Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Few Days in Taipei, Taiwan - Who Knew? - Part IV (Cuisine: Street, Sublime & Surreal)

It is hard to believe my daughter and I fit in as much as we did in just a few short days in Taipei, Taiwan, but we did.

Enjoying a private hot spring room at the
Grand View Resort in  the Beitou District of Taipei, Taiwan

Street Food

Tina, of Taipei Eats, had brought us to Bear Cuisine for Taiwan's famous soup dumplings rather than the Michelin starred chef's Din Tai Fung, which has now become sort of a chain.  She had asked if we would do a taste test.  Why yes! Yes I will; especially so because we are meeting Tina later that evening to try out another night market, Ningxia, which is smaller, but known for the best "old school" offerings.

They must of thought I was a rookie at Din Tai Fung:
They gave us Soup Dumpling  Eating Instructions.
(I have to say that, like most food, there was a stylistic difference between the two.  Bear Cuisine has more flavor and was a bit more rustic.  Din Tai Fung was more elegant and subtle.  My vote is Bear Cuisine.)

It was time for a rest before heading out to the Ningxia Night Market for an in depth exploration of Taiwan street food with someone who really knows where to go and what to eat.  Without getting into every I ate...and I think I ate close to everything!...from my new favorite, spicy duck head and neck, to pig intestine soup, baby oyster soup, stuffed squid, spinach with garlic, sweet and sour fish, to mochi (sweet gooey goodness) to...oh, you get the idea!

The next day we decided to take it slow (OK, I had to catch up on work) and then headed out to have my daughter's nails done.  One problem:  There was a bit of "Lost in Translation" for in Taipei "extensions" are for eye lashes, not nails.  So when we walked into the recommended salon, as arranged by the hotel, they were puzzled.  Why would my daughter need eyelash extensions?  So off we went...and then the skies opened and it was pouring rain.

Surreal Food

After a bit more luxury dress gawking we were off to find a taxi when...there it was...the Holy Grail of so many little girls:  The Hello Kitty Restaurant! And when you are with a young woman who had a 4 foot tall Hello Kitty on her wall, you have no choice:  Lunch!

Hello Kitty Restaurant, Taipei, Taiwan

The Perfect Hello Kitty Milkshake

Hello Kitty bun aside, a pretty good soft shell crab sandwich
The bonus:  As that milkshake was delivered, a reporter and cameraman from the BBC came over and interviewed my daughter.  The interview should air later this month!

The reporter mentioned that they were going to be Modern Toilet that evening.  I instantly recalled that it was mentioned by Anthony Bourdain in his Taiwan episode.  I was going to give that a miss, but when I mentioned it to my 19 year old son he said it was world famous and I had to go.  So to speak, "When you gotta go, you gotta go".

While the concept of dining on toilets and eating food out of a toilet or shaped like poop is not my idea of adventurous dining, I took one for the family team.

I didn't have it in me to lift the toilet seat!
Modern Toilet's table.  What can I say?
Modern Toilet's take on a hot pot: Toilet Bowl Dining.
Note the urinal:  You get it to drink your soda out of.
Actually what was more interesting is the area where Modern Toilet is located.  It was more like the Lincoln Road Mall in Miami's South Beach or Dotonbori Street in Osaka where the youth, local and tourist, come to hang out, eat and party.  If not for the dining experience I never would have stumbled upon this vibrant, fun, area.

The next day was another fashion show at Taipei in Style, this time focused on Japanese and Taiwanese designers.  Sitting in the front row was a blast!

Sublime Food

And then it was time.  Time for one of my Top 5 dining experiences.  Tucked down a backstreet near the Regent Taipei is a restaurant Tina, of Taipei Eats, says is her father's favorite restaurant for authentic Taiwanese cuisine:  Mountain and Sea House.

The restaurant is low key with three large, family style, tables and three small tables for up to four people.  No tablecloths. No fancy waiters.  No wine list.  Oh, but the food.  My biggest problem was that its best sounding soups were only prepared for those large tables.

We started with a sashimi platter that words and  photographs just don't do justice.  The blending of flavors, the marinated hard claims, abalone, prawns and variety of fish was simply amazing.

