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Friday, December 22, 2017

Eight Years at Seat No.17: L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei

Eight years have passed since L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon opened in Taipei. I still remember vividly my first dinner at L'Atelier in December of 2009. My wife, Maria, and I were celebrating our wedding anniversary. We sat at the middle of the counter and ordered the tasting menu that started with oyster and ended with the sugar sphere. It was clear after the first dinner that L'Atelier was the best restaurant in Taipei, period. At that time it was the only restaurant that could be compared to other fine dining restaurants in major gastronomic cities in the world. In the past eight years, many new restaurants have opened (some have since closed) in Taipei. The overall standard in the city has risen, and L'Atelier has become better as well.

Since my first dinner at L'Atelier I have become a regular. Over the years I can see how the restaurant has steadily evolved. The owners have made additional investments into the restaurant to keep the appearance fresh: new placemats on the counter, fancier clocks on the walls, redesigned uniforms, and more artistic plates from Bernardaud by Prune Nourry and JR. The menu has become more varied and flexible; the most noticeable change is the addition of a vegetarian tasting menu. There are numerous minor changes that all contribute to elevating the quality of the restaurant. But the main reason that L'Atelier in Taipei has improved is because of the continuity of its staff.

This is quite remarkable in an industry where the turnover of personnel is high. Consider the following: the best hotel in Taipei, Mandarin Oriental, has been open for less than 4 years and has already gone through changes in staff on all levels, from General Manger to chefs and managers for the various restaurants; the hotel's Chinese restaurant Ya Ge is on its third chef already. In contrast, the main personnel at L'Atelier: Chef de Cuisine, Sous Chef, Pastry Chef, Sommelier, General Manger, Operation Mangers and Captains have all been at their jobs longer than Mandarin Oriental Taipei has been in existence; some have been at L'Atelier since the opening eight years ago. The simple fact is by gaining experience on the job the staff has become better at doing their jobs.

At L'Atelier I almost always sit at seat 17 which is just to the left side of the center of the counter. From the seat I have a great view of the open kitchen and can see my meal being prepared, starting from the garde manger to the fish and meat stations. Only the pastry station on the left side is slightly obscured. I also get to peek at the dishes coming out from the kitchen for the other diners. Since I sit directly behind the pass of the kitchen, the Chef sometimes delivers the dishes personally and explains the cooking techniques to me, as if we are in a small Japanese restaurant.

For the past four years the Chef of L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei has been Olivier Jean. He is the fourth chef to take the rein at the restaurant and the one with the longest tenure. When Jean arrived in Taipei in 2013 he was the youngest chef in the Robuchon group. Now the chefs in Singapore and Las Vegas are even younger. Taipei is the first time Jean became a head chef. Although he wasn't as experienced as the previous chefs, he made up the difference with more energy and hard work. He has trained his cooks effectively to maintain a high level of standard. His efforts have paid off as Joël Robuchon asked him to assist in opening new L'Ateliers around the world. Last year Jean traveled to Montreal and this year to New York City to train the staff and transmit the Robuchon method.

While Jean is strict with his staff in Taipei, he also readily acknowledges the effort by his team, especially his right hand man, Frederic Jullien. He has also been cooking at Taipei for 4 straight years. Previously, Jullien was at Taillevent in Paris and steeped in the classics. He is a very skilled chef and after four years cooking in the Robuchon manner, will probably be promoted to head chef should an opening become available.

A friend once asked Jean what is Mr. Robuchon like? Jean replied succinctly, Mr. Robuchon wants everything to be perfect. While perfection seems like a state that can only be strived for rather than reached, Robuchon's dishes seem pretty perfect. For instance, at L'Atelier, one can order the Robuchon classic from the days of Jamin, Gelée de Caviar à la Crème de Chou-Feur.

The three-Michelin-star chef and former Robuchon apprentice Eric Ripert wrote in his autobiography 32 Yolks: "I still remember the first time that Robuchon taught me how to make a lobster gelée, which we served carefully layered, caviar first, then the lobster gelée, then cauliflower cream, in a tall Japanese bowl lined with brilliant dots of chlorophyll that I had extracted through a complex process that began with puréeing herbs in the Robocoupe. When I first tasted it, I literally scratched my head and said, I have never seen or tasted a dish that good in my life." Thirty years later, after I saw and tasted the dish I had the same reaction as Ripert.

The same can be said for a more recent creation, Le Filet de Bœuf et Foie Gras en "Rossini". Instead of cooking the filet and foie gras separately in the manner of Marie-Antoine Carême, the two are bound in tubular form and cooked together by sous vide. The technique is ideally suited for the lean filet and retains the fat of the foie gras. The dish has superb ingredients, harmonious flavor, and perfect execution. Served on the side is Robuchon's signature La Purée de Pommes de Terre. Is there a more perfect side dish? What's remarkable about the potato and butter emulsion is the transformation of humble and simple ingredients via brilliant technique, making the dish simultaneously extravagant and soulful.

While Jean and Jullien faithfully execute Robuchon's dishes, there is still room for personal expression within the system. After all, the word Atelier means a workshop or an artist studio, a space to create things. Again to quote Ripert from his autobiography about his time at Jamin, cooking with Robuchon's righthand man, Philippe Braun (also known as the Californian surfer): "For so long, my time with Robuchon had been about executing the boss’s vision. But with Philippe, I began to see that you could still have a vision of your own. It was up to each of us to imbue the work with our own meaning and style." Often times, instead of choosing from the menu, I simply ask Jean to cook for me omakase.

