June 22, 2008

Birthday celebration

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Today is my birhday, and every 19 years the birthday falls on the same day in both the Gregorian calendar as well as the lunar calendar. Similarly, it seems like the last time I spent my birthday with my parents was ages ago.

Dinner tonight was at a restaurant outside of Taipei called Da Shan Wu Jia (大山無價). I found out about this restaurant from my colleague Ben sent me a link to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, where the reporter had visited the restaurant and compared to the famed Tetsuya in Sydney. I was naturally curious since Tetsuya is often touted as one of the best restaurants in the world, so I was determined to spend my birthday here.

The restaurant is in Xindian (新店) so it's about a 45-minute drive from our house. When we arrived at 7pm, the small parking lot was already full. People in Taiwan do eat their dinner early... The restaurant only has a total of around 14 tables, 7 each on the ground floor and 1 level above. The decoration of the space is fairly simple - even a bit zen-like - with tatami floors and simple bamboo screens hanging from the ceiling to create a semi-private space for each table.

There is no menu here. Everyone gets the same 14-course menu and the only change to be made is to substitute a beef course for people who don't eat sashimi. It soon became apparent that the kitchen prefers to send out the same course to all the tables at around the same time, so as we arrived a little later than the others, our first few courses arrived in fairly quick succession.

We started with a small cube of red wine jelly, acting as amuse bouche. This slides easily into the mouth like an oyster, and tastes like the homemade wine that mom used to make when I was a kid.

We were then served a peanut tofu topped with wolfberry (枸杞), pinenuts, a dab of wasabi and served with bamboo shoot on the side. The tofu was kinda interesting, and the summer bamboo shoot was nice and sweet.

The waitress poured some burdock (牛蒡) soup from a cast iron pot into small cups with a single poached scallop, garnished with waterlilly and sweet corn, with a sprinkle of paprika. The scallop was fresh and tender, and the thick burdock soup was pretty yummy. The burdock was cooked and then put into a blender to produce the brown liquid.

The glass container in front of us was filled with sashimi of maguro, amaebi and sake on top. Underneath the fish was a salad of asparagus, red and yellow capsicum, cucumber, lily bulb, lettuce and strips of calamari. The restaurant provided some vinegar for the salad which was very refreshing.

A small shot glass of black plum vinegar came to clear our palate. Very nice, almost like the ubiquitous Japanese umeshu (梅酒).

A small serving of poached fatty pork with scallions, cucumber and topped with fermented red bean paste (紅粬) was also delicious. The pork was naturally tender because of the fat, and the red bean paste was a healthy addition.

The soup that was served next was a traditional dish from the area called Yilan gaozha (宜蘭高渣). What looks like tofu in the middle was actually made from mushroom and chicken stock (高湯), then deep-fried on the outside. The puree of 5 green vegetables include spinach and celery. Very interesting indeed.

A pretty trio of grilled prawns were laid out in front of us, with grilled eggplant, green beans and pumpkin on the side. There was no additional flavoring added to the prawns, letting the fresh and sweet flesh of the crustacean speak for itself.

Iced glasses of lavender vinegar came for some more palate cleansing. Very refreshing.

A bowl of mushroom gomoku rice was laid in front of me. Healthy, nice, delicious and came with a thin slice of karasumi (烏魚子) on top.

Finally we had a large bowl of waterlily chicken soup (蓮花雞湯). There was a large waterlily flower floating on top, with bamboo shoots, lotus seeds, ginko nuts and chunks of tapioca roots inside. Very delicious, but this is a huge bowl of soup! Coming at the end of a meal with lots of other liquids, we find ourselves able to finish only half the soup and having to pack up the rest.

We now have fruits and the dessert, mashed sweet taro in a soup with longan (龍眼) and candied kumquat (金橘). We chose to pack this up also and enjoyed it later at home, when we weren't so full.

This being my birthday, of course I had to open a bottle of wine from my vintage. I brought a bottle of 1970 Mouton-Rothschild, my last bottle from the lot of 6 purchased some years ago. It was never a fantastic wine, but I do love the artwork on the label from Marc Chagall, with the trademark blue. The nose was classic Mouton, with lead pencil, smoke, pain grille and brett in addition to the red fruits. We did not decant the wine. We drank about half the bottle at the restaurant, and really enjoyed it. The remaining half of the bottle was finished at home, where the sediment got into the glasses and detracted somewhat from our enjoyment. Nevertheless, I was happy to drink this special wine.

I have to say that the meal was very, very enjoyable. There were no fancy techniques involved in creating the dishes, but the cuisine was creative nevertheless. The ingredients were all fresh, and moreover they were geared towards promoting and improving one's health - 養生 in Chinese parlance. I am not sure if it does compare with Tetsuya in Sydney, as I have never been. Probably not, but that doesn't matter. What matters was that I was able to have a great time with the parents with good food and wine, and all for the incredible cost of NTD 1,100 per person... I would have a very hard time finding something of similar quality at 2x the price in Hong Kong... So I will look forward to returning here, or visiting its sister establishment on 陽明山.


Pete said...

Sure looks like a very impressive spread - as avant-garde Chinese as Tetsuya's Japanese. Restaurants like this is precisely why I rate Taipei as the best city in the world to have Chinese food.

BTW, Happy Belated Birthday! Coincidentally, my birthday's just one day later.

Peech said...

Well, then...happy belated birthday to you too, Pete.


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