VIN MARIANI AD, CIRCA 1900
Taiwan, The Beautiful Island
by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
Taiwan, The Beautiful Island
by John Mariani
Taipei 101 Building
The Portuguese called it Formosa, "beautiful island," and, despite its very new Chinese name, Taiwan, one can easily see why visitors from Europe regarded its rippling coastline on the Pacific and its 200 mountains--its highest, Yushan or Jade Mountain the inspiration for the island's artists--as a place at once removed from their own civilization yet buoyed by a history that dates back 20,000 years to a time when Taiwan was connected to the mainland, a symbiosis that continues to preoccupy Chinese on both sides of the straits.
Occupied in 1895 by the Japanese after the First Sino-Japanese War until after their defeat in World War II, Taiwan was claimed by both Communist forces led by Mao Tse Tung and Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek (below, with his wife,Soong May), who in 1949 evacuated two million people to Formosa, where they founded the Republic of China. Tensions between the two territories have flared and sputtered for decades, and Taiwan's own harsh suppression of suspected Communists decimated much of the island's intellectual community. Not until the 1980s, when Chiang's successor, Chiang Ching Quo took over, was there a liberalization that eventually led to democracy. Then, in 2007, with all ties to the Mainland severed, Taiwan became the island's official name, with Mandarin its official language.
There seems nothing like pent-up democracy to send Asian countries' economies soaring, and this has certainly been the case in the capital of Taipei, a very modern city, with broad boulevards, good transportation system, and a well-educated populace. Industry is booming, advanced tech and computer sciences flourish, and, as the 19th largest economy in the world, Taiwan is one of the Four Asian Tigers. As a result, foreign investment by luxury companies has poured in, so that the new Taipei 101 building (above) is anchored by several floors of the most expensive European designer shops in Asia, along with a stunning food court in the lower floor selling everything from French chocolates to 50 different kinds of Western breads and scores of wines and cheese--things new and much wanted by the Taiwanese, who apparently have a good deal of money to spend and a strong middle class of a kind still lacking in Mainland China and Russia.
There is not a single spot in Taiwan that escapes your view of 101, which dominates a cityscape of much lower buildings. (For six years, from 2004 to 2010, it was the world's tallest, at 1,671 feet.) Its design is done not only according to the principles of feng shui but is also certified platinum, the highest award, from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design; it is also designed to withstand typhoons and hurricanes and earthquakes. Its design is also in line with ancient Chinese symbolism--the number 101 commemorates the new century and the traditional number of perfection. Its ruyi figures throughout the design, evoking heavenly clouds, connotes protection.
The city's proudest cultural monument is the beautiful National Palace Museum (left), housing more than 677,000 pieces of art and artifacts, not least an extraordinary collection of calligraphic scrolls stored within exquisitely crafted wooden boxes. The holdings date back 8,000 years up through the Qing Dynasty, reflecting the sumptuous history of China's emperors. Like everything else on Taiwan, the collections are hotly disputed by Mainland China as to which country actually owns it all. A Ming Dynasty vase in shown at right.
Also on a monumental, if monomaniacal scale, is the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, (below, left) entered through a huge white Gate of Great Centrality and Perfect Uprightness and flanked by the National Theater and National Concert Hall. Completed in 1980, the colors red, blue and white evoke those of Taiwan's flag, and its octagonal shape the lucky number eight. After climbing the steps in front of the Hall, you go through immense, tall doors and find yourself in sight of the huge bronze statue of the general himself, who died in 1975. (Mao Tse Tung had bigger and many more statues of himself, but this is a pretty impressive statement on Chiang Kai-Shek's importance to the country.)
Being that this is a memorial, not a museum, there is actually very little to see inside, which is where events and official ceremonies take place. But walk around its perimeter and you'll see Taipei stretch out in every direction.
After dark Taipei throbs with the kind of frenetic Asian energy you would expect in Tokyo's Ginza, and the Taiwanese love nothing better than to eat out, many strolling through the Night Market at Ningxia Road, a long stretch--like the rest of Taipei, impeccably clean--where scores of food vendors sell everything from noodles and barbecue to what is tellingly named "stinky tofu," a delicacy I could bring myself to taste since I could not get within ten yards of the bad odor that gives this fermented item its name. But visiting the Night Market is requisite for any visitor interested in the panoply of Chinese cuisine. (I will be reporting on Taiwan's restaurants in an upcoming issue of this newsletter.) There is also an indoor Nammen Market that is even more extensive, with shop after shop selling fresh fish and meats, dozens of exotic vegetables, and stands mounted with nothing but buns or noodles. Again, all is extremely clean and sanitary, virtues the Taiwanese not only hold dear but are intensely committed to, in contrast to the problems of those conditions in food markets and restaurants often encountered in Mainland cities. It's worth noting that ever since the Sars virus outbreak in 2004 on Taiwan, the country has been scrupulous in its environmental oversight and inspection of food and restaurants.
