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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.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Black Tie Only

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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


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



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



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


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


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


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

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

Friday, December 9, 2016

(Now)here: Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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



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



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

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

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

Sunday, September 18, 2016

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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



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

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



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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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