I love reading books about people who have had a complete sea change, relocating to some romantic part of Europe where — free from the economic necessities of the daily grind — they enjoy long, lazy lunches in small trattorias or bistros. Non-stop downtown Taipei seems an unlikely place to find any similar leisurely lunchtime traditions, unless you happen to dine at Aux Champs Sur Marne (馬思田園).
Aus Champs Sur Marne is a small, intimate restaurant of only ten tables. It has a rustic, unhurried feel to it … as if you suddenly transported to a small French village. And indeed the name of the restaurant is taken from chef and owner’s hometown in France — Aux Champs Sur Marne, a village about 30km out of Paris (apparently near Disneyland). Just stepping inside I felt as if I was instantly transported to a different place and a different era.
Chef and owner Frederick Tran personally greets all guests and takes their orders. His positive energy and obvious love of talking to patrons is almost infectious. Which is somewhat amazing given his traumatic path to opening a restaurant in Taipei.
Born in Cambodia into a French speaking family (his Father and Grandfather had worked to French aristocrats in Cambodia) , his family were on the Khmer Rouge hit list during the turbulent days of political change in Indo-Chine. He managed to escape from Cambodia to France when he was 14; but most of his family was not so lucky. In Paris, he found work in restaurants and became a chef working in top Parisienne establishments. Married to a Taiwanese wife, he then decided to move to Taipei to set up his own business. But although he lives in Taiwan now, it was clear from his conversation that he still identifies himself as a patriotic French national.
We dined on Mother’s Day, and so enjoyed a special set menu. The menu was only in French and Mandarin, but I followed Tran’s helpful suggestions when ordering. I figure that if the chef is recommending, it must be good. I should add that Tran is multilingual, and speaks excellent Mandarin and fluent French, but no English.
We all had the same cauliflower soup as a starter. It was smooth and robust, and simply decorated. I liked that it was not overly creamy; I find some soups in Taiwan can be a bit heavy on the cream swirls.
Salad was a choice of mushroom or smoked salmon. I chose the mushroom salad, which was simple and refreshing. The grated cheese on top was a little odd, but still nice.
For my main dish, I chose sea bass prepared Normandy-style. Tran was insistent I try this. He said he used to work at the Lancaster Hotel in Paris, where he once prepared this dish for Britain’s Queen Mother. (Although they didn’t serve sea bass to the Queen Mother, it was prepared in the same style.) The fish was served skin-side up. I found this interesting, as many Western style restaurants eschew the skin. But not here; the skin was crispy and slightly crunchy, and yet somehow light and non-greasy. The skin was the main event, with the sweet flesh a mere accompaniment.
Mr Taiwanxifu chose the New Zealand beef with foie gras sauce. He noted later that despite Tran not asking how he would like the beef cooked, it was perfectly tender and just right. (But if you are the sort of person who is particular about having rare or medium rare steak, it may be best to communicate this.) Mr Taiwanxifu’s only complaint was that the two beef fillets were small; or perhaps this reflects us becoming reacquainted with supersized meat servings during our recent trip back to Australia.
For dessert, I was initially tempted by the crepes (choice of banana and vanilla or rhubarb) but in the end ordered Creme Brulee (also at the suggestion of Tran). This was a popular choice, with everyone at our table ordering the same. There was a moment of silence as we spooned through the toffee layer on top into the smooth, velvety custard underneath. And there was no leftovers … we all agreed this was perfect.
Tea and coffee came accompanied by some seriously dark chocolate truffles. The truffles evidently had a high cocoa content, and were bitter-sweet and strong. This was no mass-produced, super-hyped imitation but the real thing.
Overall, I thought the style and servings indicated a more traditional, old-style approach to French food and service. Mr Taiwanxifu and I both commented on the way home that despite indulging in four courses (plus truffles) we did not feel full and floated. In part this was because the size of the main meal was relatively small (which given the tendency towards over-eating is probably a good thing).
Aux Champs Sur Marne Cuisine Francaise (馬思田園) is at No 161, Xing An Street, Taipei (台北市松山區興安街161號, phone 02 2547 2423), not far from Fuxing North Road.