The unbearable lightness of eating (what’s right)

I enjoyed a memorably weird dinner with my dear friends at Trattoria Reggiano Taiwan, prepared by executive chef Robert Montano. Nothing went as expected. I greatly suffered—and maybe am still suffering—from cognitive dissonance.

Dissonance 1: The genre wasn’t right. We were in an Italian restaurant and an appetizer was called Citrus Marinated Fish Ponzu and Avocado Puree. Ponzu (ポン酢) is Japanese citrus vinegar. There was also cold sour vegetable soup treated with jelly fig (愛玉), a symbolically Taiwanese ingredient. Weren’t they culturally insulting? Where was my usual grilled escargot? (Yes, you heard me correctly.)

Dissonance 2: The taste wasn’t right. I had caesar salad that looked like caesar salad but did not taste like caesar salad. I mean, it was different from any caesar salad I had in Taipei. It was layered, nuanced, sophisticated. It was so elusive that I became too focused on devouring it and the next moment it was gone.

Dissonance 3: The price wasn’t right. Everybody had a good glass of wine or two, multiple shared appetizers, a main dish, even a small dessert for some, a huge grin on their face, and paid roughly NT$ 1,000 (=US$ 35) each. Where did the missing zero go? They must have cheated on us.

The restaurant as well as the food struck all the wrong buttons—by not following any pattern known to us. I remember hearing a celebrity Italian chef in a Japanese TV program say that the essence of Italian cuisine is to 1. Follow all the rules and 2. Break them all. That was certainly what I witnessed at the dinner. Without exception, the dishes ignored existing conventions (or precisely saying, expectations from fussy yet clueless clients). And also without exception, they hit the perfect chord.

“Western” restaurants in Taipei used to fall into two categories: truly localized or truly authentic. In the former case, what you eat is a disguised Taiwanese cuisine, taste/style/price-wise. And yes, you taste garlic in just about every dish. In the latter case, you enjoy “Western” food cooked by “Western” chef in “Western” style eaten by “Western” clients. Your purpose is to buy two hours of separation from anything local. And yes, the missing zero in the bill is safely back into its original position.

So, does Trattoria Reggiano Taipei walk the “middle” path to strike a balance? That doesn’t feel right either. It is as if there are no given “paths” to choose from in their universe. Instead, in anything they do, there is a spot that incorporates everything in perfect combination. That spot exists in the current moment as well as in eternity, because it is Just Right.

The emergence of places like Trattoria Reggiano is a powerful evidence that Taipei has something that not all cities achieve: integrity. This city, as well as its citizens, exists for the ordinary; it does not aim for the 1% or the 99%. After hearing and watching the increasingly divided state of the world, living in Taipei and eating at Trattoria Reggiano Taipei remind me how incredibly precious this environment is.

Having lived in Taipei for eight years, I have gotten used to non-Taiwanese people giving me an approving nod with an unspoken message: Life is a trade-off, you take the easy and primitive life while we take the hard and sophisticated one. Throughout these years I compared myself to a woman who married Mr. Right that looked like an average Joe in other people’s eyes. I can now pick the wine glass and smile in triumph: Now you see.