Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Urban Legend

Le Mout in Taichung City, Taiwan has been on my list of restaurant to try since forever and I have longed to try the cooking of the very talented Chef Lanshu Chen. So with a bit of free time at the turn of the new year, I made a quick trip there with a confirmed dinner reservation at the restaurant – probably a bit of exaggeration to say I came to Taichung just for the dinner at Le Mout but to a certain extent the dinner did play a big part of why I was spending a few days here.

The restaurant was voted Asia’s 50 Best since 2014 with the chef being named best female chef in Asia the same year – for those who understands the voting rule for the prestigious list, for the restaurant located in a small city in the middle of nowhere to be included and kept climbing up the ranking was by itself a more than remarkable feat. Of course it helped with the restaurant being part of the Relais & Chateaux collection, among other unique fine-dining establishments, such that Le Mout and Chef Lanshu were able to maintain a high profile in this ever-competitive fine-dining space in this region despite being slightly off the beaten track.

I came for dinner on the first evening of my trip, just as I landed in Taichung after a short afternoon flight from Hong Kong and settled in at my hotel. The restaurant is located inside a low-rise mansion-style building in a quiet residential neighborhood, not far from the busy business district. There’s a sense of grandeur the moment I walked through the front door into the lobby area and welcomed by the maître d’, then was led into the dining room upstairs. The décor was a classy combination of classic and contemporary styles – minimalistic, earthy-toned wall, dark wooden furniture, crystal chandeliers and then there’s abstract, modern painting and sculpture around the cozy room which houses just a handful of tables. It reminded me of The French Laundry of Napa, the restaurant which Chef Lanshu has spent time staging in before opening this restaurant in 2008.

Three tasting menus were presented for their dinner service, from the 5-course Menu Creation, to the full-blown Menu Souvenirs, each came with different wine pairing option. The restaurant was said to have a good collection of fine wines, but curiously I was only provided a short drink list with rather limited selection – I could only suspect because I was dining solo they just assumed I wouldn’t order a whole bottle to myself. At the end I picked the Menu Creation because I was more interested in their wine-pairing option for that menu with a more coherent theme of Mediterranean flavors.

I started with a trio of amuse-bouche bites – the cabbage cream bonbon with dried scallops underneath, the clam mousse “spring roll”, and the warm chicken consommé. I liked the bonbon with that burst of fresh flavor combining well with the familiar taste of dried scallops, a common ingredient used in Chinese cuisine. I was also served the sourdough bread baked with Taiwanese Guo Liang liquor and cured sausages, which I enjoyed with the generous smear of Bordier butter.

After that, another off-menu dish arrived, which is a re-interpretation of the Taiwanese classic family-style dish of Cai Pu Dan (菜脯蛋). Inside the delicate egg shell was the soft and equally delicate egg custard with chicken broth (think Japanese chawanmushi texture) and mixed with bits of Cai Pu, or pickled radish. On top was bits of pop rice spooned on by the table-side. The steamed egg custard was rich and flavorful, mixed with oil and a hint of smoked paprika, and the pickled radish added to the sweetness and crunchiness. It was a lovely appetizer course in a beautiful presentation, like a fresh egg on a bed of straws.

I then began with my first course of a pair of oysters, coming from the waters near Matsu Island on Taiwan Strait.  On the side was cucumber and granny smith presented in several forms – julienne, fluid gel and ribbons, then there’s also the mini tapioca pearls and the toasted seaweed granita. It’s interesting that the oysters were served warm like a confit, out of my expectation, and they were creamy with a rich flavor. Individual components were fine and well-presented, but I felt the overall combination was a bit disjointed – in particular I thought the smokiness of the seaweed granita was too overwhelming and didn’t work well with the bright taste of cucumber and apples.

