Friday, December 30, 2011

Tasting Taiwan – Part Four: Shin Yeh, Tu Hsiao Yueh, and Yogurt Art

The last night of a truly great trip feels a bit like waking up from a wonderful dream and realizing it actually was a dream, and that it’s come to an end.  The best way to combat the end-of-vacation malaise is to save the best for last, forget about your flight the next day, and just savor every last minute you still have.  So that’s exactly what we did.

Again following chef Susur Lee’s restaurant recommendations, on our last night in Taipei we headed back to where we started on day one, to Taipei 101.  Only this time we didn’t do the ground floor Din Tai Fung, rather we took the bullet elevator to the top, to the decadent Shin Yeh “Ambiance 101”—widely regarded as the best high-end restaurant in Taipei for traditional Taiwanese food.

Though today Shin Yeh is a restaurant group with eighteen outlets, including a Shabu Shabu house (Shuangcheng Restaurant), three Curry Champs, four Japanese Buffets (Restaurants Hsinyi, Jhongshan, Guancian, and Taoyuan), and locations in Japan, Singapore, and Beijing, it began with one woman, and one back alley location. 

In 1977, Mrs. Lee Xiu Ying opened the first, most humble, Shin Yeh, which had only eleven tables.  Though her cuisine initially consisted of simple and small dishes, Mrs. Lee began developing more complex items that were nevertheless founded in traditional Taiwanese cooking.  She also made her restaurant somewhat of a second home for its customers, treating everyone (employees included) like part of her family.  Dining at Shin Yeh 101, meeting the people who work there, and observing the way its staff interacts with the customers, it was clear that this attitude remains to this day, even in their most decadent restaurant.  The service wasn’t stuffy or overly formal, rather it was warm and friendly while maintaining a stellar level of professionalism.

The view from the dining room is what one would expect from the 85th floor of Taipei 101, spectacular—and perfect for our last night.  Only unlike so many restaurants where the location would draw crowds even without good food, the meal we had at Shin Yeh trumped the breath-taking view of the city.

At Shin Yeh I tasted the best house-made Taiwanese sausage of the whole trip, and we ate the stuff pretty much everywhere we went—you can’t escape it—only here it was served with crispy burdock and sweet potato chips.  We also had a trio of cold appetizers, roasted mullet roe, scallop with truffles, and seared goose breast; and a crystal clear chicken broth with a light fish ball wrapped in bamboo pith.  To separate the meal and clear our palates, we were served a chilled, highly acidic drink that was as beautiful as it was refreshing.  It didn’t have a name, they just said it was “healthy.”

House-Made Sweet Pork Sausage at Shin Yeh

Bamboo Pith-Wrapped Fish Ball in Clear Broth

"Healthy Acidic Drink"

Close-Up of Palate-Cleansing Drink
The meal continued with steamed abalone in its shell with fermented black beans—which, although delicious, was both challenging and amusing to eat; wok seared beef tenderloin with grilled pomfret (a local fish from the Pacific); stir-fried spicy prawn on rice vermicelli; and stir-fried Mt. Kuan-Yin bamboo with sun-dried scallops.  Unlike every other fresh bamboo we had, which was normally just served in chunks with a mayonnaise-like dipping sauce (a good pairing as fresh bamboo tastes a lot like artichoke heart), this bamboo was a careful preparation that had more flavor that any other variation we’d tried.

Steamed Abalone with Fermented Black Bean Sauce

Wok Seared Beef Tenderloin and Grilled Pomfret

Stir-Fried Spicy Prawn on Rice Vermicelli

Stir Fried Mt. Kuan-Yin Bamboo with Sun-Dried Scallop
The meal at Shin Yeh chased away our end-of-vacation blues.  It was elegant, delicious, and definitely lived up to its reputation as the best traditional Taiwanese food in Taipei.

Having packed our bags on the last day, we decided that for our very last meal in Taiwan, Pichet, Ben, Andy and I would head to Tu Hsiao Yueh, for the second time, hitting up a different location on Zhong Shan Road in the ZhongHe district.  The food at the Zhongshan location had been so good (and so cheap) that we all decided to wrap up our culinary journey with their perfect noodle soup for lunch.

Tu Hsiao Yue's Zhong Shan Location
Since 1895, Tu Hsiao Yueh has been serving some of Taiwan’s best house-made noodles.  Famous among locals, the restaurant began as a humble stall at a night market, where a fisherman decided to supplement his income by selling his noodles during the off season.  Today, the fisherman’s Tienan Dan-tsu noodles are known as the best in Taipei, so of course this was a stop we couldn’t miss—twice.

