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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Le Palais: The So Called Michelin Three-Star Restaurant

On a rainy night I arrive at the top floor of Palais de Chine Hotel with an umbrella in tow to eat at Le Palais. The hostess for the restaurant stands in front of the long desk to greet me. Before leading me to the foyer, she asks if I want to stick my umbrella in the vessel with the red mat next to the entrance. I follow her request, but surely there’s a more elegant way to store umbrellas. As I walk into the main dining room, she cautions me about running into the vase blocking the center of the door. Perhaps the architect is trying to be Post-Modern by making the center as a solid rather than the classical void. Or maybe the vase is just a good prop for pictures. The placement of the vase makes the path too narrow and uncomfortable.

The hotel and restaurant may have Palais in their names, but it is really a misnomer as there isn't any grandeur. In France, the finest hotels are given the status of Palais. In Taipei, the Palais de Chine is a mid-range hotel inside a mediocre commercial development. Although the hotel is near Taipei Train Station, it is literally and figuratively on the other side of the tracks. Just getting to the hotel entrance on the ground floor from the subway station requires a convoluted path of traversing through the underground of Taipei Station, passing through the entire length of the shopping mall, exiting to the outside, and then stepping back inside.

Upon entering the hotel, I’m not greeted by a staff but by a horse statue in a small dark space. The dark lighting continues into the elevator lobby and to the restaurant. Perhaps the light level is meant to evoke the ambiance of a palace in Europe during the candle-lit era. But the effect is more eerie than elegant. There is little contrast in the lighting since all the spaces are dark. The overall feeling is of an owner trying to save on the electric bill. Or perhaps the hotel thinks everyday should be Earth Day.

Putting up with unpleasantness is part of the experience of dining at Le Palais. I wouldn't be at Le Palais if Michelin didn't anoint the restaurant as the only three-star in Taipei. When Michelin announced the rating this March, I was beyond surprised. When I was interviewed by Topics Magazine in late 2014, I said if Michelin comes to Taipei, they wouldn't find a three-star restaurant. I wonder to myself: have things changed that much in less than four years? Based on the chatters on the Internet, I am not alone in thinking Taipei would be like Bangkok and be without a three-star restaurant. Instead, Taipei is similar to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai, with one three-star restaurant for the inaugural edition. Moreover, the restaurant that Michelin selected as the best in Taipei is one that I have never been to.

Prior to Michelin's arrival, I have heard good things about Le Palais from friends. But even they don't think the restaurant is worthy of three stars. I have to find out for myself. In a span of less than two months I go to Le Palais twice for dinner: first with a small group sitting in the main dining room, and another with a large group in a private room.

The interior of Le Palais is laid out like a traditional corporate office, with private rooms around the perimeter monopolizing the view to the exterior. While the public dining room inside has no views, the interior designer smartly devised a window behind each table, which provides an illusion of an exterior street. The ceiling of the restaurant is low. If the chef is any taller, his high toque will probably hit the beam. In the main dining room, the ceiling has a mirror finish which at least provides some sense of depth. While the private room has windows with views to the outside, the feeling is borderline oppressive due to the heavy-looking metal light fixture. The side chair in the private room is one of the most uncomfortable chairs I've ever sat on. The back has a vertical hole like the end of an massage table. But instead of a massage, the hole cuts into my backbone when I lean back. The settee in the main dining room is not comfortable either. The only comfortable chair seems to be the armchair with cane back in the main room. 

The tables in the main dining room are all rectangular and set in alcoves. The restaurant doesn't use any tablecloth, instead sets the table with individual plastic placemats with a greenish tint. The Chinese painting and calligraphy on the placemat are matched by the tablewares. The overall impression is less of luxury but kitschy and of products purchased from a local museum store. The napkin is folded in an double star that looks outmoded rather than quaint. Instead of a decent sized hot hand towel common in high end restaurants in Asia, a tiny disposable towelette is hydrated with warm water in a small glass. This is just one step above the individual plastic wrap towelette handed out at all the cheap restaurants in Taipei. A single toothpick is also offered and is carefully aligned to the bottom edge of the placemat. One certainly doesn't use the toothpick to eat and it remains unnecessary until at least after a few bites of food. Over the course of the meal a diner may need more than one toothpick, why be so stingy? Why not offer the toothpicks in a box as other high-end restaurants do? At Le Palais the toothpick is an eye sore and accentuated the overall cheapness of the entire table setting.