Jean and Jullien know I love the classics and anything en croûte or with puff pastry. Over the years, they have made several off-the-menu dishes for me. I like to think the first Beef Wellington or Filet de Bœuf en Croûte Jean made in Taipei was for me and my mushroom-averse friend two and a half years ago; Jean replaced the typical duxselles with chestnut. In the past years Jean has made numerous Beef Wellington, especially for large parties. Now, Beef Wellington is also offered in the L'Ateliers in Shanghai and New York. Wellington is a classic but it is not necessarily easy to make. Often times Jean sears the beef and assemble the ingredients himself. Jean had also once made a Vol-au-Vents with Sweetbread, a recipe that dates back to the 18th century. When the weather gets a bit colder, Jean and Jullien will make a Pithivier or Tourte with duck and foie gras. I am enamored with traditional dishes especially ones that have been perfected. I am always reminded of a slogan used in an advertisement 20 years ago by the American television company, NBC: “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.” There are so many historical dishes that people of my generation or younger have never enjoyed. Instead of chasing the latest trend such as eating ants on a plate, why not enjoy the classics?

Traversing in the aisle in between the counter and the kitchen pass is the sommelier Benoît Monier. He has been in Taipei for seven years and with the Robuchon group for over 20 years. Prior to Taipei, Monier spent years in Hong Kong and Tokyo. He is certainly familiar with customers of Asia, but Taipei is probably his biggest challenge. Taipei is an extremely tough city to sell wine in the restaurants. The L'Atelier in Taipei is probably the only restaurant in the Robuchon group where the table setting doesn't include a wine glass, at least until Robuchon opens a branch in an Arabian city. The problem with customers in Taipei is two-fold: one, most people didn't grow up drinking wine with food, thus don't see wine as integral part of the meal; two, instead of letting the sommelier help select a wine to pair with the meal, the customers like to bring their own wines.

French food is meant to be paired with wine. The Chinese has a saying, 畫龍點睛, which translates literally as to paint a dragon and dot in the eyes; add the touches that bring an artwork to life. Wine is like the final touch that elevates the food. Since Monier is trained as a cook before choosing to be a sommelier, he has a great sensitivity for wine and food pairing. Customers not having a conversation with Monier about wine really misses part of the joy of dining at L'Atelier.

Monier once remarked to me that anyone can recommend an expensive bottle of wine. It takes more skill to find a bottle that is reasonably priced, aged properly, and ideally suited to the food. I couldn't agree more. Once he asked me, do you know Romanée-Conti? I said, of course. He said, I am going to pour you a wine that's next to Romanée-Conti but at a fraction of the price; tell me how you like it. Another time he asked, do you know Petrus? Try a glass of wine from the vineyard (Vieux Chateau St-Andre) owned by Petrus' winemaker, Jean-Claude Berrouet. Sometimes he pours two different glasses of wines for me to try with the same dish, to show me that the expensive bottle doesn't necessarily work the best with a particular food.

In the early years, Monier always asked about my preference for wine. I invariably said I was happy to drink any wine he picked and for two reasons: I have no preference. I like most wines just like I eat everything; second, if I go to a friend's house for dinner, I am not picking out the wine. I will drink what my friend has selected. I suppose my only preference is to not have too many repeats. I trust Monier's judgement. But Monier has taught me to trust my palette, develop my own judgement, and to look beyond the famous vineyards. While in a blind tasting I still won't be able to distinguish the difference between Pinot Meunier from Pinot Noir, I have grown to appreciate wine, especially when taken with food.

The pastry station on the left side of the kitchen has been under the direction of chef Kazuhisa Takahashi since 2012. He took over the position from the opening pastry chef Kazutoshi Narita. While Narita's signature dessert, Sugar Ball, is still on the menu, Takahashi has now made more variations. Instead of a pure form, the shape has become more figurative, such as apple and pears. The imitation of nature fits within the longstanding tradition of French cuisine. These blown sugar creations never fail to impress and always elicit a wow from me. The contrasting texture of the sugar shell and the custard inside is just perfect.

In Ripert's autobiography, he wrote about Robuchon's observation of Japanese chefs after one of Robuchon's trip to Japan thirty years ago. Robuchon told Ripert and his colleagues: "You all suck! In Japan, the chefs are ten times better than you. They’re more humble than you. They are more skilled, more precise, more gifted. Better, better, best! They are better, and they are the best!" Thirty years later, the quote is still valid and Takahashi certainly seems to fit the description. The desserts at L'Atelier Taipei always seem to be flawless.

The dessert menu at L'Atelier changes frequently with new creations. But while Takahashi has one foot in the contemporary, another foot remains in the historical world. Some of classic dishes from the 19th century, such as Baba and Soufflé can usually be found on the menu. A perfectly executed Soufflé brings me a great deal of joy every time. What was good will aways be good.

For my wedding anniversary dinner in 2013 he made a pulled sugar flower to accompany a cake. The flower was so pretty that I took it home. Kept in a glass jar with silica gel, the flower has sat on my bookshelf, a version of the Enchanted Rose from Beauty and the Beast. Most of the time the memory of a meal only exists in the mind and in pictures, but with the rose I have a memento.

The ringmasters of L'Atelier Taipei are the General Manager, Vincent Hsu, and his deputy, Grendy Yang. They have been at their positions since the opening of the restaurant in 2009. They are the two most professional front-of-house restaurant personnels in Taipei. Unlike many restaurants in Taipei, Hsu and his team provide a level of service that is on par with fine dining restaurants in major cities in the world. Sometimes providing good service is the easy part, the challenge is how to handle adversities and problems that inevitably arise. On the rare occasion that I have a complaint, Hsu is always available to listen. He doesn't avoid criticism. And I appreciate that the restaurant has a person in charge that I can always turn to.

