A few weeks ago, Mr Taiwanxifu took me out on a date. Being a food lovers, you would think we go out on dates all the time. But not so: outside of work or social functions, we usually eat simply at home. Mr Taiwanxifu was being deliberately vague about where he planned to take me. ‘Somewhere’, was all I could get out of him. But I could tell he had ‘somewhere special’ in mind, and he did not disappoint.
In fact the only disappointment was that the candlelit mood lighting of an evening at the villa herbs did not lend itself well to food photography. And boy did I try. As soon as we arrived, I stood gaping at the entrance gazing to the framed view of large flickering candles standing in a misty pond, wanting to capture the moment of anticipation and lingering beauty on camera. But sometimes it is better to just let got and enjoy the moment. So regretfully, I stopped trying to take a half-decent photo in poor light and instead walked into the restaurant and began to simply focus on the moment … although I couldn’t resist taking a few photos, of course.
The interior of the restaurant was almost as romantic as the candlelit forest outside. With large chandeliers, flickering candles, wooden furniture and Taiwanese flora it was a mixture of Tuscany with Taiwanese touches. From our secluded corner seat (and they were comfortable seats — I found myself involuntarily leaning back and relaxing into them) I had a lovely view of a painted fresco on the wall, framed by happy couples and friends enjoying their own special moments.
But less people watching, more food. It was an extensive menu, and at first glance I was not sure how suited the dishes were to such a hot and sultry night. But I decided to be open minded, and I was pleasantly surprised. Although the dishes sounded rich, they were not disgustingly so. The portion sizes were generous but balanced, and in the end we felt satisfied but not bloated.
One of the secrets to this was perhaps what we ordered. At the suggestion of our waiter, we ordered one serve of the five course set meal (NT$988), plus additional dishes: we chose to order another entrée (a cheese platter), and an additional main course (a risotto). It was a perfect mix of dishes, allowing us to discover a variety of new and innovative tastes.
First was the cheese selection, which we chose to be served with nuts rather than the other option of fruit (NT$380). It was a bit strange for me to have a selection of cheeses as an entrée rather than a desert, but in a sense it was more like a tapas or antipasta type thing. In any case, it was well done with the platter featuring a selection of interesting cheeses and good quality nuts with dried figs. I especially liked the fetta cheese with cucumbers, and the fresh mozzarella topped with chopped tomatoes and basil. There was also a jar of homemade pickles: I liked the concept of the pickles, although was undecided about whether I actually enjoyed eating them. Although I have a weakness for good cheese, I tried to pace myself as more dishes were to come.
The first dish in the set menu, the ‘cold appetizer’, was a teasing trio of favours. I started with the seasonal fruit salad in lemon and honey dressing (middle back), which was light and perfectly suited to the hot night. Then onto my favourite, bunched salmon tied with salmon and served with white truffle oil (right), and then finally some salami and cheese served with fat green olives (left).
Soup was cream of mushroom served with a generous sliver of black truffle. I hadn’t expected to enjoy such a winter warmer on a hot summer’s night, but it was quite good. Very good, actually, with the black truffle not overpowering the soup. I thought it could have done with a pinch more of salt, but the garlic bread served with it compensated.
Next appeared a ‘platti’ consisting of three intriguing hors d’oeuvres. My favourite, somewhat surprisingly, was the baked roulade of bacon with cream cheese. This was slightly spicy, and the soft cream cheese melded beautifully with the bacon. While indulgent, it was a small serving. I also liked the taster of risotto with fish in pesto; this was delicate and slightly al dente, and made me feel glad that we had ordered a risotto as main course. Finally, stewed broccoli in garlic and liver mousse sauce was more appetising than it sounded, with the broccoli proving to be a nice way to break up the heaviness of the pate.
The platti was served with a shot glass dipping sauce made from aged vinegar. I love sour contrasts, but this vinegar did not make much sense to me. It was not well suited to the platti that it was served with (none were really dipping type dishes), and it was not acidic enough to work with heavier meat dishes. I could tell from sipping it that it was a quality product, but it was not served in the optimal way to make use of it.
In between courses a plate of pineapple sorbet appeared as a palate cleanser. This was homemade, and a little icy with some chunks of pineapple remaining. I liked the rusticness of the scoop, and appreciated something cool on a hot night.
Main dish was a roasted rack of veal with scallops and tomato sauce. I loved the scallops, which were simple and fresh. I didn’t try the meat as I don’t eat veal, but Mr Taiwanxifu was almost swooning at how tender the racks were. ‘You really must try them,’ he tried to cajole. I just took his word for it that they were good. I did, however, squeeze out a few bulbs of the roasted garlic, which tasted wonderful mixed in with the mashed potato.
And really I was quite happy with my own main course, risotto with sautéed duck liver and apple (NT$380). This was a well-balanced combination. The duck liver, placed on top, was soft and as the serving was quite small, so not too confronting or overwhelming for people who don’t usually eat offal. The rice was cooked al dente, with chopped apple pieces, asparagus and mushroom in the risotto providing a good counter balance to the richness of the duck liver. The end result was much lighter than I had expected.
The meal finished with tiramisu. And this was proper tiramisu, made with marscapone, espresso coffee and biscotti. Although a small serving, it was rich and strong. It didn’t pretend to be anything fancy, and was reassuringly what a good tiramisu should be. It was served with herbal tea, to help sooth after the end of the evening.
Being parents of young children, we ran home after dinner even though it was no-where near pumpkin hour. But we were tempted to take up our waiter’s recommendation and venture next door to enjoy our desert in their sofa area and linger. Next door in the same complex is a night club, and by the look of many of the patrons, a pretty fashionable one. As if to get the hint, already the lights in the restaurant had been dimmed and the music turned up in expectation of activities to follow. Which explains why there is no photo of the tiramisu — by this time, I was so relaxed enjoying good food, good company, good music and a comfy chair in mood lighting, that I totally gave up on taking pictures. Which for anyone who knows me and my obsession for taking food photos, says much about the subtle magic of the villa herbs.
The villa herbs is walking distance from the Shangrila Far Eastern Hotel, in a laneway off Dunhua South Road (台北市樂利路11巷30,32號, phone (02)2732 3255). It is a perfect for a romantic date, a place to go with friends for a night out, or to visitors to Taipei looking for a good meal. Although I visited on a date night, they also promote themselves as being family friendly (presumably the atmospherics during the daytime are different). It is open weekdays from 11.30am to 2.00am (yes, that is am in the morning), and on weekends from 11.30am to 3.00am.