Taipei is my second home, and ever so often when I visited the city, I would find another gem of a Japanese restaurant. This time – Peony 牡丹園 in Xinyi District.
Right across Taipei 101, the symbol of Taiwan was a high-end fine dining Japanese restaurant. The omakase dinners — which nearly everyone orders — are simple on paper: salad, sashimi, grilled fish, soup, dessert. There are no choices to make except which price tier you buy into. The difference between the various meals lies primarily in the expense of the ingredients, all of which are top-notch in any case.
As is characteristic of Japanese cuisine, it is the ingredients themselves that are the focus of the cooking, says Liu Yao-rong (劉燿榮), who designed Peony’s menu. The preparation isn’t meant to create a new flavor, but to augment and enhance the original flavors.
First up, the amuse bouche using local favourite, the cured mullet roe 烏魚子, served with a piece of radish and pickle. The surface of the mullet roe had been roasted with sake to give it that alcoholic fragrance but not too much to leave a bitter taste. My Taiwan Grandma loved to serve this whenever I visited her, but of course it was love that I tasted. Here, it was the proper respect for this really expensive ingredient.
We started with an ala carte order of uni sashimi. It came in a wide mouth campaign glass. The Hokkaido bafun uni glistened in their glorious orange under the spotlight. Absolutely delicious, overwhelming with flavours of the seas.
The omakase dinner started with the sashimi, which included a slice of chutoro (fatty bluefin tuna belly), a botan ebi (aptly so, as the name of the restaurant is called Botan in Japanese), and a serving of aji.
Next up, a trio of aburi sushi and a uni sushi served on a spoon and not as traditionally as a gunkan. Of course, everything served were extremely fresh and delicious. They may not all be from Tsukiji though, as Taiwan is also blessed with its own supply of seafood. And the Taiwanese chefs have picked up the Japanese cooking techniques from their colonial past as well.
We had to order another ala carte because it is foie gras. The queen and princess loved foie gras and Peony served a foie gras maki roll. Fancy, but not tasty.
Next the hot courses, and the parade started off with a fish and tofu cooked in miso served in a paper hotpot. The fish used was wild-caught grouper, lightly poached in stock and then placed into the miso bubbling away in the paper hotpot called kaminabe. Not to be confused with kaninabe which is crab hotpot or KNN which is ….. Didn’t enjoy this course, the fish was totally overwhelmed by the miso.
Next up, tempura course which two huge pieces of tiger prawns and an assortment of vegetables. Nice touch, as the restaurant knew it would be Princess’ favourite.
The next cooked course was braised wagyu brisket done in the style that you would for Taiwan-style braised beef noodles. Very soft, very flavourful and the strong spices were accentuated with the peppercorn sauce.
And when we thought it was a waste to cook wagyu in a braise, we were served with another kaminabe, and this time the slice wagyu was cooked ala minute. Kaminabe was invented in 1927 in Osaka by Rogetsu Restaurant. The idea of putting a fire under paper is shocking, but this dish indeed features a sheet of paper set atop a wire rack, which is then heated using a charcoal fire. Washi paper is treated via a special process, and the presence of the dashi ensures that the paper itself will not burn.
And finally the main course of cold noodles and soup. A piece of kelp was skilfully wrapped into a bowl and asari (clams) were cooked in a clear soup in it. Fantastic, I thought of this as the best and most innovative course of the evening. The konbu (kelp) gave the soup heightened umami that was already present with the clams.
And three types of soba noodles were served – green tea, the original wheat soba, and the seasonal sakura soba. The dipping sauce was lacklustre when compared with the soup.
Floor-to-ceiling windows, lots of glass and spotlighting, and dark, comfortable furniture make Peony look in most respects like a typical comfortable upscale restaurant. What is unique is the subtle peony artwork and calligraphy that covers nearly every vertical surface, all of it commissioned from the artist Chi Wei-yi (戚維義). A single peony floats in a small glass vase at each table.
Unfortunately, their lease has ran out in 2018 and they moved to another location and changed their concept altogether. Peony has transformed into a Tempura specialty restaurant at a nearby location. Looking forward to try there when I have a chance.
牡丹園 Peony Japanese Cuisine (Closed)
信義路五段106號 (松仁路), Taipei 110, Taiwan
Date Visited : Mar 2012
Closed : Jan 2018
牡丹 天ぷら Peony Tempura
Tel : +886 2 2706 8699
Only omakase, pricey as usual 😉