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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.

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