Three Taipei restaurants using locally sourced ingredients to create stunning dishes

Taiwan’s abundance of high-quality natural produce is prompting chefs in the capital to create meals that are triumphs of local sourcing, with some believing the quality of produce is even higher than that from Japan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 October, 2017, 8:18am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 October, 2017, 8:18am

There is no shortage of Hong Kong visitors to Taiwan, drawn by the country’s legendary street-food culture and night markets. Stinky tofu, spring onion pancakes, coffin bread and beef noodle soup are just some of the dishes that entice people to come on scores of daily flights.

But there is a new culinary wave attracting diners to Taipei’s hugely exciting restaurant scene, one where local produce is the hero and prices can come as a very welcome surprise.

Modern French brasserie Chou Chou is taking comforting classics to new heights through exceptional ingredients and presentation, all at a reasonable price. One of Taipei’s most popular and acclaimed places to eat, the restaurant is owned and run by Hong Kong born-and-raised chef Lam Ming-kin and his partner Amy Chen, who also own the city’s equally popular establishment Longtail.

Lam’s stellar career in global kitchens has seen him work at Vong (now closed) at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, Guy Savoy’s Le Chiberta in Paris and Jean Georges in New York. His journey ultimately bought him to Taipei, a move partly inspired by the country’s natural bounty.

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“Taipei is one of the few cities in Asia where, within an hour or two, you can visit and talk to your fisherman or farmer. It’s about the relationship with them,” he says. “Hong Kong is convenient and you can get anything through deliveries three times a week from France, but they only come once a week here so you have to be more creative.”

At Chou Chou, a series of brilliant lunch plates prove his point (three courses at NT$880/US$30 plus 10 per cent), but perhaps none more so than a fig salad and a duck confit. The salad combines the sweetest, softest local figs from western Yunlin County with beautiful cow’s milk stracciatella cheese, not from Italy, but the city of Taichung. The duck confit, also entirely locally sourced, is a perfect rendition with sensational depth of flavour.

The confit is also a big draw for regulars, Kin explains. “It’s a marriage between France and Taiwan – Taiwan produce with French technique.”

This mantra is heard time and again across the city. Sammy Wu, director of food and beverage at the Mandarin Oriental, Taipei and another Hong Kong import, says that he has been consistently wowed by the local produce since arriving in the capital a year ago.

“When I visit the weekly organic market, individual farmers are proud of their own produce, providing bar codes so customers can easily trace what comes from their farm,” he says. “Previously I only knew of one type of Taiwan mango, but now I live here I’ve tried at least a dozen, all of exceptional quality. I’d say that some of the produce here is at the same level – or even higher – when compared with what you get in Japan.”

Another chef who agrees is the person who has put contemporary Taipei dining on the map more than anyone else: André Chiang. The chef, who is from Taipei, owns five establishments, including the two-Michelin-star Restaurant Andre in Singapore. However, he recently surprised the industry by announcing he would close Andre early next year and, controversially, hand back its two stars to Michelin – as well as turn down any he may receive in the future – so that he could concentrate on his hometown restaurant Raw.

Opened in 2014, Raw quickly blossomed into a must-visit joint for those intent on understanding Taiwan’s finest kitchens. It has claimed multiple accolades, including 24th place in the 2017 list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants published by UK firm William Reed Business Media. It is also one of the hardest restaurants in Taiwan to book, with a wait of about two months.

An exceptional lunch shows why the seats are so coveted – and why Michelin will be disappointed at Chiang’s decision to refuse its stars in the rumoured launch of its Taiwan guide next year. At NT$1850 for seven courses, it again reminds me of the remarkable value of dining in Taipei, and explains the mix of clientele – from culinary students splashing out to families and international visitors.

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Raw happens to be in the same building as Ryugin (a restaurant with three Michelin stars in Japan but one where, in Taiwan, trusts every ingredient to be Taiwanese – an incredible show of faith in the country’s produce). The interior is breathtaking and features an extraordinary 30-tonne carved wooden bar around which the restaurant was built. Each table has a studio-quality downlight over the centre so diners can take clear photographs of their food.

The large kitchen – whose 25 staff, all from Taiwan, have an average age of 26 – is absolutely spotless, cleaned no fewer than four times every day. This care and attention to detail also runs through every dish on the menu.

Raw’s cuisine again celebrates “French technique with Taiwanese ingredients”. Chef de cuisine Alain Huang explains how they don’t just seek seasonal produce but aim to follow, where possible, the idea of 24 “micro seasons”.

The seven-course lunch is, frankly, faultless. A picture-perfect salad of preserved watermelon and beef tomato is a stand-out, as is the fresh tuna and more of that sensational local stracciatella cheese that was also on the menu at Chou Chou. Raw’s version of surf and turf is a sublime mix of baby octopus and chicken, but best of all is dessert, their take on a banoffee pie. Crumbly, buttery pastry is filled with local smoked bananas, delicious ice cream, marshmallows and a thin chocolate crisp. A small blue jug of espresso foam is poured over the top to bring it all together beautifully.

Raw has also welcomed some of the world’s greatest chefs for “four hand” dinner collaborations. The legendary Albert Adrià from Barcelona’s Tickets restaurant saw the venue turn into a nightclub, while for Dan Hunter from Brae near Melbourne, it morphed into a farm.

“We’re not a restaurant, we’re more a platform,” Huang explains. “We have to respect and honour this place and recognise our own identity.”

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Finally, hidden behind an unremarkable facade on a side street, there’s Mume. Its international back-of-house team consists of owner-chef Richie Lin from Hong Kong, Kai Ward from Australia and Long Xiong from the US. The trio craft “European Asian fusion”, but almost every ingredient – including the quinoa for the quinoa tostada – comes from Taiwan (only the oysters and beef are imported).

Inside is all salvaged wood, coiled ropes and moody lighting, but the commitment to Taiwan’s produce couldn’t be clearer. A breathtakingly pretty salad garden features more than 20 ingredients from around the country. The “soil” is made from dehydrated black beans, and there are radishes, beans, peas, herbs and flowers – with ingredients dried, pickled, fermented and more. It is a tour de force which calls to mind Michel Bras’ legendary vegetable dish “le gargouillou”.

A starter of chicken liver pâté is dark and deep through the addition of local wine, then lifted by a clever sweet crisp on top, like a crème brûlée. That was followed by a signature dish of beef tartare with clam mayo, confit egg yolk and preserved daikon, which eats just as well – if not better – than it looks.

Best of all was the insanely good beef marinated for a week in sake, with a sauce that had the smack and mouthfeel – in the best possible way – of Marmite. It was accompanied by matsutake mushrooms and came with a sprinkling of coffee powder.

The average price for an a la carte meal at Mume is about NT$2,000 and it is easy to see how it grabbed 43rd place on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. It was a delicious, unpretentious, locally sourced triumph of a meal, a fitting end to a brilliant and surprising culinary exploration in Taipei.

Chou Chou, No. 22, Alley 6, Lane 170, Section 4, Zhongxiao East Road, Taipei, Taiwan, tel: +886 2 2773 1819

Raw, 301 Lequn 3rd Road, Taipei, Taiwan, tel: +886 2 8501 5800

Mume, 28 Siwei Road, Da’an District, Taipei, Taiwan, tel: 886 2 2700 0901