Trésors de la Mer (Taipei)

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

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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

Movie Review: Lucy (2014)

September 12, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Lucy is a big deal in Taiwan. About half the movie was shot in Taipei, which is why locals have been so supportive by flocking to see it by the truckloads, turning the sci-fi action flick into the No. 2 film at the domestic box office for 2014 (behind — you guessed it — Transformers: Age of Extinction). The film’s reception in Taiwan has been somewhat muted. Some people say it’s awesome, while others have given it the lukewarm “It’s OK.” No one in the country really wants to say it. So I will. Lucy sucked.

Our eponymous protagonist, played by Scarlett Johannson, is a young woman living in Taipei who becomes an unwilling drug mule to some Korean gangsters. During her ordeal something happens, opening up her brain capacity from the normal (mythical) human 10% and accelerating it towards 100%. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know some crazy stuff goes down. She doesn’t just become a smart gal. She becomes a freaking superhero who would shit all over the Avengers if they ever met in a dark alley (and yes, that includes the Black Widow).

It sounds like a cool idea, and writer and director Luc Besson (who is also very popular in Taiwan) clearly thinks so too. But for a movie about an unfathomably intelligent being, Lucy is remarkably stupid. Stories about maximizing human brain capacity are not novel — Bradley Cooper gave it a shot in the flawed but vastly superior Limitless back in 2011 — but in Lucy the enhanced brain functions are taken to a whole new level, giving her ever-expanding supernatural powers like telekinesis, super-hearing, mind-reading, shape-shifting, tapping into electronic signals, controlling gravity, expert marksmenship, time travel, etc — you name it, Lucy can do it. And you thought the stuff Johnny Depp could do in Transcendence was ridiculous.

So basically, any semblance of real science goes out the window. The film is more or less a superhero action flick, and everything about it — from the tone of the film and its completely over-the-top action scenes to the way she transforms after gaining her powers — tells us not to take things too seriously. And yet, Lucy lacks the elements of what makes a superhero movie good. The problem lies with the complete lack of character development, or rather, the reversing development in her character. Lucy started off semi-likable, but the more powerful she grew the less human she became. She loses her morals and emotions. She essentially (and quite literally) turns into a machine — and we don’t give a shit.

When a film fails to make any emotional connection we start looking for something else, and in this case it’s the action. Lucy is adequate in this regard but nothing special. There is one scintillating car chase scene through the streets of a major city, but apart from that there’s not much we haven’t seen before. One of the reasons the action fails to truly excite is because Lucy becomes so powerful that she has no enemy who could provide the film with some much-needed conflict or tension. There’s no formidable foe or arch nemesis to give us the type of showdown a movie like this demands.

Worse still, Lucy has a distinct dearth of humour for a Luc Besson film. There’s a little bit of the usual cheekiness, perhaps, but there are no laughs to be found in Lucy, which is strange given the film’s farcical nature and tone. As for the performances, Johansson and Morgan Freeman are about as good as you could have expected, while the special effects are admittedly seamless, though both are things we tend to take for granted these days.

Unfortunately, my gripes go deeper than that. For all the hoopla about filming in Taiwan, it turns out that those scenes could have been shot anywhere. So we see some shots of the busy Taipei streets and various angles of Taipei 101. Big deal (sadly, for some Taiwanese audiences, that’s enough to make the movie great). We actually have no idea what the heck Lucy is even doing in Taiwan. We know she lives there and she appears to be a student, but that makes no sense because she doesn’t know a lick of Mandarin. Moreover, the antagonists in the movie are Korean. We don’t know what they’re doing in Taiwan either. They don’t speak English or Mandarin. It just makes the whole Taiwan setting extremely pointless.

I consider myself quite a careless viewer in that I don’t usually notice holes in movie storylines, but in Lucy they were jumping out at me because they was so obvious. For example, when Lucy goes into a Taipei hotel to look for a Mr Jang, the receptionist connects her over the phone and acts as a translator between the two. The problem is, the receptionist is speaking Mandarin to Mr Jang and/or his henchmen, and we find out later that they’re all Korean! Or when Lucy is in Taiwan and tells Morgan Freeman that she’ll be at his place in Paris in 12 hours — except a direct flight from Taipei to Paris is 12 hours and 35 minutes, and she’s not even at the airport! And I haven’t even talked about how Lucy apparently loses most of her teeth at one stage, only to have them apparently all grow back (so she’s got Wolverine powers too?) or how she kills a whole bunch of innocent people for trivial reasons (or no reason at all), and yet spares all the bad guys who are hell bent on tracking her down and annihilating her. Just really careless, sloppy stuff.

