Friday, March 18, 2011

The Best Sweets and Desserts in Taipei

Ah, the Pacific Rim. So much about the food here is unparalleled - and yet it can be really hard to find decent sweets (and baked goods - no, I do not want my bread bun covered in mayonnaise). Local sweets can be "good enough" - I'm OK with Japanese chocolate, those caramel candies that come in different flavors, coffee, tea, mango and rose candies from Japan or Indonesia and maybe, just maybe, the "Italian" chocolate mousse cake from Cafe 85 (the only good thing they make, and it's not stupendous). On a hot day I love a good mango shaved snowflake ice, and on a cold day hot ginger dou hua (tofu pudding in sweetish broth) can be lovely.

But, let's face it, the sweets we all keep coming back to hail from the West. Asia may be neck-in-neck (if not ahead) with us when it comes to first-rate food, but we rule the roost in sweets. Not so in India, where I was amazed to lose weight considering the sheer volume of milksweets, samiya payasam, kheer, halwa and gulab jamun I ingested, but definitely so in East Asia. (There was one sweetmaker in Madurai who made these round Indian milksweets reminiscent of maple candy that would melt in your mouth in the most delightful way - if I ever find him again I'll import him to Taiwan).

There are places in Taipei to get your sweet on, however. Lots of them. This is a fairly small list of all that's available - just naming some of my favorites. I've put the two places to get fantastic high-end European-style noms at the top, with more common - but just as delicious - options below.

1.) Caffe Libero
#1 Lane 243 Jinhua Street, Da'an Dist. Taipei (near Yongkang St).

They close at 6 on Sundays (for shame!) and have good, but not mindbendingly tasty, coffee. In the back, however, through some darkly-lit rooms, there is a small French-style patisserie that makes some of the most delectable goodies in Taipei. We're talking the real deal, high-end Paris cafe goodies. The care and quality of the choices reminds me of when I was actually in Paris (for four days, with my parents, not some exciting and wild trip) and we stopped in a little pastry shop to try a few things - we did that a lot: we stopped the next day in a famous chocolate shop and bought chocolates, too. I picked out a little tart, glistening with apricot glaze, ringed by a crumbly, buttery crust and bursting at the top with plump strawberries in that ripe shade of red that screams "eat me", pushed down gently into a soft, forgiving custard.

I've never forgotten that tart, and though I didn't order the tart at Caffe Libero, the taste and quality of the dainties we did order brought back the memory. I especially recommend the blackcurrant-pistachio sweet - in alluring shades of of deep pink and soft green, it's unforgettably good.

#125 Zhongyang Road, Xindian (MRT Xiaobitan, Exit 2, turn right)

Go for the great Italian food, and stay for dessert. We had a plate of three - an Italian cheesecake, a brownie and a tiramisu. All three were over-the-moon delicious - I especially recommend the brownie. It was velvety on the inside, chock full of chocolate but not too sweet, with a slightly crisp crust that gives a delightful mouthfeel. We had them with grappa but you might prefer them with coffee.

Wenzhou St. just south of Xinhai Rd., Taipei

While not haute cuisine like the two listings above, this is undoubtedly the best hot chocolate in Taipei (the waffles are good enough, but the hot chocolate is truly memorable). It's as though they took six months' worth of a normal person's chocolate consumption and concentrated it into one mug. I'm not sure how they do it - with real chocolate or just lots of good quality cocoa powder and cream - but someone there has a magic recipe. They offer it in several flavors - try the Wild Aztecah, which features a hit of spice along with some alcohol.

#3 Lane 93 Shi-da Road, Taipei

I know that Hungry Girl didn't care for the place, but I still go there as my main source of American-style baked goods (I go to Cafe Goethe, below, if I want more German-style sweets). The cakes are just the sort of sugar frenzies you'd want at a good birthday party, and are always soft and moist. They do a great apple pie with Grandma-style crust (sweet, a bit crunchy, puffed up from cooking) and a delicious, homemade filling dotted with raisins like sweet little jewels. Very good with espresso.

5.) Beard Papa - creampuffs
Breeze Taipei Main

This Japanese brand makes the best cream puffs I've tried outside Europe (and I've eaten a lot of cream puffs in Europe - no, I don't call them profiteroles). They're big and chock full of flavorful vanilla cream with a crust that is just the right balance of soft and crispy: almost so big as to be sinful. When my uncle was married (the first time) in England, they had a croquembouche as their wedding cake - the profiteroles stacked to create it were passed around with strings of spun sugar still attached and chocolate sauce for dipping, and it was divine. The puffs themselves, though delicious, were rather small - not a bad thing, but contrasting that to the giant Beard Papa creampuff you're eating might make you feel as though you are making a glutton of yourself with more than your fair share of the world's goodness.

Several locations across Taipei - best ambiance at Huashan restaurant

Be careful of overcharging here (it happened to us/people I know twice and while I can excuse the confusion over one bill - which we had to correct three times - as the result of a newbie in dire need of experience, I can't help but suspect it's done on purpose when it then happens to someone else I know at the same location), but as long as you keep a wary eye on the bill, be sure to try the tiramisu.

