Friday, October 17, 2008

TW Tour: Last Supper, TPE

Our food tour of Taiwan was over. Our "Last Supper", fittingly, comprised of some of the greatest hits we had on the trip - we had XLBs, BNS, and ramen. While none of these representations were anything to write home about, they were better or equivalent to versions we have in the Bay Area. That's airport food, folks!

Of course, we washed this all down with several rounds of that watery Taiwan Beer which we will not miss. But hey, when it's THAT hot and humid... Song long Taiwan, for now... until our next food rendezvous. And thanks, Taiwan Tourism Board for your Magnum Opus of an idol drama, "Waiting Here For You" and all the information we gleaned from it for our trip planning - Taiwan did "Touch Our Hearts"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

TW Tour: Old School Ice Sheets, Taipei

Taiwan is a place where it's in a state of constant flux. Shaved ice is traditional and old in these parts. But in Taipei these days, traditional shaved ice exists mostly as a nostalgic factor... sort of how we have '50s Diners. Most places serve Western style ice cream instead. There was a time, maybe in the 70s and early 80s,when people's taste wanted a Western ice cream but milk was still an expensive item, when the ingenious Taiwanese invented ice sheets as a compromise. It's basically water with a bit of milk thrown in to it give a slightly milky taste. We had the hardest time finding this confection and got lots of raised eyebrows for asking for it. Apparently we didn't get the memo that it was now passe and gauche.

We finally found a place near Shihlin Market that still sells it and it was divine. We got the tea flavoured with red beans. A bit of condensed milk tops it all.
The plain, undressed shaved ice sheets.

TW Tour: Lai Lai Soy, Taipei

After that pinnacle meal at C'est Bon, the next morning we were back to a divy, roadside joint for breakfast. I mean, we had to keep up our dan bing consumption rate!

Lai Lai Soy is one that is famous in Taipei and right across the street from our hotel (who offers complementary breakfast of more the sterile, Western ilk). There were steamers and griddles full of goodies to choose from. It one of those places where you go up and order what you like, grab an empty table, and wait for the feasting to begin.
We had (from top, clockwise) dan bing, scallion pancake, steamed shrimp dumplings, taro cake, pot stickers, chive pocket all washed down with cold soy milk.
I also ordered a salty soy milk for the table. it's full of fried cullers (Chinese donut), preserved vegetable, and scallions. The soy milk curdles a bit in contact with the other ingredients and the vinegar and produces a wonderful mixture. Wil, Melissa, and Janet all loved this. A correct version of this seems also rather difficult to get in the SF Bay Area for some reason.
Inside of a chive pocket.
Oh and as if this wasn't enough, we decided to order a beef pocket too.
This was probably the best rendition of breakfast fare we had all trip outside of that memorable dang bing in Alishan and a Top 5 Meal. All four of us were stuffed for a measly NT240 (~$8)

TW Tour: TW Intellectualized @ C'est Bon, Taipei

One of the advantages of our itinerary of going to more rural, old Taiwan before coming to the modern, capital of Taipei is that it gives one an understanding of Taiwan's past and how it led to its present and its extrapolated future culturally. To save C'est Bon, a modern Taiwanese restaurant employing molecular and Western techniques, for our last "Big" meal of the trip allowed us to have experienced all the down-home, historical tastes and dishes that have lent themselves to this crystallization of modern Taiwanese. C'est Bon is located in a tiny alley street in the Song San district of Taipei. It is a spot of modernity amidst a block that looked more like Taiwan of the '70/'80s.

It's a set menu for NT2000 per person. We also ordered some wine which we'll cover at the end of the post. The space was modern and sparse and we spotted another table eating there which we later found out to be the owner/head chef and some folks dining with her. It was a little too brightly lit for our tastes, but the lighting helped us to see very clearly the beauty of each dish presented.

