Taiwan: Ten steps to heaven

By Rob McFarland

Mention to people that you're off overseas and you'll often be bombarded with all manner of advice regarding places you simply must visit.

Sometimes these recommendations uncover hidden gems, secret spots you'd never have stumbled across on your own. Other times they turn out to be duds. You spend all day hunting them out and it transpires that the place has either closed down, changed hands or never existed in the first place ("Mali? Oh, I'm sorry; I thought you said you were going to Bali").

Despite being burned before, I still find it hard to resist the anticipation that comes with heading to a place that has been scribbled on a scrap of paper and doesn't appear in any guidebooks.

Before a trip to Taiwan, I was given a red-hot tip for a restaurant just outside the capital, Taipei. A colleague's friend had dined there last year and reckoned it was in the same league as Sydney's infamous Tetsuya's but one-third of the price. It seemed an ambitious claim. Last year Tetsuya's was named as the best restaurant in Australasia and the fifth best restaurant in the world by London's Restaurant magazine. It would be fair to say I was curious but sceptical.

Armed with a name - Da Shan Wu Jia - and an address, a group of us headed away from the bright lights and scuffle of Taipei. We hit the foothills that surround the city and followed a narrow, winding road to the restaurant.

We were greeted by an elegant waitress dressed in black and ushered to a long wooden Japanese-style table.

It was one of only six such tables, each cordoned off by bamboo screens.

The decoration was simple but striking. Japanese prints and mandolins on the walls; plants and decorative ornaments placed sparingly around the room. Candles and Chinese lanterns provided a flickering, intimate light while traditional Chinese music played softly in the background.

The staff spoke very little English and although we were accompanied by a Mandarin-speaking guide, it wasn't a necessity. There were no menus to labour over and only one option available to order: a 10-course degustation set menu.

There's something both exciting and slightly terrifying about sitting down to a meal you've had no part in choosing and we all sat in a state of nervous anticipation as we awaited the first course.

Ten minutes later, a platter of beautifully sculpted white dishes arrived on an engraved wooden serving board.

Each dish contained a cube of red wine jelly which, after exchanging quizzical glances, we slurped like an oyster. It was a deliciously sweet but potent palate cleanser.

Next up was a creamy square of tofu studded with wasabi and goji (a berry often used in Chinese medicine), together with a spoonful of succulent lobster garnished with white Japanese seaweed powder.

By now my initial scepticism had been replaced with bewildered astonishment. Each course that arrived set a fresh benchmark in terms of presentation and flavour.

Over the course of three hours we sampled 10 intricately prepared culinary treats.

Highlights included a citrus salad topped with juicy chunks of tuna and salmon sashimi, whole shrimps with roasted pumpkin and eggplant and a steamed egg topped with grapefruit foam served with mountain potato and crabmeat.

Inevitably, some courses were better than others, but they were never less than beautifully presented in an elaborate array of ceramic, stone and glass dishes.

With regard to the comparison with Tetsuya's, two of our group had dined there recently and said that Da Shan Wu Jia was definitely in the same league.

The only area in which it differed was the bill, which came to a very un-Tetsuya's-like $65 a head, including wine.

The chef and owner of the restaurant, Mr Yo, joined us briefly at the end of the meal and through our guide we learned that, despite the Japanese influences in his cooking, he's never been to Japan.

The menu changes seasonally and he often experiments with new dishes to keep his regular clientele happy. He has no website, never advertises and relies purely on word of mouth for business.

So, if you ever find yourself in Taipei and fancy both a culinary and a cultural adventure, I know this great little restaurant you simply must try.

The writer travelled as a guest of China Airlines and Taiwan Tourism.

- Herald on Sunday

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