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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Arbitrage: Books

Despite the fact that I have an iPad and read e-books with the Kindle app or iBooks, I still like physical books. I like the construction and feel of a book as an object and enjoy the act of flipping through the pages. Therefore, I still buy many books every year, especially hardcover English-language books. However, I almost never buy them in Taiwan, neither online nor at Eslite bookstore. The reason is simple, the hardcover books are almost always cheaper at

Recently I purchased the new cookbook by Daniel Patterson of Coi Restaurant in San Francisco. This book is available at Eslite for NT$1,521 at a special discount of 21% off the original price. At first glance the discount seems to suggest this might be a good deal, but it is actually not.

At, the same book is available for US$33.33 (33% off the list price). Since the book needs to be shipped to Taiwan, there are additional shipping charges of US$4.99 per shipment and US$4.99 per book. The total cost of the book purchased on is US$43.31 or around NT$1280.

Eslite would have to discount the book by around 33 percent from their list price to make the price to be about the same.

The cost difference between Eslite and Amazon is greater the more expensive the book because the shipping cost becomes a smaller percentage of the overall cost. Also, if one purchases multiple books in one shipment, the cost will go down as well since one of the shipping cost is per shipment. Furthermore, Amazon often offers greater discount for Best Sellers (around 45% off list) or for pre-ordering. Not only is pre-ordering cheaper but one also gets the book much sooner than the local stores. I pre-ordered Daniel Boulud's new book Daniel a few months ago, which Amazon was offering for 50% off list for US$30 or US$39.98 with shipping. I received the book a few weeks ago after it was published; as of today neither Eslite nor have the book yet.

I am not sure why the local bookstore cannot be more competitive on price; then again, not too many companies anywhere can compete with Amazon. I just know I am not buying foreign books via a local seller.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Angelo Restaurant

Angelo Restaurant 安傑羅 is located on the ground floor of a nondescript, tiled six-story apartment building inside a narrow alley off the bustling Zhongxiao East Road. The black awning of the restaurant marks a complete break from the building above; the wall and some of the window frames enclosing the restaurant are also in black. The fact that the stylish and a little mysterious outward appearance of the restaurant reminds one of L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon at Saint-Germain in Paris is probably not a coincidence. The chef patron of Angelo Restaurant, Angelo Aglianò, worked for many years as a chef for Joël Robuchon at several different locales. Just prior to starting his eponymous restaurant, Aglianò ran the Taipei branch of L'Atelier. Instead of transferring to another branch in a different country after completing his two-year contract, he decided, with Robuchon's blessing, to go out on his own and to realize his dream of owning and running his restaurant.

Angelo is my most anticipated restaurant opening in Taipei this year. In fact I have been waiting for this ever since my last dinner at L'Atelier with Aglianò at the helm in October 2012. At that time, Aglianò didn't have anything concrete yet. He only had plans to talk to some investors for the new restaurant and even the location may not be in Taipei. Since Aglianò left Robuchon, I heard different rumors about where he would land. One of them suggested that he would take up the toque at the Italian restaurant at the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Taipei. Even Aglianò's ex-colleagues at Robuchon didn't seem to know, or at least were not willing to spill any beans.

It wasn't until August this year that by chance I saw someone "Liked" Angelo Restaurant on Facebook. Intrigued, I clicked on the page and at first only saw a bunch of construction photos. Scrolling through the photo album I came across a picture of Aglianò in a black t-shirt sitting at a table trying out the place setting in the middle of the construction site. Finally, I had the confirmation I needed. At a time when talents in different fields tend to leave rather than stay in Taiwan, I am glad Aglianò decided to remain in Taipei. I also applaud his partners for helping him make the restaurant a reality.

Since the restaurant is not too far from my apartment, from time to time I would stop by on my way to Dunhua Eslite bookstore and peek through the windows to see the progress of the construction. The space that is now Angelo used to be occupied by Papa Giovanni, an Italian restaurant that began in 1996 and later became Papa Gio'. It is very nice to see the Italian flag continue to fly at that location. However, besides staying as an Italian restaurant, everything else is changed with a gut renovation.

One enters Angelo Restaurant via a set of wood sliding doors on a small raised terrace with potted plants. A decorative and translucent glass screen separates the reception from the dining area. On the left of the reception is a small bar with a lit up Peroni tap handle; a nice little area to grab a drink while waiting for friends to show up. The setup of the restaurant takes a page from the L'Atelier playbook with counter seating overlooking the open kitchen. In fact the kitchen at Angelo is almost completely open except for the dishwashing and the cold storage areas. The different stations of the kitchen are laid out in parallel bars perpendicular to the counter area with the kitchen pass and heat lamps located at the end of the counter. The kitchen staff, except the pastry chefs, are all dressed in black.

Just like at L'Atelier, I prefer to sit at the counter at Angelo. I like to watch the kitchen in action and to see my meal being made in front of me. I enjoy cooking and know enough about it to realize that I will never cook like a professional; sitting at the counter is as close as I will ever get. Probably due to the lack of space in the kitchen, when one is seated at the counter, the dishes are served from behind the customers, rather than served directly in front like at a sushi bar or at L'Atelier. This is not a problem per se since if one is seated at a table, the dishes would be served from behind as well. However, it may mean the restaurant will not be able to seat the customers at the counter as tightly as currently laid out.

Besides the counter seating there are also table seating divided between two areas of the restaurants; the area at the back has banquettes. Also, unlike L'Atelier Taipei, Angelo has three private dining rooms of different sizes; this should be good for business.

The overall palette of the restaurant consists mostly of different shades of grays, dark wood, and beige, which reminds me a bit of the style of Armani Casa. The tables and counter are done with light grey stone. Similar to L'Atelier, there are no tablecloths but placemats in shades of dark and light grey stripes. The dinnerwares are strictly in white. While one can tell there wasn't a carte blanche budget, nevertheless, it was money well spent and not over designed. The overall appearance is simple and elegant.

The only downside to the space of Angelo is the ceiling, which is a bit lower than one would like. This is not a problem with the design, rather an all too common issue with restaurants located in existing residential buildings in Taipei. The designers mitigate this issue by making the space continuous and open. The filtered natural light from the windows also helps make the space bigger and more comfortable. I certainly enjoy lingering in the restaurant especially in the early afternoon, sipping an espresso and munching on a biscotti after a long lunch.

Angelo's logo has the color of the Italian flag in a wave-like ribbon so it is obvious that the restaurant serves Italian cuisine. While Aglianò is from Sicily, the food is not limited to southern Italy, in fact it is not even limited to Italy as mini-baguette, Spanish ham and foie gras are offered. Some of the dishes on the menu are from northern Italy, perhaps as a reflection of Aglianò's time spent in Milan. The risotto alla Milanese is served with osso buco on top, and is simply delicious. The beef carpaccio is served with artichokes hearts and deemed by my good friend, Alfred, as the "best carpaccio ever". The tiramisu is placed on a plate dusted with chocolate and accompanied by a scoop of coffee ice cream.

