Taiwan’s Growing Appetite for Beef

Alexander's Steakhouse - Photo by Matthew Fulco
Alexander's Steakhouse - Photo by Matthew Fulco

Taiwan’s steakhouse market has moved upmarket with the arrival of some new restaurants.

High-end Western food has long struggled to gain a footing in Taipei. Celebrity chefs known for fusion cuisine, like Singapore’s Justin Quek, have come and gone. Yet one type of pricey Western restaurant has been successful here: the American steakhouse and other establishments specializing in beef. Indeed, Taipei has more than 20 such restaurants, some long established. Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse opened in 1993, Lawry’s The Prime Rib Taipei in 2002, and the Ambassador Hotel’s A Cut Steakhouse about a decade ago.

“There’s a perception in Taiwan that steak or prime rib is equivalent to fine dining,” says Alex Lin, restaurant manager at Lawry’s.

With the arrival of California-based Alexander’s in 2015 and Chicago-based Morton’s in 2016, Taipei’s steakhouse scene has now moved further upmarket. A three-course dinner at either (without alcohol) can easily surpass NT$4,000 if a diner selects one of the more premium cuts of beef. In June, Alexander’s invited Michelin chef Claude Le Tohic to co-present an eight-course tasting menu priced at NT$7,000 per person.

Morton’s executive chef, Francis Beauvais, who formerly worked at the Mandarin Oriental and Regent, is optimistic about Morton’s prospects. “We have been observing the Taiwan market for many years and have found interest in steak and beef here far exceeds what we had imagined.”

There’s a perception in Taiwan that steak or prime rib is equivalent to fine dining,” says Alex Lin, restaurant manager at Lawry’s.

Morton’s looks to be banking on its strong brand and a stellar location at the apex of the Xinyi Breeze tower to justify the high price of admission. “With the extraordinary view Morton’s Taipei offers, there are a lot of people celebrating their special occasions with us,” says marketing communication manager Ami Kao.

The restaurant’s location in one of Taipei’s busiest business districts also ensures that it draws heavily from the corporate market, from client entertainment to employee appreciation lunches and dinners, she adds.

Business looked good on a recent Friday, as a slew of guests poured onto the open-air terrace offering a sweeping 180-degree perspective of the city, from the misty peaks of the Four Beasts Mountains to the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Tower near Taipei Main Station. They were there to enjoy Morton’s Power Hour, which is actually double that length (5-7 p.m. Monday-Friday) and offers hefty discounts on bar bites and drinks.

To make a meal of it will still cost over NT$1,000, but it seems like a bargain considering the options: tuna tartare tacos, petite filet mignon sandwiches, mini crabcake BLTs, and parmesan matchstick truffle fries, to name but a few.

No such bargains are available on the dinner menu, but Beauvais says there’s a reason for that: Morton’s uses only USDA prime beef – the top grade as determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Marbling – the fat lines found within a cut of meat and between the muscle fibers – largely determines quality grade. The fat melts when beef cooks, infusing the meat with flavor and making it more tender.

Following the slaughter of a cow, an inspector examines the rib area of a carcass to determine its grade based on the amount of marbling present. Roughly 42% of U.S. beef is graded “choice” based on the small amount of marbling. Beef with “slightly abundant” marbling is graded “select,” a category that accounts for about 55% of U.S. beef. Just 3% receives the “prime” categorization as the meat with the most marbling.

Beauvais recommends the 10-ounce American Wagyu Ribeye Steak sourced from Snake River Farms, an Idaho ranch known for its adoption of many aspects of the Japanese feeding method that takes up to four times longer than typical U.S. processes. Cooked to order, that steak “remains juicy and tender because of its Japanese-grade marbling,” Beauvais says. “It’s a buttery and superior-textured meat.”

“The influence of the dry-aging trend in the U.S. on Taiwan has been very strong,” says Chef Philip Wu of Gustoso.

Wagyu beef is also known for its nutritional value. Its high marbling boosts the ratio of monounsaturated fats to saturated fats, and it contains a higher percentage of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids than ordinary beef.

For its beef, Morton’s mainly utilizes the “wet” or “Cryovac” aging process, favored for the savory taste it produces and the minimal waste. Wet aging entails sealing beef cuts in largely airtight polyethylene bags and storing the meat at temperatures just above freezing for up to 30 days. During the aging process, an enzyme created as the meat decomposes breaks down muscle, enhancing the flavor and tenderness of the meat.

