In the past decade, Spanish haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy have become almost synonymous. And yet, neither cuisine has a major presence in Taipei. DN innovación strives to fill that void. DN stands for Daniel Negreira, the chef/owner behind this new Spanish restaurant. Chef Negreira is best known in Taipei for his previous venture, the now-shuttered El Toro, which was a small, fine dining tapas restaurant. But before he went to Taipei, he had worked at some of the best establishments in Spain (and in the world), including elBulli, Mugaritz, Akelarre, Arzak, and Martin Berasategui. I love Spanish cuisine. Also, being from Chicago, I naturally take interest in molecular gastronomy. And so when I decided to go to Taipei, DN innovación easily went to the top of my to-do list.
DN is located in the swanky Xinyi District. But unlike Robuchon, which is in the retail/entertainment section, DN is in the business and finance section of the District. Hidden from street view in an office building, DN was not easy to find for a tourist like myself. Perhaps it was due to contrast with the austere-looking building that housed the restaurant, I was taken aback upon entering DN. I had seen pictures of the restaurant before, but seeing it in person was even more impressive. The design was more than contemporary; it was futuristic. Curves and organic shapes dominated the space; even the hallways had no edges or corners. The entire dining room just felt very fluid and, appropriately, Gaudi. The attire of the wait staff carried the futuristic theme. Weird cuts of Khaki shirts that tentatively showed armpits, maroon-colored neckerchief – I don’t know what the design inspiration was, but it looked like Majin Buu to me. Tables were generously spaced, chairs were plush, and all furniture were textured and tasteful. Quibbles regarding the staff uniform aside, this was a luxurious fine-dining atmosphere for sure.
Bread service was quite elaborate. It began with a tasting of three different varietals of olive oil: Picaul, Hojiblanca, and Arbequina. I wish I was taking notes, as I cannot remember the order and cannot match the names to the oils. But the three had distinct flavors for sure. From left to right (as shown in picture), the most left one was the most delicate, almost insipid. The middle one was fruity and sweet (my favorite). And the right one was grassy and somewhat spicy, with a bitter, almond aftertaste.
This was very interesting as I had never had single-varietal Spanish olive oil before. The Spanish olive oils in the US are usually blends of different olives. While the olive oils were interesting, the pairing with bread sticks (sesame and green tea) was rather odd, as the strong flavors and crispy texture of the breadsticks easily overpowered the taste of the olive oil. The bread basket itself was very well done – warm, fluffy, with the signature Spanish light crust. The walnut bread was my favorite. The trio of fat that went with the bread basket were cumin butter, truffle butter, and olive with a lightly spicy vegetable puree. There was another dish of olive oil with an extremely viscous Modena vinegar. This was Balsamico at its highest quality. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the bread service and was impressed by the use of cumin butter – very impactful on the palate.
My friend and I were allowed to share two different menus – one supposedly more traditional and the other more progressive. The first dish was a tasting of jamón ibérico from the famous producer – 5J – in Jabugo. The ham seemed to have been cut from maza (the fattiest part of the ham), as it was very marbled – much more so than the jamón ibérico usually sold in Chicago (which is usually cut from punta or babilla). It didn’t have the depth of flavor leaner cuts proffer, but the subtle brininess from curing was enhanced by the fat. The olive oil that came with the plate was completely unnecessary, as the ham coated the toasted bread with a layer of lard – sinfully aromatic!
Next was pulpo a la Gallega. The Galicia style is defined by the addition of pimentón – Spanish paprika. The octopus was perfectly cooked – tender with a subtle and pleasant springiness. The mix of olive oil, pimentón, and sea salt gave a light kick and brightness to the octopus. And the squid ink crouton added a crunchy texture and smokiness to the dish. This was probably one of my top three favorite preparations of octopus (the other two were the octopus appetizer at Schwa and the octopus carpaccio at Café Boulud).
Then came a trio of tapas. First was red wine stewed mushroom. The red wine flavor was quite pronounced. The tannin and the nuances of the wine were thoroughly infused with the mushrooms, giving the dish a depth of flavor that was truly addictive. With a bottle of wine, I could nosh on this dish for the whole meal!
