The battle of the Taipei omakase

It may surprise you to hear this, but Taiwan is quite famous for it’s outstanding Japanese food. It’s not surprising if you know the history of the country, with it’s roots extending to both China and Japan. With so much fresh seafood constantly on offer, Taipei seems to be made up of a large proportion of Japanese restaurants. As immense lovers of sashimi and all things seafood, my mother and her friends made it their mission for us to try some of their favourite Japanese restaurants during our visit.
Here’s a long post on the varying omakase meals we enjoyed over the course of our stay in Taiwan.

Mitsui

At $2,800NTD per person, this intimately lit expansive restaurant is busy every night of the week. If you don’t have a booking, you’ll likely be unable to get a table unless you come very early or extremely late.

While the cost for us Australians converts to around $98, this is an expensive meal for Taiwan standards. We were expecting big things from this place.

Omakase is a Japanese eating style that basically allows diners to entrust the chef to provide them with their meal for the evening rather than ordering off a menu. Generally it involves a series of courses from cold and lighter items moving into heavier and hot dishes. The richest and boldest flavours tend to emerge at the end of the meal.

Once we’re seated and both fresh tea and a steaming hot hand towel provided to each of us, we soon are presented with our first course for the evening. In true Japanese style, this is just beautiful to look at. Atop of crystal clear ice sits a multitude of seafood items calling out for you to eat them.

I start off with the raw prawn which has translucent flesh that is succulently sweet and has been deshelled and deveined for our convenience. The head of the prawn is still present for you to suck all the juices out… amazing! You can only (well you should only) suck on prawn heads when their at the freshest otherwise you’ll be turned off for life. Mitsui’s tasted like it had just been pulled out of the ocean that day – which is highly likely based on what I’ve learnt about Taiwan’s food trade and restaurants from my Uncle.

The sashimi on the dish is a combination of firm and soft textured flesh – my favourite is definitely the Hokkaido scallop which is so wonderfully silky. The cooked fish is something that pops up at most of the Japanese restaurants we visit in Taiwan, which I suspect was sardine – it’s nice but nothing too fancy.

The oyster is silky and sits tantalisingly in a tiny river of salty water. I love small, sweet oysters and this one definitely ticked the box for me.

The final elements to devour are in a bowl, comprising of salmon roe, grated satoimo (taro root) and uni. The taro root is slimy and starchy, with a mild taste that compliments the bursts of sweetness from the fresh roe. The uni (sea urchin) is definitely the star of this section, and you can tell this is a good quality serving (some can cost up to $450AUD!). It’s subtly sweet and has a soft texture that is unlike anything else.

The second course is a seafood salad with the choice between lobster and abalone as the seafood protein. My mother and I both choose the lobster and Jeremy opts for the abalone. Both come out to the table dressed simply with delicious Japanese salad dressing (usually a combination of grated onion, mirin and vinegar) over lettuce, fresh corn, tomato and cucumber. 
The lobster is chilled and cooked perfectly. The flesh is so succulent and left to shine without any over complicated cooking techniques or added sauces. The same goes for the abalone which is firm but yields easily and has an almost meaty quality to the flavour. It’s a real treat for my boy who hasn’t eaten much abalone in his life – whereas my dad used to be a deep sea diver when I was younger so I luckily grew up on all things from the ocean.  

The third course for the evening is steamed crab – claw and all. Squeeze a few drops of lime over the flesh and it becomes instantly a dish to respect. While I wouldn’t really call this Japanese cooking necessarily since it’s more just showcasing seafood in it’s natural form or slightly cooked – but I do appreciate having access to such fine produce.

The steamed fish for the fourth course is soft and slightly smoking when it arrives at our table. The flesh is wonderfully flaky, giving way to the pressure of my chopsticks with ease. It’s very mild in flavour, once again relying on the seafood to speak for itself. Which it does but I’m still waiting for that wow factor I experienced when the first course came out to the table.

Seared slices of Kobe beef in a miso soy sauce are our fifth course. You can barely see the intense web of marbling throughout the meat it’s so fine and widespread. The meat is melt in your mouth and definitely one of the best dishes for the night.

