Perhaps influenced by the popularity of cooking and culinary reality TV shows, Taipei’s dining scene has been becoming more diversified in recent years. From gourmet Taiwanese cuisine, trendy Peruvian restaurants, to health-conscious vegetarian and vegan cafés, these new restaurants will surely provide something for everyone.
By Anita Chen
No. 16, Lane 11, ZhongShan North Road, Section 2, Taipei.
“Taiwan is world-renowned for its food, but Taiwanese cuisine is synonymous with snacks and night market foods. As a result, it is rarely mentioned in relation to haute cuisine,” says Ho Yi-chia, owner of the first fine-dining Taiwanese cuisine restaurant – Mountain and Sea House. Ho says that from the early 20th century to the 1960’s and 70’s, many Taiwanese restaurants specialized in haute cuisine; personal chefs employed by wealthy Taiwanese families also had unique recipes that were prepared and served only at private banquets at home. These dishes gradually evolved into exquisite Taiwanese banquet cuisine. “For a number of reasons, these banquet dishes became less popular, and many distinctive recipes and dishes disappeared as a result,” she notes.
Seeking to reacquaint themselves with the history and culture of local customs, ingredients, and culinary habits, Ho and her team spent almost a year in research to recreate these exquisite dishes for their menu. They interviewed famous Taiwanese head chefs, chief cooks at traditional Taiwanese catered banquets, and even elderly relatives and senior members of friends’ families, asking them to pass on distinctive recipes. The team spent hours and days with each senior chef to learn about the history and stories behind each dish. They even went through a detailed, time-consuming process to learn how to prepare each dish, aiming to breathe new life into Taiwanese fine-dining cuisine.
Take the Cold Platter, one of the most common Taiwanese appetizers, incorporating a variety of meats and seafood, as an example. One element on the restaurant’s platter, Egg-stuffed Squid Rolls, is an exquisite seafood delicacy: three types of eggs are mashed into a golden mixture and squeezed into fresh squid before steaming. The duck eggs are marinated for 40 days using a special blend of red clay, the “century eggs” are products of a two-month traditional process, and the rare “first eggs” come from young hens. The unique flavor of mixed eggs nicely complements the sweetness of the fresh squid.
Another rarely-seen dish is Red Yeast-braised Ham Hock, based on a special family recipe, courtesy of Taiwanese Chef Huang Wan-ling. The ham hock is first deboned and stuffed with pork, which is then marinated in red yeast for up to 96 hours before stewing. The meticulous preparation produces sweet and savory cold cuts that are a delight to the palate. This dish was actually handed down to Chef Huang by her maternal great-grandmother, who brought it into their family as part of her dowry. The detailed, time-consuming preparation process symbolizes that a marriage needs long-term cultivation to build trust, mutual understanding, and acceptance.
Yet another dish requiring superb culinary skills on the part of the chef is Whole Chicken Cooked in Pork Stomach. A free-range chicken is carefully deboned and stuffed with shredded bamboo shoot, shiitake mushrooms, and other seasonal ingredients. The chef then wraps the chicken with pork belly and stews it for hours. This traditional soup dish is considered the Taiwanese version of haggis.
Perhaps the most nostalgic dish among all is the Supper Medley Stew, a.k.a. “Leftover Soup.” Peggy Chang of the restaurant’s marketing department explains that this dish was created as a way to show gratitude to kitchen helpers at Taiwanese banquets. Traditionally, the head chef would take a big scoop out of each dish before serving the guests. At the end of the banquet, he would then place these scoops of food into a big pot of soup cooked for hours to create a hearty soup stew to reward the staff for their hard work. Today, the kitchen team at the Mountain and Sea House first separately prepares seven different dishes before mixing them into a soup with fresh local vegetables. The end result is a soup that is rich and diverse yet refreshing.
No Taiwanese meal is complete without a pot of quality tea. To add to the experience, the restaurant uses tea utensils made by Xiao Fang Pottery Arts and selects high-quality organic tea from across Taiwan to mark a perfect end to an exquisite meal of Taiwanese cuisine.
Apart from the carefully-researched menu, Ho and her team also invested a tremendous amount of effort into a two-year renovation of the Japanese-style house where the restaurant is located. The two-story structure was built in 1932 and originally owned by a Japanese doctor. Aiming to preserve the authenticity of the building, Ho and her team worked with architects to repair window frames, floors, and other original architectural elements. They even flew in Japanese experts specializing in earthquake prevention to help with the reinforcement of the foundation. The garden is planted with Taiwanese trees, flowers, and plants, reflecting the restaurant’s dedication to local culture.
