Taipei, day 14.
For some time now - years, perhaps - my parents have been talking about a small Japanese restaurant they often go to. It started out as a roadside stand kind of place, with an open kitchen and low tables and stools, or so I assume. Usually these places are cheap but this one has restaurant prices. And when you become known to the management they are more willing to serve you things that are weird or rare or expensive, or all of the above. Eventually the roadside stand became a proper restaurant, but I have not been here until tonight. I have been waiting to eat here, and when I heard my mother make plans with A. to have dinner here three days after I return to Seattle, there was no choice except to protest. Loudly. And here we are.
We're late, and my father has already arrived, seated in a bamboo-screened room at the rear of the restaurant. I walk past the tables and the long sushi bar; there cups of hot tea and little dishes of pickled vegetables, and the waiter, who knows my parents well, goes over what he has in mind for tonight's meal. Something light, not too much food, my mom says. The waiter brings chilled saké, and it goes down as easily as cool spring water, without a hint of burn, only a faint lingering warmth. The sashimi arrives, and I am rearranging my chopsticks when W. suddenly yelps and grabs my arm. I turn to look and jump about a foot in the air. The shrimp antennae are still moving, the heads freshly severed from the peeled bodies. And this is just the sashimi platter. There is salad of vegetables - sweet onions, corn (which in Taipei tends to show up in weird places, like on pizza), asparagus, slices of giant prawn. The chu-toro is slightly frozen, and not as good as what I have at home, the only jarring note. The toro in Taipei is never as good as what I find at home, but there is so much other good food that this is a mere quibble.
Three pieces of nigiri are placed in front of me: one piece of flounder, barely singed with a blowtorch, the sweetest uni I have ever tasted, and a slice of raw beef so meltingly tender it is almost like toro, or even foie gras. A custardy white blob, wrapped in a shiso leaf, dipped in a tempura batter, and fried turns out to be some kind of fish bladder. It is the best thing in the entire meal, and it is one of the best meals of the entire trip. There is a chicken wing, deboned and stuffed with fish roe. The abalone is less interesting. A fresh carp, like a giant goldfish, is split open and grilled, needing nothing more than a squeeze of lime, not even a touch of the seasoned salt on the corner of the plate. Tiny green cabbages - like miniature Napa cabbages - are sautéed with dried shrimp the length of my smallest fingernail. We end with a soup of clams and garlic, smelling of the sea, tasting of the sea.
At last dessert arrives, a slice of ripe papaya, some pickled apples and giant Japanese beans over ice. I need nothing more, and I want nothing more.