The next course, the sixth course, is a shell with a spoonful of broth bubbling under a single plump scallop with roe attached and shimeji mushrooms. It’s a simple but delightful dish – the presentation is gorgeous and really enticing.

Our final savoury course for the evening is miso soup. Light, umami broth is flavoured with chunks of fish and spring onion. It looks small but there’s a great deal of fish flesh beneath the surface and it’s a rich, satisfying way to finish our meal.

The dessert at Mitsui is our eighth course for the evening and is a choice of green tea, black sesame or peanut ice-cream. My mother and I love (love, love, love, loveeee) peanut desserts so it’s an easy choice for us. Jeremy chooses the black sesame which is a beautiful grey colour – almost purple. Both dishes come with a selection of fruit on the side.

The peanut ice-cream doesn’t disappoint. It’s cool and creamy; simple but delicious. A nice way to finish our first omakase in Japan. Did Mitsui live up to the hype? It was nice with some really delicious dishes but not a great showcase of Japanese technique. I didn’t dislike anything but I wouldn’t rush back given the opportunity. 

Ikki

In the richer part of town is Ikki, a popular restaurant which is owned by a publicly listed company that also has a widely successful steakhouse (it’s delicious) and also a barbecue restaurant under it’s umbrella. We were invited to attend by one of my mum’s close married friends who’s son is an apprentice chef there.

Despite the location, Ikki is extremely well priced at only $700NTD (around $25AUD) for an extensive offering of food. Their philosophy is, they want you to be full, so if you still have capacity after all of your courses, they will bring out additional dishes. It seems their way of thinking works for the masses, with all the tables in this labyrinth of a restaurant being occupied.

The menu at Ikki is quite interesting. All diners start off with the same soup (in teapots seated on flame in front of everyone) – a seafood broth. From there you have a choice of appetiser from three options, and choice of side dish from three items. The fourth course is a “meal” which again allows you  to choose one item from three, as does the next course which is referred to as sashimi. Everyone then shares the same sorbet, before their choice from 10 different mains comes out. Finally there’s three different desserts to select one from, and also 9 options for a final drink.

It’s hard work to make all those choices but once we place our orders, we can sit back and relax. And by that, I mean drink copious amounts of whisky. Well not me since I’m a lightweight when it comes to drinking but everyone around me proceeded to get very drunk much to my amusement.

I’ve included shots of not just my own courses but those around me, though to keep this extremely long blog post a little shorter I’ll just talk about my own food.

My appetiser for the evening is the fresh fruit and vegetable salad. Full of lettuce, cherry tomatoes, slices of cold chicken, passionfruit, watermelon and citrus segments, this was delicious. It was so refreshing and well balanced – a great start after the teapot soup.

Our friends’ son sent out a complimentary mushroom salad for us to enjoy too which was utterly mesmerising. Cold, slightly pickled and earthy. These were a great showcase of how wonderful mushrooms can be.

My choice for the side dishes course is the deep fried fish fillets with grapefruit. Crunchy, flaky pieces of fish sit atop of a sour and juicy half of a grapefruit. The fruit is too acrid for me to eat on it’s own, but mixing in bites of the fish and the creamy sauce on the side makes it work well as a cohesive dish.

When I’m presented with my meal course selection of salmon and salmon roe over rice, I’m instructed to mix it all together for better enjoyment. It looks like a very basic dish I note but once I’ve followed the advice and taken a bite I realise it’s actually quite enjoyable. Soft slivers of well cooked, well seasoned salmon go with sauced rice and pops of flavour from the roe. Nearing the halfway mark for our meal, this is a good carb-loaded course to line our bellies.

The sorbet is different to the kind of sorbet courses I’ve experienced elsewhere. This lemon sorbet was not a bowl of icy goodness but rather a cool, refreshing drink. Like the teapot soup, this course is replenished throughout the night to allow us to enjoy as much as we’d like. And like we did because it was so delightfully tart and sweet at the same time!

Strangely the “sashimi” course only actually featured one sashimi option which only one of us at the table chose. While Jeremy’s steamed prawn looked a treat, I was definitely pleased with how beautiful my beef tataki option looked.