I always marvel at Robuchon's ability to have all the L'Atelier operating at a high level. Taipei was the seventh L'Atelier that Robuchon opened. There are now 12 L'Ateliers in the world, with two more to come in the next years. While other three-Michelin-star chefs, such as Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller, run their restaurants groups like fashion designer Giorgio Armani with different lines (Giorgio, Emporio Armani, Collezioni, and Exchange) at different price points for different clienteles, Robuchon doesn't operate cheaper and simpler restaurants such as a bistro. He only has one mode: three-Michelin-star. Although L'Atelier is casual in setting, the standard for the food and many dishes are the same as the formal restaurants.

While Robuchon's standard is the same for the L'Ateliers, according to the Michelin Guide, the quality of the restaurants are different. Of all the L'Ateliers that are inspected by Michelin (some cities do not have a guide), the ratings range from from three-star in Hong Kong, to two-star in Tokyo, Paris, Shanghai, and Singapore to one-star in London and Bangkok. I haven't been to all the L'Ateliers and cannot dispute Michelin's ratings. Clearly there's a range.

In March 2018, the Michelin Guide will debut its Red Guide for Taipei. It will be interesting to see how Michelin rates Taipei's L'Atelier. The Michelin inspectors work in secrecy, but the criteria by which restaurants are judged are well published: quality of the products; mastery of flavor and cooking techniques; the personality of the chef in the cuisine; value for money; and consistency between visits. Of the five criteria, three are the same for all the L'Ateliers: the personality of the chef is all Robuchon; the techniques are the same; and the price across the various Atelier is about the same. The eight-course Menu Decouverte is 189 Euros (about NT$6,650) in Paris, 1,498 RMB  (about NT$6,800) in Shanghai, 318 SGD (about NT$7,100) in Singapore, and NT$6,880 in Taipei. The two criteria that may be different between the L'Ateliers are the quality of the products and consistency.

Since Hong Kong is the only L'Atelier in the world with three stars, one can only assume the restaurant is consistent and uses the best ingredients. All the top restaurants in Hong Kong can get frequent and regular air shipments of the best ingredients from around the world. This is reflected in the prices as Hong Kong has the costliest Menu Decouverte of all the L'Ateliers at 2080 HKD (NT$8,000). Nevertheless the city has enough clientele who appreciate these ingredients and can support the restaurant.

Some of the quality of the products used in L'Atelier in Taipei cannot match the ones used in Hong Kong. The reason is not entirely monetary. Compared to Hong Kong, Taiwan has far more restrictions on the import of food. For a long time, it was illegal to import Jamón ibérico from Spain. Only in the past few months did the government allow Wagyu beef to be imported from Japan. Previously, the restaurants can only used Australian Wagyu. The L'Atelier in Taipei uses a number of local products. While some of them, such as pork, can be considered one of the best in the world, others cannot. For instance, the ducks from Yilan County are of a high quality, but they have a very different flavor from the famous ducks in Challans, France. The same can be said for the local chicken, which is not as good as the French chicken from Bresse. For the criteria of "quality of the products" Taipei probably will not score three stars.

In terms of the final criteria of "consistency between visits", I can say as a regular customer, I never had a bad meal at L'Atelier. My theory is the restaurant is unfailingly consistent because it has more capacity to meet the demand. The disheartening fact is the quality of the restaurant doesn't guarantee success. On most days L'Atelier is not completely full. Furthermore even when the restaurant is full it doesn't turn table. The irony is since the restaurant is not super busy, the staff can take very good care of the guests. Sometimes on a slow night, Chef Jean can even cook a few dishes himself, instead of just standing at the pass expediting, finishing, and inspecting the plates. The same be said for the front-of-house staff, often times one can see multiple servers looking over the guests.

Based on my own experience and analysis, I have my own idea about the number of stars L'Atelier Taipei should receive. But the Michelin Guide works in mysterious ways and we will just have to wait and see.

No matter how Michelin decides next year, the impact of L'Atelier can be felt through the entire restaurant industry in Taiwan. L'Atelier has not only set a new standard for Taipei but became a trailblazer, unleashing a number of Michelin-starred chefs, including three-star Yannick Alléno and Seiji Yamamoto, to setup restaurants in the city. L'Atelier also trained numerous local cooks and front-of-house staff. Many took what they learned from L'Atelier and went to other restaurants or opened their own places. Some cooks probably needed more time at L'Atelier before venturing out on their own. But overall, the western dining scene has benefited enormously from L'Atelier.

Eight years is not a short time. Operating a fine dining restaurant in Taipei remains as difficult as ever. In the past couple of years, Alléno's STAY has opened and closed already. Angelo Agliano, the former chef at L'Atelier in Taipei, has also closed his eponymous restaurant with aspirations for Michelin stars; Agliano has moved to Hong Kong. The French restaurant at Mandarin Oriental has abandoned all ambitions for fine dining and became a buffet restaurant. The market for fine dining in Taipei is shrinking and may get worse with the recent decrease in tourists and the dormant economy. While the overall environment may get darker in the near future, I am glad that L'Atelier remains a beacon of light and is shining brighter than ever. For me, dining at L'Atelier is a mini-staycation and a refuge from daily life. When December comes around, I will be at L'Atelier sitting at No. 17.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Fortune of My Blog According to I Ching

In recent months I took three introductory classes on I Ching 易經, sponsored by the Hong's Foundation for Education and Culture 洪建全基金會. The classes were taught by Professor Pei-Rong Fu 傅佩榮. Prior to his retirement from National Taiwan University, Fu was the Chair of the Department of Philosophy and had written numerous books on Chinese classics. I Ching is the oldest of the Chinese classics with ideas that underpin many aspects of Chinese thinking for millenia. As with most Chinese, I know bits and pieces of I Ching and read parts of the book when I was younger.

