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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Bencotto Poco Cotto

Since Mandarin Oriental Hotel opened in Taipei in May of this year, the press has referred to the hotel as a 6-star establishment. I have little ideas regarding the differences between a 5-star, 6-star or 7-star hotel, and I don't really pay much heed; I am sure the hotel is wonderful. What I do care about is the number of stars in the restaurants of the hotel, especially in the town that I live in; after all I'm not going to stay at the hotel. In my mind, the hotels in the Mandarin Oriental group are not really famous for their restaurants. Mandarin Oriental doesn't have a single three-Michelin-star restaurant in any of its branches in the world. Most of the restaurants in Mandarin Oriental hotels, with the exceptions of Hong Kong, London, and Paris, are not terribly interesting. Even in Hong Kong, the Chinese restaurants in Mandarin's hotels have a total of one Michelin star. In New York, where I used to live, Mandarin Oriental is certainly not the fine dining destination. The same can be said for the Mandarin in San Francisco, the other food capital of the U.S. Given Mandarin Oriental's track record with restaurants, I wasn't as enthusiastic about the new restaurant openings in Taipei as some of my friends were.

The early days of any restaurant are usually not the best time to go. The staff at the restaurant simply needs the time to be in sync. Hence it is not a surprise to hear about disappointments from people who visited Bencotto, the Italian Restaurant at Mandarin Oriental Taipei, in the first couple of months. A friend of mine in the restaurant industry said I should give the chef several months to settle in before I go. Therefore, after more than five months since the opening, I finally made a reservation and dined at Bencotto.

Bencotto is located on the sixth floor of Mandarin Oriental Taipei. If one has never been to the restaurant before, it is not an easy place to get to from the street; the circulation of the hotel is maze-like and the way to the restaurant is not self-evident. In fact, there are actually two entrances to the restaurant but unfortunately they are located on opposite sides; this is the restaurant's biggest design flaw. Multiple entrances are never a good thing for a restaurant because there is only enough staff for one hostess station. Generally a designer will deal with this situation by connecting the secondary entrance to the primary entrance with a dedicated corridor; forcing the guests to enter the restaurant from the primary entrance where the hostess is. An example would be the entrances at the Bar Room at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Multiple entrances also happen at shopping mall as a restaurant can be entered both from the street and inside the mall. Without a corridor, there is very little control over the movement of the guests as they can simply wander into the dining area. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens at Bencotto. The New York-based Tony Chi who is responsible for the design of the restaurant tries to resolve this by the placement of furniture and a differentiation in floor paving materials. However, he does not succeed. He may not have created the problem, but he does not solve it.

If by chance one entered at the primary entrance of Bencotto, one will find the elevators open directly into the space of the restaurant, almost like a New York loft. This is not an ideal situation since there isn't a transitional space. In fact there is very little space between the elevator doors and the hostess table. The hostess table is a normal dining table height, which is a bit awkward for the standing customers being greeted by the sitting hostess. What I also find to be strange is the diners in the front room of the restaurant all have direct views of the two elevator doors, which are nice but frankly not that attractive.

If one enters from the back entrance, which actually has a set of doors, one will not be greeted by a hostess. Instead one will simply be inside the back dining room. The design of the back room is slightly different from the front room as there aren't any hanging light fixtures; the ceiling is white with down lights instead of grey. Connected to one side of the back dining room is a semi-enclosed room designated for wine tasting and storage. This room is very beautiful but it doesn't seem to get used much. On the other side of the back dining room is the sofa/lounge area - the strangest space in the restaurant. This space, besides the kitchen is, farthest in from the two entrances. Not only is the space somewhat unrelated to food and beverage, there is even a large flat screen TV on the wall. The setting feels more like an airport lounge than a restaurant. In the times when I was at the restaurant, the TV is always on with some sports program with no one sitting in front watching. In fact, the TV is a bit of distraction for some of the diners in this room.

Putting aside the aforementioned problems, some of which may or may not be the fault of the designer, Chi has created a good ambiance for the restaurant. I like the lighting, the choice of materials, as well as the Tuscan color palette. The various glass vitrines that hold wine glasses are elegant. The tables are not big but are placed enough apart. The kitchen is semi-open and the big light fixtures above the work stations make the kitchen feel inviting, more of a residential feel than a normal professional kitchen. With the use of patterned glass screens, Chi is able to achieve a nice balance of openness and room-like spaces.