Mountain and Sea House's sashimi platter
was the best variety, blending of flavors and quality I have ever enjoyed.
Next was a fish with pickled vegetables that had been, I believe, baked in a salt shell, then lightly fried and then topped with the most delicious sauce of sour, acid and earthiness with a bit of cilantro. Absolutely amazing.

Mountain and Sea House fish:  Amazing

I finished with a vegetable and pork soup that was light and refreshing.  The vegetables and mushrooms were tied into little bundles so that each bite has the combination of flavors the chef intended.

I am not sure how I went from pork buns and duck heads to Hello Kitty/Modern Toilet to this incredible meal, but I cannot express how fortunate I feel to have had the opportunity!

The next day, our last day, we arranged for a second hot spring private bath at the Grand View Resort. We didn't really know what to expect, but Villa 32 (which was our first experience) was shutdown not only for corruption charges, but being involved with a spy ring and illegally tapping into the hot springs and more, so it was not an option.  We were not disappointed!

We arrived and were taken to a beautiful, very Zen, two room suite with a tea room and a bath.  And the volcanic spring water was totally different; this having a more sulfur smell and was milky white while our first experience was a high iron content experience.

After two hours of bliss it was time to return to the Regent Taipei and then head off to the airport for our China Airlines non-stop flight back to New York.

What can I say?  From street food to high fashion, incredible luxury to unusual and cheap dining experiences, Taipei offered up a very friendly, diverse and enjoyable experience.

But most of all, it offered up a great Father-Daughter Experience.  Who knew?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Few Days in Taipei, Taiwan - Who Knew? - Part III (Spa, Beauty and Fashion)

My trip to Taipei, Taiwan is, in large part, part of my daughter's Sweet Sixteen celebration.  As my children follow in my footsteps, the concept of a big fancy party is just not what they are about.  But could Taipei possibly be cool for an American teenager's celebration?  The answer is emphatically Yes!

When I first mentioned this trip my daughter was a bit recalcitrant; commenting Taiwan wasn't exactly on her list of Spring Break ideas.  And being a vegetarian watching me eat all kinds of weird stuff (not that it is weird to her anymore) didn't exactly excite her.  But I then mentioned the words "Spa" and "Fashion". And there was that crack in that teenage demeanor that gave this trip a chance. 

Once the options available to her started to appear, the smiles started and the contentment became obvious.  And, for me as a parent, the incredibly reasonable prices in Taiwan made what would normally be a very expensive concept extremely reasonable.
Taiwan is filled with hot spring options, and with its long history under Japanese rule, baths from public to luxury private rooms are abundant.  One famous luxury hot spring spa is Villa 32 located in the Beitou area; about 30 minutes outside of downtown Taipei - whether by MRT or we opted for the convenience of a taxi (US$9.00).  

A very tranquil entrance to Villa 32 Thermal Hot Spring Spa
You arrive at a very non-descript hotel and are immediately directed over a small granite bridge into a garden of tranquility.  There are three options at Villa 32:  Public, Private and Suites (which can be booked overnight).  Being that the public hot springs baths require that you are nude and are segregated by sex, we opted for a private room (NTW$2,800 - about US$90) which you can reserve in 90 minute intervals.

Villa 32 Private Hot Spring Room
Our room consisted of a large stone soaking tub with hot and cold volcanic mineral spring water, a very comfortable sofa, a private rainfall shower room, a separate bathroom and was filled with Ferrigamo bath amenities.  You have the option of inviting the outside into your cocoon by sliding open shoji screens and/or opening the canvas covering the glass ceiling over the tub and/or shower.

It is surprising how quickly 90 minutes goes while enjoying the tranquility of this room.  (I was ready for another 90 minutes, but my daughter was done...well done and wrinkled!)

(Note:  The day after our time at Villa 32 it was suddenly closed due to some sort of corruption investigation of its owner.  I have no idea if or when it will reopen, but I am glad we had the opportunity to enjoy it!)

After a nice lunch it was time to do another round of power window shopping; taking in time to go actual prom dress shopping as well.  We had done truly world-class luxury power window shopping at Taipei 101 on our first day; which was truly amazing.  

