Gwoo, Taipei

The hotel's awesome concierge had recommended this as a must-try restaurant for "the best chicken soup in Taipei". Our first time in Taipei, we failed to secure reservations at the popular Taiwanese institution. Second time round during an overnighter in Taipei to watch Coldplay, we made sure to get the concierge to book dinner ahead for us.

I get why GWoo is so beloved by the locals (and apparently famous with tourists). Notwithstanding that I'm a sucker for all things chicken soup, the chicken soup at G-Woo was freaking delicious. There's a slew of other dishes offered in the fairly extensive menu as well, but I say, skip them all and save space for a large large pot of chicken soup instead. Fun fact: the restaurant name is a kitschy homonym of the Chinese word for "chicken nest", ji1 wuo1.

The ultimate must-try, and really, the raison d'etre for going to GWoo in the first place, is the Chicken Casserole Soup (NT$400 for small). There are about 10 iterations of the same, with various additives, and we got ours with firm tofu and cabbage. Brewed for hours on end, the soup was thick and milky with collagen leeched from the bones of many many chickens. Wonderfully comforting and nourishing, especially during the moderate cool of the Taiwanese winter.

The Red Pepper Fried Shredded Pork (NT$120 for small) was surprisingly yummy, kicky with a subtle spice and laced with firm beancurd strips for a contrast in texture.

The fried pork was sided by so-so scallion pancakes, which I'm told you use to wrap the pork in, and eaten as rolls.

The seafood version of sweet & sour pork, the Hot & Sour Shrimp (NT$120 for small) was springy and sweet. I'm not a huge fan of sweet and sour pork, but I can see how this would be favoured by an expat-type.

The Fried Cabbage (NT$120 for small), seasoned simply with salt, carrots and leeks, was clear, delicate and light.

The restaurant facade for reference. Reservations are a must, no point waiting in line outside the restaurant in case of last minute cancellations, I'd heard horror stories of people waiting for hours on end to no avail.

G-Woo Restaurant (Ji Wo Can Ting)
No. 63, Lane 81, Dun Hua South Road, Section 2, Da'an District
Open daily from 11.30am to 2pm for lunch; 5.30pm to 9.30pm for dinner
Tel: +886 2 2704 3038

Neon Pigeon

At first blush, a restaurant named 'Neon Pigeon' doesn't exactly titillate. I mean, I wouldn't associate pigeons, which inconvenient crap have plunged many a car owner to depths of depraved cursing, with good food.

Notwithstanding my reservations to Neon Pigeon's less-than-tantalising moniker, dinner at said izakaya with the M&Ms turned out brilliant. Serving up small plates of Japanese-fusion fare, the gastropub was hipster central. Lively and boisterous, replete with low-lights and the undone-doneness of industrial finishings, it was a place to see and be seen. Aside from having to bellow above the music blaring out the speakers and the cramped seating, we had ourselves a most delightful dinner.

The food was inventive and delectable; flavour fusions were unexpected but finessed seamlessly. Also, the tapa-portions allowed for greater variety of dishes ordered, so we nibbled our way through the menu.

The tobiko-topped Baby Scallops ($12) may have been smaller than I'd like, but they were perfectly cooked, and the piquancy of the tomato seed ponzu and Japanese plum emulsion was exquisite. I licked the shells clean off.

A must-try, and perhaps the best hummus I've ever had, the Tokyo Hummus ($9) was blended with edamame for a savoury undertone. Curry-dusted bread chips lent contrast with a mild spice. We actually ordered three extra portions of chips ($3 each) just to eat this all up.

The succulent Tsukune Meatballs ($16) was given crunch and enlivened by peanut-speckled tare, pickled carrots, aonori seaweed and fresh watercress.

The Bamboo Shoot Tempura ($11), wonderfully crisp, was burnished with a black garlic and katsuobushi (bonito flakes) for an umami boost.

The Miso Roasted Eggplant ($12), set on a bed of creamy eggplant puree was jazzed up with zesty mint and fried lotus chips.

Fat and juicy, the Black Pepper Teriyaki Mushrooms ($22) was seasoned with sesame and shishito peppers for a subtle heat and fragrance.

The only blah dish of the night, the Yuzu Kosho Cauliflower ($28) was a smidge undercooked. A minute or so in the oven would have rounded off the florets beautifully. Also, the coriander leaves-infused cauliflower puree wasn't exactly enticing.