Southern Italy is represented with a tasty spaghetti with clams and bottarga shavings. There is also the melanzane alla parmigiana with a soft egg. The baba au rhum is more in the Neapolitan style with ricotta cream. Also present on the menu is a wagyu beef rib that Aglianò used to serve at L'Atelier. My friend and I shared this once; it was expensive but fabulous. Seafood accounts for a large portion of the menu and Aglianò sources his fish, shrimp, and squid locally. The seafood is mostly prepared with a light touch, allowing the flavors of the ingredients to come through cleanly.

What makes me really happy is that unlike many western restaurants in Taiwan, Aglianò loves to serve pork. I don't know why western restaurants prefer to serve imported beef instead of pork. For instance when STAY first opened in Taipei, there was no pork on the menu. There are so many things that one can do with pork and they are all more interesting than a fillet of beef. I like steaks, but Taiwan has great pork so why not use it? I was once told that Aglianò's old boss, Robuchon, said of all the countries he has restaurants in, Taiwan has the best suckling pig. Maybe we need the western chefs to show us how pork can be done in western restaurants in Taiwan. Or we can learn from Homer Simpson, who once referred to the pig – the source of ham, bacon, and pork chop – as "a magical and wonderful animal." At Angelo, one can start a meal with some jamon Iberico, albeit imported, the hard-to-find in Taiwan product is arguably the best ham in the world. The primo can be the maccheroncini with pancetta. The secondo can be a pork chop Milanese style served with some arugula, peeled cherry tomatoes, and Parmigiano shavings on the side. All three pork dishes are terrific. And if they are not enough for a pork lover, there is also a roasted suckling pig on the menu.

Over the years of visiting L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei, I have come to know chef Aglianò and consider him to be a friend. I have also grown to know and recognize some of the other staff at Robuchon, who have joined Aglianò at his restaurant as manager, sommelier, sous chef, pastry chef, captains, and servers. When I go to Angelo they take good care of me, therefore, I am not an anonymous diner with an unbiased view. Nevertheless, I will still offer that Angelo is already the best Italian restaurant in Taiwan. For the moment, just consider the four-course lunch set that I had recently. Where else can one find a selection of exquisitely done antipasti being offered like they do in Italy? Where else can one find such high quality risotto that is creamy, al dente, and served all'onda? Where else can one find fork tender beef cheeks cooked with the modern sous vide technique served over a bed of polenta cooked for four hours in the the traditional manner? Where else can one find a beautifully plated crispy sfogliatelle? Not only is the food wonderful, the value conscious diners would be pleased to know that the aforementioned four-course lunch costs NT$980 plus 10 percent service charge, and includes some great bread baked in-house, an amuse bouche, and coffee with cookies.

Angelo opened in the middle of September. The restaurant continues to make adjustments to be better. The service is pleasant and cordial but some of the junior staff are a bit hesitant and not as confident in their abilities yet. The wine list is still being put together. The kitchen is staffing up and the junior cooks are learning to work at Aglianò's standards. Aglianò says he is not firing on all cylinders yet. He asks his regular customers as well as himself to be patient. In time the food will be more consistent and ambitious. Already, I had some off-the-menu specials, including a sexy risotto with Sicilian flavors of sea urchin and cuttlefish.

I can only assume that Aglianò is not looking to just be the best Italian restaurant in Taiwan, but to have a restaurant that is worthy of Michelin stars; frankly, I expect nothing less. For the time being it is actually quite interesting for the diner to be part of the ride and to see how the restaurant is improving little by little everyday. Needless to say I will be dining at Angelo as often as possible.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Porthole Kickstarter

The first time I saw the Porthole was on the September 2011 cover of Food Arts magazine. The Porthole with herbs and fruits sandwiched between two round pieces of glass looked stunning. The Porthole is a cylindrical glass vessel custom-designed and made by Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail, and used at the Aviary Bar for various infusions. Aviary is operated by Grant Achatz, who also owns the famous 3-Michelin star restaurant, Alinea, in Chicago. I came to know Kastner's work through the various serving pieces he developed with Achatz for Alinea, which were well publicized along with Alinea's innovative cuisine. However, the Porthole was something that I actually want to get. Unlike some of the Alinea serving pieces, the Porthole seems like something I can use at home. It turns out I wasn't the only one thinking about a Porthole. Many people who frequent Aviary asked about purchasing the Porthole. There are even stories of some guests trying to take the Portholes home.

When I found out on the Internet that Kastner was doing a Kickstarter project to fund a commercial version of the Porthole, I was happy to make a pledge. Before I signed on I have never used Kickstarter before. I have also never been or wanted to be a venture capitalist. In other words, I didn't have much of an idea of what I was getting myself into. Nevertheless I made a pledge in mid-August 2012 for two Portholes. I bought two mainly because the cost of shipping for one to Taipei is US$50 while for two is only fifteen dollars more. I also thought that since the Porthole was scheduled to be delivered before Christmas, perhaps I could give one to someone else as a present.

Christmas came and went and the Porthole was nowhere to be found. About once a month, Kastner would send an update and the delivery date would keep moving back. There always seemed to be some kind of problem with the manufacturing process. Since I am an architect, I can sort of understand the problems Kastner were facing; stuff happens. However, he was way too optimistic with initial estimate of delivering the thousands of Portholes before Christmas. Nevertheless, it was nice of Kastner to provide updates on his progress – informing us about his various problems and keeping us in the loop. I felt like I was part of the venture. Unlike buying a product from a store, the Kickstarter project is really an adventure of making a new thing. You are along for the ride and you have to think people are doing their best to deliver the goods. Frankly, there wasn't much one could do but to be patient and wait.

It wasn't until June this year that I was notified that my Portholes would be shipped soon. I received the two Portholes via DHL in July. The packaging was quite nice. Along with the Porthole, Kastner also added two asymmetrical tumbers that are very beautiful.

The Porthole also came with a few recipes for drinks served at Aviary. The recipes are complicated with many ingredients, similar to some of the dishes served at Alinea. The problem for me is many of the ingredients are very hard to find in Taiwan. I can't even find white verjus, let alone dried elderflower or rare tea cellar berry meritage tea. After looking through the recipes a few times I basically gave up. I can only hope that one day someone from the States can bring some things back for me. With my dream of reproducing the drinks from Aviary dashed, I started to look on the internet for simpler things to do.

Before I did any infusion I filled the Porthole with water to make sure I was doing things correctly and with no leakage. The Porthole consists of only a few parts: two round plate glass covering a round frame and connected by a short stainless pipe via screws on the outside. The first time I assembled the Porthole together and poured some water inside, I actually couldn't get a good seal and the water started to leak out at the bottom. The trick to sealing the Porthole, as per the instructions in the box, is to press hard on the glass in order to compress the gasket all the way around the circle. The instructions also said the screws should not be over-tightened. However, I don't really know what that means. In my experience I felt I had to tighten the screws quite hard so the two pieces of glass remain pressed against the gasket. After a few trials with water, I decided to do my first infusion.

I started with some vodka infused with pineapple slices and mint. I let the Porthole sat in the fridge for three days.

The second one I tried was some bourbon with apple. This would form the basis for some apple honey toddy.

I am not sure what's the next infusion I will do. Instead of alcohol perhaps I might start doing some fruit infused water. The Porthole with things inside is also so pretty to look at that I will probably use it as some kind of table centerpiece the next time I have friends over for dinner.