Outside of town is the Tea Promotion Center, set in the bucolic hillsides. (Public transportation is available.) Not being a tea fancier, I still found the visit instructive and its terraced tea plantings lovely. Inside I saw a video and exhibitions of the various kinds of tea that makes Taiwan a global center for fine examples of a brew central to Asian culture. Our group was also treated to a tasting of the various teas grown and aged at the Center.
Given my own tastes, I was happier visiting the amazing King Car Whiskey Distillery (below), established in 206, a huge, grandly designed testament to the fact that good whiskies are now made on the island. I was very happy tasting their Kavalan Single Malt Whisky--they make five different kinds--at their expansive bar and tasting room within the distillery, well worth a visit.
Taipei has any number of modern hotels, many with those international names that appeal to foreign visitors, including Shangri-La, Sheraton, Westin, Holiday Inn and others. One of the most famous independent hotels is the 427-room Grand (below), set majestically at the top of a hill surrounded by trees and parks and dating back to 1952, when Chiang Kai-Shek needed a five-star hotel to attract foreign ambassadors--U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have all stayed here. His wife, Soong May, took on a good deal of the responsibility for the project, setting ii on the ruins of a former Shinto shrine. She expanded its size and imperial décor many times over the next five decades, interrupted by a devastating fire in 1995, and the place has enough Chinese dragons motifs to earn it the nickname Dragon Palace. I did not have a chance to stay at the hotel and was told by some that it's in need of modern refurbishment. But when I return to Taiwan, it would certainly be fascinating to spend a night in this famous and historic and very reasonably priced hotel. Rooms may be booked for as low as US$99 a night, up through the $4,800 Presidential Suite.
Where I did stay was a great contrast in design and style to the Grand. The Sheraton Taipei is completely modern, obviously popular with business travelers and conventions, with a splendid, wide lobby (left), a vast dining area with the most impressive breakfast buffet I've ever seen, stretching from American and European dishes and pastries to abundant Chinese dishes. The rooms are wholly comfortable and well serviced by a staff, beginning at the front desk, that could not possibly be more amenable to any request, always in good English. An added benefit is the array of banks of computers in the lobby, all available to use free of charge.
There are several restaurants in premises, but the only one I tried--the most casual and definitely the most popular with locals--was the pizzeria in the basement floor. It's an affable enough spot, but I can't say much for the taste of the pizzas, about which the Taiwanese have a lot to learn.
The current rate for a Premium Room is about US$270 per night, with breakfast.
I visited Taiwan in the winter, but there it was more spring-like, and excursions out of town showed its landscape to be green and fertile, with miles and miles of rice paddies, towering mountains and forests, and a coastline that, as you head south, becomes wonderfully escapist and secluded. And then, there is the terrific food. More on that at another time.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
NORTH END GRILL
It is one of the wonders of American gastronomy that only a very, very few names cause people to anticipate the opening of a restaurant with intense, positive curiosity rather than with a blogger's to demolish whatever serious, experienced restaurateurs try to do. Foremost in this minuscule group would be Danny Meyer, whose canny sense of location, civilized taste, and St. Louis-bred affability have provided him some protection from the vapors spewed by the blogosphere. (Also, since he owns Blue Smoke and the Shake Shack chain, he's considered cool.)
The opening of a new Danny Meyer restaurant, then, is an event, dating back to his post-Union Square Café days when he brought a refreshingly cordial hospitality to NYC service, backed up with delicious food and décor. Attentive and committed to his guests' total enjoyment of their dining experience, Meyer has always been guided by an old-fashioned idea that people go to restaurants to be swooned, enchanted and made happy--this, in contrast to a contemporary restaurant culture in which the chef/owner sees absolutely no reason to provide creature comforts to his guest. (For a stinging description of the latter, see NY Times critic Pete Wells's jeremiad on the subject.)
And so we come to North End Grill, way downtown in Battery Park, just shy of the under-construction tower of the new World Trade Center. It's a neighborhood that has always been pretty much a ghost town after six pm, with only a handful of fine dining restaurants--the great exception being Sho Shaun Hergott, further east. Down amidst those windy corridors a few bars draw a customer base that comes for an anti-depressant round of martinis before catching the town car back to Scarsdale. But Meyer must know something, and, although it's too early to tell, North End Grill has been packed most nights since opening in January. When our party got there on a warm Tuesday evening, nearly every table was already taken, though by 9 o'clock, most people had left and few were coming in for another turn.