3F, 158 DunHua North Road, Taipei (Mandarin Oriental Taipei)
Probably one of the most anticipated hotel launches of 2014 was the Mandarin Oriental Taipei. Positioned as the city’s most luxurious hotel, it features a diverse range of restaurants, offering the hotel chain’s legendary services and culinary excellence. Among them, the modern Cantonese restaurant Ya Ge brings a delightful fusion of traditional Cantonese cuisine and modern culinary standards that elevates the quality and dining experience to a new height.
In line with the hotel chain’s theme of luxury hospitality, Ya Ge could almost be mistaken for an Oriental art gallery. Walking into the earth-toned, dimly lit restaurant, guests will view elegantly displayed sculptures and artworks, balancing modern and traditional Chinese touches. The heavy wooden chairs are paired with sharp orange and olive green pillows, while the wood floor is covered by gray carpets. In all, the atmosphere is one of subtle glamour that complements the elegant dishes designed by Executive Chinese Chef Wong Tin Mo.
With a focus on locally grown produce, Ya Ge’s menu is crafted to feature a selection of traditional dim sum dishes prepared using high-end ingredients. Taking the “must-order” items in every Cantonese restaurant – shu-mai and dumplings – as examples, Chef Wong gives a new spin to these traditional delicacies by incorporating exotic ingredients such as truffle, king prawn, foie gras, and abalone. The Crab Meat Dumpling with Black Truffle and Egg White is made with ever-so-thin dough delicately molded into a beautiful shape. The rich truffle and the refreshing egg white blends into a wonderful balance.
The Bamboo Shoot and Fresh Prawn Dumpling uses the finest local bamboo and king prawn grown in the restaurant’s own kitchen tank. The Taro Dumpling with Foie Gras is another surprise, deep-fried to crispy perfection with a nice balance of taste between the root vegetable and the rich duck liver. The Pork Shu-mai with Whole Abalone is another gourmet dish delightful both to the eyes and the palate.
In additional to dim sum, Ya Ge also offers many signature Cantonese dishes. Specially recommended is a magnificent-looking dish with a Chinese name (穩如磐石) translated as “firm as a rock.” Australian Wagyu beef slices are first stir-fried with sweet potatoes and shiitake mushrooms and seasoned with truffle sauce before being stuffed into a peeled steamed pumpkin and served with fresh greens. The beef is so tender that it can be easily poked through; the pumpkin is fluffy on the inside and tender on the outside, and the overall presentation is pure visual enjoyment.
Another highly-acclaimed dish is the Giant Garoupa Enrobed in Minced Shrimp, served with spring onions and fresh vegetables. For those who crave famous Cantonese supreme broth, the soup dish 請君飲一杯 – the Chinese name translates as “please have a drink” – is a great choice. The clear soup is made from the broth of chicken, ham, and pork, slowly simmered for six hours and flavored with shredded matsutake mushrooms and bamboo pith. The dish is served in a clear tea pot, giving a modern twist to the traditional cuisine.
369 LinSen North Road, Taipei (1F, Gloria Hotel)
Tel: 2581-8111 ext. 1511
When the original L’idiot restaurant on MinSheng East Road closed in early 2013, it saddened many loyal patrons. After almost 18 months of “regrouping,” the restaurant was re-launched in July 2014 inside the Gloria Hotel (the hotel group that owns L’idiot) with a brand new look and an updated, more sophisticated menu.
Unlike the original L’idiot, which boasted a colorful, young, and playful ambiance, the new restaurant has a more modern feel. The “chandelier” in the central main dining space is made of used wine bottles, while other corners are decorated with “starry skies” composed of naked light bulbs hanging randomly from the ceiling, creating a casual industrial loft atmosphere.
Similar to the décor, the dishes prepared by owner/head chef Fudy Chen in the new L’idiot are also more mature and sophisticated. One of the secret weapons behind L’idiot’s updated menu is the Josper, a combination grill and oven that has the ability to lock in all layers of flavors. Soaked white oak chips imported from Tennessee-based distillery Jack Daniel’s are lined on the bottom of the Josper during the grilling process, imparting a rich aroma of bourbon whisky to the food. Whether it’s the signature Bone-on Ribeye Sirloin, the house aged-28-day T-bone, or the grilled asparagus, everything coming out of the Josper remains crispy outside and juicy inside, while exuding the unique sweetness of bourbon whisky.
In line with a Mediterranean theme, new L’idiot incorporates a variety of seasonal vegetables grown in its own farm, local seafood, as well as house-made cured meats and pickled vegetables in its dishes, such as the Grilled Asparagus Salad, Yilan House Duck Prosciutto, Pingtung Clams with House Chorizo, and Deep-fried Hen-of-the-Woods with Romesco Sauce. The popular brunch menu from the original L’idiot is still offered, including such favorites are King Crab Cake Benedict and the Josper Grill Steak and Egg.
