January 23, 2023

Taking the expensive option

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Small Uncle came back to Taiwan very early this year, and as I also came back to spend Lunar New Year with the Parental Units, this meant we were able to overlap and have the chance to see each other. He offered to take me out to a meal while we're all here as a token of appreciation. This would be the fourth year that they will be staying in my empty apartment while he's teaching in Taiwan, and I'm glad that the place isn't completely unoccupied while I'm away.

Well, the idea only came up 2 days before Lunar New Year's Day, and I could only do the meal on the second day of the new year, so we were in a pretty tight spot. I pinged a friend whose family runs a famous Taiwanese restaurant, BUT OF COURSE they were completely booked. Small Uncle then proceeded to check with more than 10 Chinese restaurants, and all were fully-booked or not open for business.

So... two days ago I went through the exercise of finding a bookable restaurant for the 6 of us. Obviously I wasn't going to call each and every restaurant that came to mind, so I started with the Michelin Red Guide for Taipei. I browsed through probably 80 restaurants on their website, ignored the places that are too casual, and looked for ones which can be booked online. After checking about 40 restaurants for availability, it became apparent that the Ukai Taipei was our best choice.

The only problem is that a meal here ain't cheap. The two available options were priced at TWD 6,600 and TWD 7,700 before service charge, and there was even a Lunar New Year special menu priced at TWD 8,000. I know that Small Uncle isn't used to spending this kind of dough when dining out, so I sheepishly called and told him about this... and we agreed that he would book the cheapest menu for the 6 of us in a private room.

Our evening did not get off to a good start. The Parental Units had huge trouble finding a parking spot, as there was a long line of cars waiting to park at Taipei Nanshan Plaza. As I knew they were running late because of parking, I called dad and suggested he try the big parking lot under Taipei 101.

By now the Parental Units were late by a half-hour, and the restaurant staff kept asking us when they would be arriving. They suggested that the 4 of us who were on time move into the room so the chef could start serving us, and the late comers would have to skip a few courses. We were warned that, if service didn't start soon, the chef may not be able to finish serving us all the food due to limitation on their service/working hours.

This came as a shock to me. I understand the need to be punctual, especially at Japanese restaurants where chefs need to serve all the customers seated at the counter all at once. But there were no other customers in the private dining room except for the 6 of us. And while all of us should have arrived on time, I found it difficult to reconcile with the idea that somehow the chef would need to clock out when there's another 3½ hours left until the restaurant officially closes.

Eventually we gave in... I just wanted to stop the staff from giving us more pressure. We moved into the room and the Parental Units arrived a few minutes later. Dinner could finally start.

The chef brought in the ingredients that would be served to us, starting with the two cuts of Japanese wagyu and the black truffle.

There was also a whole range of seafood, including a lobster that was still alive and moving around. This was, of course, the showcase tray and we were not actually eating that exact lobster... I commented on the amount of kanibiru (カニビル) eggs which were stuck on the shell of the Japanese snow crab.

Dassai amazake (獺祭甘酒) - this was our welcome drink.

Local abalone (九孔鮑魚) with sea urchin and caviar - our first course was serve cold, with No.2 Superior Oscietra from Perseus which looked a little sad, and of course GOLD LEAF! We must have gold for Lunar New Year, でしょう? The ablone was pretty decent, and there was a layer of finely-diced leeks at the bottom.

The chef brought out bags formed with heat-resistant film that looked like cellophane, with seafood ingredients and broth wrapped inside. These were placed on the teppan (鉄板) directly to steam.

Coral grouper (紅條石斑) with clam - the fish came from Keelung (基隆) and the clam from Kumamoto (熊本), along with bamboo shoots, air-dried cherry tomatoes, green olives, and some onion salsa. Pretty nice.

Wagyu sirloin - the beef came from Tamura Farm (田村畜産) in Tottori Prefecture (鳥取県) and is graded A5. Certainly well-marbled and sliced very thin.

The chef shaved some black truffle on top of each slice, before rolling the beef up and cooking on the teppan.

The beef roll was then served on top of a mushroom cooked on the teppan, and more black truffle was shaved on top. The bits of truffle in the middle of the roll did get some heat treatment so they weren't as fragrant as the freshly-shaved slices on top.

Ise lobster (伊勢海老) - from Suao (蘇澳), and some were fresh enough to still be twitching while being cooked on teppan. Shaved with cured mullet roe (烏魚子) while being cooked. Served with a sauce made with Saikyo miso (西京味噌). Nice execution as this was done mi-cuit. When the chef asked whether we wanted more mullet roe shaved on top, of course I said "YES"!

There was a section of baguette placed on the side, I guess it was for us to soak up the sauce.

Somen (素麵) with Japanese snow crab (松葉蟹) - the shredded meat of the crab from Hokkaido was served with thin somen along with scallion shoots (芽蔥) and shaved yuzu (柚子) zest. There was a good balance between the umami (旨味) of the dashi (出汁), the acidity, and sweetness from the crab. Everything about the dish - from the textures to the flavors - speaks of elegance and delicacy.

These heads of garlic were pretty damn big, and apparently came with 6 cloves to each head.

Wagyu filet mignon - this was obviously leaner than the sirloin we had earlier, but also graded A5 from the same farm.

The beef was served with pan-fried garlic, marinated wild peppercorns, shaved raw onions, a wasabi soy sauce, and yuzu-flavored vinegar.

The doneness was still on the pink side, which I prefer. I also alternated between taking the beef with the peppercorns and the garlic.

Fried rice - just the Koshihikari (コシヒカリ) rice from Niigata Prefecture (新潟県) along with some diced garlic and seasoning. Simple but delicious.

Soup - with the head of the Ise lobster we had earlier in the meal. This added a nice sweetness and more complexity.

There are three desserts on offer, and I chose two of them as Four Sheets wouldn't eat her portion...

Crème caramel - very rich, very nice. Mom had two of these as dad gave up his portion.

Dacquoise - with hazelnuts. The mocha ice cream on the side was pretty nice.

Petit fours - while the canelé had a thick, crunchy shell, the inside just didn't have enough flavor... probably because they didn't add enough rum! The strawberry macaron had an ice cream center, while the chocolate truffle with hazelnut was just OK.

This isn't a drinking crowd, so I brought just one bottle for dinner...

2007 Biserno - served 45 minutes after decanting. Initially there was a whiff of coconut butter, but this faded quickly and became much more smoky than expected. Also showing tobacco, grilled meats, black pepper... and later lots of graphite. Still got plenty of tannins, and sweet on the palate as expected.

Four Sheets and I left a little early to do some last-minute shopping before the shops closed. I soon got a call from dad, telling me that Small Uncle had been told by the restaurant that only the seasonal special menu priced at TWD 8,000 was available during the holiday period. This, naturally, came as a surprise to us, as it was not specifically stated on the inline booking website. In fact, Small Uncle was allowed to choose the TWD 6,600 menu at the time of booking.

We do understand that there is a minimum spending amount imposed on the private room, which was mentioned on the website at the time of booking without specifying that the amount was TWD 45,000. I was not involved in the negotiations with the restaurant after the meal, but in the end the restaurant relented and charged us the TWD 45,000 required for the room, but treated the meal cost as TWD 6,600 per head and sold us a bottle of wine off their list to make up for the difference.

I felt bad that Small Uncle ended up paying for a reasonably expensive meal, although it was obvious that we all enjoyed dinner tonight. I became a fan of the Ukai group after my first meal in Ginza more than 15 years ago, and I'm glad that they chose to open outlets in Taiwan.

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