I sat facing a panoramic view of Taipei at the Marco Polo Restaurant on the 38th floor of the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel last week waiting for Fabian Altabert, the new head chef, to set before me some of his creations from the white truffle menu the restaurant started offering last Friday.
Waiting for a plate of food has never been one my pedestrian habits. I like to eat fast, make a rash judgment as to the taste and let it drop down to my stomach. I have many things to do and I have come to believe that eating is best dispensed with in the shortest time possible.
It is after all just another animal need - unlike reading, writing and conversation.
But it turned out to be my epiphany to fine dining. The long wait - probably around 15 minutes per dish - was just what I needed to prepare my uneducated sense of taste to appreciate the art of fine cooking.
The bird's-eye view of Dunhua South Road only accentuated the detail that chef Altabert put in presenting the dish "Asparagus Salad with White Truffle." Compared to the gray, still and lifeless look of Taipei, the reddish, green and beige colors of the dish against a white background really stood out.
I felt guilty at having to destroy the presentation in order to taste the food.
The healthy flavor of olive oil was the first to enter my taste buds. But instead of drowning the natural taste of the asparagus, the olive oil enhanced it. The comfit tomatoes were delicious and chef Altabert mingled in pieces of pancheta (bacon) with the vegetables. These crunchy slices added variety to the whole dish.
"I have learned that culinary creations need to be pleasing to the three senses of sight, taste and what I would call 'nolfato,'" Altabert said, referring to smell or aroma. "These are what create the impact," said the native of Montemario, a popular residential section of Rome.
"First, I want to produce a visual effect; I like clean and well-presented dishes; diners should also relish the texture in the plate; dishes should be crispy, soft, tender, and smooth," Altabert said.
The food was light - so different from my usual experience of food dropping down to my stomach.
"You should never rise from the table with your stomach full," Altabert said. "You don't want to be hungry, but neither do you want to be heavy."
I felt my taste buds awaken, eager for the next dish, "Tagliolini in Brodo with White Truffle." This is a common Italian pasta. But Altabert used double chicken stock for the sauce, using a whole chicken (not just the bones) to get a stronger flavor. After cooking the chicken for about one and a half hours, he took out all the meat and vegetables that were mixed in, strained it and reduced the chicken stock by more than half.
"This makes the taste stronger and gives it a dark color," he said. "Put in a little parmesan cheese, Ligurian olive oil and fresh truffle."
Liguria is a region in Italy that is very famous for its olive oil that heightens the aroma of a dish without killing its taste.
"For Italian cooking, I always say invest in good olive oil, parmesan cheese and herbs," Altabert asserted.
Like the asparagus salad, Tagliolini in Brodo was not heavy in the stomach. Neither was it oily and the meat was soft.
I was delighted to chew on the "Braised Pork Cheeks with Red Wine," the last dish. The meat was soft, the sauce was rich in taste but without dissolving the flavor of the pork cheeks. Altabert cooked it for more than three hours. He mixed in crushed Boston lobster, comfit tomatoes, carrots and turnips, and cradled everything in mashed potato.
"This is only because I'm still waiting for the polenta (ground yellowish cornmeal) that this dish is usually presented with instead of the mashed potato," he said.
'Le Quale Natalizie' for Christmas
What can we expect from such a skilled chef for Christmas?
The culinary fare during Christmas in Italy varies greatly from north to south. Each region has its own cooking traditions. But Altabert said he does not plan to follow the culinary ways he learned from his Roman region.
"It would be too simple," he said. "So I will put in a little bit of a twist. But you always need to have fish. In Italy, we eat much fish for Christmas -eel, small deep fried fish, or monkfish - and we always have broccoli."
Another Italian Christmas dish is stuffed quail or "le Quale Natalizie." The quail is stuffed, wrapped in Italian bacon, oven roasted and served with different garnishes such as potatoes.
"But I will use sauteed broccoli with almonds," Altabert said. "We will have this menu for the 24th and the 25th."
Prior to his appointment at the hotel, the 30-year old chef worked for two years at the Mosaico Restaurant of the Emirates Towers Hotel and at the Jumeirah International in Dubai. He was in charge of 2 teams with 16 chefs, producing and serving food for 3 areas.
Chef Altabert's ideal of Italian food stresses preserving the original flavor of the essential elements. "And no cream please," he asserts. "I don't use cream. For me, Italian food is not made out of cream - it is made of olive oil, tomatoes, animal fat.
"Cream covers the taste of food. If I eat mushroom, I want to taste the mushroom. I don't want to taste the cream," he declares.
Spaghetti with fresh sardines and fennel seeds is one creation he plans to present at the Marco Polo. "Such a dish needs fresh tomatoes to give the flavoring, but you need very fresh sardines, which I don't think would be difficult to find in Taiwan."
There will definitely be a weekly special, he says.
"I would love to import some of the main products, but I would like to work with local elements, especially the vegetables. I can use Chinese broccoli, for example."
Being a chef is a way of life and the Italian chef learned early. He started cooking at 16 years old and did his hotel school in Viterbo, a town just outside of Rome. But he learned the indispensable details of creating dishes in Liguria and in England where he was Demi chef de partie at The French, a Crowne Plaza hotel in Manchester.
"In this profession, you have to use your imagination, choose the right plate to best present a dish, think of where to place this vegetable, how you will cut the meat and vegetables," he said. "It's creative work; I don't just feel like the cook, I feel like an artist."