This month marks the one year anniversary of the opening of Angelo Restaurant. I first wrote about the restaurant a month after the opening and called it the best Italian restaurant in Taiwan; frankly, that was an easy call. I have since gone back to the restaurant regularly. It is no secret amongst my friends that I only like to go to two western restaurants in Taipei and Angelo is one of them.
A year has gone by quickly and the restaurant has matured. The chef owner Angelo Aglianò once mentioned to me that his mentor Joël Robuchon told him, a restaurant is like a baby and will require time to grow, to stand up, and to walk. The irony with any restaurant is when it opens there is usually the most press coverage and the greatest anticipation from the public. Yet, the early days of the restaurant is probably the worst time for the customers to go because the staff is still learning to work together. Therefore, in the early months of Angelo Restaurant Aglianò held back the volume of the business to ensure the quality and at the same time made small improvements.
So what sort of adjustments has Angelo Restaurant made in the past year? For starter, to avoid confusion with other Italian restaurants with Angelo in their names, Aglianò added his last name to the marquee of the restaurant. Since Chinese New Year, the awning on the exterior of the restaurant has changed accordingly. The light box outside the entrance now has the menu displayed like a restaurant in Italy. Inside the restaurant, Aglianò has tweaked the decoration by placing ceramic fruits (mostly pears and apples) of different sizes and colors on the shelves above and in front of the counter; I particularly like the golden apple. The paintings on the walls change every few months, providing different visual interests for the customers of the restaurant.
Aglianò has also added more staff in the restaurant both in the kitchen and the front of house. Since the opening of the restaurant the kitchen is led by chef de cuisine Kedy Chou, who has worked with Aglianò since their days at Robuchon Taipei. Chou can often been seen working on the left side of the open kitchen, cooking meat or fish, enforcing the standard, and mentoring the junior cooks. He also contributes to the creation of the new dishes. The front of house is managed by Joanne Wang, another veteran from Robuchon Taipei. Wang has been at the restaurant since the beginning as well and has assembled a young team of servers. The service is attentive but relaxed.
Over the course of a year, Aglianò has changed the menu a few times. While one or two dishes from each course, such as the risotto Milanese and Tiramisu remain, the bulk of the menu changes with the seasons.
A meal at Angelo always starts with some house made bread. The quality is superb with good structure and crust; only a couple of restaurants in Taipei can match it. Instead of the two types of bread (mini-baguette and ciabatta) served in the first months of the restaurants, now there are three, with focaccia added to the bread basket. The breads are served warm with butter and olive oil/vinegar. This is followed by an amuse bouche, which is generally some form of puree, whether with chickpeas, tomato, or bacalao, served in a small soup bowl with crispy chips providing contrasting textures.
When I am at Angelo, most of the time I like to have a four-course meal. For the starter, a good choice is always the assortment of Italian antipasti, which are displayed in a glass case near the pass of the kitchen. Usually I simply ask the chef to choose for me as all the items are excellent. Besides the cold antipasti, I often like to start with some seafood dishes on the menu. Whether the dish is with langoustine, hamachi, or crab, they are always well seasoned and balanced in their flavors. The presentation is often done with the main ingredient formed as a circular plane at the bottom and dotted with different ingredients and condiments on top; visually the dishes are very beautiful.
While I love expensive ingredients, the mark of a good chef is the ability to take cheaper ingredients and make a delicious dish out of them. Hence, one of my favorites is the octopus terrine. The octopus is first cooked in liquid and formed into a log. The natural gelatin in the octopus allows it to bind together like a terrine. At service time, the octopus is sliced thinly and served with vegetables and herbs.
I find the starters to exemplify the basic characteristics of Aglianò's food: light but flavorful. In Taipei, people are always looking to eat "light" but often times, the restaurants and customers confuse light with bland. Aglianò shows that light can be delicious or as the Chinese would say, 鲜 (xian).
For the primi, I like to order a risotto, because Aglianò's risotto remains to be the gold standard. The classic risotto Milanese has remained on the menu ever since the opening and it is still fantastic. My ten-year old daughter loves it and orders it every time she goes. I think she will be disappointed if Aglianò ever decides to take if off the menu. Besides the Milanese, there seems to be an infinite amount of variations that Aglianò can do with the risotto. One of the most memorable risotto that Aglianò made for me was the red wine risotto with berries and topped with seared foie gras. This deserves the phrase, "to die for".
