain perdu...etc. This is especially disappointing for the winter season. Frankly the pastry library is a bit too similar to what is served at Salon de Thé de Joël Robuchon or Pâtisserie Sadaharu Aoki, and I don't think it is enough for a restaurant.

Will I go back to STAY? Yes. STAY is a nice addition to the western dining scene in Taipei. While I don't really love the design of the restaurant, the seats and tables are comfortable and the ambiance is relaxed. In general the service is fine, though I would like to see them work out the kinks and be a bit more attentive. The food is also good and surely there is talent in the kitchen. I understand Alléno's concept for the Simple Table, however, simple doesn't have to be easy; simple should not be boring; and simple can be innovative and luxurious. I know Alléno can do more and I hope he will.