Elixir Health Pot (Wu Lao Guo), Taipei

There's something about being Chinese and loving steamboat. Just look at the plethora of steamboat restaurants in Singapore.

The Taiwanese are the same. There's a hot pot (that's what the Taiwanese call steamboat) restaurant along every street, and one that's open 24/7 in every district.

Elixir Healthpot is arguably the best steamboat joint in Taipei. Also known as Wu2 Lao3 Guo1, which direct translation is "never old pot", this chain restaurant aims to keep diners in the pink glow of youthfulness with their collagen rich broths and healthful stock bases.

Prices are on the premium end, but the soups are nuanced, free from artificial flavouring, and seasoned naturally with the multitude of herbs and spices simmered into them. Folks used to and/or preferring the fiery punchiness of Hai Di Lao's steamboat might find this a tad insipid, but I like my flavours light and delicate so this was right up my alley. Ingredients are sparkling fresh as well, and for that alone, I'd gladly pay up.

Service was faultless as well. Not with the type of frills Hai Di Lao offers, but the staff were attentive but not intrusive, and winsomely gracious.

Notwithstanding that there's about 5 branches of this insanely popular restaurant scattered all over Taipei, reservations are a must. We made a reservation for us both one day in advance, and only managed to wrangle a midnight seating.

We had the Twin Pot (NT$180) with the Ginseng-Infused Creamy Tofu Soup (NT$179) and Spicy Wulao Signature Flavour (NT$159). Both were rich in depth and flush with all the good wholesome stuff that nourishes. The tofu broth was milky with a blend of pork and chicken bones, and brewed with jujubes, shell longans, white sesame, angelica root, dangshen root, wolfberries and licorice. The spicy concoction was moderately so, despite the lashings of Sichuan peppercorns. Redolent with star anise, cloves, cayenne pepper and galangal, this was heady but nuanced.

The Seafood Choice (NT$279)  was a mixed platter of tiger prawns and sliced fish, swimmingly fresh and fleshy.

We loved the Prime USDA Beef (NT$298), wonderfully marbled and sumptuously luscious.

The Assorted Meatball Platter (NT$248) with two each of the fishballs, beef balls, squid balls, and shrimp balls, all handmade, was a mixed bag. The fishballs and shrimp balls were excellent, but the beef balls were laced with coriander leaves, and the squid balls a smidge fishy.

The complimentary finisher of lime sorbet was excellent as a palate cleanser. So refreshing and tart.

The restaurant facade for reference. The Taiwanese don't seem to sleep; and they seem to be able to eat 24/7! How on earth do they stay so skinny?!?!?!?!!

Wulao Guo (Elixir Health Pot)
No. 143, Section 3, Civic Boulevard, Zhongshan District, Taipei
Taiwan 104
Tel: 02 2731 7928
Open daily from 11.30am to 2am


Chuncheon Dak-Galbi (Korean Chuncheon-style Stir Fried Chicken)

This is another type of bokkeum, or stir-fry, styled after the Chuncheon city where the dish was born and made popular. The distinctive feature of this dish is the addition of Korean curry powder and garam masala to the gochujang-centric marinade.

And like all stir-fries, this is easy to prep and even quicker to whip up. Perfect for a week-night dinner for busy folks working full-time.

Ingredients (feeds 4):
700 gm chicken fillet, diced to 1" cubes
1 head cabbage, cut roughly (about 10 cups unpacked)
10 tteokbokki, diced to 1/2" cubes, pre-cooked in salted boiling water for 4 minutes.
2 cups sweet potatoes, diced to 1/2" cubes
4 cups white button mushrooms, sliced
1 large yellow onion, sliced thinly
1/2 cup green onions, sliced to 1.5" lengths
6 perilla leaves, sliced to thin strips
2 tsp canola oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp sesame seeds

4 tbsp gochujang (Korean red pepper paste)
3.5 tbsp gochugaru (Korean red pepper powder)
3 tbsp guk kanjang (Korean soy sauce)
4 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tsp garam masala
5 dashes ground black pepper
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp maesil syrup
2 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tsp grated ginger

1) Mix marinade.

2) Toss the marinade with the chicken, leave aside, covered, for at least 1 hour.

3) Fry onions in canola-sesame oil mix in pre-heated pan on medium-high heat, about 3 minutes until translucent.

4) Add mushrooms, and sweat them till water released is reduced by half.

5) Add sweet potatoes. Fry 1 minute.

6) Add chicken, fry 2 minutes.

