Thursday, April 18, 2019

Le Palais, Taipei

Le Palais Restaurant, Taipei (NTD 3278, 4/3/2019, 8-Course incl. Taxes & Gratuity)

頤宮 (yee gong) is the Chinese name of Le Palais. The 1st character means “nurturing with healthy and tasty food” and the 2nd character means “the palace”. Together, they mean “the Palace of Nurturing”.

Le Palais is on the seventeenth (top) floor of the Palais de Chine hotel, nearby Taipei Train Station, in the Datong district of central Taipei. Despite its French name it has a broad a la carte menu serving dim sums, chef’s specials, Abalone and Bird’s Nests soup (an ultra-pricy item), Cantonese traditional and fine Cantonese banquet dishes with an emphasis on nurturing health, flavors and fine ingredients. In addition, there are 7 sets of Tasting menus ranging from NTD 2948 to NTD 16280, the two most expensive Tasting menus are named special Michelin 3-Star Set Menu and distinctively marked with 3 Michelin stars on the menu. Each of these Tasting menus has different price and with one or two dishes different from what on other menus. There are a couple of Le Palais signature dishes that need to be pre-ordered – the Cantonese style Crispy Roast Duck, Crispy Roasted Baby Duck, Barbecue Pork and Crispy Deep-Fried Chicken.

Helmed by head chef Ken Chan, originally coming from Hong Kong and became head chef in 2010, and hotel executive chef Matt Chen who joined Le Palais in 2017.

After being in operation since 2010, Le Palais was awarded 3 Michelin Stars in both the inaugural Michelin Guide Taiwan 2018 and 2019. There was suspicion of Michelin’s inaugural guide for Taipei because it taking sponsorship from the Taiwanese government.

Le Palais resembles a tastefully created East-meets-West design set in royal purple accentuated by emerald and black, and lustrous brass, dark steel, golds and mirrored ceilings. In its opulent ambiance with traditional touches of oriental ceramic arts, calligraphy and Chinese paintings, the place looks chic and classy, and high class. It reminds me of “Sketch” in London decorated in a more westernized flavor.

The interior of Le Palais was set up with private rooms and public dining room. Private rooms are around the perimeter monopolizing the exterior view, while the public dining room inside has no real exterior view. However, the interior designer cleverly made each table set in its own screened off area and devised a window behind each table which provided an illusion of an exterior view. The restaurant does not use any tablecloth, instead sets the table with placemat which are matched by the Chinese painting and calligraphy on the table wares.

I have studied all Le Palais menus three times before I came up with the decision to choose the 8- Course Tasting Menu priced NTD 2980 + 10% because it offered the best value. I inquired my server; he agreed with my conclusion. Throughout my 20 years of fine dining experience in Europe and US, I have not come across any Tasting Menu with a base price > $500. I need to convince myself of the worthiness at Le Palais by trying out a more moderate set menu initially. As I was ordering, I also found out that Le Palais’ set menus didn't offer any Amuse Bouche.

Before the 1st course started, there was a small glass of red-orange color of tea served. It was Roselle-Hibiscus tea, sometimes people called it vinegar because of its sour taste. It was served to help guests to open the palette.

1st Course – Roast Suckling Pig

I had Roast Suckling Pig in Northern Spain a few times. But I have never had such a cute portion of Suckling Pig. I noticed the cracked line on the skin, I knew right away this would be a succulent and crispy piece.  It was comprised 3 parts – skin, meat and sauce, and steamed pancake ().

My server informed me the prep work started the night before, requiring marinating the whole pig in the special house-made sauce overnight. Then, roasted on charcoal tank/oven for about an hour until the skin was golden brown. Chef preferred to use piglet weighed no more than 9 kilo.

When the dish was ready to serve, removed the excess fat under the skin and placed a good piece of lean meat under the skin.

At the bottom of the serving, there was a small steamed pancake made with white flour slightly fermented by natural yeast.  

Decoration was minimal, with rocks at the bottom and bamboo leave nicely slanted on the side of the bowl. Sauce was house modified by thinning out soy bean paste which often used for the duck sauce.