Since the three classes on I Ching were only one and half hour long each, Fu could only provide an overview of I Ching. Fu said learning the entire text of I Ching would require around 40 classes. Obviously, I only scratched the surface of I Ching, but I have developed a greater appreciation of the text.

In the last class, Fu demonstrated the traditional way of using 50 sticks to derive a Guà 卦 (hexagram). Afterwards we were asked to try the method ourselves to seek our fortune. First we wrote down the questions and then used the sticks to derive six numbers, writing them down from the bottom to the top. The six numbers I drew were, 8 6 6 9 7 7. Each number forms a line (Yáo 爻): odd number means an unbroken line (Yang 陽 ) and even number is a broken line (Yin 陰). The Guà 卦 I got was the 12th one named Pǐ 否. Since the numbers 6 and 9 denote change, I also received a corresponding Guà 卦 (之卦): 57th Guà 卦 named Xùn 巽.

Deriving the Guà 卦 and looking up the related texts in I Ching are not difficult. The interpretation of the texts in relation to the question posed requires deep knowledge. After writing out the Guà 卦, Fu said because 3 of the 6 numbers I drew denote change, my fortune would be based on the texts of both Guà 卦. Furthermore, the focus should be on the main texts of the Guà 卦 rather than the specific Yáo 爻 (line).

Fu asked what was my question. I said, Will my blog make any money?

Fu said with Pǐ Guà 否卦, you probably haven't made any money from your blog. I replied, I never made a single dollar. Even without knowledge of I Ching, one knows the character Pǐ 否 is not good. Fu explained, 否 Pǐ means stagnation. The lower trigram is earth, Kūn 坤, and the upper trigram is heaven, Qián 乾. Heaven and earth are at their usual place but the two are separate and not connected.

But all is not lost as we need to examine the corresponding Guà 卦. Xùn 巽 consists of two trigrams of wind 風. The texts for the Guà 卦 reads: 小亨,利有攸往,利見大人. Richard Wilhelm and Cary F. Baynes translated the Chinese text as: Success through what is small. It furthers one to have somewhere to go. It furthers one to see the great man. Fu explains, my blog may be able to have a small fortune since the wind is starting to blow. However, I will need help from an eminent person.

While Xùn Guà 巽卦 offers a glimmer of hope, it is still the corresponding hexagram rather than the main one I drew. In terms of the overall fortune Pǐ Guà 否卦 is weighted a bit more. In other words, my blog is unlikely to make any money.

Actually ever since I started blogging, I have never imagined the blog would make any money. I didn’t even think the blog would last this long. I am just happy that my blog has a cult following; “cult” sounds so much better than “small”. I’m grateful to know that somewhere in the world someone is interested in reading my thoughts. And that’s plenty rich for me.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

T'ang Court in Shanghai

On a 40-degree Celsius summer day I made my way to the Langham Hotel in Xintiandi in Shanghai. I didn’t come to stay at the hotel, nor to see the architecture designed by the New York-based firm KPF. The only reason I was there was to try T’ang Court, the only three Michelin-star Chinese restaurant in Mainland China.

T’ang Court was awarded the highest distinction in the inaugural edition of the Michelin Guide Shanghai in 2016. This year the three-star rating was reconfirmed. In 2016 the Director of the Michelin Guide Michael Ellis said of T'ang Court, "In the cozy atmosphere of this restaurant where only six tables are set, the talented and creative chef Justin Tan offers cuisine in which traditional Cantonese dishes rub shoulders with some very modern dishes. Some specialties really amazed the palates of our inspectors."

Shanghai is a city of over 24 million people with a long tradition of Jiangsu-Zhejiang (Jiang-Zhe) cuisine. However, for Michelin the best restaurant in Shanghai doesn't serve the local but Cantonese cuisine. It is as if a Chinese restaurant guide shows up in Paris and decides the best restaurant is an Italian restaurant that serves Roman food; the distance from Shanghai to Canton is roughly the same distance from Paris to Rome. Moreover T'ang Court isn't a unique restaurant and instead has the same name as its sister restaurant (also Michelin three-star) in the Langham Hotel in Hong Kong. Perhaps there isn't a Shanghainese restaurant in the city that deserves three Michelin stars, but is T'ang Court worth a special journey?

T'ang Court is on the fifth floor of the hotel. The elevator opens to a small but nicely decorated reception overlooking an outdoor terrace. The receptionist led us through a long curved corridor passing the private dining rooms on either side; my friends and I didn’t reserve a private dining room. At the end of the corridor is the main dining room which, as the Director of the Michelin Guide pointed out, only has six tables and a total capacity of 20 guests. The small number of tables belies the true size and nature of T'ang Court. The main part of the restaurant is actually the private rooms which seat a total of 90 guests.

I wished I had booked a private room. The small communal dining room felt like a leftover space. While the ceiling is high the size of the room is not large. The space felt like a large living room of a large apartment. On one side of the room is a floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking an outdoor terrace. On the other side is a wood panel wall with niches and awkwardly installed recessed speakers near the top of the wall. The tables are placed either next to the wall or the exterior glass with circulation in between.