Course 1: Bamboo and Fried Oyster
The frying on the oyster was perfect. The insides were barely cooked and sweet. The bamboo was really fresh and spring-like.
Course 2: Shrimp 2-Ways (Head with Uni and Body Wrapped with Pineapple with Coconut Shavings)
The server shaving freeze dried coconut over our dish.
The beautiful presentation. I had forgotten to inform the staff prior to our meal commencing that I am allergic to pineapples so I didn't have any of the body portion. I will say the head was divine... the sweetness of the flesh and the musty of the uni really offset each other. I will allow others who ate the full dish to comment here. I think it was Wil who also said he liked the symbolic meaning of the dish: shrimp cooked whole with the skin edible is very Chinese, the head is covered with uni (very Japanese) and the body is covered in the tropical elements (very SE Asian). The sum of which is Taiwan in a nutshell.
Course 3: Abalone with Caviar and Seagrass in Aspic
This was another combination that was amazing to taste. The abalone was perfectly tender and its oceanic flavours brought out by the caviar studded on top. The aspic was light and seagrass.. well, all I can say it's unique and you gotta taste it to believe it.
Course 4: Steamed Fish Stuffed with Salted Winter Melon
Again, very much the flavours of Taiwan combining its love affair with seafood and vegetables. The texture of the fish was silky beyond belief.
Individually plated.

Course 4: Jade Melon
This melon had been poached in liquid for days in low temp. The result is something that you can eat and pierce wit ha spoon but not mushy. The broth was exquisite. I wanted to lick the bowl. This was my favourite dish of the evening.

Course 5: Pineapple Stewed Pig Trotter
I couldn't eat this and will let others comment but it looked amazing.

Course 5: Lion's Head Meatball
My "entree" as I couldn't have the pig trotter. The meatball had the most succulent, juicy pork mixed with chunks of crab meat and roe. The broth was a crab reduction. Eat your heart out, Shanghainese restaurants everywhere.... this is what Lions head was destined to become!
Course 6: Egg Flower Chicken Soup
The most refined egg flower with a thickish, guen (Taiwanese thick pottage) style broth.

Course 7: Sweet Potato with Honey and Preserved Plum Sauce
As Janet said, "This is Taiwan on a plate." All the down home flavours of all the fruits, vegetables, tea beverages, smoothies, shaved ice was distilled into this one plate of perfection.
The inside of the sweet potato.

The lowest points of the meal were the wine service and selection. Our first bottle was not what we ordered but we decided to stay with it.
We went to a red later in the progression of the meal. Neither were anything to be excited over.
Our cost for the entire meal was NT12,100. Remembering that the food was NT8000 total, that mean we spent NT4100 on these two bottles of mediocre wine. This meal was admittedly our most expensive of the trip.... but it was also the most memorable. I would definitely love another visit to C'est Bon in future TW trip - maybe this time taking my relatives and seeing what the natives think.

In case there was any doubt - this was one of our Top 5 Fav Meals of the trip too. Oh, and the NY Times thought a lot about C'est Bon too. They wrote about it shortly after we came back from TW.

23 Lane 33 Chung-Shang North Road, Section 1
Their blog

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

TW Tour: Afternoon Tea near Sogo, Taipei

Some things don't really translate as well. Like this fruit flavoured tea granita (this was a size small) and the tea flavoured toast thing below. Hmmm....

TW Tour: Mall Food @ Sogo, Taipei

We went to Longshan Temple in the morning and had every intention of going to explore the small eats in surrounding Wan Hua area when we were beaten again by the weather. This time, it was the heat. So we did what any self respecting Taiwanese would do - go to the mall!

As you can see the offerings at the mall aren't too shabby either. From the Japanese style teppanyaki rice box to the Taiwanese street fare.
The bakery also held a lot of interest for us.

TW Tour: Late Night Goose, Taipei

When we got back from our visit to the worse ABC and ABC-wannabes bar in the world, BarCode, we wanted something to soothe our frazzled nerves. The goose place my aunt mentioned across from her hotel seemed like the ticket. Beautiful goose meat.