What is remarkable about Aglianò's risotto is the consistency in quality. Many so-called Italian restaurants in Taipei serve risotto but the reality is those are not really risotto. Cooks in these restaurants ought to be a stagiaire at Angelo for a few months and learn how to cook a proper risotto. At Angelo they would learn that the risotto needs to start with a good rice, with the preferred choice being the one-year aged rice from Acquarello; they would learn how to make a stock; then they would learn how to par-cook the rice before service; learn how to keep the temperature of the stock and the rice constant when cooking the rice; and finally learn the process of mantecare and to have the right amount of liquid with the rice.
Besides the risotto, the house made pasta are also wonderful. I particularly love some of the Sicilian style ones with seafood and topped with breadcrumbs.
In October and November it is worth a special journey to go to Angelo for some pasta with shaved white truffle. There's nothing quite like the white truffle from Alba as they are simply intoxicating.
Another memorable primi that I thoroughly enjoyed in the past year was the fregola sarda with lobster: simply divine.
For the secondo, I am always happy to order a fish, which is usually sourced locally. Aglianò has a light touch with fish. The technique can be poaching, grilling, or sautéing, the dish is always light and the flavors are very clean. The vegetables that accompany the fish both compliment and provide a balance in terms of flavor.
Several months ago, Aglianò added a rotisserie, which is situated front and center inside the open kitchen. Customers sitting at the bar now often has a clear view of the daily roast. Recently, Aglianò has been roasting pork which he procures from Ilan county. The meat is delicious and for a Chinese reminds me of the Cantonese char siu. The pork is served with some mashed potato. The mashed potato reminds me of the one served at Robuchon except some of the butter is replaced with olive oil and also a touch of pepper.
In terms of meat, I also enjoyed the lamb, which was cooked perfectly.
The dolce is supervised by the pastry chef Joshua Wang. Working with Aglianò, he reinterprets many of the Italian classic desserts, such as the cannoli, and panna cotta.
Recently, Aglianò is serving his take on a Sicilian breakfast dish: almond granita and brioche. The contrasting textures and temperature make this a delightful dessert.
While the Italian desserts don't necessarily have the wow factor or delicateness like their French counterparts, they are a very nice and light way to finish the meal. I am curious to see what Aglianò has planned for the next season. I would like to put a vote in for some sort of zabaione or bombolone.
Most of the time when I am at Angelo Restaurant I like to sit at the bar. Angelo has three private rooms which gets used quite a bit. Unlike most Taiwanese, I actually prefer to be in the dining room rather than the private rooms. I like seeing what other people are ordering and what they are wearing. Nevertheless I have eaten in two of the smaller private rooms. I like the medium size room which has windows to the street. The space of the room has a comfortable feel with a generous size. I don't really like the small private room, which I find to be a bit too small. Another problem with the small room is the acoustics. The room consists of only hard surfaces which do not absorb the sound well. Actually my wish for the private rooms is that one day they can have large format meals, similar to some of the restaurants in New York City, such as the Breslin or Momofuku Ssam Bar. Instead of simply having the same menu as the rest of the dining room, one can reserve in advance with a party of 8 persons or more and be served large format food such as the whole pork shoulder, whole roasted suckling pig, or whole roasted duck.
Unlike the opening months, Angelo Restaurant now has a wine list. Kenny Lee, the affable sommelier will happily help to select a wine. The corkage fee at Angelo is low, however, I still like to order wine at the restaurant for three reasons. First, similar to the fact that I don't bring a jamon to the restaurant for Aglianò to slice it for me, I don't bring a wine to restaurant. Second, I prefer to drink and learn about wines that I am less familiar with. Therefore, most of the times, I don't even ask for the wine list. I simply have a quick discussion with Lee about the day's mood and food and let him pick a wine for me. This is similar to if I go to someone's house for dinner I am not going to go to his or her celler to pick a wine. The host will choose wine that he or she wants me to drink. Third, beverage is an important source of revenue for any restaurant. If we want to see good restaurants thrive, we should support them and let them make the necessary profit. The mark-up on wine at Angelo is not high, therefore at dinner I am always inclined to have glass or order a bottle. Like an Italian I also enjoy having an after dinner drink such as the limoncello.