Having said all that, I didn’t loathe Lucy, or at least not as much as I think I should. The film actually started off relatively strong and was packed with a decent level of intrigue, but the further along it went the more preposterous and — pardon my “political correctlessness” — retarded it became. Apart from all the batshit insane stuff Lucy was doing, the film was filled with trite philosophical BS pretending to give meaning to the story, complete with Terrence Malick Tree of Life-style random snippets of micro-organisms, (copulating) animals and outer space. And if that’s not crazy enough for you, the Akira-esque ending almost makes Muholland Drive seem logical

All of the above combines to make Lucy a trippy, messy, cheesy experience where the enjoyment level is heavily dependent on how much nonsense you can stomach. If you go into it knowing you’re about to see the dumbest action movie of the year rather than the intelligent sci-fi it appeared on paper, you might even find the silliness endearingly fun. For me, however, Lucy was just one big clusterWTF that’s neither clever nor funny, rarely exciting, and only passably entertaining.

1.75 stars out of 5

Pizza/Pasta at Primo Trattoria (Taipei)

July 22, 2013 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel

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I’m working backwards at the moment through my backlog of restaurant reviews, which has gotten so long that some of the restaurants on the list have gone out of business.

Anyway, prior to the birth of our second child, my wife and I went on a mission to try as many restaurants in Taipei as possible (for us that meant one a week). One of the highly recommended Italian joints we kept hearing about and reading about online is Primo Trattoria, a classy looking establishment a short walk from the Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT station (on the blue line).

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The great thing about this place, apparently, is that it has a rather affordable lunch special and offers a wide variety of pastas, risottos, main courses and pizzas. I love gourmet pizzas, so expectations were high.

We made a reservation for Friday lunch but the reservation wasn’t really necessary as there were plenty of empty seats available. As you can see from the lunch special menu, you can choose a pasta set for NT$300, a pizza set for NT$320, or a special course (fish or chicken in this case) for NT$400. Each set comes with a salad, soup and beverage of your choice. Good value.

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We ended up ordering a set each — the shrimp penne with lemon and cream sauce, and the homemade sausage pizza with onion, peppers and chilli.

The salad serving was decent in size and came with croutons and cheese but the dressing felt lighter than the usual Caesar they give you. It was OK, felt like it had been in the fridge for quite some time.

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The soup was relatively slight despite the use of cream and felt like it was made with fresh ingredients. I quite liked it considering it was different to the usual lunch set soup I was used to.

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As for the mains, I was a bit disappointed in the pasta. I thought it would have been awesome but lemon goes all wrong with cream sauce, giving it an unnaturally sour taste that made me suspect that the sauce had gone off or something. The pizza, on the other hand, was acceptable but nothing special. The size was pretty small, and while the crust was nicely done the toppings didn’t have enough flavour and were crying out for some Tabasco sauce. The homemade sausage, in particular, looked and tasted just like regular bacon pieces.

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Shrimp Penne with Lemon and Cream Sauce

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Homemade Italian Sausage Pizza

So on the whole, I suppose Primo Trattoria offers good value for lunch, but the quality of the food didn’t impress me. Perhaps I didn’t order the right dishes, but either way, I don’t think I’ll be going back.

6.5/10

Details

Primo Trattoria

Address: No. 14, Lane 107, Section 1, Fuxing South Road, Taipei (nearest MRT: Zhongxiao Fuxing)

Phone: (02) 2711-1726

Hours: 11:30am-10pm (11pm on Fridays and Saturdays)

Book Review: ‘Cybercrime in the Greater China Region’ by Lennon Yao-chung Chang

July 1, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

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Hey look, this is not the type of book I would usually read out of interest, but since I reviewed it for a trade publication a couple of months ago and found it pretty interesting I thought I would share my thoughts.

