Sat, Aug 10, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Restaurants: Izakaya

Japanese skewers, or kushiyaki, are the main course at these Taipei izakaya restaurants

By Davina Tham  /  Staff Reporter

Clockwise from top left, a one-bite hamburger steak, chicken meatballs with cilantro, shrimp toast and a chicken wing stuffed with dumpling filling are among the grilled offerings at Nen San Jyuu.

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

The izakaya is a cultural force of habit in its native Japan. On a nightly basis, office workers make pilgrimages to their equivalent of a pub, where sake and shochu flow like holy water, promising relief after a long day. It’s become a quintessential experience of modern Japanese life.

Universal admiration for Japanese food and drink culture means that the izakaya format has also found its way around the world. In Taiwan, workplace angst is more often exorcized in karaoke bars and rechao (熱炒, literally “hot fry”) restaurants. Izakaya hence retain relative tranquility and elegance, and occupy a different role in the dining eco-system. Consider the fact that a date at an izakaya is a non-starter in Tokyo, but is not out of the question in Taipei.

A fully-stocked bar is mandatory, but an izakaya can distinguish itself from the competition with outstanding food. Izakaya menus tend to be generalist — the same menu could give equal weight to sashimi and deep-fried chicken. Where there are efforts to specialize, a familiar contender is kushiyaki: bite-sized meat and vegetables arranged tidily on skewers, set on a grill and often basted with tare, a ubiquitous thick, sweet soy sauce seasoned with sake and aromatics.

As diners’ palates grow more sophisticated, these two izakaya in central Taipei exemplify how chefs are finding ways to pack more personality, flavor and variety onto their skewers. The result falls in a sweet spot between bar snacks and pub grub — fresh but unfussy, compact but still capable of satiation and even nourishment.

NEN SAN JYUU

Since opening in November last year, Nen San Jyuu (年三十) has consistently pulled in a young and urbane crowd with inventive kushiyaki masterfully grilled by its head chef, who hails from Osaka.

Inspiration is drawn from a range of cuisines. Skewered shrimp toast (NT$60) is an adaptation of a deep-fried Cantonese appetizer commonly found in Chinese restaurants in Japan, consisting of fresh prawn paste smeared over bread. Bone-in German sausage (NT$60) makes an appearance. Salmon is taken a step further with a topping of cured salmon roe (NT$80), echoing a seafood oyakodon, or “parent-and-child rice bowl.”

Even the usual suspects are dressed differently. A chicken wing (NT$70) is deboned and stuffed with jiaozi (餃子) filling to fuse the best of both worlds. Instead of leeks or asparagus, pork belly strips (NT$70) are paired with local bamboo shoots or white water snowflake (水蓮), a crunchy vegetable resembling a bunch of bright green wires. Pacific saury (NT$70), usually presented whole, is deboned and filleted and can be popped into the mouth straight off the skewer. A standout is the sweet and juicy grilled scallop (NT$90) slathered with buttery crab miso, or the savory innards of the crustacean.

Beef is presented in a few ways, all of them distinct. Miniature hamburger steak (NT$60) is a natural on the grill, as are tender beef tongue (NT$100) and beef ribs with mushroom (NT$90). Beef yakiudon (NT$200) surprisingly hits above its weight. The deceptively simple dish of fried udon noodles, beef and cabbage (NT$200) is slicked with a savory caramel tare and is a seasonal offering only, although the perennial offering of pork and kimchi yakiudon (NT$180) also seems promising.

Not being much of a drinker, I opt for a housemade, naturally sweetened fruit soda consisting of fresh grapefruit juice and pulp mixed with carbonated water (NT$150). The bartender will add a shot of shochu for another NT$50 — a rule that also applies to a range of sours (NT$130 to NT$150) flavored with yuzu honey, matcha, oolong tea and Calpis, a Japanese fizzy milk beverage.

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