Who says that Teppanyaki cooking is only for Japanese style food? The method can be adapted to fusion cuisine, as I discovered when I dined at Chamonix: a Taiwanese upper-end chain restaurant that combines French flair with precision Japanese technique and quality local ingredients.
On Friday night, I attended a dinner hosted by Taiwan’s External Trade Association, TAITRA, as part of the festivities for the month-long celebration June Taste of Taiwan Cuisine. Not that Taiwan’s food needs much promoting: once people get to Taiwan, food is the thing that they invariably rave about. Chamonix was chosen as the venue because TAITRA had awarded them the honour of being one of the top ten restaurants in Taiwan. It also represents another side of Taiwanese food beyond stinky tofu and oyster omelette; an innovative combination of international influences that reflects a unique aspect of Taiwan’s fusion cuisine.
Chamonix belongs to the Wowprime Group, a chain of restaurants at varying price points that runs twelve brands in Taiwan and two in China, with plans to expand further into the mainland. Many of their restaurants have Japanese themes, reflecting Taiwan’s strong historical and culinary influences from Japan. But Wowprime does not just recreate classics, with many of its menu choices geared to creating a unique Taiwan style fusion cuisine.
But French style Teppanyaki? How does that work?
It works very well. French cuisine incorporates many features suited to Teppanyaki, not the least spectacular flambe cooking (more about that later), quality produce (especially meat) and attention to detail. And French copper pans look amazing on top of a well-maintained Teppanyaki plate.
Our menu was comparatively streamlined. It was essentially a set menu of nine courses (yes, nine! courses) with choices with most but not all courses.
Before our main meal arrived, we were presented with two Chinese spoons as a type of amuse bouche. Our waitress advised us to eat the right one and then the left. But I deliberated before consuming the right side one as it looked like a raw egg yolk; I need not have feared as it was actually skilfully encased mango juice and set atop fruit salad. I admired the creativity but was a bit anxious while eating it. The other dish, a prawn cocktail, had a fruity/spicy combination that gave me a heightened sense of anticipation about the dishes to come.
For entree, I chose the beef consomme as I wanted to see how Chamonix handled a traditional French classic. The beef broth was light, clear and flavoursome, but the soup was more complex than that with presentation showing subtle Asian (Vietnamese?) influences. I was presented with a bowl with three balls of thinly sliced rare beef, each one wrapped with delicately shredded onion. Our chef heated the soup to boiling on the Teppanyaki plate, and our waitress then poured it in onto the beef balls thereby parcooking the beef.
The popular soup choice in our group was the geoduck clam seafood soup. The soup had a similar approach, with our waitress pouring a thick, boiling chowder over fresh seafood. I am not sure how the foam combination, which I presume was whipped egg whites, worked.
In a feeble effort at countering excess, I ordered a fresh salad with parma ham and fresh mozzarella. This was nice, and I liked the honey and vinegar dressing that went with it (although would have perhaps preferred something more traditional like a balsamic).
But I wished I had ordered what everyone in the know ordered — warm truffled mushroom salad, which was prepared with locally grown mushrooms cooked in front of us the Teppanyaki plate, and topped with truffle oil.
Before heading to the main course, a small shot glass of lemon sorbet appeared. There was no spoon, but none was needed as this was served more as a drink than an ice. I am not sure if it is usual or not, but our waitress refilled it throughout the evening. I found it a nice way to cleanse my palette in between the more substantive grilled meat session.
Speaking of which, I was fascinated by watching how our Teppanyaki chef prepared all the main dishes. Each one required its own individual preparation and skill. As I watched our tall, proud young chef dressed immaculately in a French style chef uniform (complete with white chefs hat) expertly grill and slice the meat, I was reminded of a Japanese television cooking show called ‘Iron Chef’. Here was no backyard Sunday warrior slapping sausages on the barbie: our chef clearly knew what he was doing and had a whole knife set that would rival that of Crocodile Dundee to prove it. He told me he trained from an old Taiwanese Teppanyaki expert for six months before beginning to serve customers, and his skill was evident.
After some deliberation, I chose the duck breast with brandy. This was a fortuitous choice, as it turns out that this French influenced dish is the most famous main course at Chamonix. Our host from Chamonix explained that this dish uses a Cherry Valley duck, a breed cultivated in England, but now produced in Yilan (East Coast Taiwan). Cherry refers to the dark red colour of the duck skin; I noticed the duck breasts were larger and arguably more succulent than other types of duck I have seen.
