Fri, Mar 04, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Restaurant review:Cafe Astoria 明星咖啡館

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Staff Reporter

A slice of history.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew, Taipei Times

Cafe Astoria is a living piece of Taipei history. Founded in 1949 by a Russian nobleman who arrived in Taiwan after having fled to China following the October Revolution, it was Taipei’s first Western-style patisserie. The restaurant on the second floor, a favorite with Faina Chiang Fang-liang (蔣方良), the Russian wife of former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), became a hangout for the foreign community of the time.

Some of the dishes, such as the Russian borscht, have been on the menu since the cafe opened.

The patisserie on the first floor might easily be mistaken for a traditional Taiwanese-style bakery, and only closer inspection reveals that it sells a unique range of products, such as Russian soft candy, a kind of marshmallow with walnuts (NT$150 for a small packet), and the Mazurka (NT$55 a slice), a dense cake made with raisins, walnuts and dried longan (龍眼). In Astoria’s early days, ingredients like walnuts were difficult to procure, so local substitutes, such as longan, were used. Although it is certainly not authentically Russian, the cake has been a solid seller for over half a century, and is both tasty and unusual.

A narrow staircase next to the bakery leads up to the restaurant. The walls are adorned with fascinating pictures of the restaurant’s early history. Inside is a haphazard display of photos from the 1960s, when Astoria became a gathering place for members of the artistic elite, such as writer Kenneth Pai (白先勇) and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s artistic director Lin Huai-min (林懷民).

The days when these young artists set out to put contemporary Chinese arts on the map are long over.

The dark wood paneling, white plaster molding and wall-side tables, each with their own dimmer-controlled lamp, all suggest aspirations to luxury and chic, and while the iceberg lettuce salad with thousand island dressing, which forms part of the set menu, might have been sophisticated in Taipei 20 years ago, it certainly isn’t any more.

Cafe Astoria 明星咖啡館

Address: 2F, 5 Wuchang St Sec 1, Taipei City (台北市武昌街一段5號2樓)

Telephone: (02) 2381-5589 Open: 11am to 10pm (afternoon tea served between 2:30pm and 5pm)

Average meal: NT$600 On the Net:

Details: English and Chinese menu, credit cards accepted

But at least the lettuce was crisp.

A tasty dark bread was served with the meal, but the presence of a fruit jam as part of the bread basket was more all-day breakfast than lunch or dinner set. And the cream of pumpkin soup was right out of a packet.

These came as part of the set menu option for the baked pancake with cheese, spice and chicken (NT$550). This was a kind of quesadilla that didn’t seem particularly Russian, though I was assured it was a house specialty. There was a home-cooked heartiness to the dish and what it lacked in presentation it made up for in generosity and flavor.

The Russian borscht (NT$200 for a small bowl, NT$580 for a set) seemed to offer the safety of tradition, though on arrival it proved to be far from authentic. Despite the presence of an incongruous ear of baby corn and a wholly inadequate serving of sour cream, this was exceedingly good and contained an ample portion of tender diced beef. The soup was served in a lovely little white china tureen, and it was unfortunate that the rim was spattered with soup and had not been wiped down. As with the pancakes, generous portions and the hearty flavor triumphed over presentation.

The quality of the service was mixed, with the floor manager being extremely chatty and informative, while the servers were on the whole just getting on with the job.

Cafe Astoria, despite its Russian past, should probably not be described as a Russian restaurant. Though it has made too many concessions to local tastes over the decades, what remains is unique and interesting.

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