Google Analytics

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Caramelized Mango with Rum

The season for mango is coming to an end in Taiwan. Some of the mangos on the market are no longer so great to eat. Recently we found ourselves with a few average tasting mangos. Instead of enjoying them raw, I decided to broil them and make a dessert.

The recipe I used was from the three-Michelin-star chef Eric Ripert. A few years ago, Ripert did a series of videos to show how one can use a toaster oven to make meals for the family. One of them was Caramelized Mango with Rum.

The recipe is quite simple. Prepare the roasting tray by covering it with aluminum foil and brushing it with soft butter. Peel the mango and slice the ends off. Dice the end pieces of mango. Cut the rest of the mango into slices, place them on the tray, and brush with more soft butter. Dust the mango with some brown sugar and place the tray under the broiler in the toaster oven for 5 minutes. Drizzle the mangos with some rum and top with diced fresh mango. Plate and serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


"Have you been to ACHOI?" In the past few months, this was the question I posed to my relatives and friends. If their answer was no, I would immediately encourage them to go. The reason is simple: ACHOI is this year's best new western restaurant in Taipei.

On the surface, Taipei seems to have a vibrant western dining scene with new restaurants opening up monthly at every corner. This is perhaps due to the Taiwanese spirit of wanting to be the boss, the low barrier to entry, and the media's constant need for fresh faces. Unfortunately, most of the new restaurants are simply not worth their salt. They are usually owned and operated by young cooks and restaurateurs who simply don't have enough experience in operating restaurants; graduating from a cooking school or cooking at a three-Michelin-star restaurant for a year or two does not make one a good chef. While a discerning diner can choose to ignore them, they are like noises and pollution that fill the mediascape thus diverting attention from the few that are truly doing good work.

Hong Kong native Lam Ming Kin is the chef of ACHOI. He has worked in the three-Michelin-star Jean Georges Vongerichten's group for over ten years. Just prior to coming to Taipei, Lam was the chef de cuisine at Jean Georges Shanghai. He comes with a wealth of worldly experience, which is very rare for a chef in a new restaurant in Taipei. Lam's new venture is backed by the Ambassador Hotel Group.

ACHOI is located on the ground floor of the Group's new mid-priced hotel amba Zhongshan. Setback from the tree-lined Zhongshan North Road by the building's arcade, ACHOI is enclosed in floor-to-ceiling glass on two sides. While the restaurant has its own glass door entrance, it is not obvious; usually I enter through the adjacent hotel front door. During the day time, the restaurant takes full advantage of the glass exterior and makes the trees on Zhongshan Road and the plantings along the small side street be part of the interior. During lunch time, the space is very pleasant with indirect daylight coming through the glass walls. With views beyond the space, the dining room seems larger than it really is. Unfortunately, at night the glass exterior impairs the ambiance of the interior. As the outside gets dark, one sees less of the trees and more of the bright street lights, plus the uncontrolled reflections from the interior lighting. The biggest annoyance to the diners at night is with the bright headlights coming from cars traveling down the side alley. ACHOI should learn from the design of Jean Georges Restaurant in New York City and install some shear curtains at the windows. This will reduce the effect from the outside, refocus the diners' attention to the inside, and help improve the acoustics of the space.

With the clear glass exterior, the designer smartly kept the ceiling and the walls simply in white, including the tiles in the open kitchen. On the other hand, the floor is a little complicated with two types of finishes. Most of the area are finished with beige-colored large tiles. However, one area is inexplicably done with wood in herringbone pattern. I wish the whole floor is done in wood which would conceptually bring the exterior landscape into interior. With the hardwood floor, sheet rock ceiling, glass exterior wall, and no tablecloth, every surface is hard and does not absorb sound. Therefore, the noise level in the restaurant is well above the comfort level.

There are less than twenty tables and a counter, yet there are four types of surfaces for the tabletop: wood for the rectangular tables near the banquettes, marble for the circular tables near the window, tile for communal table, and synthetic stone for the counter by the open kitchen. Since the restaurant does not use any placemats, the different materials for the table are even more pronounced; as if a restaurant uses four different color tablecloths at the same time. This is overly complicated. Moreover, the tile surface of the communal table is too rustic, as eating and looking at the grout between the tiles is unpleasant. The synthetic stone for the kitchen counter is too simple and feels more like a home kitchen than a restaurant. Another design flaw with the counter is the height: instead of using a normal bar height of around 90cm, it is set at a normal table height of 70cm. The problem is the customers end up always looking uncomfortably up at the cooks inside the open kitchen. It is understandable if the designer is simply against sitting on bar stool in a restaurant or has the desire to make every seat wheelchair friendly. However, the long communal table adjacent to the wine refrigerator is set at a normal bar height. Usually I like to sit at the counter and see the food being prepared. Sadly, the design of counter seats at ACHOI discourages me from doing so.

Besides the tables, the design of the other parts of the restaurant is also fussy. In the middle of the dining room are back-to-back banquettes built with wood. The backs of the banquettes have cushions of varying geometrical shapes and different color shades of grey which seem unnecessarily complicated. There are also a variety of light fixtures at different heights that seem to have little to do with the tables below. A lot of efforts are spent adding varieties into a space that doesn't really need it. This is similar to the extra ingredients on a plate of food that only complicates the appearance but has no real intrinsic value to add.

Since I am an architect, I am more sensitive to the design of the space than most people. I get bothered by little things that other people simply do not notice. For example, I don't know why the restaurant has a cash register with a vertical display sticking above the counter like at a supermarket. The space, ambiance, and furnishings 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, a serious 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 a cluttered and noisy space?

