June 21, 2014

Another pissy birthday dinner

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I was in Hong Kong for just around 12 hours before I was on a plane again, going back to Taipei to spend my birthday weekend with my family.  Some time ago I had seen pics of a Peking duck feast from a friend, and had been wanting to check the place out for myself, so I made a reservation last month while I was in town to celebrate the parental units' anniversary, and invited Last-Minute Uncle's family to come along.  What I didn't expect at the time was a surprise guest, in the form of my Brazilian Uncle...

We drove out to Yilan a little early to try to check out the city a little. We were taking the second seating so we had a little time, but it's a pretty small town and there wasn't a whole lotta stuff to see - other than the old Yilan Station (宜蘭車站) that had been decorated by artist Jimmy (幾米) and Jimmy Park (幾米公園) across the road.  We soon returned to Luna Plaza (新月廣場) and Silks Place Yilan (蘭城晶英酒店) and went upstairs to Red Lantern (紅樓).

The restaurant's really busy on weekends and holidays, so they open up the banquet hall and seat all the tourists there - especially the larger parties.  We were led to one end of the hall, and it felt like we were just going to a large-scale Chinese wedding banquet...

They only do set menus on the weekends, and only for 4, 6 or 8 people.  We were 7 but given that there's one of us who can eat for 3, naturally we took the largest set.  I fully expected us to finish all the food anyway... Some of the menu required us to pick from a list of choices, and after I made the selections, the food arrived at our table pretty quickly... A little too quickly, in fact, and out of order.

Flavors of Lanyang (蘭陽美味集): choosing 4 out of 8 possibilities
Tomatoes marinated in plum juice (梅汁蕃茄) - these cherry tomatoes were pretty tasty... with skin removed so that they can really soak up the plum flavors.

Cherry duck wings (櫻桃鴨翅) - very nicely braised... tasty.

Spicy beef tendon (麻辣牛筋) - nice with just a small amount of spiciness, just strong enough to numb the tongue a little.

Deep-fried century eggs with garlic and chili (避風塘皮蛋) - ordered this because I've never had anything like it.  Not bad, actually...

Yilan Specialties (宜蘭特色菜): choose one of three
Stir-fried beef with Sanshing scallions (三星蔥爆牛肉) - Sanshing Township (三星鄉) in Yilan County is famous throughout Taiwan for their scallions, so naturally they would offer dishes made with these scallions.  Pretty tasty.

Stir-fried vegetables with duck fat (鴨蔥油拌高纖蔬菜): choose two from five
White water snowflake (水蓮) - one of my favorite veggies in Taiwan.  Nice and crunchy.  Definitely high-fiber.

Mixed five vegetables (五行皇宮菜) - somewhat interesting.

The two veggie dishes came to the table stir-fried lightly, and we were given bowls of duck fat with deep-fried scallions that we were supposed to mix into the dish.  Very fatty, but oh-so-yummy.

Chef's special offering (主廚私房菜): choose one of three
Stir-fried prawns (油爆鮮蝦) - done the same way as the Shanghainese do, which is to say the marinade is slightly sweet, except that the Shanghainese prefer to use river shrimp (河蝦) which are much smaller in size.

Steamed garoupa (蔥油石斑) - actually, not bad at all considering we're not in Hong Kong.  Fish was fresh and timing-wise it wasn't overdone.

Cherry duck 5 served ways (櫻桃霸王鴨五吃) - this was the main event - the reason we are here tonight.  Everything else about this dinner is actually secondary, as the duck takes center stage.

For the last few years, I'd been hearing about this "cherry duck (櫻桃鴨)" in Taiwan, and even had it at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei once.  What's so special about this duck?  Well, apparently it's a special breed that came from a company called Cherry Valley in the UK, and it's supplied by one particular farm in Yilan County.  Tonight will be the true test for the duck as we go through the whole bird...

When they brought our bird and the chef starting to slice it up, I could see the oil and juices just dripping down onto the plate below.  I knew then that I would love this duck.  I want something that's fatty and juicy, not some skinny-ass duck like what they serve at DaDong (大董) in Beijing...

Duck skin wrapped in Sanshing scallion pancake (片皮鴨卷三星蔥餅) - the waitress wrapped these for us, but I was a little unhappy at the quantity of these pancakes.  There were actually two types being served - the first batch of 5 included some battered and deep-fried scallions that was apparently crunchy and fragrant, while the second batch (which I had) had plain raw scallions.  This was a dinner for 8, so why would they only make 5 rolls of each type?  Shouldn't we be able to taste both, especially when we had a whole big duck to ourselves?!

