Suffering for Taiwan’s Sublime Cuisine

ORCHID. Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

What it’s like to dine out with celebrities on delectable, rich Michelin-starred food – gout be damned.

Publication last year of the first Taipei Michelin Guide launched Taipei into the rarefied ranks of cities like San Francisco, New York, and Shanghai that can boast their own Michelin guides. Of the total of 20 restaurants in the city to receive Michelin stars, 17 were recognized with one Michelin star, two obtained two stars, and only one – Le Palais restaurant in the Palais de Chine hotel – was honored with three stars.

Of course, in-the-know travelers long ago spotted Taipei as a foodie’s paradise, though for the most part the reputation was built on hole-in-the-wall noodle joints and night-market fare.

Now that the city is finally gaining notice from the global arbiters of good grub for its excellence in haute cuisine, we’ll be taking a deeper dive into such key questions as:

  • What distinguishes the offerings at an expensive Taipei Michelin-starred restaurant from the merely good food you’ll find at any other restaurant?

and

  • Was answering this and other culinary questions worth three weeks of pain and a strict diet of bland food on the part of the author, a veteran travel and food journalist ironically cursed with gout (a genetic malady triggered by haute cuisine)?

Le Palais with Andrew Zimmern

Chef Andrew Zimmern, host of the long-running Travel Channel program Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, fits into a very narrow field – namely former New York City punk kids turned globe-trotting celebrity chefs (a group sadly diminished by the death of Anthony Bourdain). So when the invitation came to dine with him on a Saturday afternoon at Le Palais, I jumped at the chance.

The private dining room was buzzing when I arrived, dressed in the finest faux-Chinese casual wear I could find. Cameras had been set up in the corners of the room, and restaurant staff was milling about, making sure that everything that would be served over the next three hours wouldn’t just be tasty, but also photogenic.

Twenty or so minutes later, Zimmern arrived. The meal could begin.

Detractors of the Palais de Chine say that its menu doesn’t really reflect “Taiwanese” cuisine, as its dishes are by and large more associated with Hong Kong and Canton than those developed on this side of the Taiwan Strait. To that argument I respond with a bit of history.

As China’s civil war slogged on to its inevitable conclusion in the 1940s, chefs from all corners of the country held moistened fingers to quickly shifting political winds and sensed a coming downturn in opportunity for those mainly serving haute cuisine to the rich and privileged. Those with resources packed up recipe books and kitchen utensils and high-tailed it to Formosa to make a last stand with the Generalissimo, who – whatever his other failings – seemed to appreciate good food.

“I’m glad to see that Taipei is finally being recognized,” says celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern. Photo: April Chen

This background gives Taiwan every right to claim dishes from Sichuan, Canton, or Beijing as part of its own canon whenever said dishes are made in Taiwan – and ours were coming from the Le Palais kitchen 17 stories above central Taipei.

Zimmern was positively effusive about the slew of dishes that arrived at the table one after the other. Before digging in, he and members of his entourage photographed each one from multiple angles.

The first course was cha siu bao (叉燒包), fluffy white steamed buns filled with stewed pork. Zimmern said they were among the best he’d ever tasted. Afterward came steamed shrimp shumai (燒賣), followed by whole shrimp wrapped in delicate rice paper.

We hadn’t even gone through the appetizers and I was already way over what should have been my day’s “sensible” limit of purine (the stuff that sets off gout attacks). Downing several shots of drinking vinegar (known for blood-cleansing properties), I hoped for the best.

As more dishes came, Zimmern offered his opinion that while the Michelin guide represented acknowledgment of Taipei’s haute cuisine bona fides, the city in fact had long ago reached that standard. “Michelin is basically confirming what you and I have known for a long time, namely that there are restaurants in Taipei on par with Michelin-star restaurants in every other city in the world,” he said.

At that point, the larger plates appeared, starting with a whole roast baby duckling (the chef proudly told us it had been killed and cooked after a scant 24 days of waddling the earth). The duck was followed by a square of roasted fatty pork dripping with flavor. I passed on the kong pao (宫保) frog stomach, leaving more for the rest of the group, who seemed charmed by the exotic twist on the traditional chicken dish.

“Breadth and depth are what makes a great food city,” Zimmern said between courses. “Taipei has always had a great deal of depth – great Asian food and so forth – but now it’s also becoming equally known for its breadth.”