Living in the dry age

Morton’s is one of the few Taipei steakhouses that focuses on the wet aging technique. Other steakhouses Taiwan Business TOPICS visited were adamant in their support of “dry aging,” a process in which beef is hung in coolers to age anywhere from three weeks to several months. High-powered fans in the coolers help to remove moisture from the meat. As evaporation shrinks the meat, it softens, concentrating the flavor.

Beef for Toscana undergoing dry againg at The Sherwood (Photo: Matthew Fulco)
Beef for Toscana undergoing dry againg at The Sherwood (Photo: Matthew Fulco)

“In the dry-aging process, you’re extending the cellular breakdown of the meat,” says James Brownsmith, executive chef of Alexander’s Steakhouse. “Once the collagen [which holds the muscle fibers together] is broken down, the steak becomes more tender. You can see that the muscle fibers are packed closer, tighter, and as you chew, they feel a little lusher, though there is no visible juice on the plate.”

As the surface of the meat dries, spores grow on it that impart their own flavor, he notes. “You’re almost treating it like a wine. Since the steak is dry-aged here, you’re getting the terroir of Taiwan in the taste in the meat.” After 30 days, that flavor will be fairly subtle. Extend the dry-aging process to 100 days and “your steak will taste like you already put blue cheese on it,” Brownsmith says.

At its best, prime rib embodies all the finest aspects of meat cooking,” writes New York City-based food critic Nick Solares.

While acclaimed for its taste, dry-aged beef is costly to produce. To begin with, the beef loses up to 15% of its volume during drying. Further, during the aging process a crusty exterior forms on the meat that cannot be consumed. Once it is trimmed, the meat has lost anywhere from 35% to 50% of its original weight. Finally, there are increased costs associated with a dedicated dry-aging facility, which requires precise air circulation, temperature, and humidity.

“Our chef must go to the dry-aging room three times a day to make sure the temperature is 1 to 2 degrees Celsius and that humidity does not exceed 60%,” says Achim van Hake, general manager of The Sherwood Taipei, a five-star hotel that played a pioneering role in introducing dry-aged beef to Taiwan in 2006.

A decade ago, Sherwood executives traveling in the United States observed the then-nascent dry-aging trend, von Hake notes. “They were amazed with the taste of the dry-aged beef, with the intensity of its flavor. When they returned to Taiwan, they said, ‘The Sherwood needs to bring dry-aged beef here.’” The hotel then sent its chefs to the United States to learn the dry-aging technique, and it invited master steak chef Hans Aeschbacher to appear at its Toscana restaurant and provide training to the local cooking team. Aeschbacher has been the head chef at renowned steakhouses including Chicago Cut Steakhouse and Smith & Wollensky.

“The influence of the dry-aging trend in the U.S. on Taiwan has been very strong,” says Chef Philip Wu of Gustoso, the Madison Taipei’s Italian restaurant. “Many Taiwanese have studied in America; they’ve worked there too. They were exposed to the dry-aging trend as it began, and developed a taste for beef prepared in that manner.”

Gustoso has made some small adjustments to the presentation of its dry-aged steaks to ensure guest satisfaction, Wu notes. “We serve center-cut ribeye, which has had much of the fat trimmed from it. A steak with a high amount of fat in it tastes too greasy to many Taiwanese.”

No beef allowed

Because of periodic bans on U.S. beef imports to Taiwan, it has been challenging at times for The Sherwood to source its steak, von Hake observes. Following the discovery in 2003 of a case of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, commonly known as mad cow disease) in Washington State, 65 countries – including Taiwan – banned the import of U.S. beef either partially or completely. Even as Taiwan kept certain restrictions in place on U.S. beef, by 2007 the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) said U.S. beef was safe to consume. The OIE currently lists U.S. beef as having negligible BSE risk.

In late 2009, the Ma Ying-jeou administration lifted most of the remaining restrictions on U.S. beef imports, only to have the Legislative Yuan – controlled by Ma’s own political party, the Kuomintang – re-impose a ban on certain products from the United States, including ground beef and internal organs, in January 2010. The move was prompted by the desire of many lawmakers in both major political parties to dispel any criticism that they were insufficiently attentive to the public well-being.

