Taipei Afternoon: Coffee, Tea, French Macarons, and Xiao Long Bao
January 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
After meandering through Daan Forest Park, we were guided around more of the nearby neighborhoods that we might want to explore more thoroughly on our own later. We found ourselves near a fancy coffee and tea house complete with linen tablecloths and heavy crystal water glasses and decided to indulge. We sat outside on a small patio and were handed a fairly large menu to browse. Of course, the first thing that stood out to me was this:
Having never tried Kopi Luwak before, it only seemed fitting to indulge at such an elegant venue. You have to admit a curiosity for an alledgedly exceptional coffee where the beans have been digested and re-collected. That’s a lot of work, so one can only imagine that there’s got to be something about it worth all the effort. I was certainly willing to try, but in the interest of not overloading myself with caffeine, I selected a rose and fruit tea for myself knowing I could steal a few sips to try. The service was very thorough as our server brought the beans and grounds out for us to smell at different times to pick up on the variety of changing aromas. When the coffee was finally served, it came with a very small cup with a few drops inside for smelling. The nose of the smaller amount was different and changed over time becoming more and more caramelized in aroma. I believe they brewed it in a coffee siphon, a device I saw quite a few times at many of the nicer coffee houses in Taipei.
Of course the NT$300 cup of coffee was served in exquisite china. The coffee itself was very complex, nutty, and lacking bitterness. The flavor felt as if it was buzzing on my palette even from the small sips I tried. It dynamic and felt as if it changed a little bit over the drinking experience as some red wines will do. This coffee brewed properly is something that you should experience at least once if you’re really into coffee tastings.
I ordered the rose and fruit tea iced, and it came in a french press with an appropriately rose-adorned teacup. The tea was brimming with natural sweetness from the fruit and rose flavors and it tasted about as feminine and delicate as the teacup looked.
We kept exploring the area and one of my favorites was Yongkang St. in the Daan district which is a great neighborhood with funky shops and a large, diverse selection of restaurants. I can only imagine that it would be difficult to go wrong eating there, and it was very busy just about every time we passed by. In the nearby vicinity was Patisserie La Douceur which I was informed was particularly great for macarons, so I figured I’d check it out.
It didn’t take more than a quick look at the small, precise variety of goods in the counter to figure out that this place might live up to its potential. Oddly enough, there were quite a few places that catered to this style on the trip and I saw a fairly high saturation of macarons in Taipei and Tokyo.
La Douceur had a great fun vibe, was gorgeous little place, and was totally not the style of food that I would have imagined I’d be experiencing on my trip. It certainly started to make sense once you become aware how much this culture is into food and technique.
Then there was the matter of selecting flavors, and I must say it is an amusing task selecting flavors when you don’t know what they are. However, there’s something discouraging about it at the same time especially since the flavor of a macaron can be subtle or mystifying if it’s some sort of strange blend of ingredients leaving you baffled as to what you just tried. Although that does appear to be a label for balsamic macarons in that picture, but that didn’t make it into my take-away package.
After doing a great job of lightly crushing my selection of macarons in my purse, I enjoyed them thoroughly. Despite not being entirely sure of what I got, they were outstanding all the same. I believe that one was a salted chocolate, another was orange with dark chocolate filling, one very much reminded me of pistachio, and one was olive oil with a hint of something lime flavored. I can say that they rivaled Ladurée in texture and depth of flavor which is the highest compliment I can give a macaron. Of course they were fairly pricey as the four I selected were NT$275 total, but totally worth the experience.
Despite all the elegant snacks, we’d yet to stop for lunch. It was a lovely bit of serendipity as our timing and walk back to Yongkang St. left us near the original location of Din Tai Fung. Surprisingly, we were able to get into the famous 小籠包 (xiao long bao) restaurant with a wait time only long enough to snap a picture of their soup dumpling mascot outside. Normally this place is crowded and it’s considered one of the top 10 restaurants in the world according to the New York Times, so the fact that we could breeze right into the original location on our first full day was a nice treat. It’s so popular that there are now locations all over the world with several in Taipei and extending to China, Malaysia, Australia, Korea, and beyond with two locations in the US–one in Seattle and another in a suburb of Los Angeles.