The full title of this 2012 book is Cybercrime in the Greater China Region: Regulatory Responses and Crime Prevention Across the Taiwan Strait. It is the PhD thesis of Taiwan-born Lennon Yao-chung Chang at Australia National University. It might sound kinda boring — and there are stretches that remind you very clearly that this is an academic paper — but there are plenty of interesting ideas here because of the fascinating political dynamics at work between Taiwan and China, both of which rank near or at the top in terms of malicious internet activity (in terms of perpetrators and victims).

As this is a relatively untapped area of research, the paper does suffer from limited access to data, especially in China, where every question from a Taiwanese academic would naturally be met with scepticism. The majority of information is therefore accumulated through empirical data and interviews with internet professionals in the private and public sectors and law enforcement on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Don’t worry if you don’t know much about Taiwan-China relations, cybercrime laws or internet terminology, because those are the things Chang addresses first in the book. He combs through the political situation between the two countries and the official lines of “reunification” and “independence”, and how this would pose difficulties in co-operative cybercrime investigation, prosecution, enforcement, and the concept of dual criminality. He also discusses at some length the legislative provisions from both countries — some of which, particularly in Taiwan, were not developed until only a few years ago (to my surprise, given Taiwan’s reputation as a technology leader).

Chang also explains what are malware, torjans, viruses and bots, which can turn computers effectively into “zombies” that can then be controlled to attack others. The problem with these cybercrime tools is that they adhere well to criminal theory — low cost, low risk and high reward, lots of opportunities and targets, and the lack of a proper reporting system.

The leading legal document tackling international cybercrime is the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime, but it happens to be relatively useless to both China and Taiwan. The problem with China is that they are just not that interested in the convention because its laws are too different, and more importantly, the Chinese government wants (or arguable needs) to maintain more control over its internet channels at the expense of the privacy and free speech of its citizens. On the other hand, Taiwan would love to be involved, but it’s not recognised as a country by signatories and is not part of the United Nations.

While the China and Taiwan have in place a number of cooperation agreements between non-governmental organizations that could potentially cover cybercrime, laws still cannot be enforced without government assistance. There are, of course, no official bilateral agreements between the two countries on cybercrime.

The discussions about these diplomatic difficulties and contradictions are where the book gets most interesting. China is really only willing to co-operate with Taiwan if it is also a victim of the same crime, and even then, there are the complexities of the Chinese concepts of guan-xi (personal relationships) and ren-qing (favours) which could prove to be huge stumbling blocks in any joint effort. Even the latest debacle involving Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who spilled the beans on US internet and phone surveillance, shows just how hard it is to get anything done when Beijing is involved.

The parts of the book I enjoyed the most were the painfully hilarious interviews with Taiwanese experts and officials on cybercrime issues. The problem with Taiwan’s cybercrime enforcement can be summed up as follows: the people who understand the law don’t understand the technology; the people who understand the technology don’t understand the law; the people who want to change the law don’t have the power; and the people who have the power don’t want to change the law. On top of that, all cybercrime investigation teams in the country are pitifully small and often can’t be bothered chasing cybercriminals because of the low success rate.

My favourite quote from the whole book comes from a Taiwanese cybercrime professional. The quote, sadly, would be less funny if it weren’t so true:

Even if the laws are adequate, our…judges and prosecutors are all IDIOTS in the area of technology. This is what I feel ashamed of…We have advanced laws, retarded law enforcement officers, and an insufficient law enforcement system…Almost all the law enforcement officers, around 99% of them are idiots, what can we do? That is nothing to do with laws. Brains need to be changed. What I am always emphasizing is that courts need to be professional. If judges are not professional, then how can we persuade others that our courts are professional?

So how does Chang suggest we can change the situation? Well, the last portion of the book is dedicated to his recommendation, which is to develop a “wiki” approach to cybercrime that embraces an information-sharing platform with a gatekeeper and very specific protocols. The voluntary Aviation Safety Reporting System is noted as a possible blueprint.

Chang also calls on the media, especially in Taiwan, to not sensationalise cybercrime and to change the “image” of the victims, who often do not report out of fears of losing face and being audited. He compared the victims of cybercrime to the victims of sexual assault and infectious diseases in the sense that there is a stigma attached to them — this has to be changed in order for cybercrime enforcement to take the next step, he says.

