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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.


  1. Hi,

    I am sad that it has taken me this long to find your blog. I feel that I have missed out on so much good food. I live in Taichung which has no fine dining and I am envious of the options you have in Taipei. I am also envious of your writing skill. Thanks for your posts, they're greatly appreciated.

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