That’s pretty much the same expression you’ll have after you sample from his little bamboo basket of goodies. Although if I had a Michelin star I’d smile like that all the time too.
Upon being seated, I noticed the handy card with instructions as to how to eat xiao long bao with the special black vinegar, soy sauce, and ginger provided.
But first, there were some small plates to get us started.
What makes this place so renowned was the level of delicate balanced achieved on all things so that your senses really awaken to explore the nuances of umami. We started with some pickles that were just humming on the balance of spicy, sweet, and sour but in the most delicate way that it really wasn’t any of these but instead something else beyond. The lightly pickled cucumbers frequently seen before the meal were among my favorite things on this trip and these in particular were some of my favorites. We also had a seaweed and mushroom salad with a great variety of almost chewy yet soft textures and a nice soft foresty fungal umami.
Here are some happy pea shoot greens with oil and garlic that I’ve had many times before but enjoyed as a nice balance to the meal.
Then there were stacks and stacks of these bamboo baskets each with their own flavor of soup dumpling that were quickly transported to our table as soon as they were ready. I’ve tried soup dumplings before at Chef Liu on Buford Highway which were almost halfway decent, and oddly enough I had a really intriguing rendition at the first year of the Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival as an offering by Rathbun’s, but outside of these two times they’ve been elusive creatures to me. Well, these were really spectacular and paled the previous experiences. What makes these so special compared to your standard dumpling is that they are made with some aspic or coagulated broth that is wrapped inside. When the aspic is steamed, it becomes broth again and the illusion of the dumpling containing soup is created. I tried them a few different ways according to the card. It’s helpful to poke them to release some of the heat and broth, but I had some that had cooled down a bit on their own and enjoyed the burst of broth coating the inside of the mouth. I enjoyed the black vinegar, but it wasn’t totally necessary especially with some of the varieties. It was fun being able to mix up the process and flavor combinations.
One element that made these so perfect was the attention to detail and precision of the wrapper itself. It was uniform in thickness and incredibly delicate so that it effortlessly melted away upon contact of your tongue and gave way the wash of savory deliciousness inside. We tried fillings of pork and spring onions, chicken and onion, black truffled mushroom, and crab roe. All of these had a burst of soup rich enough to coat your tongue. The way the truffle one really lingered warmly on the palette was divine in that way truffles are, so that was probably my favorite, but I can’t discount any of them as they had their own special variety happiness to each. The crab roe had just enough salty crab essence, and there’s no denying the beauty of a clean pork or chicken broth…in a word: outstanding.
We also tried a very delicate white chicken soup broth which was a nice subtle break from all the other intense flavors. These comforting bowls of broth were also among the things I could get accustomed to on a frequent basis.
The best part of being in Taipei was all the walking. I happily took many walks especially after eating big meals which turned into a solid theme for this visit. Despite all the eating, I inevitably found myself amused by the high saturation of food in the city and never got tired of looking at all the options and street vendors.
I did, on the other hand learn to become wary of the many mopeds that seemed to make their own rules and seemed to sneak up behind you even in the smallest of alleys.
At this point, a food coma started to sweep in and claim me and the dreaded time of 3pm came. There’s something about 3 o clock that is rough whether it’s 3pm or 3am. I know we wandered around some more and saw a huge variety of thins including a really interesting art community, but my body hit this wall where I felt like I’d been up an especially long time even though it was pretty bright outside. Jet lag is such a surreal thing.
I took a power nap, and we went for some more exploring on our own. I wasn’t feeling up to eating much more from all the decadence that day, but I took in a calming milk, yogurt, apple, pineapple, orange smoothie juice drink from Orange Tea Mania again which was light and just what I needed.