Even though the Porthole was delayed by more than half a year, I am still quite happy upon receiving the vessel. Nevertheless, I don't think I will support projects on Kickstarter on a regular basis. It was an interesting experience but for now I will just focus on making drinks.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Four Freedoms Park

Ever since my first encounter with a building by Louis Kahn, the library at Exeter Academy, I have always admired Kahn's work. At that time (I was a high school student in summer school), I didn't know much about architecture nor about Kahn. Nevertheless, the library's elemental forms, soaring space, beautiful light, and strong materiality made a powerful impression on me.

While I don't make pilgrimages to see Kahn's buildings, I try to see as many of them as I can. This summer when I was in New York City for vacation, I visited the "new" Kahn project, Four Freedoms Park, on Roosevelt Island. Kahn designed the project around 40 years ago, but the construction did not begin until March 2010.

The 4-acre park is located at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. The easiest way to get to the park from Manhattan is to take the Roosevelt Island Tram on Second Avenue and 60th Street. From the tram station on Roosevelt to the park is a just a short walk with great view of the Manhattan skyline.

The first things one sees at the park are five large tress followed by a monumental stairway.

The stairs are tall enough to block some of views ahead but the presence of the linden tress above invite one to climb up to discover what's behind.

The handrail for the staircase reminds me of the ones at the Kimbell Art Museum.

At the top of the stairs, the triangular space of the park is revealed with allée of trees on two sides.

One can walk across the lawn but it was nicer to walk under the trees with views on the side.

The allée leads to a large granite niche with an oversized bronze head of Roosevelt and s simple inscription:1882 -1945.

From the two sides, one enters a three-sided room open to the sky. The south side of the room is completely open to the expanse of the water. The square room is about 60 feet on each side and the walls are 12 feet high and made of solid granite blocks, each weighing around 36 tons.

The granite blocks are each separated by an one-inch gap. The wall on the back side, behind the Roosevelt sculpture is an excerpt from his "Four Freedoms" speech in 1941.

The square room is really a contemplative space that is both open and protected, with views of the river and the cityscape.

I am amazed that the park was completed forty years after it was designed. Kahn essentially went back to the basics of architecture with the triangular garden and the square room. The design is also full of complexity and subtlety in terms of the orchestration of the progress of spaces and the detailing. With the abstract and powerful design, Kahn was able to achieve a much admired timelessness to the architecture.

Sunday, August 4, 2013


The New York City-based pastry chef Dominique Ansel invented the Cronut in May this year. The Cronut is a hybrid of croissant and doughnut - a laminated dough that is proofed, fried in grapeseed oil, rolled in sugar, filled with cream inside, and topped with a glaze. Ansel said it took him over two months of experimenting with time and temperature to create this new pastry. Since only around 300 Cronuts are made everyday, they quickly sell out within a couple of hours. Ansel's pastry shop opens at 8am but a line of customers is formed much earlier. People have waited hours to get their hands on the Cronut. There are even scalpers who camp out to sell their spots at the front of the line. The Cronut has not only taken off in New York, but has become a global phenomenon, including being featured on the news in Taiwan.

In a recent trip to New York, we decided to try our luck and see if we could buy some Cronuts. Since we were jet-lagged, getting up early was not too hard. Actually, we dragged our feet and didn't get to SoHo until around 7:45am. By then the line had already curved around Thompson Street to the playground. The store opened at 8am and shortly thereafter the line started to move. By the time we got near Spring Street, a baker from the store came out and handed everyone mini-madeleines, which greatly delighted my two young daughters. The mini-madeleines were perfect, a reminder of our meals at Daniel, where Ansel was the pastry chef.

The store let around 10 people to enter at one time. Therefore, the line moved in large blocks instead of steadily, and it took us about an hour to get inside the store.

Once we were inside, we basically waited for people to pay. While the store had already boxed a lot of Cronuts which were ready to go, it simply took some time to run the customers' credit cards through the registers. As we waited in line inside the store, we could see the Cronuts behind the counter. Sadly, each person is only allowed to buy two Cronuts.

Each Cronut costs US$5. The aforementioned scalper asked for US$30 for his spot on the line. We bought a few boxes and took the Crounuts home to enjoy them.

There is only one flavor per month and for July it was Blackberry. In short, the Cronut was delicious. Croissant and doughnut are two of my favorite things, and to have them be combined in a pastry is just a delight and such a treat. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once remarked that, "The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star." I can't agree more. Ansel is a genius. I only wish the line wasn't so long to buy the Cronuts.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Pâte à Choux

Last month the newspapers in Taiwan reported that the food company I-Mei used expired soy protein isolate to make millions of packages of cream puffs. Almost no one expected a company like I-Mei would put people's health at risk for a little extra profit. The news also reminded me that I haven't made the pastry dough, pâte à choux, in a long time.

Pâte à choux is not difficult to make and I am always amazed that it is made with just four basic ingredients: flour, eggs, butter and water. Pâte à choux is a great dough to master because of its versatility - the basis for cream puff, eclair, Paris-Brest, gougère and Parisian gnocchi. Recently for a dinner party, I decide to make the classic bistro dessert, profiteroles.

Pâte à choux is made by first melting some butter with water and a little sugar and salt. Some recipes call for using water with milk to create a richer dough. However, Taiwan is too humid so I only use water. Flour is added to the liquid all at once and mixed rigorously to cookout the moisture, making a paste called the panade. Eggs are then added one at a time and mixed thoroughly. One can use a food processor or mixer to beat in the eggs, but typically I just do it by hand. I figure I should burn some calories before enjoying the finished product later.

I use a round tip with an half-inch opening to pipe the dough on to a Silpat. After tapping down the tips of the round pieces of dough with a little water on my finger, they are baked in an oven for around 35 minutes.

After the puffs are cooled, slice them in half and insert a small scoop of vanilla ice cream in between.

The warm chocolate sauce for the profiteroles is made by melting the chocolate with some honey and butter and then smoothing it out with a little milk.

I really enjoy making profiteroles, a very satisfying dessert to end a meal. I am a little rusty with using the piping bag so my puffs are not as uniform as I like. However, I don't think I will be so finicky about uniformity to pipe the dough into a silicone mold as suggested by the Bouchon Bakery cookbook. A little homemade-ness is not such a bad thing for a dinner party at home; certainly better than any puff in a sealed bag made with soy protein isolate in a factory.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Guest Blogging: Kevin Chen

Below is the second guest post by my great friend Kevin Chen.

MJ vs. Kobe

By Kevin Chen

Seeing excerpts from Phil Jackson’s new book about how Michael Jordan is superior to Kobe Bryant has prompted me to write about a topic that has fascinated me for some time – the debate over who’s the greatest of all time. I have a lot of thoughts on how that title should be determined in general in any sport, but for now, let’s stick with the issue at hand – Michael vs. Kobe. And my assertion is this: if Kobe had been thinking with his very intelligent head rather than with his super-sized ego, he would have realized that best chance he had to surpass Jordan was to convince Shaquille O’Neil to stay with the Lakers, not to push him out the door. This is what Kobe should have realized: in order to surpass MJ, he had to win not just six championships, but MORE THAN six championships, to have a legitimate claim. AND, he had a much better chance of winning seven or more championships with Shaq than without Shaq.

