Google Analytics

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.