The classic pairing of brussels sprouts and bacon was given a Japanese twist with the Crispy Brussels Sprouts ($28), which was laced with bacon that was glazed with mirin. Yuzu-inflected karashi mustard provided a refreshing sharpness to the sprouts.

Intoxicatingly smoky, the Charcoal Grilled Asparagus ($30) was dotted with broccoli stems and finished with a black goma and ponzu dressing.

The Roasted Tiger Prawns ($18), swimmingly fresh and sweet, was dunked in a tepid broth with buckwheat soba, mountain yam, and perked up with ohba leaf slivers (or what the Koreans call perilla leaves).

Another must-try, the wonderfully luscious Octopus Leg ($21) was imbued with an aromatic char, and glossed with black vinegar, garlic puree and herbed dip.

The aptly named Bonsai ($12), which seriously looked like the Japanese plant, was scrumptious. A base of chocolate mousse, rooted in matcha soil, and showered with honeycomb and frozen raspberries, it was nuanced and balanced.

Neon Pigeon
1A Keong Siak Road
Tel: 6222 3623
Open Mondays to Saturdays from 6pm to 12midnight;
Closed on Sundays (note: they don't take reservations)
Website: www.neonpigeonsg.com


Sausage & Spinach-Arugula Pasta Salad

Pasta salads are our current go-to dinner these days for when we want something homecooked yet don't have the time after work to cook up a full 3-course dinner. It's a simple, no-fuss meal that has greens, protein, and carbs all in one dish. This time round, we switched up plain basil-based pesto with a sundried tomato one, to lend piquancy to the dish.

Ingredients (feeds 4):
4 links sausage, diced to 1" cubes
3 cups baby spinach
3 cups arugula
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
2 cups pasta, cooked till 1.5 minutes before al dente, and drained into ice bath
2 tbsp sundried tomato pesto
2 tbsp pesto
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp capers, drained and mashed
3 tbsp pine nuts
1 tbsp grated parmesan

1) Marinate cherry tomatoes with 1 tbsp pesto and 1 tbsp olive oil, and salt to taste. Set aside for at least 10 minutes.

2) Mix mashed capers, 2 tbsp sundried tomato pesto, 1 tbsp pesto, 2 tbsp olive oil.

3) Fry sausages in non-stick pan, they will release their own oil and juices.

4) Assemble salad, with spinach and arugula forming the base, layered with pasta and dressing at step 2, marinated tomatoes, sausages, and topped with pine nuts and parmesan.

VLV Restaurant

I think, VLV may be my best find of the year with respect to Chinese fine-dining.

Taking over the spot previously housing The Forbidden City under the Indochine Group, it's a multi-concept space encompassing an outdoor courtyard bar, casual riverside diner, full-service restaurant, and club lounge.

I've been waiting for the restaurant to pass its first birthday, before I popped by for dinner. The chef is an alumnus of Michelin-starred Lei Garden and the illustrious Tung Lok Group, so you know he's got his fundamentals down pat. However, at VLV, I think he's been given a freer rein to showcase his creativity. Dishes here marry the best of the traditional and modern, making for innovative dishes that are at once familiar yet exciting. Everything we had, barring the clams, (which was A LOT) was bang on.

Prices may be on the premium end, but you get what you pay for. The food here is totally worth it; and the well-heeled agree. Both times we were there, the restaurant was flush with towkay-types, with their ah lian girlfriends toting their sugar daddy-sponsored Pradas or big-haired wives with their husband-sponsored birkins. VLV is as 'cheena' as it gets, but that's also how you know the Chinese-ness of the food is authentically delicious.

Service was well-meaning and gracious but fumbling. The staff looked like they could benefit from a bit more training, to up the efficiency of the service. Our water arrived halfway through our meal, after a reminder, and they only got topped up upon our requests to do so. The dehydrated towelettes were only hydrated when our last dish arrived.

The Chrysanthemum Tofu Soup ($14) with bamboo pith was as exquisite as it looked. A delicate seafood consomme sweetened with wolfberries, while planks of matsutake mushroom lent an earthy tinge, it was the consummate knifework involved in the carving of the silken tofu that was breathtakingly intricate.