Let’s look at the first argument – why does Kobe need more than six rings? Because the first three championships that Kobe won need to be significantly discounted because he was clearly not the best player, either in stats or in reality, on his own team during those championship runs; Shaq was. Shaq was the Finals MVP for all three of Kobe’s first three championships, just like MJ was the Finals MVP for all six of his championships. Magic Johnson is considered a greater player than Scottie Pippen even though Magic has five rings to Scottie’s six because for most or all of his championship runs, Magic was the best player on his team and Scottie was a very important second-best player on his team.

Certainly this is the very reason Kobe decided that Shaq had to go – because Kobe realized that in order to reach Jordan’s level, he had to win championships on a team where he clearly was the best player. Kobe recently reiterated as much – with comments like “You can’t expect Michael to play his entire career with Wilt” when asked why he didn’t want to stay together with Shaq. However, what he failed to realize was that, even if Shaq had stayed, Kobe STILL would have been able to win championships with himself as the clear best player on the Lakers because Shaq was on the downside of his career while Kobe was just coming into his peak; just because Shaq was staying did not mean that Kobe had to continue to play second fiddle. In fact, the pendulum was already swinging in the last two years that Kobe and Shaq played together, 2002-2003 and 2003-2004. And, even though Shaq was on the downside, he clearly was still a dominant center and likely would be for at least three or four years – look at what happened after he joined the Heat, when he played a very important second fiddle to D-Wade and helped D-Wade win his first championship. Kobe’s big miscalculation was that he thought he would continue to be second best to Shaq if Shaq stayed; given their age difference and where the two were at their respective careers at that time, that simply wasn’t going to happen (again, see what happened between D-Wade and Shaq in Miami).

If Kobe had Shaq’s help for the subsequent four or so seasons, the two of them together would have given the Lakers the best chance to win multiple championships during that stretch – in fact they probably would’ve been favored to win every year during that period. And, that would have given the Lakers’ management enough time to determine how to retool to keep the Lakers competitive later down the road (like 2009-2013), with Kobe still in his prime and Shaq slipping into retirement. All this would have been given Kobe the best chance of winning seven or more rings. It doesn’t mean it definitely would’ve happened, but it would’ve given him a better chance than what he decided to do: get rid of Shaq. Kobe should have realized that, with Shaq gone, the Lakers likely would not win championships for the subsequent three or four years, and because of this required retooling period, he was unlikely to have time to get to seven or more championships in his career. His best chance of surpassing MJ was with Shaq, and because of miscalculated ego, he let that opportunity slip away.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Ducky Restaurant

Last fall, Benoît Monier, the sommelier at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei, said to me, "A few of our former employees went out on their own and opened a restaurant. You should try it sometime." He handed me a business card for the restaurant, which is named Ducky 大嗑西式餐館. He proceeded to tell me that the restaurant is not fancy and the young proprietors did everything themselves with a limited budget to setup the restaurant, including the design and construction of the space. 

Since last fall, I have frequented Ducky several times for lunches with friends and dinner with the family. In short, I really like the restaurant. I recommended Ducky to my picky and hard-to-please friends and so far they all seem to enjoy their meals there as well.

The fact that Ducky is good is probably no surprise. As the writer Anthony Bourdain once said something to the effect that if you spend two years working for Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, or Thomas Keller, you never need a resume again. The three proprietors of Ducky worked for over two years at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei, two as members of the front of house and one as a cook.

The food at Ducky is done with care and executed well. There are certainly traces of Robuchon's dishes, such as the pan-fried amadai fillet with crispy skin and scales. The risotto is always cooked nicely with good flavors and served all'onda. The pasta dishes are also nice, my kids really enjoyed the ones with tomato sauce. My kids also enjoyed the french fries that come with the steak or can be ordered separately. The braised beef cheeks is fork tender and delicious. The portion at Ducky is generous and the pricing is very reasonable.  The appetizers are mostly under NT$200 and the main courses, including pasta, range from mid NT$300 to less than NT$600.

So what is there not to like? In terms of food, not much. It would be nice to be served some bread at the start of the meal; I know bread is actually not an easy thing to do well. The only dish I am not really crazy about is the steak. Ducky serves a U.S. Choice eight-ounce sirloin. The meat is cooked to the right temperature but the meat itself is so-so. I realize if a better quality of beef is used, the price will have to be much higher than the current NT$580; I would be willing to pay more. Actually is there really a need for steak to be on the menu? Why not have more pork (belly, knuckle, and shoulder) on the regular menu? Why not have cheaper cuts of meats that require more techniques, which the kitchen certainly is capable of doing? I also wish the restaurant has a larger selection of desserts. Putting some more bistro classics like profiteroles, lemon tart, bread pudding, or even just some ice cream on the menu would be nice.

The service at Ducky is good. My only complaint is the lack of large napkins. The restaurant provides a thin stack of small paper napkins, similar to a Chinese restaurant. I always ended up using several of them. Why not just provide a large paper napkin for each person that can be placed on the customer's laps? I don't believe the cost will be too different.

Since I am an architect I will express some opinions on the design of the space. I don't really like the use of wood paneling on some parts of the wall. The overhead shelving supported by diagonal kickers underneath is not necessary and look too haphazardly put together. The tables for four are a little too small for comfort. The chairs, while not uncomfortable, seem too heavy looking. Overall, the interior doesn't match the refinement that the kitchen is striving for on the plates. I know the budget was limited. However, just like a good cook can transform cheap ingredients into a great dish, sometimes good design can be done with limited funds. I suggest if a renovation is ever in the cards, please seek professional help. Maybe some designers are happy to barter design for food.

I always enjoy eating at Ducky. While at the restaurant, it is not unusual to run into the current staff of L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei having a meal there with their friends on their days off. Ducky has been open for less than a year and I am sure they are still looking to improve the restaurant. The restaurant is a little out of the way for me, which is the only reason I am not there more often.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Arpège Egg

Whenever I have friends over for dinner, I always like to make an amuse-bouche to start the meal. My current interests lie with the different egg recipes that French chefs make. Recently, I try my hand at making Alain Passard's famous Chaud-froid d’oeuf au sirop d’érable et vinaigre de xérès. I have never been to Passard's three-Michelin star restaurant L'Arpège in Paris. My wife, Maria, and I only walked past it once on our way to Le musée Rodin. Since I don't know when I will ever make it to L'Arpège, the only way to experience the dish is to make it myself.

The recipe for Passard's egg dish is widely available. There is even a video of Passard demonstrating the recipe on Youtube. I use the recipe in The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells. First, whip some heavy cream in a bowl to soft peaks and season with some sherry vinegar and salt. Then, cut off the top of the egg and pour out the egg white. Float the egg, like a little boat, in simmering water for around 3 minutes.

Take the egg out and set it in an egg cup. Sprinkle some chives or other herbs on the egg yolk, season with salt and pepper, and spoon over some cold whipped cream. Finally drizzle a little maple syrup on top and serve.

