Pigging out in Taipei

For months, a chef friend of S’s and mine, who moved to Taipei last year, has been raving to us about the amazing produce–seafood, meat, veggies, fruits, etc–available in Taiwan. Not only is it better than what we get in Singapore, he would tell us, but it is also much cheaper. We simply had to come up and taste all the wonderful foods, he would say. Given that this friend is (arguably) the best French chef that The Little Red Dot (that being Singapore’s latest nickname) has ever produced, I should have simply accepted what he told us as fact and visited him a long time ago. But stubborn idiot that I am–and because I had never really had the urge to see Taipei–we kept procrastinating our trip.

This past weekend, we finally got around to visiting Taipei and spending the weekend with chef Justin Quek, known to most Singaporeans (and many foodies worldwide) from his ten years as head chef of Les Amis. Justin now owns and operates his own place, La Petite Cuisine, a tiny but intimate Modern French restaurant that has within a year become recognized as Taipei’s top and perhaps most expensive European restaurant.

We flew in Friday evening, arriving a little after 5pm, and after quickly freshening up at our hotel, made our way to La Petite Cuisine for what turned out to be an extraordinary feast. Our menu, if my poor memory and lack of notes (I was too busy eating) is correct, consisted of a prawn tartare in a deep-fried pastry shell (“pie tie”); uni jelly with cauliflower cream; a summer salad topped with summer truffles (pictured); tuna belly carpaccio topped with summer truffles; squid carpaccio topped with Russian caviar; roasted pork belly with caramelized white peach; roasted quail with foiegras and figs; tagliatelle with more summer truffles; a lychee foam; and a confit of lychees on a pineapple carpaccio. The summer salad–which is one of only 2 dishes I shot a quick snap of with my tiny Contax–was a real stand out! One of the main ingredients was young bamboo shoot, something which I never expected to enjoy in a salad and which Justin explained to us was a popular summer ingredient in Taipei.

The next morning, Justin took us to the local markets. And I have to say, the produce did amaze me. The seafood was super fresh. The pork and other meats were beautiful, especially the lovely fatty pork that was being sold for close to nothing. The fruits and vegetables were so much better than what we get here in Singapore. And, as Justin had rightly pointed out, much cheaper. It was really quite an eye-opening experience and the longer we hung out at the markets, the more jealous I became. Later, we went to a well known restaurant, Chef Show Time, for lunch. According to Justin, Chef Huang is one of Taipei’s most well-known culinary stars (he’s the one on the right above; Justin is on the left). Chef Huang’s cuisine is fusion, sort of a Taiwanese-European. And while the dishes looked simple on the menu–descriptions were as plain as “fried pork Taiwanese style” and “fried crab”–the resulting dishes were hardly simple. They were, in fact, both complex and utterly delicious.

Here’s the “fried pork Taiwanese style”, which is perhaps one of the best dishes I have ever eaten in my life. The pork, splendidly fatty, was melt-in-your-mouth great.

The “fried crab” was Hokkaido Crab, lightly crumbed, fried with salt and pepper, and basil and garlic. The crab’s meat was amazingly sweet and tender. In addition to these two wonderful dishes, we had baked escargot with cheese, braised beef tongue, fried somei, mushrooms grilled with olive oil and bamboo shoots, and some imported jamon iberico bellota.

That night, we checked out the famous Shilin night market, which I can now say, I’ve been to and would happily never visit again (I’m not the biggest fan of huge crowds). I had heard a lot about the street food from this famous market. We tried the oyster noodles and the deep fried chicken filet. Both were only okay.

For lunch Sunday, we went to the one place that I had insisted be part of our culinary itinerary, Taipei’s most famous xiao long bao restaurant, Din Tai Fung. Xiao long bao (Shanghainese soup dumplings) are one of my top ten favourite food items. Friends who had eaten at both the Taipei branch and the Singapore one had always told me that the Singapore branch’s dumplings were nothing compared to the ones in Taipei. So, naturally, I had to see for myself. We ordered both the normal and the crabmeat versions. I’m happy to say that they were right. The skin of the xiao long bao I tasted were extremely thin, much thinner than the ones made here. Because the pork in Taiwan is of a much higher quality as well, and fattier too, the dumplings were also tastier. The biggest difference, though, was with the crabmeat dumplings. These tasted better simply because the crabmeat was better, fresher and with a cleaner taste than those cooked here. I could have easily eaten basket after basket if it weren’t for the fact that we were planning a second lunch at a well-known restaurant around the corner.

Slack Season Tan Tsi Noodles is a cute little restaurant that’s been built around a simple street stall from Tainan. It specializes in noodles and rice tossed with minced pork that’s been braised in an incredible master stock that’s supposedly been kept cooking for 100 years. The photo above is of the cast iron pot in which the stock is continuously stewed.

We had the noodles and the rice. Both were delicious. Happily, we also picked up a couple cans of the minced pork sauce, which I can’t wait to open and use. For dinner that night, we went to a lovely seafood restaurant, amusingly named Really Good Seafood.

