Yu Shan Ge (Taipei)

Taiwan RestaurantYu Shan Ge is a high-end vegetarian restaurant close to the Shandao Temple MRT stop.  Even though we took a taxi to it from our hotel, we realized it was actually a walkable distance and walked the way home. After the filling meal we had, walking was a smart choice.

The restaurant itself is nicely decorated and just stinks of money, but luckily not in a tacky way. There are glassed walls decorated by rocks strung on wire, beaded partitions, and dim lighting. While we were doing research on vegetarian restaurants in the area, we read that this place is frequented by celebrities but alas, we didn’t recognize any.

Yu Shan Ge serves food influenced by Japanese cuisine which is evident in the meticulous presentation of each dish and the little speech that our waitress gave before setting down the food. Everything we ate had some florid, touchy-feely, spiritual story behind it. While it’s typically a turn off for me, I was surprised that most of the food was tasty enough for me to overlook the over-the-top presentation.

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The first thing the waitress brought us was this dish of water with rose petals and a lemon slice floating on top. I was immediately reminded of the story of the boorish American who thought the finger washing dish was some sort of cold soup.  It felt strange rinsing my hands in this bowl of cold water while the waitress smiled and looked on, but at least my hands were clean.

Because Will doesn’t eat dairy or eggs, we had to ask them if they could modify the already vegetarian menu to his restrictions. Luckily, the waitress seemed happy to accommodate.

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The first dish we were presented was a cold appetizer plate of vegetarian sushi and salad.  The bite-sized piece of fake salmon was actually some sort of agar preparation. It didn’t have the same texture as real salmon, but tasted good nonetheless.  The custardy tofu on a cracker was also nice.

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One of the soups we had that night really stood out because of its mouthfeel.  The broth was rich, thick, and coated my mouth the way a slow-simmered pork broth would.  I think it was a vegetarian rendition of shark fin soup and it was one of the best I’d ever had.

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We also had a taro root porridge type dish which was presented in such a thoughtful way.  It was brought out to us on a straw mat with an orchid plant on the side and some rocks.  Even though we were sitting in a dark restaurant, it was cute that the chef wanted to bring a little nature to his dishes.

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The only letdown of the dish came in the form of what I assumed was the main course. I think it was supposed to be a vegetarian play on steak and gravy and it certainly looked nice, but the taste just wasn’t good. The texture of the steak, which I think was made of chopped mushroom was actually decent, if not a little weird at how accurately they mimicked the fibrous texture of real steak. What broke the dish was the sauce. It was too peppery, sweet, and sour. It made me think of gravy made out of Chinese spices, which might have been what it actually was.

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No Chinese meal would be complete without rice, and this meal was no exception. Unfortunately, by the time the savory, sticky rice came out, I was beyond stuffed. I could barely manage to finish half my bowl of rice.

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Dessert was a good breather. I was dreading that it would be something really sweet and filling like a pastry, but then that would go against the restaurant’s whole message. Instead, we were brought out some cut up fruits and a bowl of sweet soup filled with white woodear mushrooms, dates, and papaya. It was sweet, but just the perfect amount of sweet.

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Yu Shan Ge is certainly not priced as a casual place to stop by and eat, but it is worth going there at least once for the experience. Their mini-speeches before each dish is a little hokey for me, but it’s worth sitting through just for the food.

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Yu Shan Ge
14, Bei Ping Dong Rd (at Shandao Temple MRT)
tel: 02-2394-5155

Creepy Dwarfland Adventure (Taiwan)

On one of the days in Taiwan, when it was raining and gray, we ventured out to a secluded vegetarian restaurant in some suburb of Taipei.  If I had known what an adventure it would turn out to be, I don’t think I would have stepped out of the hotel that day.

First, it was pouring and humid and warm, a terrible combination. Then, there were no actual easy bus lines to the restaurant, which was in some remote area on top of a large hill which can only be reached by driving up winding roads.  Our first taxi driver had no idea where the place was and let us off around what I thought was the general area.

It turned out not that near the restaurant at all, so we jumped into another taxi. This one was a bit shady because the meter was off and when we told the driver of our destination, he immediately told us the fare. I guess it was a flat rate to just get up the hill? Or maybe it’s the tourist rip-off rate, who knows.

