Freelancing Diaries: Part 5 — New Year Resolutions and Clients!

January 3, 2017 in Blogging, Freelance, Japan, Misc, On Writing, Travel by pacejmiller

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Wow. So here we are, 2017. I feel like I’ve been neglecting this blog. Looking back, I realise I only posted 3 times in 2016! Three times! But it’s all about quality, not quantity. Right?

2016 was just a crazy year. One of the most important, rewarding and challenging years of my life. I jumped ship from my employer late last year to embark on my freelancing journey, full of anticipation, excitement and trepidation. What I ended up experiencing was unlike anything I had expected. 

For starters, I thought I was going to struggle some months finding work, being a new freelancer and all. As it turned out, the exact opposite came to fruition, as I was bombarded with shitloads of work pretty much from straight after Chinese New Year in February, all the way until…well, it’s still going. In a year of 365 days, I’m fairly certain I worked close to 350 days, and that’s including this week I just had off vacationing in Japan (from where I type this post). I actually had to turn down about half a dozen projects in the lead-up to this vacation just so I could keep this week free, and I still have a bunch of stuff waiting for me as soon as I get back. There was literally one week (in September) where I didn’t have anything on my plate, but on every other day of the year there was something hanging around on my “to do” list. In fairness, on some of these days I worked for maybe only 20 to 30 minutes, but always having something to do feels so different to having a completely “free” day.

On the other hand, I was dead wrong in thinking that freelancing meant sitting around in a cafe for a couple of hours a day and doing whatever else I wanted the rest of the time. Yes, I did sit around in cafes quite regularly, but I had ZERO time to do any of my own stuff. Work and money took precedence, and this meant less time writing (on my blogs and on my projects) and less time with my family. After working out intensely for the better part of two years, I did virtually no exercise at all this year. I didn’t gain much weight but the waistline doesn’t lie. A good measuring stick for how free I am is how up-to-date I am with my movie reviews — right now I’ve got around 60 reviews outstanding. It also meant my wife had to shoulder a heavier burden with the housework and looking after the kids, even though I was pretty much at home most of the time.

In all, it was a year of unchartered waters where I learned a lot and tested my limits. I was better off financially than I thought I would ever be from taking the plunge into freelancing, and it was indeed very rewarding to be appreciated and valued for work that I took personal responsibility for. It’s just so different to working for someone and getting a pat on the back. However, I hated that I had no time for myself and how my health deteriorated throughout the year.

I’m currently battling topical steroid withdrawal, which is the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life. In short, I’ve had eczema since childhood and gradually and unwittingly developed an addiction to topical steroids, which artificially suppress inflammation and mask your underlying health problems, whether it be your gut, intestines, liver or kidneys. And they also suppresses your adrenal glands so much that they stop producing cortisol. While it is still not accepted by the general medical community, there are now doctors who believe adult eczema is actually an iatrogenic condition caused by topical steroid use (check out the ITSAN website to find out more). The only cure, unfortunately, is to go cold turkey and suffer through a long and traumatising process in which you allow your body to heal naturally over time. My entire body flared up almost immediately as expected, and the intense, deep itching and flaking skin is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced (sleeping well is an impossibility). I’m doing everything I can to speed up the process, such as following a strict diet (no wheat and other grains, dairy, eggs or sugar) and taking supplements and Chinese herbal medicine to heal my gut and improve my general well-being, doing acupuncture, light exercise and even meditation and deep breathing exercises. For most people, the withdrawal process can take a year or even several years, but I’m hoping to buck the trend. I go through good days and bad days like everyone else, though it seems I’m not as serious as a lot of other cases I’ve seen and I’ve already made remarkable progress in just 6 weeks. Hoping to kick this debilitating condition in 6 months, but it will require a lasting change in lifestyle to keep it at from ever coming back.

Anyway, so my New Year’s resolutions for 2017 are simple. First, work on my health — both physical and mental. When you go through something as harrowing as TSW, it makes you appreciate a healthy body and mind so much more. Secondly, I need to find time for my own writings. Whether it is getting up earlier in the morning, watching less TV at night or spending less time on my smartphone, I need to make some sacrifices to get shit done. This year is really now or never. 