While proms are an American concept, weddings are not so shops selling gowns are plentiful   What I discovered is that most Taiwanese brides lease their gowns; a practice that I think should be adopted in the United States (in about 15 years when my daughter will given my permission to start dating! Yeah, right.) We did find a beautiful Roberto Cavalli gown...on sale for only US$850...and that, like the $17,000 Diors of the other day, remains safely in the shop!

Regent Taipei Wellspring Spa Treatment Room
There is only one thing to do after a  "stressful" day like that:  Have a massage.  The Regent Taipei as an excellent spa at extremely reasonable prices.  For the price of a 30 minute faux massage in the United States my daughter enjoyed a 15 minute steam bath, a 1.5 hour Indonesian massage and then a 45 minute flower petaled bath with a light lunch served while soaking in the tub.

Regent Taipei Spa Soaking Tub
While she was busy in the Spa I did some research on a sign for Taipei In Style  2015 that caught my eye while at the Songshan Cultureland Creative Park while on my first food tour.  It is, apparently, "the" fashion event of the year but is closed to the public until Saturday (the day we leave).  Oh, what to do?  I registered as "Press" (which I am, but so much for fashion).  

But before heading out my daughter enjoyed what is seems to be considered a mandatory practice in Taipei:  Hair washing.  This hour-long process includes not only hair washing, but a scalp massage, a shoulder massage, and a complete blow dry.  The cost of this little bit of luxury:  US$15.  The result: A bit of pampering...and a bit of a sore head, as the scalp massage is obviously something one must get used to.

While there is  more to come (designer nails for about the same price) it was time to head out to Taipei in Style.  

We saw a fun fashion show of two British designers and strolled through the booths of Taiwanese designers both established and new.  What a great and unexpected experience!

I know there are those folks that need to plan everything and some folks that really enjoy that process.  But for me, as much as I do plan I also leave plenty of room to discover, improvise and simply "figure it out".  And the more I travel the more I do that latter.  

If I didn't I would have missed a priceless father-daughter experience.  And let's face it when traveling with a sixteen year old, no matter how wonderful, moods and desires change...and you gotta be a bit light on your feet!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Few Days in Taipei, Taiwan - Who Knew? - Part II

Our second day in Taipei had a very simple plan:  Eat!

Street Market - XinYi area of Taipei, Taiwan
But it is not really about eating, but using food as a way to learn the culture, see the city and have a bit of fun.

We met up with Tina, co-owner of Taipei Eats, in the XinYi area for our tour.  Tina is quite international, and having gone to college in California, is easy to speak with and relate to.  When she told me her partner had lived in "Jersey" (rather than New Jersey) I did a double-take as only people from New Jersey call it "Jersey".  (I usually say I am from New York because most people have no idea New Jersey even exists.)

Our tour included another couple - British with a baby.  That's right a 2 month old baby- going on a long walking food tour on a cloudy, misty, day.  Clueless new parents and a baby could have ruined our day, but Tina handled it all well...and I, who loves being a dad (I am on this trip with my daughter), couldn't blame the baby after he started to all apart after two hours. (The breaks for feedings, diaper changes, formula making and crying fits were one thing, but the bonus was when the guy didn't have any money and couldn't find an ATM that would accept his card...but he had Thai baht and wanted to exchange them.  Huh?)

So off we went with Tina, a really nice young Taiwanese woman (who regularly spoke of her father with loving affection - a very sweet touch) with a California accent - and a clueless young British couple working and living in Thailand on holiday with their 2 month old - to sample the foods of Taiwan.

We started walking down a quiet street with vendors of food and and household goods on both sides and almost immediately stopped for something akin to an omelette made with various vegetables. (My daughter and the other woman were vegetarians who also would eat fish, so we had some modifications of the normal offerings, which Tina did adeptly.)

Passing by the whole roast chickens (and I mean whole):

I came across pig's knuckles that looked too good to pass up, so....

Pig's knuckles in the foreground.
Great flavor.  Taiwanese love the chewy texture.
They were delicious.  There is a smokey sweet flavor to most of the pork dishes in Taiwan and this was a really good example of that.

