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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Black Tie Only

Of all the cities in the world that host an international film award and have formal social gatherings, Taipei probably has the least number of tuxedo per capita. The modern day dinner jacket or the American tuxedo has been in existence for over a hundred years, but it has never caught on with the men in Taipei. In Taipei, if the invitation to an event says "Black Tie Only" and you show up wearing a tuxedo, you might be the only black tie at the table.

I don't know why men in Taipei are so anti-formal. Perhaps one day a sociologist will be able to explain the rationale to me. Our society has deep cultural roots with many traditions, and cares greatly about giving respects to others. But we have thrown formality in clothing to the wayside. Most men simply don't care to dress appropriately for the occasion. It is not a question of style, but a complete lack of desire to make any effort.

Recently by chance, I watched the broadcast of the Golden Horse Awards. I was appalled by the clothing of the men who attended the award ceremony. Most of the men didn't show up in any kind of formal wear; they projected a sense of I don't give a damn about this award and I'd rather be elsewhere.

This year's show opened with a tribute to the director Edward Yang 楊德昌 and his movie, A Brighter Summer Day 牯嶺街少年殺人事件. An old image of the elegant young director dressed in a tuxedo was projected on the stage.

But the people, mostly men, who worked on the film twenty-five years ago paying tribute to the director were sloppily dressed. Of all the men on stage, there was only one black tie. A few men were in jeans and t-shirts and looked like they just dropped off their kids for a weekend play date and on their way to brunch. Golden Horse Awards invited jury members from abroad and is an opportunity for Taiwan to display its soft power, yet this is the image we project to the rest of the world?

The image also shows the discrepancy between men and women. Most women, not all, were dressed for the occasion. With the awards show in Taipei now following the format of the awards show in the U.S, women know they are the focus of attention. Many actresses sauntered down the red carpet in garbs sponsored by designers. Overall, none of the dresses had the wow factor, and I didn't like some of the outfits, such as the Vera Wang dress worn by Ariel Lin. However, while the dresses didn't dazzle, the women put in a lot of effort. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the men.

The appearance, I don't think we can call it fashion nor style, of the men at this year's award ran the gamut. In accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award, screenwriter Chang Yung Hsiang went with the business suit and the power red tie. He even followed the the new U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's style by extending the tie way below the belt.

The three men who accepted the award for Best Visual Effect didn't really care about their own visual effects. Three men in three different color suits. They looked like they were accepting some awards at their local Rotary Club lunch gathering.

Best Art Direction went to Chao Shih Hao who accepted the award dressed in a red turtleneck, long hooded zipper jacket,  and baggy jeans. Perhaps he thought he was accepting an award in Silicon Valley. Unless you are a billionaire and a founder of a global internet company, wear a tuxedo.

Many men showed up in suits but in an half-hearted manner. The last award of the night went to the director Zhang Dalei of Summer is Gone. Tieless with an open collar white shirt, the two adults looked like they just finished work at a funeral home. Of all the three people on stage, only the ten-year old took the Golden Horse Award seriously. Most people didn't see the broadcast and wouldn't remember the content of the winner's long-winded speech, but would probably see the image on the day after as it was transmitted throughout the Mandarin-speaking world.

Every half hour or so during the broadcast, I would come across a few men dressed in tuxedos. However, many of them were actors from Hong Kong or Korea, such as Michael Hui and Song Seung Heon. Visitors treated the Golden Horse with the respect it deserves while local participants didn't.

Tuxedo makes a man look good as it hides the faults and elevates his stature. While men's formal wear is not as interesting as women's ball gowns, there is still a large number of subtle variations that can express a wearer's personality and style. The best examples are the different dinner jackets worn by the actors playing James Bond. Just compare Sean Connery in Dr. No in 1962 and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale in 2006: midnight blue or black; grosgrain or silk; shawl collar or peak lapel; studded or concealed placket; pleated or plain front; diamond pointed bowtie or straight butterfly. The beauty of the tuxedo is that it never goes out of style.

When the Taiwanese director Ang Lee accepted his Academy Award he wore a tuxedo. Imagine if he had accepted the award wearing a pair of jeans and t-shirt, what kind of message about the people of Taiwan would that send to the world? As a resident of his home country I would be embarrassed.

Formal wear does not necessarily have to be a tuxedo. For people who are uncomfortable with wearing a tuxedo or fear of being accused of cultural appropriation, do what Jackie Chan did at this year's Academy Awards; go old school and wear a traditional long robe. The alternative is the Zhongshan suit. Both options are better than a tie-less suit.

The writer Feng Menglong (1574–1645) in the Ming dynasty wrote, 佛是金裝,人是衣裝, roughly translated as, Just as the Buddha needs gold paint, people need to wear clothes. In the west William Shakespeare (1564-1616) wrote in Hamlet, For the apparel oft proclaims the man. Both men made observation about the importance of clothing at around the same time. While the world of fashion has evolved and the society has become increasingly casual with clothing, the West still dresses for the occasion. Dressing up is not just about looking good but about showing respect to the host and the occasion. Regrettably the men in Taipei has mostly forgotten the importance of clothing. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

(Now)here: Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental

Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong is one of the best restaurants in the world.​ The restaurant is a perennial player on the fashionable list of World's Best 50 Restaurants. This year Amber is ranked number 20. The restaurant is also ranked number 4 on Asia's Best 50 Restaurants list. Since the inception of the Hong Kong and Macau Michelin Guide in 2008, Amber has consistently received two Michelin stars. Some of my friends in the restaurant industry speak highly of Amber and its chef Richard Ekkebus. There is also a prevalent sense among many food bloggers and the press that it may be only a matter of time before Amber is elevated to three stars. Yet, every year Amber remains at the same place and this November is awarded two Michelin stars again. In reporting on Michelin's announcement, Timeout Hong Kong posed the question:

What does Richard Ekkebus have to do to get his third star? Michelin seems stubbornly insistent on keeping him locked at two stars. 

Michelin works in mysterious and sometimes controversial ways. The Hong Kong Michelin guide has been accused by some people as being generous with its ratings: awarding stars to restaurants in Hong Kong that would not receive them if the restaurants are in France. If it is true that Michelin grades restaurants in Hong Kong on a curve, would Amber just be a one-star restaurant in France? In general, I tend to agree with Michelin's rating. I do not know Michelin's rationale for keeping Amber at two-star. Perhaps the reason is consistency, a criteria often cited by Michelin's director whenever he gives an interview on restaurants anywhere in the world. I don't know Michelin's thinking but I concur with their inspectors on Amber's two-star rating.

I have been to Amber twice. The first time in April of 2014 and recently in September of this year. Both of my dinners were very good but each time I came away feeling something was missing.

Amber is located on the 7th floor of the tony Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel. The route from the street to the restaurant is a bit circuitous. The first impression of the hotel entrance off Queen's Road is actually the noise coming from the boisterous MO Bar on the left. A staircase in the middle, though not necessarily inviting, provides the only way up one floor to the hotel reception. Walking past the indifferent hotel receptionists, one turns left at the back of the lobby to find the elevators to go up to the restaurant. This has the effect of detaching from the hustle and bustle of the city and entering a separate world.

The interior of Amber is beautifully designed by the New York-based designer Adam Tihany. The shell of the interior is a harmonious combination of wood panels, beige banquettes, and brown carpet. Floral arrangements in tall vases dot the room, similar to three-star restaurants such as Le Cinq in Paris and Le Bernardin in New York City. The main feature of the room is the atmospheric ceiling which consists of 4,200 vertical suspended golden rods. This seems to be inspired by the Richard Lippold installation at the bar of the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City. While there are windows in the restaurant, at dinner time the translucent shades are drawn providing only a vague sense of the outside environment. The ambiance is completely interiorized, however I actually prefer to have bit of the feel of Hong Kong in the restaurant.