I don't know how much input Lam had in the design of the room but he seems to have the free rein to devise the menu with his partner Amy Chen. After all, the most important part of a restaurant is still the food. So far I had three meals at ACHOI and enjoyed most of the dishes.

Prior to dining at ACHOI I expected Lam's food to be in the similar vein as his old boss Jean Georges Vongerichten: the pairing of Asian flavors and ingredients with French techniques and traditions. Since I love Vongerichten's food, I had high expectations for Lam. The first time I was at ACHOI I sat at the counter and saw the kitchen prepare a special uni on toast with yuzu and black truffle. I couldn't help but remarked to Lam that the dish reminded me of the uni on toast served at Jean Georges in New York City. Lam smiled gently and replied, it is similar but he does it differently. Indeed, while there are hints of Vongericten's style, Lam is certainly expressing his own views. In comparison to Vongerichten, in a very general sense, I find Lam's food to be less acidic and doesn't have as much of a spicy kick. Nevertheless, many aspects of Vongerichten's food that I am very fond of can also be seen in Lam's cuisine.

Lam's food is a fusion of east and west. Because of Lam's experience, fusion is not confusion, rather it offers novel ways to look at the classic recipes. On the menu is a reinterpretation of the classic Salade Lyonnaise. Typically the salad is made with frisée and pan fried lardons topped with a poached egg. In a reference to Chinese cooking, Lam uses braised pork belly instead. Furthermore, he adds some locally grown baby swiss chard to the mix, which provides a little sweetness to the more bitter frisée. For the sautéed foie gras, just as Vongerichten made the novel pairing of foie gras with mango long time ago, Lam does it with coconut and lychee. The foie gras was cooked perfectly and the contrast with the Asian fruit was wonderful.

Besides the Asian elements, Lam allows local Taiwanese flavors to be part of his food as well. When he got to Taipei he noticed at the night markets that the locals like to eat fried chicken in one stall and cold noodles at another. So he thought why not make his version and serve them together. The result is a lightly battered but crusty chicken which was very tender and juicy: just delicious. The cold house-made spaghetti has the right texture and is lightly tossed with a sesame dressing. Not only do I like the dish very much, my daughters talked about the fried chicken for a few days after their meal as well.

Lam takes the local influences one step further by doing his version of the Three-Cup dish. Normally done with chicken in Taiwan, Lam uses abalone instead. The abalone is cooked sous vide and has a very tender texture. The Thai basil pesto adds a nice floral kick.

Lam's food is light but flavorful. In Taipei, people tend to want to eat "light" but often times the restaurants and diners confuse light with bland. While it is important to let the original tastes of the ingredients show through, it is equally important to enhance, elevate, and balance the flavors. For the honeydew melon gazpacho, Lam balances the sweetness of the fruit by adding some salty French Bayonne ham and lifts the coolness of the dish with slices of mint – just a very fresh tasting dish that is well suited to the hot weather outside.

The shrimp sliders are slathered with a sriracha and citrus mayo that is light but extremely flavorful. The sesame bun added an extra fragrance to the dish. I gulped down the two sliders in minutes.

The fillet of snapper is seasoned nicely and cooked perfectly, first sous vide and then the skin is crisped in the pan. The sauce is a sabayon that has just enough acidity to lighten up the dish. The chayote shoots provide a slightly crunchy texture which contrasts well with the flaky fish.

Lam's cooking is simple but complex. Simple in the sense that the dishes do not have superfluous items and the diners get the essential flavors. Like any good chef, a lot of effort goes into sourcing the ingredients. With good ingredients, the key is not to overcomplicate the cooking. When Lam talks about the good ingredients he is able to find, you can visibly see his excitement, like the shrimp he gets daily or the locally grown fig.

The shrimps are cooked lightly and served with a yuzu mayonnaise and a dusting of house-made spice mix. The dish looks simple and clear, yet the flavors are complex and delicious.

The fig sits on house made ricotta and is topped with a little port and lemon juice. Again, simply made and just a delight.

Based on my three meals at ACHOI, I have very little to complain about the food. There are only a couple of dishes that I thought was just good but not great. For the duck breast, Lam's presentation seems to refer to the Peking Duck. The dollops of dark sauce are made with cherry, and a stalk of tuberose in lieu of scallion. While the duck is cooked well, I prefer the meat to be a bit more rare and bloody. While Lam cooks some of the seafood dishes sous vide, he prefers to cook the meat in the traditional method. It is interesting to note that at Angelo Aglianò Restaurant, it is just the reverse: some meats are cooked sous vide while the fish are always cooked in the traditional manner. I understand Lam's preference and reasoning, and agree that some meats are better cooked in the traditional manner; Lam's Iberico pork chop was just grilled and it was juicy and delectable. But with the duck breast, I prefer the method that Robuchon uses: sear, sous vide at 60 degrees Celsius, and sear again before serving.

The other dish that I thought was just okay is the grilled beef sirloin wrapped with betel nut leaves, and served with mango, peanut, cherry tomatoes, and fish sauce dressing. The vegetables are fresh and the sauce has just the right amount of acidity. The beef is cooked well, but doesn't seem as flavorful as it can be.

ACHOI has a very nice dessert menu, all of which are priced at NT$220. Many of them are variations on the classics, some with Asian inflections. I am particularly fond of the Peach Melba, a classic from the late 19th century. Lam serves his version as a trifle with granite on the top. The chocolate mouse with mint sorbet is also wonderful.

The only dessert that doesn't quite work is the praline ravioli with chilled citrus soup and lemon sorbet. The sorbet and the soups are great, fresh with a nice sweetness and hints of acidity. The colors in the bowl are vibrant and beautiful. However, the chilled wonton wrapper with the praline inside was just a bit dense. It was probably the most interesting dessert on the menu, yet the one I liked the least.

