Taipei: Beautiful Japanese Feast at Mitsui Cuisine

Taipei: Mitsui Cuisine

Taipei: Mitsui Cuisine

Since living in China, the food I miss the most is sashimi and sushi. I have had unfortunate reactions after eating sushi in this country– so I avoid it like the plague. When the best friend, Anne, suggested Japanese food in Taipei, I was all too eager. Anne’s mother recommended Mitsui Cuisine for their set lunches.

Hand rolls, sashimi and abalone salad

Hand rolls, sashimi and abalone salad

I wasn’t expecting Mitsui Cuisine to be so modern and posh-looking with its dark interior and marble counters. We went Saturday for lunch and I highly recommend making reservations because the entire place filled up. Anne and I both ordered the set lunch which came with sashimi, abalone or shrimp salad, cod fish, beef or lamb, nigiri, fish soup and a small dessert. I was anticipating a bento box and was absolutely starving so we both ordered an additional hand roll.

Steamed fish, nigiri and beef filet

Steamed fish, nigiri and beef filet

That hand roll was completely unnecessary. The portions were really generous and we got such high quality food at a reasonable price. The sashimi was beautiful and melted in your mouth with every bite. The abalone was also fresh and came with a small salad with corn. Anne ordered the fried fish and I ordered the steamed fish. I definitely thought the fried fish was a lot tastier than the steamed one (the steamed one also didn’t look super appetizing).

Fried fish and lamb chop

Fried fish and lamb chop

For our main dishes, I ordered the beef filet and Anne ordered the lamb chop. My beef filet was nothing special, but Anne’s lamb chop was absolutely amazing. It was tender, marinated well and had a beautiful caramelization since the fat had been rendered. I would have gladly eaten a whole rack of them. Our nigiri was just as good as our sashimi, but I almost wished it had come earlier (because I was getting really full and couldn’t truly appreciate it).

The last course (besides a small serving of fruit and apple crumble) was a clear fish soup broth that was the perfect end to the meal. The broth was so incredibly clean with no fat in it whatsoever and I was enjoying the slivers of ginger too. The soup with the ginger helped to digest the meal.

Judging by their business card and website, there are quite a few different Mitsui-related restaurants in Taipei. If they are all as good as Mitsui Cuisine, I would gladly eat at all of them. If I ever go back to Taipei, I will definitely make it a point to try and eat there for lunch again!

Taipei: Pamper Yourself at Villa 32

Beitou's Villa 32

Beitou’s Villa 32

Taipei is famous for its hot springs in Beitou. The hot springs are known for its medicinal and healing powers. Beitou is only a 30-45 minute car ride from the downtown Taipei and also accessible by subway. While there are many options of public and private hot spring, Villa 32 is probably the most posh option.

Villa 32 Entrance

Villa 32 Entrance

When Anne and I first arrived, I felt like we were transported to paradise. The grounds were incredibly peaceful and beautiful. We arrived around 10am and I think we were the only guests in the villa at the time. Anne and I each booked a 90-minute oil massage, followed by lunch in their restaurant and a private hot spring room.

Lunch at Villa 32's Restaurant

Lunch at Villa 32’s Restaurant

Lunch was set in their “Italian-themed” restaurant with a four-course meal. I had a beautiful and light chilled white asparagus and tomato soup, followed by pan-fried chicken with roselle, U.S. ribeye steak and a coffee mousse cake. I was really impressed with the presentation and the food was delicious. I was kind of surprised to see that it seemed like a lot of people travelled to Villa 32 just to eat at the restaurant. There were even executive meetings happening in a private room.

Lunch at Villa 32's Restaurant

Lunch Offerings

Villa 32 has two options for hot springs: single gender outdoor public hot springs or indoor private rooms. The public hot springs does not allow you to wear any clothing (including swim suits). Anne and I both decided that we didn’t need to see each other in the nude and booked a private room. While we didn’t get to enjoy the great outdoors, we actually were quite lucky because a thunderstorm hit in the afternoon and so we got to stay dry in the indoor hot spring.

Indoor Private Hot Spring

Indoor Private Hot Spring

The indoor hot spring was equipped like a hotel room. There was a bathroom, shower, couch and amenities like Evian water, L’Occitane bath products and plenty of towels. I definitely felt like I was being pampered in a four-star hotel. The hot springs definitely had a strong smell of sulfur and the water is slightly cloudy. At the end of the day, I was completely relaxed thanks to my massage, amazing lunch and hot spring soak.

For the hot springs, you can control your water temperature.

For the hot springs, you can control your water temperature.