I really enjoyed this amuse-bouche with the contrasting temperatures and flavors. I agree with Patricia Wells that it is a dish that I probably will make over and over again.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Back to STAY

"Why do you keep going back to STAY?" My friends asked me over dinner when I told them about my recent meals at Yannick Alléno's restaurant. Several of my friends have been to STAY Taipei but none of them are terribly enthusiastic about the restaurant. It is no secret to them that I am very ambivalent about the restaurant. I would go to STAY, complain about the meal afterwards, and go back again. One of my friends even describes my repeated visits to STAY as a form of an abusive relationship. I don't need an intervention, however, the western fine dining scene in Taipei can really use some help. While STAY has problems, it is still much better than most of the western restaurants in Taipei. A meal at La Festa at the Grand Victoria Hotel will make one appreciate STAY. I go back because, in short, I really want STAY to succeed.

STAY Taipei has been open for over a year and it is fair to say that the restaurant has not resonated with the public; many people expressed disappointment with the food on the internet. In turn, the chef and the owner of the restaurant voiced their frustrations in the local newspapers and suggested the public didn't understand the food. There was even a semi-public spat with a blogger over the presentation of a steak dish. Perhaps there is a misalignment of expectations, but it is clear that there are many internal problems with STAY Taipei. In a year the restaurant has changed the chef de cuisine, lost the sommelier, and gone through several managers.

Over a year ago when I wrote about the food at STAY I was not terribly enthusiastic. When the restaurant first opened, I felt it was closer to a bistro than a fine dining restaurant as the menu consisted of dishes like grilled salmon, roast chicken, steak with French fries, St. Honoré, and brownie with ice cream. The dishes were mostly fine, but not terribly exciting and certainly with very little wow factors. I understand the idea behind the food, but it is not in the right context. If STAY had opened in a city like Paris with many Michelin-starred restaurants, perhaps it would be nice to have simple and well executed food in a less formal setting. However in Taipei where there are few good western restaurants, and with the marketing machine solely focused on Alléno's three Michelin stars, the food at STAY simply didn't capture the imagination of the public.

The owner and the chef have noticed the problem and in the past year the food at STAY has evolved. More expensive ingredients like caviar appeared on the menu. Cheaper but more flavorful cuts of meat that required more techniques, such as pork cheeks and lamb shoulder, showed up at the table. While not everything worked, the food has gradually become more interesting. The desserts became more composed and even included a hot souffle. It also helps that Alléno comes to Taipei four times a year to check in on the restaurant. When Alléno is present, the restaurant is more interesting with a special menu. So far the best meal I had at STAY remains to be the special dinner last March on Alléno's first trip back to the restaurant after the opening. I still remember the caviar with sea urchin and the sea bass overlaid with squid. The dishes really dazzled. I firmly believe Alléno is such a talented chef that he can shake spectacular dishes out of his sleeve. The question is does he want to? More important, can his team at the restaurant execute the dishes with consistency without him?

Last month I had dinner at STAY with Alléno back in the restaurant. He was offering a five course set menu. The first course was sea urchin with sole "blanc manger". The sole and the sea urchin were paired with sake jelly and topped with nori. The flavors were refreshing and it was a good way to start the meal. The second course was a seared duck foie gras "calisson". This was easily the best dish of the night. The two pieces of foie gras were in the shape of a calisson candy and each topped with a thin layer of icing. They were served with a sweet and sour sauce with confit pieces of melons. This was a dish one expects to see from Alléno. The flavors were clean, the execution was precise, and the presentation was beautiful; a dish that actually looked simple. The third course was a crustacean consomme with small mushrooms and two lobster mousse dumplings; a flavorful dish that was fairly good. The last savory course was beef with pasta and asparagus. The beef was cooked well to the right temperature, however I thought the accompaniment was a bit too complicated. The dessert consisted of two cocoa meringues spheres with chestnut spheres, which were delicious. The dessert at STAY is always consistently good.

While the recent dinner by Alléno was very good, it was not as good as the one in March last year, but certainly better than the menu he presented in September; the menu in September was a little disappointing, especially the scallop dish. If I have to be picky about the recent dinner, I would say in terms of seasonality, it was a bit strange to see asparagus and chestnut on the same menu. In terms of presentation, the sea urchin dish seemed a bit casual. All the other dishes consisted of pairs: two foie gras, two dumplings, two pieces of beef, and two dessert spheres. In contrast, the sea urchin was the only dish served as a single item in a loose geometric manner. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the food. Hopefully next time Alléno will present his Cuisine Moderne.

The biggest problem with the restaurant is actually not the food but the space. The location of the restaurant at Taipei 101 may be an attractive address for the tourists, but it is not ideal for fine dining. The restaurant is located on the fourth floor of the Taipei 101 Mall, which requires going through the shopping mall to get there. Sometimes being on a high floor instead of the ground floor means getting some nicer views, such as Per Se in New York or Caprice in Hong Kong. However, with STAY Taipei there is no real payoff because the room is actually an interior space with no windows. If anything, the only view out from the dining room is the escalators of the shopping mall. A restaurant without exterior window is not uncommon but it requires some good design. Unfortunately the design at STAY didn't really succeed in making a pleasant, comfortable, or sexy space. Frankly, I am not sure what the design intent is.

The worse part of the the interior design is actually the lighting. The restaurant uses a lot of open filament bulbs which are fine by themselves. The problem is they are combined with full-height light strips along the wall leading from the entrance into the kitchen. These lights are too bright and not in the same color frequency as the hanging bulbs. They face directly at the banquettes under the glass tree wall. The result is people sitting on the banquettes are very uncomfortable as they look directly at the lights, and their dining companions are backlit and thus don't look good at all. The crown jewel of the interior is the Pastry Library, which is brightly lit with very white LED lights, yet another different color. The lights on the bottom shelf are currently broken and detached, thus exposing the strong lights directly to all the customers sitting in chairs facing the library. I recently sat in one of the unfortunate seats and could barely look up at my dining companions because of the bright lights. I really hope someone will redesign the lighting of the space.

The space and ambiance of the restaurant have a major impact on the dining experience. Conceptually this is not any different from the importance of the tableware. In theory, the food is just what's on the plate. However, any serious French chef will not serve the food on paper plates, nor will a sommelier serve the wine in plastic cups. Therefore, why should the restaurant serve food and wine in an uncomfortable space? The design of the restaurant should enhance the food. Furthermore, a restaurant should make people happy and feel nourished. Right now, the design of STAY simply does the opposite. I have now been to STAY enough times to have sat at many different tables. I still haven't figured out which is the most comfortable spot.

Besides the physical space, the restaurant has some strange ways of operating. For instance, the restaurant is very stingy with the menu. They never hand out enough menus to the diners. If we are a party of two, the server would hand us one set menu and one a la carte.  If we are a party of three, they would place two set menus and one a la carte on the table. For the life of me I cannot understand the reason behind this mode of operation. We are not at a Chinese restaurant with a lazy susan in the middle and someone orders for everyone to share. Why can't each diner get a full set of menus by his or herself? Instead, I always find myself passing the different menus back and forth with my dining companions. This is extremely annoying. I don't think diners at Le Meurice share menus. Even my neighborhood pizza joint hands out menus to every diner, including my preschool daughter. I have asked the waitress at STAY why they can't hand out a full set of menus to each person, but I didn't get an answer that made any sense. I also cannot understand why the table setting calls for placing the knife and the fork on the same side of the plate. I see this is done at Alléno's Terroir Parisien, but that's a casual restaurant without tablecloth. At Alléno's previous restaurant, Le Meurice, the knife and forks (tines down) are placed properly on each side of the plate. Why can't STAY do the same?