Dessert lovers should not walk away without trying the Chocolate Molten Cake and the Warm Apple Pie. Handmade to order, the molten cake is ever-so-rich in cocoa flavor without being overly sweet. The good old-fashioned apple pie is fresh and delightful. Both are served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, delivering a perfect sensation of “ice and fire” to the palate.
No. 3, Lane 39, ZhongShan North Road, Section 2, Taipei (2F, Regent Taipei)
Tel: 2523-8000 ext. 3852
Regent Taipei recently re-launched the second-floor bar Gallery with a brand new look. Continuing the hotel chain’s focus on “simple elegance” and modern Oriental design, the Gallery’s new décor incorporates elements such as a dark marble floor, white window frames, and bamboo blinds to enhance the visual effect through the contrast of light reflections.
The menu here also received a nice update, offering “simple yet elegant” French-style light meals with beautiful and intricate presentation. One of the new additions to the menus is the classic French dish Tartine, which consists of a piece of bread with something on top. Beef short ribs are first slow-roasted for 12 hours to increase the texture. The beef slices are then topped with creamy mustard mayonnaise and stacked on top of freshly baked crispy bread, and served with fresh seasonal vegetables and golden crispy French fries. The Pesto Seafood Tartine is another wonderful delicacy: a variety of crispy seafood including white prawn and sea scallop are topped with house-made fresh pesto. Paired with a thin slice of crusty French baguette, the multi-layered flavors can surely satisfy the most demanding gourmet diners.
The classic French Quiche is also a favorite, with the garlic butter on top nicely bringing out the salmon flavor. Other recommended dishes include traditional French soufflés, which can be made savory with exotic ingredients such as king crabs, or sweet with Grand Marnier or classic chocolate.
The journey to the Gallery should not end without the tableside services of its elegant dessert chariot, which offers a dazzling array of delicate desserts including macarons, scones, tiramisu, and pie cakes, all prepared and served by Regent’s pastry chefs at your tableside.
No. 27, Lane 101, ZhongXiao East Road, Section 4, Taipei
Vegetarian restaurants in Taiwan used to be limited to Buddhist eateries, mostly offering only buffet-style Chinese dishes, accompanied by subdued Buddhist music in the background. In recent years, Taipei’s dining scene has been joining the worldwide trend of Western-style vegetarian restaurants, with Herban Kitchen & Bar as the latest addition in Taipei.
Located on the first floor of an old residential apartment building hidden in a small alley of the bustling ZhongXiao-DunHua area, Herban creates a “modern oasis” feel by incorporating both industrial elements and different shades of green in the décor – an attempt to play off the words “urban” and “herb.” The heavy door is made of reclaimed wood together with used parts from a vintage Singer sewing machine. The interior design uses a lot of natural colors and various green plants, with exposed walls and ceilings decorated with funky light fixtures and used wine crates.
In the spirit of the three giant words “eat with LOVE” displayed on the wall, the owner put a lot of thought and attention into the menu, aiming to present vegetarian dishes that are not only good for your body but also a treat to your taste buds. Of special recommendation is the “Raw Pad Thai,” basically a salad dish that uses shredded cucumber, carrots, red onions, and bean sprouts to replace Thai noodles. The crunchy vegetables paired with tamarind dressing and sprinkled with roasted peanuts make for a very refreshing starter.
Those who are looking for a light one-dish meal can opt for Warm Mushroom Salad with Grilled Tofu, which has a heap of sautéed mixed mushroom with garlic, onions, diced tomatoes, mixed greens, and roasted peppers, served with slices of warm grilled tofu and drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette.
The Spanish Egg Frittata is one of the most popular items on the brunch menu. A colorful assortment of zucchini, eggplant, potatoes, and onions mixed with organic eggs is topped with savory cheese and baked until sizzling golden. Served with freshly baked focaccia, it makes for a scrumptious dish that even meat lovers will find satisfying. An equally yummy dish is Moussaka – layered eggplant, zucchini, cauliflower, onion, and cheese are topped with béchamel sauce and baked to perfection. Most dishes can be made vegan, dairy free, or according to patrons’ dietary requirements.
If you are looking for munchies, be sure to try Fried Roots, a mixture of potato and sweet potato fries served with kimchi mayonnaise – a great companion to a glass of wine or beer from Herban’s extensive drink list.
3F, 16 SongGao Road, Taipei (3F, Breeze Songgao Shopping Mall)
1F, 156 MinSheng East Road, Section 3, Taipei
“Legendary food, legendary services, and legendary fun!” That’s the motto of U.S.-based Texas Roadhouse Grill, which opened its first branch in Taipei in 2014, adding Taiwan to its 430-store global footprint.