The service at Le Palais is wanting, certainly below the expectations I have of a Michelin three-star restaurant. While I don't expect the service to be perfect, Le Palais is so far off from perfect that it is almost laughable. At one of my meals, I ask for some tea while waiting for others to arrive but the tea never showed up. Then at our table for ten persons, the server pours nine glasses of wine, leaving my glass empty. We order a dish with Marble Goby fish and noodles, which comes in a large pot with table side service. After portioning out six large bowls, the server runs out of noodle and serves the other four guests with smaller bowls without noodle. Shortly after, when the wok-fried beef with Chinese kale is placed on the lazy susan, the server does not give us any individual plates to eat with. At the end of my other meal, the hostess accompanies us to the elevator. After we step inside the elevator she asks with a little panic, does one of us have an umbrella? I smile and show her the umbrella in my hand. I take the umbrella out of the vase and rip off the tag myself. The hostess completely forgets about the umbrella until the elevator doors are about to close. 

Anyone who has dined at three-Michelin-star restaurants in Europe or in the U.S. will be shocked at the standard of service at Le Palais. Fortunately, for Le Palais the stars of Michelin don't account for interior decor, table setting, and service; they are rated with fork-spoon. Michelin awarded Le Palais with just two black fork-spoon (out of a maximum of five), which is the lowest amongst all the Chinese three-star restaurants in the world.  

Michelin has stated repeatedly that the stars are only awarded for the food on the plate. Besides the often repeated phrase of "worth a special journey," Michelin also defines three stars as "cooking elevated to an art form." Even with these definitions, what constitutes three-star food is still very vague. Michelin is very smart to maintain their cryptic ways allowing them to forego any accountability. Ultimately, Michelin is just a travel guide and the consumers can choose to agree or disagree with their judgment. If I live abroad, I wouldn't make a special journey to Taipei just to eat at Le Palais.

Dinner at Le Palais doesn't start with an amuse-bouche, but rather with a shot glass of vinegar with unknown origin. The vinegar looks like the same one that my neighborhood tonkatsu joint serves at the end of a grease laden meal. I don't enjoy drinking vinegar and leave mine untouched. Le Palais doesn't provide any mignardise to end the meal either. Most cheap Chinese restaurants in Taipei provide a complimentary fruit plate after the savory courses are finished. Even schlocky Chinese restaurants in the U.S. give a fortune cookie to their guests. Amuse bouche, mignardise, and bread (in a western restaurant), signal a sense of hospitality from the restaurant. While they are not itemized on the bill, the diner is paying for them indirectly similar to electricity and rent. When every bite of food is charged, the meal feels like a transaction. Why doesn’t the three-star restaurant want to project an illusion of generosity? 

Unlike restaurants in Hong Kong, Le Palais serves dim sum at dinner. We order the shrimp dumplings and abalone shumai. Both are excellent. However, the server refuses to provide any condiment. In fancy Cantonese restaurants guests will be offered some soy sauce, vinegar and house made XO sauce. There's nothing at Le Palais, why be so miserly? At Le Palais vinegar is only for drinking rather than eaten with food. The server says we should enjoy the "original taste" or 原味. But can't the diner have a choice? I also try the turnip cakes and the "original taste" is bitter and not enjoyable at all. The idea of "original taste" is a bit disingenuous. If the chef is serious about the idea, why serve the turnip cake with slivers of frisée?

There are two signature dishes of duck at Le Palais: Flaming Duck 火焰片皮鴨 and Roast Baby Duck 先知鴨. Just about every table orders one of the two. The Flaming Duck is the more dramatic dish. A cook wheels a trolley with the duck affixed to a metal rod standing on an industrial-looking metal pan. This reminds me a bit of the American beer can roast chicken. The cook then flambés the duck table side. The server suggests we turn our camera to video mode to capture the moment. This cook must be the most Instagrammed cook in Taipei in the past months. Fire always makes for a good show, but unfortunately the food doesn't have the same wow factor. The duck is served three ways. The first is duck skin served in the traditional manner. This is good but the same cannot be said for the second serving: duck skin with romaine lettuce and fried mozzarella stick. The combination is awful. Is it inspired by California Pizza Kitchen? I cannot finish my portion. The server then brings over a plate of leftover duck meat with sauce on the side, this is just boring.