The service at STAY is wanting. First of all, there doesn't seem to be a maître d'hôtel at the restaurant. I can never figure out who is in charge of the whole operation. The servers at STAY don't quite believe in the idea that the customer is always right. I agree the customers might get things wrong, but is it really necessary to rationalize any problem or argue with the customer? In a meal over a year ago, I was asked about my main course, to which I said, "Frankly, the dish is a bit under seasoned." Instead of acknowledging the problem, the server got defensive and said, "Chef wants the dish to be very light." I just turned my head and helped myself to the salt grinder. In a recent meal, our espressos didn't show up after the dessert. When we asked about them, instead of responding with, "I am sorry and I will go check on them," we were told, "We are using Nespresso today and it takes longer to make the espresso." The last time I used a Nespresso machine, it was pretty quick. The coffee comes in a capsule, so one doesn't even need to spend time grinding or tamping the coffee. Perhaps these are legitimate reasons behind the problem, but they sound more like excuses. What's wrong with admitting to some mistakes or seeing the issues from a customer's point of view?

In the same recent meal I asked our server to suggest a bottle of wine within a certain price range. She recommended a bottle from 1996 which was actually fairly good; however I didn't understand why she didn't decant the wine. Half way through our meal, the Head Sommelier, who for some reason didn't help us with the wine, remarked that he was surprised the wine seemed good based on the color. I was a little annoyed and said, "If you are suspicious about the quality of the wine, why do you have it on your wine list?" This is like the chef coming out to say he is surprised the dish tastes good. How is one going to feel comfortable ordering anything, much less something expensive? Restaurants should strive to develop a sense of trust with the customers, and this was just the opposite.

I fully understand that owning and running a fancy western restaurant in Taipei is not easy. Ingredients are difficult to import, good personnel are scarce, and the profits are hard to come by. I admire the owners of STAY for establishing a Michelin-quality restaurant in Taipei. I certainly want to support the restaurant in my limited way, however, there shouldn't be unconditional love. Since STAY aims high and is expensive, the restaurant should be judged accordingly. The food is good, but sometimes even with Alléno in the restaurant, it is not consistent. Furthermore, I wish the menu is more ambitious. Besides the food, there are still too many problems with the design and quirks in the service to allow one to fully enjoy the meal. Sometimes the dining experience feels very transactional. STAY does not exude the sense of generosity or care that one expects at a high end restaurant. Nevertheless, despite the problems, STAY still has potential. Alléno and the owner are sincere in their desire to make the restaurant great. In turn I will be back, albeit with reservations.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Kikunoi Honten

During Chinese New Year, our family took a short trip to Osaka and Kyoto. As with all our trips, prior to leaving I started to research about places to eat. Since Kyoto is famous for kaiseki, I wanted to make sure we try one and asked the hotel to make a reservation for lunch at Kikunoi Honten.

Kikunoi 菊乃井 is one of the best restaurants in Kyoto and the Michelin guide awarded it three stars for four consecutive years. I chose Kikunoi for a few reasons. First of all, I have seen Kikunoi's chef and proprietor Yoshihiro Murata's book on kaiseki and always wanted to try some of the dishes. Second, the restaurant welcomes children. Third, the restaurant has a very well priced lunch menu. And finally, the location is quite convenient for us.

Kikunoi is situated just south of Chionin Temple in the Gion district. The idea was we would visit the temple and stroll through the park and take lunch at the restaurant. However, we ran late and thus took a taxi. As the taxi made a turn from the street into a forecourt of the restaurant, it was clear we entered an exclusive and special place.

The staff of the restaurant greeted us outside the restaurant and helped us alight from the cars. Right after we stepped inside the restaurant we sat down on the tatami to take off our shoes. Then a kimono-clad hostess led us through a series of narrow corridors to our private room which has a vestibule to provide some separation from the public. The room was much larger than I expected. The room has a beautiful large rectangular table in the middle which covers a hole underneath for our legs. One side of the room has a little platform with a simple flower arrangement and a scroll on the wall.

Another side of the room has view and access to an outdoor garden. The room is very quiet and serene. The furnishing and decor are very minimal but comfortable; the space really compliments the food.

When I made the request for the reservation I asked if the restaurant was agreeable to serve our two young children. Kikunoi had no problem and could even serve the kids a different menu: a large and elaborate bento box. They only asked that we be in a private room, which I was only happy to oblige. At the restaurant there was no menu to choose from as I already picked out a simple set menu when the reservation was made. The set lunch was priced at 8,000 yen plus service charge and tax, which I thought was very reasonable. The kids menu was priced at 2,700 yen.

The lunch started with a large cup of tea. The first course was a collection of hor d'oeuvres, or Hassun, which included: "horse reins" sushi, ume jelly, ice fish with yuzu, tofu marinated in red-pickled ume, fuki bud marinated in miso, rapini with mustard, cod roe terrine, sweet black beans and wasabi greens. Everything was good and needless to say beautifully presented.

The second course was sashimi of red sea bream and young maguro or blue fin tuna. They were served with some udo (wild mountain vegetable), carrot, wasabi, and marinated fresh nori.

The third course was a turtle soup with minced duck, yomogi (Japanese mugwort) dumpling, Kujo onion, arrowhead root, giant turnip slice, daikon, carrot, tetragon leaf, and gold leaf. This was arguably the best dish of the meal. Not only were the flavors and textures wonderful, the dish was also poetic: the giant turnip slice floating on top evoked the image of a thin sheet of ice floating on water. My photo of the dish taken with the iPhone doesn't really express the wonders of this soup - a complex dish that really demonstrated the skill and intellect of the chef.

The soup was followed by a grilled halibut topped with dried karasumi (grey mullet roe), shiitake mushroom. The fish was perfectly cooked and the roe really added to the umami taste of the dish. I also enjoyed the simple presentation of the dish with the contrasting forms and the greenish plate. At this point of the meal, Chef Murata's daughter came into our room with the server to say hello and serve the dish to us.

For the next course, our server brought out individual burners and lit them at the table. The dish was a hotpot of yellow tail, with tofu, turnip, carrot, onion, and mibuna leaf. Our server helped us cook the dish.

The last savory course was glutinous rice with anago eel, which was served with a white miso soup and pickled daikon stalk, daikon leaf, and eggplant.

Dessert was strawberry ice cream with strawberry fruit, which was just delicious. Our kids were also served the same dessert which they quite enjoyed.

The lunch ended with a mochi dessert and a small bowl of green tea.