Dan-tsu noodles translates to “noodles carried on a yoke” (a yoke being a pole rested across the shoulders to help carry heavy buckets), as this was the way the fisherman-turned-noodle-maker would bring his noodles to market.  Referring to the off season when the fisherman sold noodles rather than fishing, Tu Hsiao Yueh literally translates as “slack season.”

Reminiscent of its Market beginnings, then you enter Tu Hsiao Yueh, the noodle chef is sitting right there, busily and skillfully filling orders.  Unlike noodle soups served in the U.S., huge bowls sometimes containing weak broth and overcooked noodles, Tienan Dan-tsu noodles are perfectly cooked, served in a small bowl brimming with a richly flavored broth, topped with braised and ground pork, scallions, and a single, perfectly cooked fresh shrimp.  The aroma rising up from the bowl is enough to make your mouth water, and when your mouth is filled with what I found to be the best noodle soup I ever had, it’s enough to make your eyes tear up.

Tienan Dan-tsu noodles

But Tu Hsiao Yueh offers more than just the quintessential noodle soup, they have perfectly fried breaded oysters—light, crispy, and not at all oily.  Their roasted pork and house-made pork sausage were equally good, as were the garlic clams, the fried, battered shrimp, the sautéed kale, and the refreshing iced melon.

Roasted Pork Belly
Garlic Clams
As we left Tu Hsiao Yueh, on an incredibly hot and humid day, we stumbled into Yogurt Art, located right next door.  Desperately in need of something cold and sweet, but not heavy, seeing a frozen yogurt spot only ten paces from Tu Hsiao Yueh was like spotting a real watering hole in a desert.  Being especially fond of yogurt not made from fat-free (flavorless) milk, I was super happy that Yogurt Art’s thirty different yogurts were all made from 1 ½% milk, and included a choice of about 24 different toppings.  Yogurt Art turned out to be one sweet, surprise find. 

Yogurt Art, A Must Try

So hot and sticky that day, I stuck a coint to my chest
After eight days of eating up adventures, and adventurous eating, it was hard to say good bye to Taiwan. The Taiwanese are warm, welcoming people, who maintain a bit of the ancient ways while embracing all things modern.  Well worth the long flight and mind-numbing jet lag upon returning home, traveling to Taiwan—its people, places and food—was an experience I’m not likely to ever forget.

Tasting Taiwan – Part Three: Silks Place Taroko, The Lalu, and Sun Moon Restaurant

When you travel, sometimes you crash on a friend’s couch, sometimes you stay in a motel off a highway or a hotel in the middle of a city, sometimes you camp.  Then, there are those times when you go all out and seek a remote resort so stunning you feel like you’ve died and gone to paradise.  They’re never cheap, but in my experience, they’re always worth it.

In Taiwan we stayed at two such places.  In Taroko, at the heart of Taroko National Park near the Shakadang Trail to Taroko Gorge, we stayed at Silks Place Taroko, run by the same group that operates the lovely Taipei restaurant Silks Palace at The National Palace Museum.

Rooftop Pool and Jacuzzi at Silks Place Taroko
After our swim and lunch, we headed up the Shakadang Trail and along the Taroko Gorge, surrounded by naturally sculptured rock cliffs and dense green foliage, we trekked the trail until we reached the inlet to the river below.  Having already had our swim for the day though, we were happy to just get our feet wet and cool our calves after burning off lunch on the one and a half hour hike into the gorge. 


Well worn, sweaty, but beaming, we arrived at the resort Silks Place.  Though we didn’t have much time before dinner, having quickly toured the grounds and discovered the beautiful swimming pool perched atop the hill, Andy, Pichet, Ben and I rushed from our rooms to take a dip before dinner.  Between the Pacific swim, the indigenous restaurant, the Taroko Gorge and now the exquisite Silks Place, that day goes down as one of my best ever—near or far from home.

Silks Place was like a wonderful dream.  And beyond my love of swimming, mountains, and a kicking hotel room (all of which Silks Place had), I also love a great breakfast buffet.  Silks so didn’t disappoint here.  One of my favorite dishes is Cha Siu Bao (steamed BBQ pork buns), a common Dim Sum dish that when done well is anything but common.  The breakfast buffet at Silks had just about the best Cha Siu Bau I’ve tasted, in the States, China, or Taiwan.  They were so damn good that when we were checking out in the morning and Pichet told me he hadn’t had breakfast, I grabbed his hand and dragged him down the stairs to the restaurant, where we stood at the steamer basket shoving our faces with Cha Siu Bao until I finally asked someone for a bag and grabbed some to go.  Sometimes good manners are trumped by great food, (but I did say “thank you”)!

