Austin Restaurant Review: La Condesa

4 01 2010

Tuesday night was a great night to go to La Condesa to celebrate wifey’s birthday.  There was absolutely no wait, which is probably unusual for this restaurant du jour.

With its super-glossy, turqoise-wood-and-steel interior that looks like it was done by “Flipping Out” star Jeff Lewis, La Condesa is the most luxuriously appointed restaurant space in Austin.  The proof is in the at-times sublime level of the food, and of course the prices.

I’ll start with the second-best thing about La Condesa: the drinks.  They have the most creative tequila-based drink list I’ve ever seen.  All of them involve high-quality tequila, some kind of citrus for acid, and some kind of weird (in a good way) combination of herbal/floral/fruit accents to set the drink apart from your standard margarita.

I had the El Cubico: whole leaf tobacco-infused Hornitos, navan vanilla liqueur, lemon, grilled pineapple juice, mezcal essence, volcanic saffron-infused salt rim.  It sounds like something Dos Equis spokesman “The Most Interesting Man in the World” would drink, and I think I did feel myself growing a salt-and-pepper beard as I drank it.  I’m not sure if it was necessary to  fly to a volcano to get the saffron, as I couldn’t taste it at all, but the strong butter, char, pineapple, and vanilla flavors were enough to make this one of the best tequila drinks I’ve had in many a moon.

The Spicy Paloma was also delicious: herradura blanco, fresh grapefruit-ginger juice, piloncillo (Mexican dark brown sugar), splash of jarritos de toronja (grapefruit soda).  The ginger at the end gives it a kind of velvety, mysterious incense-smoke finish.

The best thing about La Condesa by far is the trout ceviche (Trucha con Aji Amarillo, $14) .

You can’t tell from this picture, but this dish explodes with more flavor per inch than just about anything in Austin, Uchi included.  The ingredient list is, like the drinks, exotic: ocean trout, tomatillo salpicon, aji amarillo (sweet yellow chili) sorbet, hoja santa (a Mexican herb), and dried lemon slices.  The raw trout (really, it’s sashimi, not ceviche) is perfectly fresh, and sliced thin to melt in your mouth.  The most important ingredient of the dish though is actually the dried lemon slices.  The complex, concentrated combination of bitter and sour is much more interesting than simple fresh lemon, and I wonder why I don’t see it more often.  The acid of the tomatillo and the gentle spiciness of the sorbet add additional layers of flavor.  It may seem ridiculous to pay $18 for a few small slices of fish, but trust me–everyone should make the pilgrimage to La Condesa just to try this dish.

Unfortunately, once you have the trout and the drinks, there isn’t much else worth trying.  The one exception is the fantastic guacamole, which comes in three flavors.  We had the crab and green apple ($8), and the chipotle and toasted almond ($6).

You wouldn’t think that crab and apple would work with avocado, but actually, the sweetness of the apples substitutes for the traditional tomato, and the mild crab meat is nicely complemented by the buttery avocado.

Not pictured here are porkbelly, apples, and goat cheese on thick corn tortillas ($16), hamachi ceviche ($14),  and for dessert, goat cheese cheesecake with pineapple, and cafe caramel pot de creme with coca nib shortbread and cinnamon crema.  These dishes all sound incredibly exotic and mouthwatering on paper, and they were certainly good, but for these prices, it’s fair to ask for sublime.

Despite the unevenness of the menu, you need to visit La Condesa.  I’d recommend coming during happy hour when the weather’s nice, so that you can sit on their patio and people-watch while you enjoy some delicious food and drink, without having to take a dinner-sized hit in the wallet.


Austin Restaurant Review: mulberry

21 12 2009

mulberry is one of those swanky downtown eateries that have recently sprung up in Austin along with all of those expensive glass condo towers.  In fact it’s on the ground floor of the new 360 building (also home to Garrido’s, reviewed here).

When you walk by mulberry, the first thing you think is “bar.”  With the built-in shelving full of wine bottles and the beautiful marble topped bar, all designed by Michael Hsu of Uchi fame, it looks built for nighttime.  But it’s also one of the best places in town to get brunch.

This frittata with gruyere and crimini mushrooms drizzled with truffle oil ($11) was classic hunger-busting breakfast fare with a sophisticated gloss.  It’s amazing how just a few drops of that musky, earthy liquid can make anything sexy, even a humble omelet.  The one quibble I had was that the greens had no dressing.

The wife loved the shrimp and polenta with red chili butter wine sauce ($10).  I thought it was a little salty, but as I love both shrimp and all corn-derived products, I can’t criticize it too much.

We were full by now, but we had to try the brioche french toast with fresh berries and cardamom syrup ($11).  The cardamom syrup was delicious and inventive, faintly reminiscent of the syrup poured over my favorite Indian dessert, Gulab Jamun, without all the sugar.  The toast was a little bit too coarse and thick.  I’m not sure if it was really brioche, which should be must softer.  Never mind; the syrup alone was enough to make this dish.

Wash it all down with some mimosas and raspberry-rose prosecco, and you’ve got a serious brunch.

The next time you’re looking for a satsifying brunch after a late night at the bars, take a break from the Kirbys and Magnolias of the world and pull a chair up at mulberry.

Austin Restaurant Reviews: Return from Exile, Garrido’s and Uchi

30 11 2009

The Belly is back after a long work-related hiatus.  I’m jumping right back into it with reviews of 2 of Austin’s most popular restaurants, Garrido’s and Uchi.

Garrido’s, in the swanky 360 building (Nueces and 3rd), is one of several high-end Mexican places that have popped up recently downtown (La Condesa and Cantina Laredo being the others).  I was pretty excited to try it out as the founder, owner, and head chef is David Garrido, who was head chef at Jeffrey’s in its heyday.

Like any respectable Austin Mexican joint, Garrido’s does an array of tequila-based drinks, heavy on the margaritas.

The Mexican Martini (basically, a margarita with olives) was very strong.  This is a good thing, as it’s a wallet-exploding $8.50, and it comes in a single glass, not a 3-glass shaker like at Trudy’s, purveyors of the original and standard MexiMart.  I hoped this one would be better than that cheaper but reliable classic, and it was.  There was a little saltiness from the olive juice, and the citrus flavors were aromatic rather than syrupy sweet.  Still, Trudy’s is a better value.

The Paloma, on the other hand, at $6, was my fave tequila beverage of the night.

With El Jimador, grapefruit juice, and a splash of soda in a tall glass with crushed ice, it was basically a greyhound with tequila instead of vodka: simple and refreshing, mildly sweet, perfect for a summer night.

For dinner I mixed it up with some bocaditos (literally, little mouthfuls, the heartier Mexican version of amuses bouches) and some tacos, which are the mainstay of the menu.

The pork tostadas with goat cheese, pepitas, watermelon, and chipotle ($7.50)

and coffee marinated ribeye steak tacos with queso asadero and chipotle horseradish aioli ($10.75)

were both clearly made with fresh, high-quality ingredients.  But the flavors didn’t jump off the tongue the way I expected them to.  With the tostadas, the pungent goat cheese completely dominated everything else, and the pork was dry.  With the ribeye tacos, the coffee, horseradish, and queso flavors were missing in action, leaving me with the Taco Cabana-esque taste of beef tacos with mayonnaise.

Garrido’s was a little disappointing given its lofty pedigree and reputation, but I’d go there again.  If you’re a taco purist, you’re probably better off hitting a cheaper 1st street or east side establishment, but Garrido’s has more going for it than against it–reasonable prices, high-quality drinks, nice decor, a great back patio with a view of Shoal Creek, and a sexy clientele.  And nice bathrooms.

Uchi, on the other hand, never disappoints.  Since its opening I have failed to find a better restaurant in Austin.  Add the hip architecture and decor courtesy of Austin local Michael Hsu, the chic but friendly service, and the extensive wine/sake list to the world-class food, and Uchi is the undisputed king.  (Also, for you star-chasers, once I saw Jake Gyllenhall and the guy who plays Sabertooth in Wolverine on the same night.  My wife almost had a heart attack.)

Uchi’s concept is Japanese/Western fusion.  Before founding Uchi, Chef Tyson Cole (who’s been on Iron Chef America but lost to the master, Morimoto) was a sushi chef at Musashino, Austin’s best traditional Japanese place, and he has trained in Japan with the best.  For some reason though, the more traditional Japanese fare here isn’t as good as Musashino’s and doesn’t hold a candle to the much more inventive fusion fare.

Every time I go, I try something new from the nightly menu, but I always return to a few mainstays from the permanent menu.  This time my go-to was the bond roll with salmon ($10).

The menu says it consists of avocado, sundried tomato, white soybean paper, and salmon.  That’s a simple ingredient list, but it explodes with flavor.  That’s because, like everything else on Uchi’s menu, the ingredients are the freshest and most expertly prepared in town.  The avocado is creamy and buttery, the salmon is tender but not mushy, and the rice (something lesser sushi joints neglect) is perfect–toothsome, not overly vinegared, rolled tight.  The accompanying mango sauce lends a wild kick of perfume that transforms this dish from merely fresh to unforgettable.

Another classic is the age dofu ($5), cubes of battered and fried tofu with dried bonito shavings and green onion in dashi (fish-and-kelp) broth.

Everything about this dish is perfect at Uchi–the hot, crispy exterior and gelatinous interior of the tofu, the heaps of bacony bonito shavings, the gentle and distinctly Japanese umami flavor of the broth.

One of the new things we tried from the nightly menu was the tara miso (casco bay cod with celery root and toasted almonds).

I loved the play between the sweet/savory almonds and caramelized exterior of the fish against the cool celery.  You can seldom go wrong with celery.

The star of the night though had to be the madai carpaccio (thin slices of raw Japanese black snapper, with shiso oil, san bai sweet vinegar, sea salt, micro greens, and green onions, $18).

The fish couldn’t have been fresher, and it had just the right combination of sea salt, vinegar and green onions to gently swathe it in a translucent sweet/sour/green cloak of flavor.  The salt, simple as it sounds, was key–it’s very rare that something will be perfectly salted in a restaurant, when the kitchen has to turn out plate after plate.  Somehow Uchi always gets it exactly right.

Some other new delciacies we had that night:

tomato katsu (fried green tomatoes Japanese-style in delicate panko breaking, with hot mustard sauce, $5),

hotate adzuki (diver scallops, adzuki bean, bacon, brussels sprouts), a combination of silky, sexy scallop and homey smoke flavors,

tempura ($12 for a vegetable combo, $5 for shrimp), very good, fresh, hot, and crispy, but again, for some reason, greasier and heavier than Musashino’s flawless rendition,

and jizake creme caramel with brown butter sorbet and ginger consomme, $9 (one of my all-time favorite desserts–it needs no explanation).

Taiwanese Food Odyssey Final Post: Dim Sum and Then Some

12 09 2009

This was it, my last day in Taiwan. I had to make it count.  What was the one thing I hadn’t had yet and couldn’t do without?

No trip to the Republic of Chinesefood is complete without a little Dim Sum.  So I filled up on some of these delicious Cantonese snacks.

This time we went to the Dim Sum restaurant in the Takashimaya department store at No.55,Sec 2,Jhongcheng Rd,Taipei. That’s right: when you go shopping in Taiwan, instead of Panda Express and Cinnabon, you get to eat Dim Sum.  You see why I wouldn’t mind living here?

For me, Dim Sum is synonymous with shrimp noodle rolls, or shia chung fun.  They’re usually a good barometer for the rest of the menu.  So I had them first.

IMG_0640Shrimp noodle rolls are a dead-simple dish, so they’re all about freshness.  There are 3 things I look for: thick, soft, but not mushy skin; big, plump shrimp; and sweet sauce.  These had all three.  And I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that in the States, the shrimp dishes at some Dim Sum places have a faint taste of stagnant water?  I don’t know where that comes from, but there was none of that here.

Next was another Dim Sum icon, the beef ball, or nu wan.

IMG_0642These were huge, moist, spongy, and full of cilantro.  And surprisingly, they were also filled with fragrant orange peel, instead of the usual ginger.  Even my wife had never seen that before, so it must be a recent innovation.  After 2000+ years, I thought it was impossible to improve on the beef ball, but I was wrong.

Originally, Dim Sum hails from the Cantonese-speaking regions of Canton and Hong Kong in China.  But I’ve had Dim Sum in Hong Kong, and for the money, I prefer the Taiwanese version.

Anyway, there was more, much more: beautiful Chinese eggplant, cooked long and slow so they’re creamy on the inside, stuffed with tons of shrimp paste and covered in pungent black bean sauce,

IMG_0641hot, fluffy cha shao bao (barbecue pork buns) filled with perfect bbq pork–full of plum flavor but not too sweet, chunky and full of fatty pork goodness,

IMG_0644shrimp, cilantro, and ginger dumplings,

IMG_0645plain old shrimp dumplings (ha gao), a Dim Sum staple,

IMG_0643spare ribs (pai goo) in chili and garlic black bean sauce, full of malty, not-too-salty black bean flavor,

IMG_0646and super-fresh daikon cake, or luo bo gao.

IMG_0648The best thing about Taiwanese Dim Sum is that you order off a menu, not from a cart like in the States, so you are guaranteed to get what you want, when you want it. We were in and out in 30 minutes. What more could you want in life?

Hmm, maybe some Beijing duck?

As it was my last night in Taiwan, we had one last family dinner, this time at Tien Chu at Nan Jing W Road #1, 3F, a place famous for its rendition of that iconic dish.

But of course, we couldn’t just have the duck. We had to warm up first. So we made our way through these soft, golden cakes of zha dofu (fried tofu),

IMG_0654bai chen, a delicious, simple salad of dried, hard tofu, cabbage, red chili, green onion, sugar, and vinegar,

IMG_0655a stunningly fresh dish of shelled peas with shredded chicken in white sauce (reportedly their most popular dish, even more popular than the duck),

IMG_0656super-thick green onion cakes, or cong you bing,

IMG_0657crab soup with cabbage (drab-looking, but tasty),

IMG_0658sea slug soup with puffed rice clusters (an interesting mix of crunchy rice clusters and squishy sea slug, which didn’t have much taste but was reminiscent of a fishy mushroom),

IMG_0661and shrimp on a bed of greens.

IMG_0665All of this was good, but we were all waiting for the duck.  Finally, it arrived–in pieces.

IMG_0662What was really unique and interesting about this version of Beijing duck (kao ya) was that at first, they only gave us the skin!

Genius! It’s definitely the tastiest part. No wonder Tien Chu is famous.

The servers made the pancakes for us, laying down the plum sauce and a piece of green onion on one of the tortilla-like wheat pancakes, with one or two pieces of the skin.

IMG_0663The salty, fatty, bacon-crisp skin played beautifully off of the sweet plum sauce.

The skin was what made the meal special, but later, they brought out the actual duck meat, and it was pretty good–juicy and full of smoky flavor.

IMG_0664As the Chinese love to eat all parts of an animal and are loath to waste anything, they also made a soup out of the rest of the duck. But it was a bit too gamy for my American palate.

IMG_0667We finished off the meal with a couple of tasty desserts. I love Chinese desserts because they’re always light, like this almond gelatin (xing ren dofu),

IMG_0669or these lightly sweetened fried red bean pancakes coated with toasted sesame seeds. They don’t leave you feeling weighed down.


And so ended my latest stroll through the culinary Garden of Eden that is Taiwan.

I hope you’ve gotten a small taste of what it’s like in this small but proud island nation. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the world, but it doesn’t have to be. If you like Chinese food at all, you’ve got to visit Taiwan at least once. I might see you there next time. Till then, we’ll have to bid farewell and say, as they do in Taiwan, bye bye.

Taiwanese Food Odyssey Day 6: The Sashimi Kingdom and the Golden Honey Hog

5 09 2009

I promise these Taiwan posts will be faster in coming (and shorter) from now on. But then again, there are only 2 days left.

Picture 125The big news on day 6 was that I had the best sashimi I’ve ever had in my life.  And the biggest pieces of maguro and albacore that I’ve ever seen.

Picture 127

It’s a little hard to tell from this picture, but this piece of maguro is thick as a filet mignon.  This is the magical sashimi kingdom of Pao Chuan (Ran-Ai Rd. Sec.2 #93, Taipei).  Pao Chuan means “treasure boat.”  That’s what you call truth in advertising.

And this boat is filled with much more than sashimi. This pork with melon in white sauce looks simple, and it is. In fact, the sauce is reminiscent of moo goo gai pan.

Picture 132But it’s the best moo goo gai pan you’ve ever had. The sauce is thinner than the goopy stuff you get in America, yet richer in taste, full of broth. And the melon is an incredible counterpoint to the lean pork: juicy and full of verdant coolness.

And then there were these giant pieces, cakes really, of age dofu–soft tofu Japanese style, breaded and fried, topped with dried bonito shavings and green onion, in a puddle of soy and mirin (sweet rice wine).

Picture 134It was unbelievable–the tofu as soft as a melted marhmallow, the bonito as smoky and flavorful as bacon, not fishy at all.

Picture 137Then there was this salad, with giant pieces of bamboo, smoked shark, onion, tomato, red bell pepper, and 2 kinds of seaweed, in a light vinaigrette.

Picture 133You haven’t had bamboo till you’ve had it fresh–it has a young, plaintive taste, not the sharp tang of the canned stuff.

Lunch was an embarrassment of riches. But dinner was a humilation of riches. I ate like a sultan, and almost died like one.

My in-laws took me to a little seaside town called Wen Li. We went to my father-in-law’s favorite place in town, a little family sit-down place near the fish market called Shao Yu Chen, or “Little Fisherman Village.” Before you go in, you take a little time to get acquainted with your dinner and pick the most promising candidates from the holding tanks. It’s like speed-dating for your mouth.

影像0016Obviously, seafood is their specialty, and the seafood was indeed special: huge tuna hand rolls (on the house!),

影像0005grilled wild-caught abalone,

影像0007steamed anh diao (red lion fish) with green onion, carrot, and ginger,

影像0013the requisite clams san bei,

影像0010a delicious mottled pink crab I’d never seen,


and lobster tail.


But I liked the veggies and meat even more.  For example, the most amazing kimchi I have ever tasted.
影像0002What was most amazing about it was that I don’t like kimchi.  It usually has a harsh, chemical flavor, like salted lye soap.  But this kimchi was different–sweet and sour, not astringent or salty. And the cabbage was still crunchy, not wilted and soggy like it usually is. I didn’t even know that the Taiwanese did kimchi!

All this for 3 people. You would think we’d be stuffed by now. And we were. But we still had to work on this succulent smoked pork leg.

影像0012The flavorful, toothsome skin was beautifully caramelized with a honey and sesame glaze, which kept all the moisture in the pink, tender meat. It went surprisingly well with a squirt of lime, which brightened the deep flavor of the blood-rich leg meat.

This pork leg really did me in. I couldn’t stop eating it. I ate until my back hurt. But to quote Marilyn Monroe, beauty is pain.

Taiwanese Food Odyssey Day 5: Family Feast

28 08 2009

Picture 079Continuing the old-school theme from the previous day’s visit to the shrimp roll shrine, breakfast on day 5 was at an old market in front of the Ma Tsu Miao, or Ma Tsu temple, off of Yen Ping Road, in the da dao chen, or “old town” area of Taipei. (Ma Tsu is a Chinese Buddhist/Taoist goddess of the sea, and therefore especially popular in Taiwan, so there’s a Ma Tsu temple in practically every neighborhood.)  In front of each stall was a little wooden bench where locals were eating breakfast and chatting with the vendors. The feel was very homey and local. (That’s my father-in-law on the right, searching the horizon for the best food stall.)

This morning we had some shrimp and pork bao tse, a kind of dumpling. They have a sort of cylindrical shape, like the shu mai you can get at a dim sum place, but they’re bigger, withh thicker skin.

Picture 075They’re just like most dumplings though in that they consist of an egg noodle shell filled with meat. We dipped these in a spicy red chili sauce that was a little sweet, with a little bit of soy. The sauce was great, and the bao tse filling was satisfying, if lacking in any particular character.

Next was pork soup with daikon in a clear broth.

Picture 077The pork was boiled–not my favorite preparation, as it tends toward blandness–but the broth was very flavorful, and I always like daikon. The sauce to dip the pork in, though, was too simple—just plain soy sauce and raw red chili, a bit harsh. The meat tasted better when dipped in the sweet bao tse sauce.

Picture 083We left the temple market and went to a place in the same area (Yen Ping N Road, Section 2) specializing in squid cakes and fish balls. Squid cakes are made the same way as fish balls and all Chinese meat balls, but for some reason, probably variety, they’re not in a cylindrical shape, but a finger shape, so they’re called cakes not balls.  Squid balls are common too.  We had the fish balls and squid cakes together in a spicy, fishy sort of broth that tasted like squid water. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t do fishy, so I let my wife have my squid cakes and the broth.

But I loved the fish balls—they were very spongy and light, and in the very center they were stuffed with a little morsel of delicious sesame-flavored ground pork, a common variation over here that you don’t often see in the States. Taiwanese fish balls are never chewy, gray, or fishy, as often happens with frozen fish balls, which is usually all you can get on the other side of the Pacific. Over here fish balls are usually made fresh, as you can see this woman doing.

It’s so fast you can hardly see it, but she’s taking a wad of fish paste mixed with salt, pepper and corn flour from the bowl in her lap, filling it with a small spoonful of the pork and sesame oil mixture piled in front of her on the table, and then shaping the whole thing into a perfect sphere with her hand and the spoon. She makes it look so easy, but I’m pretty sure the first time you or I tried this it would take a very long time and would end in disaster.

Next we went to a vendor called Jian Nung Tui on Liang Zhen, a small street near Yen Ping N Road. The name “Jian Nung Tui” is Taiwanese for “eat two bites.” They have been a famous food stall in Taipei for three generations. As happens with all successful Taiwanese food stalls, they recently moved from their original outdoor location, which was basically a tin shack adjoining a parking lot, into a (thankfully air-conditioned) building. In the spring and fall, which is when I’d visited the place before, they serve legendary fish ball soup and pork rice. But in the summer, they ply this cold, sweet dish called mi tai mu, which has earned its own reknown.

Picture 085

mi tai mu, before the ice melts

mi tai mu, after the ice melts, showing the ingredients

mi tai mu, after the ice melts, showing the ingredients

It’s pretty simple: short rice noodles, sweet red beans, and soft cubes of tapioca, with shaved ice and brown sugar. The key is the rice noodles, which lend their name, mi tai mu, to the entire dish. Jian Nung Tui’s mi tai mu is made by hand–in fact it’s the only place in Taipei that doesn’t use machine-made noodles.  I’ve never had the machine-made variety, so I can’t say I could tell the difference, but these mi tai mu were tasty: they had a toothsome-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, non-uniform texture, and a fresh, wholesome flavor that keeps the mouth entertained. As a whole, the dish is perfect for summer–a cold, gently sweet combination of a number of textures: crunchy ice, squishy tapioca, starchy beans, soft rice noodles: refreshing but filling at the same time. A lot of people eat it for breakfast.

Not that we could really call it breakfast anymore: we’d been eating for so long by this point that we decided to call it an early lunch. And I needed some time off, because that evening we were scheduled to get together with my wife’s extended family for the first gigantic family feast since I’d landed in Taiwan. So my stomach needed a power nap.

The typical family feast is held at a sit-down restaurant, like the big Chinese banquet hall-style restaurants that you see in the US. Each table seats 10, and there is a lazy Susan in the center so that people can share (at family feasts, orders are always for the table, never for an individual). This night we went out of town to a place called Un Wan, in a little seaside village called Yi Lan. Not surprisingly, they specialize in seafood. The way it works at Un Wan is that you specify how much you want to pay per person, and they organize a multi-course meal based on the price. Ours was $15 per person, which was an incredible bargain. Here are some of the higjlights.

From the first dish, I knew that we had a skilled chef in the kitchen, because he brought out something that I’d never seen before. It was a mound of rice filled with pork powder, covered with slabs of smoked salmon, topped with salmon roe and little dried shrimp.

Picture 092The rice and its filling was ok, but the real story was the smoked salmon. It had been glazed on the outside with some kind of delicious lemon and brown sugar mixture, and so the outside edge of every slice lended a sweet-and-sour note to the smokiness of the meat. The meat itself was perfect—thick enough not to fall apart, as smoked salmon does sometimes, and firm, never mushy.

Another highlight was this giant, beautifully arranged plate of sashimi.

Picture 090The star of this dish was this big-eyed red fish, some sort of scad, which had just been killed seconds ago and whose head was presented for decoration. The meat was served in delicious skin-on chunks. It was very clean in taste, sort of like a tuna, but a little sweeter, and lighter in texture. Another interesting note: see the key limes at the bottom of the picture? The Taiwanese often serve sashimi with lime or lemon, and it’s delicious. It’s such an obvious accompaniment, I wonder why you don’t see that in the States. Is it Japanese purism?

This one won for most flamboyant: a freshly steamed crab, served with a towering, glistening nest of spun sugar, another innovation from the highly skilled chef.

Picture 105

The least flashy dish was actually my favorite of the night—a simple eel soup, in nothing but its own broth and a little garlic.

Picture 101

The eel was incredibly fatty and had such mild, sweet, tender flesh that I could hardly believe it was eel. I’m more accustomed to the Japanese unadon style of grilled eel, which is tasty and soft but can be very strong in flavor. I wanted to steal the whole pot for myself.

The only true misfire of the night was this strange abalone casserole with pumpkin, pineapple, mayo, and cheese.

Picture 106Considering how subtle in flavor (and expensive) abalone is, I don’t understand why you would want to drown it in sugary pineapple (especially Taiwanese pineapple, which is even sweeter than Hawaiian) and suffocate it in a blanket of chewy, tasteless cheese. The Taiwanese view Western food as fancy, particularly cheese for some reason.  But we learned last night that Taiwanese cheese is an oxymoron. This dish should be called “Revenge for P.F. Chang’s.” I ended up just picking out the abalone and eating it by itself.

And this is only about half of it. All in all, it was an incredible meal. I tried so many things I’d never had before. Kudos to the chef for going out on a limb and taking some risks. And kudos to the owner of the house for making this wheat beer, which was delicious and unlike any hefeweizen I’ve ever had. It had no taste of hops or any other spices at all, just pure wheat, whereas hefeweizens are still a little bit hoppy. It was like drinking liquid summer. Kampei!

Picture 095

Taiwanese Food Odyssey Day 4: The Miracle of the Shrimp Roll

23 08 2009

Picture 056Day 4 began with a pilgrimage to holy ground: a little shrimp roll store on Alley 60 off of of Yenping North Road, Section 2. It’s in the “old town” area of Taipei, near the apartment, now demolished, where my father-in-law grew up. Like many of the great eateries in Taipei, it has no sign, it doesn’t even have a name, but it’s so famous that if you don’t get there by 11, they’ll be out of product. The place is literally a hole in the wall.