While the Roast Baby Duck is less pervalent on the Internet, the dish is the better of the two ducks. Chef Ken Chan 陳偉強 created this dish when he was still working at the My Humble House Restaurant at Le Meridien Hotel. Since Baby Duck in Chinese doesn't sound elegant, the owner of Le Meridien Hotel named the duck 先知鴨. The Chinese name is taken from a poem by one of China's most famous literay figures Su Dongpo (1037-1101). The poem was written in 1085 to compliment a painting by the monk Huichong, which depicted a scene during the spring time in the Jiangnan area of China. The first two verses are 竹外桃花三兩枝, 春江水暖鴨先知. Spring is arriving as peach blossom is starting to emerge; The temperature of the river is becoming warmer and the ducks are the first to know. With his words Su elevated the painting by adding another dimension to the drawings: the temperature of the river, which is very difficult to describe with paint brushes. The chef and the restaurant are very proud of the literary connection. Before the duck is served to the guest, the server has to recite or sing the poem. Regrettably, the view out to the windonw isn't peach blossom but an ugly concrete and metal metropolis. And the duck is not joyously peddling in water but dead and lying on a plate that is a little too small. Since the scene described in Su's poem is not present at all, why recite the poem? When I order a Tournedos Rossini or Pêche Melba in a French restaurant, I don't need an opera aria to be sung. I rather learn about the the cooking techniques behind the preparation of the duck. As the server recites the poem, I can't help but think, just make sure the duck is served hot. The taste of the breast meat is superb: well seasoned, juicy, and with crispy skin. The thigh and legs are good but not as flavorful.

The carcass of the roast baby duck is made into a second dish with a choice of porridge, soup, or wok-fried in typhoon shelter 避風塘 style with chili and garlic. We choose wok-fried and I regret the decision. The typhoon shelter style was invented by the boat people of Hong Kong. When a large storm is coming the boats retreat to the safe harbor. While waiting on the boat, they cook crab stir-fried with chili and garlic. Subsequently, this dish has migrated on shore and chefs have used the style to cook it with different fresh seafood. 

Instead of fresh seafood, the chef of Le Palais chops up the leftover duck into small pieces of bones and tendons and stir-fries them in the typhoon shelter style. Unlike other fine dining restaurants where chefs elevate humble dishes for fine dining, the chef at Le Palais does the opposite and makes the dish even cheaper and less edible. The duck is not only twice-cooked but there is very little meat left to eat. The tendons are essentially not chewable. The meat from the neck can be gnawed on but it is more suited to be served at a beer house than at a three-star fine dining restaurant. 

I understand the idea of not wasting food. For the roast duck of a larger size, the leftover carcass and bits of meat can make another dish. But after the baby duck is cut up, not much is left. Why not just let it go, or use it for a staff meal? When I eat the Poularde en Vessie at Paul Bocuse, they don't take the leftover chicken carcass and stir-fry another dish to serve to the guest. Three-star restaurants are about giving the finest pieces of ingredients to the guests. When I eat at a three-star sushi restaurant, the chef serves me the best pieces of fish from a large cut. The chef is not giving me every little scrap of the fish as another dish. 

Some of the dishes Le Palais serves don't belong in a fine-dining restaurant. Chef Chan likes to boast about his creativity and it often means using cheap ingredients in novel ways. Besides the aforementioned duck carcass in typhoon shelter style, on television he demonstrates a dish by frying the junk food, dried squid strips. Another of his signature is stir-fried spicy pork tendon from the pig's eyebrow. Chan likes to tell people that these tendons used to be thrown away by the vendors because no one wants to buy them. Now he charges NT$780 for them. The wok-fried dishes at Le Palais are done with good techniques. The cooks at the wok station are definitely well-trained. But many of these dishes are more suited for late night bar food rather than cooking elevated to an art form. Le Palais should consider opening a bar room to serve these dishes. Follow the examples of some Michelin-starred restaurants in New York, where a separate bar room or salon is setup for cheaper and more experimental dishes. 

As with the ducks there are also two types of char siu for order. I try both and I prefer the crispy sugar coated version. This is slice thinly and served with even thinner slices of lime. This is also cheaper. The more expensive version is almost double the price at NT$1,480. The pork is sliced thickly into only six pieces and served on a wood platter. I find the meat to be less flavorful and the untrimmed tendon inside that makes it harder to chew. The expensive version looks better in photo. Maybe I’m paying for the presentation.

At one of my dinners, the chef offers to make an off-the-menu dish of crab with meat pie. Meat pie is a Cantonese classic where the pork is usually paired with fermented rather than fresh ingredients. With fresh crab the chef seems to be trying to do something new, but it doesn’t really work. The fresh seafood doesn't have the concentrated flavors required to season the pork. The crab and the meat pie seem to be two separate things without much integration; simply not enough flavor. Furthermore, the idea of ugly-delicious hasn't caught on in Taipei, because this dish was just ugly.

If anyone fancies a crab dish, I suggest ordering the stir-fried crab with glutinous rice. This is delicious and packed with flavors.