Most of the people I know who have been to ACHOI agree with me that the quality of the food is high, but many of them feel the price is high as well. While I share their sentiments that ACHOI is not cheap, the restaurant is certainly not price gouging either. ACHOI has a 3-course set lunch menu for NT$680 and 4-course set lunch for $780, which includes coffee or tea. This seems very reasonable. Unfortunately, this is only served from Tuesday to Friday (the restaurant is closed on Monday). Given ACHOI is located far from my office, I probably will never get to try the set lunch. All three times that I was at ACHOI I ordered à la carte. The soups are priced around NT$220, the vegetable dishes are around NT$300, and the poultry and meat dishes range from around NT$400 to NT$800. While the dishes are all in tasting menu portions, given the quality of the ingredients, the prices seem fair. My problem with the pricing at ACHOI is not with the individual dishes, but the overall experience. A proper meal at ACHOI requires four courses, which will end up costing around NT$1,600 to NT$2,000, not including drinks. For this price, I expect the restaurant will serve some bread instead of having to order it like a course at NT$140. I realize everything has a price, but I prefer the restaurant pads the prices of the dishes instead of charging for bread. I also expect the restaurant will serve some mignardises with the NT$180 coffee or tea. Since there is an amuse bouche to start the meal, how about something to end the meal as well? Why not serve some marshmallows like at Jean Georges in New York; potato starch, sugar, and egg white will not dent the profit by much. For the price I am paying, I expect a bit more illusion of generosity.

The food at ACHOI is served to be shared – the dishes do not come at once and are placed in the middle of the table. Each diner has an empty plate to eat the food. I dislike this format. First, the portion of the dishes are small, therefore, any form of sharing allows for only a couple of bites of the food. For instance I don't see how a party of four can share the two pieces of toast with uni in a satisfying manner. Second, when I order à la carte, I like to plan out the sequence of the dishes to not repeat certain types of ingredients or flavors. The sharing of the dishes disrupt any form of progression. Third, when the dishes don't come at once, some of the diners simply end up waiting for a long time and stare at their companions eating. At my third meal at ACHOI I had to tell the server to bring all the diner's dishes at the same time.

ACHOI uses a wine refrigerator by EuroCave that allows the customers to order wine by the glass, half glass, or just a small taste. Since people in Taipei don't drink as much as people in Europe and the U.S., the wine program should encourage people to order some wine with the food. Also, in theory, the sommelier will be able to pair a wine to each course. Sadly in practice it doesn't quite work. In my three meals I was offered very little advice on wine. ACHOI's wines are marked up around 3 times the U.S. retail prices or 1.6 times the Taiwan retail prices. For example, a bottle of Trimbach Gewurztraminer retails for around NT$650 in New York and NT$1,250 in Taipei (the wine prices in Taiwan are ridiculous but that's a separate story), and ACHOI sells the bottle for NT$2,000. These prices are not unreasonable. However, I want a bit more service from the sommelier. At one of my dinners, instead of ordering different glasses of wine I ordered a bottle. After the sommelier poured the initial glass of wine, all the subsequent refills were done by myself. I also want a wider selection of wines with more expensive and interesting choices. For instance, it will be nice to have more than three sparkling wines to choose from. I wonder why ACHOI cannot utilize its sister restaurant A-Cut's more extensive wine inventory in the Ambassador Hotel. Furthermore, I find it very strange that ACHOI's wine list does not display the vintage of the wines. I realize selling wine in a restaurant in Taipei is difficult, but ACHOI cannot be this casual about their wine program.

While I have misgivings about some aspects of ACHOI, they can be improved upon should the restaurant choose to. In terms of just the food on the plate, I am very delighted with Lam's arrival in Taipei. The city finally has a restaurant that does fusion in a convincing manner. Lam's experience and knowledge in cooking allow him to play with traditional recipes and familiar tastes; one has to know the rules to break the rules. Another difference between a seasoned chef and a young chef is the confidence in their abilities. Young chefs, especially in Taipei, have a tendency to use too many ingredients in a dish, thus making the food more complicated than it needs to be. They fail to understand the difference between complicated and complex. Moreover, the young chefs tend to first cook for themselves and to impress their peers, rather than for the guests. In contrast, Lam's food at first glance seems simple and one can identify the ingredients and the flavors. Yet, the flavors are complex. Not only is there a nice after taste, some dishes make one ponder about them in the days after.

In a few brief conversations I had with Lam, he strikes me as a very affable person. There is a sense of fun and playfulness in his cooking. He is also confident and eager to look for new ideas. As the seasons change and as Lam starts to discover more local ingredients and customs, I am sure his cooking and ideas will evolve. In turn I am happy to keep going back to ACHOI for more.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Cake Shop at Mandarin Oriental Taipei

Whenever I go to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Taipei, I like to stop by the Cake Shop located on the ground floor of the inner part of the retail courtyard. Similar to other parts of the hotel, the shop can be entered from more than one place. The best and most direct way is through the front door from the courtyard. Upon entering the shop one immediately sees the cakes and pastries displayed in vitrines set on a large white stone counter. To the left of the entrance are freshly baked bread and Viennoiseries. To the right, are chocolates and the wonderful macarons. The back walls behind the display counters are shelves for the various packaging materials. I just love the colors of the boxes, ribbons, and the way they are composed on the wall.

Outside to the right of the shop is a small area with tables and chairs for customers to eat and be served. But I really dislike this space because it feels like one is sitting in a large corridor. In contrast to the shop, there is no ambiance and it is not really designed in any thoughtful manner. Therefore I always buy the various items to go. In fact, the Cake Shop has become the place I like to go to buy birthday cakes for other people. Not only are the cakes delicious and beautiful, the packaging is just delightful.