Giving this kind of book a rating is difficult because as an academic paper it lacks of proper narrative thread and has many dry patches that could put anyone not using the book for research (and probably them too) to sleep. The fact that English is not Chang’s first language often sticks out like a sore thumb, notwithstanding the best efforts of his editors. The lack of data and cooperation from China was also frustrating at times. But I suppose for an academic paper it does have some very interesting sections and even a few that I found quite funny. Given the dearth of information available about this topic for now, the book is also possibly the most authoritative piece of research on it, so extra brownie points for that.

But let’s not pretend anyone would read it unless they had to.

3/5

Ippudo ramen: Japan vs Hong Kong vs Taiwan

April 28, 2013 in Food, Hong Kong, Japan, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel

In 2002, I bought a guide book on all the best ramen restaurants in Kyoto and went about sampling them, one by one. There were two, in the end, that stood above the rest, and one of them was the legendary Ippudo (known in some parts as Hakata Ippudo). At the time, the ramen chain was exclusive to Japan, but has since expanded to New York, Taiwan, Shanghai, Singapore and even Sydney.

I have now tried Ippudo restaurants in Kyoto, Hong Kong and Taipei. Is it true what they say that the original is still the best? Read on to check out my comparisons.

Kyoto, Japan

I have been to the Ippudo restaurant near Kyoto’s famous Nishiki markets probably close to a dozen times, most recently during my trip to Japan in March.

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Inside the Ippudo Nishikoji store in Kyoto, Japan

It’s a small place, with a large group table out the front and a long row of bar tables in the back. The lines are usually long and brutal, though the turnover is quick and the wait could be shorter than it looks.

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The Japanese menu

The menu is relatively simple. In 2002, the big hit was the Akamaru Shinaji, the second from the right, which has a white soup base with a blob of red paste that is like an explosion of flavour. The pork (chashu) is also exquisite and has fatty bits that melt in your mouth. Eleven years later, it’s still my favourite, and the one I always get when I go to Ippudo. The Shiromaru Motoaji flavour (the one on the far right) is for those who like their ramen a little lighter, as some people I’ve spoken to think the Akamaru is a little on the heavier side. The Ippudo Karakamen (middle on menu) is for those who like their noodles spicy.

In Japan, they place a lot of emphasis on the hardness of the noodles (which you can dictate), and many locals also ask for a bowl of plain white rice to offset the heaviness of the flavour. Or if you’re like me, you’ll grab some fresh garlic from the table, crush them, and toss them into the soup for an extra kick.

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Free pickled vegetables, sauces and garlic

As you can see from the menu, there is also fried rice, but not many people order those. One thing I used to get but not this time is the gyoza (pan fried dumplings). It’s pretty good to add on if you are hungry.

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The best: Ippudo’s Akamaru Shinaji

So of course, I got the Akamaru Shinaji, which is as good as it always has been. The mix of flavours is just perfect. The missus, on the other hand, ordered the new one, the “special” (Tokusei) ramen third from the left. It’s actually very similar to the Akamaru but has thicker slices of stewed pork and additional toppings such as a wonton and an egg.

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Ippudo’s Tokusei Ramen

The outcome for both bowls was identical.

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The inevitable conclusion

It’s hard to describe the excellence of Ippudo in words. You know how a lot of ramen places use dodgy noodles that are not much better than instant noodles? Ippudo noodles are not like that — they are proper ramen noodles with the proper texture and bite. The soup is not just soy sauce or miso or salt or even just tonkotsu (ie broth made with bones) — it’s some special super recipe where the soup is cooked for hours and the flavour really penetrates all the way through. The meat is perhaps not the best I’ve had but it’s up there. And throw on the toppings, and what you end up with is about as close to perfect as you can get for a regular bowl of ramen.

10/10

Japanese website: http://www.ippudo.com/index.html

Address (Nishikoji store): 653-1 Nakagyo-ku Babtouyacho Nishiki Bldg 1F 604-8143

Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

There are now four Ippudo restaurants in Hong Kong, and the one I went to last year was in Causeway Bay (the others are in Kowloon, Central and Admiralty). It was a killer wait, and to manage the crowd they had a convenient ticket system.