Our last meal in Taipei was lunch the next day (Monday). Justin took us, plus two new friends, to an amazing Taiwanese restaurant called Ming Fu. It’s the kind of place you would never normally never walk into, the kind of non-descript neighborhood restaurant you’d just walk by, never realizing it was one of the best restaurants in town. When we entered, S, much more observant than I, noticed that there was a photo on the wall depicting the restaurant’s owner and movie director Ang Lee. Ming Fu, we soon realized, was obviously one of those cult secrets that Taiwanese-in-the-know (and no one else) dined at. We had, as I am sure you have already guessed, a fantastic meal. We had bamboo clams, grilled “tofu shark”, some wonderfully fresh green leafy vegetable fried with black beans and anchovies, deep fried black fish gizzards, and crab fried rice. All of it was fantastic. I especially enjoyed the gizzards, something I had never eaten before, and the fried rice, which was so good, we ordered some to take with us on our flight that afternoon.

All in all, it was an amazing few days of pigging out. I’ll definitely go back to Taipei now that I’ve had a taste.

La Petite Cuisine; tel: +886 2 2597 3838
Chef Show Time; tel: 2702 5277
Slack Season Tan Tsi Noodles; tel: 2772 1244
Ming Fu; tel: 2562 9287

Venice and a reborn local restaurant

This is a really quick 2-part post.

1. I’m off to Venice (Italy) this weekend, there for 10 days for work. While I’ve been pretty successful in sussing out some good restaurants and cafes, I’m sure there are many, many more I don’t know about. So, if any of y’all out there have some suggestions and recommendations, please, please tell me about them. Post them in my comments or email me! I especially want to find some great, affordable places. Thanks!

2. Over this past weekend, while wandering around looking for a place to eat before catching a film, my wife and I wandered into the recently refurbished Oriental Hotel (in Singapore). The redesign is fantastic and shows what a good, well thought out renovation can do for an aging hotel (for an example of the opposite, visit the Pan Pacific). The new interior is sleek, dark, and sexy. It’s also very Asian. Finally, the hotel looks like it belongs in the Mandarin Oriental group (which it does)! While walking around the hotel, we checked out their new buffet station cafe/restaurant Melt (gee, is every hotel in Singapore doing this now?) and then went up a floor to look at the newly re-opened and renovated Cherry Garden. We loved the new look–styled to look like a chic but zen courtyard house–of this classic Cantonese and Sichuan restaurant and were tempted to try it. And I’m glad we did. The food was very good. We had, as an amuse-bouche, a duck roll with honey, followed by carrot cake with XO sauce, some of the best siu mai I have eaten in a long time, pan-fried Shanghainese dumplings with a gorgeous, finely spun crust, spinach beancurd with crabmeat, cai miao poached in a superior stock, and cheong fan with shredded abalone. The service was also excellent and the restaurant was quiet and calm (possibly because we were eating at noon). I hate noisy, crowded Chinese restaurants with kids running all over the place. Cherry Garden, by comparison, was entirely civilized. I can’t wait to try it again. (Oh, sorry, no photos. I wasn’t carrying my camera with me.)

Cherry Garden, tel: 68853538

Comfort Food 1

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

Okay, it’s not the world’s greatest photo or the world’s prettiest dish, but this is my all-time favourite stay-in-and-have-a-simple-meal-at-home food. It’s a steamed egg custard with minced pork and salted duck egg yolks and is one of the few things that I’d be more than happy to eat a couple times of week for the rest of my life.

I grew up eating this, thanks to a Cantonese “amah” that cooked phenomenally well. My mother, of course, makes a killer version. And, more recently, my wife has mastered it. (I should admit that while it is in fact a relatively easy dish to prepare, I’ve only made it myself a few times. My wife is much better at preparing Chinese food than I am—Europhile that I am—and this dish has become a solid part of her vast repertoire.)

To make this dish (for two), you’ll need:

150g minced pork
3 eggs
400ml chicken stock
2 salted duck eggs
1/2 onion or some shallots
2 cloves of garlic

You’ll also need on hand for flavouring some light soy sauce, sugar, Chinese wine, and sesame oil. Spring onions are a nice addition as well.

Prepare necessary equipment for steaming. Ideally a large wok with a steamer attachment. Get the steam going over a high heat. Marinate your pork with a bit of soy sauce, Chinese wine and sesame oil. Finely dice up your onion and garlic and stir-fry it with the minced pork. Add a pinch of sugar to taste. You should decide how much you want to add. The pork should be savoury with a subtle sweetness. Spread the pork mixture into a heatproof bowl. Wash your salted duck eggs, and crack them open. You only want to keep the semi-hard yolks. Nestle these in the pork mixture, either whole or broken up in bits. Beat the eggs with a pair of chopsticks. Combine it with the stock. Add a pinch of salt to taste. When the mixture is well blended, strain it into the bowl with the pork and duck egg yolks. Steam the bowl over high heat for 5-10 minutes, then reduce to a low-medium flame/heat and steam for an additional 15-20 minutes. The custard should be wobbly and set, but not hard. Sprinkle some soy sauce and sesame oil over the finished custard as well as some chopped spring onions. Eat it with rice.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

When done right, the silky smooth custard mixed with the savouriness of the pork and the salted egg yolks forms an unbelievably delicious combination. It is, as I mentioned, a simple dish. The whole process, though, does take a bit of practice, especially calculating just the right timing for how set you want your custard. (Of course, figuring out steaming temperatures on your own kitchen range can be tricky for some.) Ideally, the best way to make this is to do what I’ve done. Convince a loved one to learn how to make it for you.