Friday, December 7, 2012

BALLIN' at San Jing (三井)

三井 Mitsui Cuisine
B1 #108 Dunhua S. Road Section 1 (lower floor of the Fubon Building at Dunhua-Civic Blvd)

Sushi Express This Ain't: fried slices - all edible - of a local fish (金目鯛, I think) with a delicious little swirl of sushi at San Jing

Although I truly enjoy my work and getting to know my students, I know I complain a fair amount about it. The actual work is fantastic - it's the office that can really get me down. Fortunately now that I am a permanent resident, I've rejiggered my contract to be more like a freelancer or consultant than an employed trainer, and I don't have to deal with them often.

The good part of my job (which is quite distinct from the downside) includes several perks - for example, on occasion one of my students will have a dinner obligation when we are meant to have class, and rather than cancel or postpone the class, will invite me to attend as their guest.


So this week, I was really chuffed to get a phone call from a student who, instead of class as usual, had decided to invite me with his colleagues and peers for dinner at 三井 (Mitsui Cuisine) on Dunhua South Road.

San Jing, for those who don't know, is up there among the fanciest and most high-quality names in Japanese-style seafood in Taiwan. Oh yes, and it's famous. Not like when your neighborhood obasan tells you "this guy's soy milk is famous" famous, or "that dentist is famous" famous, but famous as in everybody has heard of it. When you tell a Taipei local "I'm eating at San Jing tonight", their eyes widen and they look at you like, "oh!" I had a student once tell me as class started that he ate at San Jing the previous weekend, and the entire class stopped and went "waaaah!". This was in Hsinchu, and even there everybody knew about this group of restaurants.

It's also killer expensive - at all locations except for their standing-room-only sushi bar in the Taipei Fish Market (Minzu N. Road), expect to pay NT$3,000+ for a top-end dinner. (At the sushi bar in the fish market, you can expect to pay closer to NT$1000-$1500). Some locations, such as the one in Taipei, are rumored to have an NT$500 lunch special.

Look at this glazed swordfish. Just look at it! I mean, look at it! SO GOOD.
I am not shy about saying it - I was quite excited to not only get to go to San Jing, and not only as someone's guest (you know how it goes, the bill comes and the foreign guest never even sees it let alone gets a chance to offer to pay or chip in), but also that I'd get paid to go. How sweet is that? So I threw on better clothes and hopped in a taxi.

It's not hard to go - you have to make reservations but they're not that hard to get, it seems. You shouldn't look slovenly (almost everyone else there will be in some form of business-appropriate dress, even if it's just a sweater and slacks), but you don't need to make any fashion statements or worry that you'll stick out. Taiwan is generally not super formal or snotty like that (one reason why I love it here). I've been wanting to go for awhile, but have always put off the splurge. Especially as Brendan, while he enjoys good food and seafood, doesn't find sushi to be among his top favorite cuisines and claims he really can't tell the difference between a finely crafted cut of sushi or sashimi and, say, Sushi Express.


It would be easy to say "yeah, it's expensive and pretentious and the food is good but frankly the night market is just as good and it's so much more real", but I can't say that. I might get hipster cred for it, but I can't.

Because THIS PLACE IS AMAZING. It would be a lie, a throw-you-into-the-pits-of-hell LIE, to say otherwise. And I can't lie, oh no. It's ridiculous. It's pants-creamingly supercalifragilistic.

First, the obvious: each ingredient, including the main bit of fish, is only of the highest quality, and cut and prepared right before it is served by people who really know what they're doing. That goes without saying. Each piece is prepared in just the right way to bring out the most complex, well-balanced flavors, even if it's just a simple cut of sushi.


More complex items are torched on the spot and topped with finely-crafted sauces and seasonings, like this tasty little number above (I shoved that delicious thing in my maw so fast that I didn't even think to ask what kind of fish it was, but worry not, I savored it slowly once it was safely in there, safely MINE, out of reach of those who might want to separate me from delicious, delicious sushi, mmmm). The sauce was yolky and lemony, with the seaweed and scallions giving it a hit of umami.

Another thing I appreciated were the details. The service was, as you'd expect, spectacular, with fresh tea appearing or sake filling my glass before I even realized I needed more. Even the smaller things, though, like the carefully designed lighting, this lovely little chopstick rest and the well-chosen plateware, did not go unnoticed.


Plus this one little thing that's kind of a big deal with me - good wasabi. From a distance it looks like just more of the cheap smeary stuff, but look closely, and you'll see that no, this is the freshly grated real deal. As an avid consumer of horseradish, wasabi, garlic (including raw), mustard and all preserved things (including preserved tofu, Indian pickle and kimchi), I like my strong flavors well-made and high quality.