Simple noodles.
Great night cap. NT898 (~$30)
Across from Gran Victoria Hotel in Neihu.

TW Tour: Tai Ho Dien, Taipei

We went to go to Shida Night Market for dinner. But with the rain, we decided to do hot pot instead. We read about Tai Ho Dien, so decided to check it out. The space was modern looking and the place was pretty full on this rainy night.

We ordered ying-yang pot with one side ma-la (sichuan peppercorn based). The ma la broth comes with complementary duck blood squares and tofu squares. More on the duck blood in a bit. We also ordered, sichuan meat balls, yan wan (fujian style won tons made with meat wrappers), pork, mushrooms, cabbage, beef, shrimp paste, and la-mien.

This was by far the best hot pot any of us had ever had. The spicy side wasn't just heat blast; it had infused a savoury aspect we never encountered before. It was the duck blood. These squares were like silken tofu in texture but with essence of foie.
The favourite of the evening was the shrimp paste that one threw little spponfuls of into the pot. You can still get the chunks of sweet shrimp flesh distinctly.
The beef was nicely marbled and had great flavour. From New Zealand, I think.
Also, see the mound of scallions pictured in the bowl? That's what we were instructed to use as dipping sauce. After the ma-la broth came to a boil, we drenched the scallions in the broth and it released the most amazing aromatic flavour. Who needs sa-cha?

Another amazing meal in a country that eats like champs. NT2970 (~$100) total with several rounds of beer.

台北市信義路四段 315 號

TW Tour: Oh Ah Mi Sua, Taipei

After our XLB fun, we went to Chian Kai Shek Memorial for a bit and then shopping at Wufenpu, a wholesale clothing area. It's basically blocks of small clothing stores with brands from Japan and Korea. And of course all that reailing needs to be rewarded by some food! We spotted a Mi Sua (noodles) truck and ordered oh ah mi sua (oyster noodles). As always, delcious!

TW Tour: XLB Taste Comparison, Taipei

In the shadow of Taipei 101 - the current tallest, completed and occupied building in the world with the fastest elevator in the world, lies perhaps another one of TW's greatest feats - the soup dumpling (XLB).

Din Tai Fung has branches all over the world including the Greater LA area (I hear it's meh there) and in Shanghai (the home turf of XLBs and I hear they are beating out Nan Xiang at their own game).
The mass of workers in their kitchen which looks more oddly like some sort of dumpling surgery center.
Stacks and stacks of XLBs
We didn't have to wait long for our table as we got there at 10AM. They even provided us a carriage for our purses.
The ginger slices in vinegar awaited our dumplings.
Cold apps of cucmber and tofu strips.
The best damn chicken soup in the world despite the scary looking chicken part. This bowl said it all - US farming methods, even those at places like Fulton Valley Chicken, have killed all that is good about chicken. One would never say, "Tastes like chicken" in TW about bland, mystery meat. I think the next Chinese-Jewish connection that could be a cottage industry is Bubbe's Chicken Soup from Ah Ma's Chicken Farm.
At last our XLBs came. We order one with crab and one plain pork. Both were amazing but we favoured the plain pork.
Closeup of the plain crab one.
So what do we do after having the top notch of XLBs, go have more! Our cabbie told us that a former cook at Din Tai Fung had opened his own place around the corner from Din Tai Fung. We needed to have a head-to-head comparison. And really, there was no comparision. These were messy in shape and not a whole lot of soup or flavour. In fact, they reminded me of the ones at Shanghai Dumpling on Balboa.
BTW, our Din Tai Fung meal was NT1221 ($40) - not cheap by TW standards but totally worth it by any measure.

No. 194 (corner of Yunkang Street), Xinyi Road Sec. 2, Taipei
Tel:(02)23218928 Fax:(02)23215958