Recently, I discussed my blog post on laksa at the Chicken Rice Shop with a Singaporean friend. Anxious to introduce me to an even better laksa experience, she suggested a lunch at Just in Bistro & Wine Bar at Neo 19.
Just in Bistro is part of a select chain of restaurants operated by renowned Singaporean chef Justin Quek in Singapore, Shanghai and Taipei. Quek’s signature restaurant at the upmarket Marina Bay complex in Singapore is so popular that patrons must book at least a month in advance – if not longer. And one wall of Just in Bistro is filled with photos of Quek and famous patrons – with former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew enjoying a meal at one of Quek’s restaurants with former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, shaking hands with Bill Gates and with other regional politicians and luminaries. But added to this are more homely photos of Quek, including a touching black and white portrait with his young son.
Just in Bistro & Wine Bar describes itself as Franco-Asian. Yet this description only partially describes the inventiveness of the menu. I actually felt almost at home in the restaurant, as the often-changing menu reminded me a lot of Aussie style fusion cuisine. Nor is this entirely coincidental; from speaking with Malaysian-born executive chef James Thong I learnt that he is a frequent visitor Downunder and has even studied under famous Australian chefs Tetsuya Wakuda and Luke Mangan.
We began our meal with a deceptively simple salad. The fusion influences were immediately clear, as the simple green salad topped with shaved parmesan cheese also included slices of Taiwanese wax apples and mandarin segments.
We also enjoyed a trio of tapas tempters. The generous plate included deep-fried ginger-marinated chicken, grilled lamb satay and a bowl of fresh ocean clams (pippis) — NT$660. They came served with matching dipping sauces: chilli, satay and mayonnaise.
As the lunch was prompted by my laksa obsession, it was obligatory that I sample Just in Bistro’s version. The laksa (NT$340) was made with special thick rice noodles, broken into edible sized pieces, and topped with king prawns, quail eggs, deep-fried tofu and bean shoots. I was surprised that there were no other garnishes other than the carefully prepared shoots, but the fiery flavour of the curry soup did not require any additional accompaniments. This was clearly a freshly made, non-commercialised and authentic offering. My only complaint was that I wanted more; I kept wistfully fishing for more noodles in the fragrant soup.
While not on the menu, my Singaporean friend convinced Thong to prepare some fried Hokkien Mee noodles for the younger members of our table. The thick rice noodles were served in a gravy with meat and seafood, and popular with toddlers and adults alike (Mr Taiwanxifu polished off what Taiwanxifu Toddler, distracted by toy cars and a new playmate, did not finish). Thong promised that with advance notice, he would try to accommodate requests that were not on the menu. My Singaporean friend was upset that some nonya items, such as bakuteh soup, were no longer on the new menu.
Thankfully, we managed to save some room for dessert. My friends opted for the warm Valrhora bitter dark chocolate cake with homemade ice-cream (NT$280). Although the serving appeared small, it oozed with rich, molten chocolate.
I instead chose the Crème brulee, which was served cold but could also be served hot (NT$280). The menu said it served 2 to 3 people, and it certainly did. Presented on a wooden chopping board, the large flan dish contained a generous serving of soft vanilla custard topped by a crispy sugar coating. Heaven!
Then as we were leaving, Chef James sent us a complimentary serving of warm fine apple tart with sauce caramel with vanilla ice-cream. I am not always a fan of apple-based desserts, but the thin flaky pastry topped with warm caramel sauce won me over: even though I really should have passed on second serving of dessert, it was hard to say no.
Just in Bistro is one of three of Quek’s restaurants in Taipei. Others include Justin’s Signatures (featuring high-end French style cuisine) and the Just in Bistro European styled restaurant in the popular Zhongxiao Est Road Section 4 district. He also runs the popular ‘Bon Vivant’ restaurant in Shanghai, in addition to Sky on 57 in Singapore.
Just in Bistro is easy to find, situated on the ground floor of the Neo 19 complex in Xinyi District (Songshou Road, next to Vieshow Cinemas). In fact, I have walked by it countless times on my way home to and from work without realising what a gem it was. We visited for a family friendly lunch, but it works equally well as a sophisticated wine bar venue (see Catherine Shu’s Taipei Times review). Or you could head there just for dessert, as per this Sugar and Spice blog review. Whatever your dining preference, don’t miss the opportunity to sample something unique and innovative.