Alternatively, order the wok-fried rice noodle with crab meat and egg 強哥炒米粉. This is probably my favorite dish of my two meals at Le Palais. Great flavor, light, pretty, and cooked perfectly. This dish is served near the end of the meal. Even with a full stomach I can still easily finish this dish.

The dessert menu has seven items and three of which are made à la minute with a waiting time of 20 to 30 minutes. I want to order Almond Milk but the server says they are out of it. This dessert is on the so called "Michelin Three-Star Set Menu”. How does the restaurant run out of this three-star dessert? Instead we have the Sesame Balls and Deep Fried Dough encrusted with cheese. Both are freshly made, served piping hot, and very good. These desserts are well executed, but they are essentially dim sum and street food rather than some imaginative creations. I wish chef Chan had channeled some of his creativity into the desserts. The meal at Le Palais doesn’t end on a high note.

I have written in a previous blog entry about my suspicion of Michelin’s inaugural guide for Taipei: by taking on the sponsorship from the Taiwan government, Michelin was obligated to find a three-star restaurant in Taipei. This is purely my conjecture as I have no proof. Ever since Michelin anointed Le Palais as three-star, the media has been filled with stories about how Le Palais accomplished the feat. But the more stories I read, the more suspicious I get about the three-star rating.

The General Manager of the hotel said a Michelin inspector came to Le Palais in September 2017. After his meal he toured the kitchen and spoke with the chefs. But at that time many of the dishes I had at my two dinners were not on the menu; they were added or modified in October and later. As Michelin was inspecting the restaurants in Taipei, Le Palais made many changes to its operation: buying better ingredients, not using frozen products, refining the presentations, and reducing the number of seats. The restaurant even closed for renovation for over a month, and reopened on the date of Michelin's announcement. Furthermore, the restaurant raised prices before Michelin's announcement, and anticipated a boost in business with a good rating. All the moves made by Le Palais seem to be guided with some inside knowledge of Michelin’s operations.

Two months after Michelin’s arrival, the local TV network TVBS ran an hour-long program on Le Palais. In the show, a manager of Le Palais claimed Michelin sent 150 inspectors to the restaurant before awarding the three-star. When the Hong Kong guide first launched, the then Director of Michelin Guide Jean-Luc Naret said the inspectors visited Lung Keen Heen in the Four Seasons Hotel 12 times before awarding the restaurant with three stars. Even if every visit was a table of ten, the number wouldn’t amount to 150. But somehow, when Michelin came to Taipei, they made 150 visits? It is very strange for Le Palais to make this claim. How would they know how many visits Michelin made? It is as if Le Palais knew many people question the three-star rating, and felt the need to justify the result by exaggerating Michelin's process. However, Le Palais' claim was so absurd that any rational person would conclude the restaurant was lying and something was afoot.

The media in Taiwan have glorified the two chefs of Le Palais and anointed them as heroes. Chef Ken Chan 陳偉強 and Matt Chen 陳泰榮 are both Cantonese. Chan started Le Palais in 2010 when the hotel opened. Chen on the other hand joined Le Palais in 2017, the year Michelin announced the launch of the Taipei guide. They are certainly experienced and considered to be two of the best chefs in Taipei. But throughout the media frenzy, the two chefs remain very humble about their achievement. At almost every interview, they said they felt lucky to receive three-star from Michelin. Michelin's rating seems to have exceeded their expectations.

In my mind Le Palais feels more like a two-star (worth a detour) restaurant than a three-star (worth a special journey). While the chefs are very creative, not all of the dishes taste good. Some of the dishes feel more like works in process rather than Michelin’s definition of three-star: cooking is elevated to an art form and destined to become classics. The dishes lack consistency in quality. The more classical dishes don't have the wow-factor. The food at Le Palais also lacks a central principle. The chefs need an editor to tighten the focus or reign in the ideas. Finally, many of the dishes still have room for refinement. The food at Le Palais doesn't seem to be the pinnacle of Chinese cooking yet.

While Michelin's stars only apply to food, the interior decor, service, and table setting, have a profound impact on our perception and enjoyment of the food. In this regard, Le Palais is far from being an elegant restaurant to dine at. Very little thoughts have gone into the various details that contribute to the overall feel of the restaurant. A three-star restaurant should strive for a higher standard. Moreover, Le Palais doesn’t feel generous nor hospitable. Nevertheless, the business at Le Palais is booming. After Michelin announced the rating, Le Palais said they received thousands of phone calls requesting reservation. Someone even booked a table for Chinese New Year Eve in 2019. At this point Le Palais probably doesn’t care about feedback from the average customers. I doubt the chefs will change their ways either. What do ordinary diners know about cuisine and service? After all Le Palais already have three stars from Michelin.

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