It tasted quite nice – while not as enjoyable as the kobe beef from Mitsui a couple nights before, this one was peppery, cold and had a nice texture. I like the simple dipping sauce of light soy and spring onions. Squeezing the lime over the top was a great elevation on the taste.

The most popular main course ordered at our table is definitely the duck – which I too just had to choose. It comes to the table raw and thinly sliced, with a hot stone grill provided for you to cook your duck atop. It’s a fun way to really dive into enjoying your main, and allows you to cook the meat to your liking. I focus on sizzling the skin, and leaving the meat pink in the centre – yum!

I make pannacotta at home quite often. It’s a dish that Jeremy and I have been perfecting over time, tweaking the gelatine quantity, and trying different flavour infusions. Without trying to brag – it’s one of the best dishes we make and so I have to admit I am a harsh judge on other pannacottas.

The pineapple flavour of Ikki’s is a refreshing change to your more normal flavour combinations but the texture is not as creamy and smooth as you’d like in this dish. It almost reminds me more of almond jelly – as if they’ve used agar agar instead of gelatine. Which given our location could be possible! That said, it’s still an enjoyable enough dish and a nice sweet note to finish our laden meal with.

As a lover of fresh juice, I just had to choose this for my drink course to end the night. Sadly it was tomato and plum juice which was a flavour combination I just couldn’t bring myself to enjoy. While it looked good, it was too vinegary from the tomatoes for me to drink it. 

Since it was my cousin Lillian’s birthday the following week, our host arranged with the staff for a “birthday surprise”. To our delight this involved singing, hilarious hats that looked like cake and photos. It also meant an extra dessert for the birthday girl which she was kind enough to share with us. Strawberry mousse inside a gelatinous outside and chocolate flavour underneath. Loved this dessert the most out of all the options for the night! 
I was full after we finished but my boy managed to get through another bowl of salmon rice at no extra charge (after being bullied to have more even though he was stuffed). For the ridiculously good price it charges, Ikki was an impressive night out. Fun, relaxed and good simple food. 

Ichiban
My mother’s regular go-to lunch spot is a place known as Ichiban (translation: number one). She loves to sit at the bar and chat to the chef who now considers her an old friend and goes out of his way to impress her every time she comes. Unlike the other two omakases we’d experienced so far on our trip in Taiwan, this version had no menu attached. 
We had no idea what we’d be getting much to our excitement – it all depended on what the chef had picked up at the fish markets that morning. The sight of all that fresh fish in front of us as we sat at the counter was enough to get me hungry. The instruction we give the chef is just our price choice – $1,000NTD ($35AUD) per person. Because he adores mum he gives us a discount when it comes to paying him – charging only $800NTD each. 

Our chef starts us off with a simple pickled vegetable salad of cabbage, carrot, garlic and chilli. We pick at this until our first course comes out. Soft, flavoursome cooked salmon flakes away in a beautifully light soy broth. It’s a chilled dish with taro root underneath the fish offering a slightly slimy but still tasty texture.

Next we move onto the sashimi, starting with firm slices of fish that are slightly fatty but hold their shape as I enhance each bite with the fiery wasabi on the side. I’m not much for pickled ginger, but Jeremy goes crazy feasting away at it.

From firm fish we next move on to buttery salmon. It’s so soft and fresh, shaming every salmon sashimi bite I’ve ever eaten in Perth sadly. I love just how common fresh seafood is in this country – I so appreciate it!

The next dish is one of my favourite bites from our whole time in Taiwan – seriously! Blocks of rice are topped with a smear of wasabi and a strip of a halibut from a certain part of the fish only. It’s seared ever so slightly to offset the immense fattiness of the fish.

I’m not sure describing the taste could ever give this justice. It’s fatty but in a fantastic way – like eating butter but not as sickening. A little bit smokey, but my god it is so good. My mum calls it butterfly fish – she says her palate dances like their fluttering in her mouth when she eats it.

