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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.

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