Toast of Taiwan

An expat Israeli is thrilling locals in Taipei with his upgraded cheese sandwiches.

TAIPEI - It's Yom Kippur and it's lunchtime. While a fair portion of the Jewish people will not be partaking in this particular meal, Tomer Feldman energetically tucks into an immaculately crafted, toasted cheese sandwich at one of the two tables in his tiny eatery.

"Cheese and bread wasn't in the vocabulary here," he says of his Taiwanese locale. "I mean, they have cheese and they have bread, but they just didn't put them together. Shame. Grilled cheese is a beautiful thing."

Most observers of Taipei would not have viewed this lacuna in the rich array of culinary offerings in this fast-paced, disputed Chinese territory as a business opportunity, but Feldman has clearly hit some kind of spot. His 3.5-by-4.5-meter establishment is busy from noon till night, serving locals - and some Westerners - with his gourmet version of the traditional toasted cheese sandwich.

The idea was born a few years after Feldman left his native Jerusalem for the horizons of New York. There, he trained as a chef in a French culinary institute and worked for several years at a high-end Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side. Involved in a few food-related business ventures, his dream - to open a cheese toast bar - seemed so modest that his friends just dismissed the idea. But Feldman, fueled by memories of the "great cheese toasts" he would eat with his friends in Israel, stuck with it until he found a place he thought would be receptive.

The "smoked salmon tapenade" - one of 19 types of toasted sandwiches on the menu - features feta cheese, roasted peppers, fresh basil and infused parsley oil, as well as smoked salmon and Feldman's homemade tapenade. Some offerings have more of a local twist: "shitake mushroom" (sauteed, with grilled cheddar and tapenade) and what he calls "wasaaabi" (grilled mozzarella, smoked salmon, lettuce, tomato and wasabi). Others have a more international appeal: like the "grappa" (grilled gouda, red-wine onion jam, roasted garlic and fresh basil), and the "CLT" (naturally - cheddar, lettuce and tomato).

"I wanted this place to be everything I love about toast," explains Feldman, who turned 40 earlier this year. "I tried to create a menu that would give me something different to eat here every day of the month and I still wouldn't have had enough."

The bar, tucked down a side street in downtown Taipei (Lane 248, ZhongXiao East Road), is named Toasteria - a reference to the so-called Gasteria stations, where Americans fill up their cars. "I thought Toasteria could be a place where you fill up with exactly what you need - you feel happy and you get going. Fast food, but at a new level."

Aside from the bread and fresh vegetables, Feldman imports his ingredients. Most of his dairy products come from Australia and New Zealand, so he was not affected by China's recent tainted-milk scandal - which did hit Taiwanese businesses that imported their dairy products from mainland China, leaving three infants on the island with kidney stones after consuming the toxic chemical melamine. (The incident, blamed for the deaths of four Chinese infants and for illness among 54,000 others, set back the recently softened attitude of many Taiwanese toward the mainland. Meanwhile, no solution is in sight to the stand-off between the democratic, highly industrialized Taiwan that aspires to full sovereign independence, and mainland China, which views the island as a renegade province.)

When he was unsatisfied with bread he found, Feldman persuaded a local baker to cut the sugar, increase the amount of yeast and let the dough rise for another two hours. "He was like, 'who are you to tell me how to make bread?' But it came out really well, and now he supplies me with between 50 and 70 loaves a day. He's not complaining."

Zero promotion

Feldman's motto: "No Diet Coke, no skim milk, no low-fat cheese, no credit cards, only the good stuff," adorns the chalkboard menu that hangs above the brass-topped bar. "I'm trying to give them a culinary education," he explains. "Everything in the right proportion. I believe in proper nutrition."

Since the packed opening night in February, the customers - and the press - have flowed. Feldman insists he has done zero promotion. On that Thursday at lunchtime, hip Taiwanese students wearing Japanese designer labels clustered around one of the small tables, while a tall black American who works for CitiBank - and should surely have had better things to worry about - interrupted the interview to make sure it was noted that he had traveled 40 minutes across the city to pick up his favorite "Kalifornia chicken" sandwich.

Feldman asserts there are few places in which it is easier to set up a business: After learning basic Mandarin Chinese, gaining experience as a cook at Citizen Cain (a leading Taiwan hangout for Westerners), and cracking the local market with the Sababa pita bar, now a chain of five eateries - he says he did not struggle when navigating the bureaucracy and opening up a place for the first time, on his own. Though there is municipal supervision from time to time, he is not even required to have a liquor license. Plans for additional branches of Toasteria are already under way.

The dark, stocky Israeli was originally drawn in 2001 to Taiwan as a place where he could comfortably live with Jun Lee, his Malaysian-Chinese partner at the time. (She later became his wife and the mother of their young daughter, Mika, and subsequently his ex). When Lee was unable to renew her visa for the United States, the couple sought a neutral territory. Taiwan - "a place which accepted us both," as Feldman puts it - seemed like a good option.

Despite their split, the couple continue to play together in an alternative rock group, with Feldman on guitar and Lee writing songs and singing in Chinese. Their band, Neon, is a staple on the local underground rock scene, and has an album called "Exit" already under its belt.

Not that Feldman's arrival here seven years ago was smooth. "It was like flying into a black hole for two years," he says of the acclimatization period. The change came with the band's first record contract, which afforded Feldman with a new scooter on which he explored the sprawling city, with its teeming markets and orderly, moped-lined streets, where some locals walk with cloth face masks to protect them from the heavy air pollution. Taipei is not an obviously beautiful place, he admits, with row-upon-row of gray concrete high-rises, broken up only by colorful neon signs and the occasional Buddhist temple or ornate memorial hall.

"But it's all about the people here," he says. "They are so straightforward and accepting and warm. If they have criticism, it's only after they've tasted the food - and it's really honest and fair. I learn a lot from it. It's not about the attitude or the pose. They don't have phrases like 'ezeh bassa [what a bummer].'"