A good restaurant feeds the body, but a great restaurant feeds the soul, transporting it to another place or time. The Astoria in Taipei's Wuchang Street is like a portal that takes diners back in time to 1949, to the kind of respectable cafe our Western grandmothers dressed up to lunch at. It provides a feast for the senses with its classic recipes, as well as a few new surprises.
The Astoria was reopened in July by the same family that has kept the bakery downstairs going for 55 years, to the delight of the culturati who had made the place their second home (and like family, patriarch Archiybold Chien fed some of the writers and artists in their lean years). One booth has photos of its longtime literary denizens.
But the food stands up to the challenge of recreating a past. Four salads are offered in the mid-NT$200 price range, including a chef's salad, Russian, Caesar and fruit. The Caesar was satisfying, served with four helmeted but naked prawns. The tiny croutons, bacon and romaine were all perfectly crisp, with a dressing more sweet than redolent of garlic and anchovy.
The smoked salmon spaghetti turned out to be a handsomely made plate of fettucine topped with a wide slice of smoked salmon. Underneath were chunks of fresh salmon in a cream sauce, with a rainbow of delicately julienned peppers and onions.
The "course" menu offers fried meats and seafoods for NT$280 to NT$350. Specials (found not on the menu but on a tabletop card in Chinese only) top the price range with steak and lamb, both NT$580. They also include beef cooked in red wine for NT$380 and something that was described to me as "pancakes with cheese and vegetables" for NT$300.
This turned out to be a surprise -- a large plateful of quesadillas, served with a creamy sauce (that wasn't sour cream) and sweet salsa heady with oregano but lacking the usual smoky cumin. A slight afterburn comes from the canned jalapenos in the lighter-than-tortilla crepes, filled with chicken, cheese and julienned vegetables. You're not in the 1950s anymore. Rounding out the offerings are numerous varieties of coffee, the bakery's pastries and fruit frappes.
This is the place to take your visiting family when they've tired of noisy Chinese restaurants and want to catch their breath.