The box for the cake is a tall round cylinder with studs at the bottom to be secured with strings. This makes a serious impression on anyone.

Given that everything in the Cake Shop is fancy, one would think the prices would be exorbitant. In fact, the prices in the Cake Shop are comparable to other lesser pastries shops in town. Some of the items are actually cheaper.

A few months back I purchased a beautiful and delicious 7-inch strawberry tart for NT$1,000.

I only hope the Cake Shop will be able to maintain the standards as time goes on. I wish it will not be like Sweet Tea by Yannick Alleno on the fourth floor of Taipei 101, where when it opened the pastries were in boxes with magnetic latches, the tarts were in beautiful rectangular boxes that slid open, and there were special items like Galette des Rois during the holidays. But now to save costs there are only paper-like boxes, the tarts are circular, and the Galette is only available at the sister store Lalos.  I worry about the Cake Shop because the sous chef Alexis Bouillet has left, and his boss, the chocolate master Frank Haasnoot, is also rumored to be on the way out. Will the Cake Shop remain as good as it is or get even better? I certainly hope so. I am a fan.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sacrificial Lamb

The traditional food eaten at Easter is lamb. I am not a Christian, but I am happy to observe food related customs. The traditional way of cooking a rack of lamb is to sear it first on the stove top and then finish the cooking in a hot oven. Instead, I prefer to cook the lamb in a more modern manner, namely sous vide. I use the recipe by the British chef Heston Blumenthal, which consists essentially of four parts. First, place the rack of lamb with some olive oil and herbs in a plastic bag, seal, and cook in 60 degree Celsius water for one hour.

Second, lift the bag out of the water bath, discard the herbs, remove the rack from the bag, and pat dry. Third, season the lamb and pan-fry the lamb on all sides with some olive oil. Traditionally one is taught to leave the protein on the hot pan and just flip it once. However, I do the opposite and flip the lamb every 20 seconds or so. Frequent flipping actually allows one to brown the meat quicker and more evenly. Fourth, remove the rack from the pan, rest, coat with tapenade, slice, and serve.

While I personally don't associate lamb with being a sacrificial agent, nevertheless, the lamb was killed for my lunch. I hope I cooked it with the respect it deserves.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Café Un Deux Trois at Mandarin Oriental

Mandarin Oriental Hotel opened in May of last year in Taipei. Looking back now it is hard to imagine the hype that surrounded the opening. Everyone seemed to want to be the first to experience the hotel. Needless to say, the local bloggers and the press were all promoting the hotel like mad. Yet, it was interesting to note that in terms of the food at the hotel, all the focus was on the Michelin-starred chef at Bencotto (Italian restaurant) and the World Chocolate Master, Frank Haasnoot at the Cake Shop. There was no mention of the chef for Coco, the French restaurant at the hotel. The coverage of Coco was all about the design and its New York based designer Tony Chi. People knew more about the rhinoceros on the wall of the restaurant than who was in charge of the kitchen. This was a clue that something was amiss in the restaurant.

The reason that the chef at Coco was not publicized at all was he left Mandarin Oriental Taipei shortly after the opening. Therefore, for several months in 2014, there wasn't a chef in charge. This wasn't well known to the public and probably would not have deterred people from going to the restaurant. When Coco first opened everyone wanted to go immediately. However, the restaurant management knew they were not ready so they limited the amount of customers. Unfortunately, the hard-to-get reservation only added to the customer's expectation of the restaurant, which the restaurant couldn't meet especially without a chef. The results were a series of negative reviews on various social media sites that lasted for months. A friend of mine said after her dinner at Coco that the Mandarin Oriental in Taipei is simply not the Mandarin Oriental that she is familiar with; she has not been back since. Needless to say, I stayed away from Coco after hearing all these negative stories.

Around six months after the opening, the management of the hotel made a rare move and changed the name of the French restaurant from Coco to Café Un Deux Trois – essentially an acknowledgement that the previous setup was a disaster; probably one of the worst roll-out of a restaurant in Taipei in my memory. Mandarin Oriental also finally brought in a new chef, Florence Dalia, who used to be at the New Heights in Shanghai and prior to that at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong. It seems right for the Café to have a woman as a chef. After all, the symbol of the restaurant is a woman balancing on a horse and moving forward. The management also hired Alexis Bouillet as the pastry chef; he trained at George V and Plaza Athénée in Paris prior to coming to Taipei. With the new team installed in the kitchen, I finally decided to make a lunch reservation at the restaurant in December of last year. In short, I really enjoyed my first lunch. Since then I have gone back to the Café a few times for both lunch and dinner.

Located on the 5th floor of the hotel, Café Un Deux Trois is not an easy place to get to from the street. The elevator opens onto a blank wall and on the right is a small blue stand displaying the menu of the restaurant. But crossing through the first threshold does not get one to the restaurant, instead a perfume bar. Combining a perfume bar with a restaurant is a bit strange since perfume interferes with the smell of the food. It is not uncommon to see restaurants asking the customers to not only dress appropriately but refrain from using strong perfume. After passing through the perfume bar one arrives at a small cake stand selling some Viennoiseries and pastries. This seems to be a satellite store of the Cake Shop on the ground floor. After the cake stand, comes a small bookstore situated half-story below. The store seems to only sell English language coffee table books published by Assouline and Taschen. I wonder who will actually buy books there; certainly not any local residents in their right minds. Only after walking pass the entrance to the bookstore does one reach the reception desk for the Café. Alas, the actual dining room is still several meters away. All of these programs: perfume bar, cake stand, and bookstore, seem to exist solely to animate a long interiorized corridor connecting the elevators to the restaurant. I have to question the architectural design of the hotel with such a convoluted circulation. There must be some better ways to design the space.