Our lunch at Kikunoi was by far the best meal of our Osaka/Kyoto trip. I love the ambiance of the room, the seasonality of the dishes, and the variety of techniques, ingredients, and flavors put forth by the chef. The service was wonderful. Our server said "Okini" (Kyoto dialect for thank you) so frequently that I started to say "Okini" back to her half way through the lunch. The meal was a revelation and I gained a great deal of appreciation for kaiseki. As we were leaving the restaurant, chef Murata's daughter walked out with us to our taxis. I thanked her for the wonderful meal and told her we will definitely be back, probably at a different season to experience the restaurant and the food in a different way. Kikunoi is worth a special journey.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Chinese Caviar

A while back I read several articles on French chefs using caviar not from the Caspian sea but from China. Frankly, when I read it I was quite surprised to learn that the caviar produced in China was that good. Since I am not too far from China, I figured I should try to get some. A few internet searches suggested the farmed raised caviar, Kaluga Queen, made by Hangzhou Qingdaohu Xunlong as the one to try.

As far as I know Kaluga Queen is not available in Taiwan. Therefore, my first attempt to obtain the caviar was to ask my sister-in-law, who works in Beijing, to buy some. It turned out she was unable to find the caviar in any retail store. I didn't want to pursue other methods so for a while I simply forgot about it. Recently in a family gathering, for reasons I cannot remember, the conversation turned to caviar and I chimed in about the reported quality of Chinese caviar. Upon learning the caviar came from Hangzhou, one of my very resourceful relatives took upon himself to get it. A few weeks later, some Kaluga Queen Ossetra caviar showed up in my apartment.

With the caviar in hand I invited my relatives over for dinner to try them. I decided to make a couple of dishes based on Eric Ripert's recipes. I love the food at Le Bernardin. Since I can't make it to Ripert's restaurant anytime soon, I should try to make the food myself. The dinner's first course was Smoked Salmon Carpaccio with Brioche and Caviar. This was actually not difficult to do. There are only four ingredients, the three listed above and creme fraîche. I couldn't find creme fraîche so I made some myself with heavy cream and yogurt. I must admit I didn't trim the smoked salmon into a perfect pointed oval as the kitchen at Le Bernardin would do; unlike a restaurant, if I trimmed off the edges I would still have to eat them myself. Nevertheless, this was a very good dish.

The second course I made was Linguine with Caviar and Sea Urchin. The sea urchin was blended with butter, tossed with the pasta, sprinkled with some Parmesan cheese and sea urchin, and topped with some caviar. This was probably the most expensive dish I ever made but also one of the most delicious and memorable.

The caviar by Kaluga Queen was really good. While it is expensive, the caviar from China is still cheaper than the ones sold in the retail stores in the West. Maybe one day the Chinese caviar will be available for purchase in Taipei. Perhaps the Chinese will figure out a way to maintain the quality but lower the price. For now, having Kaluga Queen at home was a rare moment of luxury.

Friday, February 1, 2013


I drink at least one cup of coffee everyday. In the morning I typically make my coffee with a simple drip coffee maker or a French press. I like coffee, but I must admit I am pretty casual about the preparation. I know there are better and some more expensive ways to make coffee. However, I get lazy and never really venture down the path of professional grade coffee.

At the end of last year, my brother and sister-in-law gave me Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee as a Christmas gift. The book is written by James Freeman, Caitlin Freeman, and Tara Duggan. James Freeman is the founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, the California coffee micro-roaster that introduced the Japanese-style siphon bar to San Francisco. In the book, Freeman asks, "Would you cook a good steak in the microwave? Why would you let a machine make your coffee?" Freeman suggests that a good cup of coffee can be had by using a simple pour-over method. The technique doesn't seem too difficult nor costly. Hence my new year resolution will be to make better coffee.

The pour-over coffee method requires a few equipment. Since I bake I already have a thermometer and a digital gram scale. All I need is to buy a coffee dripper and a swan neck kettle. The kettle is pretty easy to find as many specialty coffee stores in Taipei sell them. There are actually plenty of choices to choose from. In contrast, the coffee dripper is quite difficult because Freeman suggests using the ceramic dripper by Bonmac. The coffee stores in Taipei don't carry the Bonmac dripper, nor can I find it online. Most of the stores sell the Hario V60 dripper, a very popular model that has a bigger hole. After looking in vain I contact the local representative for the parent company of Bonmac, UCC, to see if they can help. Luckily they say they have a few drippers, only in black, in the warehouse and will sell them to me. The sales rep says the Bonmac dripper didn't sell well thus they were all taken off the shelves in the retail stores.

With everything in place, I try the pour-over technique with some freshly ground coffee. Since I am using dark-roasted coffee, I use a brewing ratio (water to coffee) of around 10 to 1 as suggested by Freeman. I use a water temperature of around 87°C. I first pour a little water, roughly the weight of the coffee, to bloom the coffee. I am unable to keep this small amount of water all absorbed in the coffee, as some drips down to the cup; I need some more practice with the technique. After the blooming time of 60 seconds (measured with my digital timer) I gradually pour more water clockwise into the filter. I manage to get the total brewing time to be around the recommended 3 minutes, which was probably based on pure luck.

The result is a very good cup of coffee. With more practice I am sure I can make the coffee even better. Now I just need to buy a better grinder. After mastering the pour-over, I might start coffee cupping. Maybe I should even start roasting the coffee beans myself. How far down does the rabbit hole go?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Galette des Rois by Loic Colliau for Yannick Alléno

Since my wife, Maria, is Catholic, we always celebrate Christmas and put out a small nativity scene in our house. Of all the characters in the scene I am actually most interested in the three kings. The three kings make a visit to baby Jesus shortly after his birth. Today a special cake (La galette des Rois) is made for the occasion which is known as the Epiphany. Since I don't mind eating like a king, I am too happy to buy a galette to celebrate.

This year I ordered the galette made by chef Lois Colliau from Sweet Tea by Yannick Alléno. While I have reservations about Alléno's restaurant in Taipei, I like the desserts at Sweet Tea.  There is no doubt in my mind that Colliau is a very good pastry chef. For the galette he creates a special one that is different from the ones being sold at the other stores in Taipei. Instead of the traditional galette, he makes it with chocolate puff pastry filled with rum infused chocolate frangipane. He marks the top of the galette with the Alléno logo. As always the cake from Sweet Tea comes in a very nice box. The seven-inch galette is priced at NT$880, which seems quite reasonable.

After our dinner I warmed up the galette in our oven and served it to the family. Once again, I didn't get the fève, which is a small tile with the Alléno logo.

Nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed the galette. The puff pastry is flaky and the filling is flavorful The galette is just delicious, certainly fit for a king.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Avec Xavier Boyer

When L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon opened in Taipei over three year ago, it was the first restaurant in the City operated by a three-Michelin-star chef. The restaurant set a new standard for the industry in Taipei and, in my opinion, still unmatched by any other western restaurants. My friends have often accused me of only favoring and writing about L'Atelier. I don't deny the charge, but what are the alternatives? I flirted with Yannick's Alléno's STAY many times last year, but the restaurant wasn't consistent and never really loved me back. I ventured to other western restaurants in town, which are often a little cheaper, but only to find ordinary or terrible experiences, certainly not worth dressing up for nor the hassle of hiring a babysitter to care for the kids. If the intent is to spend good money on a great dining experience, why not go with the best in town?

