Recently I was taken out to lunch by someone who wanted to showcase Japanese food, in part to reassure us that it was safe to eat. Not that I needed reassurance: I love Japanese food and have continued to eat (and blog about it) in recent months. Japanese food in Taipei is among the finest in the world, and as I discovered, it is especially fine at the Nakayama Japanese Restaurant (中山日本料理廳) in the Hotel Royal Taipei (next to the Regent Hotel on Zhongshan North Road Section 2).
Our group was shepherded up to the second floor of the hotel, into an elegant private room that was decorated in Provencal-white style. The glass windows with floating gauze curtains perfectly framed the view of the lush tree-lined street outside. The artistic mirrored ceilings reflected back the greenery, making the space appear even more expansive. With Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto playing in the background, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the French countryside rather than in down-town Taipei.
But while the setting may have taken its cues from Europe, the cuisine was authentically Japanese. Our meal started off with a colorful medley of morsels, which included a perfectly peeled cherry tomato, a piece of subtle thawed Koyadofu, braised eggplant, two soy beans, grilled squid, and something crumbed that I couldn’t quite recognize. It was all very simple, but beautifully done.
[I should add that I do not usually take photos at formal banquets like this, especially where it is a working lunch (see my recent blog on photographing food in Taiwan). But the food here was so visually appealing that I just had to take some shots. I did, however, try to exercise discretion and did not take quite as many snaps as I would have liked to. Nor did I have my new camera with me, so had to make do with my HTC smart phone.]
This was followed by a pretty sashimi course, served on a lacquered box and adorned with a purple flower, a fan-shaped shiso leaf and lime. Eating the sashimi, I felt as if I was at a picnic in a lavender field on a clear summer’s day.
Yet this was only an entrée to an intriguing four-part bento box, presented in a beautiful lacquered box. The quintessential tempura was there, although this featured spectacular giant prawns, shiitake mushrooms and broccoli. Also standard (but good!) was the tender teppanyaki beef strips. I also appreciated the delicate steamed fish with a bright yellow miso topping, which was even better dunked in a soy-mirin sauce. But the best part was the plump deep-fried money bag that, when opened, spilled out an inviting array of seafood and vegetables concealed in sesame-flavored tofu.
The bento box was followed by a trifecta of colorful sushi, designed to be eaten without the complication of soy sauce. (The lady next to me asked the wait staff for soy sauce but was told the sushi was tasty enough without it.) I started with grilled salmon belly draped over soft sushi rice. Then I progressed to an avocado sushi log containing nori-wrapped asparagus drizzled with freshly made Japanese mayonnaise, before finishing with a fish-roe encrusted piece of inside-outside sushi roll.
The sushi was complemented by a robust miso soup, served in a distinctive lidded blue bowls. I struggled to open the lid of my soup bowl: the hot liquid had created a vacuum effect, and it was held firmly shut. Luckily for me, the waitress had obviously dealt with this problem before and deftly squeezed the sides of the bowl — hey presto, the lid came off without resorting to the use of brute force.
Our meal finished with a fruit plate and a small dessert. The sweet was a delicate slice of layered red kidney beans and tofu pudding (dou hua), crowned with a single mint leaf. It was not too sweet, and was an elegant way to finish the meal.
Nakayama opens daily for lunch from 11.30am to 2.00pm, and for dinner from 6.00pm to 10.00pm. It also opens for afternoon tea. It has five elegantly appointed private rooms. The menu changes on a monthly basis. For reservations call (02) 2542 3299, extension 328.