Both of these hinge on the main topic I want to talk about in this post: Clients. I’ve dealt with more clients than I can count over the past year.Clients can make a project enjoyable or a nightmare. Some can be great, and some can make me facepalm just about every time. The thing is, you never know what you’re going to get, and often initial impressions can be deceiving.

I’ve learned a lot about how to deal with clients since becoming a freelancer. The most important thing is to always be professional, even when you feel like you have established a connection and have become friends. That means being friendly, responding to emails and calls, maintaining open channels of communication, and always adhering to deadlines. I’ve found that, if you simply act professionally, clients will really appreciate you and will keep giving you more work. They may even recommend you to others. I’ve frankly been a little shocked at how much clients appreciate it if you just do the job you’re paid for and do it on time. Apparently a lot of freelancers aren’t like that, which is pretty shocking if you consider that’s what they’re supposed to do for a living.

There are so many things that go into a client relationship. It’s more than just them giving you work and you sending it back. Sometimes they require invoices or there are forms and agreements you have to sign. Sometimes you have questions to ask them and vice versa. Sometimes they give you feedback and you have to amend your work accordingly. It can be surprising just how much back and forth there is for a single project.

The key is to be your own boss and be disciplined. Set yourself realistic deadlines and get started early so you never leave anything to the last minute. It’s always better to give yourself a little more leeway because things you haven’t planned for always have a way of inevitably popping up. Maintain good files and archives so you can find your shit when you need it. Ask questions whenever you’re not sure. In fact, always ask a bunch of questions to clarify anything you’re not sure about right at the beginning. There’s nothing worse than a money dispute when you’re halfway through the work or at the very end. You need to be very clear on exactly what work you’re doing. I can’t believe how many times I’ve been duped by clients and friends into doing things I should not have done or accepting cases for much less money than I ought to have been paid. When someone says it’s a “proofreading” job, make sure it’s not actually “extensive editing” and “fact checking every line”. When someone says “editing”, make sure it’s not “completely rewriting everything”. I find the best course of action is (unless it’s someone you’ve worked with before and really trust) to always ask to see the work before you agree to do it or at least a sample. If they can’t show you anything in advance, make sure you give yourself some wriggle room in case you want to say no or extend the deadline later. Negotiating and dealing with clients a nuanced skill that develops over time with experience.

Up until recently, turning down work was always a problem for me. As most of my clients are relatively new, it’s hard for me to say no to them regardless of how busy I may be with other work. In this line of business, unless it’s a long-term client, if you say no once, chances are you will lose that client because they’ll just go with someone else and stick with that person thereafter. As a result, I would always end up with a full slate and then accept more work on top of that, leading to late nights and added stress, further compounding my health problems. Next year I will endeavour to take on no more than I can take. If I have to lose money because of that, then so be it. Health has to come first in 2017.

Some clients, no matter how good you are on your end, will always be hopeless. One of my oldest clients is a publication that is very famous but has not been relevant for quite some time. I’ve dealt with numerous people from that company, and with the exception of one responsible individual, all of them have been pathetic. Once, apart from an editor jumping in at the very end and butchering my work without any dialogue, they also published my name wrong on the freaking article. It would usually take 2 months to receive any money from them, but sometimes they would “forget” or send the wrong amount, and I would have to email and call them a bunch of times, create spreadsheets and graphs and all sorts of shit to explain to them what they did wrong and what they still owe me. The amount of time I spent on all the extracurricular stuff was probably more time than I spent on the actual work. And their employees are the type that would bombard you with emails and calls whenever they need something from you, but whenever you need something from them, they would ignore all calls and emails. I don’t mean temporarily, either. If you don’t chase them up, they’ll pretend you don’t exist. One time there was a particular employee who kept sending me the wrong files with unprofessional, incoherent emails, and laugh things off when I ended up wasting my time on work that didn’t need to be done or work I would have to rush to finish because she forgot to send it.