Actually, L'Atelier is not just a restaurant for special occasions. While it is still pricey, in late October the restaurant introduced a new set menu for lunch at the price of NT$980 plus 10% service charge. A few weeks ago my friend and I tried this new lunch, which includes an amuse bouche, a starter with around six choices, the roast of the day (generally pork or chicken), dessert of the day, and coffee or tea. We started with the bread basket and an amuse of foie gras mousse with Parmesan foam. For the starter I went with the calamari stuffed with salted cod, a dish with simple ingredients exquisitely presented that I always enjoyed. For the main course, my friend ordered the pork while I tried the chicken. The meats were served with some roasted vegetables and the justifiably famous mashed potato on the side. While both the chicken and the pork were cooked well, I liked the pork a little better. The portions were generous - mine was essentially half a chicken. The dessert of the day was a tart, similar to the ones at the Salon de Thé on the third floor of Bellavita, that was nicely plated and served with a scoop of ice cream. To finish I ordered a double espresso that was served with a canelé. The new set menu at lunch is a great deal. Just the dessert and espresso would have cost over NT$300, even in some random half decent pastry shops around town. While the price for lunch is relatively low, there was no skimping on the food nor service. The starter and the main course were both expertly prepared and beautifully presented. As usual the service was wonderful. My friend who doesn't frequent fine dining establishment was so satisfied that he vowed to return for lunch with his new girlfriend in the near future.

Of course L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei is still very much a restaurant "worth a detour" to celebrate a special occasion. Besides the unfantastic fling with STAY a year or so ago, my wife, Maria, and I have dined at L'Atelier for our wedding anniversaries. In fact, our first dinner ever at L'Atelier Taipei was on our anniversary: a memorable meal executed with precision by the kitchen led by the first Chef de Cuisine, Yosuke Suga. The next anniversary dinner was under the careful watch of the second Chef de Cuisine, Angelo Aglianò, who ran L'Atelier for two great years, sometimes with an Italian sensibility. Since late November, L'Atelier has a new Chef de Cuisine, Xavier Boyer.

Prior to coming to Taipei, Boyer ran the kitchen of the New York branch of L'Atelier after Suga departed for Taipei. While in New York, Boyer earned two Michelin stars. Now Boyer is following Suga's footsteps again and lands in Taipei. While I never tried Boyer's L'Atelier in New York, it is nice to have a New York connection again in Taipei. It is also interesting to note that now Taipei has a L'Atelier while New York doesn't (the branch closed in the summer this year); this was something unimaginable to me a few years ago and still boggles my mind.

With a new chef in charge, I expected some changes at L'Atelier; after all, L'Atelier means workshop. Sure enough Boyer immediately started tweaking the menu and adding some new dishes. Like any good chef Boyer started to try out some local products and to use them. Since Boyer is French I expected the L'Atelier to shed some of its Italianness and move back towards France. While this is the case, Boyer's cuisine still surprised me a bit. At a dinner in early December, I was able to try some of the new dishes. The starter, salmon tartare, came with flying fish roe mixed in. The roe gave the dish a nice texture, almost like pop rocks. Boyer looks to have an interest in providing different textures in the dish. The same can be said for another new dish, braised pork cheeks. The fork tender pork was served with even softer tofu, crunchy vegetables (carrots and cucumbers), and topped with crispy Middle-Eastern rice noodle. While the texture was contrasting, the flavor was harmonious with depth. Boyer also seems to be more playful than his predecessors and stretches the realm of influences to more regions in the world. An off-the-menu new dish paired local shrimps with basil and Gorgonzola cheese raviolis and was served with a flagrant Thai broth. I was surprised by the combination of seafood and cheese, but it worked.

Recently, we returned to L'Atelier again for our anniversary dinner. This time I asked Boyer to just cook for us. People often ask the chefs in Japanese restaurants to just cook for them without looking at the menu. Why not do the same in a western restaurant? Sometimes, it is best to just trust the chef. Furthermore, instead of going through the thick wine list, leave the wine selection to the sommelier. Since I don't know anything about wine, I just put myself in the hands of Benoît Monier. Benoît started our night with a Bellini-like drink made with champagne and fresh raspberry juice, a refreshing drink and actually my first ever cocktail at L'Atelier.

Since many of the dishes for our dinner were new, even for the front of house staff, and can't be found elsewhere on the web, I took some pictures, and pretended to be a real food blogger. Chef started with a delicious canapé of sea urchin "brûlée" on lightly fried polenta and garnished with some arugula and a slice of toasted baguette. The food was served on a beautiful golden plate which made the dish a bit harder to photograph with my iPhone. Actually, our golden anniversary would be something to look forward to.

The first course was a "salad" of foie gras terrine, arugula, radishes, black truffles and potatoes. I love this dish, not often seen at L'Atelier. The last time I had something similar was two years ago when Chef Robuchon was in town. At that time, the foie was served with Parmesan shavings. If I have to complain a little bit about the dinner it was the garnishes for the first two dishes were the same: arugula and slices of toasted baguettes. Otherwise it was perfect.

The next course was a shrimp served on a tomato purée and topped with fried Middle-Eastern rice noodles, which provided a nice crunch. Benoît poured us some white Burgundy by Leroy, to enjoy with the seafood dishes. I really enjoyed the wine, which was fruity with nice acidity.

This was followed by a large scallop served on top of cauliflower purée. The drops of chili oil gave the dish a little kick in the mouth, which was a nice surprise.

The fish course was Maria's favorite dish of the night. The skin of the fish was very crispy, providing a nice texture. The sauce is an orange juice and balsamic vinegar reduction that has an almost Asian sweet and slight sour taste. To further the Asian flavor, the baby cabbage on the side was tossed with some ginger and garlic, which gave the vegetable a very pleasant crunch and heat. It was also a pleasure to see fennel, a seasonal vegetable rarely seen in Taiwan.

After the seafood courses, Chef served us a consommé with some root vegetables and black truffle, which acted like a palette cleanser. The last savory dish of the night is a more traditional French dish. In turn Benoît poured us a Bordeaux to pair with the food, quail and foie gras wrapped in green cabbage with a quail leg and pomme de terre purée on the side. The meat is slightly gamey and dish was rich and delicious.

After the savory dishes, the pastry chef, Kazuhisa Takahashi, personally brought out a little tart with a candle in celebration of our anniversary; just a delight. Later came a pre-dessert followed by a beautiful white dessert, which consisted of three layers: fruit purée on the bottom, rum sorbet in the middle and coconut mousse on the top. A small and delicate butterfly made of edible rice paper perched on the edge of the serving glass and meringue "straw" completed the composition and provide some texture to the dish. This was a light dessert and an playful but elegant way to end the meal.

Benoît finished our night at L'Atelier by generously pouring us some Chartreuse, a strong drink he said will help with digestion. I told Benoît that by coincidence we are actually working on a building that will hopefully have Chartreuse as one of the main colors on the facade. While enjoying the digestif, I can't help but wonder if any other restaurants in Taiwan would pour us an after dinner drink.

As always the service at L'Atelier is excellent. While there are some new faces, many of the front of house staff are the same as the opening three plus years ago. They are always glad to see us as we are delighted to see them. L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei takes the business of pleasure seriously and in turn we always leave the restaurant happy. L'Atelier will evolve and Chef Boyer looks to take L'Atelier to some interesting new directions. I look forward to the journey.