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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. 


  1. Well written and thoughtful remarks at the closing of a treasured eatery. A simple solution to bridge the gap in quality between patrons and restaurateur-offerings would would be an app or website, that offers reviews of (still) affordable 'haute cuisine' reviews. Real diner reviews, spiced with these kind of insights could bring a higher number of appreciative patrons to these establishments and give useful instant feedback to the restaurateurs like Angelo. Just a thought.

  2. I agree that your remarks are thoughtful and reflective of the Taipei and Taiwan in general food scene. Where I disagree is classing Taipei as an international city. There is not a varied or large enough foreigner population to warrant a large fine dining scene. Also local salaries are too low for people to risk their money on a fine dining experience as opposed to a hotel buffet where everyone can get something they enjoy and try a few things they consider as adventure food.

  3. Angelo's restaurant was the best of the best: stunning food (his fish was off the charts), warm and welcoming service, in a great space (especially when seated at the counter with a view of the open kitchen). I wish him the very best wherever he ends up next. He will be missed.

    Guy Beauregard