I am still feeling fat and full after Chinese New Year — even despite the passage of weeks and months. And this year, I had already over-eaten before the main festivities started.
I have been trying to set a time to catch up with a good friend since last October. And then finally we had a window when we were both available. So we settled on the day before Chinese New Year. And now, embarrassingly, it has taken me this long to write about it.
My friend has been wanting to take me out to the Okura Hotel, where she recently started working. This hotel, built 18 months ago, is understated Japanese opulence to rival the nearby Japanese-style/influenced hotels such as Taipei Royal and The Regent. I liked the zen feel interspersed with European touches such as giant chandeliers. And my friend was able to point out things I would otherwise have missed, such as famous Japanese artworks hung casually on the wall.
Despite the Japanese theme, we dined in its Cantonese restaurant Toh-Ka-Lin (桃花林). This was high-end yum cha, for people who enjoy fine dining. Yet surprisingly given the quality of the food and opulence of the venue, not all of the items had high-end price tags. That said, if you want to splurge there are certainly options.
Toh-Ka-Lin is the little sister restaurant to Toh-Ka-Lin in Okura Tokyo; the latter has a reputation as being one of the best Cantonese restaurants in Japan. It is certainly one of the oldest. The Okura Taipei wanted to make a big splash so poached a renowned chef, Chan Wai Keung, from Hong Kong. My friend said that The Okura is aiming for this restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. In this regard it joins several other five (and six) star restaurants in Taipei, notably the edgy and creative Cantonese Yen Restaurant at the W Hotel. But Toh-Ka-Lin at The Okura is less flashy, focusing instead on getting the basics right.
We started with a selection of Cantonese style roast meats, kind of like a cold cut plate that often precedes banquets (BBQ combination plate, NT$520). Mr Taiwanxifu almost swooned when he tasted it. The roast duck — baked Cantonese style rather than Peking — was possibly the most succulent and juicy I have tasted. This was seriously good duck. The roast pork was also satisfyingly good as well, but was eclipsed somewhat by the sheer perfection of the duck. (The duck was so good that we ordered a serve to take home to share for Chinese New Year.)
But on the subject of Peking duck, my friend tells me that Chef Chen also does an excellent all-the-frills duck. We chose not to order it on this occasion (my decision, in a vain effort not to eat too much). I saw other patrons enjoying it, though, and it did indeed look very good and would be a fantastic choice for a decadent meal.
Another appetizer was a dish of fried taro cubes. I am not a huge fan of taro, but they were simple and flaky.
Then onto the dumplings, which was pretty much what I had been waiting for. I was once told that the key way to tell the worth of a chef at a yum cha restaurant is the prawn dumplings (蝦餃, in Cantonese ‘har gow’). And these signature Toh-Ka-Lin steamed shrimp dumplings (NT$180/4 pieces) were seriously good. The crystal pastry was clear and light, and chewy yet not sticky. The scallop shaped dough was neatly formed in its signature tracks. And the filling was simple and fresh prawn meat, that was what you would expect from har gow. I liked the fact that the chef did not try to tizzy it up by adding other ingredients. When I bit into it, it tasted exactly how I expected it to … if only even better.
The har gow were good, but even better were the shark fin’s dumplings (NT$180/3 in a serve). These were filled with a surprisingly delicate prawn and chive mixture. I loved the soft, pleated egg wrapping. Actually, I just loved everything about these dumplings. I will be back again just to eat these.
I have a weakness for the simple fried radish (daiken) cake, called luobogao (萝卜糕), which is often served in Taiwan as a breakfast dish. The radish cake here, made with preserved sausage and XO sauce (NT$180) was fried in cubes, so it was crispy on the outside and smooth inside. It was a bit rich for me, but Mr Taiwanxifu and I liked the contrast. Actually, although I try not to eat too much fried food I found myself sneaking back for more. It was still a rustic dish, yet the quality ingredients gave it a sophisticated taste and feel.
I also liked our plate of steamed flat noodles filled with barbecue pork (NT$180). Usually I opt for the prawn version, but here the barbecue pork was so good that the meat addition elevated the dish. Again I found myself sneaking back for seconds.
I was pleasantly surprised by how tender and yet delicate this bamboo dish of steamed pork spareribs in black bean sauce was (NT$150). I was getting quite full by this time so was actually trying to avoid having to try this (although Mr Taiwanxifu and my friend’s husband more than made up for me sparrow eating it), but I was pleasantly surprised. This is another classic dish done well, albeit best enjoyed by people who like to gnaw on the bony bits.
My friend insisted we try a soup. Actually, she was really insistent and I am glad that she was. This small teapot of soup was quite extraordinary, and worth the price tag of NT$380. It is served on top of a candlelight burner, and the idea is to pour servings into a small teacup — as if you are drinking tea. The flavor is light and the colour is also pale, drinking it was a pure and almost zen sensation. The soup had hints of a delicate high-end oolong or pu-erh tea, and although I could discern the chicken soup and medicine base, the taste was not strong (nor salty, as can often be the case with inferior MSG laced soups).
When the liquid ran out, I just assumed that the soup had finished. Not so; this is just the beginning. On my friend’s advice, I opened the lid of the teapot and discovered all sorts of wonderful things inside including gently poached chicken, Chinese medicine, and a fat slice of abalone.
But wait, there’s more. Egg noodles with seafood (NT$380). I liked the crispy/soft texture of the noodles, and the added little touches that Chef Chen added to the simple noodle dish (check out the carved carrots).
Then a dish of broccoli to add a healthy note to the meal …
And then we finished up with some flaky radish pastries (NT$150). The pastry here was perfection, and I also enjoyed the soft, pillowy radish based filling.
Tok-Ka-Lin also has some Cantonese deserts, such as my favourite: steamed custard buns. Next time I will starve myself for a week so that I can fully enjoy them guilt free. As it was, we skipped on desserts this time.
Looking back over this post, I realise that I used the term ‘loved’ a lot. And ‘perfection’. And really, I found it hard to fault anything about Toh-Ka-Lin because its chefs produce classic Cantonese dishes so well. Perhaps my only constructive comment is that the beautiful interior is somewhat heavy and formal, and not conducive to the type of loud banter you would find in a downtown Kowloon yum cha joint. Nor will you find carts of delicacies being wheeled around to tempt you. You have to wait for your order, but it is well worth the wait.
Taiwanxifu dined at the invitation of a long time friend, who works at The Okura.