Bencotto - Mandarin Hotel

Earlier this week, we went to visit Bencotto, the Mandarin Oriental Taipei's Italian restaurant. We had a hankering for pasta and bistecca alla fiorentina because of the cold weather.  

Now you might say, why would you go for Italian food in Taipei?  Taipei is a regional food mecca where everyone travels to for a weekend gastronomy (or night market gluttony). Taipei, like Hong Kong and Tokyo, also happens to be a great place for French and Italian food.  While you can't beat the local food, there is something comforting about smell of a perfectly grilled steak and steaming pasta.  

The MO brand has always been synonymous with a sumptuous modern Asian style.  The atmosphere of Bencotto is modern if not slightly cold.  The tree branches set in the middle of the main dining area and the tables are wrapped in leather bring a little warmth to the cavernous seating area.  Unfortunately, because of all the hard surfaces in the main dining space, the din of conversation and the clacking of tableware is accentuated.  

The service at the MO impeccable, as it should given that a 20% service charge is automatically added to the bill. Like most restaurants in Taipei, the staff is constantly moving. They all have an eagle-eye to quickly remove finished plates from the table.  Service in Taipei from the mom and pop restaurants to luxury dining has great service.  Bencotto's staff represented the MO brand well.

We ordered the pulpo e patate, sautéed king octopus which was wonderfully tender. Octopus is notoriously difficult to cook.  You have to massage it for an hour, let it hang in the sun or beat it to make it properly tender.  Over cook it, it becomes a rubbery like an eraser.  It came with parsley potatoes, olive crumble and dots of lemon "dressing" in the form of gel.  What was an amazing dish was spoiled by the bitter aftertaste in the lemon gel.  The lemon gel was undeniably bitter, either as a result of overcooking the gel or having bits of pith in the sauce during the prep.  

While talking to the various waitstaff, they all loved the burrata pizza so we ordered that.  It had healthy pieces of burrata topped with parma ham.  Unfortunately (yes again), the pizza arrived on a slate pan which should have been placed in the salamander (aka broiler).  We heat the plates in the salamander so that food stays warm by the time it gets to the table.  The pizza was still warm but the combination of the cool plate and the cold burrata, the mozzarella had begun congealing instead of remaining stringy. The cool plate condensed the moisture at the bottom of the pizza.  What would have been a perfectly crisp crust had become soggy. Throwing some semolina would have helped considerably.  The chefs at Pizzeria Delfina would be screaming bloody murder if they saw this.

The Kagoshima pork tenderloin was perfectly cooked.  (Kudos to the chef for executing perfect crust.)  It was served with bok choi sautéed in butter presumably as a nod to Asian cuisine.  Unfortunately, there was nothing cohesive about the dish.  

The last dish was Bencotto's version of a bistecca all fiorentina.  Bencotto uses a rib eye tomahawk instead of a t-bone. They present and slice it table side. Now there are no shortage of excellent steakhouses in Taipei, so competition is fierce.  At 140 USD, we were hoping for a slam dunk by the MO.  

As with all the dishes for the meal, technical errors either in the prep or the cooking.  

A good steak depends on creating a crust. It generates the flavors and aromas which bring richness in flavor.  You need aromatics and a healthy coating of salt and pepper to generate the maillard reaction that gives grilled meat that distinctive flavor.  The meat was under seasoned. No aromatics were apparent. No garlic. No thyme. No rosemary. Nada.  You could tell that the steak was taking out of the fridge and thrown straight on to the plancha. The middle of the steak was cold to touch. Compounding the problems with the dish was the "mashed" potatoes. While generous with butter to give it a silky flavor and mouthfeel, the potatoes were over beaten leaving it gummy.

So in summary, while we love the service at the MO, execution issues marred what could have been an excellent dinner. 

Kent is a management consultant who has spent years traveling for work.  His refuge is looking for the perfect meal so that he can reproduce it at home with his wife and friends.