The Lobster Wanton Hot & Sour Soup ($14), thick with silky tofu, black fungus, shitake, enoki, bamboo shoots and an egg drop, was robust and punchy on its own, but that lone wanton, decadent with lobster chunks, elevated this to a cannot-miss standout.

We weren't too keen on the Black Truffle Roasted London Duck ($24 for one-portion) because we think truffle is just overdone these days, but the waitress said it was a must-try. She was right. Here, the truffle complemented the rich soy emulsion and rounded off the juicy sumptuousness of the duck.

We saw this served on every table, you know what they say about being in Rome... Possibly the most popular dish at the restaurant, the VLV Beggar Chicken ($68) was crazy good. A small spring chicken, served with a hodgepodge of chestnuts, bamboo shoots, cep mushrooms, and lily bulbs, was doused in aged Hua Diao wine and swaddled in lotus leaves for a fall-off-the-bone lusciousness. 

The serving of the dish was kitsch and theatrical: the clay pot was first lit on fire, and a diner got to smash off the top of the claypot with those wooden sticks, to unveil the lotus leaf-bundle of deliciousness within.

The chicken was sided by "rock rice", which plainness was a lovely counter to the rich potency of the chicken.

The Stir-Fried Live Grouper Fillet ($38) redolent with the smoky char of the wok, was kept light and nuanced with a melange of honshimeiji, coloured peppers, leeks, and spring onions.

The numero uno must-try was the perfectly Poached Ocean Fish ($45), dotted with black fungus, pickled chilli for a piquant-spicy contrast, and ginger threads for a woodsy heat. The sublime fish broth, which had evidently been brewed for hours to a milky countenance, pulled it all together. A bonus: the beancurd skin rolls served on the side which unfurled when dunked into the soup. Eat that sopping wet for maximum pleasure.

An inventive twist to the usual mushroom beancurd, the Charcoal Tofu ($22) was blackened with squid ink for a moreish accent, and topped with a milky soybean sauce and grounded with the earthy tones of wild mushrooms and sweet wolfberries.

The Sizzling Romaine Lettuce ($20) was lightly tossed in an unctuous dried shrimp paste, sliced chilli, and lashings of garlic. Robust and heady, this was one of the best renditions of sauteed lettuce ever.

We also ordered a few dishes off the courtyard menu (ask nicely, they usually oblige if it's a few dishes), and the Crackling Pork Belly Egg Noodles ($22) with XO chilli sauce and lard cubes a-plenty, was punchy and flavourful. A signature indeed.

The only lackluster dish, also off the courtyard menu, the Porridge with Flower Clam & Prawn ($28) was let down by the less-than-fresh clams. That being said, the porridge itself was outstanding, a smooth yet grainy texture and brimming with the sweetness of fresh prawns.

The appetizer of green beans, peanuts & beancurd ($3) was exceptional; I usually skip these things but the spicy-nutty flavours made this quite the addictive nibbler.

3A River Valley Road #01-02
Clarke Quay
Tel: 6661 0197
Open Tuesdays to Thursdays 12noon to 2am;
Fridays 12noon to 3am;
Saturdays 11.30am to 3am;
Sundays from 11.30am to 12midnight;
Closed on Mondays


Formosa Chang, Taipei

Formosa Chang was the other heavyweight purveyor of Taiwanese braised pork rice (or "lu3 rou4 fan4"). But unlike the no-frills coffeeshop setup at Jin Feng, Formosa Chang is a little more frilled, and a lot more commercialised, with several branches littered throughout the city. So commercialised, in fact, it almost looks like a fast food chain at first blush.

But don't let that cleaned-up, production-line construct fool you, the food here was down-to-earth and homespun. Similar comforting flavours as Jin Feng, but with air-conditioning and spiffier seating.

For those wanting to bring a taste of Formosa back home, the eatery hawks ready-to-cook pastes for idiot-proof replication at home. Even if you've no time to swing by a Formosa outlet, their instant-mixes are readily available at supermarkets and even at the airport.

The Lu3 Rou4 Fan4 (NT$37) at Formosa Chang was richer, headier with herbal undertones, tinged with a little sweetness from the onions, and slightly thicker than the watery sauce at Jin Feng. This was sumptuous, but if I had to choose, Jin Feng would edge out Formosa Chang by the smallest of margins.

