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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.