Our chef firstly cooked the breast skin side down for around ten minutes to allow it to crispen; at one point, he cut around the edges presumably to trim some fat and hasten the crisping process. Then there was the spectacular stage of putting the duck in a copper pan and dousing it liberally with Calvados brandy. Thankfully, he warned us about the flames in advance but even so we all let out an involuntary ‘oooooh’, even the second time he lit the brandy.
The finished duck breast, served simply with Teppanyaki cooked apple, was succulent and rich. It was a unique way to prepare and serve duck, and I highly recommend it even if you are not usually a duck person.
A Japanese food writer next to me ordered the crusty pork with apple. I was intrigued to watch the presentation of this dish, as it was much more exciting than the name indicates. Essentially, her pork was served in three different ways. Firstly, there was a small plate of Japanese influenced thin pork cooked simply with white wine and topped with shallots and ginger. Then our chef served strips of pork that were served with rectangular strips of apple, designed to be eaten together. And finally, the pork was fried almost gyoza style. This lady allowed me to taste the first two pork rounds: it was surprisingly good.
While I did not order the grilled beef tenderloin, I was fascinating watching our chef expertly grilled and slice the New Zealand beef (the website says the beef is sourced from the US and Australia, but I was told that it was from New Zealand). Beef steak lovers would be in heaven.
By this stage I had, as my grandmother was wont to say, eaten to elegant sufficiency. And then a bowl of Taiwanese-influenced fried rice appeared. The fried rice was topped with a speciality from the Taiwan town of Donggang, miniature dried ‘Sakura’ prawns, and filled with pinhead sized prawn eggs. There would have been a time before I became a Taiwanxifu when this would have seemed an odd combination to me, but I understand and appreciate the delicacy of Sakura prawns. Nonetheless, my host and I opted to have this dish wrapped up to go (along with half of our duck breast — delicious leftovers for the next day).
When I was served my desert, I could not help but let out an involuntary ‘Wow’ (presumably, Wowprime Group aspires to live up to its name). At first it looked just like a simple ice-cream dessert with a white chocolate disc on top. But then our waitress poured on a hot, raspberry sauce that seeped into the ice-cream mixture and combined to form a rich vulcano of berries, nuts and cream. This would be a perfect winter dessert.
I tried a new beverage, a litchi (lychee) vinegar with aloe. Sweet vinegar drinks are popular in Taiwan, as they are believed to assist with digestion and help alleviate the effects of the heat. My vinegar drink was only subtly sour, and I felt it was an appropriately healthy choice after two weeks of extreme indulgence. It was also pretty, dressed with floating pieces of strawberry and mint leaves.
But when I dine at Chamonix next time, I will definitely order what the Japanese food writer and her friend ordered: the lemon mint smoothie. This was presented like a space-age cocktail, with the fresh mint ice piped over different layers of blue and green in a frosted cocktail glass. It was so girly and fun, and tasted refreshing as well.
Chamonix has several venues in Taiwan: I dined at TAITRA’s invitation at their Zhonghe branch at Zhongshan Road Section 2 (phone 02-8245-1316). The restaurant is designed with a stylish retro French feel, combining European style black and white photos with plush crimson seats. While there are some private rooms, most of the seating is communal with people congregating around the Teppanyaki plates. The set menu costs NT$980 plus 10% service charge
Service was exceptional. Wowprime has a reputation for being a favourite choice for graduates. Not just high school graduates, many university students gladly flock to Wowprime to work despite the low starting salary and menial work, in part because it has a reputation as being a happy place to work. Apparently Wowprime staff are trained to anticipate customer’s every need: for example if someone sneezes, they will bring a glass of warm water. Twice during the night I looked for some tissues and found someone standing there with a packet already opened. And when I left, our waitress gave me her card and told me that she would personally look after me the next time I came.
Oh, and while on the topic of business cards, there is an urban myth that if you can get the business card of the chef that you will get a discount next time. Yes, I did actually tried this approach and yes it failed. Apparently, not even employees with guanxi can get a discount. Still, Chamonix is exceptional value for money so while not a budget restaurant it delivers a high quality product.