Our table was comfortable but would have been better if it was a bit larger. The tablewares are elegant. The decorative rim of the charger plate seems to echo the pattern of the drapery along the window. The tables are set with wine glasses, which feel more western than Chinese. Instead of wine, I ordered a tea which was served in a small individual pot with a small cup. I quite appreciated the small cup as the tea can be sipped hot; very few Chinese restaurants give much thought to tea service.

My friend is a Hong Kong resident, and a connoisseur of Cantonese cuisine, hence he did the ordering. Like any self-respecting Chinese diner, he forwent the tasting menu, instead discussed the menu with our waiter to see what are the best dishes to order. We started with two amuse-bouches, which appeared simple. The taste is clean and you get the direct flavors of the ingredients. The characteristics of these snacks foreshadow the main dishes.

Our first dish was a wok-fried Wagyu beef with spring onions. I was a bit surprised the beef was served first. Nevertheless, both the quality of the beef and the execution were very good.

The sea cucumber was cooked nicely with just the right texture and was delicious. There's an austerity and simplicity with the presentation that is quite refreshing.

Next course was a soup with grouper and vegetables. Again, quality ingredients, well- made, and refined flavors.

Our last savory course was a crispy salted chicken.The skin was crispy and the meat was flavorful; just a delight.

For dessert, we ordered the signature swan-shape custard pastries, which were well made and delectable. However, the swan neck was unnecessary, as it didn't add much to taste of the pastry. I am not sure why the pastry was kitschy which was in direct contrast to the savory dishes.

Is T’ang Court a Michelin three-star restaurant? The short answer is yes. If the Michelin Guide awards a restaurant three stars then it is; the stars belong to Michelin. But is T’ang Court, as Michelin’s definition of three-star restaurant, worth a special journey? I would say no. For a visitor to Shanghai, especially a first timer, it would be more interesting and rewarding to dine at a Jiang-Zhe restaurant. Shanghai is the largest city in this region known as the fish and rice country. Besides the abundance of produce, seafood and the freshwater ingredients, this region is home to many of the famous Chinese products: Jinhua ham, Shaoxing wine, and Zhenjiang vinegar. Dining at T’ang Court doesn’t connect a visitor to the local land and flavors. T’ang Court is a very good restaurant — the service is pleasant and the food is well executed. I enjoyed my lunch. However, T’ang is not a destination restaurant, certainly not worth a plane ride.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sugar Pea

"How did you know about this restaurant?" My friend asked as we were waiting to be seated at Sugar Pea. I jokingly replied, "You don't know chef Sandy Yoon, the 2014 Best Chef in Shanghai from That's Shanghai Magazine?" My friend looked at me with a sense of puzzlement. Frankly, I don't remember how I found out about chef Yoon and the restaurant. Perhaps it was during a conversation with chef Kin Ming Lam of Chou Chou and Achoi. Yoon and Lam both worked for 3-Michelin-star chef Jean Georges Vongerichten in Shanghai, where Yoon was the Chef de Cuisine at Mercato and Lam was the Executive Chef at the flagship Jean Georges. I don't know how Vongerichten lost both of them to Taipei, but his loss is my gain. I am very happy that they have set up shops in Taipei.

Chef Yoon opened the door to Sugar Pea in late 2016. Situated in a small alley behind Cathay General Hospital in the eastern district of Taipei, the restaurant is on the ground floor of a nondescript 7-story apartment building. The exterior of Sugar Pea consists of white siding and white window frames. The main door looks like an entrance on an old house with stiles, glass panels, bottom panels, and two sidelites. The design of the exterior reminds me of the white clapboard houses on the East Coast of the United States. The entrance is raised up slightly on a dark wood terrace with several potted plants.

The domestic feel of the restaurant continues on the inside. A tall dresser serves as the hostess stand. The floor is mostly in light colored wood planks. The walls are principally painted white or light grey with white baseboard. The ceiling coves are lined with white moulding.

The restaurant is not large. The open kitchen is located in the back in an L-shaped space: one deeper side for the hot stations and the other shallower side for the preparation of desserts and drinks. Both sides are clad with white tiles and white marble counters. While the kitchen is not fancy, it is quite pleasant with fruits, cakes, and dinnerware spread out on the counter. One can always see chef Yoon working behind the counter in a blue chef jacket and white apron; the reverse of the typical white jacket and blue apron.

The tables are in light wood veneer with white round base. The chairs are the classical-looking Windsor side chairs in light wood color, which again remind me of the houses on the east coast of United States. The dining area is not large and there are essentially three seating areas similar to different rooms in a house: solarium near the street, the library with views to the outside, and the kitchen. The three areas have different feel and they are a bit like first, business, and economy class on an airplane. The solarium is the most pleasant with views, daylight, and plantings, where most of the Instagram photos of the restaurants are taken. The library area is slightly removed from the exterior, but still has daylight and views; the objects and books on the built-in shelves provide the sense of being in someone's home. Unfortunately for me, for all of my three visits I sat in the economy class kitchen area which is mostly interiorized. While the kitchen is across the aisle, the view is reduced due to the height of the dining chairs and further obscured by the heat lamps above the counter. The feel of the three different areas are less of an issue at dinner but more pronounced at lunch.

While the quality of the space varies quite a bit, the food is consistently good. The snappy tagline on Sugar Pea's menu is "wholesome, seasonal, simple cuisine" and the food is precisely as advertised.

My first meal at Sugar Pea was a Sunday night dinner. The menu at Sugar Pea is not really structured for a standard three course meal that I prefer to have for dinner. Instead of a proper appetizer, there are three choices of crostini. I tried the crab and avocado toast, which was simply delicious. The crostini tasted fresh with a nice combination of different flavors and textures. Furthermore, there was a delicateness, perhaps one could even say feminine touch, that was refreshing.

