Full Steam Ahead
Award-winning Taiwanese chef Lanshu Chen is part of a fine-dining scene that proves Taiwanese cuisine has more to offer than just great dumplings writes Tatyana Leonov.
A sharply dressed man steps out of one of Taipei’s many skyscrapers onto a busy street. He sees his wife in the distance, waves, runs to catch up with her and asks, “Have you eaten yet?” In Taiwan, this is how you say “hello”.
Food is a pivotal part of Taiwanese life and casual eateries, bustling street stalls, trendy dessert bars and high-end restaurants are open around the clock to cater for a population keen to sample it all. Taiwan is exporting dumpling chains, winning international food awards and drawing foodie tourists to her shores. And it’s not just one superstar chef who’s driving the new culinary wave; a brigade of kitchen talents has combined to change the face of Taiwanese cuisine.
In January, chef Lanshu Chen of the French- inspired Le Moût in Taichung was named Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef for 2014. Chen trained at Ferrandi The French School of Culinary Arts in Paris and has worked with some of the biggest names in French cuisine. She merges French flair with Taiwanese elements at Le Moût. The chicken bouillon comes infused with aromatic shiitake mushroom and is gussied up with lemon and served with a sliver of velvety foie gras. The tender pigeon drumstick arrives coated in a thick glaze that tastes like truffle and mustard. Chen uses imported ingredients like fleur de sel (sea salt) from Brittany and Iranian caviar as well as organic local produce. “When it comes to cooking, it’s about the details and fragments that connect each dish,” she says.
Le Palais, at the Palais de Chine Hotel, is a stately space where mahogany browns, chocolates and bronzes predominate. Head chef Chen Weiqiang is a fan of local produce. “I personally pick fresh ingredients from markets, and check their quality and freshness,” he says.
It’s a full house most days at Le Palais. Roast baby duck, shrimp and pork dumplings, and stir- fries dominate the menu. On this particular visit, I spot Chen talking to a group of inquisitive diners, explaining a sophisticated-looking dish featuring sliced pork that’s artfully presented.
Taiwanese chefs know that presentation is every bit as important as taste so they work tirelessly to ensure that every plate they serve is a feast for both the eyes and the taste buds.
At YEN Chinese Restaurant at the W Taipei, executive chef Ken Wu shares a similar approach to the look of a dish. “We need to provide the visual pleasure,” he says. “That’s why I put a lot of attention into the presentation.”
Intricate lanterns hang from the restaurant’s high ceiling and the glass walls afford breathtaking views of the city and the iconic architecture of Xinyi district.
The food is just as visually appealing as the scenery. A tangy, salty fish entrée comes in a piquant soybean dip. The roast pork belly is crisp on the outside and succulent and tender within.
Beyond impeccable presentation is food art. At Silks Palace, a five-floor restaurant located on the grounds of the National Palace Museum, diners can sample edible artworks that look just like the famous masterpieces in the museum. “We always take inspiration from the National Palace Museum and present new menus inspired by the new exhibits every year,” chef Tsai Shih-Ron says. “The jadeite cabbage and meat-shaped stone come to life here, and we always try to inspire and educate people about the rich history of Chinese art and culinary culture.”
The jadeite cabbage with insects is artfully created from crisp bok choy and the insects are replicated in the form of glossy miniscule shrimps. The meat-shaped stone is prepared from intricately carved dongpo pork knuckle.
Tsai’s passion goes beyond creating dishes that replicate works of art; he’s also passionate about travelling to local organic farms, fish markets and traditional Taiwanese bazaars to keep abreast of trends. “Taipei, specifically, has a very developed and fast urban culture. Then you’ve got
influences from China, Japan, Thailand, France and so on. Taiwan is such an amazing country to live in, presenting the best of all these culinary influences,” he says.
The fact that Taiwanese farmers and food producers are diversifying has proved a boon to hotels like the Regent Taipei. “We import and plant a lot of ingredients that are seldom seen
in Taiwanese cuisine, and it’s great to have more options to choose from when creating a meal,” says Bernard Noel, the hotel’s executive chef. “Combining modern technology (like siphons used in molecular gastronomy) with classic dishes and cooking styles, or any combination of the old and new is an exciting part of this new age.”
The dynamic blend of old and new, and traditional and modern, works in Taipei because people are hungry for something different. After a stint studying fashion marketing at Italy’s Milano Marangoni fashion institute, Amber Lin figured that she could bring something new to Taipei by combining her passions – travelling, cooking and fashion. The result was a grocery-food-wine bar called Foodie Amber. “My idea was to create a place that could be a playground for food lovers,” she says. “At Foodie Amber you can eat, drink and buy produce from around the world. Furthermore, you can easily take a cooking class and create your own signature meal.”
The cooking classes aren’t exactly standard issue. First, they’re called cooking “party” classes, and second, Amber invites everyone from fashion designers, architects and hair stylists to serve as guest chefs. “The way they explain the food is way more fun,” she says. “And I teach the Tuscan cuisine classes since that’s where I learned to cook and it’s a cuisine I’m very passionate about.”
Encouraged by the fact that locals and visitors seem game to try just about anything, Lao Jiu Hot Pot pairs the titular dish with Champagne. It has proved to be a popular combination, a fact that co-owner Han Chen attributes to what he sees as bubbly’s success at bringing out the sweetness of the food. The broth is flavoured with pickled, sour cabbage and the list of potential ingredients includes everything from paper-thin pork belly slices and meatballs to tofu and mushrooms.
A native of Taichung, Han moved to Taipei when he was in his 20s. It was then that he had the idea to pair Champagne and sour cabbage, as both are fermented. “I was learning to appreciate Champagne around this time and my uncle runs a hot pot bar in Taichung,” he says. They opened the Taipei outlet in 2011 and have catered for a hip crowd ever since. “A hot pot restaurant is usually reserved for family reunions, but now it’s where Taipei’s younger crowd goes.
All you need to know
Mandarin Oriental: Scheduled to open its doors in spring 2014. 166 Dun Hua North Rd, mandarinoriental. com/taipei
Palais de Chine Hotel: 3 Chéngdé Rd, Sec 1, Datong District, palaisdechinehotel. com
W Taipei: 10 Zhongxiao East Rd, Sec 5, Xinyi District, wtaipei. com
Le Moût: 59 Cúnzhōng St, Xi District, Taichung City, lemout.com
Le Palais: 3 Chéngdé Rd, Sec 1, Datong District, palaisdechinehotel. com
YEN Chinese Restaurant: 10 Zhongxiao East Rd, Sec 5, Xinyi District, yentaipei. com
Silks Palace: 221 Chishan Rd, Sec 2, Shilin, silkspalace.com.tw
Regent Taipei: 3 Ln 39, Sec 2, ZhongShan N Rd, regenttaipei.com
Foodie Amber: 16 Aly 2, Ln 97, Sec 4, MinSheng E Rd, foodieamber.com
Lao Jiu’s Family Recipe Hot Pot: 78 Ziyou Rd, Sec 2, Central District, Taichung City, tel: +886 (0)2 2718 1122
Alchemy: Located across from Taipei 101, Alchemy is a luxurious 1920s-inspired bar. 2/F, 16-1 Xin Yi Rd, Sec 5, tel: +886 (0)9 5358 5759
WOOBAR: Fancy a Peruvian- style cocktail? Try a tangy pisco sour and plop yourself down on one of the retro couches to people watch. 10 Zhongxiao East Rd, Sec 5, Xinyi District, woobartaipei.com
Le Blé d’Or: A brewery and restaurant with several locations in Taipei. lebledor.com.tw