Saturday, August 16, 2008

Eating China's treasures

Exterior of Silks Palace restaurant, Taipei, Taiwan

A Palette for the Palate

A restaurant near Taipei's National Palace Museum serves works of art that are more than metaphorical.

Jonathan Adams
NEWSWEEK magazine, Aug 2, 2008

Imagine if the greatest works from the Chinese imperial collection of art became ... edible.

That's the basic concept behind the new Silks Palace restaurant in Taipei. It opened in late June next to the National Palace Museum, which holds what is widely regarded as the world's finest collection of traditional Chinese art. The museum's prized sculpture, ceramics and artifacts come from the imperial collection of Beijing's Forbidden City, the best of which the Kuomintang took with them to Taiwan when the communists drove them off the mainland in 1949.

Silks Palace pays homage to that collection, but with a decidedly contemporary twist. Taiwan's Formosa International Hotels Corp. won the bid to run the government-owned restaurant until at least 2030, with a concept designed by Taiwan's Yao Ren-shi and Japan's Yukie Hashimoto. Then Formosa's army of chefs let their imaginations run wild. The result is a $14.8 million epicure's delight whose design and dishes offer a whimsical take on famous Chinese art and artifacts.

The exterior of the five-floor building is a boldly modern counterpoint to the imperial-style museum next door. It is covered in glass with a webbed pattern meant to evoke the cracks in Song-dynasty-era (A.D. 960–1279) ceramics. At night, the building is illuminated like a futuristic Chinese lantern. Interior designer Hashimoto continues the cracked-ceramics theme, and gives Chinese artifacts a hip but restrained twist.

Four glass-enclosed pillars inspired by the Tsung tubes used in Neolithic-era Chinese religious rituals extend the height of the two-story atrium. The first floor features an à la carte dining area with soft illumination from lamps shaped like Tsung-chou bells of the late Western Chou period (about 1100–771 B.C.). The 10 VIP rooms on the second floor are named after Chinese artists, and decorated with backlit paper prints of classic works from the museum collection. A banquet area on the third floor features sci-fi chandeliers with crystal bulbs illuminated by LEDs.

The cuisine is mostly Cantonese style, with flavors from other Chinese regions. Diners can order à la carte, or choose from wildly creative set menus inspired by the museum collection.

Three signature dishes imitate the most famous of the museum's masterpieces—two of which are actually renditions of food. A small, poached bok choy with mustard is presented to look exactly like the famed "Jadeite Cabbage With Insects," a piece of carved jade that was the dowry of a Qing-dynasty concubine. On the plate, a tiny shrimp takes the place of the carefully sculpted katydid on the original. A lovingly marinated chunk of pork mimics another masterpiece, the museum's carved agate imitation pork slice, "Meat-Shaped Stone."

And a tiered rack with a sampling of desserts—one of the restaurant's best-selling items—is inspired by a Qing-era emperor's curio box.

There are plenty of other delights. The goose comes in a wrap with a single swipe of Peking duck sauce, representing a broad stroke from Chinese calligraphy. The museum's take on the classic Fujian stew "Buddha Jumps Over the Wall" comes in a white bowl shaped like a classic three-legged "ding" cauldron from the Warring States period (about 475–221 B.C.). And the chefs carve a larger ding from ice to hold the fruit course at the end.

Even the serving plates—which evoke ancient Chinese coins from the collection—are an inspired nod to China's heritage. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of a museum restaurant.

Original site

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