On the other hand, one of the best clients I’ve ever dealt with is a church in the US. I was a little wary of them at the start because they genuinely seem like a cult and are annoyingly polite, but once I got to know them a little better it was all smooth sailing. Apart from paying great, they outline clearly the work you have to do for them in an agreement and pay you half upfront. They respond to questions almost immediately and are flexible when you need to be. I love working with them. And they pray for me and bless me a lot.

Sometimes, however, things can turn sour with a client fairly quickly. Until last month, I kind of had a falling out with an old client, which happened early in the year. I undertook a tiring interpretation gig from them at a fixed price. It ran for five days on a set schedule, but when the sessions kept running over time, my contact person told me to jot down the actual session times and she will help me ask for more money if it gets excessive. Of course, it did get excessive in the end and I informed them as such, but it seemed my contact had made a promise before checking with her boss or they backed off their initial promise of paying more. Either way, it got a little awkward as they started making excuses and even suggested issues with my performance, though I had received nothing but praises up until the dispute arose. I didn’t push it in the end and was happy to put it behind us, but it was obvious my contact felt embarrassed by the incident and shied away from asking me to do more work for them. I did do work for their other departments, but for eight months (from March until November) I didn’t hear anything from my contact at all.

I still have a million more stories to tell about clients I’ve heard about, such as ones whose companies go bust or those who literally run off and hide. But I’ve got to go pack for my return flight. I’ve already got plenty of work waiting for me when I get back.

Liang Ban Jia Korean BBQ (Taipei)

August 16, 2015 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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We were itching for some Korean food, and one of the recommendations from the internets is Liang Ban Jia (兩班家), a Korean BBQ restaurant situated on Level 6 of the A9 Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store in Taipei’s Xinyi District.

The place is apparently packed during peak hours, but we went early for Friday lunch and managed to snag a seat.

As with most department store restaurants in Taipei, the decor is top notch and the atmosphere very comfortable. The service is of course also excellent. They apparently have this special ventilation system that absorbs all the smoke and fumes from the BBQ plates so your clothes won’t get all stinky.

They have a couple of lunch sets, one at NT$980 per head and one at NT$780 per head. The annoying thing is that if you have only two people both of you have to get the same set, so you can’t say have one person order a set and the other order a la carte.

The good thing about getting a set is that you get more value for your money, especially since you get unlimited side dishes (such as kimchi and other pickled vegetables), but the bad thing is that your selection is set and you can’t order the things you like. You can, however, order one set of sides for NT$80.

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The a la carte menu

In hindsight we probably should have gotten the set, but because we wanted specific things the sets didn’t have, like bibimbap and seafood pancake, we ended up ordering a la carte.

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No stinky clothes with this grill

We couldn’t come to a Korean BBQ without getting some BBQ, so we ordered the TORO pork, the cheapest item on the menu at NT$240 for eight slices.

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The waiters help you cook the meat, and they even use scissors to trim off the darkened edges. Apparently they don’t always do that if the restaurant is super busy, but they did so on this day.

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See the sauces at the bottom of the above photo? The one on the left is the Korean chili bean sauce, which is not that spicy but fantastic with just about anything. The one on the right is a lemony soy sauce which gives the meat a nice kick.

That said, the TORO meat was not great. Kinda tasted very porky and chewy. No wonder it was so cheap.

The other meat we got was spicy chicken.

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This took ages to cook. Needed a lot of patience. And the finished product was rather spicy. Unexpectedly spicy. Also not the greatest of choices (NT$280) but the beef was so expensive it would have made getting a la carte a rip off.

Next up, a spicy kimchi seafood soup.

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Lots of stuff inside and they cook it right in front of you on a separate portable gas stove. The soup was nice but it was super spicy. Like numbingly spicy.

They also cook the bibimbap in front of you too, and ask how spicy you want it and how well-done you prefer it.

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I have to say I really liked the bibimbap. I had to add some of that extra chili bean sauce but once I did it was excellent. Cooked to perfection and lots of great flavours. I wish I could have had more.

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Last, but not least, the good old seafood pancake.