Tiramisu at Johnny Cucina Italiana is light fare of impeccable quality and layers of flavoring - cocoa, cream, coffee, liqueur. Alley Cat tiramisu is a big, soft, messy square of deliciousness often served in tinfoil. If made well, it's soaked with alcohol and can be enjoyed just for what it is: something you don't eat delicately with a tiny gold fork but something you dig into with vigor as you finish the last of your beer.

7.) Cafe Goethe - German cakes and pies
#11 Lane 283 Roosevelt Rd. Sec 3 (near Sai Baba pita bar)

Ever been to Cakelove in Washington, DC? The owner bakes is his cakes the way your German great-grandmother might have done. They're thick, they're heavy, they've got more butter in them than you care to think about, you can pick the slices up with your hand as you eat them and they are utterly delicious (and filling).

Cafe Goethe's cakes are made on much the same principle - they're as delicious as they are stolid. Where Caffe Libero's fare is a flighty French maid flitting about in Belle Epoch buildings, Cafe Goethe's sizeable cakes are pushing plows in the field.

My husband has never cared much for citrusy sweets (lemon cookies, lime bars, orange chocolate etc.) and even he thoroughly enjoyed a slice of their orange-flavored cake. Of their Sachertorte he said - "I have one word to describe this, besides delicious." "And what would that be?" "Structural."

Go for the cakes (and pies - they sometimes have good pies on offer), stay for the coffee which often comes as a deal with the cake. If your stomach can handle the onslaught, try some of their very good food and beer (I recommend the jagerschnitzel and the wursts sure look good).

Pick up some bread on the way out, too.

8.) Zabu - banana bread and chocolate brownie
#9-4 Pucheng Street Taipei (near Shi-da)

The desserts at this arty, indie-music supporting Japanese-style student cafe are served in Japanese portions: you don't get a lot, but what you get is high quality. The banana bread is stuffed with banana flavor, and the brownies are rich and chocolatey. The brownie comes with two choices: a brownie square a la mode, or two brownie squares (I always get the two squares).

9.) The Diner - cinnamon apple pancakes
#6 Lane 103 Dunhua S. Road Section 2 (and) Rui-an Street #145, Da'an Dist.

The Diner is often seen as the epicenter of good Western food in Taipei, and I'm not one to disagree (it's certainly better than Friday's - ugh). While they always tell me that they can't do coffee with whiskey although I know full well that they can and I have to argue with yet another new server, and while I wasn't blown away by their Eggs Benedict, I stand by their apple cinnamon pancakes as the best deal in town for sweet, syrup-drenched pancake goodness (I think it's fake syrup, though, which is sort of a crime).

10.) Taipei Snow King (台北雪王) - crazy flavored ice cream
#65 Wuchang Street, Taipei (near Ximen and Zhongshan Hall)

This place has its avid fans and its customers, unimpressed by offerings of Taiwan Beer, Kaoliang, pig's foot and chili pepper ice cream, who go away saying "meh", but I love the joint. It's small - easy to miss with no English sign and run mostly by a little old lady with a round, curly gray 'fro, and has the wildest ice cream in town (I'd say Movenpick has the "best" ice cream, but Taipei Snow King has the corner on uniqueness). Recommended: chili pepper, honey, wasabi, rose liqueur, plum wine, mint, cinnamon, ginger, carrot. If you try the Kaoliang (Gaoliang), get another scoop as a chaser. You'll need it - they use real Kaoliang in that stuff and the ice cream maker doesn't take away the potency!

11.) That German restaurant in Shinkong Mitsukoshi Xinyi: chocolate cake
Can't find the name or the address

I've never been able to find the name of this place and am too lazy to go back to Shinkong Mitsukoshi to check. It's a brewery-restaurant with decent beer (not as good as Jolly's brews), middling food (try Goethe instead) but really good chocolate cake. It's not heavy like Cafe Goethe or super sweet like My Sweetie Pie - it's just a soft, airy, chocolatey standard that you won't regret - and it goes well with dark beer.

12.) Taiwanese sweets: Mango Snowflake Ice and Hot Ginger Dou Hua
Mango Snowflake Ice: Sugar House @ Nanshijiao Night Market (entering the market from Nanshijiao MRT Exit 2, turn left at the T and it's on the right mid-way down) - Zhonghe, Taipei County

Hot ginger dou hua (薑汁豆花) - Sanxia Old Street, Sanxia, Taipei County (suck on that, KMT)

The Taiwanese do make a few local sweets worth mentioning. I'm not a fan of their sweet bread-based products, all the best chocolate is of course imported, the caramel candies are nice but not unforgettable, but they do a good shaved ice and dou hua.

Sugar House uses good fresh fruit (make sure to order in season though) - if you order mango or strawberry shaved ice in season you'll be in for a sweet treat. They also do good fresh smoothies.