Villa 32 is also a hotel and you can book a room for a stay. We originally wanted to stay overnight, but there are only four rooms available and it was completely booked. I’m actually glad we didn’t stay overnight because Beitou is a nice day trip and a little escape from the hustle and bustle of Taipei. I would highly recommend Villa 32 to anyone who goes to Taipei, but you have to make a reservation. I’ve read reviews online that recommend making reservations at least two weeks before your visit. In terms of price for taxi rides (both ways), 90-minute massage, four-course lunch and a private hot spring room, Anne and I each only paid $250 USD. I couldn’t believe how reasonable it was, considering that I’ve paid that much just for a massage back in the U.S. Villa 32 is definitely the ultimate relaxation spot and the perfect place to pamper yourself!

Delicious Eats in Taipei

Taipei 101's food court is home to the best fried chicken

Taipei 101’s food court is home to the best fried chicken

My best friend from back home, Anne, came to visit me and we decided to go on a mini-vacay to Taipei. I’d been to Taipei before, but only for the weekend, and was looking forward to spending a few days relaxing and eating our hearts out.

From my last trip to Taipei, I remembered having the best fried chicken of life in the basement food court of Taipei 101. The bestie wanted to go to Din Tai Fung for our first meal and it seemed to be kismet that the closest one was in the basement of Taipei 101. The line for Din Tai Fung was going to be a 45-minute to one hour wait so it was the perfect opportunity to get fried chicken!

I was so happy to be reunited with my Ji Guang Xiang Xiang Ji 继光香香鸡. The fried pieces of chicken are a mix of dark and white meat and slightly larger than KFC’s popcorn chicken. The batter isn’t super thick and I still don’t know how they fry the chicken without it being super oily. When you order, you can choose the level of spiciness (we got mild). We also decided to try the deep-fried squid, which was disappointing. While the squid was cooked well and had a nice consistency, the batter was different from the fried chicken. This caused the squid to be extremely oily and I didn’t think the batter stuck on as well. I wouldn’t recommend getting the fried squid and just stay with the chicken goodness.

Taipei: Fried Chicken at Ji Guang Xiang Xiang Ji 继光香香鸡

Taipei: Fried Chicken at Ji Guang Xiang Xiang Ji 继光香香鸡

Do you know how sometimes you remember food being super good, but when you eat it again, it disappoints? THIS WAS NOT THE CASE. The chicken was served piping hot with a slight crunch and just wonderful flavor. I was still marveling at how they got the chicken so tender too. If you are ever in Taipei, I would highly recommend it!

Taipei: Din Tai Fung

Taipei: Din Tai Fung

After our “snack” of fried chicken and squid, Anne and I were ready for steamed xiao long bao (小笼包). I’ve already discussed Din Tai Fung’s dumplings in great detail in one of my Shanghai blog posts so I will not repeat myself. I will say the the dumplings in Taipei don’t differ too much from Shanghai, but the meat does taste slightly different. It was my first time ordering the wontons with spicy sauce and I was totally digging the blend of garlic and chili oil. I wanted to slather it on everything I was eating.

SHAVED SNOW at Ice Monster!!!

SHAVED SNOW at Ice Monster!!!

Taiwan is famous for their shaved ice. The first time I had shaved ice in Tapei was a life-changing experience. If you get shaved ice in the U.S. or in China, they take a big block of ice and grind it into a icy pile with condensed milk and fruit/red bean/various toppings. The ice mountain doesn’t really have a lot of flavor because the condensed milk can’t really penetrate the entire ice concoction.

Taiwan Shaved Ice in Action

Taiwan Shaved Ice in Action

In Taipei, the blocks of ice are pre-flavored! You can order a variety of flavors like mango, milk tea, strawberry and so much more. They have a special machine that shaves the ice in a quick circular motion, making the ice soft like snow. That’s actually why they call it shaved snow instead of shaved ice. The bestie’s godmother recommended that we go to Ice Monster and we made a special trip hours before our flight back to Shanghai. The long line had already started to form, but I was so happy we braved the lines and heat for mango shaved snow.

Our mango shaved snow was served on a top of a bed of fresh mango chunks and mango syrup with a scoop of mango ice cream and pudding. It was the absolute perfect treat on such a hot day and I will be going back any time I go to Taipei in the future.

This is just a sneak peak of the deliciousness in Taipei and can’t wait to update you all on the rest of our trip!

Shanghai: Coquille

Superior Oscietra Caviar at Coquille

Superior Oscietra Caviar at Coquille

Coquille (29-31 Mengzi Road; 蒙自路29–31号) is a French seafood bistro and sister restaurant to its Italian neighbor, Scarpetta. Opened by John Liu in February 2014, Coquille has chef Anna Baustista at the helm, the former chef of Madera in Menlo Park (close by my hometown!). The menu boasts French dishes with a slight Vietnamese/Asian flourish. I’ve been wanting to try Coquille for ages, but my friends had warned me about the pricier menu. When my parents came to visit me, I thought it would be the perfect place to take them (and benefit from their generosity).