Classic  Chinese Buns filled with a variety of ingredients
I had wondered how this tour would take three hours (though I did skip breakfast just in case), but it is really a wander through different neighborhoods.  I had heard that Taipei is not the prettiest of cities and that is most certainly true.  But there are subtly distinct styles as you walk about.  I can't tell you what style goes with what kind of neighborhood, but you can see the difference.  (The financial district, of course, jumps out at you because the buildings are modern rather than drab and boxy!)

I wish I had a good picture of the Thousand Layer bread.  It could have been my favorite food of the tour...though the famous Soup Dumplings were a highlight to come.  I know the ingredients are different, but it almost tasted like Jewish kugel. Suffice it to say the woman who owns the stall was thought by the other locals prime to fail because she only sold one thing, but it is so good that she is now the most successful person in the area.

I am not going to go through everything we ate because it would take pages to describe foods that you probably would not recognize and there are better sources for, but I will hit some highlights...and one definite low light.

Stinky Tofu - Don't let its good looks fool you!
This stuff is not for the faint of heart.
First, the low light (but still a "life experience", so I guess it was also a highlight):  Stinky Tofu.  I will eat just about anything and I did take two bites of it.  Fried and drizzled with a soy vinegar mix, my description of the taste:  You know that pair of dirty sneakers that are two years old and smell much so that you need to keep them outside?  Bite on the inside lining, swish it around your mouth and then swallow it.  Stinky Tofu has that aroma/flavor.  I have never eaten anything worse in my life.  I am glad I tried it and I am certain I never will again!

Betel nuts -
A very popular chew that give you a buzz and turns your mouth red/orange
Not really a food item, but you do chew it, I tried betel nut, which is popular with the older generations.  The nut wrapped in a leaf in order for some chemical reaction to occur and when chewed it is supposed to give you a bit of a high. It is thought to give you energy, keep hunger pangs away and make you feel like you need less to drink since you salivate...a lot.

The concept is you bite off the top of the nut, chew it, spit out the first bit of juice and then chew away and swallow the large amounts of saliva.  As you chew it your saliva turns bright red/ do your teeth (which I guess is why it is forbidden in Taipei 101's Observation Deck)...and you do get a bit of a buzz.  For me it was like having a beer on an empty stomach:  Brief, but you knew you had one.  Apparently I was the first of Taipei Eats clients that has tried it and I would not be opposed to trying it again, though I don't think I feel the need to do it again on this trip.

Taiwanese Pork Buns (Gua Bao)

Pork buns (Gua Bao), a/k/a/ Taiwanese hamburgers, are the typical Chinese bun filled with chunks of pork topped with cilantro, pickled mustard greens and topped with five spice powder and crushed peanuts.  I usually try not to eat everything, but this gem had my name all over it.  Yum.

Soup Dumplings!  We stopped at Bear Cuisine for these.  According to Tina's father these are the best in Taiwan...better than the more famous Din Tai Fung which has expanded its soup dumpling empire to something like eight restaurants reaching as far as the United States.

These are a Taiwanese delicacy of small pockets of flour filled with pork and broth.  How does the broth get inside the dumpling?  I know, but I am not telling!  They are very tasty and also fun to eat.  You dip one in a very light soy and vinegar mix, put it on your soup spoon, bite a small hole in it so that the steam and some soup spill out and then enjoy the whole thing. Awesome!  (They also make crab and vegetable dumplings which Tina arranged for our vegetarians.)

Songshan Cultural and Creative Park

Our travels took us to the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, a former tobacco factory, and a rather upscale hotel and mall where a tasty pineapple cakey dessert is made.  (I have noticed that the pineapples in Taiwan are less sweet than the ones generally found in U.S. markets.  I actually like them a bit more.)

As we walked and I saw some more upscale shops and then a Chiang Kai Shek Memorial with many Chinese tourists milling about.  It got me wondering about the Taiwan-Mainland China relationship, so I started as questions about the Mainland Chinese that visit and if the local Taiwanese shop in the luxury stores or not.