At least there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Café Un Deux Trois is essentially a big rectangular space divided into three large rooms, with two main dining rooms, and one function room in the back. The dining rooms have windows on one side with views of the trees along the Dunhua Boulevard. Chi designed a series of alcoves along the window. Each alcove contains two separate tables. I sat in one of the tables inside an alcove for a lunch and I don't really like it. The seats on the inside is a settee and the furniture fits very tightly within the confines of the partition. While there is a window on one side of the alcove, one only gets an oblique view of the outside. The alcove seems to be private, yet one is actually very close to the adjacent dining party. The space is a bit too cozy and the proportion just seems uncomfortably vertical. Since the Café operates like a brasserie during lunch, it is more fun sitting in the main dining rooms and take part in the ambiance.

The main spaces of the two dining rooms consist mostly of square tables arranged along two rows. The seats are comfortable but I wish the tables are slightly farther apart. The high ceilings in the two main space of the dining rooms consist of tilted mirrored panels, a design idea repeated from Chi's design for the South Gate restaurant in New York City. The different reflectivity of the ceilings and walls add a certain intrigue to the space. The choice of Rosenthal TAC Skin Platinum line for the dinnerware also echoes the ceiling of the room very nicely. Sitting in the main dining room for lunch is very pleasant.

Café Un Deux Trois actually operates like several different restaurants in one. In the morning it is the place where hotel guests take their breakfast. At lunch time, besides the hotel guests, the restaurant is often filled with office workers near the hotel and ladies who lunch. There is a set lunch menu mostly consisting of French food. However, since the Café also serves as the all-day dining venue for the hotel, one will also find Asian classics such as Beef Noodle Soup and Chicken Rice on the menu. In the afternoon, from 2pm to 5pm, the restaurant serves afternoon tea with a set priced at NT$1,000. And at dinner time, the Café becomes the signature French restaurant for the hotel. Therefore, depending on the time one is at the Café, the experience will be completely different from another time.

Mandarin Oriental is not a place where bargains are offered. However, the prix fixe lunch at the Café is a fairly good deal. For NT$950 one gets a three-course meal including coffee. In comparison, a three-course lunch at Bencotto one floor above is NT$980 without coffee. An order of coffee or tea at Café Un Deux Trois and Bencotto is NT$200.

At lunch, there is no amuse bouche, only a good quality bread basket with some butter. I understand there's a cost to everything, nevertheless I would love to have a little snack before the appetizers; something like gougères will not dent the budget much. For the set lunch at the Café, there are three choices for each of the three courses. At my first lunch, I started with Oeuf en Meurette, a classic dish of Burgundy (where the chef is from), egg poached in red wine sauce served with lardons and mushrooms. The color is beautiful and it is such a joy to cut the egg and have the yellow yolk seep out. Often times people in search of the latest trends forget how wonderful the classics can be; there's a reason why some dishes become the classics. I absolutely love this dish and eating it is deeply satisfying; as the French would say, miam miam.

For the main course, I ordered a fillet of fish and it was cooked perfectly, crispy skin with moist interior. The vegetables on the side were fresh and vibrant.

One of my friends ordered the vegetables with creamy quinoa which was delicious; the superfood quinoa is on the dinner menu as well.

My other friend had the cassoulet, which was wonderful as well.

The desserts on the lunch set menu is not as interesting as the à la carte desserts. At one of my lunches at the Café, I had a cherry tart – nice but frankly a bit paltry. Another choice for the dessert is just three plain scoops of ice cream. Coffee is served with a coconut bonbon. The dessert for the prix fixe lunch may be fine for a business person in a hurry or someone who is watching her weight.

However, I prefer to pay a supplemental charge and order the various wonderful desserts from the regular menu. Many of the desserts by Bouillet are his interpretations of the classics: baba, soufflé. choux pastry, and chocolate tart; some are done with tropical fruits such as the grapefruit and passion fruit. They are all executed well technically and simply delicious, a great way to end a meal.

Dinner at the Café feels very different from lunch. First of all, one no longer sees the trees outside the window and the focus become more interiorized. The lighting inside is darker and dim enough that I couldn't really take decent photos of the dishes. Frankly, I prefer the room during the day because the reflective surfaces of the walls and the ceiling are more animated and interesting. At night the room feels a bit flat and lacks a bit of sparkle.

In the evening the Café becomes a slightly more formal restaurant with a shorter menu of just French food. In my two dinners at the Café I found there were less patrons than at lunch time. Instead of two main dining rooms, the Café essentially operates only the room in the front during dinner. For both of my dinners I opted for the 4-course menu, which is priced at NT$2,200 and consisted of a starter, soup, fish or meat, and dessert with coffee; for each course there are only two choices.

Unlike at lunch, dinner starts with an amuse bouche. At my first dinner, it was a tiny (around the size of my thumb) piece of duck served with a small fork. At my second dinner, the amuse was a bit more substantial: nice and fresh vegetables with couscous. The variations in the size of the amuse seem a bit random.

I found the starters at dinner to be wonderful, especially the marinated tuna served over different layers of vegetable purée; the dish is fresh, complex in flavors, and beautifully plated. The other starter that I had at a dinner in March was a new interpretation of the Burgundy classic, Jambon Persillé, served in a bowl with toasted bread on the side; good flavors with delicate plating.

