July 8, 2008

A less-than-perfect clone

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Another dinner to celebrate an upcoming birthday. The birthday girl heard me rave about my last meal in Taipei at Da Shan Wu Jia (大山無價), and was looking forward to dining at Shi Yang Shan Fang (食養山房), a restaurant serving similar cuisine on Mount Yangming (陽明山).

We arrived just after 7pm after winding our way up and deep into the mountain. From my experience at the other restaurant, I know that they would like us to arrive early (before 6:30pm) and they want to serve the same course to all diners at around the same time. By arriving a little late, I knew we would have a bit of catching up to do at the start of the meal.

We were seated at a table in the long hallway section, which comprises 14 or so "private" cubicles. The long and narrow hallway, decorated with paper lanterns, actually looks quite pretty. Outside the window, the green leaves on the maple tree in front of us look particularly green thanks to the lighting.

Small cups of mango juice appear in front of us, with passion fruit seeds floating on top. This is a nice way to start the meal.

Before we had a chance to taste the delicious juice, the waiter lays out a long, rectangular plate in front of us with three morsels on top. We have a small piece of yamaimo (山藥) tofu topped with a smudge of wasabi and passion fruit seeds. Honestly they put a bit too much wasabi for my taste, and my eyes started to moisten. There was a small salmon roll topped with blueberry, on a bed of mashed potatoes. Finally there was the tofu skin roll with cucumber and alfalfa sprouts, drawing flavor from the sesame seed paste inside. OK so far.

Now we have chawanmushi (茶碗蒸し), with shredded conpoy (乾貝) and a dollop of yamaimo mash on top. I am starting to get flashbacks of my meal from 2 weeks ago, as the progression of the courses are very similar. It's dried scallops vs fresh scallops at the other place.

The inari zushi with lotus root and fish was an interesting blend of flavors. The rice is naturally a bit on the sweet side as you would expect from an inari zushi (稲荷ずし). There is then the savory taste of the smoked fish, plus the slightly sour taste of the dab of guacamole. The sides included fresh broccoli flowers as well as very sweet chunks of pumpkin. This dish was paired with a small glass of pineapple vinegar on the side. Unlike the other restaurant - which served the vinegar after a certain course as a palate cleanser - it seemed that we were to drink the vinegar alongside. Hmmm....

A large bowl is placed in front of us - our sashimi course. In addition to the sweet shrimp (甘エビ), scallop (two thin slices only), calamari and salmon roe (いくら), we were offered green asparagus, bamboo shoots, eggplant and seaweed. As in the other restaurant, an onion vinegar sauce is presented as dressing for the veggies. I would have preferred if we each got our own little container with our own portion, instead of having everything served in one large bowl... Another glass of vinegar appears, this time it's rose vinegar.

A block of deep-fried gaozha (宜蘭高渣) is served with a steamed baby abalone. The abalone was a little overdone, and is a bit tougher than I normally prefer.

Before we dug into the gaozha, the waiter brought us our salami handroll. It actually looks less like a handroll and more like a rice ball with a piece of salami wrapped outside. The rice is flavored and has diced mushrooms mixed in - very much in the style of the gomoku rice of the other restaurant. Slices of sauteed eringi mushrooms are served on the side, with chickpeas and black fungus.

Finally, we have the piece de resistance - the lotus chicken soup. Unlike the other restaurant, here the waiter served us the pot of soup, then placed a rather sad-looking dried waterlily flower into the pot. In terms of taste and ingredients, it is almost identical to what I had 2 weeks ago.

Reasonably full now after the soup, we manage to finish the fruit as well as the desserts. The small piece of panna cotta was only so-so, although the sweet barley topping was very interesting. The small cup of mulberry and strawberry juice was also nice.

By this point, you would have thought that I had a reasonably good meal. So why is it that I have decided never to return to this restaurant?! Very poor service.

First, they really rushed us through everything. To me, it is absolutely unacceptable to be placing multiple courses on your diner's table during a meal like this. You are giving pressure to the diner and asking them to hurry up and swallow the food. This is not the kind of experience that people would pay money for.

Second, they botched up the wine service. Now I understand that most of their clients probably don't expect to drink wine with a meal like this. But I did bring a half-bottle of 1994 La Mission Haut-Brion for the occasion and wanted to drink it. The waiter brought a sorry-looking corkscrew - the type with two handles on the side that you buy in any neighborhood supermarket for nothing - and proceeded to break the cork. He simply didn't know what to do with the corkscrew. They also didn't have any wine glasses - unlike Da Shan Wu Jia - and we had to use tall ceramic cups to drink the wine. This meant that the wine never had a chance to show.

Third, they basically booted all their customers out the door! Around 8:15 pm, about an hour into the meal, they brought us the check and asked us to pay. We were still having the soup! Then they told us that their hours are only until 9pm, and proceeded to remind us of this later on. Basically, they wanted all their clients out the door at 9pm. And indeed, when we did leave the restaurant around 9pm, we were the last ones on the premises. I haven't been shown the door by restaurant staff in quite a while now... and I don't intend on repeating this experience.

Finally, the food is a poor copy of what I had at Da Shan Wu Jia. Many of the courses - and the ingredients - were similar. But the quality here is only about 80% of the level compared to the other place, and the price is exactly the same at both restaurants. When the quality of both the food and the service is inferior, why come back?!

As a footnote, I asked the staff whether there was any relationship between the two restaurants. While the answer I received was an emphatic "No, we do not have any branches," judging by the reaction of the staff I sense that there is more to the story. I have heard from multiple sources that this restaurant had relocated from Xindian (新店) - where Da Shan Wu Jia is also located - it is entirely possible that one is a "copy" of the other, opened by a former chef or something of that sort. If that were true, then I believe that Da Shan Wu Jia to be the original, and that Shi Yang Shan Fang would be the copy. After doing a quick search on the net, it seems that Shi Yang Shan Fang was the original restaurant in Xindian which moved to its present location in 2005. However, apparently the chef did not move to the new location, and instead opened Da Shan Wu Jia in the original spot...

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