Long known for its street food scene, Taiwan’s getting overdue global recognition for its fine dining—Michelin just landed here in March 2018.
Of the 110 restaurants listed in the inaugural Michelin Guide Taipei 2018, 36 were named Bib Gourmand honorees and 20 became Michelin-starred. Beloved, iconic dishes of Taiwanese cuisine were recognized, with eight beef noodle soup shops landing on the Bib Gourmand list.
Taiwan is a natural hotbed for good food because of the many cultural influences that have landed here. The past and present of this island 1/11th the size of the state of California represents a melting pot of flavors—from the indigenous tribes of Taiwan, the Hokkien, Cantonese, Sichuan and other provinces of China, as well as Japanese, Dutch and even Spanish and Portuguese influences.
Indeed, Taiwan, due to a confluence of historical factors, is home to some of the best Chinese cooking in the world. Chefs fled China during the Cultural Revolution, and Taiwan was one of the Four Asian Tigers that experienced rapid economic growth 1960s onward. The Guest House in Sheraton Grande Taipei Hotel was one of two restaurants awarded two stars in the latest Michelin rating, known for its Hunan and Sichuan dishes.
The locals would say that they know what’s good with or without the list and other outside recognition. However, the arrival of Michelin does give the island’s eating scene a certain gravitas. It just means that Taiwan has been put on the map for more travelers to come here for dining. Good for innovation—and good for business.
At Taiwan’s first and only three Michelin starred restaurant, Le Palais, in the Palais de Chine hotel, specialties include the chicken shumai topped with prized abalone, crispy roast baby duck and a dish invented here—a wok-fried pork forehead tendon. Don’t miss the liu sha bao (or salted molten egg yolk) bun for dessert.
Why are chefs opening up here of all places?
Hong Kong-born Richie Lin, of 1-star Michelin MUME, has worked in Sydney and Copenhagen and decided to open here for... the ingredients. Meat, produce, seafood, luxury caviar…tiny Taiwan is rich in flavors.
A mainstay dessert at MUME combines earthy, sweet dried longan fruit, native to the island, with Taiwanese bean-to-bar Fu Wan chocolate made by Richie’s friend Warren Hsu.
That’s not to mention pairings possible with wine, craft beer and award-winning whisky made here. At MUME, the beverage list represents this. Richie is a beer aficionado, and Taiwan’s craft brewing scene is hopping, with brewers like Sunmai and Jim and Dad’s creating local beers that incorporate local ingredients.
And we were impressed with Taiwanese sparkling wine made in the Champagne method right here from indigenous grape varieties.
The globally award-winning, yet just 10-year-old Kavalan whisky distillery launched their own gin infused with local Taiwanese botanicals just last year.
And then there’s the talent to make use of these spirits. Taiwan has rapidly become a global hotspot for world-class bartenders who come here to open up shop. They take drinks very seriously—while not taking themselves too seriously.
The menu at MUME toes the line between special occasion and everyday accessible for both the visitor and the local dining aficionado. You can go with the set degustation, or you can opt for à la carte.
In November 2017, prior to the arrival of Michelin, chef Richie had expressed that this is the haute cuisine market currently; while there are growing numbers of diners with the budget to splurge and the willingness to experiment, the casual and street food scene (not to mention home cooking using inexpensive, quality ingredients) is so delicious in Taiwan that it takes more for haute cuisine chefs to impress the most discerning locals and be considered “worth the money.”
Fine dining journalist Elizabeth Kao re-emphasized just how much the Taiwanese love Japanese food and culture: she says more chefs from Japan have plans to open up here, too. The other 2-star Michelin designation was awarded to the Taipei outpost of Ryu Gin. Ryohei Hieda of Tokyo’s Ryu Gin spent nine months doing R&D in search of local ingredients before opening up here, so you have a Japanese chef cooking with Japanese techniques using all local ingredients, save for some seasonings.
In the 1-star category, Japanese restaurants of note include Ken An Ho, Kitcho, Sushi Ryu and Sushi Nomura.
At Gen Creative, imagine what lands on the plate with three head chef-partners hailing from Taiwan, Korea and Guatemala. They all met while working in Las Vegas’ restaurant industry, says chef Eric Liu of the trio.
There’s a growing community of diners, journalists and restaurant industry experts who are well-traveled, have gathered here and want options. The 1-star Michelin Longtail is known for its after hours scene, too. It’s where chefs come hang for drinks after they’re done serving their guests.
While there’s been an influx of the best chefs who’ve trained and traveled around the world opening up their fine dining spots here—MUME and the likes of Taïrroir, RAW (chef Andre Chiang, a darling of the region, also models on the side)—haute cuisine isn’t exactly new in Taiwan. Taiwanese restaurants recognized include Golden Formosa and Ming Fu Seafood.
Mountain and Sea House is reviving extinct recipes dating back to the early 20th century, served with modern flair, using (of course) the best ingredients. They use all-organic produce from their own farm. What’s not available on their farm, they source carefully.
Dishes offered include whole chicken cooked in pork stomach, which comes in a fragrant broth—the Taiwanese version of haggis, if you will. Or the sea cucumber with peas, a signature dish of Bao-mei-liu restaurant in Tainan in the 1930s. These two require two days advance notice to order.
The Deluxe Mountain and Sea House Platter is a must. It’s a dizzying journey into housemade Taiwanese charcuterie and other intricate delights and delicacies, like pork knuckle sausages, pig heart stewed in ginseng, chicken smoked with sugar cane and abalone stewed in Ataya spices.
The interiors are selected by owner Stephanie Ho Yi-chia (granddaughter of local media tech mogul Ho Chuan of the Yuen Foong Yu (YFY) conglomerate) with discerning taste, a combination of the old and new. It’s located in a historic restored house with spectacular original art. Protip: For a large group, secure the large private banquet room with a door to the garden.
Mountain and Sea House is a place that the Michelin raters missed, likely because it was undergoing renovations when they came around for the first ratings for Taiwan that came out in March 2018.
And our favorite bite of the trip was at Red Lantern, famed duck restaurant in the pristine countryside of Yilan County. This is where Cherry Valley duck is whole roasted and then all the parts served in a fantastic procession of specialty dishes, from mapo tofu to duck with steamed buns to duck soup to three-cup duck. It all started with a duck skin “nigiri,” a gleaming select piece of duck skin atop a mound of “sushi” rice. Fatty and simple, it was a duck-driven revelation, consumed before enough photos for the ‘gram could be captured.
These last two aren’t on Michelin’s list. That just goes to show that there’s the list and yet there’s a lot more to be discovered. The island is just getting started.