For the soup I ordered the consommé with poached foie gras. The consommé was clear with good flavor. Unfortunately, the soup was not hot enough; the bowl that the soup was served in wasn't too warm either. For the main course, I had the braised lamb shank served over soft polenta. The various components were all good. However, the dish came with a whole clove of unpeeled garlic, the skin of which was mostly white and the texture was closer to raw; the garlic was not cooked long enough. Similar to the soup, the dish was not hot enough. I find it strange that the two dishes (soup and main course) I had, were all prepared earlier and just required reheating, yet they were not hot enough by the time they got to the table. The dishes probably sat waiting in the kitchen for too long.

Unlike at lunch, the dessert for the dinner set menu is more substantial. My friends and I were able to try several different desserts on the menu and they were all nice.

Based on my four meals at Café Un Deux Trois, I can say I quite like the restaurant and the dishes that Dalia and Bouillet are making. At this point I prefer the Café for lunch better than dinner. During the day there seems to be more energy in the restaurant, and even the rhinoceros in the room feels more alive. Since there are many repeat customers for lunch, Dalia changes the menu fairly frequently. If I live and work close by the hotel, I would happily go there on a regular basis. However, I am less convinced about the dinner at the Café. For a fancy dinner at the current price point, I want a few more choices for the various courses. The prix fixe at lunch has three choices for each course, yet the menu at dinner only has two. I also prefer to have slightly more expensive ingredients, or alternatively more interesting proteins. Furthermore, some different mignardises from the one served at lunch to finish the meal would be welcomed as well.

Overall Café Un Deux Trois is a very pleasant restaurant to dine at, but it certainly still has room for improvement. At my lunch in February, we ordered four set menus but only got three desserts. They forgot one dessert and it wasn't served until the other three people finished their desserts. Coffee and tea also took a long time to arrive. This was probably an anomaly. For the most part, the service led by Alva Liang, is fine and pleasant. If anything, the staff seems slightly stiff, more afraid of making mistakes than being confident and relaxed. The kitchen has glitches as well, such as the aforementioned temperature of the food. However, these are not large structural problems, but will require more attention to details during the rush of service. Mistakes happen to everyone, including three-star restaurants, and it is not easy to operate a large multi-purpose restaurant like Café Un Deux Trois. Furthermore, one cannot help but to have high expectations for Mandarin Oriental with its so-called six-star status. What's important is the restaurant acknowledges the problems and will correct them. In my exchanges with the chefs and the manager, I find them to be open to criticism and care about the customer's reactions. I feel confident that the restaurant will get better moving forward. They always seem happy to receive me and in turn I am happy to go back.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Architect, Foodie, and Blogger

Late last year, the writer Jules Quartly, emailed me out of the blue to see if I would be interested in discussing the fine dining scene in Taipei with him for an article in Topic magazine's annual wine and dine issue published by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. Jules found my blog and liked some of my posts about the restaurants in Taipei. I responded to Jules that since I only go to a handful of restaurants in Taipei, I might not have much to offer. He wasn't concerned with my limited knowledge so we arranged a time to talk.

I often found that people who like to eat also like to talk about what they eat; I am no exception. I shared my thoughts with Jules over the phone and some of which are in his article, Reserving a Seat at the World’s Fine-Dining Table. Frankly, I don't remember I said so much until I read the article. Below are a few of my one-liners:

On Western food in Taipei: “It’s a bit like eating Chinese food in Manhattan. You’re not getting the real thing most of the time, so there’s a limited number of places to go to.”

On the possibility of Michelin issuing a Red Guide for Taipei: "If Michelin can’t make it work in L.A., I don’t know how it will work in Taipei."

On the lack of visibility for Chinese chefs: “The chef in Chinese culture doesn't have such an elevated position as in the West, where over the past 20 years or so they have become celebrities like artists and rock stars. In Chinese restaurants, you often don’t even know who is cooking the food.”

On chef Angelo Agliano: "big fan of".

On the limited revenue generated from wine: “We [Taiwanese] didn't grow up drinking wine with meals, that’s why the business model here is so much more difficult.”

On L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon and chef Oliver Jean: "setting the standard around town."

On three-star restaurants in Taipei: "doubts there is a true three-star restaurant in Taipei yet."

In the article, I was described as an architect, foodie, and blogger. While the word "foodie" has been used for over thirty some years, I was never comfortable with it. Also, for the longest time I always tell people that I am not a real blogger since I don't write much. Nevertheless, the two basic needs of human – food and shelter – are where my interests lie.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Spinach with Tofu and Preserved Duck Egg

A few days ago, my mother invited her friends over for lunch. One of the dishes she served was Spinach with Tofu and Preserved Duck Egg. Her friends really enjoyed the dish and asked for the recipe. My mother says this is one of her family’s signature dishes. I have been eating it ever since I can remember. My mother learned the dish from her father, who was from Yangzhou. Therefore I can only assume this is a common dish in Huaiyang (淮揚) cuisine.

The dish certainly fits the characteristics of Huaiyang cooking, which emphasizes the natural tastes of the ingredients and knife works. The dish is very simple to make as there are only three ingredients: spinach, tofu, and preserved egg. Since this is home cooking, we do everything, as the French would say, “au pif” or by the nose.

First, cook the spinach in a large pot of boiling salted water for a minute or two. The bigger the pot the better, so the water stays hot. Dump the spinach immediately into a bowl of ice cold water to stop the cooking and set the color. Squeeze the collapsed spinach to drain out as much water as possible. Dry and finely chop the spinach.

Second, gently cook the dried tofu in some boiling water to soften and then finely dice. Finally, cut the preserved egg into pieces similar to the tofu. Mix the spinach, tofu, and preserved egg, seasoned with some light soy sauce and finish with some drizzle of sesame oil. Serve.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

RAW Stands for Restaurant André W?

