On the surface, Taipei seems to have a vibrant western dining scene with new restaurants opening up monthly at every corner. This is perhaps due to the Taiwanese spirit of wanting to be the boss, the low barrier to entry, and the media's constant need for fresh faces. Unfortunately, most of the new restaurants are simply not worth their salt. They are usually owned and operated by young cooks and restaurateurs who simply don't have enough experience in operating restaurants; graduating from a cooking school or cooking at a three-Michelin-star restaurant for a year or two does not make one a good chef. While a discerning diner can choose to ignore them, they are like noises and pollution that fill the mediascape thus diverting attention from the few that are truly doing good work.
Hong Kong native Lam Ming Kin is the chef of ACHOI. He has worked in the three-Michelin-star Jean Georges Vongerichten's group for over ten years. Just prior to coming to Taipei, Lam was the chef de cuisine at Jean Georges Shanghai. He comes with a wealth of worldly experience, which is very rare for a chef in a new restaurant in Taipei. Lam's new venture is backed by the Ambassador Hotel Group.
ACHOI is located on the ground floor of the Group's new mid-priced hotel amba Zhongshan. Setback from the tree-lined Zhongshan North Road by the building's arcade, ACHOI is enclosed in floor-to-ceiling glass on two sides. While the restaurant has its own glass door entrance, it is not obvious; usually I enter through the adjacent hotel front door. During the day time, the restaurant takes full advantage of the glass exterior and makes the trees on Zhongshan Road and the plantings along the small side street be part of the interior. During lunch time, the space is very pleasant with indirect daylight coming through the glass walls. With views beyond the space, the dining room seems larger than it really is. Unfortunately, at night the glass exterior impairs the ambiance of the interior. As the outside gets dark, one sees less of the trees and more of the bright street lights, plus the uncontrolled reflections from the interior lighting. The biggest annoyance to the diners at night is with the bright headlights coming from cars traveling down the side alley. ACHOI should learn from the design of Jean Georges Restaurant in New York City and install some shear curtains at the windows. This will reduce the effect from the outside, refocus the diners' attention to the inside, and help improve the acoustics of the space.
With the clear glass exterior, the designer smartly kept the ceiling and the walls simply in white, including the tiles in the open kitchen. On the other hand, the floor is a little complicated with two types of finishes. Most of the area are finished with beige-colored large tiles. However, one area is inexplicably done with wood in herringbone pattern. I wish the whole floor is done in wood which would conceptually bring the exterior landscape into interior. With the hardwood floor, sheet rock ceiling, glass exterior wall, and no tablecloth, every surface is hard and does not absorb sound. Therefore, the noise level in the restaurant is well above the comfort level.
There are less than twenty tables and a counter, yet there are four types of surfaces for the tabletop: wood for the rectangular tables near the banquettes, marble for the circular tables near the window, tile for communal table, and synthetic stone for the counter by the open kitchen. Since the restaurant does not use any placemats, the different materials for the table are even more pronounced; as if a restaurant uses four different color tablecloths at the same time. This is overly complicated. Moreover, the tile surface of the communal table is too rustic, as eating and looking at the grout between the tiles is unpleasant. The synthetic stone for the kitchen counter is too simple and feels more like a home kitchen than a restaurant. Another design flaw with the counter is the height: instead of using a normal bar height of around 90cm, it is set at a normal table height of 70cm. The problem is the customers end up always looking uncomfortably up at the cooks inside the open kitchen. It is understandable if the designer is simply against sitting on bar stool in a restaurant or has the desire to make every seat wheelchair friendly. However, the long communal table adjacent to the wine refrigerator is set at a normal bar height. Usually I like to sit at the counter and see the food being prepared. Sadly, the design of counter seats at ACHOI discourages me from doing so.
Besides the tables, the design of the other parts of the restaurant is also fussy. In the middle of the dining room are back-to-back banquettes built with wood. The backs of the banquettes have cushions of varying geometrical shapes and different color shades of grey which seem unnecessarily complicated. There are also a variety of light fixtures at different heights that seem to have little to do with the tables below. A lot of efforts are spent adding varieties into a space that doesn't really need it. This is similar to the extra ingredients on a plate of food that only complicates the appearance but has no real intrinsic value to add.
Since I am an architect, I am more sensitive to the design of the space than most people. I get bothered by little things that other people simply do not notice. For example, I don't know why the restaurant has a cash register with a vertical display sticking above the counter like at a supermarket. The space, ambiance, and furnishings of the restaurant have a major impact on the dining experience. Conceptually this is not any different from the importance of the tableware. In theory, the food is just what's on the plate. However, a serious chef will not serve the food on paper plates, nor will a sommelier serve the wine in plastic cups. Therefore, why should the restaurant serve food and wine in a cluttered and noisy space?
I don't know how much input Lam had in the design of the room but he seems to have the free rein to devise the menu with his partner Amy Chen. After all, the most important part of a restaurant is still the food. So far I had three meals at ACHOI and enjoyed most of the dishes.