I've always liked, but not loved, hot dou hua - the sweet broth is a bit too pallid for my taste and while the boiled peanuts, taro and sweet potato goo balls and red beans are nice additions, it doesn't bring it up to the level of true excitement. Add a little ginger juice, though, and suddenly it's one of my favorite things to eat during the gray Taipei winter. Sanxia is the best in northern Taiwan (Anping, one restaurant in particular on the old street, in an old brick house with a lion lintel, has the best all-around dou hua in Taiwan) and specializes in the ginger flavored variant.

13.) Bongo's - Sticky Toffee Pudding

The rest of the menu is at par but not really above-par, and there is better Western food to be had in Taipei (although I do enjoy their wraps). Really, go here for the used books and the toffee pudding - it's a cake-like thing, moist with soft boiled condensed milk toffee (the kind you'd find in banoffee pie) and topped with vanilla ice cream, and is generally just YUM.

14.) A bunch of places that surely exist, which I haven't tried yet

Among other places, you may have noticed that I didn't include Paul - a French bakery that actually bakes the sweets in France and flies them to Taipei. That's because I haven't been there - it's expensive as heck (more so than anything listed here) and I have heard that they bake the pastries in France and fly them in. I do think it is possible to make great sweets in Taipei and I find that flying them in from Europe is not only environmentally unfriendly, it's kind of pretentious. Why eat a pastry that's had time to go stale on a transcontinental flight when it is possible to make good pastries here? I'll stick with local and fresh, thanks.

I'm also a fan of Mom's Pies, but prefer My Sweetie Pie's apple pie and they're either back-of-a-van or delivery only. You can't go in and just have a slice of pie.

There are surely other places, as well, and I look forward to any recommendations you may have!


Kath said...

Oh wow. So many calories, so little time!!! Thanks for this fantastic list, you're a goddess. Top of my list to try is Goethe's. I like my cakes to be structural. I'm very British like that ;)

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I totally had this weird idea that you were from New Zealand (I have a friend who is both British and Australian so it's not that odd to me to meet someone with a British accent who didn't grow up in the UK)...

Kath said...

You're not wrong - I'm both too. British born, moved to NZ when I was 12. Sometimes I sound very Kiwi, sometimes more British :) Multiple accent disorder ;)

Cahleen @ The Alt Story said...

Great list, Jenna! I have to try these places. I tried a choccolate cake at My Sweetie Pie that tasted like a big brick of chocolate wax, and they kept messing up my friend's coffee and putting a ton of sugar in it so I haven't been back there. I like the way their stuff looked, but didn't care for the taste. Maybe I should give them another chance!

Anonymous said...

If you ever go to Sanxia Old St. (to visit Qingshui Zushi Temple) take the 916 or 922 into the new Beida area where the National Taipei University is. There on GuóXué St. (same street as the subway sandwich), you'll find the New City Bakery. It sells pizzas, burritos. But the thing you need to go for are the cakes: Mint Chocolate Cheesecake, Carrot Cake, Boston Cream Pie, to name a few. They are truly delicious and most importantly - authentic. The cheesecake is REALLY cheesecake. The carrot cake has an excellent frosting.

Nick Herman said...

A local friend took me to a place, i think near Shuanglian, that had the best tsua bing I've had in Taipei so far, and among the best mochi I've eaten. They also have an outlet near Zhongxiao Dunhua. I keep forgetting to take the business card and I don't remember the name of it, but my friend said it was kind of famous, although I didn't see any foreigners in either of the locations. In any case, it's awesome. A cut above the others I've been to. Do you know what I'm talking about? It really deserves to be known.

Byte's Worth said...

I’ve lived in Taipei for 9 years and highly recommend fellow dessert lovers to check out Yu Chocolatier (opened in 2015). To me, Yu’s creations are a cut above the rest in terms of taste, texture and freshness.

I love his “Black Forest” (served in a glass): Crème Chantilly and chocolate mousse over liquored cherries in chocolate cake. Flavourful yet light. Also love the chocolate raspberry choux pastry and chocolate tarts (7 types in all, using single origin chocolate from Valrhona, Chocolaterie de l’Opéra, Marou). Be sure to try Yu’s “Breath of Java” chocolate tart which has the smoky taste of dried longan inherent in Chocolaterie de l’Opéra’s single origin chocolate.

The passion fruit chocolate cake and lemon-basil tart are divine, as are the Chinese teas and hot chocolate (dark chocolate melted in milk, not made from cocoa powder). Yu’s dessert is made with just the right amount of sugar, cream and butter, so one can enjoy several cakes without feeling bloated.

Even their chocolate Madeleine is the best I’ve had so far, using Lescure french butter, with a piece of milk chocolate embedded. Although the dessert selection is quite limited, with just 5-6 items (NT$140-NT$180) and 11 handmade chocolate (NT$85 each), they are of very high quality.

Owner-chef Yu, who was trained in Ferrandi, Paris, is fluent in English and is happy to explain more about his creations.

Elegant space with only 8 seats, so a reservation is recommended. Minimum spend of NT$200 per head during weekend and public holidays; no service charge.

Address: No. 10, Alley 3, Lane 112, Sec. 4, Ren’ai Road, Taipei
Open: 12-8pm, close on Tuesdays
TVBS interview with owner-chef of Yu Chocolatier (Chinese):