At my first dinner, I was led to a table by a French waiter. After being seated, the restaurant manger, also French, came to the table to distribute the menu. The waitress asking me about bread sounded American. The service was professional and excellent, but I felt a slight sense of disorientation. Allowing myself a momentary suspension of disbelief, I could easily imagine myself not sitting in a restaurant in Hong Kong but in Singapore, New York, or any of the large international cities. Amber seems to have very little connection to its locale.

The food at Amber further dislodges the diners from Hong Kong. Given the size of Hong Kong, it is difficult to source products locally. Most of the fancy western restaurants in the city simply just use imported products. Since Hong Kong is an international hub, almost any product anywhere in the world can be ordered and delivered within 48 hours. At Amber, Ekkebus has the luxury of sourcing the best products in the world. He can charge high prices for the food and have the clientele who appreciates them.

For my dinner in April of 2014, most of the products used for the tasting menu were from France; fantastic handcrafted butter from Jean-Yves Bordier of Brittany on the west side of France; delicious oyster and abalone from the west coast of France; a beautiful stalk of asparagus from Jérôme Galis of Piolenc in the south of France; wonderful lamb from the Pyrenees on the southwest of France; amazing unpasteurized cheese from Bernard Antony of Vieux-Ferrette on the eastern border of France; and Valrhona chocolate from east-central of France for dessert.

The products are great and you would find them at the three-Michelin-star restaurants in France, such as the ones operated by Alain Ducasse. With Ducasse, these products are local and express the sense of place and the seasons. Eating the same products at a different climatic region 10,000 kilometers away seems to only magnify the detachment of place. The ingredients are seasonal for France but not necessarily for tropical East Asia. I am not a locavore, but I wish the food feels more Hong Kong than Paris.

In 2013 Ekkebus started a collaboration with VistaJet, a private jet charter company. While flying on the Bombardier Challenger 850 at the altitude of 39,000 feet, a passenger can enjoy Amber's signature sea urchin cauliflower mouse with caviar just as a diner does in Amber's dining room. The food is truly global and groundless.

For a western restaurant in Hong Kong to be connected to the local culture is not easy. But there are things a restaurant can do. For instance, at my recent dinner at Amber I ordered a tea after the dessert. The server recommended a Japanese Sencha which was served in a beautiful clear teapot. After seeping for a few minutes, the served poured a cup and it was wonderful. However, the server didn't pour out all the tea from the teapot. By the time he refilled my cup, the tea became bitter. A few moments later he asked if I wanted the teapot to be refiled, I declined as the tea was already undrinkable. Clearly, not much care was given to tea service. Restaurants in New York and Paris, such as Atera and Yam'Tcha, are miles away from the best tea producing countries, yet they make a great deal of effort in incorporating tea into the dining experience. The proprietors of Yam'Tcha travel to Hong Kong to buy tea. Yet at Amber, located where tea culture is prevalent, tea is simply an afterthought.

Placelessness is my own bias and not Michelin's concerns. After all Hong Kong's two other three-star restaurants, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Otto e Mezzo Bombana, are not local in terms of chefs and ingredients. Michelin actually published five criteria by which they rate a restaurant: quality of the products, mastery of flavor and cooking techniques, the personality of the chef in his cuisine, value for money, and consistency between visits. As mentioned earlier, the products used at Amber are fantastic and the dishes are well executed. While it is hard to put a value for the money, the price Amber charges for the full tasting menu, expensive at HK$2,068, seems to be what the market calls for. The tasting menus at top tier restaurants in Hong Kong are about the same, with L'Atelier at HK$2,080 and Caprice at HK$1,999. As for consistency, I only ate at Amber twice in the span of two years, thus  I am not able to judge. Of the five criteria, the only one that is problematic in my mind is the personality of the chef in his cuisine.

Unlike the food at Robuchon's Atelier or Otto e Mezzo, the dishes at Amber doesn't seem to be rooted. While the food at L'Atelier may be similar at every location in the world, the food feels deeply connected to Robuchon's essence. This is partly why one of Robuchon's signature dishes, mashed potato, is such an amazing food. There is a great deal of techniques involved yet it never loses a connection to the humble origin. Despite the refinement of the traditional food, there's a soul. The same can be said for the dishes by Umberto Bombana. When he slices the truffle tableside, you feel the unwavering connection of the chef and where he came from. With the food at Amber you don't really feel the core of Ekkebus.

When I ate at Amber recently, the French ingredients were mostly replaced by Japanese products. Some of the presentations and techniques used for the dishes also took on a Japanese feel. While the interior design remained the same, the food seemed completely different. I was taken a bit aback by the transformation.

The dinner started with five amuse bouches, each representing a sensation of taste: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami. The umami dish was very reminiscent of the food served in Japanese restaurant in Japan.

The first course was a Japanese oyster served with sake, followed by raw aji mackerel with tomato. Both dishes were very refreshing. The third dish was the replacement of the signature uni dish, which was no longer on the menu and donated to In Situ of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Instead of a mousse, the uni was served with ribbons of kohlrabi. The fourth dish was foie gras. One would think with this ingredient the meal would move away from Japan and back towards Europe. Instead, the foie gras was poached and served with daikon fondant and radish in a dashi broth. It was well executed and delicious. But if the foie gras was served in a lacquerware, it wouldn't be out of place in Kyoto's Kikunoi.

The main savory course was a predictable ingredient: Japanese wagyu beef. The strip loin from Miyazaki was of very high quality and the dish was very good. The sauce of horseraddish and pepper berry emulsion gave the dish a nice kick, which I quite enjoyed.

The dinner didn't really turn towards Europe until the cheese course. As with my previous visit the cheeses from Bernard Antony were wonderful. However, the focus on Japan returned again with dessert. One of the two desserts was a pineapple poached in Junmai Daiginjo. By the end of the meal I felt I was at a restaurant in Japan and Amber had a guest chef instead of Ekkebus.

Ekkebus started his training in the Netherlands followed by stints at some of the best restaurants in Paris: Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Passard, and Guy Savoy. Afterwards he worked on two islands, Mauritius and Barbados, before arriving at Hong Kong. I wonder if Ekkebus is a modern day Flying Dutchman, who travels around the world and doesn't touch down. The food at Amber lacks a bit of soul. Sometimes Ekkebus seems to be chasing after new ingredients, wanting to be the first to incorporate them into dishes. Other times the food seems to be a reflection of his current interests and recent travels. Maybe he changes his food drastically as a response to the demand of his fickle clients. Ekkebus seems to be in the hunt for the here and now instead of building from a central core.

When Amber started in 2005, it was a modern European restaurant. By the time I first ate at Amber it had already changed into a modern French restaurant. With my recent dinner Ekkebus seemed to have transformed Amber into a Japanese restaurant. The standards are always high. But I wonder what will Amber morph into next year, Nordic, South American, or Chinese? A restaurant is like a person and will change as time goes by. Change is good and also necessary. But I want to know the essence of the person and understand what's driving the change. A person doesn't need to take on a new personality every year. I prefer iteration and evolution rather than reinvention.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Taïrroir: How do you say "Pourquoi" in Taiwanese?

Above my head was a cloud of copper panels. At first glance the shimmering effects of the sheets of metal above my table at Taïrroir was quite impressive. But upon closer inspection, questions began to arise in my mind. Why was there a light fixture in the shape of four squares hanging below the ceiling? Why was the light fixture hung so haphazardly that it intersected with another type of light fixture? As the Chinese idiom says, why add feet to the drawing of a snake? Dining at the new restaurant Taïrroir was a frustrating experience. Every nice moment triggered a number of questions that undermined the intended pleasure.

