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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.

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