But I thought the wine pairing of the Txakoli was brilliant – the slightly fizzy, light-bodied wine unique from the Basque region was perfect for the first few courses of amuse-bouche and the oysters. Just as I was thinking whether the sommelier would serve the wine in the traditional way of pouring at a distance into the glass (similar to how Teh Tarik was done), he did attempt to with some success (at least most of the wine did end up in my glass)  I gave credits to him for trying though – I am sure that wasn’t taught in the sommelier school. (I also enjoyed the rest of the wine selection actually – not the fanciest bottles but they were well-chosen)

I moved on to the next course of “Paella”, which turned out to be in the form of a totellini. In the deep plate sat a pair of dumplings shaped like a totellini, with “wrapper” made with squid from Penghu (another Taiwanese island) and the creamy paella filled inside. Underneath was sautéed gynura vegetables and Jerusalem artichokes, and on top, a light sherry-butter espuma and sea urchins. The dish was well-assembled and tasty, though I thought it’s not doing the beautiful Japanese sea urchins (Bafun Uni?) any justice for them playing only a supporting role in this course.

I can’t believe I forgot to take a snap of my next course called “Eight Commandments” as that was perhaps the best course of the evening. On the dish was a few cuts of pork and offals presented in their cleanest form. The small slab of pork “brisket” with good balance of fat and meaty flavor was cooked sous vide and on top were the thin slices of pig’s heart grilled with a contrasting crunchy texture and a hint of smokiness. On the side was thin rice crackers, dehydrated cabbage and red currant bringing some bright color to the dish and the acidity. A few sauces were served as well – the pearl-barley espuma, dots of pepper-balsamic emulsion and then a smoky tonkotsu (pork bone broth) reduction sauce, and the combination worked well with the rest of the ingredients, giving each bite a different taste and texture. And without a picture, you just have to believe my words for it - it was great.

The original menu listed Beef Short Ribs being the main course, but when I was offered an alternative choice of Duck Breast to choose from, I opted for that one instead. The meat from Yilan Country’s Cherry Valley duck was cooked sous-vide with skin-on and served with the jus mixed with mustard seed and white currant for the balancing acidity. On the side of the dish was a dollop of Shaoxing espuma, then figs, roasted onions, caramelized onion puree, duck gizzard confit and a stick of dried duck ham. The duck was well-brined and with a firm (I meant chewy) bite, though the skin was not the crispiest I have tasted. Other than that I thought this dish was fine, but if I must be nitpicking, the pieces of breast were not rested long enough before carving, leaving a bit of the bloody jus creeping out affecting both the taste and presentation.

After the pre-dessert of a bowl of pineapple granita with the candied ginger and areca palm blossom (Bin Lang flower 檳榔花), the creamy camembert and maqaw peppercorns, my final course of “Maple Mont Blanc” was served. It’s a seemingly random combination of components – candied carrots, a small quenelle of Lapsang Souchong icecream, honey cake with cream and bits of redcurrant hidden inside and chestnut mousse on top. Other than the somewhat artistic look, to be honest I was a bit lost with all the different flavor in a single dish. And then there’s the petit fours – for which my favorite was the espresso bonbon topped with a creamy foam.

I struggled to find the right words to describe how I felt about the meal – I don’t want this to sound too harsh. This is a very decent meal but just didn’t wow as much as I thought it should. To me the restaurant is more "urban legend" than being legendary as some people may describe as. No doubt substantial effort was made in creating the luxury ambiance with good service, somewhat interesting menu and solid execution like no other, at least in Taiwan standard, but I thought it was merely right on par with the low end of my expectation given the restaurant and the chef's reputation (and for what I was paying for the experience). I left the building thinking the dinner was definitely missing something - that feeling of me looking at a dish. just any dish, taking one bite of it and I could tell myself, “wow, THAT is worth my time coming all the way over for”. Just that one bite that I wish I had.

More pictures here:

When? January 17 2018
Where? Le Mout, 59 Cunzhong Street, Taichung, Taiwan
Menu Highlights? Eight Commandments – Pork Jaw, Heart, Pearl Barley, Amberfish
2015 Txakoli Txomin Etxantz
Perla Rose Brut NV, Vina Laguna, Istria, Croatia
2015 Negramoll Vina Bodegas Matias I Torres

1 comment :

LL said...

I share your feelings. My experience was even more underwhelming as the piece of fish I had was undercooked. They did apologize and exchange it but it was still a let down especially given the price they charge.