Taïrroir is the latest entrant to Taipei's difficult western fine-dining market. The restaurant is led by the Taiwanese chef, Kai Ho, who trained at the now-defunct Guy Savoy Restaurant in Singapore. Taïrroir aims to be a Michelin-star quality restaurant and I admire the restaurant's ambition. When my friend asked if I wanted to try the new restaurant three months after its opening, I eagerly agreed.

When I called to make the reservation I was told the restaurant doesn't allow shorts, tank tops and slippers. I wished the restaurant would require a jacket for men, but since this is Taipei the bar is set low to begin with. Nevertheless, I was happy to learn the existence of a dress code. I certainly didn't want to sit next to someone in a tank top as I once did at Mandarin Oriental Taipei. Two days before my dinner, the restaurant called to reconfirm the reservation and to remind me about the dress code.

Given the restaurant's emphasis on the appearance of its guests, one would think a certain degree of care would go into the restaurant's own look. But, this was not the case with my initial physical encounter with the restaurant. I arrived at the ground floor lobby of the building that houses Taïrroir only to find a space devoid of any interesting characteristics. One could have mistaken this to any small office building. The only indication and decoration in the lobby was the too-bright back-lit signs on the left wall. The elevator that took me to the sixth floor was also quite bare, not quite the equivalent of a tank top, but clearly very little money was spent on its interior.

When the elevator door opened I was greeted by a female server in a black dress. At first glance the dress seemed simple. But as the server turned around, the back of the dress featured two open slits along the shoulder blades and an exposed zipper down the center. The design was another example of over-complication. The same can be said for the outfit of the male server, a double-layer two-color vest, that just looked cheap. Instead of worrying about the guests' clothes, the restaurant should give more thought to its own appearance.

The front part of the restaurant consists of a curvilinear bar counter and a window on the left side with a nice view of the adjacent Marriott Hotel. Both things don't seem to get much use. I arrived quite a bit early before the time of my reservation and the appearance of my friend. However, I was not asked if I wanted to wait at the bar to have a drink first. Instead, I was led directly to my table. Why have the bar if the guests are not invited to use it? Since the tables in the dining rooms are placed far from the windows, the diners don't really have views of the outside.

The main dining space is small with two rows of tables split by a central isle. The grey upholstered chairs are comfortable and the table with white tablecloth is of a nice size. The table setting is sparse in a nice way with a pleasant small flower arrangement. But one wonders if the table setting can be even more minimal? The black rectangular block at the center of the table seemed mysterious and heavy, yet have no purpose other than as a placement for two small wet hand towels. The choice of the rustic Opinel butter knife doesn't quite go with the mirror finish of the fork and the cloche for the butter. The prominent Opinel label on the wood handle is distracting as if Opinel is a sponsor of the restaurant.

The views from the table across the room is wanting; On one side is a view of the stainless steel elevator doors that I came through. Even more disconcerting is the prominent fire hydrant next to the elevators. Why didn't the restaurant took more care in designing the foyer? The view to the back side is of the kitchen which is separated from the dining room by a floor-to-ceiling glass wall. Unfortunately, the view is partially blocked by a service cabinet that seemed like an afterthought, and render the large expense of glass slightly pointless. Why not just have a window into the kitchen, which would have framed the view better?

At dinner Taïrroir offers only two set menus priced at NT$3,000 and NT$4,200. Both menus have the same number of courses and share some of the dishes. The main difference seems to be the main savory course: duck for the cheaper menu and beef for the more expensive one. Since it was our first time at the restaurant, both of us opted for the cheaper set menu.

The dinner started with a trio of amuse bouches but they neither amused nor awaken the palate. The flavors were rather bland. It was not a good start. I wished the restaurant would focus its effort on making one good canapé instead of three boring ones.

The first course was a sponge gourd velouté with mushroom "pot stickers". The cup was topped with some foam, which obscured the beautiful green color underneath. The soup was delicious, smooth, and full of flavor. The mushroom tortellini topped with a cheese crisp next to to the soup were dry, lukewarm. and unnecessary. It felt like the chef was forcing the Chinese idea of soup and dumplings onto the diners.

The second course was a house-made gravlax with Avruga caviar. The word caviar on the menu ought to be in quotes, because Avruga "caviar" is not made with fish roe, but with herring water, salt, corn starch, lemon juice, citric acid, xanthan gum, sodium benzoate, and squid ink. Why does a chef who trained with the three-Michelin star chef wants to use such a cheap and synthetic ingredient? The little dollops of "caviar" didn't add much taste and seemed to be used only to provide some contrasting colors. The salmon was adequate but the sauce, made from charred scallion, was a bit too strong. The look of the sauce could only be described with the French word, déguelasse. I suspected the chef knew it and partially hid the sauce under a chip. The plating of the salmon felt strange as well. The slender filet was laid across the plate intersecting the rim of the circular plate. The raised edge of the rim made cutting the salmon a bit awkward.

The third course was a salad, a dish that looked better than it tasted. I didn't really enjoy the raw asparagus. The yellow and red watermelons didn't go with the vinaigrette. The different components simply didn't come together.

The fourth course was the chef's signature dish: 65°C Egg, Yilan “Ya shang”, Taro, Sakura Shrimp. I don't like taro and the the server said the chef could substitute with potato. I felt the lack of taro would alter the dish too much and asked if I could simply have another dish. The answer was a resounding no. Since the chef insisted, I dutifully said, "Oui Chef". When the dish arrived, mine didn't have diced potato as my friend's taro version came with diced taro. Was this my punishment for asking the chef to substitute an ingredient? The menu listed the temperature of the egg, which was strange. Given the menu doesn't say 55°C steak why list the temperature of the egg? It is as if the chef wants me to know that he has an immersion calculator and can cook the egg at a very precise temperature; I can do that at home as well. The temperature only elicits the question, why not cook the egg at another temperature, let's say 63.5°C as Joël Robuchon likes to do? Despite the questions, I enjoyed eating the dish. The potato purée was smooth. The cured duck and the shrimp packed a lot of flavors.

The fifth course was Japanese Dorade. For a restaurant that wants to emphasize Taiwanese ingredients, one wonders why use a Japanese fish? Taiwan has an abundance of seafood. Nonetheless, the fish was cooked perfectly with a crispy skin and moist interior. The fillet was served with a carrot purée, which was also nicely made. However, since the previous course was a purée of root vegetable, why serve another purée of root vegetable? I wished the chef chose something else to pair with the fish.

The main savory course was a duck breast. After already eating some duck in the fourth course,  I preferred another protein. I am always a little annoyed when ingredients repeat in a tasting menu. If the chef doesn't allow the diners to choose, then he should be more considerate with the use of the ingredients. At least the duck wasn't served with yet more purée of vegetables. The duck was well cooked with a texture firmer than I expected. The sauce was well made with a nice sheen, but I didn't really enjoy the taste with the chocolate undertone.

My friend doesn't eat dessert so she ordered an off the menu cheese course. I asked the server if the cheese course could replace the desserts. The answer as expected was no. I fail to understand the restaurant's inflexibility. I ended up eating two portions of desserts. The first sweet course was a guava sorbet with Hendrick's gelée, which was refreshing with just enough acidity.

The second dessert was listed on the menu as a Tearamisu. The reference to the Italian classic was meaningless. The dessert was more of a study of contrasting texture. The sponge cake was probably made in the Albert Adria manner with a microwave. The tea flavor ice cream had a nice flavor. Overall I enjoyed the dessert. I only wish the color was more vibrant.

While I was eating the dessert, a single file of cooks paraded down the central isle of the dining room from the kitchen to the bar at the front of the restaurant. As I watched them lined up at the bar, they were taking turns swiping their cards through a machine. I realized that "office hour" was over and the cooks were carding out for the night. Afterwards they marched back to the kitchen in a single file. I wondered if this was intended to be like the end of a fashion show where all the models come out and the audience claps? But I haven't finished my dinner yet.