RAW is the most anticipated restaurant opening in Taipei last year. The restaurant is the latest venture by the Taiwanese chef André Chiang 江振誠. His eponymous restaurant in Singapore has garnered many well-deserved accolades. I visited the restaurant in Singapore in early 2012 and liked it very much. There was something magical about eating at Chiang's home-like restaurant. Chiang's eight-course tasting menu has many great dishes, including "Memory" which was a foie gras jelly topped with truffle; the dish wasn't the most technique-driven one, yet it was deeply satisfying to eat. Three years ago, Chiang only had one restaurant and came by every table to greet his guests at the restaurant. By now Chiang is world famous and is associated with several restaurants including Porte 12 in Paris. His new restaurant in Taipei is not a fine dining restaurant like the one in Singapore, rather a bistronomy, similar to his restaurant in Paris.

Plans for RAW were released in June of 2014 and a press conference was held in September. The restaurant didn't officially open until early December. Prior to the opening Chiang even organized a "Taiwan Flavor Symposium" to discuss the flavors of Taiwan. The rollout of RAW makes the restaurant into a player in culture and identity rather than just food. Chiang's aspiration is certainly refreshing and encouraging. However, I am not sure if RAW quite fulfills the ambition.

The story of the famous Taiwanese chef coming home to produce and promote Taiwanese flavor is just too good for the local media and bloggers. Needless to say, most of them are completely gushing over Chiang to the point where facts are overlooked and criticisms are nowhere to be found. For instance, some people cannot mention Chiang without saying he is a Michelin 3-star chef. Chiang worked in 3-star restaurants, but that doesn't make him a 3-star chef. His restaurant in Singapore doesn't have any stars because Michelin doesn't have a guide there. Restaurant RAW has also been described as Chiang's gift to Taiwan, forgetting the fact that the restaurant is very much a profit-driven business rather than a charity; the "gift" will be rescinded if the restaurant doesn't make money. Some in the media made a big deal out of Chaing's employment of young Taiwanese, ignoring the fact that many of the fine dining restaurants in Taipei, such as L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, STAY, and Angelo Aglianò, have employed and trained many young Taiwanese for years. In fact, two staff members at the front of house and a cook at RAW worked at Robuchon Taipei. The chef de cuisine Alain Huang came from Yannick Alléno's restaurant in Taipei. Chiang is a talented chef with a sense of style who certainly deserves to be the pride of Taiwan. I am sure if the Michelin guide ever publishes a red guide in Singapore, he will get multiple macarons. However, we should not put him on a pedestal nor is he beyond reproach. I suspect he may not want to be treated that way either.

Chiang's RAW is located on the ground floor of a new building one block away from Miramar shopping mall. Entering the glass storefront one arrives in a foyer-like space that feels like a lounge. This space seems a bit too generous and doesn't get used much. Separating the lounge from the dining area is a curvilinear bar carved out of wood. The opposite end of the dining area is another curvilinear wood piece. The two sculptural elements are dramatic and conjure up various images such as ship, shore, and cloud. The material provides a certain warmth while the shape signals the use of modern technology. The design of the restaurant is by a Dutch architect and it is quite nice. The mix of wood panels, bare concrete, wood furniture, and soft lighting creates a very pleasant atmosphere for dining.

We start the meal with some bread served in a bag. The bread and the spread are wonderful, one of the most memorable parts of the meal. The only blemish is the restaurant charges NT$150 for bread and I don't find out until the bill is presented. Frankly, I am a bit annoyed. Chiang's similar restaurant in Paris doesn't charge for bread, so why do it in Taipei? I understand there is a cost to everything, but I rather the restaurant simply pads the price of the menu.

The bread doesn't come with the roasted corn that I saw on the Internet with other people's meals. The special grapes that are well-publicized to start the meal and trigger memories are not offered either. I am told the corn and the grapes were only served for the opening days; they were sort of a publicity stunt. In other words, for a normal meal the restaurant doesn't serve any amuse bouche, which is slightly disappointing. What is ironic is Chiang served the Taiwanese corn when I was dining in his restaurant in Singapore, yet he doesn't serve it in Taipei.

There is a menu but there are no choices to be made as everyone is served the same thing. The menu merely lists the ingredients and the sequence of dishes, of which there are a total of 8, the price is NT$1,850 plus 10% service charge. Each dish averages out to be around NT$230. The price is reasonable but the menu doesn't contain any expensive ingredients.

The first course is a single stalk of average-sized asparagus with broccoli puree and a few touches of miso. I am not sure why the restaurant wants to serve cold asparagus near the time of Christmas. Even in Taiwan, asparagus is probably at its best in the spring time. The asparagus is cut on a bias at the bottom, which means some of the good parts are cut off as well; this seems to be purely an aesthetics decision. The dish is served on a rectangular slate like plate, which looks a bit awkward sitting on the circular grey mat that isn't large enough. The server encourages us to use our hand to eat this first dish, but I still prefer using some utensils. Chiang has expressed an interest in the Chinese idea of 24 solar terms. But if that really is the case why doesn't Chiang start the meal with something more seasonal. The asparagus is a good dish but a bit too willful. Instead of making a statement about "Taiwan Flavor" it merely raises doubts in my mind.

The second dish is raw kampachi with daikon julienne. My first impression is why is the plate so small since the fish is almost overhanging over the edge of it. The second impression is the fish looks a bit butchered. At the bottom of the plate is a fromage blanc-like sauce. I suppose this is a bit like the classic New York combination of salmon and cream cheese. This dish is okay but I wish there is more acidity; the flavor just seems a bit wan.

The third dish is a play on the Spanish soup ajo blanco and served with cauliflower and grilled squid. This is probably the most interesting and witty dish of the meal. I like very much the fact that the dish is basically all white. The squid has a bit of smokiness and the temperature contrasts with the cold components.

