Last Friday I went out for a long lunch. I do enjoy many business lunches, but given work demands usually I try not to be out of the office for too long. But on this occasion the food, the ambience, the company, and the conversation, gave me pause to linger a little longer. In fact, time flew by and I was somewhat shocked when I looked at my watch.
The W Hotel is a boutique hotel in Taipei’s Xinyi Commercial district that is new and quite edgy. They try to go out of their way to be just that little bit unconventional, from their own fragrance (yes, the hotel has its own smell) to producing moon cakes that you would expect to find on a space ship. The moon cakes, which include valrhona chocolate banana cake and pineapple cakes with various types of tea, were so popular that the sets were sold out a week before the Mid Autumn Moon Festival Holiday. But on this occasion, I headed to the Yen Chinese restaurant, “a nouvelle Chinese cuisine” restaurant that fuses Cantonese cooking with Western style.
First challenge was how to get there. I entered the lobby through a back door in the adjacent Hankyu Department store, and then searched for a sign. Yen is on the 31st floor, but you need to change lifts at the 10th floor. No worries as I asked a very helpful lady (Mei) for directions and she personally escorted me up to the 10th floor and into the next lift. Personally escorted with lots of smiles, as if she was genuinely delighted to escort a lost foreigner around. She did mention that many guests get lost, so I assume she does this escorting role fairly often.
Then the lifts opened to reveal the modern casual yet chic interior of the Yen restaurant. Central place is an open cooking station where you can view Cantonese-style barbecue meats hanging, and lots of steam baskets indicating that they make good dim sim. The right side of the restaurant is for cocktails, with private booths that provide a view out to Taipei 101. But head to the left to find a black and purple themed almost 60s nightclub style restaurant, that is open planned to make the most of the spectacular view on either side.
I opted to let my hosts do the ordering; the element of surprise is often the best part of being taken out for lunch. First was an entrée platter containing interesting square blobs: maltose glazed goose liver mousse, chilled sour plum jelly (NT$ 780.00). This was an interesting contrast of flavours and textures, with the jelly providing a sweet and fine note to the rich, dense pate. Although this was something that I am sure would be cholesterol inducing, I liked this a lot — in moderation. I especially liked how it was plated, which reminded me a little of sheet of music with the cursive flair of the accompanying sauce.
I was secretly hoping my hosts would order the Peking duck, which I had heard good things about, but also hoping they wouldn’t given the fat content. They did order it (two styles NT$1,800), and I was glad they did, even if I stopped after only two pancakes (there were many, many more).
The best bit is watching the chef expertly Carve the duck. (Click on the link to see a youtube video of the chef in action). For Peking duck purists, I should add that we asked for both skin and meat together, not just the skin. I find that my Chinese friends usually prize the skin more than the flesh, but sometimes it is the reverse with my Australian friends. A liked having a bit of both.
The duck was accompanied by wafer-thin steamed pancakes, and an asymmetric plate of accompaniments. I was offered the first go at wrapping a duck pancake: the pancakes had become stuck together during the steaming, and I struggled to free one intact. I thought I was just clumsy, but the next person to try the duck had the same problem and was even less successful than I was. And then there was the dilemma of how to dress up the duck with sauce and scallions as the accompaniment plate was just too pretty, with sliced cucumbers, scallions and other vegetables standing to neat and perfect attention, and I wasn’t quite sure how to dig in without making a mess.
Luckily, a super friendly staff member (not our dedicated waitress, who was also very attentive) came up and asked if we would like her to roll the duck pancakes for us. “Yes please,” we answered. And we were glad that she did, because she then stood by the table for around fifteen minutes expertly rolling pancakes into perfect parcels that were tight at the bottom yet open at the top.
The leftover Peking duck carcass was served to us stir-fried. By the time this arrived (one of the last dishes), we were all so full that no-one touched it. I do hate waste, but I hate gluttony even more. It looked good, though, and if I came here again I would take the leftovers home in a doggy bag.
There was a reason we felt full, and that was because of the richness of our choices. The roast kurobuta pork belly (NT$420.00) was tender yet crispy on top. At university, the trade in pork belly was often given as an example of derivatives trade: I used to wonder why pork belly was such a popular item, but now I know. There is an art to cooking pork belly real slow, and this utilised the fat to its best potential.
More to come, this time deep fried, spicy ‘kung pao’ prawns (NT$1,280). These prawns were huge, around two to three inches in size. Being so large, they were a challenge to eat politely (I could not manage with one bite), but I enjoyed the crunchiness on the outside and sweet softness within. I was surprised that they were flavoursome without being drenched in salt, and that they had a balanced spiciness to them. Healthy deep fried prawns? Not quite, but more subtle than your average fried dish.
Did I mention that I am dieting? Well, I did manage to be relatively constrained in the quantity of what I ate but we did have one healthy dish: greens cooked your way (NT$380), which in our case was a bowl of broccoli that was served in a bowl so that it looked like a perfectly round pruned bush in a Japanese garden. I also enjoyed a small serving of thick stir fried rice noodles; these were essentially char kway teow, although they were not called this on the menu.
Yen Chinese has some interesting dessert choices, but most of us chose to end on a healthy note with a plate of fruit (NT$150). The seasonal fruit was fresh: it is hard to get fruit wrong in Taiwan. But what distinguished this plate was the small glass of plum vinegar that went with it, which as our helpful waitress pointed out was designed to be drunk first to accentuate the natural sweetness of the fruit. And I should add that fruit vinegar also assists with digestion and has countless other health benefits as well, not least of which is breaking down fat content in food.
And I almost forgot. Tea and coffee came with an unexpected sweet treat — candy floss on sticks in fruit shapes with multi-coloured jelly beans. I took this one home for my son.
I liked the casual yet upmarket feel at the Yen Chinese restaurant. The location in the Xinyi commercial district is also convenient for people working and doing business there (and the restaurant is directly above the Taipei City Government MRT station). I was invited out to lunch, but the online menu provided enough information for me to subsequently reaffirm my impression that it is within the upper price range. This would be a good venue for take someone who was on a business trip to Taipei, especially if they were staying at the W Hotel. Or a place to migrate after cocktails at the lounge next door with a group of fabulously stylish friends.