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I also really liked this as it was thick and fluffy (some seafood pancakes are thin and crispy) and had solid fillings. The sauce was also sour and tangy, which went really well with it.

It was too much and we couldn’t finish everything, so we ended up taking a few pieces of seafood pancake back. We were also not close to finishing the soup. In hindsight, it probably would have been sufficient to skip the soup and the TORO pork, and perhaps upgrade the chicken to a better beef.

In sum, Liang Ban Jia is a perfectly solid Korean restaurant, but at NT$800-1000 per head it is a lot more expensive than similar quality restaurants elsewhere.

HOWEVER, I recently went back and tried out a different branch, at Shin Kong’s Tiemu store, and tried out one of the sets. It was a lot better, mostly because the quality of the meats were on a completely different level. So I’m revising my rating to give it a bump up.

8/10

Details

Liang Ban Jia (兩班家)

Address:  Level 6, Shin Kong Mitsukoshi A9, No. 9, Song Shou Road, Xinyi District, Taipei (nearest MRT Taipei City Hall/Taipei 101)

Phone: (02) 2720-1980

Hours: 11am-2:30pm, 5pm-9:30pm

Ben Cuisine (犇和牛館) (Taipei)

August 13, 2015 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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Groupon has some amazing deals, and one that recently caught our eye was this amazing 71% off “Michelin” feast offered by Ben Cuisine, a Taiwanese restaurant group specializing in teppanyaki and Japanese seafood. They have three restaurants all located next to each other in an alley off Anhe Road in Taipei’s Da’An district, and the offer is for their smallest one, their “Wagyu” shop with just a dozen or so seats.

I admit I was sceptical because, according to Groupon, the original value of the two-person deal is NT$6805, but they were giving it to people for NT$1980, or just NT$990 per person. So either the restaurant is feeling really generous or they are in trouble and are full of shit. But hey, it worked, because we bought it along with a lot of other people. Given that the deal is only available during lunch, reservations need to be made early to ensure a seat.

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The menu looked impressive on paper, so I was eager to find out just how good this “Michelin” feast is. By the way, I have doubts it’s even legal to use “Michelin” in promoting their restaurant because it doesn’t have any Michelin stars or chefs that once earned a Michelin star.

First up, French bread while I forgot to take a photo of. Basically just a typical bun with some olive oil dip.

Next, two appetizers. The first is a prime sirloin beef roll with truffle salad. It sounds awesome, but looks like this. It was pretty average, to be honest. The meat was not very tender and the flavours were too familiar.

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The other appetizer, a crispy pan-fried shrimp with salad. Not particularly memorable.

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Then it was time for a soup. You could choose a shrimp bisque or a clear seafood soup, and we both went for the former. The bisque looked good enough but was very average. There was just something missing.

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Next up, an entree before the main. We each got a serving of this Spanish Wagyu tapas with a crab “gnocchi” (really a pancake). The beef was fine and I liked the crab pancake, but the pastry wrapping the beef didn’t taste very fresh. I did like the red curry sauce on the side though.

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Then, it was time for the main courses, of which there were two. First, the prime sirloin with roasted garlic. It looked okay but I’ve had much much better steak. Wasn’t too bad with the onion garnish.

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The other was the pan fried chicken on top of creamy mashed potato. This turned out to be my favourite dish of the lot. The crispy chicken skin was prepared nicely and the mash was sublime. Unfortunately the chef out a little too much salt on the skin.

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After the mains they moved us to a small room for dessert. It was not the most comfortable of settings (you can see it along the back wall from the top photo), and the dessert was awful — soggy, cold, pre-prepared crepes and fruit. I don’t know when they prepared it but it was obvious they had just to take it out of the fridge. The post-meal beverage (coffee, tea, etc) was also just average.

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In all, it’s hard to imagine this meal being worth NT$980 a head, let alone NT$3402.5 per person. Strictly speaking it was not terrible, but when you charge a premium and put “Michelin” in the title you’re raising expectations pretty high. The truth is you can get better teppanyaki in a better setting in plenty of other places for that price range.

6.5/10

PS: The restaurant has apparently “extended” the Groupon deal.