The main course at Sugar Peas are salads or bowls with grains, vegetables and a protein. I tried the Chipotle chicken bowl. There were probably over 10 ingredients in the bowl, including red quinoa, black beans, corn, cherry tomato, and avocado. Every ingredient was well prepared and the color was very lively. I really enjoyed the bowl.

There are only two desserts on the menu, a crumb cake and some cookies with milk. Both desserts were simple but well made. While I didn't grow up in the U.S., I can imagine a child eating these desserts after school or on a leisurely weekend. They were very comforting.

Besides the two desserts, our waitress said we could also order the pancake with banana as a dessert. I know some people like to have breakfast items at all time of the day, I am not one of them. If there is a breakfast item that I would eat as dessert, it would not be the pancakes but the French Toast or Pain Perdu. I hope Sugar Pea would offer a Pain Perdu or the Spanish version Torrijas Castellanas.

I would try the pancakes on my second visit, a lunch on Sunday. Sugar Pea opens for lunch at 12pm, even on the weekend. I wish the restaurant would open at least an hour earlier so the meal feels more like brunch than lunch. I ordered the Pancake Sliders which is a sausage patty with cheese and fried egg sandwiched between two pancakes. The combination of sweet and salty hits the spot and is what I like about American breakfast. The salad on the side is fresh and dressed perfectly. The seemingly simple task of dressing a salad, which many restaurants in Taipei can't do properly, shows the care placed in the food by the kitchen.

Sugar Pea offers three cold pressed juices and two smoothies. Every time I dined at the restaurant I ordered one of them. The combination of the ingredients are always interesting. For example, the juice called Green Glow contains cucumber, celery, spinach, herbs, kiwi, and lemon. Another one mixes green apple, red beets, ginger, and lime. The price of the drinks are around NT$180 which is roughly half of the cost of the Pancake Sliders. Nevertheless I tried several of the drinks and I liked all of them.

On my third visit, a lunch on a weekday, I ordered Yoon's version of the Korean mixed rice dish, Bibimbap, for my main course. The beef was flavorful, the vegetables were fresh, the egg was runny, and the Korean chili sauce served on the side provided just the right amount of heat. It was a pleasure to eat. I long for Sugar Pea to have a hot soup on the menu, which I could have as an appetizer. Soup can be prepared ahead of time and shouldn't be too taxing on the staff. Instead I ordered the crab toast once more, which I liked very much and certainly didn't mind eating it again

I enjoyed dining at Sugar Pea. While the ambiance may be casual and homey, the food is precise and well- considered. The service is also professional and always provided with a smile. Nevertheless, I wish the restaurant's menu have more variations. Perhaps this is my quirk, but I prefer to eat certain items at certain time of the day and day of the week. I would like to see the lunch menu be slightly different from dinner. Since my kids are not fans of salad or cooked vegetables, it would be great if the menu would have a few children-friendly dishes such as pasta. I wonder if the menu will become more ambitious. Chef Vongerichten once tweeted that Yoon "amazes me with her talent and creativity." In Shanghai Yoon was in charge of a high profile restaurant with over 180 seats. In comparison, Sugar Pea seems a bit too small and simple for Yoon's talent. Perhaps, she has bigger plans and they will take time. As of now Sugar Pea is only open 5 days a week and dinner service ends at 8:30pm. While Yoon seems to be limiting her output, I am happy with everything she has to offer; but I am hungry for more.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Long Time No See: Xavier Boyer at Gaddi's

The door to the small elevator gradually slid open. Stepping in, I thought to myself, did I take this same elevator more than thirty years ago? Was the carpet blue? Was the elevator always this slow?

When the elevator door opened again, I arrived at the the reception of Gaddi's Restaurant at Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. The last time I was here was in the mid-eighties – the first time I was in Hong Kong and the first time I was in a fine dining French restaurant. My parents told me that I was well-behaved throughout the long dinner. At that time, no one took pictures of the food. As I looked around the beautiful dining room from the waiting area, there was no madeleine moment like Proust. Frankly, I don't remember anything from that night.

Gaddi's is the granddaddy of fine dining restaurants in Hong Kong. Named after the then-general manager Leo Gaddi, the restaurant has been around for over sixty years. Since its inception Gaddi's was always one of the finest restaurants in Hong Kong. When I was there thirty some years ago, Gaddi's was head and shoulders above everyone else. At that time, there was no Michelin guide in the city, and neither were any high-end international hotel chains present; even the Mandarin Oriental group wasn't established (the hotel on Connaught Road was just called the Mandarin). However, in recent years while Gaddi's has maintained its prestige, the restaurant can no longer claim to be the best in town. The perception of Gaddi's was a slightly dated restaurant with an opulent but classical interior and traditional French cuisine. While not chasing the latest trends is a virtue, it also meant the restaurant has fallen off from the radar of the food journalists and diners. It also didn't help that the alleged dispute between the Michelin Guide and Peninsula Hotel seemed to have left Gaddi's without any Michelin stars. Hence, while I have been back in Hong Kong many times since my first visit, I wasn't that interested in dining at Gaddi's.

Last September I finally returned to Gaddi's because the restaurant has a new chef, Xavier Boyer, formerly the Chef de Cuisine at three Joël Robuchon restaurants around the world. I got to know Boyer when he spent a year at Taipei's L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon. While Boyer's stay was short, it was memorable. Sometimes when I was at L'Atelier he would design a special menu. He was very creative and seemed to have enough leeway from the Robuchon group to invent new dishes. At my last meal in Taipei with Boyer, prior to his transfer to L'Atelier in London, I told him I will try to visit him there. Before I had a chance to travel to London, Boyer was back in Asia again.

