Sunday, April 1, 2012

Tanuki Koji / 狸小路

Delicious (and expensive) beef skewers at Tanuki Koji

Tanuki Koji狸小路#93  Sec 2 Anhe Road, Taipei台北市大安區安和路2段93號(02)873-28555

Today shall be a day of restaurant reviews. I might write something thoughtful later, we'll see.

Since Dako went from being a lovely little hole-in-the-wall that served fantastic Japanese snacks and sake to being a boring paigu place with no sake, just Choya, beer and Calpis, I've been in the market for a good Japanese restaurant to add to my repertoire of place to eat and to take friends. Taipei has tons of Japanese food, but a lot of it could generously be called "fusion" (Taiwanese versions of "Japanese food"), or it's all sushi, or it's just not that good, or it's pedestrian (like the fried pork cutlets in curry sauce or the weird rice omelets), or it's way too chi-chi. I don't love dramatic lighting and black granite. I do love places that actually remind me of Japan: wooden walls and tables, large windows, screens,  high-low counters, charcoal wood, plain white canvas curtains, benches or izakaya tables. And that's Tanuki Koji.

So last week we went out with my sister to Tanuki Koji, a delicious but expensive restaurant and sake bar on Anhe Road (very close to the popular bars we never go to, and also close to Zoca Pizza). Yes, I do think it's funny that we live within walking distance of many of Taipei's expat bars, and you'll basically never find us in one.

Expensive but not impossible, well-appointed without being chi-chi, this place hits the spot.

I apologize now for the terrible quality of these photos: I didn't think to bring my camera (which is a massive older pro camera, not a teeny tiny pocket digital) so I just snapped a few shots with Brendan's iPod Touch.

I thought at first that we'd found a place that nobody had reviewed before, but of course, I was wrong, it was reviewed in the Taipei Times just a few months before I first moved to Taiwan in 2006, so I never saw it.

Tanukikoji's famous sea urchin
The sea urchin is rightfully famous -  sweet, subtly flavored, delicate, with just a tiny punch of salt from the bit of caviar set atop the slices that come served in a small martini-like glass. I'm really the sea urchin fan - Brendan merely thinks it's OK and doesn't see the point in spending that much money on something he won't savor. My sister likes it but not as much as I do. The two of us split this serving, leaving Brendan with none. NONE. Hahaha!

The sake we got was also excellent - NT800 for a small bottle but worth every penny, and served in a carafe with room for ice, which I appreciate. The staff can recommend sake based on what you order as well as what temperature you prefer your sake: I prefer it cold, although some sakes are better at room temperature or warm. This stuff went down super smooth and had a rich and complex flowery flavor (which you can probably tell from the label).

Another delicious and well-known dish is the cold tomato cooked in wine. It's topped with a mustardy, sesame-like cream sauce and is simple but delicious.

We also got the beef skewers (above) - which one rolls in the fried garlic provided - a grilled fish that has inedible skin (the skin, however, can be peeled off easily) but is meaty and delicious, and a plate of sushi that included an amazing tuna, a whitefish that was good but not memorable, a delicious cooked salmon, something else that was hard to identify (I think squid) and a few vegetable pieces with some egg pieces on the side. I appreciated that the wasabi was already added under the fish in the right amount for each serving - that shows attention to flavor and detail and is de rigueur in Japan. Finally, we tried the famous potato-cheese-roe dish, which I liked quite a bit but my sister merely thought was OK.

The restaurant itself is small - seating about 20 - and fills up quickly. We've walked by (we live in the area) and seen it packed, and they do take reservations. Even on a Sunday night we had to eat an clear out because they had a group coming. I love the atmosphere - this is the sort of place I'd expect to eat at in Japan itself, not a Taiwanese version of Japan. The sort of place I've been to with friends who live in Japan - where I've had more than one truly memorable culinary experience.

I'm not sure i'd call the food "fusion" as the review does - that kind of cheese/potato/roe dish is definitely the sort of thing I've come across in Japan (a place where I've had raw chicken sushi - yes you're reading that right - and chicken covered in caramelized onions and mayonnaise, and they cover all sorts of things in cheese and call it "foreign"). They serve food that might not fit someone's basic view of Japanese food, but that doesn't mean it's not the kind of food you can easily eat in Japan.

All in all a meal for 3 cost NT$3,250, so come prepared. That is a great price for eating out in Japan or the USA but is on the high end for Taiwan. Definitely in our budget (although we don't eat this expensively every week), but something that anyone looking to be economical should be aware of. I'm not surprised: good Japanese food does skew to the expensive side and it's not only in Da'an but on Anhe Road. You'll get a fantastic meal, but you'll pay for it.

Final word? Go here. It's amazing. If you're on a budget go for a special occasion. Take someone you want to impress there. If you're a little more free in your budget, just pop by.

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