RESTAURANTS : Ji Yuan 薺元小館


Fri, Jan 15, 2010 - Page 14


When it comes to choosing a Chinese restaurant, the common opinion is that the longer the history, the better the quality. Not the case with the relatively young Ji Yuan. Since its inception in 2005, the restaurant has built up a broad clientele ranging from gourmands to local politicians to neighborhood families.

Service is efficient and the well-kept interior is warmly lit and embellished with red lanterns and Chinese brush paintings.

The menu of Jiangzhe cuisine (江浙菜) is extensive, but what makes Ji Yuan special is the unassuming vegetable called shepherd’s purse, or jicai

(薺菜), which is used as the key ingredient in the establishment’s feature dishes and is hardly found anywhere else in the city.

Jicai is commonly used as food in Shanghai and neighboring areas. The plant’s healing qualities have long been touted in China, Japan and Korea.

Grown in cold climates, jicai has a short harvest season during the springtime. To ensure a year-round supply of the vegetable, proprietor Cheng Wan-hua (程萬華) works with local farmers who grow the plant at high altitudes and makes his stock by first boiling the greens before preserving them in a freezer.

Jicai novices can’t go wrong with the restaurant’s Ji Yuan tofu (薺元招牌豆腐, NT$200). The vegetables deliver a distinct grassy tang, while the scallops lend the pot a fresh, oceanic aroma. It’s a simple dish that packs a burst of flavors, one this reviewer wonders if she will ever tire of.

The jicai pork dumplings

(薺菜上肉水餃, NT$100 for 10) are a luscious mix of succulent pork and vegetables. Other popular choices include jicai fried with rice cake (薺肉炒糕, NT$150) and jicai with bamboo shoots (薺菜燴筍, NT$200), a savory must-try for vegetarians.

Baby peas with chicken slices (豆米雞絲, NT$350) are a signature Jiangzhe dish. Using clear chicken broth to add a light, sweet taste, Ji Yuan’s version is almost on par with that of the famed Hsiu Lan

(秀蘭小館) restaurant.

Another signature plate is the san cha yueh (招牌三叉月, NT$350) or braised beef tendon. The protein-rich collagen has a velvety, almost fat-like texture and is paired with a sweet brown sauce condensed from cooking wine, sugar and soy sauce.

One should never start a meal at Ji Yuan without sampling its pen tou dishes (盆頭菜), or appetizers in Jiangzhe cuisine. Highlights include green chili stuffed with meat (青椒鑲肉), osmanthus-flavored duck tongue (桂花鴨舌) and the highly recommended braised crucian carp with scallion (蔥燒鯽魚). The restaurant serves more than a dozen pen tou dishes a day priced between NT$60 to NT$180.

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