Boasting a fun and casual ambience reminiscent of the American West, Texas Roadhouse Grill features authentic Texas-style décor, hand-painted murals, a display bakery, and a butcher’s showcase at the entrance that allows patrons to hand pick their steaks. Like the old saying that everything is bigger in Texas, steaks here can go as big as 23 ounces. But whether it’s the regular size or the Texan size, the beef is all U.S.D.A Choice grade, hand-cut daily, and grilled to order, delivering juicy flavors of authentic Texas steaks.
Another must-try dish is the Fall-off-the-bone Ribs, marinated in house rubs and slow-cooked for hours with house BBQ sauce, served with the famous side dish Loaded Sweet Potatoes, which is creamy, fluffy, and tastes like marshmallow. The house bakery offers free-flow freshly-baked buns every 10 minutes, served with mouth-watering homemade cinnamon butter.
And the southern hospitality goes beyond the food! Every hour at Texas Roadhouse Grill, waiters perform Southern line-dancing to the beat of toe-tapping country music. Customers are encouraged to join the dance to enjoy the most authentic roadhouse culture.
No. 28, Lane 102, AnHe Road, Section 1, Taipei
Taiwanese people usually associate Latin American cuisine with Spanish tapas, but there is actually more variety. Pico Pico Restaurant & Bar, which introduces Peruvian food to this market, has an urban industrial ambience featuring a lot of wood furniture, brick walls, exposed cement floor, and naked light bulbs hanging randomly from the ceiling.
The menu here is also as interesting as the décor. One standout is the classic Peruvian dish Ceviche. Leche de Tigre, or Tiger’s Milk, a citrus-based marinade, is used to cure white fish, which is then mixed with sweet potatoes, corn, chili, and coriander. Pico Pico also offers Japanese and Chinese versions of Ceviche: “Tuna Nikkei” is tuna fish marinated in Tiradito sauce, a spicy dressing with a touch of wasabi; and “Salmon Chifa” is marinated salmon in sesame-lime dressing served with peanuts and crispy shallots.
Among the salad options, try Chicharron & Quinoa Salad. Chicharron, a popular pork dish in Spain and Latin America, can be made from pork rind or belly. Quinoa, a grain crop originally domesticated for human consumption 4,000 years ago in the Andean region, is the hottest new member of the “World’s Healthiest Foods” list. The combination of the two makes for a very exotic salad dish.
Those with a big appetite should try the Arroz Con Pollo, or chicken with rice. Chicken thighs are marinated in Peruvian paprika before grilling, paired with Portobello mushrooms and served with curry-flavored crispy rice. The Aji Amarillo salsa served on the side has a spicy-sweet kick that provides perfect balance to the rice dish. For dessert, go for the Flourless Chocolate Cake made with 65% Peruvian Alto el Sol dark chocolates, or opt for a glass of classic Picso Sour to mark a beautiful end of your Peruvian feast.
Other New Restaurants
Opened in 2014, the restaurants below are also worth a visit:
Family Li Imperial Cuisine
3F, 28 SongRen Road, Taipei (3F, Bella Vita)
The high-end Chinese restaurant’s first Taipei branch, serving traditional imperial Chinese dishes in a luxurious setting.
105 ZhouZi Street, Taipei
Taiwan’s “steak godfather” Danny Deng’s latest restaurant, serving New American cuisine.
At the same location as the steakhouse, a salad bar offering fresh salads, Panini, and soup dishes.
Monsieur L L先生義法餐廳
No. 21, Lane 131, MinSheng East Road, Section 4, Taipei
An elegant restaurant offering Italian, French, and other Western fusion-style cuisine.
Salvatore Cuomo & Bar Taipei
39 FuXing South Road, Section 1, Taipei (GF, Breeze Center)
An Italian restaurant serving Neapolitan pizzas and other classic Italian dishes.
No. 31, Alley 4, Lane 345, RenAi Road, Section 4, Taipei
A new American Restaurant featuring Hawaiian cuisine
Fafa Viola 法法小館
164 YanJi Street, Taipei
A small French bistro serving crepes, galettes, and other classic French dishes.
Beer Lin Bistro 林美如小館
38 NeiJiang Street, Taipei
A private-kitchen style Chinese restaurant serving authentic Sichuan and Zhejiang cuisine. Many spicy-food lovers swear by the Sichuan dishes here. Reservations required.
Major K 主修韓坊
116 AnHe Road, Section 2, Taipei
A bar restaurant serving traditional Korean food in a modern setting.