The rain and slick roads didn’t deter the driver at all as he drove quickly up the hill.  There were what looked like large, gated mansions, probably owned by the Taiwanese mafia if there is such a thing. If it weren’t so rainy and gray, the drive would have been scenic and nice.

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When we finally got to the restaurant, we were greeted by creepy ceramic dwarves and a pimply teenager. The teenager wasn’t very helpful and just handed us a menu, which I couldn’t read.  There was a flat fee to be paid up front just to enter the restaurant which covered the basic dishes and then anything extra would be more.

We paid the flat fee and he told us to sit anywhere in the huge dining area which was set up like a garden. There were outdoor tables, some under umbrellas, as well as semi-indoor enclosures. Considering the rain, we sat inside and decided on what to eat. And then we waited. And waited.

After ten minutes and no sign of the waiter, we ventured out to look for him. Maybe it was because we were the only customers that day, but we finally found him chatting with some other teenagers in the kitchen.  After some unhelpful answers to my questions about the dishes, we finally ordered.

One peculiar thing (if the dwarves weren’t peculiar enough already) was that they’re really specific about when we’d like the beverage. Whether we wanted it before, during, or after the meal. Considering they were so nitpicky about it, I thought the choice of beverage was going to be fancy stuff, but the options were iced tea, hot tea, or juice. I asked if what kind of juice it was and the waiter answered “fruit juice.” I asked it they juiced it themselves (at that price, I figured they would) and they said no, it came out of a carton. Hrmph.

We went back to our seats and waited for our food. When it finally arrived, we were starving!  The presentation was cute and rustic. I think I got some sort of curry soup and Will got a hot and sour soup. Or maybe it was the other way around. The soups both had clear soy noodles, wheat gluten, vegetables, and came with a side of rice. What we didn’t realize until we were halfway done was that there was also a hardboiled egg at the bottom of the soup bowl. Oops for Will.

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Surprisingly, the food was actually quite good.  The hot and sour soup tasted like a Thai soup and was full of umami. The curry soup had a slight spiciness to it that flavored the noodles well.  Maybe I have no faith in the cooking of the teenagers in the kitchen, but I hope the soup base didn’t just come from a package.

Creepy Dwarfland’s food (I forget what the restaurant is actually called) is certainly not worth the long and expensive cab ride up there. If this were a regular restaurant easily accessible in the middle of Taipei and prices lower, I would recommend people to try it. I guess if you really like dwarves and creepy statues of kids, it’s worth a visit.

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Wistaria Tea House (Taiwan)

Located across from National Taiwan University is Wistaria Tea House, a spot where locals and tea-drinkers gather to pass away a free tranquil hours. If it looks out of place sandwiched between modern apartment buildings and shops, it’s because it was built in 1921.  It played a prominent role to Taiwanese officials during the Japanese Colonial era.  This is evident by Japanese-influenced architecture and the tatami matted rooms.

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The always gracious Sophie of Wistaria House was nice enough to spend the whole day with us.  In the morning, we all sat down at one of the corners of the tea house and had tea with Mr. Zhou Yu, the owner/tea-master of the store.  We had tea and finger snacks until it was lunch time.

Wistaria boasts of a small but full lunch menu that’ll please both vegetarians and meat-lovers alike.  I had expected food from a tea-house to be bland in order not to overwhelm the palate from tasting tea afterward, but everything I had was seasoned perfectly.

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Will had a sauteed vegetable dish which had a pleasant amount of spice.  Like the other meals, it came with a side of mixed-grains rice, a soup (vegetarian in this case), some steamed vegetables, a shredded salad, and a dessert of silken tofu in sweet ginger syrup.

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On Mr. Zhou Yu’s recommendation, I got the steamed fish, which was delicious in its simplicity.  It was one of the best steamed fishes I’d ever had.  It was a slice of fish topped with some salted tea leaves, slivers of green onion, and spices.  The fish was surrounded by a delicate steamed egg custard, which was what elevated it from just being very good to, damn-that’s-good.

It may be daunting to have tea at such a historical site, but the staff is nice, the food is good, and it’s great to just sit down for a few hours, relax, and have tea.

Wistaria Tea House (紫藤廬)
1, Lane 16, XinSheng S. Rd., Sec. 3
Taipei, Taiwan
(02) 2363-7375
Hours: 10 am-11:30 pm