Skin was the best part, delicious and crispy. The overall taste with the sauce and piglet’s tender meat was a real treat.

2nd Course – Chicken Soup with Fish Maw

It required two lengthy preparation for this dish – the soup part and the fish maw.

Soup was made of brown rice, dry scallop, old chicken and the Brazilian mushroom.  Although the medicinal mushroom was originally from the Brazilian rain forest, it is currently cultivated commercially for the health food market in Japan, China and Brazil. It has been shown to have the anti-infection, anti-tumor, anti-allergic/-asthmatic properties in mouse models, in addition to anti-inflammatory effect in inflammatory bowel disease patients. Broiled soup for 4 hours until rice grains dissolved. Strained other ingredients and kept the healthy thick and smooth soup.

Separately, prepared fish maw which is the dried form of fish air bladders, preferably deep sea large fish like croaker and sturgeon. It has no fishy taste and absorbs the flavors of other ingredients. It is graded according to sex: male bladders are better than female ones. Fish maw contains rich proteins and nutrients such as phosphor and calcium. It nourishes “yin”, replenishes kidney and boosts stamina. It is effective in healing weak lung and kidney, anemia, etc. The preparation started with soaking fish maw for about 2 hours and boiled for 2 hours before mixing it with the brown rice-based soup. Half an hour before serving, adding a good piece of boneless chicken meat.

This hearty soup was made with a goal of nurturing on health and taste, just like its Chinese name 頤宮stands for.

3rd Course – Stir-Fried Prawns and Scallop Muscles

Scallop was from Hokkaido, Japan. It was seared first before broiled to half-done. It was succulent, fresh, sweet, tasty and tender.

Prawn was a good size, farm-raised. It was peeled, poached, then stir-fried in XO. Still scallop was tastier because it was wild scallop from Hokkaido. I wish Le Palais has chosen prawn from Costa Brava region of Spain.

Asparagus was from US, poached then sautéed. Together and adorned with a piece of red pepper.

4th Course – Braised Abalone (6 head) with Shitake Mushroom

There are three grades of abalone – 1st being the dry abalone requires soaking; 2nd being the canned abalone; 3rd being the fresh/frozen ones. In this course, it was the 2nd grade abalone. There are three grades of mushroom - 花菇, 冬菇 and厚菇 (They look almost alike except the appearance and fragrance). The type being used in this course was the 2nd grade. “6 head” abalone refer to the size of abalone, the size served in this course would fit 6 heads in a can.

The preparation started with braising abalone in soup made with old chicken, pork, chicken feet and house-made ingredients for a few hours until abalone was tender enough to serve.

Chef came to the table side to deliver the final touch by making the special house-made sauce incorporating oyster sauce and other ingredients. In addition, a cute looking diamond shaped, two-color toned cauliflower adorned the dish.

Abalone was delicious, tender and with the right texture. In Asian culture, abalone has long been appreciated for its healthy benefits, including healthy eyes and skin.

5th Course – Steamed Grouper with Ginger and Sea Salt

The type of fish serve in this course was very special, it was a hybrid of Giant Grouper and Brown Marbled Grouper, farm raised. The Giant Grouper, being the largest bony fish found in coral reefs, has been famous for its smooth and elastic-tasting skin and the Brown Marbled Grouper has been famous for its smooth and elastic-tasting flesh. Therefore, the hybrid offers both. If you know how blue fish tasted like, you know blue fish’s flesh and skin are both not elastic-tasting.

Fish was steamed with 80% done, nicely moisture and tender, garnished with chopped scallion and finely chopped ginger which added a nice touch of sharpness. At the bottom of the plate, it was a piece of turnip cake. This was a rather unusual combination. Turnip cake has been a traditional dim sum item, and usually served in pan seared style. However, it was very tasty and flavorful in this course probably due to its fine quality ingredients including cured Chinese ham, dry shrimp, julienned daikon, daikon juice and rice powder. In addition, lightened brown sauce was prepared in conjunction with steamed fish sauce and turnip sauce. It was a well-balanced dish.

