Monday, July 19, 2010

Saboten Tonkatsu (勝博殿)

My brother and I don't get to hang out very often anymore. No longer are the days of playing Pokémon together on linked Gameboys or waiting under "our tree" for our mom to pick us up after school. I'm at college. He's at home, about to leave for college. Once that happens, I have a feeling I'll see him even less.

So when the opportunity came up for us to have a day together, just the two of us in Taiwan, I knew it was a rare occasion that should be treasured. My parents said we'd have to "fend for" ourselves for a day but I said we were going to "enjoy" ourselves. Granted, I already had a personal agenda for the day, namely one that involved a museum, but I also wanted him to enjoy being with me. I wanted to make him enjoy being with me and say to himself, "Hey, a day with my sister ain't so bad..."

Lunchtime came around and I was starving. I asked my brother if he was hungry.
"Not really."

"Where do you want to eat for lunch?"
"Don't care. "

Obviously he doesn't share my enthusiasm for food. It's okay. I love food enough for the both of us. I remembered that he used to LOVE tonkatsu when we were younger. I used to dread it--oily, dry, over-sauced fried piece of pork was not my thing. This was before the transformation of my never-hungry stomach to the bottomless pit it is today. This was also before the establishment of Saboten Tonkatsu in Taipei.

Nowadays, I love getting tonkatsu from Saboten. I crave tonkatsu from Saboten. I wouldn't even consider getting tonkatsu anywhere else in Taiwan. It is one of my guilty pleasures. After all, a fried piece of pork cutlet, no matter how perfectly golden brown and crispy, is still not good for you, but Saboten makes it worth it. I figured this was the perfect place to have lunch with my brother. It was.

It turned out the boy was actually pretty hungry. After we placed our orders he declared he was starving. Wasn't he not hungry JUST 10 minutes ago? Anticipating the food was making him hungry he said. Apparently he wasn't just hungry, he was ravenous--he downed a large size piece of pork cutlet, an entire boat of curry, so many refills of shredded cabbage I lost count (which by the way is probably more than the amount of vegetables my meat-loving brother consumes in an entire year), two large bowls of rice, and MY unfinished bowl of rice--down to the last grain. That boy can eat when he wants to.

Saboten Tonkatsu (勝博殿)
Mitsukoshi, XinYi, A9, 6th floor
No.9, Song Shou Road
Taipei, Taiwan
tel: 02-2725-5829

No. 2, Alley 290, Guang Fu South Road
Taipei, Taiwan
tel: 02-2771-7668

Saboten Tonkatsu originated in Japan's Shinjuku district 43 years ago. Today, it is the largest tonkatsu chain in Japan. All the set meals include all you can eat cabbage (to be enjoyed with a ponzu like vinaigrette or sesame tonkatsu sauce), complimentary starters such as sweetened Japanese black beans, pickled daikon, miso soup, a steaming bowl of rice, and ending with dessert.

There are multiple locations in Taiwan, but there are two that I frequent in Taipei. One is located inside the ShinKong Mitsukoshi XinYi A9 department store on the 6th floor. Although convenient for those who are tired from strenuous all-day shopping (such as myself), it can get incredibly crowded during meal times, with wait times averaging 30 minutes. My favorite location is one tucked away behind the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall on Guang Fu S Road. It tends to be a little less crowded, lending to a calmer, more tranquil dining environment.

I find the price range very reasonable--the price for a set menu varies depending on the cut of meant and size of the cut. For a leaner cut of pork(I don't know the name of the cut in English...maybe the loin?) prices range from 280NT-320NT (about $8-$10). For a fattier cut (one that I actually prefer) prices range from 280NT-350NT. Of course there are other menu options, such as fried shrimp or vegetables, but I can't help but always order that lovely portion of delicious pork.

I love the selection of condiments available--a wooden container of Japanese chili, Himalayan salt grinder, ponzu-like vinaigrette dressing, and the best tonkatsu sauce in the world. There really is no other sauce like it. I would describe it as "umami" but to be honest, I don't really think there is a set definition for the word. Slightly sweet, slightly tangy, the sauce is held in a large ceramic jar with a wooden ladle.

Food that is interactive always tastes better. At Saboten, one must work for the delectable sauce. Every place setting includes a mortar and pestle filled with black and white sesame seeds. Grinding the sesame into a fine powder is one of Kevin's best skills--look at him working away! Add in the previously mentioned tonkatsu sauce, and you have a delicious concoction ready for crisp, juicy pieces of fried pork.