7) Add cabbage, toss till wilted, about 3 minutes. Cover with lid, if needed to move the wilting process along.

8) Add tteokbokki, toss through, about 2 minutes.

9) Add spring onions and perilla leaves, toss through.

10) Garnish with sesame seeds, and serve.

Italian Pesto Chicken Stew

This is a variation of the Chicken Cacciatore, but with sundried tomato pesto for a piquant twist.

Ingredients (feeds 8):
8 pieces chicken thigh (budget 1 pc per pax)
1 large yellow onion, diced to 1cm cubes
4 cloves garlic, minced
600gm white button mushrooms, sliced thickly
2 carrots, sliced thinly
2 peppers, diced to 1" cubes
1 zucchini, diced to 1" cubes
5 cups pasta sauce
3 1/2 cups diced tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp tomato puree
4 tbsp sundried tomato pesto
3 tbsp olive oil for frying
Optional: 4 tbsp green pesto

1) Sear chicken, salting liberally on both sides, till browned, about 10 minutes. Work in batches if necessary, to avoid overcrowding. I browned mine in 2 batches. Set aside in a pot.

2) Fry onions and garlic in preheated pan with olive oil till fragrant, about 1-2 minutes.

3) Add carrots and fry for another 2 minutes.

4) Add mushrooms, frying till water released is almost fully reduced.

5) Transfer the vegetable saute to the browned chicken.

6) Add the pasta sauce, diced tomatoes, tomato paste and puree, and pesto. Add 1 cup water.

7) Bring to a boil, before lowering to a slow simmer for 1 hour. Add peppers and zucchini in the last 15 minutes to cook through.

8) Salt to taste before serving.


Tian Bao Szechuan Kitchen, Ngee Ann City

Although Sichuan cuisine is renowned as one of the 'big four' pillars of Chinese cuisine, I've always thought it one-dimensional, in that the food just paralyzes your tastebuds with lots and lots, and lots of chilli. Also, it's coz my repository of Sichuan dishes was limited to mapo tofu, hot & sour soup, and kung pao chicken. But, there's apparently more to Szechuan cooking than spicy chillis that burn your tongue all the way to your stomach (and out your ass but that may be a tad too much information? heh). There's also delicate soups, clear and light noodles, and fresh raw vegetables. This recent revelation was by way of a lunch at Tian Bao Szechuan Kitchen, a casual eatery at Takashimaya so successful it's spawned an outlet at Hillview.

The Lettuce with Sesame Paste ($6.60), crisp and refreshingly chilled, was a lifesaver, to douse the fiery potency of the chilli pepper dishes. I was surprised, I never thought Sichuan food would have such a dish.

The Sour & Spicy Soup ($7.80), dotted with shrimp dice, bamboo shoots, tofu and egg drop, was a little less spicy than I'd expected, but flavours were layered and nuanced.

I loved the Tiao Bao Nourishing Chicken Soup ($10.80) rich in depth and earthy with juicy matsutake mushrooms.

The "Nutritious Chicken Soup" ($9.80) was heady with ginseng root and sweetened with wolfberries and red dates.

The Chilli Wantons ($8.60) or hong2 you2 chao2 shou3 was also surprisingly subtle, the chilli oil emulsion tinged with savoury sesame notes which complemented the pork mince. A must-try.

Another must-try, was the Signature Szechuan Dan Dan Noodles ($8.80), showered liberally with chopped nuts, sauteed mince, and slicked with a peanut butter-soy-chilli oil sauce redolent with garlic and black vinegar. I loved the salty-piquant-spicy balance in this.

The Stewed Chicken Noodles ($12.60) with shitake mushrooms was delightful, largely due to the fantastic noodles, which texture was just the perfect spot between chewy and soft.

The Szechuan Style Sweet & Sour Fried Sheng Yu Fish Fillets ($19.80) with mixed peppers was a robust lively dish. An easy-to-like crowd pleaser.

The piece de resistance, the Szechuan Wok-Fried Chicken with Chillis ($15.60) was like popcorn chicken, on steroids. I swear they dusted this with poppy, it remained addictively delicious despite the tongue-numbing spiciness.

These purply pearly globes were as pretty as they were yummy. Delectably chewy, the Sweet Potato Balls ($6.80) were oozy with ground peanut filling.

Tian Bao Szechuan Kitchen
391 Orchard Road #05-06
Ngee Ann City
Tel: 6734 4216
Open daily from 11.30am to 4.15pm for lunch; 5.30pm to 9pm for dinner
Website: www.tianbaorestaurant.com


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
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