Sat, Nov 16, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Restaurant reviews: Shin Yeh and Mountain and Sea House

Traditional Taiwanese cuisine for the advanced learner

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

Cucumber-wrapped meatball in chicken consomme, or in banquet-speech, “dewdrops on flowers in one’s hair.”

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

When the rest of the world thinks of Taiwanese food, night markets and Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) are invariably the first establishments that come to mind. Taiwan does boast one of the most exciting street food scenes in the world, and Din Tai Fung — which actually specializes in Huaiyang cuisine from China’s eastern coast — can incite a yearning for dumplings that no other can satisfy.

These are fine as introductions, but an exploration of Taiwanese cooking that starts and ends there does the cuisine no justice. As an alternative, there are two restaurants in Taipei that I think of as one-stop shops for a deeper dive into the food of the land (and sea): Shin Yeh (欣葉) and Mountain and Sea House (山海樓).

One is a family-friendly restaurant group with a range of reliable and essential dishes familiar to any local; the other serves artful banquet-style cuisine recreated from historical sources that can delight even the most jaded.

SHIN YEH

Shin Yeh’s first incarnation in 1977 was a back-alley restaurant, but it has since grown into a household name. Although over the years the restaurant group has developed some specialized branches that serve fine-dining and Japanese cuisine, its cornerstone remains the original restaurant line — simply named Shin Yeh — that serves homecooking-inspired fare.

Shin Yeh does have its share of luxuries, like braised whole abalone (NT$560), steamed crab with roe (NT$850), lobster (NT$180 per 37.5g) and unfortunately, despite the environmental and ethical concerns around shark finning, a handful of shark’s fin dishes. An unorthodox showstopper is the mountain of glistening, addictively crunchy dried scallop and potato shards fried to a golden crisp (NT$1,050).

There are also decent renditions of the usual suspects like sweet-and-salty “three cups” chicken (NT$680), steamed pork meatballs with salted egg (NT$225) and soy-braised pig’s trotter (NT$300). But I’ve found that the humblest dishes make the most impact.

An unfussy bowl of stir-fried vermicelli with julienned pumpkin (NT$200) packs a whallop of garlic and umami into each al dente strand of noodle. Preserved radish omelette (NT$210) is a straightforward, well-executed version of the homely dish, with a mild fermented funk. Soy-braised pork over rice (NT$120), with a cube of whole pork belly, is a particularly hearty version, serving up more meat than the street version that’s heavy on lard. These dishes may be common, but Shin Yeh’s on-point delivery of flavor every single time is rare.

The array of options means that Shin Yeh does double duty as a banquet restaurant for a traditional birthday feast, as well as an easy weeknight dinner spot. That might explain its evergreen popularity with locals — reservations are recommended, especially on the weekends.

■ Shin Yeh (欣葉), various locations in Taipei; more information at: bit.ly/32OMpjm

MOUNTAIN AND SEA HOUSE

Going from Shin Yeh to Mountain and Sea House is a bit like moving from a freshman 101 class right into a graduate seminar, but exponentially more delicious.

Though only five-years-old, Mountain and Sea House has set itself the lofty task of reconnecting diners to Taiwan’s terroir and history through meticulously researched recipes and techniques executed with local ingredients.

This often involves tracking down specific renditions of a dish and learning from the old hand that makes it, as was the case with a sweet almond milk that my server says the chef’s team learned from an octogenarian in Yilan. The dessert turns out to be my favourite dish of the night — familiar and comforting, without any of the cloying greasiness that fails other versions I’ve had.

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