There’s something magical about flying eighteen hours and crossing the International Date Line to travel to a far away land. It leaves you haggard and disoriented, but it also heightens your senses and opens your spirit. The new sights, sounds and scents come flooding in, and you feel more alive than ever.
Though starkly different experiences, both Din Tai Fung and La Rotisserie were perfect introductions to the cuisine you’ll find in Taiwan today. From old traditions dressed up in sleek new digs, to new traditions that marry classic French techniques with Taiwanese ingredients, our appetites for what else Taiwan had to offer only grew the more we ate. Fortunately, we still had time on our trip and room in our stomachs to continue exploring.
When I traveled to Taiwan for the first time, I was lucky to be on an adventure with a few very fun friends who are food aficionados like myself. There with me was the talented pastry chef Pichet Ong, the always entertaining Ben Mims of Saveur magazine, and Thai chef extraordinaire Andy Ricker of Portland’s Pok Pok. Together we spent eight days and nights wandering Taipei, Taroko, and Sun Moon Lake, where we discovered an orderly subway system, hectic night markets, serene countryside, beautiful resorts, and amazing food.
Before I left for my trip, I met my friend chef Susur Lee for drinks, and he had two places to recommend, Din Tai Fung and Shin Yeh. Din Tai Fung, Susur told me, is home to the best dumplings in all of Asia (their Hong Kong outlet even has a Michelin star, quite impressive for a dumpling house).
Having taken Susur’s advice, on day one in Taipei we headed to Din Tai Fung, located on the ground floor of the sky-scraper Taipei 101, where not only were the dumplings all they were boasted to be, but where I also tasted the first hot and sour soup that I actually liked. Scratch that, loved.
|Hot and Sour Soup|
Stretching our stomachs to capacity, at Din Tai Fung we feasted on soup dumplings, chive dumplings, pan-fried pork dumplings, shrimp fried rice, hot and sour soup, fresh bamboo, and some incredible black truffle dumplings. As large as lunch was, we only scratched the surface of all that Din Tai Fung has to offer, the menu is mouth-wateringly large.
|Black Truffle Dumpling|
The kitchen at Din Tai Fung is a glass-encased fish bowl at the center of the restaurant, wherein dozens of masked staff crank out thousands of perfect dumplings by hand, in complete orderliness and quiet. The real excitement of the experience came when we were invited to have a little dumpling lesson in the kitchen, though only Pichet and I were game.
|The Kitchen at Din Tai Fung|
We had to scrub as if going into an operating room, don aprons, masks and hair nets, and then we set to work. First we learned how to roll a perfect circle out of the tiny balls of fluffy dough. Then we had to fill the circles with just the right amount of filling before learning to fold and pinch the top of the raw dumpling into Din Tai Fung’s perfect little package. Eighteen folds to be precise.
My first ever dumpling was a disaster. So I laughed, undaunted, and grabbed the next ball of dough. Starting from the top, on my second go I was determined to create, if not something up to Din Tai Fung’s standards (no doubt they never served what we made), something that was at least better than my first. With much concentration and an ear and eye on my chef-instructor, dumpling number two did come out much better. Although they still didn’t offer me (or Pichet for that matter) a job.
After a much needed period of digestion, we were ready for more gluttony. Dinner was in our hotel, the beautiful (and conveniently located) Palais de Chine, at La Rotisserie restaurant, headed by female chef Sherling Fan.
Fan, who graduated National Taiwan University with a degree in Political Science, working in the Civil Aeronautics Administration of Taiwan, set off for France at age 30 to completely change direction and become a chef. She taught herself French and studied culinary arts at the Institute Paul Bocuse. Fan worked “twice as hard as the men” and ended up in the kitchens of Michel-starred restaurants.
|Chef Sherling Fan|
Tough enough to play with the big boys, Fan nevertheless maintained her soft-spoken manner. As she moved up the culinary ladder, she mentored underlings with caring rather than shouting. When she returned to Taiwan, she quickly earned a reputation for using Taiwanese ingredients in French-style dishes, creating a unique cuisine that we had the good fortune to experience.
Fan’s menu consisted of wood smoked lamb loin in rice paper with a basil and coriander dip, chilled tomato consommé with lobster, local Taiwanese langoustine in “Tunisian Brick” with gremolata, pan roasted duck breast with a Peking Duck dumpling and hoisin sauce, and a soy marinated grain-fed aged rib eye.
|Wood Smoked Lamb Loin in Rice Paper with Basil and Coriander Dip|
|Chilled Tomato Consomme with Lobster|
|Local Langoustines Wrapped in Tunisian Brick with Gremolata|
In between courses, I introduced Ben Mims to one of my favorite, most silly thing to do when I’m traveling... taking ceiling mirror photos. I’m not sure when this nutty habit developed, it was years ago though, but it just cracks me up to aim my camera at the ceiling and shoot both suspecting and unsuspecting subjects. It made Ben laugh so hard he later said it was the most fun of the evening.