After the dessert, the server rolled over the cart of mignardises. The cart did not get replenished during the dinner service. In other words, it operated with the early bird gets the worm principle. Since my dinner reservation was on the late side, by the time the cart rolled to our table, there wasn't any canelé left. The server said each guest was allowed three choices from the cart. I wondered why was the restaurant so stingy? The shelf life of some of the items, such as the mini-madeleines is short, why not be more generous and offered them to the guests? Since my friend didn't want any, the server allowed me to pick more than three. The mignardises were fine. What was disappointing was the lack of selection for teas to accompany them. For a restaurant that emphasizes Taiwan, why was there so little consideration for teas? Even restaurants in New York City have better selection of teas.

I also expected Taïrroir to have a more decent wine list. Prior from leaving for the restaurant my friend called to ask if she should bring some wines from home. Out of my own principle and respect for the restaurant, I told her let's just drink the restaurant's wines. She grudgingly agreed. When we asked for the wine list after looking at the menu, we were handed a single A4-size sheet of paper. The wines listed barely filled half of the sheet. Worse, there was no wine by the glass on the list. My friend gave me the "I told you so" stare, which was probably accompanied by a tinge of schadenfreude. 

After inquiring, the sommelier said they do have wine by the glass. She could bring the bottles to the table for us to choose. We started with a white wine and there were two bottles to choose from, both from older vintages. The server used Coravin to extract the wines, which was a bit messy when the liquid shot into the stemware. Notwithstanding, the wines were pleasant. Later in the dinner my friend asked the sommelier to recommend a red wine to accompany her cheese course. This time there was only one bottle to choose from: 2000 Château Pontet Canet. After a small taste, my friend was happy and asked for a glass to be poured. At least I was spared from more friendly death stare. While the wine was nice we were not informed of the price. We only found out the glass of wine cost NT$1,400 when we asked for the check at the end of the night. Since the bottle retails for around US$150 in the United States, the price charged by the restaurant was not a highway robbery. But not giving the customer any choice of bottles nor information on price left a bad taste in our mouths. 

The name of the restaurant Taïrroir is an invented word that combines the French words, Taïwan and terroir. I like fusion, maybe because I am a combination of different countries myself. Fusion is wonderful when the best parts of the different cultures merge to generate something new. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Instead of the best of both worlds, there's always the risk of getting the worst of both worlds. Instead of harmonizing the different elements to achieve something new, there's always the possibility of getting contradictions. Dining at Taïrroir makes me wonder whether I'm getting the former or the latter, perhaps it oscillates between the two.

All the dishes on the menu has a Chinese name that is a cheesy worldplay and not translatable to another language: jokey yet meaningless to anyone who doesn't speak Chinese. Is the idea merely to get a cheap laugh from the local diners? Assuming the restaurant has larger ambitions such as transmitting its ideas to foreigner diners, the names of the dishes seem downright silly.

The chef and his brigade seem very serious about their food, but are they merely cooking to impress themselves and other chefs or are they cooking for the customers' enjoyment? Each dish is a display of various techniques, many of which were done well. Yet, there's little flexibility in adapting the menu to the desire of the diners and scant consideration for the diner's interest in variations. The food is enthusiastic with multiple components for every dish, yet many of them seemed unnecessary. More isn't always better. For instance, instead of a large selection of banal mignardises, why not just make one good one, such as freshly baked mini-madeleines as Daniel Boulud does in his restaurants? I know the chef and his brigade work very hard, but instead of making the difficult look easy, the impression is just the opposite. Based on the effort that went into the interior design, the cost of the menu, and the pedigree of the chef, the restaurant appears to be a serious proposition. Yet, the wine service, the disregard for the ambiance, and the lack of generosity make the restaurant feels amateurish.

Taïrroir is a work in progress. The restaurant certainly has potential. Will the restaurant change and improve? In general chefs and restaurateurs can be quite stubborn. I hope Taïrroir will evolve, but I don't plan to spend more money to find out.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Ciao! Chef Angelo Aglianò: The Despair of Western Fine Dining in Taipei

After a little less than three years, chef Angelo Aglianò has decided to close his eponymous restaurant in Taipei permanently. I still remember when Aglianò gave me a tour of his kitchen just days before the opening; both of us were filled with such excitement and promise. Since then I have visited the restaurant regularly with friends and family. I never thought the last day of July this year would be the last day of service at the restaurant. Needless to say, I am deeply saddened by this turn of event since Aglianò's restaurant is one of my favorites in the city.

The closing of a restaurant is a fact of life. It has been said that in New York City, three out of five restaurants cease within three years of operation. Even the best chef in the world, Aglianò's mentor, Joël Robuchon, is not immune. In April of this year, Robuchon closed his restaurant in Bordeaux after only around 16 months. The quality of the food and service seemed impeccable, yet the restaurant lost money. There doesn't seem to be a market in Bordeaux for Robuchon's food and prices. Similarly, there doesn't seem to be a market in Taipei for Aglianò's restaurant.

Whenever a restaurant fails, one cannot help but ponder about the reasons. Did Aglianò charge too little or too much for the food? Did the restaurant do enough marketing? Did the investors incur more expenses by being open seven days a week? I won't pretend to know nor understand the commercial side of a restaurant. In the end, the restaurant didn't make enough money to sustain the operation. But it takes two to tango, and sometimes the closing of a restaurant says more about the clientele and the city it resides in than the business itself.

Western fine dining in Taipei, especially stand-alone restaurants not associated with hotels, is a difficult proposition for several reasons. First of all, for many people, western fine dining means fancy steakhouse. The popularity of steakhouse in Taipei always strikes me as strange. Unlike the U.S., we are a nation that grew up eating pork, poultry, and seafood. Whenever we host a banquet, as in a wedding, we have to ask the guests beforehand if they eat beef. Maybe because the expensive beef is mostly imported from the U.S. and Australia and is diametrically opposite of Chinese cuisine that it has become the hallmark of western fine dining.

Restaurateurs and hoteliers in Taipei are only too happy to meet the simple demand of the local diners. During the time that Aglianò was in operation, around a dozen steakhouses opened in Taipei including: Morton's, Alexander's, 168 Prime, Le Blanc, Just Grill, TK...etc. Steakhouses are easy and they make money. This is not just a phenomenon in Taipei, but in the U.S. as well. It is not a coincidence that both Gordon Ramsay and Jean Georges Vongericten did not open fine dining restaurants in Las Vegas but steakhouses. I once wondered out loud about the preponderance of steakhouse in Taipei and their viability to one of my friends. My friend retorted, do you know of any steakhouse in Taipei that went out of business?

I like steak but steakhouses are not interesting places to dine. The menus at steakhouses almost never change and have very little to do with locale and seasons. The chef doesn't need much imagination nor techniques. Furthermore, a meal at a steakhouse is expensive. A dinner at Morton's or Alexander's can easily be around NT$3,000 per person not including drinks. For approximately the same amount of money, one can have a seasonal five-course tasting menu at Aglianò: starter, pasta/risotto, seafood, meat, and dessert, plus amuse bouche, unlimited house made bread, mignardises, and coffee. One would think the choice between beef (delivered to the restaurant in a plastic bag drowning in its own blood) versus local and fresh ingredients is clear. However, the majority of the diners in Taipei think otherwise.

Most people in Taipei who dine out don't buy wine at the restaurant. They either don't drink or they bring their own bottles. The ingrained habit of bringing outside wine is partly due to the fact that most restaurants in Taipei (Chinese and western) don't have much of a wine list. This is similar to the situation with most Chinese restaurants in the U.S. Most Chinese people didn't grow up with drinking wine with their meals thus don't see the need.