Zimmern, a self-described “Michelin reformer,” has long been critical of what he calls the “ethnocentrism” of the Michelin system, in which cities in the Eastern world were treated as somehow less deserving of consideration than their Western counterparts. But he says this ethnocentrism is starting to crack as more restaurants throughout Asia get the recognition they deserve.

The meal continued for several more courses, finishing with fruit alongside a plate of Portuguese egg tarts, a dish that folks in Taipei once upon a time brought home from Macao by the boxful.

Before we departed, Zimmern showed me a picture he’d shot on his phone the previous night outside Longtail, another Michelin-starred restaurant, in the Da’an district. The image was of a man in chef’s garb, smoking a cigarette while squatting in the manner that only Asian people seem able to do comfortably, as blue light from the restaurant kitchen spilled into the alley.

“Here’s a guy who’s been putting out great food all night, taking maybe his first break of the evening,” said Zimmern. “A big part of my career has been about making invisible people in the food world visible, and I thought this image captured that sentiment. I’m glad to see that Taipei is finally being recognized.”

Orchid with Hungry Girl

A few days later, purines crystallizing inexorably in my blood, I found myself waiting before the elegant front door of the Michelin-starred Orchid restaurant on Anhe road. While my first foray into Taipei’s haute cuisine was with an international VIP, the second was with a rather mysterious local personality known to the world by her blogging nom de plume, Hungry Girl in Taipei.

Orchid’s Arthur Briand. Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

Together, we’d be dining on a special menu created by visiting French chef Gildas Perin for Gastromonth, a celebration of Taipei’s inclusion in the Michelin Guide.

Minutes after arrival, Hungry Girl and I were being invited into the kitchen by Orchid’s Maître d’hôtel, Arthur Briand. I assumed this was an honor extended due to my dining companion’s local celebrity, but Briand assured me otherwise. “We allow each customer the opportunity to have their amuse bouches (first bites) in the kitchen,” he told us.

The several bite-sized dishes included a light cucumber and a small candied beet (both served on their own individual wooden spoons), as well as a hollowed-out eggshell with a very delectable egg foam inside. Hungry Girl, who has dined in Michelin-starred restaurants on several continents, seemed duly impressed.

Returning to our table – a futuristic setup boasting USB ports and gently glowing circles apparently designed to let diners know where to place their cups – we got down to the more serious dishes. Each was brought to the table by Maître d’ Arthur, who explained what we’d be eating.

That was fortunate.

At the Palais de Chine, everything presented (aside from the kong pao frog stomach, which frankly required explanation) was a top-quality version of some otherwise recognizable dish. But the chefs at Orchid seemed to have gone out of their way to make everything they served unique, baffling as many senses as possible.

Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

A mysterious black cracker set inside of what looked like a miniature pumpkin was brought first. The squid-ink biscuit hid a single serving of onion cream with lobster jelly, and the bowl was partially edible. Another bowl (this one inedible) held shrimp hovering in a translucent jellied sauce. More recognizable was the small lobster tail in a broth of coconut, lime, and grapefruit.

“While Michelin puts the spotlight on Taipei’s fine dining restaurants and its chefs, it also puts some pressure on the restaurants themselves,” Hungry Girl said as we dined. “Whether or not we agree with the ratings, the guide creates a shortlist for travelers coming to Taipei.”

We feasted further on more delicious (and largely less mysterious) French dishes of fish, beef, and seafood. All epitomized continental haute cuisine, dishes one might have offered Benjamin Franklin or Henry the Eighth (two other famous gout sufferers known to express post-meal regret, the former by authoring treatises, the latter by executing spouses).

As the meal approached its end, Arthur came with a single red apple in a bowl, over which he poured an unknown liquid causing the apple to emit a fragrant vapor. This, he explained, created “an autumnal atmosphere for the dessert course.” Small cakes arrived alongside excellent coffee, which we consumed as the apple continued to spread its scent.

Lunch had gone nearly two hours. Such is the continental way.

International Chef’s Summit Asia

Waking the following day with nary a twinge, I figured I’d dodged the gout bullet. Still, it seemed a good idea to watch my diet for the rest of the week. Heading into the office, I stopped by Cuba Coffee on Heping Road for my high-cholesterol but gout-safe breakfast (the best grilled cheese and tomato sandwich in Taipei, in my opinion).

