京兆尹 King Join
When people think of Taipei, the first restaurant that comes to mind might be Din Tai Feng. However, there is a restaurant that is a lot more special – King Join. I am not aware of its existence anywhere else other than in Taipei. There is good reason for that – the food preparation descends from the same chefs that once cooked for the Chinese emperor.
These days, of course, there is no Chinese emperor. There hasn’t been one for about one hundred years. The cuisine lived on in this restaurant, but with a twist. The owner of King Join became a Buddhist at some point, and because of that he decided to make the entire menu vegetarian. Initially this caused a huge hit in business, but when I went on Saturday night, they seemed to be doing well.
With a friend, I ordered the set for two people. The set for two people costs 1680NT (about38 euros , $52US) plus tax/service fees of 10%. In retrospect, I should have ordered dishes individually, because the set did not include many of the items I wanted to try, and also wasn’t much cheaper than what the items would have cost individually (1890NT). The difference is actually even less considering that certain dishes have more food when not ordered as part of this set and the fact I wouldn’t have ordered certain items, even though the restaurant is famous for them. More on that at the end of this entry.
Every table gets a teapot like this, though the stand was not lit.
A plate with various appetisers was brought to the table, we chose their 涼拌貢菜 Mixed cold vegetables.
Next bamboo pumpkin soup was brought out to the table. It tasted too buttery to me, and was waterier than what I was accustomed to.
At about the same time, some balls looking like sesame balls were brought to the table. The filling was not sesame paste though – it was filled with radish. By the flavour, I assume it also had excessive amounts of butter inside.
In something like the movie Ratatouille, a dish came out that didn’t really seem to belong on the emperor’s table – sautéed sweet potato leaves. It is the kind of thing people eat in China if they are too poor to buy other greens. But it is delicious, and brings back memories for those that remember it. It is one of the common dishes I eat at restaurants in China. It wasn’t the only dish in the set with the Ratatouille effect either. Thankfully, it was not oily or buttery, which can be the case for a lot of restaurants that make this dish.
Some xiaolongbao were brought out – much smaller than what I am accustomed to from mainland China. The filling however, was unique. I can’t quite pin down the taste.
One of the main dishes was a stewed monkey-head mushroom. I didn’t care for it. Individually, it would cost 350NT, and there are other items on the menu I would have much rather have ordered than this. The fact it included dates reminded me a lot of all the Chinese medicine soups and concoctions I have been given in mainland China.
I liked the next one better, but it also didn’t seem particularly Chinese – I’ve had similar pasta from Italy:
With all the savoury dishes served, desserts were served. The sweet pea cake wasn’t bad, and the "Sticky rice filled with red bean pasted, coated with soybean and peanut powder. Topped with brown sugar syrup" was also quite good.
The final dessert, and one that this restaurant is famous for, is its milk pudding. It is served in dry ice, creating a dramatic effect at the table. As I do not react well to dairy products, I did not care for this dessert, and would not order it again in the future.
The milk pudding was still satisfactory, if only because it was served with something that provided a very strong Ratatouille effect – sour plum juice. In a way, it is kind of like drinking vinegar, which I used to do in Japan and I have done on occasion on previous visits to Taiwan. But that is not why.
I drank some of this sour plum juice, and the taste seemed very, very familiar from my childhood. I couldn’t place the flavour at first because I knew that I did not have this flavour as a drink in my childhood. Aha! I knew what the flavour was – it was a lot like Sweet and Sour + BBQ + Teriyaki sauce for McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets. It was like I was drinking a combination of sauces – I got several of the sauces as a kid and dipped the McNuggets into each one. I could imagine myself when I was six or seven eating the McNuggets as I drank that sour plum juice.
I am sure this will be the first trip of many to King Join – there are enough items on the menu I want to try that I will have to go back for three or four more large meals.