Sunday, June 9, 2019

Review: Joseph Bistro 想想廚房 (high-concept Indian cuisine)


Joseph Bistro 
#13 Lane 69 Songjiang Road
Zhongshan District, Taipei
(MRT Sonjiang Nanjing)
(02) 2508-1329

On the heels of a discussion on whether there is, or should be, a distinction drawn between 'elevated' or 'high-concept' Asian regional cuisines and 'authentic' Asian cooking, it was interesting to find myself at high-concept Indian restaurant Joseph Bistro.

For the record, I don't think the cuisines of Asia need to be 'mom's cooking' to be authentic or delicious, and one of the things I love about living in Asia is that, unlike the West, when someone opens a restaurant that is not 'mom's cooking' and tries to do something different, there's a lot of room for that. You won't hear a gaggle of confused Westerners who mistake knowing something about Asian food for deeper intercultural competence going on about how it's not 'authentic', and they should know. How can it not be? It's Asian food, made by Asian people, in Asia. And, to quote Tricky Taipei: "Why does cheap have to equal authentic when it comes to Asian food that’s not Japanese? Why is it so hard for us to say a simple but quality bowl of beef noodle soup can be worth paying US$14 for?"

I'll only add two caveats to that. If I can get excellent, say, dumplings at one price point, I'm not likely to pay a higher price point for dumplings that I can't tell are any better. But if you wow me with your more expensive dumplings, I will pay. Second, there is (and I honestly think should be) more room for people with cultural ties to a place, who have been eating and preparing food from that place their whole lives, to get creative with its cuisine. There is less room for foreigners to come in and say what is and is not 'elevated' (as opposed to just odd). If you're in the latter group, that doesn't mean you can't jump in, but there's simply a higher chance that you won't really know what you're doing because you didn't grow up with that food - and it's more likely to show in the output. If you want to go there, know your stuff.

All of this brings me back to Joseph Bistro. Forget 'elevated' vs. 'authentic' - it doesn't matter. The food at Joseph Bistro is simply great. You'll pay for that greatness (by Taipei standards at least), but you'll be happy to fork over the cash, because Chef Joseph will wow you.

Joseph Bistro fills a much-needed gap in Taipei's culinary scene - there isn't another place quite like it among Indian restaurants, and outside of some high-concept Japanese restaurants, there isn't a lot of this kind of high-end cuisine from other parts of Asia available. There are tons of Indian restaurants, some of them quite good, but they are standard Indian restaurants. And that's as it should be - we need a selection of such places, and I frequent them. But none of them 'elevate' the way Joseph Bistro does.

I went with friends I don't get to see often, so we were feeling spendy. First, while I would not typically order wine with Indian food (to me it's beer food), the food here matches well with wine. We chose what I cheekily ordered as "a bottle of your cheapest red, please!" But the dry Italian red we got was scrumptious and matched the food well. A good price, too - NT$950/bottle is not bad for wine in a restaurant. (White wines start at NT$1500/bottle, but I'm a red wine person.) There is also a robust selection of beer non-alcoholic drinks.

We started with an appetizer of potato kofte served in a fruit salad raita (raita is a spiced, salted yoghurt). It came topped with edible flowers and we were instructed to mix everything together to eat it - and let me tell you, it was phenomenal. The distinctive flavor of raita mixed with the flowers and fruit - which included both fresh and dried fruits for varied texture and flavor - produced a memorable salty-savory combination that defies description. The potato puffs provided an umami base for this distinctive taste.


We also ordered a Goan fish croquette topped with sea urchin, which combined flavors from three cuisines: the fish cake is a lightly spiced Goan take on a Portuguese classic, with Japanese-style sea urchin for a burst of saltiness. It's great on its own or eaten with pappadum for a bit of a crunch.

The mains run the gamut from clear fusion to classic Indian - we stuck closer to classic Indian but I'm now curious to try their more adventurous dishes, which include a longyan duck leg and argan-oil scented rack of lamb, as well as a cobia steak served with tandoor spices, lemon pickle and grape mint sauce. We had the Goan fish curry, palak paneer and tandoori chicken with coriander chutney. In part I was just feeling like that sort of food, and in part I wanted to see how well Joseph Bistro could do the classics.


Everything was superb - the chicken especially stands out as being perfectly cooked and tender (not dry as some tandoori chicken can be) in an intensely flavorful sauce, the Goan fish curry reminded me of the delicious fish curries I had there - far from Goa but just as good, if not better. I appreciated that the palak paneer used large chunks of high-quality paneer. Basically, although writing this the next day I realized we ordered some of the most boring items on the menu, every last one of them was absolutely wonderful and worth the money we paid for them. All that's done is make me think I have to go back to try more.


The desserts are also worth saving room for. They're some of the most generous portions of dessert you'll get in Taipei. They look pricey but can easily serve 2-3 people, so don't fret too much about it. Definitely try the deconstructed rasmalai, which comes served in a layered cup with chocolate mousse, coffee jelly and rasmalai-mascarpone sauce. Driving your spoon all the way down to get a bite of each layer, you get salty, sweet and bitter all at once and it comes together perfectly.

Or, as my friend said, "it tastes like...summer!"


We also had the crusty red wine apple with vanilla creme - absolutely wonderful. The soft red wine-marinated apples was a perfect textural counterpoint to the flaky-crispy pastries and creamy vanilla topping.


And all this while, we enjoyed our meal in comfortable, tasteful but unpretentious decor. You don't feel like you have to 'dress up' for Joseph Bistro (though you can), but you still get the feeling that you're having a high-end experience that's worth the money. And yet, there was a (cute) young child at the next table putting spoons on his head and generally being a kid. Nobody bothered about it - classy and comfortable, but also unpretentious and kid-friendly.

Did we blow through more than NT$5000 for three people? Yes. (But then we did everything - starters, wine, desserts, the works).

Did we mind? Not at all.

Forget the 'authentic' vs. 'elevated' Asian food debate. Ask yourself - can Asian food be worth paying real money for? Yes, of course. How is that even a question? And ask yourself, is it good?

If it is, and you've got the cash, just don't worry about it. Fretting over authenticity in Asian food strikes me as a specifically Western thing to do. I assure you that in Asia, it's simply not a thing.


Quick note: the chef recognized me from Lao Ren Cha (I was not paid or asked to do this review and received no special discount for writing it), and made the food spicier than he normally would for Taiwanese diners. He did add just the right amount of kick. If you also want your food to be spicier, you may want to request it. 

No comments: