For a wining and dining experience a bit out of the ordinary, here is a selection of restaurants you may not already be familiar with.
BY BRIAN ASMUS
Star Tower Restaurant
271 ChouMei Street
Eating Up in the Air
How many times have you driven by a tall smokestack on your way to Danshui? How many of you know that there is actually a revolving restaurant on the top of that incinerator in Shipai? Yes, this is the home of the Star Tower Restaurant.
I have to admit that I was ready to lay into this restaurant with all the sarcasm I could muster. The ironies of a restaurant being located over a garbage incinerator provided a most tempting target, but I found my cynicism waning as the evening wore on.
To get to the restaurant, buy a ticket at the side window (NT$40) and head up 120 meters to the restaurant level. The admission price is refundable for patrons of the restaurant, if you remember to ask for it when paying the bill.
The staff promptly showed me to a table. All seating - not for those with acrophobia - is next to the curved window. As the track rotates over a 1.5-hour cycle, you have a 360-degree vista of the surrounding countryside, extending from the Grand Hotel to Beitou to Danshui. The track's sometimes jerky movement is eerily akin to that of an earthquake, but within 15 minutes, I had adjusted and the cold sweat on my brow dissipated.
The set menus are priced at NT$380 or NT$680. I went for the cheaper one. The first course was a bowl of Buddha Jumping the Wall soup - pork ribs, bamboo shoots, and bok choy. It was quite delicious, though the presentation was not particularly attractive. This was followed by a hot-and-sour fish with green vegetables on the side, kale in oyster sauce, cream of mushroom soup, and a bowl of steamed rice with a piece of eel and some seasoning.
I have found that there are two types of dishes with which you can almost never go wrong in Taiwan - fish and vegetables. The fish was tender, the sauce more complexly flavored than I would have expected. The addition of nice bell peppers and sweet onions went well with the broccoli and carrots on the side. The cream of mushroom soup, however, was par for the course for Taiwan coffee-shop-style restaurants -more flour and water than cream. Along with this, I had a 375-milliliter bottle of Torres red wine for NT$350.
As the table made the rounds, I caught up on some reading, intermittently glancing to chart my current position - the mountains covered with lights an interesting diversion.
When it came time to leave, Ms. Pan, the proprietress, helpfully called a cab - it's a long way back to the main road for those without their own transport - and I was off, having had a much more enjoyable time than I had imagined possible. While I doubt that I will be returning often, I would recommend the restaurant for an unusual experience together with passably good food. Besides, if you want privacy, is can be almost guaranteed that you won't run into anyone you know.
Xiao Dong Ting
NanJing West Road, Lane 250, No. 8
Hidden close to the NanJing West Road traffic circle, Xiao Dong Ting is a group of small Japanese eateries under common management and clustered within a dead-end alley. Keep your eyes open or you might walk right by the entrance. If you wish to take advantage of the many outdoor tables, the restaurant's charms are best enjoyed when the temperature is cooler, as torrid Taipei summers do little to inspire the appetite.
Grab a tray and enter the queue at the head of the alley. Choose from a wide variety of sushi and sashimi. While most everything is fresh, the fish can be a bit frozen at times. And though the quality is quite good, the cuts are not as expertly made as in the top Japanese restaurants.
A word of caution: the wasabi is extremely potent. Test it out first before upgrading to spicier levels. The sushi is simple but fresh and tightly wrapped; thankfully, it does not break up easily. The misoyaki is nicely singed, which brings out smoky caramel soy flavors. A generous sprinkling of sesame seeds adds nice nutty tones, with lime slices providing a more Mediterranean flavor.
Side dishes such as pickled turnip, carrot, ginger, and sliced chili can be added to personal preference. Meanwhile, spinach and other greens are served with a lighter soy-based sauce and dried bonito flakes. The spinach is fresh, raspy, and tender, and the bonito's beefjerky-like flavors add savory qualities. Expect to pay NT$500 per person with a beer or two.
116 KangDing Road
Sashimi and Show Tunes
From the seven tethered fluffy white cats to owner Chen Min-ching's propensity to belt out favored show tunes and Japanese greetings, you will quickly realize that San-shi-san Jian-tang exemplifies Japanese dining on the wild side. Chen could easily stand her ground in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" - the novel and movie reveling in the eccentric local color of Savannah, Georgia.
Forget about menus. Forget about prices. Chen will decide what you're going to get and how much it will cost. Cast aside any worries about being overcharged. You will get more than you pay for. Be sure and give the staff a heads up when you start to fill up or the dishes will keep coming.
On a recent visit, two of us were served a large conch, the meat of which had been cut into bite-sized pieces and reinserted with savory brown-vinegar gravy. This was followed by miso soup with a generous helping of clams. The miso built nicely upon the conch sauce, shifting to saltier flavors, while maintaining the fermented zippiness.
It was during this particular course that Chen regaled us with her enthusiastic version of "I Can't Stop Loving You." I am not sure what we did to prompt this particular outpouring of affection. The bantering and singing came to an end with the arrival of the four batter-fried scallops, which were large, tender, and delicately white. The batter excelled in its light brown crumbliness. A thick, sweet onion-vinegar-soy sauce was provided for dipping.
We then segued effortlessly into the large plate of sliced, marinated beef on a bed of sweet onions and vinegar - the beef supremely tender, the onions a crescendo of zinging vinegar and savory sweetness. Next on offer: tara - a Japanese-style custard. The silky smooth custard was highlighted with Mandarin orange and delicate chives.
At this point, I raised my hand to signal we were nearing our capacity. Chen expertly shifted to swordfish sashimi, shrimp, and roe on a bed of crushed ice to preserve the cool temperature so important to the enjoyment of raw fish, particularly roe. We sat back with satisfied sighs to face the lychee ice cream with glazed strawberries. The fortified fragrance of the ice cream was more than enough to overcome the heightened sugar levels of the glazed strawberries, creating a decadently fruity dessert. The total bill for two people came to NT$1,750.
Yi Dai Jia Ren 100 Grilled Seafood Restaurant
22-2 XinSheng South Road, Section 2
Tel: 2391-2823 or 0938-366707
Dig into the Stinky Tofu
Located on XinSheng South Road just south of XinYi Road, Yi Dai Jia Ren has been in business for decades- 13 years under the current management. In my estimation, Yi Dai Jia Ren is the place in Taipei for chou doufu. Its version of the notoriously pungent stinky beancurd comes in an aluminum-foil pouch, sealing in the chili juices, with a generous helping of onions, green onions, and shredded pork atop the tofu. I like this version much better than the more common deep-fried one because the texture of the tofu is moister- more akin to crumbly blue cheese - and the flavors stronger and more complex.
Seating is available upstairs, but be warned that the miniature tables and chairs are something right out of a kindergarten. The restaurant has a slew of other dishes, though its efforts are hardly stellar compared with the many fine seafood restaurants and eateries in Taipei. But the seafood is fresh and tasty, even if the presentation is uninspired. Yi Dai Jia Ren's dishes tend toward the oily and salty, but there is a method to its madness: it soaks up the beer so customers buy more. Forget about bringing any fancy schmancy wine in here; wear your jeans, prepare to get sauce slopped on your clothes, and get ready to pound back the beer.
On a recent visit, I opted for stir-fried bamboo spears - more tender than shoots - with chili sauce (NT$100), grilled red conch (10 for NT$150), and the potent stinky tofu with chili (NT$100). After feasting too much for the holidays, I had made a pact with myself to avoid all starches, including beer. As usual, three minutes into my first chili-enlivened dish, I was soon sucking down a frothy pint of San Miguel (NT$130). The total damage for the meal was NT$380 and I had enough tofu to take some home to nibble on later. The management is friendly and the service fast, but the menu is available only in Chinese and the staff unable to communicate in English. Best to head there with a local friend or Chinese speaker.
Salt & Bread
269 DunHua South Road, Section 2
Sipping Vodka in a Freezer
Just when you think you've seen everything, something new pops up in Taipei to jar the jaded tastes of its sophisticated populace. The latest? Salt & Bread, a Russian-themed restaurant and coffee shop, has a vodka room. Okay, so what's the big deal? The room in question is actually a windowed freezer with temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius. After donning thick parkas, customers enter the freezer, where they are offered a choice of 106 different types of vodka - 81 of which are available nowhere else in Taiwan. Costs range from NT$150 to NT$460 per shot. Throw them back while bellying up to the bar - completely covered with frost and ice. The downside? Sober customers may feel the chill after 15 minutes. The even bigger downside? Those who don't may be tempted to stay for another and yet another shot of Russia's dangerously potent eau de vies, which rapidly hits the stomach and liver, lulling drinkers with an enjoyable but false sense of warmth. Don't say you weren't warned!
196 BaDe Road, Section 2
Dining With Dinosaurs
Those who stumble from Salt & Bread to Jurassic may be forgiven for thinking that they are seeing things after one too many vodka shots. Formerly The Indian beerhouse, Jurassic is right out of the Flintstones. Cement dinosaur skeletons encase rooms in this multistory venue, while customers swill beer out of kegs accompanied by tasty stir-fry Taiwanese specialties. Hardly spic and span, the venue's appeal is in its unique kitschiness - I don't think I have found its equal anywhere in the world. Look for the soaring Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton as you head down BaDe Road.
Specialties include stir-fried clams (NT$280, crickets - yes, I am serious (NT$280), gong bao chicken (NT$260), stinky tofu (NT$200), and san bei chicken, frog, squid, or duck tongue (NT$450 each). Beer (NT$300 for 1.5 liters) is very reasonably priced. Jurassic is best enjoyed with a large, rowdy group.