The fourth dish is described on the menu as the "Perfect Egg"; it is interesting to note that the Chinese version of the menu just says "Egg". The egg is served with some vegetables and praline. Of all the courses, this is perhaps the weakest and a bit too simple. Frankly, it is not too difficult to cook a "perfect egg" with an immersion circulator; even I can do it at home. I am guessing RAW cooks the egg at around 64 degrees Celsius. I can't help but think why doesn't the restaurant just serve the egg with the asparagus, instead of having two unsubstantial dishes.

The fifth dish is the only overtly brown dish of the meal: mushroom consommé. The soup is poured table side and very fragrant. I like this wholesome dish. The only complaint is I wish there is more consommé.

The sixth dish is an abalone "risotto". The slimy nature of the okra serves as a replacement for the creaminess of a traditional risotto. This is an interesting dish, but also the worst dish of the meal – a consensus amongst all the diners at my table. The abalone is just too rubbery and very hard to chew. The texture of the abalone is also a bit similar to the squid. I don't know why they both have to be on the same menu.

The last savory course is roasted quail with watercress and Asian pear. The quail is cooked well but the yogurt-like white and green sauces take away some of the quail's flavor. By now I am getting a bit weary of the white or green yogurt-like consistency of the sauces.

The last course is a dessert, which is an ice cream served with grilled mochi and cocoa mousse. This dish is definitely not gastronomical and even some bistros serve better dessert. The dish is a bit wanting as it lacks depth in the flavor - just tastes sweet. Since there is only one dessert course for the menu and this same dish gets served at every meal for more than a month, RAW probably does not have a dedicated pastry chef; this might explains the inadequacies of the dessert.

After the dessert, our server asks if we want some coffee or tea. The coffee is a collaboration with Fika Fika Cafe. The coffee comes in three types (light, medium, and heavy) and are hand-poured. The three coffee drinkers of my table decide to order all three, with me ordering the heavy. The coffee is very light and more like tea. What's worse is the coffee tastes watery and the temperature is barely hot enough. Frankly, the coffee can also use some acidity, or some brightness in the taste. All three of us are very disappointed with the coffee. Each cup of coffee costs an additional NT$220, which is about the average price of a dish. Maybe I just don't understand coffee, but if I go back to RAW, I will not order the coffee again. For the price, I wonder if I can order an extra course. I understand Fika Fika won an award for their coffee but in the contest they entered, their espresso was ranked number one instead of the pour over coffee. I can't help but wonder why not serve some award-winning espresso. The restaurant doesn't serve any petite fours with the coffee. I must say the meal ends on a relatively low note. The coffee is almost a representation of the entire meal: clean taste but flat flavors.

One leaves the restaurant full, but not really satisfied. Some of the dishes are good with very interesting ideas, but they don't seem to provide the "yummy in my tummy" feeling or as the French would say, "miam miam". After eating most of the dishes, one doesn't get the desire to ask for more of it. There is also a sameness to the dishes in my meal at RAW. Of the seven savory courses, six of them are overtly in the colors of green or white. Only the mushroom consommé is brown but even that has drops of green sauce in the soup. The menu seems to be a statement against brown food, which is unfortunate because brown food tastes good. I also wonder if it is necessary to have eight dishes given the similarity in color and yogurt-like sauces. Maybe a 6-course tasting menu with each one being more substantial will be better.

Service throughout the meal is very good. The waitress for my table is Cheryl Tsai who worked in L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei before joining RAW. It is comforting to see a familiar face in a new restaurant. RAW doesn't have much of a wine program with only a few handful of bottles organized along the taste. The restaurant does offer half portions for most of the wines and serve them in a carafe. I receive no help with the selection of the wine. After I choose the wine, another waitress, perhaps she is in charge of wine service, comes by to say "good choice". This is a bit annoying because I don't really need her approval.

As I leave the restaurant, I see some writings on the wall of a statement by George Calombaris. Since I don't watch Master Chef, I prefer Top Chef, I have to look up Calombaris on Wikipedia. This has to be my first time in a restaurant where the statement for the place comes not from the chef patron but another chef. One sentence in the quote says: "It’s not about the country or the culture, it’s about the state of mind." This seems to be in contrast to RAW's website: "The mission of RAW is to bring ‘The New Interpretation of Taiwanese Flavor’". Frankly, I find it strange to have a meal of Taiwanese flavor without any pork. Even the French and the Italian eat pork around New Year's. Personally I feel the proclamation about Taiwanese flavor is a red herring. What matters more is whether the food is good or bad. Based on my meal, I say the food is, as the Taiwanese likes to say, "okay lah". I wish RAW will just do away with some of these proclamations, whether it is about bistro, gastronomy, or Taiwan. Instead of having actual writings on the wall, the food at RAW should make more of a statement. There is a timidity to the food that doesn't quite match the bravado of the concept.

Since RAW is capitalized I can only surmise the name to be an acronym. I am guessing R and A stands for Restaurant André, but I can't associate a specific word for W; I find myself describing the meal as wonderful, willful, wan, white, witty, weak, wholesome, worst, weary, wanting, and watery. Perhaps W should just stand for "well" which can mean: 1. in a good, proper, or positive way, or 2. used to show that you are unsure about something you are saying. In the similar manner, I am a bit ambivalent about RAW. I like the space and some of the dishes, yet I am less sure about the concept and the menu. Nevertheless, the restaurant is a serious proposition by Chiang and deserves to be treated with respect and careful considerations. Based on my one meal, the restaurant doesn't fully deliver on its promise. I hope the restaurant will evolve and I will go back when the menu changes and the reservation becomes a bit easier to come by.