Details

Ben Cuisine (Wagyu) (犇和牛館)

Website: http://www.bencuisine.com/

Address: No. 4-1, Lane 102, Section 1 Anhe Road, Da’An District, Taipei (nearest MRT Xinyi Anhe, exit 1)

Phone: (02) 2703 2296

Hours: Monday-Sunday (11:30-14:30, 17:30-22:30)

‘No Menu’ Teppanyaki at Shen Yen (Yilan)

August 10, 2015 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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We went to Yilan on a family vacation a couple of months ago (yes, this is how far behind I am) and, of course, planned the entire trip around what restaurants we were going to eat at. After some research, we put Shen Yen (饗宴), a no-menu teppanyaki restaurant, at the top of the list.

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As with most restaurants in the countryside, Shen Yen doesn’t look particularly extravagant from the outside or the inside. In Taiwan, the decor would indicate a mid-range restaurant, though in Yilan it’s one of the most expensive places you can visit.

They have two levels but there aren’t that many seats, so reservations are a must. Everyone is seated around the teppanyaki grill for the main meal, which has more dishes than I can count, and will be moved to a separate table seating area for the dessert.

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While there is no menu you choose your sets by price range, which go from NT$1600 to NT$1800 to NT$2000. I don’t exactly know the difference, but I was told that the higher the price the better quality the ingredients. Given that this was likely once in a lifetime, we went all out with the $2000 set.

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Everyone gets one of these triple sauce trays — a tangy soy-based dressing, onion garnish and pickled vegies. They go well either by themselves or with any of the meats dishes.

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Interestingly, the first dish is fruit with some nuts. Chinese restaurants usually serve fruit at the end, but I didn’t mind trying some of the Yilan fruit produce to kick things off. It’s supposed to be good for digestion. Taiwanese fruit is the best. The best.

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Next up, some sashimi. The first was extremely fresh. The wasabi is also freshly made and is supposed to be from Taiwan’s famed Alishan.

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We also got some of these cold cut bamboo shoots — proud local produce — along with some fish roe. Very refreshing.

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Next up, the first hot dish, fresh prawns. The chef even taught us how to peel them. Massive and juicy, and the natural flavours alone were sufficient.

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The chef then began preparing scallops and meats.

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I love scallops. This was perhaps a little too well done for my liking but it’s easy to tell how fresh it is.

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This was one of my favourites, a cheese roll with fish inside. The Parmesan was really crispy and flavoursome and the fish inside was only seared, not full cooked. My kids loved it.

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This is one of Yilan’s most popular dishes, the cherry duck. It wasn’t as mindblowing as the cherry duck I had the last time I was in Yilan but it was still pretty good.

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Beef fillets. Steak is always good, and it was interesting getting a different type of experience with each bite by mixing the cubes with fried garlic, sea salt, black pepper and white pepper.

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Abalone. Fresh from the tank.

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This one was incredible. Basically a beef dumping with foie gras inside. The juices just explode in your mouth.

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This was a tangy, saucy, slightly spicy creation with lots of mushrooms. Reminded me kung pao chicken. I haven’t seen this one in a lot of other food blogs, so perhaps it’s a seasonal inclusion.

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Lobster with sea urchin sauce. If you’ve had sea urchin sauce before you’ll know it’s very sweet, and when you squeeze some lemon on top it’s just divine. There wasn’t as much lobster meat as I had expected though.

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A simple grilled dish with salt and pepper. It’s good for what it is.

We moved to the table section for the last few dishes. This is a baby dried shrimp fried rice.

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And this is a very exquisite seafood soup with lots of goodies inside.

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Lastly we were treated to beverages (tea, coffee, juice, etc) and this slightly underwhelming chestnut cake. I was looking forward to something more chocolaty, personally. Shame we didn’t have more choice for this one.

As you can imagine, we were absolutely stuffed after this meal. The servings were not big, but when there are so many dishes they add up. By the end I was overflowing. So basically what I’m saying is that you probably don’t need to get the NT$2000 set. Judging from other food blogs it seems you more or less get the same things as the cheaper sets expect they tack on a few additional dishes. I don’t think it’s worth it.

