Saturday, 5 December 2015

Taipei - Mume an Aussie in Taipei

I keep hearing about how the Taiwan food scene is changing and rapidly evolving, and glossy articles like this one (Taiwan: The world's next foodie travel destination), would certainly have you believing the hype.  You might ask why a Hong Kong blogger is paying attention to the food scene across the South China Sea, but with a best mate trying to break into the food scene, and regular visits to the tiny island, there's not much to wonder.

My first visit was a bit of a bust to Taipei, I really thought the food scene was over inflated and the restaurants I visited average at best.  Not so on my most recent trip, where I managed to get into hotshot restaurant RAW (see post here) and it's closest rival Mume.  Mume is part of the new style of restaurant globally that has taken it's inspiration from restaurants like Noma, looking to capitalise on fresh local produce and cutting edge culinary art.

Mume is run by a trio of young gun chefs from around the world, including Aussie chef Kai Ward who had worked at arguably Australia's best restaurant Quay in Sydney.  Kai, along with Richie Lin and Long Xiong have taken their combined experience operating around the world to bring a slice of European style and combined it with local produce to try to create something unique in Taipei.

As we walked the back streets of Taipei in the rain to find Mume, we managed to track down the restaurant that in a strange dichotomy looked both at home and totally alien in the streets of Taiwan.  The stark cement facade with Mume stencilled for effect would have been at home in any modern European city.  The cement and minimalist setting continued once we walked through the door, the cozy little restaurant that sits around thirty people looked a little intimidating at first glance.  Exposed light bulbs hung from thick ropes and barely cut through the gloom, but there were enough of them about to light up each table, giving a relative amount of privacy in the small space.

Cool young things dressed in uniform flitted around the restaurant and brought over our menus and provided a quick run down of how Mume worked.  Dishes that were small, bigger and sweeter signified entrees, mains and desserts and we were instructed that we probably needed a few of the smaller dishes to share, something we were only too happy to do.  Ordering a bottle of red wine and a serving of the very awesome 'country rye sourdough' with beer butter and smoked beef fat butter, we settled down to test out the Mume menu.

The wagyu tartare was the first of our 'smaller' plates and we could not have started with a better dish.  The tartare was very precisely put together on a matt black plate and then covered in a thin bread crust before being topped with dollops of clam mayo and egg yolk puree.  The tartare was superb, with clear meaty flavours combining with the egg yolk, mayo and micro herbs.  While the tartare was great, there was a huge problem with the toast that accompanied the wagyu, there was only two pieces and three of us - a logistical nightmare as it meant that the ratio of toast to tartare was out.  My only comment to Mume is that toast is cheap and an extra piece to cater to the audience would have not been an issue - it's the type of detail not overlooked in a Michelin Starred restaurant.

Our next dish was equally beautiful on the plate and even more delicious.  The cobia crudo with ajo blanco, budda hand and black pepper oil was a superb example of less is more.  With Spanish overtones, the fish was presented to look like a flower and the addition of the ajo blanco (a garlic based soup) worked wonderfully well together.  Cobia is a strong flavoured fish with firm texture, so the dish ate very well and was aided with a some acidity from the citrus like budda hand.  It was quite the spectacular dish and we thought that the meal was off to a smashing start!

We were starting to get a feel for Mume and its styling and with the presentation of the blush prawn with young bamboo, creme fraiche and prawn toast, we thought we had it nailed. Beautifully presented, the prawn toast stood on the plate like it was guarding the chunks of fresh prawn and freeze dried creme fraiche that was sprinkled over the top like a light snow.  The dish was tasty, but we thought maybe a little too tasty.  There was a really strong prawn flavour that dominated the dish, which can sometimes signify that the prawns were not quite fresh.  Normally, there is a lovely sweetness from prawn flesh that was just missing in this dish.

We were back on track with our next small plate of scallop, which was both rustically pretty and quite delightful to eat.  Accompanied by a sweet caramelised carrot puree, watermelon radish, daikon, broad beans and kale chips, the expertly cooked scallop dish was a real treat.  The scallops were well cooked with just the right amount of caramelisation, but as with the wagyu tartare, the dish was designed for two and not three.  There were two scallops on the plate, which meant that we had to divvy up the main ingredient and it did impact the balance of the dish. Again, I would implore that the number of diners be considered when restaurants run the 'share plate' gauntlet.

The beautiful presentation of the previous dishes went 'out the window' with our next dish of burnt cabbage!  As the name suggested, we had quarters of cabbage that had been crispified on the outside to leave a black burnt husk, while leaving the inside of the cabbage soft and easy to eat. There were some interesting flavours going on from the smokey salmon roe and roasted hazelnuts, along with a creamy sauce that was hard to describe but worked well with the sweet cabbage.