The food at Bencotto is described by its website as "Home-cooked Italian Cuisine". I always find the idea of "home-cooked" in a restaurant to be a misnomer. If I want home-cooked, I would have just stayed home and cooked. For me, the point of going to a restaurant is to eat things that are hard to do at home. Perhaps Italian home cooking can be given the benefit of the doubt. After all this is a country where mamma and nonna's cooking reign supreme. I don't think there is another country where you will find the mother of a three-Michelin-star chef, Massimo Bottura, claiming, "Massimo’s cooking is fantastic, but I cook better." At Bencotto, the chef in charge is not an Italian mother, but Mario Cittadini, who used to be a chef and co-owner of Il Postale in Italy. Prior to coming to Taipei, he was the chef at an Italian restaurant of Regent Hotel in Beijing for five years. Cittadini's resume doesn't strike me as a "home-cooked" kind of chef. However, he does have an Italian women, Luisa Franceschetti, as sous chef to help him run the kitchen.

Based on two meals at Bencotto, lunch and dinner on two weekdays, the food is good but there is clearly lots of room for improvements. How the restaurant is judged partly has to do with our expectations. If we treat Bencotto as a neighborhood osteria, then we should be happy. But, Cittadini is referred by Mandarin Oriental and the press as a Michelin-starred chef; his previous restaurant Il Postale has a Michelin star. If we view Bencotto through the lens of Michelin and other Michelin-starred places, I would say the restaurant is clearly wanting.

The first meal I had was for dinner, where I ordered the set menu of 4 courses priced at NT$1,800. The restaurant does not serve any amuse bouche. Only bread is offered of which there are three kinds: sourdough, focaccia, and ciabatta. The quality of the bread is fine except, by dinner time, the bread seems a bit stale. In a subsequent lunch the breads seemed slightly better. The bread is served only with olive oil, which is slightly peppery and quite nice.

There are three choices for appetizer and I went with the Hokkaido scallop with cauliflowers. The dish consists of just one scallop with cauliflowers of different textures. The scallop was well cooked with a nice caramelized surface. The combination of scallop with cauliflower is a classic one and I enjoyed the flavors. I wish the dish was seasoned a bit more. The other problem with the dish is the cauliflower chips. I assume the chef wanted to provide some crunch in the texture but the chips were not crisp at all and didn't contribute much to the dish. I can only suspect that the chips were made early in the day and were simply not kept well.

For the second course I picked Spaghetti Carbonara because I read that Cittadini's old restaurant Il Postale is famous for its carbonara. Usually I don't like to order carbonara at a restaurant because it is a dish that I make fairly often. There are only a few components thus it is a nice dish to make at home and it is a plus that my kids like the pasta. Cittadini makes the dish a bit fancy by putting the egg sauce in an egg shell and pouring it table side. I like the flavor and the pasta was cooked well. The only downside was the dish wasn't hot enough by the time it got to my table.

For the main course, I selected roasted pork neck. As with the other dish, the protein was cooked well and the sauce was nice and clean. Again, as with the appetizer, I feel the dish was slightly under seasoned. By this point, I asked the server to provide some salt. The problem was again with the garnish, which was simply gummy; probably made early in the day and wasn't kept well.

For the dessert, one can choose any item from the regular menu and I went with one of my favorites: rum baba. One problem with the dessert is the menu said roasted pineapple but the pineapple on the plate was fresh and only has the surface caramelized. When I emailed the restaurant the next day about the discrepancy, I was told the pineapple has been served fresh for some time and they simply did not update the menu. I would have preferred some roasted pineapple, especially since the fresh fruit was not sweet. I can only surmise the chef wants the acidity of the fresh pineapple to balance the sweetness of the baba. I also wish the baba was soaked with more rum; there was hardly any.

Despite the problems encountered at dinner, I went back for lunch shortly after. Instead of ordering from the set menu, which is cheaper than at dinner but with less interesting choices, I decided to go à la carte. I started with a slow-cooked and char grilled octopus served with potato and dusted with bottarga. This was a very good dish and my sole complaint is again that it was a bit under seasoned.

My second dish was a tortellini with hen consomme. I am not sure why the chef decided to serve the tortellini with a deep bowl as opposed to a shallow bowl like the ones I had in Bologna; I prefer to see all the tortellini at once. Nevertheless, the soup was very fragrant when poured table side. Similar to the other dishes I had to add some salt myself.