The First Chiang Kai Shek Memorial
Apparently it is a bit of a sore point in Taiwan as the Prada and Fendi type shops are actually owned by Mainland Chinese businessmen, the tour companies that bring the mainlanders are also owned by them, as are the buses, etc.  So most all of the luxury sales and tourism from Mainland China have a very small impact on the Taiwanese economy.  I personally find this very interesting as it gives me some great insight as to how, or maybe how not to, attempt to engage the Chinese travel market.

As our food tour wound down, and my stomach filled up, we made two more noteworthy stops.  The first was for a rice, pork and boiled peanut dish with dried pork shavings

and then, finally, some incredible Taiwanese ices that were super high quality.  My daughter went for their famous Pineapple, Mango, Plum combination and I went for the Lychee for which they were also known.  An absolutely delicious and refreshing end to a fantastic food tour.

Full and tired it was time for a nap...and not just for that poor baby.

By they way, I am not done with Tina!  Tomorrow night we are hitting another night market and with a great guide who knows what I will try...and at least I will know what I am trying!

After two days in Taipei I can say I like this city.  It has a nice scale to it.  The people are friendly. The food is great and, as you will read in later articles, there are some pretty interesting things to see and do even though there are not many impressive tourist sites.

Monday, April 6, 2015

A Few Days in Taipei, Taiwan - Who Knew? - Part I

I won a trip to Taipei, Taiwan last month at an Asia Cruise Fund event at Seatrade Cruise Shipping Miami (the cruise industry's annual global convention).  The Asia Cruise Fund was established to assist in the development of the Asian cruise market; not only for Asians but for Westerners.

So with my busy schedule and my daughter's 16th birthday coming up I figured Spring Break in Taiwan.  I mean who gets to say that.  (And with 24/7 internet, even on the 15 hour flight over, my daughter was willing to accept my suggestion!)

China Airlines donated 2 business class seats from JFK (New York) to Taipei.  That, obviously, required that I fly out of JFK rather than Newark Liberty Airport; a seemingly small price to pay. Our drive to JFK was the fastest and most hassle free I have ever had.  China Airlines' check-in was friendly and super-fast.  And then we got to the Wingtips Lounge...and I remembered why I don't like flying out of JFK.  Yuk!  (I mean it was better than sitting in the concourse at 11:30 PM - as our flight was scheduled to depart to 1:35 AM so that we arrived early in the morning...typical of most Asian destined flights.)

So it was a relief when 12:30 AM came and it was time to I thought.  You see JFK decided to close the runway for construction; delaying our flight about 1.5 hours or so.  Did I mention flying out of JFK is not my favorite thing?

Anyway, we eventually boarded our sparkling new China Airlines Boeing 777.  It is the nicest business class I have ever flown in.  The cocoon for your 15 hour flight is beautifully designed and comfortable.  The largest TV screen on flights to Asia and the table lamp are nice touches.

My flight attendant was incredibly friendly and even though I think we were the only Westerners on the flight all announcements were given in English and options for forks and knives rather than chopsticks were politely offered.  (I, obviously, went with the chopsticks.)

We were offered three meals during our flight, two of which you can pre-order online prior to your flight.  My daughter is a vegetarian/seafood young woman and her needs were met very nicely...and deliciously (I wish I had the seared Ahi tuna!, though my pork ribs were pretty darn good!).  One standout was surprising:  Our dessert was awesome; my daughter said it was "On Fleeck!"...which I know is something good, but more of a definition I am unable to provide.

For me, the standout is a beautiful bar/lounge area with some outstanding whiskys and other spirits offered.  It was a very elegant compliment to a very strong wine list poured with understated service.

We arrived in Taipei actually very well rested...and our stomach's a very efficient immigration and baggage claim.  Our car from the Regent Taipei met us without delay and, upon arrival, at about 9:00 a.m. we were greeted, taken immediately to our early arrival prepared room and checked in right there.  (I almost wish I wasn't as well rested so I could have better used the early check in!).