The bottomless bowl of finely shredded cabbage is indispensible in enjoying tonkatsu. Any restaurant serving tonkatsu would have this snowy mound of cabbage. However, texture is everything. It must be THIS finely shredded. Any thicker, and the experience will not be enjoyable. Sadly, this is a mistake that many tonkatsu restaurants make. Not at Saboten though! It's shredded to such a delicate thinness that it's perfect for soaking up some of that ponzu vinaigrette.

The complimentary black beans and pickles daikon are great to snack on while waiting for your meal to arrive, but once it does, they're quickly forgotten...

...and the meal arrives. Every portion of pork cutlet is fried to a golden crisp. Crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, it doesn't get any better than this. It's so expertly fried, with no visible grease disturbing the crunchy panko breading.

And something MUST be said about the rice served at Saboten. It's absolutely delicious! It's just rice, you say. It's not JUST rice. Every grain of short-grain rice here at Saboten is perfectly chewy and "Q." Most importantly, you can taste the flavor of rice. It's not just some plain stomach filling carbohydrate. It actually has flavor and aroma. Of course, we always end up messing up the pristine bowl of white rice with some Japanese curry, but that's because the curry here is also pretty tasty. Call me crazy, but it's the best rice I've ever had.

Finally, dessert is usually some green tea ice cream. I wish it was good ice cream so that I could continue gushing about how delicious Saboten is, but sadly, it's just ice cream and it's not that spectacular.

So although it's a meal involving a piece of fried pork, I'd say it's a relatively healthy meal ;) I mean, look at all that cabbage! In the end, though, Saboten is just so damn delicious, I usually don't need any kind of reasoning to indulge in a golden, deep-fried piece of tonkatsu. Needless to say, my brother and I both left full and satisfied!

After the meal, my brother and I visited the National Palace Museum in Taipei. While the exhibits were enjoyable--especially the piece of jade that looks like a head of napa cabbage--the crowds were not. The whole museum was literally overrun by tourists groups from China. Let's just say they were all a little pushy. However, a Chinese couple was kind enough to take this lovely picture of me and my brother :)

**This is a review of my last visit this past spring. Sadly, I didn't get a chance to dine at Saboten this time around before I got a wisdom tooth out. I'm desperately hoping I'll be able to eat normally enough to handle some tonkatsu before I leave Taiwan. Right now, the thought of eating those crispy, juicy pieces of pork seems impossible :(

Friday, July 9, 2010

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon--7/9/10

Ever since my last visit to L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Taipei, I couldn't stop thinking about my meal there. In fact, for a while, I found myself a little jaded and unimpressed by meals elsewhere. Nothing I ate could live up to the same level of execution or deliciousness. I got a little worried. Of course, in time I got over this and reminded myself of the importance of "eating something for what it is." I can't always expect to get perfection in a meal.

Thus, one of the first things I did upon arriving in Taipei, was begin composing an email to Chef Suga, letting him know I was back in town and ready for another meal at L'Atelier. Since my family and I had already experienced the Menu Decouverte, and my dad had revisited multiple times afterwards, we wanted something different and new. I asked Chef Suga if we could have the honor of him creating a special menu just for us, and to my delight, he agreed to do so.

What we received was an inspired menu composed of à la carte menu items and some of Chef Suga's newest creations that haven't even made it on the menu yet. As a result, there was no printed menu for referencing. Therefore, the description and titles given to these dishes are what I managed to deduce from the description given in Chinese by the servers. In a nutshell, I made these names up. Just trust me when I say, everything was absolutely delicious.

Also, these photos can't even begin to do these plates justice. Keep in mind I was still pretty jet lagged and, as the meal progressed, more than slightly tipsy off our bottles of champagne and wine. The restaurant also seemed to have installed a new display in their bar area--a summer seascape scene consisting of white pepper sand, star anise, and dyed pieces of edible fungus for anemone. Cute, but unfortunately it was either fluorescently lit or LED lit because it affected the quality of my photos. I find them a little overexposed :(

We began with the usual spectacular L'Atelier bread basket. This time, however, we had a different amuse. From what I understand, this is a very classic Robuchon amuse--consisting of a foie gras mousse, port wine gelée, and parmesan cheese foam. Served in a little shot glass, one little spoonful of this warm concoction was luxuriously rich and creamy. Definitely left me wanting more--which is exactly what you want in an amuse.