The other reason for bringing wines to the restaurant is to save money by avoiding the restaurants' markups on wines. Unlike restaurants in New York City, where fine dining restaurant either don't allow outside wine (Daniel and Le Bernardin) or charge a very high corkage fee (US$150 per bottle at Per Se), restaurants in Taipei either don't charge corkage fee or charge too little. Hence, many diners have made a habit of bringing their own wines and haggling with the restaurants over corkage fees.

Bringing outside wine may not matter much to most restaurants in Taipei, but it is a big financial problem for fine dining restaurants like Aglianò, which operates like a fine dining restaurant in other international cities such as New York or Hong Kong. These restaurants rely on drinks to contribute a significant amount to the overall revenue, because the profit margin on food is simply too little. A fine dining restaurant in the US can count on drinks to be about 30% of the revenue, yet in Taipei the figure is around 8%.

Given the relatively small amount of revenue generated by wine it would make more business sense to cut cost by reducing the wine inventory and not having a sommelier. Yet since Aglianò opened, the restaurant always had a good wine list and a dedicated sommelier, in fact three successive ones: Kenny Lee, Alessandro Albanese, and Kimi Li. All three sommeliers at Aglianò were friendly and professional and their goal was always to make the customer happy. 

When I was dining at Aglianò I always preferred to have the sommelier recommend a wine to me, whether to complement the food or to match the occasion. Since I know little about wine, I enjoy a surprise and the conversation with the sommelier. With countless wines in the world I rather learn something new about a region, varietal, or vineyard, than drink what I know. Unfortunately most diners in Taipei think differently and often times cannot get over the restaurants' need to have markups and corkage fee to cover wine storage, beautiful stemware, and professional service. 

The market in Taipei is small, therefore fine dining restaurants are competing for customers not just with each other but with other restaurants such as the buffets in high-end hotels. These buffets are not some cheap eats, but rather elaborate and fancy affairs. Just about every high-end hotel in Taipei, except for Mandarin Oriental, offers a buffet (a major source of revenue). The W Hotel in Taipei doesn't have a proper western restaurant, instead a place that just serves buffet. The popularity of the buffet in Taipei is a phenomenon unlike any other cities in the world that I've visited.

A lunch at the Kitchen Table at W Hotel Taipei on the weekend costs $1,680. In comparison a five-course lunch at Aglianò costs $1,380. Yet for many diners in Taipei the buffet represents the better choice because the buffet has a high cost-performance (C/P) ratio, which is really about how much food the money buys. Given the fixed cost of a buffet one can eat until as if one made money while the restaurant lost money.

I don't know when the local diners started to evaluate restaurants based on C/P ratio. While the term consists of letters from the alphabet, you will be hard pressed to find a diner in the U.S. that knows the term. I certainly never heard of the term being used to describe restaurants when I was living in New York. While C/P sounds scientific it is pretty much meaningless because it doesn't really account for the quality of the product. Imagine an inedible plate of food that costs next to nothing, in theory the C/P ratio would be close to infinity. 

Nevertheless, because of the potential volume of food, people in Taipei rather scoop mediocre food out of a lukewarm hotel pan than eat cook-to-order dishes at Aglianò. Besides the food, at a buffet there's practically no service yet there's the ubiquitous 10% service charge. Moreover the diners use the same set of utensils for the entire duration of the meal. In contrast, at Aglianò the servers will carefully lay down dish-specific silverware for each course. Furthermore, the different dishes at the table would always be laid down simultaneously, as one would expect at a fine dining restaurant. The service team, led by the General Manager York Liao, was always professional yet warm. However, most diners in Taipei rather spend money and walk around in the restaurant to find their own food. 

Similar to his mentor Robuchon, Aglianò likes to cook with carefully sourced products and expensive ingredients. At the restaurant you will always find beautiful local seafood, poultry, and pork. Depending on the season, there would be white asparagus, white truffle in the fall, and black truffle in the winter. Aglianò never compromised on ingredients and always strived to have the best. He insisted on using year-old Acquerello rice from Piedmont, Italy for his risotto. At first when Acquerello wasn't available in Taipei, he found a supplier to import the product. Before it was completely legal to import jamon Iberico, Aglianò always had a whole leg sitting near the pass of the kitchen. He acquired the jamon from Joselito because it was the best. These products are expensive and Aglianò probably didn't have enough customers who appreciated or could afford them. Perhaps he should have just cooked with less expensive ingredients like at André Chiang's RAW across town, but then the restaurant wouldn't be fine dining anymore. 

I always assumed Aglianò wanted his restaurant to be as good as L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, where he worked prior. Besides the aforementioned ingredients used for the different dishes, just look at the number of staff in the open kitchen and the front of house; the beautiful kitchen had all the fancy equipment, including rotisserie, immersion circulator for sous vide cooking, and Pacojet for sorbet; and the glass enclosed cellar and the Riedel glassware for the wines. Any meal, even a simple three-course lunch (priced at NT$880 when the restaurant first opened) came with an amuse bouche, three types of bread, and four different kinds of cookies after the dessert. Aglianò aimed for the quality of a Michelin-starred restaurant similar to ones in international cities like New York, London, or Hong Kong. 

Unfortunately, Taipei is not like these other cities. Aglianò will lament the fact that he couldn't continue to operate his restaurant in Taipei, a city he grew to love. Nevertheless he will find another investor in another city. The loss for me, as a resident of Taipei, a friend, and a diner is much greater. I am uncertain if the void can be filled. The closing of Aglianò restaurant is a stark reminder that while Taipei is a great city, it doesn't have enough of a market for fine dining western restaurant. 

Three years is too short, but I'm grateful that Aglianò restaurant was in Taipei. The restaurant was where I proudly took my guests from abroad for an experience on par with the best restaurants from their home countries; where I celebrated holidays and special occasions with friends and family; and where my daughter discovered the magic of truffle and fell in love with the risotto. I felt lucky to have dined at Aglianò and the memories will always stay with me. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

Imagining Alsace

I like Alsace. I think I do, though I'm not entirely certain since I have never been to Alsace. Is it possible to like a place without ever setting foot there?

Alsace is on the eastern border of France next to Germany. Places on the edge always appeal to me since they are usually a confluence of cultures and languages. I like fusion.

The wines from Alsace has influences from Germany. I like the fact that French wines have long tapered green bottles that are like the wines in Germany. But unlike the wines in Germany, the wines are not sweet but more dry. I especially enjoy the Riesling and Gewürztraminer for their floral and fruity smells right out of the bottle.

I like the food from Alsace, especially the tarte flambée. The combination of cheese, bacon and oninion on bread dough is just perfect. I used to always order the tarte when I went to the Bar Room at the Modern in New York City, where the chef was from Alsace. One of my favorite Michelin three-star restaurants in New York is also helmed by a chef from Alsace, who successfully fuses French and Asian cuisines to create his own style.

One of my favorite things to make at home is the Alsatian Apple Tart, a recipe from Dorie Greenspan's book, Baking: From My Home to Yours. The tart was the first recipe I tried from the book. The reason for picking this tart is Greenspan wrote this was one of the first French pastries that she learned.

The recipe is simple: start with a partially baked pâte sablée, place slices of apple in a single layer, and add a vanilla flavored mix of eggs, cream and sugar. Bake in 375 F degree oven for almost an hour. Afterwards I like to glaze the tart with some apple jelly or sometimes with apricot jam. The first time I baked the tart was a success and thereafter I have made it many times.

However, I can never quite figure out the geometry of the apple slices – how to lay the apples in perfect circular rings. I can also never get the apples to look right in the middle of the tart. The appearance of the apples used to bother me quite a bit. As an architect I always thought I should be able to do better. But now I no longer fuss over it or attempt to make it "perfect". I have accepted the fact that a more "homey" look is fine.