The second was a grilled Spanish chorizo paired with ajoblanco. The pickled pepper and the roasted garlic complimented the bold-flavored chorizo perfectly. I had never had ajoblanco before. Apparently it’s a very common soup in Spain. It was essentially a soup made with almond and garlic. The garlic flavor in the ajoblanco echoed the garlic on the chorizo skewer. Great paring! The third was a duo of croquetas, one chicken and one cod. Both were traditional ingredients; but the execution was contemporary. The breading was very light, while still retaining a pleasant crust. The béchamel-based filling was also lighter than usual, making the “burst” in the mouth have more fluidity and more drama. Excellent!
The waiter then brought out a bowl of sopa de rape (monkfish soup) for each of us. This was my first time having sopa de rape. The soup base was sofrito (garlic, onion, tomatoes, olive oil), which provided a savory sweetness and brightness. The fish was stewed to oblivion, losing all substance and infusing completely into the soup, giving it an umami essence. Apparently this was the Chef’s grandma’s recipe. Well Grandma knew what she was doing.
Next was paella Valenciana. We really looked forward to this dish, as we were both fans of paella. It turned out to be the biggest disappointment of the night. There was simply no evidence that seafood stock was ever present in the paellera. Usually, the rice is cooked in the stock and absorbs all that umami goodness. Not here. The rice was extremely dry and greasy, with saffron and salt as the only flavors. There was a ton of oil at the bottom of the paellera, rendering it nearly inedible. We basically left it untouched. Usually when this happens, wait staff would get the point and ask if something was wrong. Our captain caught the drift but approached it in a rather strange way, as he said (and I translate),” Was the portion too big for you?” With that initial question, my friend and I didn’t feel comfortable giving our honest opinion and so we just said, “yes.” To which he responded, “do you want me to pack this up for you?” We declined. He then followed up with “so you just don’t want the rest of this?” We smiled, indicating yes. He left with the paellera without a word.
The two main meat courses were duo of Ibérico pork. The first one was slow roasted. It had a nice caramelized crust, which was slightly sweet and smoky. The meat was incredibly moist and tender and offered no resistance while cutting with a fork – impressive as this preparation is prone to dryness. The sweetness and the smokiness of the crust penetrated the meat completely. This was by far my favorite dish of the night. The garnish, which looked like pieces of charcoals, were actually Asian yam covered in squid ink. Pretty clever mimicry. The second preparation was braised cheekbone meat. The meat was tender and paired well with the garlic-cream emulsion underneath. While good, it was not as flavorful as the first preparation.
The first dessert was chocolate ganache and pistachio crumble. Both the cake and the ganache were well made – especially the ganache, which was rich and velvety. However, the concept of the dessert was underwhelming. While the dessert was beautifully plated with a contemporary sensibility, the combination of nuts and chocolate was nothing new, and the main ingredients were vesseled in two textures that didn’t go well together. The presentation outshone all other aspects of the dish.
The second dessert was a trio of traditional sweets of Spain: arroz con leche, flan, and torrija. All were executed beautifully. No surprise; but delicious. The arroz con leche was especially good. It was a bit lighter than American bread pudding. The sweetness was subtle and refreshing, with a hint of cinnamon, adding an element of warmth and comfort perfect for winter. The Cava we had that day (Castillo Perelada Gran Claustro Brut Nature 2007) was more full-bodied than I had anticipated. With richness in both fruits and minerality, it actually went very well with our meal, from beginning to end.
Service was curteous and informative. Other than the hiccup regarding the unfishied paella, I was gnerally happy with all the wait staffs we encourntere that day. The Chef must have made a point to “educate” the diners, as the wait staffs were all extremely knowledgable and eager to introduce the food in the context of Spanish culture. It was alsmost didactic; but I appreciated the passion.
Admittedly, other than the paella, the food at DN innovación was very flavorful and well executed. However, there was a glaring mismatch between the food and other elements of the operation. For a chef with such an amazing resume for progressive Spanish cuisine, Negreira’s cooking, for the most part, was rather unimaginative. I applaud the authenticity of the food; but for a restaurant that felt contemporary and even futuristic in all other aspects, the food did not fall into the same narrative. Forget about Negreira’s extensive training in molecular gastronomy – except for the squid ink covered yam, DN innovación was anything but innovative. I’ve seen hole-in-a-wall pintxo bars in San Sebastian that took more risks than this. Perhaps Negreira saved the big guns for the dinner menus; but based on this meal, I can’t say that it was a compelling or cohesive project worthy of a Michelin star.
93 Songren Rd, Xinyi District, Taipei / 台北市信義區110松仁路93號
(02) 8780 1155