Atop a slice of juicy lime sits a good dollop of uni (sea urchin). Not as high a grade as what we ate at Mitsui, but this version is still enjoyable particularly when you bite down on the lime as you scrape the uni off. It’s so sumptuous and decadent. I have officially fallen in love with uni after this trip.

After the uni, we get our first hot dish for our lunch – tempura ebi prawn on rice and rolled into lettuce. It comes with an amazing house-made tartare sauce which tastes more like mayonnaise but with greater depth. It is a damn good dish, with all of us falling silent as we munch away, swooning between bites.

A side salad of fresh corn, broccoli and crab comes next with a light mirin based dressing. Sweet, juicy meat is simple but effective at making my tastebuds happy. The only downfall is by cutting the kernels off the cob in a way to keep the shape, there’s too much of the husk present behind leaving you unable to just directly polish off the corn.

The sardine is similar to the one from Mitsui. Deeply sauced and a little smokey in taste it’s quite intense. Jeremy likes it much more than I do so I end up palming it off to him since I’m nearing fullness.

The little mocked up pumpkin of puree, raisin and sprout is adorable and a nice palate cleanser before I dive into the steaming hot scallop with crispy textures on top and leaf underneath. It’s cooked perfectly!

If you’ve read my blog before you may know that I love soft shell crab. This version is really delicious – a thin crunchy batter gives way to piping hot flesh and a nice smear of mayonnaise to dunk it in.

Our final course for lunch is a grilled king prawn with a liberal dose of that house tartar on top. The flesh inside is so tasty and palate pleasing. Definitely another winning dish from the self taught chef. Here he is below, entertaining us as always – he’s hilarious and extremely generous. A great place to visit if you’re ever in Taipei – we liked it so much we returned the next week for another lunch.

Just when we think we’re done, we’re given a plate of the sweetest and juiciest watermelon you’d ever imagine. When we ask the chef how he picked such a great one, he told us that certain growers in Taiwan cut off all but one watermelon from a single vine – to allow the sugariness to go into just one fruit instead of several. He also told us that the half which is connected to the vine is the sweetest – and that’s what he gave us. Spoilt!

Returning for lunch the next week the menu is completely different. We do get some of the same highlights like an array of sashimi and that wondrous halibut, but outside of that it’s like being someone new all together. It’s definitely great incentive to return time and time again!

We start off with the saccharine in taste raw ebi prawns. These dark red headed beauties have a very short season of availability we’re told and are just plain addictive. Plump, cool and moorish – especially the juicy heads which we suck away at, hollowing our cheeks before smiling exuberantly at one another.

We’re presented with a whole fish next, with a fillet section cut and seasoned with sesame and spring onion for our enjoyment. Dark flesh that’s meaty and soft is shared between two of us per fish until we’ve eaten everything cut up for us. They take the fish away then to grill and give back later on during our lunch.

After this trip, I think I’ve eaten more prawn heads there than I have in my life! These are grilled and filled with rice that is soft on the inside and crunchy from being introduced to the heat. I love this way of eating the head as the rice acts as an agent to soak up all those great juices and any residual flesh.

Sitting atop of cubes of rice are thin slices of fatty wagyu that’s been seared ever so slightly and topped with a sprinkling of spring onions. This is Jeremy’s favourite – it’s fatty, tender and melts in your mouth leaving a distinct impression. I have to agree, it’s pretty damn good! Though nothing can top the halibut which we asked the chef to provide us specially since we enjoyed it so much last time. 

When you’re presented with a bowl of cabbage and egg, you wouldn’t think it would blow your socks off. But this was so, so yummy. Braised cabbage that’s soft and sweet, combined with salty egg – it’s humble home cooking that punches you in the tastebuds.

Our fish from before comes out grilled and lightly charred, with a side wedge of lime and a sprinkling of white pepper on the side. Though it tastes lovely, I’m getting full by this time so only pick a little – enjoying the only just cooked flesh and the crispness of the skin.

Jeremy goes straight for the eyes (that’s my boy!) after encouragement from my mum’s friends, and declares it “delicious”. He’s found a new delight in something I’ve only ever seen Asians eat – sometimes I swear he is more Asian than me. Though I too am partial to the eye too!