I love the taste of the Alsatian apple tart. Greenspan wrote in the book that as a beginner baker in New York City, it was remarkable that the flavor and texture could transport her to France. I don't have the experience and memory that Greenspan has to draw on. Yet, making and eating the tart connect me to an Alsace of my imagination that's just as comforting and elegant as the tart.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Presence of Absence: Dinner at the Residence with Michel Roux

The Chinese has a saying, "Monks who come from afar know the scriptures better (外來的和尚會念經)." Hotels and restaurants in Taiwan have fully embraced this idea. These days one cannot open the local newspapers without reading about a foreign chef coming to Taiwan to cook for a few days. Usually the invited chefs are decorated with Michelin stars. Maybe because Taiwan doesn't have a Michelin Red Guide, the residents here are eager to engage the jet-set star chefs. In this day and age, chefs are like rock stars and there is apparently no limit to their rise in popularity and status.

The best hotel in Taipei, Mandarin Oriental, has introduced a parade of guest chefs. Since last May the hotel has invited Yoshiaki Takazawa from Tokyo, Oliver Dabbous from London, Peter Gilmore from Sydney, Thierry Marx from Paris, and Bruno Menard from Singapore. Less than three months into this year, Mandarin has already been visited by Nicola Portinari from Lonigo, Italy, and Michel Roux from Bray, England. There seems to be a guest chef at Mandarin every other month.

The idea of inviting star chefs to Taipei to cook special dinners is not new. Back in 1998, the relatively new local hotel, Sherwood, invited Michelin three-star chef Alain Ducasse. In the following year, Sherwood invited the Michelin three-star Pourcel brothers. It was during that visit the young cook at the hotel, Andre Chiang, met the brothers and subsequently decided to leave home and go work for them in France. The rest, as the saying goes, is history (in the making). Without the fateful encounter with the brothers, Chiang's career would be completely different. Clearly, inviting foreign chefs to demonstrate their ideas and skills is a good thing for the local hospitality industry.

Overseas events are beneficial for the visiting chefs as well. They get to see new places and explore unfamiliar cuisines. Beside the financial reward for the events, they can promote their brands and develop new customer base for their ever expanding business. The trips are also a form of reward for the staff who travel with the chefs, a chance to expand their knowledge and experience.

However, can the same be said for the paying customers? What do customers get out of the experience with the guest chef besides a nice meal and a selfie? Meals with the guest chefs are usually more expensive than meals at their restaurants back home. For instance, at Peter Gilmore's Quay in Sidney, the tasting menu plus wine pairing is 340 Australian Dollar or around NT$8,300. When Gilmore was visiting the Mandarin Oriental in Taipei, the eight-course dinner with wine pairing was NT$16,500 ($15,000+10% service charge), almost double the price. The premium partly has to do with the extra cost of transportation and logistics. Some hotels and restaurateurs have stated in public that while the prices are high, the costs are also high. Let's just assume that people in the hospitality industry are all generous and would never gouge the customers. The customers are still paying a premium. The only justification is the premium is still cheaper than the airline tickets to fly to the chef's own restaurant. But can the guest chefs replicate their restaurants away from home for the customers? Does money buy the same experience of a Michelin three-star restaurant that's "worth a special journey" without the journey?

A few nights ago I was invited by my friends to a dinner with Michelin three-star chef Michel Roux at the Mandarin Oriental. Of all the guest chefs that Mandarin has invited so far, Roux is by far the most accomplished. In England, there is no bigger name than the Roux family. Michel Roux and his brother Albert established the standards for fine dining in England and many of the Michelin three-star chefs in London, Pierre Koffman, Marco Pierre White, and Gordon Ramsay, passed through their kitchen. Michel Roux's restaurant, The Waterside Inn, has maintained the unbroken status of Michelin three-star since 1985. The Waterside Inn is said to be the Queen of England's favorite restaurant, where she and her husband celebrated their birthdays. Besides the restaurant, Roux attained the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) for patisserie in 1976. He also wrote a number of cookbooks, all of which aim to pass on his knowledge. Roux is simply a legend in the industry.

I have a cookbook by Roux in my library that I purchased more than ten years ago. I have watched Roux numerous times on Youtube, mostly to learn his techniques for pastry. While I have never been to the Waterside Inn nor met Roux, I feel a sense of familiarity. His baritone French accented English is especially memorable. Needless to say I was very eager to meet Roux and to taste his signature dishes.

The Roux dinner was held at the Chairman's Residence of Mandarin Oriental. The Residence may sound like a home with two main rooms called the Living Room and the Library, but it is essentially a private event space under the auspices of the owner of the hotel. The Residence is located on the seventh floor of the hotel. The doors of the elevators open to a rectangular foyer with bookshelves tastefully decorated with books and objects. The design of the interior is nicely done and I assume by Tony Chi, who also designed the other three restaurants at the hotel. Some of the design and decorative elements of the Residence are the same as the restaurants on the lower floors. For example, one of the walls at the sitting area consists of a grid of tilting mirrored planes, a design Chi used for the ceiling at Café Un Deux Trois on the fifth floor of the hotel. It is interesting to note that particular design idea was actually recycled from Chi's earlier project: the South Gate Restaurant in New York City.

For the Roux dinner both the Living Room and the Library were set up with 8-person square tables. The tables look nice except they are not weighted properly. If one pushes down on one corner the table has a tendency to tip a little. My table was in the Library which was more intimate but not necessarily in a good way. The room had two adjacent tables for two parties, but only one set of sitting area. Realistically the room only works well if there's a single party. Instead we shared the cozy space awkwardly with total strangers. I arrived early to an eerie empty room and took a seat on the sofa instead of the table. Seeing I'm alone, the sommelier kindly invited me to go visit the open kitchen on the other side of the floor. However, when I returned I had lost my seat at the sofa. The other party inside the room took over the entire sitting area. Someone even removed my personal belonging (Michel Roux book) from the coffee table to another table. I suppose this is no different from being on the subway at rush hour in New York City. If you stand up from your seat, don't expect to get it back, and make sure you take your belongings with you. Since the Residence doesn't have a dress code, there's nothing from preventing people from dressing sloppily. While one would think dinner with an elder Michelin three-star chef demands a little respect in terms of wardrobe, sadly not everyone thinks the same way; certainly not the people from the other party in our room.

The visual discomfort was further exacerbated by the LED TV screens on two of the four walls of the room. As we were eating, the TV showed the direct marketing material for dinner. Since I'm sold and present already, why do someone need to remind me that I am at a Michel Roux dinner? After finishing the first course I couldn't stand it anymore and asked the staff if the TV could be turned off. He acquiesced but only turned off the screen facing me but not the one behind me. The server just didn't get it or perhaps having the TV on is the standard operating procedure of the Residence. But who in their right minds at the hotel think the guests want to eat while looking at a still image on a bright TV screen? The atmosphere felt more like a high end karaoke room than a Michelin three-star dinner.

The Chairman's Residence feels strange in other ways. The atmosphere appears very exclusive and private, yet not quite enough. For instance the private rooms of Ya Ge, the Chinese restaurant three flights down, have private bathroom inside. At the Chairman's Residence, the public bathroom is on the other side of the floor. The walk from my room is long enough to feel that one is at another restaurant. The way to the bathroom passes through the open kitchen, which is similar in design to the kitchen at Bencotto (Italian restaurant one floor below) but at a smaller scale. At the front there's a stone countertop with large rectangular lampshade above. But unlike the light fixture at Bencotto, the one at the Residence is without a glass enclosure, which actually makes it less opulent. The kitchen of the Residence is confined to a separate small space with no direct visual connections to the diners' tables. If diners cannot see the cooks preparing the food, why have an open kitchen at all?