Besides the seasoning, the biggest flaw of the dish is the lack of uniformity in the tortellini. The smallest ones are almost half the size of the largest ones. One cannot help but wonder what happened to the quality control of the kitchen. One assumes that the tortellini were made in the morning before the service. Someone should have rejected the ill-formed tortellini instead of serving them to the customers. You would think uniformity is very important not only for the sake of appearance but also for cooking time.

For the most part, the prices for the food at Bencotto are not unreasonable. The portions are standard but not generous. The prices may be a little higher than I would have liked, but for the most part they are acceptable. The same cannot be said for the beverages at Bencotto.

I'm not remotely an expert on wine, yet I find the wine list to be of very little interest. There doesn't seem to be much thought placed on the construction of the list. The list is short and has a little bit of everything - as if the restaurant went to every wine importer in Taiwan and bought a few bottles. The prices of the wine is a bit crazy, with many bottles costing four times the retail price in the U.S. I understand the need for markup, a restaurant needs to pay for storage, glassware, and a sommelier. However, whatever happened to the usual 2.5 or 3 times the wholesale price? I understand that given the import tax, the prices of wine in Taiwan is higher. Nevertheless, one expects Mandarin Oriental to have big bargaining power with the local dealers. To add insult to injury, some of the expensive wines are too young to drink. I feel the restaurant basically bought recent vintages from the stores to fill the cellar. Bencotto is too eager to make money from drinks. Perhaps the restaurant thinks tourists or expense account business people tend to be price inelastic. Or maybe the restaurant simply wants to encourage people to bring their own wine with the NT$1,000 corkage fee.

Given the high prices for wine, you would think there would be some great service from a sommelier. Instead, I ate at the restaurant twice and did not meet the sommelier. My server simply gave me the wine list and offered no help. I ended up ordering the wine by the glass on the menu, which is actually priced more reasonably than the bottles. When the server brought over the wine for me to inspect, I told him it was the wrong vintage. He was incredulous, as if he couldn't believe a customer would question him. I repeated my claim and he reluctantly went back to check the menu. Five minutes later, he came back to apologize. They ran out of the 2010 vintage and the menu has not been updated. I should have wagered him some money. To the restaurant's credit, they didn't charge me for the wine.

The cost of an after dinner drink such as an espresso is also a bit too high in relation to the food. An espresso at Bencotto is NT$200. In some 3-star restaurants, that may be acceptable. But at Bencotto this is half the price of the chicken appetizer. The restaurant also does not offer regular (free) water. One has to order bottled water, which costs around NT$250. While the three-course set menu at lunch is $980, an order of water in the beginning and an espresso at the end will balloon the cost to $1,430.

Bencotto is a restaurant that I really want to like. The menu consists of many Italian classics that I love. Furthermore, unlike other Italian restaurants in Taipei, there are many large format dishes meant to be shared. The restaurant also seems to be children friendly and well suited for family gatherings. The biggest flaw with Bencotto is a sense of casualness about how things are done. For instance, there are three risottos listed on the menu but only one said the rice is by Acquerello. When I asked the manager about the rice used on the other two risotto, the response was all three risotto use the same aged Acquerello rice; and he doesn't know why only one of them lists the source. When I asked about the origin of the culatello, the server just said, "Italy". For a culatello that the restaurant charges NT$1,600 per 100g or around US$250 per pound, you would think the server can be a bit more specific. Some of the items on the menu, such as the previously mentioned wine and pineapple are no longer valid. Yet, the restaurant doesn't update the menu. I am hard pressed to think a so called six-star hotel cannot pay for the printing of a new set of menus. Many of the problems I have with the food are with components that are made prior to the service. In other words, the mistakes were not made during the mad rush of the dining hours. Someone in the chain of command should have checked the quality of the preparation. There is really no excuse for serving the customers an inferior product such as the mushy chips or sub-standard tortellini. Do the staff at Bencotto think the customers will not notice?

One cannot help but wonder if Bencotto is simply a place for tourists and the guests of Mandarin Oriental Hotel. I suppose a business traveler with an expense account would probably be content with the food at Bencotto after a long flight or long day of work. However, for a local diner, I have higher expectations. I need to see more care put into the operation of Bencotto. The restaurant has potential. I don't necessarily expect or need a Michelin-star quality restaurant, but Bencotto needs to raise its standard for me to become a regular customer.

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