Taipei: Even More Coffee, Jade and Flower Market, & Shanghai Feast at Sogo

January 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

So it was morning, and morning means coffee.  I’m starting to realized that no matter what corner of the earth you’re on, there’s likely to be a Starbucks around waiting for you.  Anyone that knows me knows that I really don’t bother with Starbucks.  I generally don’t care for anything on their menu since it’s either too caffeinated or too sweet or both, and I think their teas are uninteresting and overpriced.  I wasn’t intending on checking out Starbucks on my trip, but seeing as a lot of the coffee places here don’t seem to open until at least 10 or even later we took a chance.  There’s a curiosity about different menu items with familiar chains, so I let it slide and saw what they had to offer that was different than the standard US menu.  Surprisingly, it was easily one of the best Starbucks experiences I’ve had.  There were a lot fewer items and none of that Tazo tea nonsense–I’m sure they wouldn’t stand for that here.

I got an iced fancy rose latte which was like a really delicious milk tea with nice, but subtle rose notes to it.  Of course, I could have probably gone and gotten some milk tea with bubbles and giant pieces of fresh tropical fruit two doors down for a fraction of the price and several times the size, but this did have a bit of a different sensibility to it with the rose flavor.  The prices were pretty comparable to American pricing–I think my tiny baby latte was NT$90.  I also tried some “pumpkin” pie since the selection of baked goods looked fairly interesting and much more fresh than they do back home.  I’m pretty sure the pie was made of kabocha since I could see the teltale dark green skin and naturally sweet flavor.  There wasn’t much additional sweetening going on–it didn’t need it and it was lovely on its own.  They heated it up nicely and the crust had a nice gentle flake to it.  I thought it was pretty delicious, and this combo was far superior to anything I’ve ever gotten at Starbucks before.  The other item ordered was an Americano, and that was pretty much exactly as it always is in Starbucks land.  They still had some of their signature holiday flavors on their menu too since that is one of their biggest selling points.
Keeping with the American coffeehouse theme, This was the first and one of the only times I saw a tip jar.  I was a little disappointed, but there was something almost cute about how they were doing it more to mimic the theme than out of necessity so I guiltily threw in a little bit of change.

After resting up from our tiresome morning of getting coffee and rose lattes, we headed out to check out the weekend jade, coral, bonsai, and orchid market.

Somehow on the way, we stopped at an interesting local coffee chain called Mr. Brown Coffee, and somehow I found myself with a fancy coffee drink slathered in whipped cream after throwing all of my sugary coffee-hating sensibilities out of the window.

Well, frankly, I felt the need to get a fancy flavored coffee latte because the parent company also owns and created Kavalan single malt whisky so they have a few whisky coffee drinks on their menu.  I was intrigued.  It’s nice to be able to order a bit of alcohol in your coffee at any hour of the day without anyone blinking an eye.  I had an almond whisky latte, and it was kind of delicious.  I was afraid it was going to be a sugar bomb, but it absolutely was not.  There was a harmony in the milk, almond flavor, hint of coffee, and hint of whiskey even with the pillow of whipped cream on top.  There’s nothing wrong with some toasted almonds on top either.  The best part was the wacky effect of alcohol and coffee.  Yum.  I believe these were a little pricier in the range of NT$150, but I felt the price was justified.

Mr. Brown also is one of the prominent canned coffee brands found in the vending machines scattered around Taipei, but the cafes offer a little something extra.

We grabbed a quick snack to postpone our lunch.  7-11 easily filled that need and the food there is so decent and fresh that often they will sell out of something earlier in the day.  It’s extremely common to see people of all walks of life grabbing some quick food there.  All of the stores vary what they offer and some even have bar seating at the window for you to use while you eat.  The one we stopped at had some delicious roasted sweet potatoes that we selected from a pile of  hot black rocks.  They were smooth, sweet, and creamy behind nips of their wrinkly flesh.  We also shared these little sticky rice triangles with a little bit of filling and some great nori wraped around the outside.  Quick and simple snacks each for NT$35 to NT$49.  There are also different types of baozi, great tea eggs, and even freshly sliced up fruit for you to grab and go.

And of course, you would often see hot dogs as well, but there were too many other things worth exploring.  I found a brochure where you could order huge holiday meals, desserts, and giant plates of hors d’oeuvres all from your local 7-11.  Compared to how convenience stores are in the US, I find this incredibly fascinating.

Then we checked out the Taipei Jianguo Jade and Flower Markets (建國假日玉花市) nearby which are nestled under the elevated highway and amazingly are set up and taken away over the span of a weekend.  I am not sure if I can explain how endless the market felt and how crammed full of wonderful goods it was, but it’s a must-see if you’re interested in seeing piles of intricately carved jade, coral, a huge variety of orchids, and meticulously taken care of bonsais.

