I love the international vibe of the food scene in Taipei. From gelato to sushi to Swedish meatballs to Thai food and even Aussie lamingtons, you can find it all in Taipei. But the downside is that traditional Taiwanese food can get overlooked. Not that Taiwanese food isn’t available; it’s just often relegated to ‘xiao chi’ in night markets. It can take a bit of searching to find more up-market ‘Taiwanese’ options.
AoBa specializes in creative Taiwanese cuisine. In other words, AoBa playfully reinterprets Taiwanese classics into aesthetically beautiful and tasty morsels fit for fine dining. AoBa has a forty year history, and loftily declares itself one of Taiwan’s ‘must-see’ attractions along with the National Palace Museum. A tall order, its ambition is reflected in its opulent modern-Taiwanese inspired décor. The name itself is interesting, it is neither Taiwanese nor Mandarin but in fact the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters for green leaves (qing ye, 青葉): an odd but apt way to reflect the influences that have shaped Taiwanese history and its cuisine.
Taiwanese ‘cuisine’ reflects the hardworking grit and inventiveness of its people. Their resourceful use of ingredients extends to offal, reflected in our banquet menu even with the substitution of some dishes (no shark’s fin soup, thank you). I must confess to have developed a tolerance for varied animal parts, and while the sliced pigs ears did not grab me (part of a cold dish trio, 開胃三碟), I quite liked the soft tripe embedded in the Buddha Jump Over the Wall soup (佛跳牆). (I suspect there was also some shark’s fin lurking but I pretended not to notice). And while on the subject of tripe, the stand-out dish was the five spice abalone and tripe in special mustard (前菜雙拼). The abalone was presented on its original pearly shell in a carnival-style wooden boat; a fun way to start the meal. The accompanying thinly-sliced tripe was tender, and perhaps due to the mood-lighting, I could have sworn I had eaten wasabi noodles instead. If you don’t tell your guests they would never know the difference.
A more mainstream choice was chicken with sautéed leeks (軟燒雞). It was a decent serving and tasty despite being slightly rich. Steamed scallops with tofu (翡翠干貝), served lotus-style on sliced tomato looked artfully appealing, but once dissected basically consisted of a mere gulp of scallop. The deep-fried prawn with yolk (蛋黃大蝦) was as the name suggests essentially a deep-fried prawn cutlet in a fancy conical shape. Fried crab with egg and onions (桂花蟳) was potentially delicious if we could de-flesh it: there were no pincers or water bowls in sight, although I suspect this would not have deterred locals. Seasoned rice pot (季節土鍋飯), an upmarket ‘fried rice’ was simple and not too oily, and artfully presented in unique pottery, as was the finishing dessert of almond tofu (杏仁豆腐), which was soft yet not too sweet.
I enjoyed my visit to AoBa and applaud their commitment to redefine Taiwanese cuisine. However, I did feel that some dishes were more style than substance. And I was very thirsty afterwards, a possible indicator that not all ingredients were wholesome. It would be a good venue, however, to take someone to experience ‘true’ Taiwanese cuisine, even if there are no oyster omelets or stinky tofu in sight.
Banquets at AoBa start from NT$2,400 for four people to NT$20,000 for ten. A set menu is a good way to enjoy the varied mini-courses that AoBo can provide. AoBa has two venues: An He (No 116, Anhe Road Sec 1, 台北市安和路一段116号, Ph 02 2700-0009), and the Breeze Center, where I dined (Basement 1, No 39, Fuxing South Road Section 1 台北市復興南路1段39号(微風廣場）B1F, Ph .(02)8772-1109. A map detailing how to get to its venues and information on opening hours is available on their website: http://www.aoba.com.tw