Recently, my husband Sam and I attended a relaxed farewell party for a friend who is moving to Hong Kong. The friend is a bit of a gourmet, so it was fitting that his farewell meal was a delicious banquet at Hay-Jen Private Restaurant (海真私房菜 — hǎizhēn sīfáng cài).
Hay-Jen is hidden on the corner of a small alley-way behind the cosmopolitan Dunhua North Street in Taipei. It is just around the corner from L’Idiot, although the back streets were a little tricky to navigate. We thought we had finally found it when we saw the bright red sign surrounded by flashing lights, but it turned out our party was actually in the unobtrusive eating house next door.
The banquet was organized by another friend, whose parents were originally from Shandong Province. I could see a strong northern Chinese influence in many of the dishes he ordered (although I don’t think the restaurant is Shandong style as such). For example, the meal started out with warm, fluffy steamed buns (饅頭) which we smeared liberally with melting-soft fermented tofu drowned in chilli oil (海真豆腐乳). Close you eyes and you could imagine you were eating a freshly baked baguette paired with smooth goat’s cheese. Well, perhaps a European food snob would disagree but the steamed bun and tofu combination was surprisingly good.
And the other entrees (xiao cai) were equally as good, especially the shredded fried tofu with beef (炒五絲), which was light and not too oily.
I also enjoyed eating a finely chopped pickled vegetable, which I had not seen before. Some sort of bean maybe?
But this was just a taste for the many other dishes. The first was a cold dish of black sausage with scallions. I am not sure why the sausages were black, but they were quite tasty and not too rich.
This was closely followed by the stock-standard Sichuan-style fried green beans. I thought the beans were a little soggy and overcooked; I have had better versions of this classic dish, but it was still okay.
More unique was the iron-plate fish belly served topped with crispy soya bits and scallions. It was quite soft, with jelly-fish bits that gave it lots of flavour.
I am not a huge fan of heavy stewed meats such as stewed pork knuckle and Wuxi-style pork spare ribs with eggs, but the diners around the table (especially the men) all enjoyed the tender meat.
I preferred the lighter stir-fried beef with celery stalks and scallion, and also the boiled pork slices with vegetables.
The banquet was crowned by the hot-pot: a huge saucepan crammed full ingredients. I kept fishing out more and more treasures, but the best to my mind was Hay-Jen’s trademark lion’s head meatballs (獅子頭). The meatballs were silken soft and moist; in fact they were so moist that I don’t know how they managed to stay together rather than fall apart.
We actually took the leftover soup in a doggy bag, and it was even better the next day. My friend Helen advised us to remove the fish bones as soon as we got home, and then to add fresh green vegetables to the soup stock when we reheated it.
It is tempting to fill up on the big hot-pot, but leave room for dessert. I loved their baked black sesame balls. Eat them over a plate to catch the warm sesame filling as it oozes out.
Hay-Jen is located at number 13 and 15, Lane 130, Minsheng East Road Section 3 (海真私房菜台北市松山區民生東路三段130巷7弄15號). For reservations call 02-25465655.