Coquille Seafood Bar

Coquille Seafood Bar

I had eaten at Scarpetta and really enjoyed the warm, trattoria environment with hearty pizza and homemade pasta offerings. Coquille is definitely a little bit more refined with a cute French twist to it. The restaurant is two floors and if you’re looking for a more private meal, I’d recommend requesting a table upstairs. We sat downstairs and I found it a little bit noisy.

Top: Foie Gras; Bottom Left: Escargots; Bottom Right: Garlic Noodles

Top: Foie Gras; Bottom Left: Escargots; Bottom Right: Garlic Noodles

We started our meal with caviar, foie gras au torchon and escargots. I rarely get to eat caviar, so it was definitely a special treat to eat it with all the fixings (egg white, egg yolk, sour cream, onions and chives). The foie gras was absolutely delicious, melting on my tongue like butter and causing all my taste buds to dance in delight. The escargots were served with a red curry and kaffir lime leaves sauce. While the sauce was flavorful, I was slightly disappointed in the consistency of the escargots, which I found to be too mushy. I expected more texture. I don’t know what caused the discrepancy in texture… perhaps the source of the escargots?

For our main dishes, we ordered the wild Icelandic cod, crispy duck leg confit and bavette steak frites. I couldn’t resist getting a side of garlic noodles. My cod was served in a light tomato broth with fennel and a medley of fresh seafood (clams, shrimp and scallops). The seafood was all cooked beautifully, but I found the dish lacking flavor. For my father, he had the crispy duck leg with a side of chicharrones. The duck was atop cassoulet, a classic French white bean stew. It was definitely a much richer and heavier dish– a complete 180 from my cod dish. My father ended up liking the garlic noodles best, which were spaghetti noodles cooked al dente with plenty of garlic and onions. While incredibly tasty, it is definitely not a dish where you want to dine and then kiss someone.

Coquille: Main Course

Coquille: Main Course

My favorite of all the mains was definitely the bavette steak with fries. It probably sounds ridiculous, but I think I miss good red meat the most from America. This bavette steak was probably one of the best steaks I’ve had in China. It was incredibly tender and cooked to a perfect medium rare. The portion was also very generous and my mother couldn’t finish all of it (more red meat for me). In addition, the frites were crispy, hot and addictive. I would come back to Coquille just to order this dish.

Overall, I enjoyed my meal at Coquille, but it is definitely a pricier restaurant. I would only recommend it if you were trying to impress some guests or celebrating a special occasion. I enjoyed the ambiance and a small part of me felt like I was back in Paris. I think Coquille’s neighbor, Scarpetta, is a little bit more affordable and casual. I’d probably find myself frequenting there more often.

Shanghai: The Commune Social

The Commune Social

The Commune Social

I love the whole concept of Jason Atherton’s The Commune Social (511 Jiangning Road; 江宁路511号)– a tapas, dessert and cocktail bar. The Commune Social has different rooms for each course so diners can choose their own fancy. When you first walk into the restaurant, there is a small room with a few tables that also directly face the dessert bar. As you keep wandering through toward the back of the restaurant, you’re greeted by a warm, open kitchen surrounded by eager diners. When I visited this past weekend, the weather was cold and rainy, but I could see the open terrace, which would be the perfect spot to enjoy a fruity beverage on a warm summer day. Upstairs on the second floor is a cocktail bar. I really like the idea that you could come to the The Commune Social and fulfill any one of your cravings– a well-crafted cocktail, delicious tapas or a scrumptious dessert.

Top: Dessert bar; Bottom left: Duck empanada; Bottom right: Tomato tartar

Top: Dessert bar; Bottom left: Duck empanada; Bottom right: Tomato tartar

There were so many interesting items on the menu and it was actually hard to decide what to get. My friend and I started our meal with the duck empanada with pan-seared foie gras and one of the specials of the day, tomato tartar. The duck empanada was a beautiful stuffed pastry, chalk-full of shredded duck and it was served on top of a sweet onion relish. I couldn’t help but salivate when I saw the foie gras, which is one of my favorite foods in the entire world. While the empanada was tasty, the foie gras really stole the show and I ended up just taking my time and enjoying every single bite with the sweet onion relish. The tomato tartar was not anything special, but I wanted something refreshing since it was raining outside. I enjoyed the medley of fresh tomatoes, but some of the cherry tomatoes were still too raw and not ready to eat.