6th Course – Braised Spinach with Salty Egg and Preserved Egg

Firstly, spinach was sautéed with garlic, I noticed the slightly browned garlic in the bowl. Only the yolk of the salty egg was used probably the egg white part often was too overwhelmingly salty. But, the whole egg of preserved egg was used. Eggs were diced and mixed with spinach before the thickened scrambled egg white sauce was sprinkled right on the top. It was a dish for palette transition. In addition, a similar dish using watercress was made into dumpling on the dim sum menu.

7th Course – Daikon Radish Puff Pastry

Traditionally, daikon radish pastry requires two types of doughs, one oil based and the other water based. Chef at Le Palais went extra step to refine the texture by using two different types of flour as well as two different bases for the doughs – one low-glutton flour and one medium-glutton flour. Each of the two types of dough were rolled flat, placed intersperse and rolled flat again. Repeat the process at least twice before making individual wrapping. The crust in this course was super crunchy and flaky probably because of the impact of different types of flour and chef’s technique.

The traditional daikon radish pastry usually contains filling on the dry side because extra sauce would make the exterior crust soggy. However, the daikon filing in this course was so tasty and moisture and crust was so flaky. The best radish pastry brioche that I have ever had.

8th Course – Almond Milk with Sesame Rice Balls

Almond milk was made from three different types of almonds – Northern almonds (bitterness), Southern almonds (sweetness) and dragon king almonds (fragrance). The manager emphasized that the portion of each type of almond used was a house secret. In general, the Southern almonds have a bit sweet taste and the Northern almonds have a bit bitter taste. Almonds can help suppressing coughs, cleansing intestinal system. However, it is advisable not to eat too much of the Northern almonds.

After each of three types of almonds were grinded into milk and boiled, almond milk was served with a cooked gluttonous rice ball filled with molten lava-type black sesame fillings. The richness of almond milk and the black sesame fragrance on my taste bud made me yearning for more. It was a wonderful desert. 

Le Palais’ menu configuration is rather unconventional, different from all other European Michelin 3-Star restaurants. The European Michelin 3-Star restaurants usually do not mark any particular set of Tasting Menu with Stars. I have made inquiries of the significance of the “stars” marked on two sets of menus, the management dodged my question and elusively replied “due to the different ingredients used and the different customer needs, there is a difference in the menu name and price.”

Although Michelin stars are only awarded for the food on the plate, the interior décor, service and table setting have a profound impact on our perception and enjoyment of the meal. In this regard, Le Palais is definitely a unique experience.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Eleven Madison Park, NYC

Eleven Madison Park, NYC ($365, 7/28/2018, 8-Course, incl. Taxes & Gratuity)

Eleven Madison Park was originally opened as a neo-brasserie by the well-seasoned restauranteur Danny Myer in 1998. Along with its steady ascent, Danny Myer decided to take it to a higher level by developing its potential. Around 2006, he hired Daniel Humm, a young successful chef from Switzerland and Will Guidara as general manager. Later in 2011 Chef Humm and Will Guidara became business partners and purchase Eleven Madison Park from Danny Myer’s Union Square Hospitality Group which owns a few successful and popular restaurants such as Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern.

I have not revisited 11 Madison since its latest renovation last year. I have always enjoyed the dining experience there from my 1st visit. The new layout gives it a slightly modern, but not too contemporary appearance, and makes guests feeling more at home.

It offered an 8-courses Tasting Menu in addition to a la Carte. I chose the Tasting Menu. Content of the menu was not presented at the beginning of the meal, guests would get a hard copy of menu at the end of the meal. The first 2 courses did not have multiple choices to choose. After that, each guest could choose one option from 3 choices in each course.

11 Madison did not provide Amuse Bouche. Instead, it had a box of BLACK AND WHITE cookies presented in a pretty string-tied box, one for each guest. This BLACK AND WHITE cookie has been one of 11 Madison’s signature dishes since my 1st visit. It was sandwiched savory cookie with Cheddar and Apple filling. It tasted lighter than shortbread and it was a fun and delicious start.

