Taipei has plenty of establishments serving Beijing-style fare, but King Join (京兆尹) stands out for its full-on palace decor and an unusual and extensive all-vegetarian menu.
The restaurant has shifted to serving “healthy meals of the imperial court” since the Taipei Times last reviewed the restaurant in 2000. The once-recommended hot pot with prawn, clams and shredded beef and pork has been replaced with the “imperial healthy hot pot” (御用養生火鍋), which costs NT$1,880 and comes with a platter of fresh vegetables.
King Join (an awkward transliteration of its Chinese name) uses vegetarian recipes inspired by cuisine from the late Qing Dynasty, according to the restaurant’s Web Site. Apparently, the Qianlong Emperor (乾隆帝) was quite fond of his greens, so imperial chefs created an array of dishes designed to satisfy his whims and boost his health.
The selection is certainly large enough to suit an emperor. I nearly burst out laughing when the waiter brought over the menu, a voluminous stack of some 50 pages housed in two three-ring office binders.
Unless you want to sift through lots of flowery prose, much of it touting King Join’s specialties, desserts and packaged sweets, the set meals are a good way to sample a variety of dishes without splurging too much.
The “good fortune and longevity health set menu” (福壽養生套膳, NT$660) is a filling nine-course meal for one person full of novel dishes served in tapas-sized portions. The set begins with a small appetizer of pickled bamboo, followed by a creamy yam soup with toasted pine nuts (松子山藥羹, NT$135 a la carte).
The stewed tendon (紅燜軟筋, not available separately) won’t fool those who love beef tendon, but the gelatinous texture comes pretty close. The sliced celery gives a crunchy texture to this dish, while some freshly chopped ginger, chili peppers and basil provide zesty heat.
The simple yet flavorful asparagus with red and yellow pepper (彩椒燴蘆筍, not available separately) came garnished with tiny osmanthus flowers — a nice touch that suits the restaurant’s fine china and imperial theme.
The restaurant’s zhajiang mian, literally “fried sauce noodles” (醡醬麵, NT$130 a la carte), is as tasty as, if not better, than any version you’ll find with minced meat.
The meal also came with a few unremarkable dumplings, but ended with a set of traditional desserts from the days of “Old Peking” that I found enticing enough to consider a return trip for afternoon tea.
The sticky rice roll with red bean filling (驢打滾兒, NT$110 for a set of four pieces) is dusted with crushed peanuts and topped with caramelized brown sugar. The sweet pea cake (豌豆黃兒, NT$110 for a set of six) is a bite-sized morsel molded in a near-perfect square.
Neither is overly cloying and both go down well with the house tea, an oolong with a flowery aroma, but my favorite dessert was the sesame cake with date stuffing (象鼻子糕, NT$110 for a set of four).
Just when I thought dessert was over, the “Chinese milk pudding” (果仁奶酪 NT$85) arrived. This creamy concoction, made with rice wine, also happened to be a visual treat. It sits in a ceramic pot filled with dry ice at the bottom, and lands on the table steaming cold.
The set menus range from NT$1,680 for two to NT$8,800 for 10 people, but don’t let the cost scare you away. Smaller lunch set menus with desserts are available for NT$350. Quick lunches of fried rice or noodles can also be had, with more than a dozen varieties available for between NT$130 to NT$195.
King Join’s interior of bright red lacquer, gold trimmings and ornate carvings is borderline kitsch. There’s a strong tourist vibe with advertisements pushing gift boxes of the restaurant’s desserts and sweets, which you can purchase at the cash register. But it’s not hard to ignore all of that, sit back in your plush chair, and enjoy a meal fit for an emperor — and a fairly healthy one at that.