Although it has acquired Internet renown for its seared skipjack tuna, what brought me down to Open Sesame (芝麻開門) was the pork cutlet matcha ice cream sundae. It’s the kind of dish that shows that the restaurant has attitude — and the confidence to serve up something that even on the menu sounds like a huge turn off.
At first glance, the mass market minimalist facade and decor does not promise much outside the usual mid-range, family-friendly Japanese katsudon and sushi mix, but looking through the menu, there are number of interesting twists.
The specialty of the house is the Tataki set menu (NT$230), which features the seared skipjack tuna mentioned above. This dish is prepared in a fashion not widely seen in Taiwan, or even in Japan, and is a specialty of the Shikoku region. The tuna is first marinated in a light pomelo sauce and then cooked over a burning pile of hay. The fruit marinade imparts a slight tang, and the hay a smokiness to the crust. The tuna is only seared on the outside, and left raw in the middle. Each slice is a splendid mix of textures and flavors, from the crisp, almost charcoal grill coat to the lush melt-in-the-mouth raw tuna in the middle. As the tuna is seared just prior to service, the dish is subject to limited availability, and on weekends it is advisable to get in early.
An unexpected extra during one visit was the tuna fish head, a dish that is not on the menu. Sold for just NT$60, this is a splendid addition to the meal for those who like picking out the succulent meat around the head. On the day I visited, two tuna had been prepared, which meant there were only two heads available for that service, and I was glad to get down and dirty, picking my way through the bones. Fortunately, a finger bowl is provided.
Address:138 Boai Rd, Hualien City, Hualien County (花蓮縣花蓮市博愛街138號)
Telephone: (03) 834-6659
Open: 11:30am to 2pm; 5:30pm to 9pm (closed every other Wednesday)
Average meal: NT$400
Details: Chinese menu; no credit cards
Purists might find the plating at Open Sesame a little rustic. The slices of tuna do not have the perfectly clean edges, nor the plate the geometrically exact lines to produce a visual wow factor, but Open Sesame is not really that kind of place. Prices are family-friendly and staff are helpful and happy to provide rudimentary explanations about the food.
The pork cutlet ice cream sundae (炸豚排聖代, NT$230) has a whole page dedicated to the composition and recommended manner of consuming the dish.
The sundae is a mix of seasonal fruit, matcha (抹茶) ice cream and crispy deep fried pork cutlet. It is best eaten using the fingers, and a finger bowl is provided for this purpose. Staff suggest taking a slice of pork, piling some ice cream on top, then adding fruit before putting the whole strange mixture into your mouth. I had been prepared to be underwhelmed or even disgusted, but the mix of textures and flavors, particularly the herbal hints of the matcha, worked remarkably well, and the four-year-old, who had been captivated by the photo of the dish on the menu, was licking the bowl clean at the end of the meal, pork, fruit and ice cream all finished. Open Sesame was clearly doing something right with this specialty.
Apart from these two house specialties, Open Sesame offers a wide range of dishes, from regular sashimi plates, to Japanese curry, tempura set menus, a range of katsudon set menus from various regions around Japan, including a plain vanilla breaded cutlet and rice (香酥豚排定食) for NT$160, a Kyoto style variation (NT$180, 京都風炸豚排定食), served with a sour sauce and radish puree, and an Osaka style cutlet (NT$170, 大阪風炸豚排定食), with mayonnaise and a sweet sauce. It also serves draft Asahi beer (NT$120 for a big glass) and sake (NT$180 for a large jar). The restaurant’s mix of the familiar with its own unique dishes makes it a convenient place to dine, with something that will satisfy most tastes. Opened since 2000, the restaurant has established a reputation as one of those places that local foodies go to when they visit Hualien, and bookings are always advisable.