Ossetra caviar and sea urchin in a tender consomée jelly with cauliflower cream

The sweet, creamy sea urchin suspended in what tasted like a seafood consomée was only elevated by the salty bursts of caviar. All together, not only a beautiful dish to look at--with its perfectly spaced, micro-piped green dots--but also a light flavorful start to the meal.

fresh tomato, capellini angel hair pasta, dried mullet fish roe

This was the first of Chef Suga's creations we had that night. It was unlike any other pasta dish I've ever had. I watched at he put an immersion blender to a bright red sauce, as he had a taste of it with a plastic spoon, tossed the spoon, slightly wrinkled his eyebrows, sprinkled a little of what I assumed to be salt, and immersion blended it again. I watched as he carefully wound a mound of long thin strands of pasta around a fork and laid it on a plate. It was only later, with my first bite, that I realized this pasta dish was delightfully cold. The bright red sauce tasted like a sauce of fresh tomatoes--uncooked. The pasta was just al dente and the amaebi shrimp sweet and supple. The crowning touch--salty slivers of dried mullet fish roe from Taiwan.

white asparagus, San Daniele ham, summer truffles

The thick, meaty pieces of tender white asparagus bathed in a light, creamy sauce were enough to make me swoon. Add in the paper thin slices of salty proscuitto and fragrant summer truffles from France and I was powerless to stop the silly grin spreading across my face.

foie gras, baby arugula, apple purée

Eel, foie gras, apple, arugula--the same exact ingredients found in this dish I had at a Hatchi BreadBar dinner except this time, it was executed a million times better. Thus, this dish, to me, was the perfect example of how the same ingredients can either work harmoniously or fall short of perfection. Needless to say, the ingredients in Chef Suga's version worked together so harmoniously, they could've been singing Handel's Messiah. This dish also represented an exercise in restraint and subtlety. While the unctuous foie gras and oily eel needed the sweet, tart contrast of the apple purée, it was only sweet enough to serve it's purpose. Taken with a bite of foie, eel, and bitter arugula, the purée didn't scream apple, but it was enough to balance the bite.

steamed pomfret with clam jus sautéed leeks and seaweed butter

Another beautifully plated dish--served underneath a porcelain dome so that when lifted, the wonderful aroma of the briny clam broth hits your senses. The vibrant, colorful vegetables cooked in the clam broth were not only appealing to look at, but also cooked perfectly. The steamed pomfret was amazingly tender and flakey--a perfect blank canvas for the flavors of the broth and other garnishes such as the lightly fragrant celery leaves, salty bits of olive, and what I assumed to be a piece of sweet roasted red bell pepper.

spice roasted duck breast with sautéed ginger leeks

I believe this dish is on the à la carte menu, though I'm not completely sure the description is of what I ate. There were indeed slices of duck breast and leeks, but were they "ginger leeks?" Not sure. All I know is, this is probably my favorite preparation of duck breast EVER. I always order duck if it's on the menu, but I've never had duck this tender at such a beautiful medium rare temperature. I watched, appalled, as my mom took the skin off her pieces of duck breast. Deliciously spiced, and slightly sweet, the skin was one of the best parts! The leeks I didn't love because, in general, I don't love leeks. The turnips were surprisingly pleasant, though I was too absorbed in the duck breast to really appreciate their presence. Finally, I will say, I actually enjoyed the pomme purée a lot more this time. I still couldn't finish it though--it was just too much butter on my conscience.

peach liquor granita, wild strawberries, peach

A refreshing pre-dessert, I liked this preparation a lot more than the one I had last time. The peach liquor granita was fragrantly boozy, with the strawberries and chunks of peach probably also having absorbed a good amount of this liquor. Topped off with a sprinkling of what I can only deduce to be freshly cracked black pepper, it was definitely a nice shot glass of palate cleanser in preparation for MORE dessert :)

grapefruit segments, grapefruit foam, milk ice cream, basil mint sorbet

This dessert is best described in one word: refreshing. Served in a decently-sized glass cup, the bottom layer was composed of a gelée of Taiwanese yuzu--comparable to the flavor of a Southern California Oro Blanco grapefruit. Inside the gelée, there were segmented pieces of fresh grapefruit. The combination of grapefruit, basil, mint, and milk worked surprisingly well. This is one dessert that, while satisfying, won't weigh you down.

saffron honey mousse, violet, wild strawberries, lychee, port gelée, pomegranate, vanilla sauce, milk ice cream.

