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forgetting the fact that the restaurant is very much a profit-driven business rather than a charity; the "gift" will be rescinded if the restaurant doesn't make money.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 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.