Top left: Suckling pig; Top right: Sangria popsicles; Bottom left: Peanut butter dessert; Bottom right: Dessert menu

Top left: Suckling pig; Top right: Sangria popsicles; Bottom left: Peanut butter dessert; Bottom right: Dessert menu

For our main course, we ordered the suckling pig, which was served with a sherry dressing with roasted pineapple and peppers. The skin on the pig was so incredibly crispy that it was almost hard to cut through. The meat was tender and fatty, but I was really digging the creamy, mashed apple sauce. I liked how it was a play on pork chops and apple sauce. The dessert was the probably my favorite part of the meal. We ordered the peanut ice cream with red fruit and salted peanut caramel, which the waiter told us was the most popular dessert on the menu. While there was a cylinder of peanut butter ice cream, there were also these scoops of peanut butter mousse. When I scooped a small piece, I heard the instant crunch when my spoon touched the mound. It was like they took wafer cookies, mashed them up and mixed them with this wonderful peanut butter mousse. It almost crackled in your mouth like Pop Rocks candy. Normally, I’m not the biggest fan of peanut butter, but I loved this dessert. By mixing it with berries and a fruit sorbet, I felt like I was eating a fancy peanut butter and jelly dessert.

I definitely want to go back to The Commune Social again soon. I felt like I only tried a small snippet of their menu and there are so many dishes left to try. I’ve also heard really good things about their brunch. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations so it may be difficult to go with a large party. But if you and a friend are cool with sitting on stools for a relaxed meal, you’ll definitely be rewarded with a delicious meal. Just don’t forget to leave room for dessert!

Shanghai: T for Thai

T for Thai

T for Thai

A couple of years ago, I wrote about Cuivre, one of Shanghai’s hottest French restaurants. The same chef, Michael Wendling, recently opened T for Thai (1502 Huaihai Zhong Road; 淮海中路1502号2楼) right above Cuivre. Chef Wendling spent the past year traveling back and forth to Thailand, learning the local delicacies from the top restaurants and the down-and-dirty street food stalls.

When you first walk up the stairs to T for Thai, you’re greeted by two cute tuk-tuks with a backdrop of Thailand. Inside the restaurant, the mood is modern with dark lighting and a glowing green bar in the back. I was definitely digging the vibe. Looking around at the other diners, I felt like I was in one of the hippest restaurants in Shanghai.

Top: Nahm Prik Kai Kem (Salted Duck Egg Relish)

Top: Nahm Prik Kai Kem (Salted Duck Egg Relish)

Just like Cuivre, the menu is on a iPad. My friend and I ordered the nahm prik kai kem, yum som-o, pad thai gung sod and gaeng massaman nong gae. The nahm prik kai kem is a salted duck egg dip served with some raw vegetables/fruit and grilled calamari. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but it was a really interesting relish. It’s definitely on the salty side and tastes almost fermented, but the boldness of the dip paired well with the plain vegetables. My favorite combination was actually the relish with starfruit. I really enjoyed the sweetness and crunch of the starfruit with the saltiness of the dip.

The yum som-o is a shrimp and pomelo salad that is topped with toasted coconut, bell peppers and mint. With my first bite of this salad, my first thought was: “This is so flavorful.” My second thought was: “Everything tastes so fresh.” I really enjoy pomelo, which is like grapefruit but isn’t quite as acidic and has larger kernels. The tartness from the citrus complemented the spiciness of the sauce and I enjoyed the crunch from the coconut and fried shallots. The roasted shrimp was also cooked perfectly.

Top left: Pomelo salad; Top right: Pad thai; Bottom: Massaman lamb curry

Top left: Pomelo salad; Top right: Pad thai; Bottom: Massaman lamb curry

For our main dishes, the pad thai gung sod is solid but nothing incredibly unique. I always have a soft spot in my heart for pad thai, but I wouldn’t need to order this dish again from T for Thai. However, the gaeng massaman nong gae is incredible. This was a slow-braised lamb shank cooked in massaman curry with small chunks of potatoes. I loved how the curry was thick, signaling that it had been simmered for a long time. The lamb easily fell off the bone and was so tender. My friend and I were getting really full, but we couldn’t help but polish off the bowl of rice.

I really loved the food at T for Thai. While I’ve never been to Thailand and can’t vouch for authenticity, it didn’t really feel like “fusion” food to me and it also didn’t seem like it was a French chef trying to do a European take on Thai food. Everything was so incredibly flavorful and fresh. I actually think I like the food even better than at Cuivre (a bold statement, indeed). I do want to warn you that the restaurant gets really loud when it’s full. I think this is because the sound bounces really easily off of all the concrete surfaces. Of course, this is just a minor detail, but it may not be the best place to go on a first date if you want to have a meaningful conversation with someone.

My only other complaint is that I had a really difficult time eating the food with the silverware and plating given to me. The plates were small and curved in a really weird way. I kept finding myself crudely using my finger to get the food on my fork/spoon so I could eat it. Then, my bowl was really light, but my silverware was significantly heavier. It felt awkward to eat and the bowl even slipped out of my hand. Maybe, I’m the only who suffered from this problem. But, I’m willing to deal with it because I found my new favorite Thai restaurant in Shanghai.