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Sunday, October 15, 2017

T'ang Court in Shanghai

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

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

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



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



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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sugar Pea

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Long Time No See: Xavier Boyer at Gaddi's

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Take Some More Tea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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