Mr Taiwanxifu and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary last weekend. So we wanted to do something special. A lunch meal at Ian’s Table, a private residence in the spectacular Hualian rift valley area, was the perfect venue.
Around six years ago, I announced to Mr Taiwanxifu that I really wanted to go to Italy for our big wedding decade celebration. I had been reading ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’, and I dreamt about doing the whole stay-in-rural-Italy experience. But I didn’t factor young children into that equation. Nor did I realise that we would be lucky enough to be posted back to Mr Taiwanxifu’s birth country, Taiwan.
So fast forward to October 2013, and we trouped on down to Hualian for a family holiday to cooincide with our anniversary. Travelling with kids has its own stresses (and rewards), so my vision of spending warm early Autumn days languishing around in a villa overlooking rolling hills, cooking and eating leisurely, exploring quaint churches and reading books was not realised. Running after kids is a bit different, but I do feel truly blessed to have both of my boys. But despite the journey being sometimes hard work, it was a particularly romantic holiday.
Romantic in large part because of our lunch at Ian’s Table. Ian set the scene so beautifully, in his pink almost-Tuscan home looking out over ripe rice fields to the hills beyond. We walked in to find that he had set his living room table with special floral arrangements and candles — as if we had been invited in as good friends for a dinner party. And he even arranged for child’s cutlery for Taiwanxifu Preschooler to play — oops, eat — with.
And there were romantic surprises. Suddenly, a huge bouquet of pink roses appeared. A gift from Mr Taiwanxifu, organised secretly by Ian. And then another gift, suprise bling bling, presented by Mr Taiwanxifu along with the flowers. What a wonderful start to the lunch!
Before I get onto the food, let me talk about the background to Ian and Ian’s Table. Ian is a long-term (18 years!) Taiwn resident, well known and regarded as a food and entertainment writer with the Taipei Times. Around a year ago, he, his wife and their five year old daughter took the plunge and made a tree-change from manic Taipei to a farmhouse in the laid-back Shoufeng area, almost half an hour south of Hualian city. They renovated their country home, installing an impressive open kitchen that made me totally envious, and have plans to open a minsu (bed and breakfast) soon.
Ian’s Kitchen opened in July. So far their business has been mainly by word of mouth, including referrals from nearby minsu businesses. Given Ian’s Table’s small, intimate scale they only cook by appointment, with a requirement to first pay a deposit. But so far, they have had many referrals and I am sure that once you all read about the experience you will want to go there, too!
So what does a food critic choose to cook for guests in his own home?
Our meal started with tomato soup topped with a sprinkle of home-made salted pork. This was far from being some kind of cheap imitation Campbell’s soup. The soup was light (in colour and texture) and almost moussey, slightly sweet and not at all tart like some tomato can be. The sprinkle of salted pork was in the right proportion to the soup. And the best proof that it was delicious: our walking baby clamoured to try some, demanded more and then ate a large bowl of soup, chowed down with more soup soaked with bread.
Speaking of our walking baby, he just loved playing with Ian’s dog, Pinot. Ian said that at first they thought they should lock Pinot away from their guests. But then they discovered that Pinot has a natural way with people, and has become so popular that Ian jokingly calls him their ‘PR manager’. We are usually wary of the little one playing with dogs, but baby loved Pinot so much, and Pinot was so gentle, that we were happy to let them make friends.
The entree was cold sliced pork on homemade chutney with a brown rice salad. The pork belly had been brined overnight. Ian said that he loved to preserve and brine foods, and enjoyed seeing how the process changed the properties of the food. And yes, brining did make a difference, softening the ribbons of tender pink meat hidden within the folds of pillowy fat. I am not usually a pork belly fan, but Mr Taiwanxifu is, and we both enjoyed the soft texture of the pork.
The main dish was more like a main feast — the dishes just seemed to keep coming and I felt like we were guests at a royal arab table. The main event was a lemon chicken tagine, cooked in a ceramic tagine and opened dramatically for us by Ian at our table. The tagine was flavoured with Ian’s home preserved Morrocan-style lemons, and slow cooked to bring out the flavours and juices of the dish. His wife brought out extra bread so that we could sop up the flavours of the dish. It was hard to resist going back for more.
Mr Taiwanxifu doesn’t usually like citrus, so I watched with interest as he took his first bite. And he liked it! He really liked it, and went back for thirds.
Accompanying the feast were roasted capsicums, both red and yellow. These were unbelievably sweet.
Cucumbers with yoghurt: this kind of reminded me of a Greek tzatziki dip.
Spiced cauliflower salad, soft without being soggy, flavorsome yet not overly salty.
And chickpea salad.
But there was more … Ian’s daughter was waiting patiently for the dessert. She had helped her Dad lick the ice-cream paddle, so she knew this was good. And after the meal she was ‘allowed’ to play with Taiwanxifu Preschooler, and she had a wonderful time directing him how to put together a jigsaw puzzle (they got on famously).
Dessert was banana sundae, made with a duo of roasted banana and chocolate ice-cream and topped with walnuts. I felt it was a very ‘grownup’ version of an ice-cream parlour favourite, and perfect in the hot early Autumn weather. Ian said his banana ice-cream utilised some ultra sweet bananas that an old man sold at the markets; he grew them high up in the hills of Hualian, and were unlike any other bananas he had ever tasted. The bananas (and ice-cream) were indeed very sweet, while the chocolate ice-cream was rich and velvety, a result perhaps of the Miaoli-sourced cream with 38 per cent milk fat.
Ian’s Table is only five minutes’ drive from Shoufeng Railway Station, yet when you are there it feels like you are miles from civilisation. The physical address is 68 Siwei Road, Fengli Village, Shoufeng (l花蓮縣壽豐鄉豐裡村四維路68號), but Ian suggests ringing ahead as most GPS systems direct guests to the local Earth God temple. For reservations – or directions – phone ahead on 0928559091 or 0926148007. Or visit the Ian’s Table Facebook page.
Our visit to Ian’s Table was the perfect way to celebrate our anniversary. We have our share of ups and downs, of disappointments and communication breakdowns and breakthroughs. The anniversary meal was an opportunity to celebrate our blessings, and the event will undoubtedly become part of the rich tapestry of our married memories.