Although I've had a similar dessert from this L'Atelier, I still can't surpress the excited squeal that escapes my mouth every time I see one of these sugar spheres. I just can't resist the crackly, crunchy sugar shards that intermingle with the creamy mousse and fresh fruits once you break open the perfect sphere. The quenelle of cold milky ice cream is just as welcome as always, and the pieces of port gelée added not only a different texture, but a deeper flavor component. My happiness in devouring this sugar sphere hit a climax when I chanced upon the pieces of fresh, fragrant lychee fruit.

Outside the beautiful Bellavita that houses L'Atelier here in Taipei with my wonderful parents. I'm so lucky they love food almost as much as I love food!

All in all, another wonderful experience at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Taipei. I can't imagine a fantastic meal more suitable for the humid, summer heat currently enveloping the city of Taipei. The progression of cold plates to hot plates could not have been handled more expertly, and we left the meal feeling full and satisfied but also feeling light and lifted. Chef Suga's newest dishes (denoted with an *) were not only creative, but also executed perfectly--not an easy feat. Anyone can be creative, but only some are skillful enough to realize their creations.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Matcha Macarons with Adzuki Bean Filling

Whenever I'm at home in Fresno, I'm in the kitchen more than sitting in front of my laptop. It seems that when I have a kitchen and stand mixer at my disposal, my blogging suffers.

Within the past month I think I've made different flavored macarons at least 10 times, ironically failed at lemon bars twice, finally succeeded at strawberry lemon bars, found my love for almond meal in flour-less chocolate tortes, lemon ricotta cupcakes, caramelized chocolate almonds candies, earl grey and lemon madeleines...

Needless to say, I've got pictures and recipes of everything I've made. Sadly, I just haven't had the time to put anything up. Do I blog about the macarons I just made? Or do I jump back in the kitchen to start on those madeleines? I'd been choosing the kitchen.

However, I am now in Taipei--kitchen-less and without my trusty stand mixer. I'm sure a lot more of my time here will be spent eating out and blogging. Of course I'll soon be blogging about all the amazing meals I'm having here in Taipei, but first, I want to share some of my own creations.

These matcha (green tea) macarons are something I'm particularly proud of. I love the beautiful green color the matcha powder gives to the macaron shells. Although I still followed the basic macaron recipe I've alway used, the slightly bitter matcha powder actually helped to tone down the sweetness a little.

For the filling, I first made an adzuki (red bean) buttercream frosting. I added canned adzuki bean paste to a recipe of swiss meringue buttercream, which was delicious, but a little too sweet for my taste. Thus, for my second batch, I made an adzuki cream cheese filling instead. This was much better balanced--with the slightly tart flavor of cream cheese mellowing out the cloying sweetness of the red bean paste. Finally, a successful combination!


Matcha Macarons with Adzuki Bean Filling
macaron shell recipe adapted from Tartlette

matcha macaron shells
200 g powdered sugar
110 g blanched, slivered almonds
1 tbsp high-quality matcha powder
90 g aged egg whites (about three eggs)
30 g fine granulated sugar

adzuki bean filling
4 oz cream cheese, room temperature
2 oz unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1 can adzuki bean paste (can be found at Japanese grocery stores, i.c. Nijiya Market)

for the filling

1. In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream softened butter and cream cheese for at least 3 minutes until light and fluffy

2. Slowly add in sifted powdered sugar, mixing well between each addition

3. Fold the can of adzuki bean paste into the cream cheese mixture

4. The filling is now ready to be piped on to the cooled macaron shells

for the macaron shells

1. weigh out the blanched almonds, matcha powder, and powdered sugar

2. grind together in food processor in batches and sift into a bowl--regrind any of the larger pieces left behind until you have a very fine powder

3. weigh out aged egg whites and granulated sugar

4. place egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and begin whisking on high, gradually adding the granulated sugar little by little until you form a stiff meringue

5. fold the dry ingredients into the meringue in two installments. Fold until the ingredients are just mixed in, and you can no longer distinguish meringue from dry ingredients--until there are no noticeable streaks of white or green

6. place batter into a piping bag (large ziploc bag) fitted with a 1/2 inch tip

7. pipe batter onto silicon lined baking sheets in 1 1/2 inch rounds, giving them plenty of space to spread

8. let sit for 20 minutes

9. bake in 300F convection oven for about 15-20 minutes depending on your oven

10. let cool on baking sheets and once cooled, fill with adzuki filling and refrigerate

Couldn't resist--had to take a bite :)

Macarons from the second batch with adzuki cream cheese filling

Valrhona chocolate macarons and matcha macarons