Aglianò said to me that even though the restaurant has the color of the Italian flag he isn't necessarily cooking Italian food per se. I am reminded of the story that Jacque Pépin, the great French chef in America, told about his mother. In Pépin's autobiography he said his mother scolds him whenever he visits her because while she loves his cooking it is no longer French. Pépin agrees with his mother that his cooking is not purely French or purely anything. In the same vein Aglianò's cooking is not purely Italian nor purely anything. It is simply his cuisine which is a reflection of his training, travels, and life experiences.
Aglianò likes to incorporate local ingredients in his cooking and I applaud him for it. In doing so Aglianò's food sometimes feel like it is a cross between Taiwan and Italy. We live in an increasingly globalized world where restaurants can easily be detached from their locations. Ingredients can now be sourced from anywhere in the world. Ingredients can also be detached from the seasons. For instance, we can now have black truffle from Australia in the summer and black truffle from France in the winter. While I am not a locavore, I feel a restaurant should have a connection to its location. An Italian restaurant in Taipei should not be the same as an Italian restaurant in Milan. Therefore, I love the fact that Aglianò uses Shuilian 水蓮 and serves it like a pasta with crab; adds green soy bean 毛豆 to a classic Italian burrata and tomato salad to give the dish some crunch; or serves water bamboo 茭白筍 with gnocchi for contrasting textures.
Using Taiwanese ingredients in Italian cooking is not an easy task. It is a testament to Aglianò's skill and experience that he can produce these types of dishes. To be creative with cuisine requires a full understanding of the the fundamentals. In other words, one needs to know the rules before one can break them. I have seen many restaurants in Taipei where the chefs tried to be "creative" but in reality didn't have any frame of reference. When one talks to Aglianò about cooking, he constantly mentions techniques and the balance of flavors. This can range from the precise temperature for sous vide cooking, the length of time to marinate the cod, or a pinch of oregano from Sicily to provide more depth of flavors. Good cooking is very much about the culmination of all the little details.
Angelo Aglianò Restaurant is an important restaurant for Taipei for many reasons. One, the restaurant shows that it is possible for a foreign chef with local partners to establish his own fine dining restaurant without being part of an international chain or a hotel. Two, the restaurant's success means that there is indeed hope in Taipei for a better western dining scene. My wish is customers in Taipei will get accustomed to the high standard, e.g. Aglianò's risotto, and start demanding better food elsewhere. Third, while some of Aglianò's staff may not stay at the restaurant for a long time, they will be properly trained and carry on the work mentality and the self-demand for quality. Finally, the restaurant is important because it cannot exist anywhere else but in Taipei and is a representative of its location, culture and moment.
Happy Anniversary Angelo Aglianò Restaurant and may you have many more wonderful years to come.
安傑羅有三個包廂。有別於大多數台灣人，我比較喜歡坐在餐廳開放的空間，尤其是在吧檯。我喜歡看到別人點的菜餚和欣賞他們的穿著。我曾經在兩個較小的包廂用餐。兩個房間之中，我比較喜歡有窗戶的房間，空間的大小與感覺都非常的舒適。小的那間包廂，空間似乎太小了且音響效果不好，因為整間餐廳的建材都是不吸音的材料。我希望安傑羅的包廂能像是一些在紐約巿的餐館，如Breslin 和Momofuku Ssam Bar，當人數多時可提前預訂，如烤豬肩肉、烤全乳豬、或烤全鴨等，以供大伙聚餐共享。
我非常贊同Aglianò將臺灣本地的食材用在他的菜餚中。因此Aglianò的食物有時像是穿梭在臺灣和義大利之間。我們現在生活在一個日益全球化的世界裡，餐廳很容易的可以脫離他們的所在地。食材現在能夠來自全球各地，並且甚至跟季節分離。例如，我們現在冬天可以用來自法國的黑松露，夏天則可以吃來自澳大利亞的黑松露。雖然我不是一個locavore，但是我認為外國餐廳應該與它的目前的所在地保持一定的關係。在台北的義大利餐廳應該要不同於米蘭的義大利餐廳或日本東京的義大利餐廳。因此，我喜歡Aglianò使用水蓮代替義大利麵來配著螃蟹; 將毛豆加到經典的義大利burrata起司番茄沙拉; 還有用茭白筍在義大利餃子湯中，使得這幾道菜各有些不同的輕脆的口感。