Prior to dining at ACHOI I expected Lam's food to be in the similar vein as his old boss Jean Georges Vongerichten: the pairing of Asian flavors and ingredients with French techniques and traditions. Since I love Vongerichten's food, I had high expectations for Lam. The first time I was at ACHOI I sat at the counter and saw the kitchen prepare a special uni on toast with yuzu and black truffle. I couldn't help but remarked to Lam that the dish reminded me of the uni on toast served at Jean Georges in New York City. Lam smiled gently and replied, it is similar but he does it differently. Indeed, while there are hints of Vongericten's style, Lam is certainly expressing his own views. In comparison to Vongerichten, in a very general sense, I find Lam's food to be less acidic and doesn't have as much of a spicy kick. Nevertheless, many aspects of Vongerichten's food that I am very fond of can also be seen in Lam's cuisine.
Lam's food is a fusion of east and west. Because of Lam's experience, fusion is not confusion, rather it offers novel ways to look at the classic recipes. On the menu is a reinterpretation of the classic Salade Lyonnaise. Typically the salad is made with frisée and pan fried lardons topped with a poached egg. In a reference to Chinese cooking, Lam uses braised pork belly instead. Furthermore, he adds some locally grown baby swiss chard to the mix, which provides a little sweetness to the more bitter frisée. For the sautéed foie gras, just as Vongerichten made the novel pairing of foie gras with mango long time ago, Lam does it with coconut and lychee. The foie gras was cooked perfectly and the contrast with the Asian fruit was wonderful.
Besides the Asian elements, Lam allows local Taiwanese flavors to be part of his food as well. When he got to Taipei he noticed at the night markets that the locals like to eat fried chicken in one stall and cold noodles at another. So he thought why not make his version and serve them together. The result is a lightly battered but crusty chicken which was very tender and juicy: just delicious. The cold house-made spaghetti has the right texture and is lightly tossed with a sesame dressing. Not only do I like the dish very much, my daughters talked about the fried chicken for a few days after their meal as well.
Lam takes the local influences one step further by doing his version of the Three-Cup dish. Normally done with chicken in Taiwan, Lam uses abalone instead. The abalone is cooked sous vide and has a very tender texture. The Thai basil pesto adds a nice floral kick.
The shrimp sliders are slathered with a sriracha and citrus mayo that is light but extremely flavorful. The sesame bun added an extra fragrance to the dish. I gulped down the two sliders in minutes.
The fillet of snapper is seasoned nicely and cooked perfectly, first sous vide and then the skin is crisped in the pan. The sauce is a sabayon that has just enough acidity to lighten up the dish. The chayote shoots provide a slightly crunchy texture which contrasts well with the flaky fish.
Lam's cooking is simple but complex. Simple in the sense that the dishes do not have superfluous items and the diners get the essential flavors. Like any good chef, a lot of effort goes into sourcing the ingredients. With good ingredients, the key is not to overcomplicate the cooking. When Lam talks about the good ingredients he is able to find, you can visibly see his excitement, like the shrimp he gets daily or the locally grown fig.
The shrimps are cooked lightly and served with a yuzu mayonnaise and a dusting of house-made spice mix. The dish looks simple and clear, yet the flavors are complex and delicious.
The fig sits on house made ricotta and is topped with a little port and lemon juice. Again, simply made and just a delight.
Based on my three meals at ACHOI, I have very little to complain about the food. There are only a couple of dishes that I thought was just good but not great. For the duck breast, Lam's presentation seems to refer to the Peking Duck. The dollops of dark sauce are made with cherry, and a stalk of tuberose in lieu of scallion. While the duck is cooked well, I prefer the meat to be a bit more rare and bloody. While Lam cooks some of the seafood dishes sous vide, he prefers to cook the meat in the traditional method. It is interesting to note that at Angelo Aglianò Restaurant, it is just the reverse: some meats are cooked sous vide while the fish are always cooked in the traditional manner. I understand Lam's preference and reasoning, and agree that some meats are better cooked in the traditional manner; Lam's Iberico pork chop was just grilled and it was juicy and delectable. But with the duck breast, I prefer the method that Robuchon uses: sear, sous vide at 60 degrees Celsius, and sear again before serving.
The other dish that I thought was just okay is the grilled beef sirloin wrapped with betel nut leaves, and served with mango, peanut, cherry tomatoes, and fish sauce dressing. The vegetables are fresh and the sauce has just the right amount of acidity. The beef is cooked well, but doesn't seem as flavorful as it can be.
ACHOI has a very nice dessert menu, all of which are priced at NT$220. Many of them are variations on the classics, some with Asian inflections. I am particularly fond of the Peach Melba, a classic from the late 19th century. Lam serves his version as a trifle with granite on the top. The chocolate mouse with mint sorbet is also wonderful.