I unfortunately felt a little awkward taking random pictures at the jewelry portion of the market because it was close quarters and I was just sweeping through for the most part.  There was a fair amount of stuff that I’ve seen plenty of times at jewelry shows, but what was the most interesting were the varieties of carved jade and coral ranging in intricacy and depth of color.  The coral was easily some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen as I generally find the delicate branched end pieces very hard to come by in the US.  Despite feeling totally overwhelmed by the options and shyness of trying to ask for pricing at every booth, I ended up getting a little naturally shaped pendant piece on the way out. The coral appeared lacquered and shined to perfection and I was able to take a picture of one of the piles of her wares while she was wrapping my selection.  These pieces are so delicate that they can’t be drilled or they will break, so I was a little taken aback when they used glue to attach the finding, but outside of setting it in metal, I’m not sure how else they could have done it.

Crossing the street between the jade market and the flower potion of the market revealed a nice glimpse of the ever-present tower of Taipei 101.

Next were the bonsais and orchids.  I felt a little bit more stealthy or at least a little bit less shy asking to take pictures as opposed to the closely guarded quarters of the jade market.  The bonsais were exceptional and came in all sizes, ages, and price ranges.

Every table was covered with them, and there were huge displays for football field’s lengths.  It really is a sight to behold.

There was bougainvillea of every color stacked closely together in virtual fields of flowers.

There were orchids as big as your face, varieties of orchids I’ve never come close to seeing before, and familiar types in massive quantities in every direction you could see.

Keeping with the constant theme of great-looking food everywhere, they even had a section of fresh fruit dotted with some wandering food carts and food vendors of different types.

Next we went to Sogo, one of their many examples of high-quality mall shopping areas full of several basement levels of just about every type of food you can imagine, a large gourmet supermarket, representatives of international fashion designers, makeup, and home goods as well as another variety of  fancier restaurants upstairs on the higher levels.

They also had a huge zen garden in the middle of the mall because that’s how classy these people roll, you know?

We ended up eating a huge meal at a restaurant I believe was called Shanghai on one of the upper levels.  You’ll know you’re there when you see the carved wooden screens.

Then there was the calm before the feast…

More lovely pickled cucumbers, and these were a lot more clean and simple with a slight edge of spice and garlic.  I’ve had this style before, and I love them.  Cucumbers,  you are free to soak up some great flavors for me before the meal any time.

This was the first real dish that came out, and I was pretty skeptical at first.  It looks entirely unassuming, and dare I say appears like average American Chinese takeout.  Well, this completely unassuming dish blew me away.  It’s one of my favorite things from the trip probably because I discounted it so much upon appearance and it retaliated with amazing flavors and super fresh ingredients.  It’s hard to believe looking at the picture, but I’m truly salivating in memory of this.

This was simply a mushrooms and chicken dish with soft fresh bamboo shoot that managed to be unreal.  The  mushrooms and sauce were approaching truffle levels of heavenly while not being overwhelming and completely dominate like truffles can be.  Everything just melted into each other and it was so elegantly light and flavorful even though it was exploring territory of deep umami that I kept going back for more of this above everything else.

This was a yummy dry fry dish that reminded me of Tasty China except not nearly as spicy.  I love that dry fry spice–it’s got a strange mix of faint sweetness mixed in with the heat that’s addicting.  The addition of a nice crispy puffed rice which was more mildly spiced was a fun play with textures against the fish.

I really would eat broth with every meal if I could, so I was happy to see more of it here.  This was a milky pork broth that was simple but light and delicious with some amazing young bamboo shoots inside.  The shoots were the start of this little bowl for sure even though there were fatty pieces of pork.  It made me realize that I’m not sure I’ve ever had anything other than canned bamboo shoots.  These had such a delicate texture to them that I really fell in love (as I did with everything else in Taipei, apparently).

This reminded me of some sort of Asian spanikopita with delicate greens inside and flaky layers crusted with toasted sesame.  At this point, I probably had enough to eat, but it was difficult to stop with just a small taste of this.

Lastly was a braised pork belly called dong po rou (東坡肉) served in a small bowl with its braising liquid.  The sauce was the best part, and I even drizzled some on the the flaky sesame posted above which really took that already great dish to some new extra delicious levels.

After another great meal, we wandered around Sogo a little bit.  I was delighted to pick up some great BB Cream at Hands of Tailung (台隆手創館), a chain I saw a few times on the trip which had a very interesting variety of goods for sale.  My eyes and my belly nearly exploded upon seeing the goods in the basement that included fresh cream puffs made to order, another Din Tai Fung, crepes, and all sorts of other goodies.

There was even a beautiful traveling museum-type exhibit with some really interesting ornate necklaces based on the lives of artists, so I snapped a few pictures for inspiration.

Finally, we took a good look at the gourmet supermarket and I was delighted at the colorful display of fish, super fresh cheap sushi and other goods.

Those ebi look all shiny and creamy under their packaging.  Yum!

Sogo (株式会社そごう), a Japanese-based chain is one of the many examples of the luxurious, yet approachable department stores seen all over Taipei.  They really eclipse anything I’ve ever seen in the US and are an interesting and delicious way to spend a good portion of your day.

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