This is Meyer's first new restaurant (aside from his Shake Shack chain) since his two-year-old Roman trattoria Maialino and his year-old café Untitled in the Whitney Museum of Art. Last year he sold Eleven Madison Park to chef Daniel Humm and closed the twelve-year-old Tabla, where chef Floyd Cardoz (left) had crafted a modern Indian-based cuisine. Cardoz is now chef at North End Grill, and while you can still sense his delicate way with Asian seasonings, his menu is more heartily contemporary American.
You enter and are greeted, as always at a Meyer enterprise, by an attractive, well-dressed host or hostess or manager Kevin Richer and shown to the main dining room, past a wall of Scotch bottles (above) at the bar, an open kitchen and pastry station overseen by Alexandra Ray, formerly at Meyer's Gramercy Tavern. The dining room (below) is smart, with fine black-and-white photography by Mariana Cook, distressed wooden walls stained gray, a window on the street, and a dark ceiling punctuated with dripping lightbulbs hung from big lampshades that put me in mind of a 1960s set for "Mad Men."
Beverage Director Jason Hopple oversees both the excellent, rationally priced wine list as well as a drinks program of Cardoz's signature cocktails.
The sensibly sized menu is troublesome only because you'll be intrigued by just about everything on it and may find it impossible to choose among appetizers like grilled bacon with crispy fried oysters and apples, or charcoal grilled artichokes with spring onions and crunchy peanuts. Our table of four opted for perfectly grilled and tender octopus with a light lentil salad and the salty-tangy addition of Taggiasche olives. How many times do you run into cod throats on a menu these days? They are terrific, as soft as you'd expect, here done in a buttery meunière style. A special that night was lamb's liver, and very tasty it was. The only oddity on the menu seemed to be a grilled clam pizza, whose clams were clumsily fat atop the thin, flat crust; they seemed a bit trendy here.
Cardoz has said that he believes eggs are underutilized at dinner, and goes on to prove his point convincingly with a quintet of amazingly good examples, starting with a rich lobster omelet. Perfectly soft-scrambled eggs come with bacon, ramps, and grilled bread, as delicious after 7 pm as they would be after 7 am. Also consider the crisp, decadently rich Scotch egg--one is all you need--with chorizo and a watercress soup, almost as a dainty foil for a British luncheon.
Excellent wild Norwegian steelhead salmon went well with chewy quinoa, a carrot puree, cashews and a balsamic glaze, and Vermont baby lamb showed Cardoz's Indian roots with the addition of apricots, chickpeas and preserved lemon, although baby lamb tastes even better when it is well-done rather than medium. Ashley Farms Poulet Rouge was of excellent quality, succulent and flavorful, but I suspect a brine gave it a too-salty edge. Of the sides, chargrilled ramps and a dish of Brussels sprouts and lentils were delightful, if unnecessary for the way Cardoz generously plates his food.
Alexandra Ray's pastries are outstanding, not in the least extravagant, just wholesome goodness, most of all her sticky toffee pudding with ginger ice cream, and a homey pot de creme of butterscotch with chocolate streusel and marshmallow. Also delicious were her simple lemon meringue pie with candied almonds, and a welcome rhubarb-mascarpone napoleon with pistachio brittle.
The more I go to restaurants where the decibel level is abusive, the seating cramped, the Techno music horrid, and the waitstaff merely delivery boys for food, the more restaurants like North End Grill are needed to get us through this period of ego-driven, guest-unfriendly eat shops. On the "Charlie Rose" show, Meyer said he was trying to find the soul of the neighborhood way downtown. If anyone's going to do it, it will be Danny Meyer, and North End Grill we be around long after the current hot spot in Williamsburg or the Lower East Side boards up its windows.
End Grill is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., for dinner
nightly, and brunch on Sat. & Sun. Appetizers
run $13 to $18; main courses, $19 to $41.
North End Grill is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., for dinner nightly, and brunch on Sat. & Sun. Appetizers run $13 to $18; main courses, $19 to $41.
FOOD WRITING 101: MAKE SURE THERE IS NO
GAS LEAK IN THE ROOM WHERE YOU ARE WRITING
Villa in South Gosforth, Newcastle, is now offering a
pet-friendly menu that
includes a special beer designed for dogs and a Sunday roast covered in
"cat-flavoured gravy." WHY
THERE'LL ALWAYS BE AN ENGLAND
THERE'LL ALWAYS BE AN ENGLAND
dogs were injured taking this photo.]
dogs were injured taking this photo.]
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