The only dessert that doesn't quite work is the praline ravioli with chilled citrus soup and lemon sorbet. The sorbet and the soups are great, fresh with a nice sweetness and hints of acidity. The colors in the bowl are vibrant and beautiful. However, the chilled wonton wrapper with the praline inside was just a bit dense. It was probably the most interesting dessert on the menu, yet the one I liked the least.
Most of the people I know who have been to ACHOI agree with me that the quality of the food is high, but many of them feel the price is high as well. While I share their sentiments that ACHOI is not cheap, the restaurant is certainly not price gouging either. ACHOI has a 3-course set lunch menu for NT$680 and 4-course set lunch for $780, which includes coffee or tea. This seems very reasonable. Unfortunately, this is only served from Tuesday to Friday (the restaurant is closed on Monday). Given ACHOI is located far from my office, I probably will never get to try the set lunch. All three times that I was at ACHOI I ordered à la carte. The soups are priced around NT$220, the vegetable dishes are around NT$300, and the poultry and meat dishes range from around NT$400 to NT$800. While the dishes are all in tasting menu portions, given the quality of the ingredients, the prices seem fair. My problem with the pricing at ACHOI is not with the individual dishes, but the overall experience. A proper meal at ACHOI requires four courses, which will end up costing around NT$1,600 to NT$2,000, not including drinks. For this price, I expect the restaurant will serve some bread instead of having to order it like a course at NT$140. I realize everything has a price, but I prefer the restaurant pads the prices of the dishes instead of charging for bread. I also expect the restaurant will serve some mignardises with the NT$180 coffee or tea. Since there is an amuse bouche to start the meal, how about something to end the meal as well? Why not serve some marshmallows like at Jean Georges in New York; potato starch, sugar, and egg white will not dent the profit by much. For the price I am paying, I expect a bit more illusion of generosity.
The food at ACHOI is served to be shared – the dishes do not come at once and are placed in the middle of the table. Each diner has an empty plate to eat the food. I dislike this format. First, the portion of the dishes are small, therefore, any form of sharing allows for only a couple of bites of the food. For instance I don't see how a party of four can share the two pieces of toast with uni in a satisfying manner. Second, when I order à la carte, I like to plan out the sequence of the dishes to not repeat certain types of ingredients or flavors. The sharing of the dishes disrupt any form of progression. Third, when the dishes don't come at once, some of the diners simply end up waiting for a long time and stare at their companions eating. At my third meal at ACHOI I had to tell the server to bring all the diner's dishes at the same time.
ACHOI uses a wine refrigerator by EuroCave that allows the customers to order wine by the glass, half glass, or just a small taste. Since people in Taipei don't drink as much as people in Europe and the U.S., the wine program should encourage people to order some wine with the food. Also, in theory, the sommelier will be able to pair a wine to each course. Sadly in practice it doesn't quite work. In my three meals I was offered very little advice on wine. ACHOI's wines are marked up around 3 times the U.S. retail prices or 1.6 times the Taiwan retail prices. For example, a bottle of Trimbach Gewurztraminer retails for around NT$650 in New York and NT$1,250 in Taipei (the wine prices in Taiwan are ridiculous but that's a separate story), and ACHOI sells the bottle for NT$2,000. These prices are not unreasonable. However, I want a bit more service from the sommelier. At one of my dinners, instead of ordering different glasses of wine I ordered a bottle. After the sommelier poured the initial glass of wine, all the subsequent refills were done by myself. I also want a wider selection of wines with more expensive and interesting choices. For instance, it will be nice to have more than three sparkling wines to choose from. I wonder why ACHOI cannot utilize its sister restaurant A-Cut's more extensive wine inventory in the Ambassador Hotel. Furthermore, I find it very strange that ACHOI's wine list does not display the vintage of the wines. I realize selling wine in a restaurant in Taipei is difficult, but ACHOI cannot be this casual about their wine program.
While I have misgivings about some aspects of ACHOI, they can be improved upon should the restaurant choose to. In terms of just the food on the plate, I am very delighted with Lam's arrival in Taipei. The city finally has a restaurant that does fusion in a convincing manner. Lam's experience and knowledge in cooking allow him to play with traditional recipes and familiar tastes; one has to know the rules to break the rules. Another difference between a seasoned chef and a young chef is the confidence in their abilities. Young chefs, especially in Taipei, have a tendency to use too many ingredients in a dish, thus making the food more complicated than it needs to be. They fail to understand the difference between complicated and complex. Moreover, the young chefs tend to first cook for themselves and to impress their peers, rather than for the guests. In contrast, Lam's food at first glance seems simple and one can identify the ingredients and the flavors. Yet, the flavors are complex. Not only is there a nice after taste, some dishes make one ponder about them in the days after.
In a few brief conversations I had with Lam, he strikes me as a very affable person. There is a sense of fun and playfulness in his cooking. He is also confident and eager to look for new ideas. As the seasons change and as Lam starts to discover more local ingredients and customs, I am sure his cooking and ideas will evolve. In turn I am happy to keep going back to ACHOI for more.