1st Course – Tomato Tea, Dosa and Tomato

Tomato tea was made with tomato juice, lemon thyme and summer herb bundle. It was served hot at the table. Immediately I could smell the aroma. The tea was quite refreshing, offering very sophisticated flavor on the taste bud.

Dosa was an Indian version of egg roll, although with slightly different shape. Inside the wrapping was orange tomato jam. Once Dosa was fried crispy, it was wrapped with shinto seaweed leaves (green color) at one end. Orange tomato jam had a distinctive taste. Dosa was served with grated Goat Cheese and Green Tomato jam adorned with cute onion flowers. Our server instructed us to eat Dosa with goat cheese and tomato jam together, they were complementary each other and provide the balance on the taste bud.  

In addition, there was Tomato salad with summer berries and red currants adorned with purple shiso flowers. It had the lightest taste among all sub-dishes in this course. It was like the quasi palate cleanser for the following course.

Bread was served with Dolce Cheddar Cheese spread. This bread was more like a super flaky brioche with very fine flakes in exterior and light texture in interior. Pastry chef used flour made from wheat grown in the Finger lake region. I have had this bread since my 1st visit of 11 Madison. I have always very fond of it and had to restrain myself from eating too many of them.

2nd Course – Corn Soufflé with Caviar and Bonito

Since Beluga sturgeon caviar has been on the endangered list, Chefs have to use farm-raised caviar. Caviar served in this course was from Snake Valley, Idhao, considered one of the best sturgeon caviars. The taste of caviar was mild, juicy and not salty. Quality caviar always has the lowest level of salt in order to allow the flavor of the eggs themselves and the character of the eggs themselves coming through.

The best part of this course was bonito sauce, specifically dry bonito sauce. It tasted different from the ordinary bonito sauce.

Summer corn was used to make corn soufflé. At the table, our server sliced the part of soufflé above the edge of the ramekin and served each of use only this portion. I made an inquiry and found out that the top part of soufflé usually produced the best quality. The bottom part sometimes could be too heavy and dense. Summer corn soufflé was light in texture and tasty. It was served with caviar from the Snake Valley, Idaho. Dry bonito sauce had a more shellfish like taste and the flavor was subtle and more appealing. Using the dry bonito sauce make this simple dish a wonderful culinary experiment. 

3rd Course – Foie Gras Seared with Plum and Duck Prosciutto

Hudson Valley foie gras was seared tender, juicy and served with thyme and shallot crumbs. Everything was good except the cholesterol count. Usually foie gras was accompanied by some fruity, sweet, and sour condiment. In this course, Chef made plum purée, and beautifully arranged sliced plum, duck prosciutto (in the middle), shiso leaves and cute onion blossom.

4th Course – Lobster Butter-Poached and Charred with Greens and Bean Ecrasse

A baby lobster tail was poached in butter to make tender and juicy. Lobster tail was wrapped in yam leaves. Slices of baby bean were cut in a diagonal angle, served along with shiso leaves and cream sauce made with condensed lobster juice. Yam leaves had a mild taste (milder than watercress), it was considered a very healthy vegetable to lower cholesterol. On the contrary, shiso leaves had a stronger taste. The varieties of vegetable were fresh but not overwhelming, they were in the plate to enhance the lobster’s unpretentious preparation.

5th Course – Snails

Snails were from Peconic Farm in Long Island. Snails were poached first before set in a kabab stick arranged alternately with chanterelle mushroom ready for grill on the table. Grilling process was short enough to give snails the charcoal flavor but not overcooked snails. Our server emphasized that snails were almost fully cooked in the poaching process. In addition, there were five side dishes:

1). Ramp relish and mustard seed. Ramps are a wild onion also known as a wild leek, can be found from March to June. Ramps has a slighter stronger taste than scallions.

2). Chanterelle mushroom cream.

3). Pickled watermelon radish.

4). Fermented mint leaves by Kimchi process.

5). Swiss chard leaf on top covering bib lettuce leaf, with portobello mushroom purée sandwiched in between.