The Stewed Cabbage (NT$50) may appear deceptively unappealing but it tasted anything but. A hodgepodge of carrots, beancurd skin, Beijing cabbage and black fungus, simmered in a shrimp-infused stock, was redolent with garlicky and sweet notes. Excellent paired with the braised pork rice.

The Braised Soy Egg (NT$18 ea) was better than the one at Jin Feng, the marinade having been allowed to steep well through the egg.

A recommendation by the staff here when queried about the bestsellers, the Boiled Pork Loin (NT$65) was fantastic. Paper-thin slices of pork loin was poached, set on raw shredded cabbage, slathered in a scrumptious sesame-peanut sauce, and finished with a shower of ginger strips for a subtle heat. Light and refreshing.

The shop front for reference. A good thing about Formosa Chang being so commercial: no queues! We were in-and-out of the restaurant in under 30 minutes. 

Formosa Chang
No. 24 Section 4, Xinyi Road, Da'an District
Taipei city, Taiwan 106
Open daily from 10am to 11pm
Tel: +886 2 2704 1489
Website (note: it's in Chinese)


Prive Grill

Prive Grill wouldn't be my first draft for a working lunch. In fact, it wouldn't even be in the top 20. But the restaurant is scenic, the ambience relaxed, and more importantly, their weekday set lunches are incredibly economical, at $28 for two courses and $32 for three courses.

And obviously, at such low prices, be sure to temper your expectations accordingly. Like, I wouldn't expect Ruth Chris-standard steaks for a sub-30 lunch set.

That being said, we were apparently one of the last few diners at the now-defunct Prive Grill, which was due to be overhauled into a new seafood concept, still under the Prive Group. The new restaurant opens next month.

The peppery notes of the arugula cut through the gamey aftertaste of the Smoked Duck Breast Salad, and the livery foie gras that was more paste than mousse. Pine nuts and croutons lent crunch.

The Tuna Nicoise Salad was a better option, with tuna being a failsafe protein. This was loaded with baby potatoes, hard boiled eggs, kalamata olives, fine beans, mesclun and salty with minced anchovies.

The French Onion Soup, topped with a golden gruyere gratin, was saccharine with a too-heavy beef stock. So much so the crisp of fresh thyme and lashings of black pepper couldn't detract from the intense sweetness.

The Squid Ink Calamari, accompanied by a duo of sauces: spiced romesco and creamy saffron rouille, and sided by lemon and arugula, was pretty good. The calamari was perfectly cooked; springy yet soft to the bite, and the moreish accents of the batter crust was well balanced by the sauces. Resoundingly the best appetizer option.

The Steak Frites, a grilled Australian ribeye, was overdone and a smidge salty, so it barely passed muster. A friend said it was like Astons Specialties (which can be a good or bad thing depending on the perspective). Thick straight-cut fries and a thin red wine sauce rounded off the dish.

The Duck Leg Confit (+$4) turned out surprisingly stew-like, slathered in a preserved orange-flavoured gravy dotted with braised savoy cabbage and duck fat potatoes. I suppose that was the silver lining, the rich gravy helped mask any gaminess and less-than-moist texture of the duck.

The best main was the Pan-Roasted Barramundi, possessing the requisite juxtaposition of crisp skin and moist flesh. I particular loved the parmesan-crusted courgette sticks, and purple tapenade. Not a big fan of the celeriac puree though; its sharpness was too jarring.

Strictly for cream lovers, the Spaghetti Alfredo was cloying with smoked salmon and too. much. cream. Oodles of green peas, fresh dill, fried capers, and spicy pepperoncini couldn't lift it out of the doldrums.

The Hazelnut Chocolate Parfait was a pretty plate of chocolate crunch meringue, ganache quenelle and chocolate streusel contrasted with a zesty lemon sorbet.

The Lemon Gianduja Tart, a melange of lemon curd, coconut frangipane, sweet dough crust, calamansi sauce and salted coconut ice was refreshingly tart.

The complimentary bread basket was an assortment of rolls. It was lovely that the bread was served warm, and the butter softened.

Prive Grill
No. 2 Keppel Bay Vista
Marina at Keppel Bay
Tel: 6776 0777
Open Mondays to Fridays from 12noon to 3pm for lunch and from 7pm to 11.30pm for dinner
Saturdays and Sundays from 6.30pm to 11.30pm for dinner
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