July 22, 2011

Not your average noodle shop

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At about 5:30pm today, as I was contemplating packing up and heading home for dinner, I received an unexpected call from uncle.  His reputation for going out to dinner on the fly is well-known to me, but I guess I just didn't expect him to call me directly, at least not so soon after my arrival in Taipei...  He was already in the car and coming to pick me up on the way to dinner tonight.

The last time I had dinner at Tainan Tantsumien Seafood Restaurant (台南担仔麵) was towards the end of 1998.  I brought together a mix of my friends from Taipei and Hong Kong, and even opened a bottle of Latour from the early 90s.  It was kinda the thing to do at the time...

This is a rather kitschy place, as the claim to fame here is the setting - everything looks bling around here.  Then there's the place setting - Wedgewood porcelain, Christofle silverware, and crystal wine glasses I forget from where...  They may not look like much today, but go back in time 20 years and you can probably count the number of restaurants in Taipei with that kind of silverware on one hand.  It was said at the time that the setting for a full table (of 10 or 12) cost TWD 1 million.  The juxtaposition from the restaurant being located in Snake Alley (華西街) - one of the oldest tourist areas in town, with shops selling live snakes and licensed brothels dotting the area - is part of the attraction.

My parents introduced me to this place - mom had her 50th birthday dinner here - not because of its bling setting or fantastic atmosphere, but because it was the place to go for good seafood.  You have a mix of Taiwanse and Cantonese styles, but at the end of the day it's a place where you get value for money.  The one caveat is that the set menus the staff seem so eager to promote are not good value - you get dishes that are essentially useless and tasteless.   À la carte is the way to go.

Boiled fresh shrimp (鹽水活沙蝦) - these were very delicious.  Just the right size in my opinion, which means it was tender enough and sweet to the taste.

Boiled alive squid (五味鮮透抽) - yes, that is the English translation on the menu... Basically the squid is cut and boiled, with a dipping sauce on the side.

Steamed small abalone (清蒸鮮九孔) - these were pretty good... well-executed so that they had just the right amount of bite without being overly chewy.  Interesting that all the organs were still attached...

French style prawn (cream baked) (法式焗明蝦) - I'm not sure why they think this is French... maybe they think it's like lobster Thermidor?  In any case, this is the only poor dish tonight.  The tiger prawn has been butterflied, left in its shell and placed in the tin foil container.  Then a huge pile of mayo is added, and the whole thing baked until the top of the mayo is browned.  I'm definitely not a fan of the mayo, and they baked the damn thing for too long so that the prawn was overcooked and chewy.

Steamed dipper grouper (清蒸七星斑) - essentially the same leopard coral grouper family as the eastern star garoupa (東星斑) one finds in Hong Kong.  Steaming was done pretty well, and the fish itself was delish.

Steamed male crab (清蒸肥膏蟳) - interesting that the menu says "male crab", but in reality these should be "virgin mud crabs (處女蟳)".  The two on the table seemed pretty big by mud crab standards, and there was certainly a lot of orange roe.  But as mom commented, these were probably a little too big and old, so the meat wasn't as tender.  Or perhaps the restaurant had over-steamed a little, as the meat was definitely a little dry and not juicy.

Tantsumian (担仔麵) - the signature dish for which the restaurant is named, and the original business of the owner.  Very nice, with lots of flavor in the minced pork.  The low price means it delivers the most bang for the buck...

We finished with some very sweet pineapple and watermelon.  I was thinking about grabbing some shaved ice or ice cream, but in the end I was pretty full, and went home pretty content.

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