When French bon vivants start skimping on leisurely lunches, and bars and restaurants in the land of haute cuisine start going belly-up at a rate that alarms industry observers, the times ahead for fancy eateries seem bleak.
Establishments like Jiau’s, which was first reviewed here in March and serves what can be best described as Taiwanese nouveau cuisine, or, according to critics engaged in a fierce foodie debate in the blogosphere, over-priced night market fare, seem to be feeling the pinch. And customers are taking notice.
One of the more interesting complaints: the seats at Jiau’s long table situated in the center of the restaurant are squashed to the point that women wearing short skirts can’t cross their legs while dining.
But the prices, which came in for the most flak, have been reduced. The rice topped with stewed meat (滷肉飯), for example, has dropped from NT$120 to NT$50. And innovations to the menu, created by proprietor Zhuang Yue-jiau (莊月嬌), who could charitably be compared to England’s Heston Blumenthal or Spain’s Ferran Adria Acosta, are adventurous.
The stewed lion’s head meatball (台北獅子頭, NT$180) epitomizes all that’s right with Jiau’s. Exquisitely presented — you could imagine the wait staff agonizing over the placing of the esoterically arranged drops of avocado sauce in the slightly sweet gravy that accompanies the solitary meatball — the medley of flavors and textures, which included a cream-based layer, challenge preconceived notions of how the traditional dish should be prepared.
Bitter gourd with salty egg yoke and shaved fried scallops (冰脆苦瓜, NT$80) is a noteworthy departure from the usual treatment of the vegetable. After biting through the waxy skin, the initial taste has notes of freshly mown grass accompanied by the saltiness of the creamy yoke, which morph into musty fermented tones, followed by a bitter finale.
Address: 22, Fuxing S Rd Sec 1, Taipei City (台北市復興南路一段22號)
Telephone: (02) 2711-4400
Average meal: NT$1,000 for two with drinks
Open: Daily from 11:30am to 2:30pm and 5:30pm to 10pm
Details: Chinese menu; credit cards accepted
Though the dish of salty clams, whimsically named “captain’s gone crazy” (船長的失常, NT$100), was a little heavy on the black vinegar, the mollusks’ flesh filled one half of each shell and was plump and juicy, far larger than the tiny smidgens of flesh typically found in other versions of this common dish.
Zhuang’s piece de resistance remains Shihfang (食方, www.cestbon.com.tw), an avant-garde restaurant on Zhongshan North Road (中山北路) she created with her partner, photographer Hsieh Chun-te (謝春德). Since a meal there on Jan. 26, 2005, it is this reviewer’s favorite take on contemporary Taiwanese fare.
Though Jiau’s, which caters for a less aesthete crowd, may not be the best credit crunch Taiwanese lunch in town, with new prices and additions to the menu it compares favorably with Shihfang.
A red stamp next to an item on Jiau’s menu indicates Zhang’s recommendations, some of which are transplants from Shihfang.