For my dinner at Gaddi's, rather than be in the main dining room, I made a reservation for the chef's table inside the kitchen. From the reception area, a waiter took my friends and I through a narrow corridor that led to the kitchen. Boyer was standing next to the pass of the kitchen waiting for us. I was very happy to see him again after several years. Instead of the black chef jacket he wore at L'Atelier, Boyer is now in the traditional chef white.

Before we sat down, Boyer gave us a tour of the kitchen. Gaddi's kitchen is actually just one of the several kitchens in a large contiguous space. Next door are the kitchens for room service, pastry, and chocolates. At one point during the tour we took a peak inside of a pastry station where the staff was already busy designing the gingerbread house for Christmas. I genuinely enjoyed the tour as it gave me a sense of the large operation of a five-star hotel that is often hidden from the guests.

The chef's table is nestled in a small alcove of the kitchen across a corridor from the cook's work stations. The aesthetics and ambiance of the chef's table are completely different from the tables in the dining room. Instead of a large table with white tablecloth and wood legged upholstered chairs, the chef's table is a four-person rectangular metal table with white-cloth placemats and satin aluminum Emeco navy chairs. The floor under the table is not carpeted but the same tiles as the rest of the kitchen. Exposed pipes run across the tile walls and doors for maintenance. The chef's table is actually quite warm as the diners are inside a working kitchen.

The server started our dinner by placing a brioche on the table with three types of butter. I like the act of breaking bread with my fellow diners. A few moments later, other types of bread were offered from a basket. I was told later by the server that the brioche was a new offering by Boyer intended to replace some of the classic bread. However, some of the regular customers insisted on being served the classic bread and Boyer had to offer both. I began to realize while Boyer may have taken over the kitchen of Gaddi's and its food, he may need to be patient with the changes to the restaurant.

The dinner started with a trio of amuse bouches: delicate, beautiful, and well flavored.

The first course is Scottish Langoustine topped with caviar and served with beetroots on the classic Geddi's dinnerware: just a beautiful and delicious plate of food.

The hamachi tartare was marinated with a little lemon, molded in a ring, and topped with a herb salad. On the side is a mustard sorbet that provided a nice little zing to the flavors.

The third course was a scallop from Hokkaido, served with Colonnato lardo, a thin slice of cauliflower, cauliflower cream, and a bacon chip. I always love the combination of seafood with pork fat. This was also the first dish not served with the classic Gaddi's plate.

The fourth course was sautéed porcini in a porcini custard with Iberico ham and parsley sauce. The dish was earthy, hearty and the mushroom chips offered a nice contrasting texture. When Boyer brought over the dish, I told him the use of photograph under the glass bowl reminded me of some of the plates at L'Atelier. He smiled and said, one cannot forget where one comes from. Prior to joining Peninsula Hotel, Boyer worked with Robuchon for around 16 years.

The next course was a piece of foie gras seared perfectly. Plated on the other side are rhubarb and mango coulis, which balanced and complemented the fattiness of the foie.

The sixth course, using another plate, was a line-caught sea bass from Brittany. The skin was crispy and the interior was moist and well seasoned. The fish was served with the classic combination of artichokes and barigoule sauce. The cannelloni on the side came with a some black truffle. This was just a wonderful dish. When Boyer described the dish at the table side, I jokingly told him he no longer worked with with local seafood. Unlike when Boyer was in Taipei, where he used many local ingredients, in Hong Kong just about everything is imported. While Boyer lost some connections to the local land, he gained quality and consistency. Furthermore, Peninsula Hotel gives him the freedom to buy just about anything he wants from anywhere in the world.

In Taipei Boyer mostly used duck from Yilan County, on the northeastern coast of Taiwan. In Hong Kong, he sources the duck from Challans, the west coast of France. Unlike the duck in Taiwan, the product from France is more gamey in flavor. This is due to the different ways the ducks are killed: draining versus not draining the blood of the animal. The duck for my seventh course of the night, was paired with a turnip and fig and served with a Port-based sauce. The simplicity and clarity the dish was quite enjoyable.

For the last savory course, Boyer used a beef from Australia called Black Market: a special Black Angus beef that's highly marbleized. As Boyer brought over the dish to our table, he said, everyone is using wagyu these days and it is a little boring. Maybe I am jaded, but I couldn't agree with him more. Boyer topped the fillet with black truffle coulis and served it with a parmesan sauce. The beef was simply superb.

After we finished the savory courses, Boyer asked if we would like some cheese as he had some really nice ones. By this time, I was already extremely full, but how could I resist? Few restaurants in Taipei have a selection of cheese. The server brought over two trays and I picked out a few.

After the cheese course we were served a chocolate dessert conceived by Peninsula Hotel's Executive Pasty Chef, Frank Haasnoot. Similar to Boyer, Haasnoot also spent some time in Taipei, working at Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The dessert consisted of chocolate Chantilly cream, caramelized hazelnuts with slices of lime, and milk chocolate ice cream. This dish reminded me a little bit of the mushroom dish earlier in the dinner: the idea of using one ingredient in several variations. For a chocolate lover like me, the dessert was fabulous.

As if we didn't have enough chocolate, the server brought out a beautiful box of bonbons made by Haasnoot's team as well.

As we sipped our teas and espresso, the server brought us more things to nibble. Before we finished our dinner, I remarked to my dining companions that, I don't care if Gaddi's doesn't have a Michelin star, no one in Hong Kong tonight is eating better than us.