Having said that, this was pretty damn good.  The "spicy miso (辣味增)" was an interesting alternative to the traditional sweet bean sauce (甜麵醬).  The duck skin was fatty, juicy, and a little nice and chewy.  The scallion pancake was interesting, although I thought it was more for the pretty color than about the flavor.

There were also cuts of lean meat that we took on its own.  Not bad at all.

Three-cup duck bone casserole (三杯鴨骨煲) - I chose this instead of the lettuce wrap (生菜包鴨絲) because this is so much more Taiwanese.  The three cups refer to a cup each of soy sauce, sesame seed oil and rice wine that goes into the dish, along with plenty of garlic and Thai basil (九層塔).  I loved this.  I wish I had more space in my stomach to fit more of this along with rice.

Cherry duck nigiri sushi (櫻桃鴨握壽司) - the pièce de résistance of the meal.  My friend had said that this was the best duck she's ever had, and it was largely based on this one particular piece of sushi.

Oooooh yeah, this was pretty awesome.  That fatty, juicy, succulent, fragrant, crunchy and chewy skin... and the oil that oozes out with pressure which then gets soaked up by the rice... Yup.  I'd say this was very, very good.  Damn good.  Why do I only get one lousy piece?!

Ma po tofu in duck fat (鴨油麻婆豆腐) - this actually came pretty early on with the appetizers.  I'm not a connoisseur on ma po tofu, but this was not bad.

Simmered duck soup with Chinese cabbage (慢火白菜煲鴨湯) - this was really, really good.  All of the duck soups I've ever had in Beijing were bland, tasting like what you get after you rinse the dishes with water.  In Taipei, however, some places take the soup very seriously. Here the base they use is chicken soup made with old hen (老母雞) that's been simmered for 10 hours, then they add Chinese cabbage and the duck bones at the end.  Very tasty.  I seriously thought about taking the leftovers home.

Eight-treasure taro mash (八寶甜芋泥) - I was pretty full but I had a spoonful.  Pretty good, actually.  Lovers of taro mash would no doubt gobble this up.

Given that this was my pre-birthday celebration with the uncles, naturally I brought along a bottle of wine from my birth vintage.

1970 La Lagune, ex-château - earthy, green grass, blackcurrant, smoky, fragrant, cedar and tobacco notes.  Drinking pretty nicely.

Verdict for the night?  This was a pretty awesome Peking duck!  With more varied and interesting preparation, dare I say that I like this better than the duck at Song Kitchen (宋廚菜館) - for many the undisputed king of Peking duck in Taipei?  I think it just might be!  The rest of the food wasn't spectacular, but I thought they were decent enough.

But this was a "pissy birthday dinner" for a reason, and it was all about the service (or lack of).

First, on weekends this place was packed with tourists, and what ends up happening is that everyone is shoved into the large banquet hall, and your dinner is run like a multi-course banquet that just ends up being a production line.  The same dishes can be served to multiple tables at around the same time.  The atmosphere is completely cold, without any sense of intimacy or personal service.  You are just another table among (literally) 60 or more.

Second, they make the same mistake of 90% of Chinese restaurants - which is to say they try to serve you all the dishes at once, or without about 5 to 10 minutes.  How are we supposed to be able to enjoy our food that way?  Unless we go in like locusts or piranhas and devour everything within 15 minutes or so, some of the dishes are bound to get cold when by the time we get to it.  We literally got our first 7 dishes within the first 10 minutes or less, and that includes the ma po tofu that was supposed to be part of the duck.

What's worse, just as we were complaining to the staff about how quickly the dishes arrived, our duck came.  They were ready to serve us the duck just as we were starting to dig into the starters.  WTF?!  So all the starters were just gonna get cold while we inevitably chose to eat the duck first?

I was pissed.  In fact, we all were.  And we kicked up a fuss.  The waitress knew she had a problem on her hands, and the first duck was sent back (in reality, it was just delivered to another table).  After the first 7 dishes, all others were on hold until we were ready to take on more food.  Things went more smoothly after our initial outburst.

You can say that my expectation were too high, especially for a small city like Yilan where people were bound to be less sophisticated.  That may be, but this was at Silks Place, for chrissake.  It's owned by the FIH Regent Group, who owns Regent Hotels worldwide.  I would certainly expect a lot from these guys!

If I ever come back, I guess I'll have to do it on a weekday - when there won't be a lot of tourists around, and you can actually order à la carte instead of being forced to take the set menu...

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