Just like at my favorite izikaya, Tanuki Koji, San Jing will recommend sake that tastes best served at your preferred temperature. Some got warm sake - I got some served cold along with another guest because that's just what I was feeling like. The two of us managed to finish the bottle - fortunately, I can hold my liquor.


But more about the food. This here is trout wrapped in its own skin, with a touch of sliced cucumber and scallion. I usually don't go in for fish skin, but this was done to perfection, served at just the right texture of mouth-meltiness and at a pleasant temperature. We were also served lightly glazed and seared skewers of belly from the same trout, but I don't have a good picture of those.


Then there was the shrimp. You could eat some of what was in the head, but that was mostly for decoration. The calamansi (that tiny orange) is squeezed over everything else, and then you can enjoy a variety of textures on one plate: soft sea urchin over rice, softshell fried shrimp legs and a slice of shrimp sushi with roe.


Then there was the eel. I love eel. Look at how perfect this eel sushi is. Most places just plop some braised eel on some rice and hold the slippery mess together with sushi, and don't bother about whether the tiny bones are easy or pleasant to eat or not. Not here - here you get a firm little cut of eel, perfectly seasoned, without being too slippery, sweetly flavored or gooey. The bones are, if anything, enjoyable to eat. The mouthfeel of this little masterpiece was mind-blowing.


魯肉飯 (stewed meat rice) is a Taiwanese staple, usually made with braised/stewed meat and served cheaply at street stalls, This "stewed meat rice" is made with tendon and is noticeably different from and higher quality than the street version (I didn't say "better" because I appreciate the stuff on the street for different reasons). I usually don't go for tendon, either, but this was so perfectly done that it had the mouthfeel of well-made muscle meat, not the typical hard-and-chewy texture of ligament and tendon. The sauce had a delightful fragrance and was neither too sweet nor too salty, and it was topped with just enough pork floss sprinkles (I believe that's what it was anyway) to give it more complexity without the pork floss flavor overwhelming it or being noticeable on its own.


And now, for dessert. A fruit plate was to be eaten first - the idea being that the sweetness of the selected fruits (canteloupe, grapes and wax apple) would properly prepare your palate for the sweets to come later. Then, this little delight: grapefruit ambrosia - I don't know what else to call it, the flesh of the grapefruit in some sort of creamy yet firm grapefruit mousse - wrapped in dried Japanese persimmon.


Then there was matcha tea ice cream (which tasted great - very creamy and flavorful, not like the mostly-vanilla green-colored "matcha ice cream" at many buffets and hot pot restaurants - but looked pretty normal, so I didn't include picture).

And then, this:


A custardy delight, light and airy, topped with lime zest and a passionfruit sauce (again, the real deal, not the syrupy sweet yellow stuff you see elsewhere) and slices of honeydew and cantaloupe to provide a counterpoint to the sweet, fluffy mousse-like, panna cotta like custard - set atop a not-too-sweet moist cake with a hint of brown sugar, and surrounded by sweet flakes that packed just enough crunch to add texture. They did not detract from but rather highlighted the creamy and fruity textures of the rest of the dish. The coffee and tea that came with it was also quite lovely - the coffee was light, not strong, but while I usually go for richly flavored light and medium roasts or very well done espresso, I admit that the lighter flavor of this coffee better balanced with the delicate, otherwordly flavors of the rest of our meal. It was an appropriate choice.

All I can say is that if you like sushi and want to get spendy, this is the place to go. A few other foreigners were also dining there, and didn't seem to be enjoying themselves (my guess was that they were at more serious business dinners - I felt quite lucky that my "business dinner" was basically laughing it up with my student and his coworkers). I felt bad for 'em - maybe they're not sushi people but had to go, or maybe they just don't care or were otherwise in a bad mood.

It made me realize that I don't want to be the sort of person who eats at San Jing as a matter of course, or who has to eat there for business. I don't want to be the gal who "makes it" and then a few years later complains that she can have all that she wants of the best of the best, and there's nothing new when you're already living your champagne dreams, and none of it means anything (I know, hard to muster sympathy). I'm happy - better off, really - being the gal who doesn't frequently do things like this, even if she can ostensibly afford to. I want to be the one for whom this is a special treat: that way I know I'll always enjoy and appreciate it, rather than it just becoming some typical non-special thing.

And I did enjoy every mouthwatering second of it, and I recommend that you do the same.

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