I’m so full I think I’m going to explode. So I can’t help but cringe a little when the heady scent of miso soup wafts under my nose as a bowl is placed in front of me. I have to try it – though I try to avoid the large chunks of fish throughout to spare my stomach.

It’s rich and comforting – well balanced in flavours and all round memorable. I can’t finish it, but I do my best!

All up I have to say I understand why Ichiban is a favourite for my mum. It’s not fine dining but it is a comfortable and welcoming izakaya which makes you want to return again and again. Next time I’m in Taipei visiting my grandparents I’ll be going back for sure!

Niú

Our final omakase in Taipei is definitely the best out of them all. Impossible to book into (luckily my mum’s best friend knows the chef), this is a celebrity hotspot. It’s cool and dark, with bottles of whisky stored by regular customers behind the counter and the staff drink with you out of politeness (some get quite drunk I’m told!).

We visited Niú on our second last night in Taiwan, before we shot off to Hong Kong. It was busy, with animated diners toasting away and munching on an array of spectacular looking dishes. We’re seated at the counter and partake in a $3,000NTD ($105AUD) menu which is the second best menu there. There’s one for $7,000NTD but we’re told that the one we’ve chosen is already pretty luxe – I think only the rich and famous bother going for what Jeremy and I call the baller package.

Atop of a thin slice of rice paper we’re given wasabi, ginger and pickled vegetables to eat. At these kinds of restaurants you leave the paper on the counter and the chef will continue to lay out dishes for you to eat on top throughout the night.

We start off with a slice of fresh snapper sashimi which is firm in texture and has a mild, delicate flavour. Already I can taste the difference in quality – this is just singing of the ocean and when we chat to our chef for the evening he tells us the seafood was caught around lunchtime and delivered to the restaurant at 5pm. We’re eating it only hours later – wow!

Next up we’re presented with a beautiful glass plate of three different bites. I start off with the sweet, small oyster which is creamy but not sickening. It’s lightly flavoured and cool in my mouth. Oh my how I love oysters!

As you can see from my previous posts, I’ve had uni at all the Japanese restaurants we’d visited so far. But nothing like this. Nothing even close.

This uni was like butter, rolling off my tongue and coating my mouth like silk. I now see why Anthony Bourdain loses himself when he eats this on his show – I get the hype. Call me officially in love with this beautiful little produce from the sea.

Slices of sashimi are lightly spiced and pop from the addition of citrus flavour. Every bite is reminiscent of the sea, showcasing the seafood in an impressive manner that brings out the best in every mouthful.

The slice of salmon sashimi given to us is soft and oily; a vivid orange bite. It’s a mild taste after the pleasantries of the uni but still enjoyable.

We’re each given a bowl of squid sashimi – ribbons tossed with fresh herbs, before our chef shows us the recently caught squid that it comes from. Though a little creepy to see it lying there so translucent with it’s big eye, it doesn’t distract from the taste. And that taste is good! It’s a nice change from soft or firm sashimi to this chewy, almost pasta-like protein.

Another slice of sashimi down the hatch – this one another firm flesh. The wasabi here is mild – not spicy at all, but works very well with the raw seafood that comes our way.

This grilled slice of fish is meaty, almost tasting like chicken! I like it, but it’s nothing compared to what comes next.

That’s right – HALIBUT! All capitals because it’s a written expression of just how excited I was to see this fish make another appearance for us. Ichiban’s version was one of my favourite bites so far on the holiday… until I had this one. It’s like buttery crack – the flesh is so soft it melts in my mouth and leaves a lingering yearning for more and more.

How I’ll survive back home on a limited selection of sashimi I have no idea!

This prawn atop of rice is flavourful and sweet, with a well arranged and complimentary garnish on top. Doesn’t it look so pretty!

When it comes to decadence, this dish is the epitome of the definition. It’s imprinted on my memory – soft, flavoured rice with fatty strips of seared wagyu (grade 9) are topped with foie gras, uni and gold leaf. There’s a spoonful of salmon roe on the side.