When I walked by the front of the kitchen, the cooks were busy preparing the canapés. All of them were superb. I was particularly happy to see the anchovy straws because I've seen the recipe for them in the book that I own. The sommelier poured each of us a glass of Ruinart champagne and we were off to a great start.

The first course was a duo of ceviches with salmon and tuna marinated in olive oil and yuzu juice. Also on the plate was a slightly spicy guacamole with chips and lamb's lettuce. I like to start a meal with some raw fish that's light but flavorful. Paired with a glass of 2012 Riesling Heissenberg from Domaine Ostertag, this was a nice dish.

The second course was a warm escalope of foie gras with a slice of caramelized orange. The foie was cooked perfectly and simply delicious. The fruit and the fried capers provided a nice balance to the flavors. The wine pairing was a classic one with Sauternes, in this instance from Château Suduiraut 2008. I would have preferred a wine that's less sweet but it was fine.

The third course was a piece of sautéed scallop with slices of octopus. A touch of coriander provided an elegant flavor profile. The use of the tamarind sauce and the coconut emulsion gave the dish a south Asian twist that was refreshing. The wine selected to go with the dish was a 2012 Burgundy produced by Louis Jadot from the Chassangne Montrachet appellation.

The fourth course was Roux's signature dish, pan fried lobster with white port sauce and ginger flavored vegetable julienne. I was fascinated by this dish because, besides the port sauce, the technique and the use of ginger seem to have some affinities with Chinese cooking. As the waiter placed the dish on the table, it looked beautiful with the different shades of red. The lobster was cooked a little more than I preferred but it was still very good. The sauce was simply divine. The ginger provided a little heat that was just great. A glass from Domaine de Chevalier Blanc from 2012 was poured to accompany the dish.

For the final savory course there was a choice between beef tournedos Zingara style or roasted local duck with fondant potatoes. I asked our server what is Zingara style and he didn't know. I suppose we should have just googled the word together. Since no one seems to know, I chose the duck. The duck was first presented whole on a platter and then expertly carved tableside by Roux's manager. Each plate has a few thin slices of duck breast, a piece of the skin, braised baby fennel, and potato fondant. This was served with a wonderful truffle jus. The breast was tender and the skin with a little fat underneath was especially flavorful. The wine was a glass of Le Clos Saint Jacques 2008 from Louis Jadot. This was a great way to end the savory part of the dinner. The only downside was six of our party ordered the duck and there was only one person carving the two ducks. Hence, four of us were served first instead of everyone together. I also find it strange that Roux decided to serve the duck on plates with Restaurant Ya Ge's name on them. Why not use a more neutral plate? It felt like the Residence ran out of plates and had to borrow from the restaurant three-flights below. At the Waterside Inn I don't believe they would use plates with the name "Fat Duck" emblazoned on them. Even more bizarre was Roux would use the same Ya Ge plate for the dessert later on.

After a short break Roux came to our room with the pre-dessert, coffee creme brûlée. Roux explained that they roasted the coffee beans themselves and then infused the milk with the grounded powder. The flavor was very elegant and I thoroughly enjoyed this simple concoction. The dessert was paired with 1998 Gewurztraminer Selection de Grains Nobles from Hugel & Fils.

The last course was a yogurt dessert with raspberry and lime marshmallow and yogurt ice cream. This was the biggest disappointment of the night. Of all the desserts in the repertoire, I don't understand why Roux decided to serve this one. While he was in our room he actually said he couldn't serve the soufflé but he didn't explain why. It's probably not hard to guess. The soufflé is cooked a la minute and less predictable. The yogurt dessert can be made ahead of time and is easy to do. I had hopes of eating his famous raspberry soufflé, the favorite of the Queen of England. I'm not a royalty but my friends were spending a king's ransom on this meal. Moreover, Roux served soufflé as the dessert when he was a guest chef at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok and the Four Seasons in Hong Kong. So why not let the people in Taipei have soufflé as well?

In Roux's guest appearances elsewhere, he always served different desserts for lunch and dinner. Part of the reason was lunch was usually much cheaper and a little simpler. In Taipei, the lunch was half the price of dinner. But, inexplicably the desserts for both lunch and dinner were essentially the same. At lunch the yogurt dessert was served together with the creme brûlée as a set on a rectangular plate. At dinner the two were served sequentially with perhaps a slightly bigger portion. I respect Roux's decision for not making a soufflé, but I would have preferred to see more effort put into making different desserts for dinner. For instance, since all the tables at dinner were parties of eight, why not make some large format desserts that could be cut table side? Better yet, why not go old-school and make an omelette à la norvégienne and flambé it table side. If it was another chef, perhaps my disappointment wouldn't be as great. But Roux is a pastry MOF and dessert is a major part of the meal at his Waterside Inn.

Besides the choice of dessert, my disappointment was extended to the appearance of the dish. When the server placed the dessert in front of me, the ice cream had slipped off from the setting. I surmised someone forgot to put a piece of cookie under the ice cream. The server didn't notice the error, and I didn't want to cause a fuss by sending it back. The pistachio marshmallow was also placed slightly off the center of the cookie. The dessert was just a plate of sloppiness. I can't imagine that Roux would ever allow this to happen at his restaurant back home.

At Roux's Waterside Inn, meals would end with a dazzling array of mignardises: palmier, custard tart, canelé, nougat, madeleine, and chocolate. In Taipei, Roux simply didn't bother with making the mignardises and just served ready-made chocolates and treats from the hotel's Cake Shop on the ground floor. The dinner started so nicely with the wonderful canapés, yet ended in a dissatisfying manner.

At the beginning of the dinner, Roux came to our room to introduce himself. He said for this dinner he brought four senior people from the Waterside Inn and assured us that it was the A team. Instead of being assured, I actually thought it was a bit strange. With the cost of the dinner being much higher than at the Waterside Inn, I expected nothing less. I didn't doubt Roux's word. In fact, in my brief encounter with Roux's manager I can attest that he was top notch – professional yet relaxed and warm. Perhaps Roux brought his A-team but did he bring his A-game? For the savory dishes, yes, but for the dessert, it was a resounding no. 

Besides the dessert the night was also slightly marred by the service. For instance, the server laid down the utensils for the last savory course very early on; it was just strange. As the night progressed, whenever a new dish was served the server would lay down another set of knife and fork outside of them. In other words for several courses I had two sets of utensils. In another instance, I asked for an espresso and was instead served a double espresso with no crema on top. Finally, at the end of the night the server laid down the plate of mignardises, but he mysteriously didn't explain the flavors of the chocolates. Perhaps it was meant as a test? Was one of them whiskey? These were perhaps minor infractions but I am sure they wouldn't meet the exacting standards of a Michelin three-star restaurant.

From the onset it was obvious that a Michel Roux dinner at the Mandarin Oriental would be very different from the one at his Waterside Inn. Sitting in an enclosed private dining room with a party of strangers was never going to be the same as enjoying the view of River Thames. Setting aside the physical constraints, I still had hopes that Roux and Mandarin Oriental would deliver a Michelin three-star experience. Sadly, this did not happen. In one of Roux's visits to our room during dinner, he talked about the idea of perfection as a goal and the impossibility of reaching it. I heard this idea expressed by other Michelin three-star chefs. I just didn't realize on this night, perfection was that far away.