Besides what was on the plate, the service throughout the dinner was exemplary. It was just the right balance of formality and friendliness. Throughout the night, the servers were not always in our views, yet whenever we needed something, they would somehow appear without missing a beat. At one point during the dinner, my napkin fell off to the floor. Seemingly from nowhere, a server magically appeared, picked up the napkin, and handed me another fresh one. The servers were very well trained: precise and professional yet not overbearing.

Gaddi's Restaurant and Peninsula Hotels are institutions in Hong Kong. Similar to the restaurants in the famous old hotels in Europe, such as Plaza Athénée and Le Meurice, Gaddi's is full of history and traditions. On the one hand, history is an invaluable asset (money cannot buy history) and provides the restaurant with a sense of prestige. On the other hand, history can also be a burden, as traditions, memories, and the inertia of status quo, often become an invisible resistance to change. Therefore, for a restaurant such as Gaddi's, moving forward will require a careful balance of the old and the new.

For a long time Gaddi's always served traditional French cuisine. Even now, you can still order the Canard à la Presse; Boyer said he just needs a three-day notice to procure the duck from France. While some of the old dishes remain, Boyer is slowing changing the menu and adding his personality to the food. Boyer is also using new tablewares to present his food. At the time of my meal he said he was only using the new plates at the chef's table and in the private dining room. In time as the customers, especially the older regulars, become accustomed to and comfortable with Boyer's new creations, the restaurant will not only taste but feel different. Institutions have a tendency to evolve slowly. But I have confidence that Gaddi's has the desire to change. After all, while Gaddi's seems to be old-fashioned, it was actually the first restaurant in Hong Kong to introduce the concept of chef's table in 2000. Boyer is a dazzling chef and it will be interesting to see how he will transform the restaurant. Based on my dinner, Gaddi's is already an exciting place to dine again.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Take Some More Tea

Instead of water, meals at Chinese restaurants are usually accompanied by hot tea. However, I don't like the tea service at most Chinese restaurants. Tea, just like food, is about timing and temperature. A freshly brewed cup of tea is delicious. But often times the tea diners take at Chinese restaurant is unpleasant: lukewarm or steeped for too long.

At simple or inexpensive Chinese restaurants, tea is generally offered in one of two ways. One is for the server to walk around with a large teapot and pour the tea for guests at various tables. This is the way tea is served at places in Taipei such as Din Tai Fung. Since the tea is poured from a large pot, the tea is usually hot, especially in a busy restaurant. The downside is the diners do not have a choice of the tea. The diners may need to flag down the server to get refills, and depending on the level of service, the wait for the refill may be quite long.

The other method is to place a teapot at the table for the diners to pour themselves the tea. When the teapot requires a refill of hot water, one can either wave down a server or partially open the lid of the teapot. At a slightly fancier restaurant, the teapot at the table may sit on top of a candle lit teapot warmer. While some restaurants may offer the diners a choice of the tea, the diners cannot really control the steeping of the tea. After the first round of pour for the table, the tea is oversteeped and becomes bitter.

Neither of these two types of tea service is ideal. But since tea at simple or inexpensive Chinese restaurants are usually complimentary, it is unlikely the situation will change. The diners probably shouldn't be too demanding.

But at high-end Chinese restaurants, where tea is charged for (usually per person), the diners should expect a bit more care with the tea service. Unfortunately, most of the time, very little thought is given to tea by the restaurants.

In posh Chinese restaurants, the diners can choose the type of tea and the server will pour the tea for the guests with a dedicated pot. In an effort to show good service, the servers tend to refill the teacups at the table frequently without being asked. This is similar to the servers at fancy western restaurants who keep the guests' water glasses constantly topped off. The problem is tea is not similar to water because the temperature of the tea makes a big difference to the taste. Sometimes the server pours the tea but the diner is not ready to drink. By the time the diner wants to drink the tea, it is not longer at the right temperature. At some restaurants, the teacups are usually a bit too large. Most of the time, the diner cannot finish the entire cup of tea in a few sips. The unfinished tea in the cup soon loses temperature.

Upon seeing the half empty cups, the attentive servers, without asking, will top off the tea cup. The problem is adding hot tea to the cold tea merely makes the whole cup lukewarm. Furthermore, because the tea has been constantly steeping in the pot, placed at a serving station instead of the table, each successive refill makes the tea more bitter.

Unless one pours out the remaining tea every time before the server refills the cup, one is bound to be in this perpetual state of drinking oversteeped lukewarm tea throughout the course of the meal.

I believe there are solutions to this problem. First of all, I suggest high-end Chinese restaurants simply let the diners pour their own tea. The notion of self-service may seem counterintuitive at restaurants where the guests expect to be served. But since the server doesn't always grab the food with chopsticks from the share plates for every guests, why not treat tea like food? Also, it will allow the guests to decide how much tea they want to have for each pour and at least have the tea stay hot in the pot.

At the Michelin-one star Chinese restaurant, Amber Palace, in Tokyo, they clearly thought about this issue. Instead of having one pot of tea, they provide two pots: one with just hot water and the other with just tea leaves. The pot with the hot water is kept warm with a small candle. The pot with the tea is clear so one can see the tea being steeped. The diners serve the tea themselves by pouring hot water into the pot with the tea leaves, steep, and then pour into the teacups. The diners have the freedom to decide how long to steep the tea and how much to drink, while keeping the tea hot.

Will other high-end Chinese restaurant follow suit or think of other ideas? I hope so. Tea is an integral part of Chinese cuisine and deserves more thought on how it is served.