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You can look at the fake ramen while you wait for the real one at Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

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Or you can look at all the other patrons enjoying their meals

The inside of the restaurant is pretty big and spacious, with lots of share tables and benches. It can get crazy crowded during lunch time as the office workers love to go there for a quick and tasty meal.

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Inside the Causeway Bay Ippudo

The full menu can be found online (here), and as you can see it is quite different to the Japanese one. Of course there is the Akamaru Shinaji and the Shiromaru, but in Hong Kong you can also get this meaty miso flavoured one, a plain Tokyo soy sauce one (I’d never get this) and a Sapporo-style miso one. The toppings are similar but the side dishes are more localized and varied, including a tofu hot pot, steamed dumplings, spring rolls, rice balls and an open bun with chashu pork inside.

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The HK menu

The condiments are also similar but from memory there is no extra garlic or pickled vegetables.

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It took a bit of a wait but the Akamaru I ordered was worth it.

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The HK version looks similar but still tastes a little different

The ramen is supposed to be exactly the same but it wasn’t. Still sublime, but the flavour just wasn’t as deep as its Japanese counterpart. Maybe the Honkies were stingier on the sauces and toppings, I dunno.

We also ordered a fried chicken (karaage) and some additional toppings which comprised half a boiled egg, some extra meat and bamboo shoots. See below.

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If I hadn’t tried the Japanese Ippudo before I’d probably think Hong Kong’s one is the greatest ever, but since I have, I must say it’s not quite there, though I cannot pinpoint anything specific to criticise.

9.5/10

HK website: http://www.ippudo.com.hk/en/index.html

Address (Causeway Bay store): 2/F, 8 Russell Street, Causeway Bay

Taipei, Taiwan

Lastly, the first Ippudo restaurant in Taipei, which I visited several weeks after it opened last year. Taiwanese people were going crazy over the opening and the lines were ridiculous. Things have since died down a little especially with the opening of a second store, but it can still get insane at times during peak hours.

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Waiting with the crowds outside Ippudo Taipei (Zhongshan store)

The interior is also pretty big, more spacious than the Kyoto store and with more private space. There are lot of individual tables, so it’s great for people who prefer not to table-share.

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Inside the Taipei Ippudo

The Taiwanese menu is different as well. You can get the whole menu online (here). It is closer in variety to the HK one than the Japanese one, with a lot of interesting sides. The ramen section features the Akamaru and Shiromaru, but also a spicy ramen, cold ramen and chicken/pork ramen, which looks pretty unusual.

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Taiwan’s Ippudo menu

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More menu items

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More of the menu

  The Akamaru Shinaji reigned supreme again for me.

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Taiwan’s Ippudo Akamaru Shinaji

As you can see from the above photo, the ramen looks a little different to the Japanese and HK versions. It’s stronger in colour and appears to have more sauces. The result is a ramen that tasted too heavy for my liking. By the mouthful, it’s still brilliant, but I would say it’s a step below its foreign counterparts. Maybe it’s the local ingredients or the chef’s penchant for adding an extra dollop of flavouring — either way the equilibrium was off just that little bit.

For the sides we got two very safe options — a cucumber with peanut sauce, which I loved (everything with peanut sauce is great), a spicy red oil bean sprouts with chashu, and a guabao (open bun) with fried prawns and spicy mayo. They were all pretty good, as evidenced by the photos below.

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Overall, I’d say the Taipei restaurant was the weakest of the three I have sampled in terms of the Akamaru Shinaji. The Japanese one was perfect, the HK one was just a little bit less awesome, and the Taiwanese one was too strong and heavy. But the Taiwanese sides are great and salvage the score somewhat.

8.5/10

Taiwanese website: http://www.ippudo.com.tw/index.asp

Address (Zhongshan store): No. 85, Section 1, Zhongshan North Road, Taipei

PS: Price-wise, a regular bowl of Akamaru Shinaji costs 800 yen in Japan (AU$8) , HK$68 in Hong Kong (AU$8.50) and NT$230 in Taiwan (AU$7.60). Not surprisingly, a steaming bowl of Akamaru Shinaji in Sydney will set you back AU$16. Ridiculous but in line with the market, I suppose.