January 23, 2009

Lunar New Year family dinner

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I'm in Taipei to spend time with my family for Lunar New Year. Because some relatives are departing early for a trip overseas, our family decided to have the traditional reunion dinner two days earlier. We ate out this year, at the Sogo branch of Shanghai Shanghai (紅豆食府).

Unlike a lot of my friends, traditional Taiwanese fare isn't the norm for us during the holiday season. My maternal grandma is Shanghainese, so that's the food I grew up with. True to tradition there were lots of dishes tonight - I counted 12 courses. Fortunately most dishes weren't too big so I didn't come away feeling very stuffed.

The 12 courses were:

Phoenix-tailed anchovy (鳳尾魚) - I've always loved this fish as a kid, because it was also my grandpa's favorite. Years ago when you couldn't buy mainland Chinese goods in Taiwan, we used to smuggle tins of this from Singapore. Now we can enjoy them in restaurants right here. Tonight this was an excellent starter - the deep-fried fish was light and crispy, marinated with sugar so that it is sweet-tasting. I could probably eat half a plate of it by myself...

Drunken chicken (醉雞) - pretty decent, but this is never a dish that I find too exciting.

Stir-fried freshwater shrimp (清炒蝦仁) - the tiny freshwater shrimps have their shells removed, then are lightly starched before being stir-fried quickly at high heat to seal in the moisture. The texture here is wonderful, as each individual shrimp is fresh, and a bit bouncy when you bite into it. The finishing touches are added with a few drops of vinegar.

Shredded chicken and sweet peas (雞絲豌豆) - this was excellent. The thin shreds of chicken were very light and tender, while the tiny baby peas really were very sweet in taste.

Celery sticks with mustard sauce (芥末西芹) - this was alright, kinda refreshing.

Pork spare ribs in onion sauce (洋蔥子排) - nicely done. I of course picked up the bits with strips of fat... Yummy!

Stir-fried pea shoots, shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots (豆苗炒雙冬) - a classic winter veggie dish, although the quality of pea shoots in Taiwan is still no match with what I normally have in Hong Kong. The winter bamboo shoots, however, were sweet and perfect - crunchy enough when you bite into it, but tender at the same time since only the best center bits are used.

Steamed stinky tofu (蒸臭豆腐) - I still can't get used to this so I didn't have any...

Mushy noodles with scallions (蔥開煨麵) - this is more for grandma, as she loves these mushy noodles in soup. Unfortunately the waitress didn't serve it correctly. The tasty bits of fried scallions and dried shrimp were left at the bottom of the big bowl, so we didn't get enough of it in our little individual bowls. Coupled with the fact that the soup could have used a bit more salt, this meant that the noodle was a bit bland for my taste...

Glutinous rice cake stir-fried with Indian mustard and pork (雪菜肉絲炒年糕) - a classic Shanghainese dish that is a must for Lunar New Year. They did it well so that the rice cakes weren't sticking to our teeth - which would have been an unthinkable tragedy for grandma.

Steamed marble goby (清蒸筍殼魚) - this is a wonderful fish that I can never find in Hong Kong. Normally I need to go to Singapore to get this, and it's actually nice to be able to find this in Taipei...although it's not that common here, either.

Double-boiled chicken soup with shark's fin (砂鍋排翅) - for environmental reasons I don't normally eat shark's fin, so I gave up my portion to the others. But I really enjoyed the delicious chicken soup, which has the wonderful flavors of ham, conpoy and sweet Chinese cabbage.

While I think that this is one of the better Shanghainese restaurants in town in terms of food, the service here does leave much to be desired. They tend to bring on all the dishes at once, forcing you to eat non-stop with no breathing space between dishes. We probably went through the first 7-8 dishes in the space of 30 minutes, until the kitchen finally stopped sending them out after our repeated pleas to slow things down. I was getting pretty upset at one point, because I couldn't enjoy my food and was reduced to constant shoving and chewing!

I think good restauranteurs in Asia really need to think about how to improve on their service. The standard of their food may be high, but if the dining experience isn't really enjoyable as a whole due to poor service, they're gonna lose some well-heeled customers who will go elsewhere. This is a pet peeve of mine, and a hot topic these days after the release of the HK/Macau Michelin Guide...

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