Recently, I was privileged to attend an elegant farewell dinner. The venue – a private room at The Sherwood Hotel, one of Taipei’s top boutique hotels.
Even before we sat down to eat, the sheer beauty of the table settings gave a taste of the extraordinary meal to follow. When I commented on the crockery, General Manager Achim Hake whisked one of the plates off the table and briskly (but carefully) led me to its original: the print on the plate was a limited edition reproduction of ‘Nature Morte’ by Alexis Kreyder (1870). (I was worried that Achim might drop the plate — the sort of thing I am liable to do — but he was both confident and careful in his treatment of it. Nonetheless, I was relieved when it was returned safely back to the table.)
Nor was this the only impressive piece in The Sherwood’s private collection – one of its notable artworks is the cheerful ‘Le petit patissier’ (The Little Pastry Chef), an 19th century work by French artist Aimes Descartes. The work, first displayed during the 1878 World Fair, references East-West gastronomic fusion with its depiction of a young boy cleaning copper pans with a Chinese tea-pot at his feet. Eighteenth century Europe had a fascination with Chinese art and culture, which influenced their interior design, architecture, landscaping design and art. So it is interesting to see this European work with its subtle Chinese reference displayed in downtown Taipei.
The menu lived up to the aesthetics of its surrounds, showcasing the best of Eastern and Western cuisine. Our meal started with a medley of appetizers: jellied sake tomato, prawn salad, rose-shaped smoke salmon, Taiwanese style dried mullet roe and a seriously good chicken wing stuffed with cod roe. I did wonder how the chefs de-boned the chicken wing so seamlessly — it was exciting to bite in and discover it had been totally transformed.
Then came the classic banquet soup, ‘Buddha Jump Over Wall’, loaded with thick chunks of exotic ingredients such as abalone, dried seafood, ham and mushrooms. The name of the soup comes from a story about a vegetarian monk who once jumped over the monastery wall after smelling some delicious soup.
I thought the visually appealing and interesting dish was the subtly flavored sautéed crab meat with egg white, served in its original shell positioned on golden crab legs. I liked the fact that all the hard work of de-shelling the crabs had been done. There is nothing worse that trying to discretely hack through crustaceans while in polite company — I always end up with having things flying and few edible results. The egg white in this dish was poached into small and quirky shaped blobs, which was exciting to discover as I slowly forked through the dish.
I was less enthused by the pan-fried veal chop with wild mushrooms, which I thought slightly overdone. I know Taiwanese often prefer meat well cooked so it was appropriate for the style of the banquet. But I admit to a preference for lamb chops, harking back to my Aussie roots.
I liked the contrasts of the sautéed giant sweet grouper with asparagus and cordia dichotoma. Cordia dichotoma, I later discovered, is a type of tree related to borage. I assume it was the caper-like pickled flower buds that were subtly sprinkled through the dish. I enjoyed the sweet-fleshed dish, but I thought the snap peas were slightly overcooked — that said, they were still crisp.
I was unexpectedly impressed with the stir-fried vermicelli with pumpkins. The name of the dish did not sound half as appealing as it actually was: the golden-hued squash provided the right note for the seafood in this banquet version of a simple peasant dish. And I liked the fact that it was not too heavy, in nice contrast to the veal chops that preceded it.
Even the standard fruit platter at the end of the meal was special. The fruit, shaped like sales, was a refreshingly end to an exquisite meal. And even though I had eaten more than elegant sufficiency, I gave into temptation and sampled the accompanying sweets: a buttery rectangular puff pastry filled with a custard filling, and a second sticky red rice covered with a delicate mochi outer layer.
The Sherwood Hotel is a member of ‘The Leading Hotels of the World’. It is situated at No 111, Minsheng East Road, Section 3 (台灣台北市松山區民生東路三段111號). Artworks ‘Nature Morte’ and ‘Le petit patissier’ are on display on the second floor.