Sat, Sep 14, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Restaurant Review: Like home, but fancy

Three options that elevate humble local favorites to restaurant settings

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

Luwei ingredients are laid out in an old-fashioned display counter at Zhanan Bistro.

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

Visitors to Taiwan tend to come with high expectations of the food, satisfying them in night markets, rechao restaurants and around vats of molten mala hotpot. These are all time-tested gems essential to the local gastronomic experience, especially washed down with Gold Label Taiwan Beer.

We all need our casual, chaotic regular haunts, but that’s far from the complete picture of Taiwan’s cuisine. Lately, when friends come to town, I’ve been looking for places where they can see a different side to local food and culture — one that’s a little more urbane and inventive, while remaining rooted in local ingredients and cooking techniques.

I visited three joints that take homely foods from roadside stalls and paper lunchboxes into the air-conditioned refuge of a restaurant to answer the question: are they making substantive changes, or are they just putting old wine in new bottles?

MEOWVELOUS TAIPEI FAN CLUB

Meowvelous’ crew of service staff — dressed in the vests, bow ties and bistro aprons of Parisian waiters — is possibly the highest concentration of “T” (or butch) ladies in one place, second only to the pride parade’s lesbian after-party.

This is not at all a bad thing. It has given the decade-old Meowvelous staying power in the hearts of young queer and queer-adjacent hipsters, who invariably cause a full-house situation on Friday and Saturday nights. Reservations are a must.

To be precise, the space actually consists of two parts — the restaurant, Meowvelous Taipei Fan Club, and bar, Club Boys Saloon — although in practice they operate seamlessly within the same large dining hall.

A prime example of the kind of innovative home-style dishes that Meowvelous excels at is the chicken chopped salad (NT$340), a refreshing presentation of local “saltwater” poached chicken (鹹水雞) that’s been helpfully deboned and mixed with crunchy raw cucumbers and a light scallion, ginger and soy sauce dressing.

Another is the hotpot rice, actually a kind of Asian risotto, topped with savory green pesto and fresh seafood (NT$380). And thinly-sliced salty and spiced pork rump (NT$360), paired with pickles and mayonnaise, whets the appetite for a light Sunmai Pilsner brewed exclusively for Meowvelous.

Classics are done well too. Taiwanese-style roast chicken (NT$680 for half a bird) is a reliably impressive main, while the meaty mapo tofu (NT$340) begs for a bowl of white rice.

Others are less successful. Deep-fried pork chop on rice cooked in chicken stock (NT$360) is just a little too ordinary, while “signature” egg noodles with roasted duck (NT$340) lack springiness and depth of flavor.

The cocktail menu is literally a work of art. Aside from long, irreverent names, each drink also gets a customized illustration. I feel vaguely insulted just reading about the “chubby nerd and her red red raspberry” cocktail (NT$360) — accompanied by a drawing of a woman’s topless torso — but order it anyway, enticed by the combination of whiskey, cilantro kaoliang, raspberries, Earl Grey syrup, lime juice and orange bitters.

It ends up tasting sweet in an unpleasant, cough-syrupy way, and I gather from my dining companions that some other cocktails also tread that line. Similarly, a dessert of milk ice cream with cornflakes — a collaboration with famed Tainan ice cream shop Ninao Gelato (蜷尾家) — is too sugary.

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