Inside the office, my boss approached me. He seemed to be sizing me up.

“You got a dress jacket?” he asked.

“At home,” I replied.

He took his jacket off and draped it over my shoulders.

“Wear this one. Grab a taxi to the Marriott Hotel in Neihu. You’ll be representing MyTaiwanTour at the International Chef’s Summit Asia. There’ll be free food.”

So much for starting the week sensibly. Putting editing work aside and sandwich in the fridge, I headed out the door.

Twenty minutes later and wearing a suit jacket clearly made for another build, I stepped out of the elevator on the eighth floor of the Marriott, my senses greeted simultaneously by a hotchpotch of fragrances and thumping music emanating from the ballroom.

Of the many gastronomic events happening around Taipei that month, the International Chef’s Summit Asia was arguably the highlight. It had brought the creme-de-la-creme of Asia’s food scene to Taipei for a victory lap celebrating Taipei’s Michelin ascension. In attendance were notables like Chef Umberto Bombana from Hong Kong’s 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana (3 stars), Chef Luca Fantin from Tokyo’s Il Ristorante Bulgari (1 star), Chef Yusuke Takada of Osaka’s La Cime (1 star), and other Michelin-starred chefs from around Asia.

Joining them on the stage in recognition of Taipei’s gastronomic arrival would be some of the top chefs in Taipei, including Richie Lin from Mume, Kai Ho from Tairroir, and Kin Ming Lam from Longtail (each of which had recently been awarded single Michelin stars in the new guide).

The chefs mingled, swapping kitchen tales, tasting morsels from several of Taipei’s most acclaimed restaurants, and serving samples of their own food from tables arranged along the walls of the ballroom.

Throwing caution to the wind, I grabbed a chunk of duck braised in Taiwan’s own Kavalan whisky, the culinary creation of chefs at the Marriott kitchen. Over at the next table, Chef Kin Ming Lam served a smoked milkfish tart with flying-fish roe. I sampled two in the name of journalism, finding them surprisingly light. Despite the two kinds of seafood, the dominant flavor was dill.

Richie Lin had created his own version of Japan’s chawanmushi, a savory custard of steamed egg and seafood. Long-time favorite in the Taipei food scene Du Hsiao Yue (considered the best noodle shop on popular Yongkang Street), had set up a miniature kitchen where its chef handed out small bowls of its signature dish: a purine-rich clarified broth made using shrimp heads and shells, and served with noodles, diced pork, and a single fat shrimp on top.

At an ad hoc stand, Du Hsiao Yue makes available its signature noodle soup with shrimp and pork. Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

As the music continued thumping, punctuated every few minutes by an announcement that the ceremony proper would begin shortly, I continued sampling.

The ceremony itself was mercifully brief. A few visiting chefs made quick speeches about their experience dining in Taipei, while local chefs expressed gratitude at Michelin for recognizing their work. The ceremony over, I headed back to my office to return my boss’s jacket and consume my cold cheese and tomato sandwich.

Epilogue

Gout is a strange mistress. In Dialogue between Franklin and the Gout, Benjamin Franklin personalizes his own struggles with the malady by giving it a female persona, with whom he engages in late-night conversation.

“What have I done to merit these cruel sufferings?” Franklin asks Madam Gout, who replies: “Many things; you have ate and drank too freely, and too much indulged those legs of yours in their indolence.”

My own Mistress Gout came to collect her bill sometime before dawn the next morning, my right foot now swollen to the size of a golf ball. Cursing the gods, I limped to the bathroom cabinet for the usual cocktail of Colchicine and Ibuprofen, which with fruits, vegetables, and toast would be the sum total of my diet for the foreseeable future.

So was it all worth it? Weeks later, still limping and subsisting on a bland diet, I’m still trying to answer that question. Like Franklin to his Madam Gout, I’ve made promises that in the future I’ll practice temperance.

And even as I make this silent vow, slurping yam congee through a bubble milk tea straw, my mind drifts back to the Michelin-starred carnival of flavor that brought me to this sorry fate – the seductive fragrance of fatty duck, the flavorful lobster swimming in sauce, the savory shrimp dumplings.

Hearing my thoughts, Mistress Gout chuckles, replying less fancifully to me than Franklin’s did to him, but echoing similar sentiments.

“I’ll be back,” she whispers.

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