This dish was just plain crazy. Fatty – yes, creamy – yes, perfect – hell yes! It’s so indulgent and while it may seem a little over the top to some, I have to admit it left me ridiculously impressed.

Crispy skin fish will always hold a special place in my heart. This version had skin that shattered under your teeth like toffee, revealing flaky and steaming flesh inside. Just the right size portion, I very much enjoyed this serving.

From wagyu to kobe, this kebab may not look the prettiest but the meat was ridiculously tender. When you hear about cows being fed beer and massaged it may sound stupid but the proof is in the pudding, and this pudding tastes so so good! I’m not the biggest fan of candlenuts but we’re told to eat them to cleanse our palates before we move on to the next course.

Served on the shell, this abalone is meaty and marvellous. It’s grilled perfectly, revealing white tender flesh inside and a smooth texture under my teeth.

Deviating from Japanese cuisine, we seemed to take a turn into the French way of cooking seafood with a lobster bisque. It’s so incredibly rich and divine with an incredible depth of flavour. I want to know this recipe so badly – it was my mum’s favourite course for the night and definitely a highlight of the evening. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

After a change to French, we then seemed to move into Chinese cooking with a dried scallop soup topped with fresh coriander. It tastes good, but I’m not really loving having two soup courses in a row and given just how phenomenal the bisque was, this falls short in comparison.

Like Ichiban, this restaurant provided us each with a prawn head jam packed with rice. This one was just as moorish, with my mouth eagerly seeking every last grain of rice until there was no more but shell.

My boy Jeremy actually ate the shell, declaring it delightfully crunchy. I love that he’ll eat anything and just enjoy it in an almost childlike manner – without forethought or judgement. He just loves to eat good food – plain and simple.

The fresh bamboo in Taiwan is extraordinary, like nothing else. This simple dish of flash fried with chilli and spring onions is a great showcasing, leaving the vegetable softened only slightly and bursting with flavour.

Another soup course but this one comes with a delightfully zingy citrus dipping sauce to dunk the fish from the soup in as you eat. In this dish you can see how careful the head chef thinks about all elements of the meal, continually striving to impress and stay ahead of the times.

The restaurant game in Taiwan is serious business – highly competitive and if you don’t produce good food consistently you’ll quickly lose everything. No matter how long you’ve been in business.

Here’s our chef for the night. Funny, polite and eager to please – the best kind of artist in the kitchen. He’s only 27, having worked there for the past 6 years under the head chef. He took particular care in attending to Jeremy and I even despite his limited english he was outstanding.

Having finished our savoury courses for the night we’re each served fresh pineapple. One of my favourite fruits ever, it’s pretty much a given I’m going to love this. It’s tangy, incredibly sweet thanks to Taiwan’s humid climate, and conveniently cut into triangles for easy eating.

Finally, after so many courses I couldn’t even keep track, we’re served a red bean and glutinous dumpling dessert. While most Asian desserts are more on the savoury side this is actually sweet and has a really well balanced combination of the soupy syrup, the starchy red beans and the dumplings. Just the thing to end our night!

So in the battle of omakases in Taiwan who won? I think it’s pretty clear that all had their strengths ranging from price, freshness and inventiveness, but it was definitely the priciest and chic Niú that won it for me. I felt like a princess that night, dining on the best of the best – and while I know I’ll be back at Ichiban, I really hope I can make it back to Niú too next time. It was a lavish and utterly delicious affair!

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3 Comments

  • Reply
    Taiwan travel diary: Taipei
    8 May 2017 at 12:03 pm

    […] and sushi bars peppered around every inch of the city. Last trip there in 2014 I went hard on omakase menus, and this trip saw me return to Niu and Ichiban. The former I actually didn’t love as much as […]

  • Reply
    Mai
    1 November 2017 at 10:00 am

    Can you provide the physical address of Ichiban and Niu? Thank you.

    • Reply
      Kristy
      18 November 2017 at 5:48 pm

      I can’t find Ichiban anymore (I used to have the address written down somewhere!) but Niu is No. 150號, Section 1, Xinsheng North Road, Zhongshan District, Taipei City 🙂

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