Instead of a Michelin three-star dinner, I felt like I was participating in a promotional event under the watchful eyes of Mandarin's marketing team. Roux now carries the title of the Global Ambassador of the Waterside Inn. This event was certainly a promotion of the Roux brand. The dinner was interspersed with several talks by Michel Roux with a translator. Not once did Roux nor anyone else asked how we like the food or how we were enjoying the night. I supposed everyone just assumed we would be in awe. Besides the aforementioned promotional material on the TV screen, the console table in our room was lined with cookbooks written by Roux. At one point, Roux and a staff of the hotel made a soft sell of Roux's cookbooks. I didn't buy a book because I brought my own; Roux gladly signed the book after dinner. My friends had their pictures taken with the chef. During the dinner we all took enough photographs of the food to fill a weekend worth of our Instagram feed – proof of our presence at the event.

But what exactly did we experience? Michel Roux is one of the world's greatest living chefs and Mandarin Oriental is the best hotel in town, yet even they delivered a weak facsimile of a Michelin three-star meal. I have come to the realization that events with guest chefs are simply not worth the significant premium over the prices at the chef's restaurant at home; paying more but getting less. The irony is if one travels to the Waterside Inn to eat, one actually might not see Michel Roux. He lives in Switzerland and is only in England less than three months a year. His son Alain and his long time maitre d'hotel run the three-star restaurant. It is actually rare to see Roux running the kitchen, but he can't replicate his restaurant elsewhere. As Roux said at the dinner, he relies on a team to produce his best work. Unfortunately most members of the team are back home. In Taipei, he didn't do his best work. Roux may be present himself but we only saw the shadow of the Waterside Inn. 

Michelin defines a three-star restaurant as "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey." To experience the real thing, one needs to leave home and visit the chef's restaurant. The customers and the chef cannot both be the guests at the same time. The journey to visit the chef might be far and costly in terms of time and money, yet there are no short cuts. As the Chinese proverb says, "True scripture is hard to find (真經難取)."

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Sweet Side Awakens

"Hi, I am Julien Perrinet and I am the pastry chef at the Grand Hyatt Taipei." Last October, by chance I found myself sitting next to the friendly French chef at the counter of L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei during dinner. As Perrinet introduced himself, I thought to myself: Grand Hyatt? The only times I step into the Hyatt are for weddings or the annual Ivy Ball. The food at these events are at best harmless. Besides the tickets to the Ivy Ball (not really Ivy nor a Ball), it has been years, perhaps decades, since I spent any hard earned money in the Hyatt.

To be fair, people often forget that the Grand Hyatt is the first large international hotel in Taipei. When the hotel opened over twenty-five years ago, it represented the standard of excellence in the city. Not only was the Hyatt the place to go for a fancy meal or event, it was also the premier training ground for the people in the hospitality industry. For instance, across the counter at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon where I sat, many senior managers had stints at the Grand Hyatt. However, in recent years the Hyatt seems to have fallen off the radar. The hotel is still grand but there doesn't seem to be any excitement that warrants a visit.

"I moved from Singapore to Taipei in May. I was part of the Robuchon team when the restaurants in Singapore opened." This explains why Perrinet was friendly with the visiting Robuchon team. As our dinner in October progressed, I asked Perrinet whether he would make any special pastries for the upcoming Christmas holidays. The question was answered with series of resounding yeses: Bûche de Noël? Yes; Galette des Rois? Yes. With the féve? Yes, of course.

The questions probably struck Perrinet as strange since he wouldn't think otherwise. I asked because Christmas is not an official holiday in Taiwan and there isn't a strong sense of the Christmas spirit in Taipei. Some of the good pastry shops in town, such as Sweet Tea by Yannick Alleno at Taipei 101, don't make any holiday items anymore. As I departed from the L'Atelier after another lovely meal, I told Perrinet that I would visit him at the Hyatt when the holiday arrives.

"I considered several places before deciding to join the Grand Hyatt. The hotel gives me a lot of responsibilities and I also have a pastry shop in the lobby to play with." Since around March of 2015, the hotel replaced its souvenir shop on the ground floor with a pastry shop/bakery called the Baguette. I wonder if this new shop is a response to Mandarin Oriental's Cake Shop on the other side of town.

The choice of "Baguette" as the name for the shop is very odd since the French bread is just one of the many items for sale. The name suggests the importance of the bakery. Hence at my first visit to the shop I bought a croissant to try. The croissant was not good at all. The shell was not crisp nor brittle and didn't shatter when one bit into it – a real disappointment. In a subsequent visit I asked the salesperson if Perrinet was in charge of the Viennoiseries, and she said no. The bakery and the pastry are produced by two different departments. Furthermore, the main attraction of the shop seems to be Perrinet's creations in the glass display case, which are the first things one sees.

"We have four kinds of Bûche de Noël for you to choose from." The salesperson at the Baguette responded when I called to ask and order the Christmas log cake in December. While other shops made one signature Bûche de Noël, Perrinet made Mosaic (chocolate praliné), Firework (pineapple-coco), Red Noël (raspberry litchee rose), and Chestnut (with pear and cinnamon). Over the phone I asked for the Red Noël and was told I had to pay first. Taken aback, I said, "you don't trust that I will pick up the cake later today? You have my name and mobile number and that's not enough?" In response, she said, "There were a few instances where customers ordered and didn't show up. The cakes are perishable and we need preorder to be prepaid by fax." I can't help but think the Cake Shop at the Mandarin Oriental doesn't ask me to prepay. Annoyed, I almost hung up the phone. Perhaps she sensed my unhappiness, and said I don't have to prepay if I pick up the cake within the next three hours.

The weather in last December didn't feel like winter at all, and as usual there weren't too many Christmas decorations around town. But as I walked inside the Hyatt to pick up the Christmas cake, I saw the Baguette was decked out in probably the most impressive gingerbread house in Taipei. With four types of Bûche de Noël, multiple Christmas themed pastries, and a gingerbread house big enough to walk through, Perrinet may be the most enthusiastic pastry chef in Taipei. Perrinet is also a very skilled pastry chef. The Red Noël cake was large and attractive – well suited for a party. The taste was very good, with the sweetness balanced by a bit of acidity from the fruits.

"Did you order the Galette des Rois?" My kids knew that I always buy one for the Epiphany; I don't know the verses in Matthew 2:11 well, but I know pithivier. They were also eager to try their luck again to see if they can add another fève to their collection. Maybe because I'm not a believer, in the years that I bought the Galette, I have never gotten the fève and the chance to wear the crown. 

The Galette des Rois at the Grand Hyatt was made with Isigny butter. The 7-inch version was NT$520 plus $100 for the porcelain fève. The price seemed very reasonable. I love puff pastry and frangipane thus the Galette des Rois is one of my favorite things to eat. Perrinet made the Galette with care and in the traditional manner. It was just delicious. Our family quickly devoured the cake. Similar to previous years, I didn't get the piece with the fève inside. My Catholic wife was the queen this year; as Psalm 37:18 states: The Lord takes care of those who obey him.

"The Canelé at the Hyatt was one of the reasons that I decided to join the hotel. During my job interview I saw that they made the Canelé in the traditional manner with the beeswax and copper mold. I knew there was a good foundation to build upon." Perrinet told me during our dinner last October. Indeed, the Canelé at the Hyatt is very good with a crunchy and well caramelized exterior with a chewy and soft interior. At NT$50 the large Canelé is a very nice treat. 

Perrinet changes the contents in the glass display case frequently in response to the seasons. Since strawberry is in season now he has made a few new pastries. They are not only good to eat but will surely bring a smile to anyone who sees them.

There has been an awakening in the sweet side of the Grand Hyatt. Anyone who visits the shop at the hotel lobby will definitely feel it. I love Perrinet's enthusiasm and passion, and I hope they won't diminish as he familiarizes with the local customers. I am eager to see how Perrinet's creation will evolve as he spends more time in Taipei. Furthermore, will the rise of the sweet side lead to a renewal of the bakery? Will the Grand Hyatt return to the forefront of the dining scene in Taipei? Hopefully more episodes await.