The Regent Taipei is an older property that has been spiffed up quite a bit.  It clearly has a Taiwanese feel in the rooms, but the public spaces have been extensively modernized. It is a great balance.  Our room, an Tai Pan Residence Room on the 18th floor with access to the executive lounge, has an outstanding view that goes for miles with a nice park below us (where I can observe an early morning traditional exercise close to exercise as I am getting on this trip!), the Taipei 101 building (the second tallest building in Asia) and the mountains all in view from our floor to ceiling windows.

View from the Regent Taipei Tai Pan Residence Room
Taipei 101 in the distance
After shower and a cup of tea in the Tai Pan lounge, we were off exploring the hotel and all of its luxury shops...and there are plenty of them.  From Tory Burch to Hermes, most of all the luxury brands are here.

It was only 11:00 a.m.,but time to head off to Taipei 101.  I should note that the subway system, known as the MRT, is used by most people on a daily basis and is very inexpensive.  Being our time is short and the taxis are so inexpensive, we opted for the US$6.00 (NT$190) taxi for the 20 minute ride.

Taipei 101
The building is impressive from the outside, but before we could even get to the Observation Level ticketing area, my daughter found her Holy Grail:  An enormous shopping mall with superstore sized luxury shops from Prada to Dior to Louis Vuitton to Gucci.  I literally cannot think of a luxury brand that is not present in the level after level of shops in this giant mall (many of which were two story affairs). But I digress!

Taipei 101 Luxury Shopping at it Pinnacle
Being that it was Easter Monday, a bank holiday, things were fairly quiet so we breezed up to the Observation level of Taipei 101 (about US$15 per person) on the worlds fasted elevator.  Honestly I think it took less than 30 seconds to get to the 89th Floor.

Taipei 101 Elevator Display
View of Taipei from the Top of Taipei 101

After a walk around this huge area and looking at the giant damper (a ball-like structure that counteracts the swaying of the building) it was off to start at the bottom of the building and work our way up.

Giant Damper - Taipei 101
You might ask "Why start in the basement?"  Because that is where the famous Food Court is...and I love food!  It is an amazing place where you can enjoy everything from fantastic seafood to pig blood cake to bubble tea in a very busy, but pristinely clean, maze of restaurants and takeaway shops  with smells and visuals that draw you in.

We wandered and then wandered some more before settling in on a shop that offered bubbling/sizzling hotplates of seafood, beef, chicken etc. as well as soups.

My daughter had squid and I had beef and squid pared with seafood and beef noodle soups, respectively.  (It was not that we ever thought we could eat it all, but the cost was so little and it looked and smelled so good we figured Why Not?)

"We're off to see the Wizard!  The Wonderful Wizard of LV!"
After lunch it was hours of window shopping...and only window shopping!  OK, my daughter did try on two US$17,000 Dior dresses and was in heaven, but they are safely still in the store.

It was then back to the Regent Taipei for a nap (ya think it was time for one?) before heading out to the Raohe Night Market.  Night markets are extremely popular in Taiwan and are a way to enjoy both the local foods and do some shopping.

While I have been gentle with my daughter's aversion to meat and meat-type products, it was now my time to dive in.  My first stop was a stall with everything chicken.  Given a metal pan I put my selection of liver, heart and tail which was then warmed in a pot of something and then a spicy sauce added to it...not so elegantly put into a plastic bag with a couple of wooden skewers.

Wandering some more we came upon a seafood stand with some giant prawns, oysters and more.  We opted for a prawn (which they prepared with garlic, spices and, strangely for Asian cuisine, cheese - which I think was like a Gruyere).  It wasn't what I was expecting, but it was really, really, delicious.

We followed that up with some grilled oysters which you squeezed a brown, sort of oyster, sauce and a very mild and light wasabi mayonnaise....just a few drops of each.  Delicious!

My culinary guide for tomorrow, Tina of Taipei Eats (and you do need a guide if you really want to know what the heck it is you are eating!), mentioned a pork bun place at the beginning of the market. I couldn't find it...until I got to the end (also known as the "other" beginning).  There was a long line, but it moved.  For about a US$1.00 I bought a wonderful chewy bun filled with scallions and pork with a fantastic smokey flavor.

That was it.  I was done.  So while I saw so many things I wanted to try, it was getting late, I was more than full...and we have a few more days to discover and enjoy Taipei.