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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.

1 comment:

  1. i found your blog through your review of Taipei's L'Atelier. I visited the NY location today and thoroughly enjoyed it. I will definitely be visiting your blog more often as I do have a trip to Taipei/Thailand coming up later this week. Thanks for the great reviews!