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.

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