Cha Siu Bao, Breakfast at Silks Place Taroko
Very different, though equally tranquil, was The Lalu resort at Sun Moon Lake in Nantou County outside of Taichung.  Designed by award-winning Australian-born architect Kerry Hill, The Lalu is beauty in resort form.  Modern yet full of the warmth and openness of traditional Taiwanese design, The Lalu made for one great escape from the hectic life I live in the city.  With its vast infinity-edge pool overlooking the lake, its wood-laden rooms with private terraces, its spa and its immense coy pond, the Lalu is the type of resort one could never leave, and die happy.

Dinner at The Lalu was what you would expect from such a high-end establishment.  Its restaurants are staffed by both French and Taiwanese chefs, and while its food heralds tradition, you can also find modern French brasserie fare.  For our dinner, we went with the traditional.  A large feast served at a round table, we ate with hotel management and the French chefs who oversee the brasserie.  Our menu, as extensive as it was elegant, included tea eggs (eggs hard boiled in tea, not actually my favorite), stir-fried shrimps with Loong-Ching Tea, beef filet with abalone, mushrooms and black tea leaves, steamed President Fish caught that day in Sun Moon Lake (so named for its being the favorite fish of President Chang Kai Shek), braised pork belly, double-boiled chicken with wild mushrooms and herbs, and sautéed loofah with lotus (apparently, loofah isn’t just for the bath, it tastes good too).

Not My Cup of Tea Eggs

President Fish from Sun Moon Lake

Braised Pork Belly

Pork Belly in House-Made Buns
The next day we motored onto Sun Moon Lake and visited a couple of tiny islands, one of which is still inhabited by indigenous Taiwanese, the other seemed only to be inhabited by tourists. After, we drove into Yi Chi village, where we ate at Sun Moon Restaurant.  Headed by a husband-wife team, with the wife being the chef, Sun Moon Restaurant offers traditional local fare, fish from the lake, meat and herbs from the mountains.  They stuffed us at Sun Moon Restaurant, and on a trip where the primary goal was to eat as much as possible, this lunch quite possibly topped the list for sheer quantity.

On Sun Mook Lake with Andy Ricker
Roasted pork, duck and chicken bone soup, President Fish, glutinous rice cooked in bamboo, batter fried lake-raised shrimp, stir fried pork with vegetables, scallion eggs, sour tofu, and fresh bamboo were all simple yet so good (and so filling).

Roasted Pork

Lake Shrimp (In One Very Cool Display)

Crispy Fried Baby Lake Shrimp

The Spread at Sun Moon Restaurant
While the food was memorable, what made this lunch stand out was what happened after we’d finished eating.  The owners took us all out to the front of the building, gave us some Sharpie pens, and asked us write something on the wall about our meal and sign it.  Next time I’m in Taiwan—and there will definitely be a next time—I will have to make a stop in Yi Chi at Sun Moon Restaurant to see if what we all wrote is still there on the wall just outside the entrance.

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Tasting Taiwan— Part Two: Silks Palace, Shilin Night Market, The Pacific, and Indigenous Food

Silks Palace at The National  Palace Museum is a tribute to both old and new.  A modern masterpiece of architecture, the menu at Silks Palace is fashioned after the most famous works of art that you’ll find in the museum itself.  An expanse of bright space and deep flavor, Silks Palace was well worth venturing to the outskirts of Taipei to experience.

Silks Palace at The National Palace Museum
Our meal there began with a canapé trio of marinated octopus, mountain yam, and crab.  From there we were served another hot and sour soup.  Again, I loved it, making me come to the conclusion that perhaps I just don’t like hot and sour soups made in America.  The beautiful bowl in which the soup was served was created by Silks Palace to mimic the ancient Bell and Cauldron Inscriptions from the Mao Gong Ding and Late Western Zhou Dynasty found in the museum.

Hot & Sour Soup in "Cauldron"
The next item proved to be my favorite, a chicken wing stuffed with glutinous rice.  This crispy, juicy and tender handful of loveliness is something you’ll find all over Taiwan in restaurants and street vendors, so I had it more than once.  But at Silks Palace they prepare this humble dish to perfection, elevating it to a form of gastronomic art not so out of place next to a museum.

Chicken Wing Stuffed with Glutinous Rice
In The National Palace Museum, one of the most famous works of art is an ornate jade carving of a simple cabbage dating back to the Quing Dynasty.  Having seen the piece on our whirlwind tour of the museum, I was more than happy to find it on my plate at lunch.  The “Jadeite Cabbage with Insects” (yes, insects), looked a near replica of the piece found in the museum, only thankfully this one we could eat, insects and all.

