I have been fortunate to have eaten twice in two weeks at Song Kitchen (Zhongxiao Road Section 5, Lane 15, No 14). This is a feat that in Taipei is considered near impossible. Let me explain.
Song Kitchen is legendary in Taipei for its Peking duck. It is one of the few remaining places that serves authentic Beijing-style cuisine. The post-1949 wave of mainland Chinese immigrants brought some of the best chefs to Taiwan, many of whom opened restaurants in Taiwan. Some of these restaurants have been passed down to the next generation, but not many. Song Kitchen is still going strong, and its Peking duck is very much in demand. So much so that the restaurant typically has a waiting list of at least two months. And in addition, you need to order many of the dishes including the Peking duck in advance. This has led to the restaurant being popularly known within expatriate circles as ‘the Peking duck nazi restaurant’, in reference to the ‘soup nazi’ episode of Seinfeld.
Being so much in demand, you would think that Song Kitchen would open clones in other locations, or else jack up the prices. So far, Song Kitchen has resisted temptations to do both. It remains a moderately priced, not overly fancy restaurant situated in a tiny alleyway near the Taipei City Hall MRT (subway) station. And while it is always busy, its pre-booking and pre-ordering policy ensure that it is never hectically so.
So, how did I mange to eat there twice in two weeks, especially given that I have only just arrived in Taiwan?
The first dinner came about because a friend contacted me to ask if we would like to take over their booking. The reservation was for a Tuesday evening and was at relatively short notice. We rang around our friends to see if we could field a table. My good friend Joey, who is a bit of a foodie, and her husband jumped at the opportunity to eat there: she had been trying for years to get a reservation. And one of Sam’s University friends was keen to catch up with us so he came along as well. We had a few people pull out at the last moment (Tuesday nights are not exactly popular for eating out), but in the end we were able to drum up a total of five people.
The second time I went to Song Kitchen was for a work function. Our office manager had mentioned that she was on good terms with the owner of Song Kitchen. I had initially thought she was bluffing, but it turns out that she wasn’t. At short notice she was able to book a private dining room for around a dozen of us, and pre-ordered two ducks. Now that’s guanxi (connections)!
Having had the chance to savour Song Kitchen cooking twice in two weeks, was it worth it? While it felt awfully decadent to eat rich Peking duck in summer, I certainly would not pass on another invitation. In addition to the duck, chive pastries (jiucai hezi) were delicious and flaky. Both times I had a cabbage salad, which was refreshingly tangy and light, consisting of chopped fresh cabbage, peanut and a hint of chilli. Another nice summer choice was a dish of short, transparent noodles served cold with a sesame-flavoured sauce. My friend recommended that we order a prawn dish that was served in lettuce a la san choy bao style (xia song). I found this a little bit too oily, but it was not too bad. The second time we ate there our party included several vegetarians, and Song Kitchen were very obliging. I can strongly recommend the stir-fried bamboo shoots and mushrooms, and the braised tofu is not too bad, either. They also do a good job of cooking that Taiwanese stable, sigua (literally translates as ‘hairy melon’, and not readily available outside of Taiwan).
However, the piece de resistance was definitely the duck. As to be expected, it was carved in front of our table expertly but with minimal fanfare, the pieces neatly arranged on large platters. The duck skin was crisp and crunchy, and the flesh was soft and tasty. Song Kitchen was generous with the pancakes, which were just right: not to thick and not too oily. Additional pancakes are available on request, and although both times we ordered extra, the duck was so good that often the pancakes were by-passed entirely. Song Kitchen serve their duck with the proper northern-style bean paste; they do not stoop to using plum sauce with their duck.
Leftover duck carcasses are also put to good use, and can be served in a soup (with tofu, pickled cabbage and glass noodles), or stir-fried (with a soy-chilli sauce). I have tried it both ways, and much prefer the soup. But then, I prefer to eat things that are not too heavy. Coming at the end of a hearty meal, there is only so much soup that one can consume. Luckily, Song Kitchen will obligingly bag up the remaining soup, and even add some more liquid if necessary.
Overall, eating at Song Kitchen is a very enjoyable experience. I certainly plan to come back again soon … if I can get a reservation.
P.S. Click on the link below to watch a short video that I recorded of Mr Song (aka ‘The Maestro’) at work carving his duck.