On Friday, Mr Taiwanxifu and I stole away briefly from the baby for a meeting and lunch together. As we had an appointment on Nanjing East Road, the former financial center of Taipei before the development of Xinyi, he chose one of the lunch venues popular with office workers. And it gave me an opportunity to finally eat in one of the restaurants nearby run by Wowprime Corp, famous in Taiwan for being ranked the favourite employer by jobseekers.
Wowprime is headed by enigmatic chairman Stephen Day, who credits part of his success to studying the Analects of Confucius. Day also forbids stock speculation by his staff and gives away 80 per cent of his wealth to charities supporting child education. Wowprime aims to build a further 96 outlets in Taiwan and China by the end of the year and appears on track to achieve this goal.
Wowprime restaurants are staffed by happy people, and this shows at Tokiya. Service was brisk and efficient, and staff seemed genuinely keen to help. The restaurant was big on feedback, with staff seeking confirmation during the meal that food lived up to standard. And then a smiling waitress politely suggested we fill out short questionnaires at the end of the meal. Normally I find this type of assurance-seeking annoying, but there appeared something authentic about the requests that made me feel they really cared gave a damn. And I liked their purple-pink pens, which staff encouraged us to keep.
Being Friday lunchtime, office workers were out in force. There were several birthday lunches, with staff singling out the birthday gal or guy out for the honor of wearing a fluffy birthday hat while everyone sings happy birthday. It almost made me want to invent a special occasion because it looked like such fun. I later found out from their website that Citi has a promotion allowing cardholders celebrating their birthdays dine for free, plus Wowprime members can receive birthday gifts. No wonder Happy Birthday was the theme of the day.
Lunch had one set menu with several variations at the affordable price of NT$499 (plus 10 per cent tax). This price included five courses as well as beverages, which was exceptionally good value for the quality and quantity served. And the streamlined menu ensured that service was brisk: most of the restaurant emptied at 1.30pm sharp when people fled back to work.
I was initially dismayed when my entree of seasonal fruits fruit with seafood arrived. I had imagined a Thai style creation with mango and lettuce, instead it was a melon mayonnaise tower served with a passion fruit sauce. While I was a little disappointed about the scant volume of seafood, my sweet tooth loved the flavor combination. Mr Taiwanxifu ordered their signature water bamboo salad, a spectacular looking dish that features on the cover of their menu and website. The single shoot of bamboo appears phallic-like wrapped by smoked duck and accompanied by tomato and lettuce.
There was only one choice for the second course, presumably because it was vegetarian and non-controversial. Baked king oyster mushrooms were prepared in a robust pepper sauce, and served simply with little adornment. The large mushrooms baked with pepper sauce reminded me a little of steak. Well, perhaps a slightly different taste but there were similarities. The only thing I didn’t like was the way it was plated on the white dish. Master Chef judges would not have been impressed.
For the soup course, Mr Taiwanxifu chose burdock chicken soup. The healthy soup was cooked with strands of burdock and dotted with Chinese dates. Next time I will order this soup as it looked (and smelt) wholesome.
Since he ordered what I was planning to have, I opted for something different — beef soup with lily bulb. The beef was cut Taiwanese chunk style, but unlike Taipei beef noodle soup the flavour was subtle and the texture light. The tender beef complemented the slight crunch of the lilies. I thought this was a good teaser to the main course.
But there was still another course to come before the main — rice rolls (飯糰, fan tuan). I was expecting a 7-Eleven style nori-wrapped rice triangle and was surprised at the innovative presentation of the beef steamed rice with Chinese water chestnut. The ‘roll’ looked more like a baked snail as it was served in a black pottery container that was quite possibly a flowerpot. I liked how the beef-hinted rice contrasted the crispness of the fried shreds of something on top that tasted like onion or shallots.
As a palate cleanser, a small angelic cup of mulberry vinegar appeared. Fruit flavoured vinegars are prized in Taiwan for their health giving properties. I was half-hoping that Mr Taiwanxifu, who usually detests sour flavours, would abandon his. But he liked the slightly tart juice, and I did, too.
Finally, the main courses arrived — and what main courses they were. Mr Taiwanxifu chose the Tokiya beef steak, which consisted of not one but two tongue-shaped slices of medium-rare beef. I stole a bite and was impressed with its tenderness. I also liked the way it was cooked; slighty bloody but not enough to evoke a vampire instinct yet enough to allow the natural flavour and tenderness of the cow to remain.
I chose the chicken and fish Tokiya set meals (other options included beef and fish, or pork and fish). Like the Tokiya beef meal, this was surprisingly generous. The pan-fried fish was soft, albeit slightly richer than I would have liked. The chicken, however, was a standout. The skin was dry-fried so that it crackled like pork skin. But this was no fast food deep-fried dish; inside the chicken was moist and tender, neither overcooked nor undercooked. All of the mains came with a salsa and a choice of another sauce that was poured by the waiter on request. I am not exactly sure what my orange-coloured sauce was, but it was light and tangy and matched the chicken well.
Mr Taiwanxifu’s dessert of red bean flan was spectacular. It was really a type of pannacotta seated on top of drizzled cream. It is rare to find real cream used in Taiwanese desserts, so this was a decadent touch to an otherwise simple dessert.
I chose the sweet black glutinous congee. Apart from the fact that I like black sticky rice, variants of this congee are a staple in Chinese postpartum confinement (zuo yuezi) foods. I might have finished my confinement, but I am still trying to eat within its general principles. The congee was thick and sweet, surrounding an island of sweet taro paste.
For finale, I couldn’t help but order the evocative sounding sugar cookies milk tea. I had expected it to resemble cinnamon and spice infused chai latte, but instead its sweetness held floral notes which were not quite rose, not quite bergamot, yet feminine and appealing. Unfortunately it is only available as iced tea, although staff served it without ice at my request.
Tokiya is technically a Japanese restaurant, although there are clear Western influences. It is open for lunch from 11.30am to 2.30pm (last orders at 2.00pm). With its slick service, feedback forms and vouchers I felt undeniably that I was in a chain restaurant, but not as though I had participated in a mass produced, plastic experience. This is one well run and value for money operation. Tokiya operates 29 branches throughout Taiwan. I dined at their venue at 2F.,No.178, Sec. 2, Nanjing E. Rd., Zhongshan District (台北市南京東路二段178號2樓, phone 02-2504-1711. But this venue will be renovated from 25 September 2012 until the middle of November.