Jadeite Cabbage with Insects
Our last dish was the “Braised E-Fu Noodles” that were created by the personal chef of Cantonese calligrapher E Bing Sho.  E Bing Sho was known for gatherings at his home, parties that would often overwhelm his chef with their size, frequency, and often last-minute nature.  One day, Bing Sho suggested his chef make some simple noodles of flour and egg, and pan fry them anytime unexpected company would arrive.  It was Bing Sho’s guests who named this new noodle “E-Fu Mein” meaning “noodles of the house of E.”

Braised E-Fu Noodles
From this elegant, artistic lunch, I take you to the streets of Taipei, on my first adventure to a Taipei Night Market.  Had I not been tagging along with Pichet Ong, who speaks the language and had previously been to Taiwan, I would have been completely lost in the tiny streets and giant crowds that made up the Shilin Night Market.  Located in the Shilin District, just off of the MRT subway’s Jiantan Station stop on the Dansuei/Red Line, Shilin Night Market was founded in 1909 and is considered the largest in Taipei. 

Shilin Night Market
Loud, steamy, packed with people and crammed with everything from purses, clothes, and pets, to food and drink, the Shilin Night Market leaves you wide-eyed, dizzy-headed, and loaded down with things you bought, though perhaps didn’t quite need.  The scents are overwhelming, some so tempting they make you salivate, like grilling spiced meats, others not so much at all, like “stinky tofu” that sends you running in the opposite direction in a desperate search for air that smells like something—anything—else.

Candied Strawberries at Shilin Night Market
After four days in Taipei, and the experience of Shilin Night Market, I was more than ready to hop a train to Hualien and literally head for the hills.  While Taipei is much more quiet than Manhattan (I hardly heard a siren), it’s subways way cleaner and more orderly, it’s still a big city, and this is one big city girl who loves to get out into the middle of nowhere to relax.

A beach bum at heart, knowing that the road from Hualien train station up to the Taroko Gorge winds along the Pacific Ocean, I just couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to swim in the ocean of my Southern California childhood way far away from LA.  Luring Pichet, Andy and Ben into the water with me, we discovered not soft sand, but hard, sharp rocks, and rather than gentle, rolling waves, we fought a strong current, rough waves, and a wicked rip-tide.  But damn was it one of the best parts of the trip!

In The Pacific with Pichet, on the Rocks (Ouch!)
Having braved the rocks and rip-tide, we realized why all the Taiwanese on the beach with us were not venturing into the water in their bathing suits, in fact, the four of us were the only ones foolish enough to get more than just our feet wet.  Which also explains why unlike any other beach I’ve been to, this one didn’t have a shower in which to rinse off the salt water when we were finished swimming.  Rather, there was a large tub made of rock into which one could step and rinse their feet in the faucets.  No matter, we’d already made a spectacle of ourselves just by being in the ocean, so we figured we may as well keep up the show by rinsing our whole bodies in the tub.

Although we were heading straight from the beach to lunch, when we passed by one particular food cart, Andy and I were so drawn in by the smell that we just had to have a little pre-lunch bite.  Grilling traditional sweet pork sausages as well as rice “sausages” and then stuffing the rice with the pork, the character that was the vendor embodied all of what you would hope to find in street food off the beaten path.  He was gentle, small, his face worn with character lines, and his food was clean, simple, and outrageously good.

Andy Ricker Ordering

Perhaps it was the invigorating, daring swim, perhaps it was the smell of the Pacific in the air or the deep green mountains surrounding  us, or perhaps it was the unconventional “restaurant” itself, but lunch that day was an experience I’ll never forget. 

Leader Village Taroko (not the hotel), is run by generations of indigenous Taiwanese, and the menu consists mainly of ingredients they themselves have raised, caught, fished, foraged, and harvested.  Much of the furniture is hand-carved out of local wood by the family, and the view from our table in the open-air restaurant looked right out over the Pacific.  

The setting couldn’t have been more tranquil, and it only added to the serenity we felt as we ate such lovely food that was clearly made from the heart.  At Leader Village we ate a fresh sauté of green peppers, scallions and bacon, stir-fried beef (that was way too spicy for me), fish caugth that day in the Pacific, a platter of sautéed wild fern, steamed okra, pickled onion hearts and wild flowers, and sweet pork sausage, glutinous rice cooked in dried bamboo (which you had to whack against a rock to get to), crispy fried duck breast (with out-of-this-world skin), steamed jicama with chicken and scallions, and sautéed bamboo shoots with garlic and red pepper.

After the meal we took a tour of the grounds and got a glimpse of the wood-working shop out back, where all the furniture and carvings are made.  They even make cutting boards, and because the carvings were too big for me to take home, I bought a compact little chopping block made from local wood.   

The kitchen totally took us by surprise.  An open space with seemingly ancient equipment, it only brought home the fact that what we ate that day was completely out of the ordinary, and definitely something we wouldn’t ever find back home in the States.

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