We'd just about exhausted all of the smaller plates on the Mume menu and had one more before we moved onto the bigger plates.  Concentrated carrot was our last dish, which turned out to be a plate of carrots prepared in varying styles, but mostly seemed roasted.  It was a weird dish really, one of the carrots was so insanely roasted that it was like sticky block of carbohydrates, ie, I couldn't really tell it was carrot.  Other carrots maintained both their shape and flavour, which were quite nice.  I wasn't a fan of the kale chips with the carrot though, and thought it was added for kitsch factor and no real benefit to the carrot.

We'd been largely impressed with our starters, there were some clear winning dishes and some that had pushed the envelope just a little too far for our thinking.  We were equally hopefully that the bigger plates would also hit the mark.

Choosing to order one bigger plate each, the Big Boy and I both chose the beef shortrib.  We were incredibly impressed with the presentation and look of the plate, which featured succulent and delicious looking pieces of beef.  Accompanying the beef were some pieces of burnt onion and more of the roasted carrot that we'd seen with our smaller starter.  Finishing the presentation were some edible flowers, that provided little more than a splash of colour and a smear of burnt onion puree.  One thing that was conspicuous in it's absence was a sauce or a jus, which at the end of the day was the one element that separated the dish from being spectacular.  The beef was tender and the burnt onion puree bitter sweet but the dish really cried out for a sauce.  The beef on its own was just a little bit lacking and the puree just didn't do the beef justice.  Pour a sticky jus over that short rib and we'd have had a dish for the ages.

SC's dish was also quite pretty on the plate, but more importantly, it was seriously yummy.  When chicken is done well, it's the king of the proteins (yeah, I know I say that about all proteins!) and the soft breast was unusually full of flavour, which was helped along by a Pedro Ximenez jus (why no jus for the beef??!!).  The chicken was prepared two ways, the succulent breast was joined by the brown thigh meat wrapped in a crispy chicken skin, which was also a winner.  Working with the chicken was some cauliflower puree (everyone has cauliflower puree nowadays!) and some bitter flavours from some lilly bulb stem.  It was quite an accomplished plate of food.

We'd been super impressed with our meal and hoped the trend would continue with our desserts, and on par, we batted about .5 with the desserts.  One of them was incredible and the other fell a little short.

Starting off with the near miss, we had a dessert that sounded amazing on paper but just didn't translate quite as well.  The strawberry cheesecake came deconstructed and comprised of strawberry sorbet, burnt cream cheese and almond crumble.  It actually looked incredibly appetising on the plate and after a few bites, I was pretty happy with the dessert.  What happened pretty quickly though was the realisation that the dessert was overly dry and crying out for something to help pull the components together.  The sorbet did ok for a bit, but there was just not enough of it to cover the whole dish.  I reckon a drizzle of a raspberry coulis may have helped things along a little.

Our second dessert was very reminiscent of the snow egg from Quay, with a centre of a creamy yuzu compote covered in vanilla milk granita and surrounded by walls of lemon thyme meringue. The dish was all things at once!  The sticky sweet centre was delicious, the vanilla granita was both refreshing and rich and the meringue added an overarching texture to the dish.  We were all in agreement that the dessert was close to the highlight of the night.  Good news for SC who'd had the forethought to order it, not so good for the Big Boy and I, who'd gone for the cheesecake!

While we were shooting the shit throughout the meal, our waitress asked us if we were from Australia, largely on the back of us talking about the footy in Melbourne.  After we affirmed that we were indeed from Australia, we struck up a bit of a conversation with Aussie chef Kai.  With only about 800 Aussie expats in Taipei and very few visitors, Kai mentioned it was great to hear some familiar accents.

I was pretty impressed with much of our Mume meal.  There were some really beautiful looking dishes and some equally tasty plates of food.  However, as can be the case with young chefs looking to push the envelop of contemporary cooking, there were some elements that just didn't come together for me.  I also found that the smaller plates were quite rigid and didn't take into consideration the number of guests sharing the plates.  A couple of tweaks, adding a jus to the shortribs, an extra scallop, some extra toast with the tartare and a small addition to the cheese cake would make all the difference.

These are minor issues though and ones that could easily be sorted.  Compared to prices of similar restaurants in Hong Kong, dinner at Mume was incredibly good value.  We had a great time and Mume is definitely a place we'd go back to on our next visit to Taipei.  I'm not sure if Taipei will be the next big thing in food, but with restaurants like RAW and Mume, who knows?

The only real issue we had was the pronunciation of Mume.... No one really seemed to pronounce the name the same way - weird.

Sensational dish, but needed an extra piece of toast
The presentation at Mume was top notch all night
The chicken dish was the pick of the mains
But a sauce or Jus would have elevated the beef to legendary status 
Can you see a snow egg in this dish?
Kai in action
And the rest of the team
The dining area was very minimalist and ultra modern
Friendly bar staff

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