The proper way of eating them was to place grilled snails and mushroom on Swiss chard leaf along with the other 4 side dishes, and then roll the Swiss chard like an egg roll before you bite on it. It was different from the French way of serving snails. Some of the side dishes had very distinctive flavor on its own.

6th Course – Rib Eye, Dried Aged and Grilled with Red Peppers

It was an unusual 140-day dry aged rib eye. I could see some marbleized fat, but not quite as marbleized as A5 Wagyu. Because of the long aging process, beef had a perfect, flavorful and succulent taste. In the plate, there was pimento purée, sautéed red pepper, sautéed onion and mustard seeds, with a small piece of beef prosciutto in the middle, and served with condensed beef jus.

There were a few side dishes:
1). Corn - Creamed corn with juniper berry and grated egg yolk.

2). Zucchini - Roasted zucchini with goat cheese, lemon and mint.

3). Broccoli – Bulgar wheat enclosed by sautéed broccoli.   

Chef Humm’s side dishes were all pleasant and tasty. They were fresh and refreshing.

We were offered a tour of the newly renovated kitchen. At the entrance to the kitchen, the newly installed cabinet had a nice look. Kitchen was departmentalized into various section, each is responsible for a particular type of dishes such as appetizers, meat, fish and desserts. We were offered a little treat which as a lollipop of strawberry jam cover by lemon icicle powder made with Molecular Gastronomy technique. The major new appliance was the closet to age animal cadavers. It was a large glass closet with temperature and humidity control to properly age the meat to the desired level. It was always fun to visit Michelin starred restaurant kitchen.

7th Course – Triple Crème

These were the little cuties of brioche with Cambert cheese stuffed inside. The top part of brioche was crunchy and inside was the still soft ang gooey Cambert cheese. These brioche buns were accompanied by some cherry purée and basil crème fraîche. Each guest was served with 2 brioches. These brioches were delightfully pleasing visually as well as palatially.

8th Course – Chocolate Sorbet with Shortbread and Coffee Meringue

 It was a chocolate tart enclosed by chocolate sheet. On top of tart, there were 4 different flavors of crumbs – Cocoa nibs, Caramelized milk solid by separating curd from milk and then adding brown sugar, Coffee granite and Coffee meringue. It was a lovely, exquisite and delicious dessert with a very satisfying combination of flavors, but it was hardly the most intricate of fancy Michelin three-star dessert like what El Celler de can Roca served. I wonder this may be determined by Chef Humm’s emphasis on simplicity, purity and seasonal flavors.

Complementary Dessert – Peach Compote and Shingles with Honey Custard

We were also offered a complementary peach dessert. Peaches were sliced and cooked, and glazed. Honey custard were served with peaches to enrich the fruity taste.

Chocolate Covered Pretzel

This was a quasi-petit fours. I remembered I had it a while ago, almost the same time when I first had the black and white cookies. Pretzel’s dough is more like butter cookie dough and they were made with perfect shape and delicious.

Chef Humm and his partner Will Guidara have always been seeking reinvention to the better. In their 2011 Cookbook, they wrote “this restaurant has never been satisfied with its current point of success” and we’ve been about endless reinvention”. In 2016, they changed course with a theme of minimalistic and pragmatic menu, intended to offer the diner more choice and freedom. It is an approach that seems to be more geared for the NYC residents who are always too busy to enjoy an intense dinner at leisure, and are the casual diners. But, there are also guests who want as intense an experience as possible and a restaurant like 11 Madison Park should also cater to their needs as well. I like to compare my experience at 11 Madison with my experience at El Celler de can Roca (the #2 on the San Pellegrino list, €180 for a 7-Course + 12 appetizers) and Martin Berasategui.

The food at 11 Madison was certainly seasonal. The attention to detail, the precision and the execution of dishes were excellent. But, the level of innovation and creativity seemed to be not much on the plate. During my recent trip to Northern Spain, I had many eye-opener opportunities to see the innovation practiced by the chefs with or without Molecular Gastronomy technique. Judging by the menu at 11 Madison, the menu seemed to lack the level of intricacy, complexity and luxury that the new generation of three Michelin star restaurants in Europe normally deliver.