Fri, Mar 10, 2006 - Page 15 News List

Restaurant: Fantasy Garden 極品軒

Address: 18, Hengyang Rd, Taipei, (台北市衡陽路18號)
Telephone: (02) 2388 5880
Open: Lunch from 11:30am to 2pm, dinner from 5pm to 9:30pm
Average meal: Lunch NT$300; Dinner NT$500
Details: English and Chinese menu, Major credit accepted

By Derek Lee  /  STAFF REPORTER

Wu-hsi rib is tender and slides right off the bone.

PHOTO COURTESY OF FANTASY GARDEN

John Chen (陳力榮), owner of the Fantasy Garden, is no ordinary man. He has been praised as "the best chef of his generation in Taiwan" and "an artist handing down a sutra in food" by Taiwanese gourmet lovers. Now in his late 40s, Chen has his own private kitchen, where he often tries out his new culinary creations and entertains only gourmands and "special" guests -- who just happen to be high government officials.

Chen was born and raised by a humble family in Hualian. His parents come from Zhejiang Province, in China. Chen learned the art of cooking when he was 14 and worked as an apprentice at the Three-Six-Nine restaurant (三六九飯館), near the back entrance of 228 Memorial Park. Chen emigrated to the US with his parents in 1980. A few years later, he opened the Garden of Plenty restaurant in Long Island and has built up his reputation ever since.

Chen is an easygoing guy and fun to talk with, which are two keys to his business success. He returned to Taiwan in 1994 and, by coincidence, bought the restaurant where he had his apprenticeship, turning it into a very classy three-story eatery. His private kitchen, named Fantasy Palace (煉珍堂), is located on the eighth floor of the building.

It was here that Chen shocked the local culinary community in 2004 by being the first chef to present a banquet of marvelous dishes adapted from a very special recipe. The recipe was recorded in a classical Chinese poem that was pictured in one of grand master Chang Da-chien's (張大千) paintings. The idea of the meal was suggested by the owner of the painting, billionaire Barry Lam (林百里). Lam is the founder of notebook PC producer Quanta Computer.

Last year, Chen was encouraged by eminent culinary critic Chu Chen-fan (朱振藩) to challenge himself once again by preparing the "Red Chamber Banquet." The recipe this time was adapted from the classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢). Both banquets have now become a legend and sources of new creations in the Chinese culinary world.

Fantasy Garden changes its menu every two to three months and its new dishes are quickly copied by many restaurants all over Taiwan.

"Shanghai cuisine is like a big ocean which takes in different traditions of the Jiang-Zhe cuisine (江浙菜), such as Suzhou, Yangzhou, Ningpo and Hangzhou. That is why people come to us for inspiration," Chen said.

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