A visit to Szuchihtang (四知堂) will allow many diners to see Chinese cuisine in a new light. The restaurant uses unusual ingredients like extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar for an unexpected twist on classic dishes.
The interior is also a change from most restaurants that serve Chinese cuisine: Szuchihtang is filled with vintage furniture in a mixture of styles. Wooden beams and shelves lined with volumes on art, food and design add to the atmosphere, while skylights and large windows that look out on a tiny garden flood the restaurant with natural light.
Szuchihtang’s food is also marked by careful attention to detail. Instead of ordinary white rice, for example, the restaurant serves red rice (which turns an alluring shade of pink when cooked) lightly sprinkled with crunchy pumpkin seeds.
The restaurant’s menu changes according to the availability of ingredients. One of the best current offerings is the mountain pepper squash chicken (山椒紫蔬南瓜雞, prices aren’t marked on the menu, but are about NT$500 per dish). The savory stewed chicken is a wonderful contrast to the sweet, tender squash. The combination is given an unexpected kick with the addition of whole Sichuan peppercorns that make your tongue tingle pleasantly as soon as they burst open between your teeth.
The addition of olive oil in the chestnut lion’s head meatballs (栗子獅子頭) results in a lighter and more delicate flavor than most versions of the classic Huaiyang dish. The meatballs are also smaller than usual, which allows them to soak up more of the fragrant broth they are served in. That said, the fat chestnuts were my favorite part of the dish.
The herb black pork (香草黑豬肉) consists of fresh mixed salad greens topped with crunchy sliced red beet, navy beans, lima beans, pumpkin seeds and, of course, pork. The salad is sprinkled with a splash of tart balsamic vinegar dressing. It’s unusual to have a salad in a Chinese-style restaurant, but it was a great complement to the other dishes.
Address: 18, Jinan Rd Sec 3, Taipei City (台北市濟南路三段18號). The restaurant’s entrance is set back from the street behind a low wooden gate
Telephone: (02) 8771-9191
Open: Tuesdays to Sundays Midday to 2pm and 6pm to 9pm (closed Mondays)
Average meal: Most dishes are about NT$500
Details: Chinese menu only, credit cards accepted
The Nanfangao fresh small squid (南方澳現流小卷) are caught in the Yilan County port of the same name, famous for its fresh seafood. Dozens of the tiny sea creatures are sauteed with whelk and diced green onions. My dining companion thought the squid were slightly rubbery, but I disagreed. The simple cooking method brings out the squid’s flavor and the meaty whelks were an unexpected, but welcome, touch.
Another dish for seafood lovers is the Shaoxing stir-fried shrimp and pork kidneys (紹興炒蝦腰). The latter ingredient is scored before cooking so that it opens like a flower when heated, absorbing more of the Shaoxing rice wine. The flavor of the wine was quite subtle, but it added a robust heft to the main ingredients.
Each meal is finished with the complimentary dessert of the day. On one visit, it was a scoop of vanilla ice cream served with a juicy stewed pear and topped with raspberry sauce. On another, we received fluffy pancakes rolled around sweet green bean paste.
The restaurant is busy even on weekdays, so reservations are recommended. Szuchihtang’s waitstaff is attentive and excellent with food and wine recommendations, but occasionally a bit slow. On one bustling weekday evening we were seated about half an hour after our reserved time, but Szuchihtang’s owner made up for it by deducting one dish from our bill without us asking.