Picture 067Everything is so blackened with soot and God knows what else, you don’t want to touch anything. But the grime only makes the clean, pure perfection of their shrimp rolls seem even more miraculous.

Picture 059The shrimp roll, or shia juen, like all Chinese street food, is a beautiful simplicity. It’s nothing but shrimp paste, chunks of shrimp, and diced water chestnut rolled up in “tofu skin,” or thin sheets of bean curd, and deep fried. They’re served on a plate with soy paste and spicy mustard for dipping. It never ceases to amaze me, the complexity that can arise from the play between the crisp, sweet starch of the water chestnut, the plump, juicy shrimp, the crisp tofu skin, the oil, and the earthy heat of the mustard. It’s one of those foods that is a living embodiment of Occam’s Razor. Surely someone up there likes us if he allows something so simple to taste so good, for only a couple of bucks.

Picture 058This place also serves another kind of roll called chi juen, which literally means “chicken rolls” in Mandarin. But they don’t have any chicken in them. Chi juen is actually a mistranslation from the Taiwanese term for these rolls, gey gun. Gun means “rolls,” like the Mandarin juen, but gey can mean either “fried leftovers” or “chicken.” Whoever translated the Taiwanese into Mandarin thought that the intended usage was “chicken,” but they were wrong. So they are really “fried leftover rolls.”

The idea is that they’re filled with leftover stuff from some other dish, though of course they’re now made with fresh ingredients.  The principal ingredients are barbecue pork and onion, wrapped in the same kind of tofu skin as the shrimp rolls. The onions are sauteed beforehand, giving them a delicious caramelized sweetness.  They’re served pre-cut for easy dipping and topped with some thin slices of pickled cucmber. They’re standing in a puddle of a delicious, sweet, tomato-based sauce. It’s sort of like ketchup without vinegar.

Lunch was fantastic, but dinner was probably the worst meal I’ve ever had in Taipei. I thought I’d tell you about it to illustrate how when it comes to Taiwanese food, looks can be very deceiving. I went to a coffee house called “Ours” in the very trendy Dong Shi area. It’s kind of like the East Village of Taipei, a haven for young artist and hipster types. The place looked great—nice deck seating outside, cool furniture inside, a hip-looking bartender, and carefully crafted drinks.

Picture 069The milk tea I had was actually very good—perfectly sweetened, that is, not too much, and topped with satiny foamed milk, which I had never seen before. So if you’re in the area, you’re thirsty, and you don’t mind paying a premium, “Ours” is a good call. For drinks.

NOT for dinner. We had the chef’s selection of cheese sticks, nachos, and “fries.”

Picture 074I didn’t order it, so it wasn’t all my fault. But I did convince myself that it was OK to eat cheese in Taiwan, which was a fatal mistake. The nachos were stale bagged chips topped with some kind of rubbery white “cheese.” Admittedly, I’m from Austin, Texas, nacho capital of the world, so maybe I’m spoiled. But I can’t imagine anyone liking these triangles of blech. The cheese sticks were serviceable but also obviously from a box, and the “fries” were neither made of potatoes nor fried—they had the consistency of damp, stale breadsticks. More troubling was that they tasted vaguely of shrimp, and I’m not sure that was intentional. The worst part of this dinner debacle was that it cost $18. I could have had 3 plates of sashimi for that price!!

Let this be a lesson to you and me: in Taiwan, when in doubt, stick with street food. In fact, the older and more disgusting a place looks, the more delicious it is likely to be. How else could it have survived so long looking like that? Worst-case scenario, the food will be mediocre, but you’ll be out only a few bucks, with plenty left in your pocket to try the next place.

That being said, there are some great sit-down, air-conditioned, full-service restaurants in Taiwan. The next day was a case in point.