Zen Dining in Taiwan
Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant’s combination of modern cuisine and majestic views is so popular that the celebrated Taipei hot spot is once again moving to a larger venue.
As the ever-popular Taiwanese restaurant undergoes its second move in 13 years to a larger space, my family and I are marveling at how lucky we were to have gotten a coveted reservation at its soon-to-be-shuttered Yangmingshan location. After three weeks of continuous phone calls during our recent trip to Taipei, my uncle finally got 10 of us in for a multi-course lunch at the calm mountainside retreat, which closed its doors in the middle of December.
Shi-Yang was founded in 1996 by former architect Lin Pin-Hui in Xindian City. In 2005, after outgrowing its modest teahouse setting, the restaurant moved to Yangmingshan, where its popularity as a tranquil, getaway dining destination continued to grow. With only two seatings daily — at lunch and dinner — long waits for reservations are typical. Weekday reservations should be arranged at least two weeks in advance, while weekend reservations should be made more than a month in advance. With no online booking system, all reservations must be called or faxed in.
Xizhi City: Shi-Yang’s New Backdrop
The new location, in a mountainous part of Xizhi City, opened recently. Situated between Keelung and Taipei and about a 40-minute drive from central Taipei, the Xizhi City location will offer more seating and scenic views, including waterfalls and small mountain streams. Meanwhile, the Yangmingshan restaurant is fully booked for the next few weeks, with only one of its dining rooms currently in operation. Fortunately for my family, our plans came together just in time.
Late last fall, as we drove in traffic for nearly an hour up winding roads, I looked out of the window of my uncle’s Toyota Wish and watched the scenery gradually change from urban congestion to an idyllic, forested terrain. The mist of a light fog hung over the trees as we approached the entrance to the expansive grounds. Two long, flat-roofed structures housed three separate dining areas on the premises, each with floor-to-ceiling windows that brought the sweeping views and verdant outdoors in.
At Shi-Yang, the leisurely meal lasts about three hours—from the first sip of tea to the last bite of dessert. Both lunch and dinner are set menus consisting of a series of courses presented artfully in a hybrid style that combines elements of a Japanese kaiseki meal and a traditional Chinese banquet. At a cost of 1,100 New Taiwan dollars (about $36) per person for the standard set or about $31 for a vegetarian version, diners get a variety of healthy, seasonally inspired dishes incorporating a variety of local produce and seafood.
Upon entering our assigned building, we removed our shoes and placed them in a set of wooden shelves, walking barefoot on the cool, tatami-lined floors. With three sides of the large room completely framed in walls of glass, I felt like I had stepped into the Zen-modern tree house of my dreams. Large, white paper lanterns hung from the ceilings, and long tables displayed Buddhist scrolls and small twinkling tea lights. Mesh screens, hanging wooden grids, and white paper partitions separated us from other diners sitting only a few feet away, creating a sense of privacy without eliminating the feeling of openness in the room.
After enjoying a cup or two of High Mountain Tea, our first course arrived: A trio of starters each with distinct flavor profiles that alternately complemented and contrasted with one another surprisingly well. The small rectangular block of house-made peanut tofu had a panna cotta-like texture and mild nutty flavor that was accented by a dab of fresh wasabi and soy sauce. A duo of chilled roasted eggplant and crunchy string beans offered crisp texture and clean flavor, while a smoked salmon roll topped with salmon roe packed a salty, punchy finish.
Small earthenware cups of pureed strawberry soup garnished with passion fruit seeds provided a refreshing transition to the next course: A platter of steamed prawns accompanied by lotus root and anchovy-stuffed inarizushi (fried tofu pouches). At various stages in the meal, fragrant house-brewed drinking vinegars—made with ingredients like plum and rose petals—were brought out to cleanse the palate.
Three or four times during lunch, the sky turned gray and a fast and furious rain fell, only to give way minutes later to sunshine.
“This is how it is in the mountains,” declared my uncle each time, as my other relatives nodded in agreement.
A Taiwanese delight, course by course
The food at Shi-Yang is made up of flavors that are generally accessible and familiar to the Taiwanese palate, but many have touches of whimsy that add unexpected and delightful touches. One of my favorite courses was the simplest: A steamed egg custard. Typically a home-style dish, this version was wonderfully silky in texture and topped with a beautiful white mound of grated Japanese mountain yam that hid the surprise of dried scallops underneath. My least favorite course was one that went the fusion route: Individual balls of glutinous fried rice wrapped in salami resembling nigiri. The most theatrical course of the afternoon was the last savory item of the meal: A lotus, mushroom and chicken soup that inspired “oohs” and “ahhs” around the table as well as clapping from a table of well-heeled ladies on the other side of the room. After placing the clay pot on our table, our server gently lowered a dried fragrant lotus flower into the broth as we watched it slowly open up as if in full bloom. Magnificent.
Our lunch was brought to a close with a fruit plate of wax apple (a crisp, juicy pink-skinned fruit with a mild sweet flavor and a watermelon flesh-like texture) and papaya, followed by a rich taro dessert with a light, syrupy broth, sweetened kidney beans, a sprinkling of barley, and a gold leaf garnish. After a few more cups of tea, we slowly stood and got ready to leave. My stomach was pleasantly full as we walked around the property, taking pictures and admiring the views. I didn’t know when I would be back in Taiwan again, but whenever that next time was, I had a feeling I would be paying Xizhi City a visit.
Sandra Wu is a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters. For more information on the restaurant, visit www.shi-yang.com.