The dry-aged U.S. beef served at The Sherwood's Toscana restaurant has won a wide fallowing. (Photo: Matthew Fulco)
The dry-aged U.S. beef served at The Sherwood’s Toscana restaurant has won a wide fallowing. (Photo: Matthew Fulco)

The ban was bad for business, says Lawry’s Lin. “It was very hard at that time to get any U.S. beef at all, and what we could get would typically be held up in customs. Sales were hurt.”

During that tense period, The Sherwood was one of the few restaurants that continued to promote its steaks sourced from America. Indeed, it was during 2010 that The Sherwood introduced its dry-aging room. Davis Wu, then director of the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF)-Taiwan, hailed the move in a statement published on the USMEF’s website. “The willingness of the management of the Sherwood Hotel to aggressively support U.S. beef and expand into dry-aging is a testimony to their loyalty to U.S. beef,” he said.

The presence of the muscle-enhancing feed additive ractopamine in American beef exports has been another point of contention. In 2011, Taiwan began rejecting U.S. beef shipments that tested positive for even trace elements of ractopamine, which is banned in Taiwan although the United States insists that there is no scientific evidence of its harmfulness to humans.

The U.S. and Taiwan resolved the ractopamine issue in September 2012. Taiwan agreed to accept a standard adopted by Codex Alimentarius Commission, the United Nations-affiliated organization that sets food safety standards, implementing a maximum residue level (MRL) of 10 parts per billion for the additive. Since then, the United States has once again surpassed Australia to become the top beef supplier to Taiwan. In 2015, the value of U.S. beef exports to Taiwan reached a record US$329 million.

Despite the periodic bans on its importation to Taiwan, U.S. beef remains popular with Taiwanese consumers, observes Lawry’s Lin. “U.S. beef is slightly sweeter and richer than Australian beef. Taiwanese prefer U.S. beef.”

Greener pastures ahead

With competition intensifying in Taiwan’s steakhouse market, restaurants are working hard to differentiate themselves. Lawry’s focus on prime rib gives it a distinct niche, Lin explains. Prime rib is made by roasting meat from the center cuts of the primal rib for hours, giving rise to the name “roast beef.” Nick Solares, a New York City-based food critic, writes on the New York Eater website: “At its best, prime rib embodies all the finest aspects of meat cooking – the heartiness of a stew, the tenderness of a long braise, the bodacious, up-front flavors of steak, and the salty and peppery punch of barbecue.”

The use of hand-made “silver carts” (actually hammered out of stainless steel) is another special feature of Lawry’s, Lin says. Designed according to the law of thermodynamics, the cart allows uniform, well-proportioned heat distribution. “The silver cart is like a moving kitchen,” Lin says. With it, “the chef is able to showcase the standing rib roasts and carve the beef tableside, right before the eyes of guests.”

Photo: Matthew Fulco
Photo: Matthew Fulco

Despite the arrival of some high-profile newcomers since 2015, business remains brisk at The Sherwood’s Toscana restaurant, says von Hake. “Toscana has developed an excellent reputation among Taiwanese beef lovers and patrons of steakhouses,” he says. “The brand stands for quality.”

Of course, it is not beef alone that attracts local gourmets (and gourmands) to Toscana, he adds. “One of our most popular dishes is surf and turf, which is perfect for sharing. The combination of a half a Boston lobster with a juicy dry-aged steak is very popular with Taiwanese patrons.”

Lobster also has a notable presence on the Morton’s menu. In addition to surf and turf, the Chicago-based steakhouse offers lobster bisque, a hearty cream-based soup served with lobster medallions made from fresh Boston lobster, and garnished with fresh chopped parsley. It takes three days to boil and prepare the lobster shells to create the soup, chef Beauvais notes.

Meanwhile, Alexander’s expects corporate banquets and holiday celebrations to give a boost to business in the fourth quarter. Annual revenue is expected to reach US$3 million this year and increase by 5% in 2017. “We are improving our knowledge of Taiwanese consumer tastes,” says Brownsmith. When expanding internationally, “it’s important to be flexible and relate to the local palate,” he says. “Compared to Americans, Taiwanese are more sensitive to spiciness, fat, and salt.”

Brownsmith notes that since April, Alexander’s has offered prestigious American Imperial Wagyu Beef. The majority of the cattle used for this type of beef are raised on “lush green vistas” before entering a fully vegetarian feeding phase that lasts 400 days. That production method results in delicate steaks with tiny flakes of marbling and velvety texture, he says.

“Since Taiwanese really enjoy eating steak and understand how to taste it,” says Beauvais, “we think there is room for everyone in this market.”