In all, Shen Yen was a solid experience, but it’s not a place I’d be rushing back to if I were in Yilan again. For the same price you could get a much more comfortable experience in Taipei, though I understand the appeal of Shen Yen is that you get a lot of local produce that’s extremely fresh, and the enjoyment comes from the natural flavours more than any culinary additions. As a bit of a picky eater, I’m also not a huge fan of the no menu idea because it limits your options.

7.5/10

PS: Look for the photo of Jay Chou near the toilets.

Details

Shen Yen Teppenyaki (饗宴食坊)

Address: No. 326, Hebin Rd, Luodong Township, Yilan County

Phone: 03-965-7998

Trésors de la Mer (Taipei)

April 29, 2015 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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I’m not much of a seafood guy, to be honest — too much trouble getting all that shell off, sorting through bones and putting up with potential skin allergies — so I had never heard of Addiction Aquatic Development, basically a fish market joint owned by the Japanese cuisine juggernaut Mitsui Group.

The website can explain the place better than I can, but essentially they offer many different types of ways you can eat fresh seafood. There’s a supermarket with a lot of sashimi, sushi and bento; a stand-around sushi bar where they make the stuff fresh; a hotpot area; a grill/BBQ section; and a proper restaurant — Trésors de la Mer .

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The view from the second floor of Trésors de la Mer

The restaurant also serves fresh seafood, which you can choose yourself from the tanks and iced section outside the front door.

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They have set specials (in Chinese only) that range from NT$1,280 to NT$2,280 per person (minimum 6 per table), but as I am quite picky with my seafood we decided to order a la carte.

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The seafood is REALLY fresh

The upstairs dining area is spread out but comfortable, and also surprisingly child-friendly.

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It’s all about the food, of course, so let’s check out what we got.

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First up, salmon sashimi. We only got salmon because that’s what we like, but we got half belly and half “normal.” Served on a bed of ice and with fresh lemon pieces, this was an absolute delight.

If you noticed that it is missing wasabi, it is because we have to grind it fresh ourselves.

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You get this plate with trapping holes in it and you have to grind a stick of Japanese horseradish to create the wasabi, which you then scrape to the edges with this wooden brush. It’s a lot of work, but totally worth it, because fresh wasabi is totally different to that processed stuff you mostly get and it’s fabulous.

If you order sushi, they will roll around a sushi cart and make it for you on the spot.

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I ordered a tuna one and it was just OK. Not enough tuna for the amount of rice you get and for the size of the dried seaweed sheet.

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One of the highlights was the prawns, seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic and served with a side of salad drizzled with a vinaigrette dressing. The prawns were just so fresh and succulent and makes you realise that freshness really makes a huge difference.

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To ensure we would we full, we ordered a stir-fry seafood and chicken udon. Also very good, with a thick but light sauce but not too starchy. The seafood again was fresh and the chicken was surprisingly succulent.

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I love scallops, so we got a couple of skewers of grilled scallops. It was fresh and flavoursome, though in hindsight seared might have been better because scallops are more awesome when they are raw.

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The biggest surprise of the meal was the fish. It looked small and dry, but boy was it marvellous. With just a dash of salt and lemon, the natural flavours were allowed to shine through, and despite being grilled it was so fresh it almost melts in your mouth with a natural moistness.

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Lastly, you get a plate of fresh fruit — in this case sweet pineapple, bell fruit and guava.

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After sampling the meal at Trésors de la Mer I can definitely understand why Addiction Aquatic is such a popular destination for tourists, especially those from Hong Kong and Japan. If you love seafood, there’s probably no better place to visit in Taipei.

8.5/10

Details

Trésors de la Mer

Website: http://www.addiction.com.tw/lamer/

Address: Level 2, No.20, Aly. 2, Ln. 410, Minzu E. Rd., Zhongshan Dist., Taipei City

Hours: 11:00-24:00 (Addiction Aquatic open 6:00-24:00)

Phone: +886-2-2508-1268