Sunday, January 12, 2014

Restaurant Review: Ikki Robatayaki (一氣爐端燒)

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Ikki Robatayaki/一氣爐端燒
Civic Blvd. Section 4 #101 (near Dunhua S. Road)

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Time to intersperse all the doom and gloom of my previous two posts - after a long hiatus so I could wrap up Delta Module One and then get over the PTSD it inflicted (OK, not really, I hope nobody with actual PTSD gets super offended by that) - with a restaurant review.

I have to start by admitting that I am ashamed of myself. I believed myself to be someone who knew were all, or at least most of, the good restaurants in Taipei were. I really thought I had this city's culinary landscape in full view.

I was wrong.

Turns out that Civic Boulevard, especially between the northern terminus of Da'an Road (and possibly all the way over to Fuxing S. Road) and the Civic-Yanji Street intersection, is a veritable gold mine of good food...and I had no idea. What is wrong with me?! I'd always written off that part of town, and Civic Blvd with its bad feng-shui (and I don't believe in feng-shui) and ugly surrounds, as not worth spending a lot of time in. Crossing the city in taxis for work, I'd often end up passing that strip during the day, when it was all closed down and boring. It never occurred to me to venture up there at night and see whether there was good eatin'.

But there is.

Not only do you have San Jing Mitsui in the basement of the Fubon Life building, but a lot of the old standbys in Shi-da that moved when those racist, classist reactionary jerks had it all taken down have moved here (I'm not so sure I'd go so far as to call Shi-da "the heart of Taiwan", but it was pretty good). Across from Da'an Road you'll find 1885 Burger, which either has or had a branch on Pucheng Street back when Shi-da was good. Down the road a bit past the Dunhua Intersection you'll find Chicken in Bok and Beer, a Korean fried chicken place that has exploded in popularity since its move (we couldn't get a seat there on Friday night - by the way, get the chicken cooked in Korean red sauce, not the regular fried chicken). It, too, is of Shi-da vintage, now uprooted.

Beyond that, you'll find a popular tofu pudding (豆花) place, a branch of Tanuki Koji (my favorite creative Japanese izakaya), Urban 45 tapas parlor (which has terrible music on their website; I've never eaten there but will), Hutong (never eaten there either) and a string of Japanese restaurants that all look pretty good.

How did I not know this? Why did I avoid Civic Boulevard, viewing it as a food and entertainment desert, for all these years? Well, it's never too late to start exploring. We live near the southern terminus of Da'an Road, so we walked the entire length of it, past Xinyi, Ren'ai and Zhongxiao to get there. Da'an Road is an interesting strip - near us it's pretty local, with a school, some bakeries, a few small places to eat. It goes past some luxury apartments and a mini-night-market clutch of stalls. A bunch of small, non-pretentious shops (think cheap "everything" general stores) give way to medical shops as it passes Ren'ai Hospital (I recommend Florida Bakery on Ren'ai to the right). Then it turns into all-out Rich People Road, with an Aveda, Michal Negrin, several upscale boutiques and cafes and a fancy but generic hotel. North of Zhongxiao it turns into a Gongguan-like night market (think glittery hair accessories, weird hairy, drapey sweaters for young fashionistas and Korean socks rather than food), but probably more expensive. Then it ends in that great strip of restaurants. A fantastic walk through the many layers of commercial Taipei for a Friday night dinner (something we rarely get to do - our Fridays are usually booked out with work).

Unable to eat at Chicken in Bok and Beer - our original plan - we ended up at Ikki Robatayaki. It was really, really good - a mix of Japanese beer-on-tap dive bar, local izakaya and gourmet food. I like this kind of food more than Brendan (I'm pretty passionate about Japanese food and have been ever since I realized it was way more than noodles and sushi - hey, I grew up in a small town, forgive me. But I like noodles and sushi, too) but he was game.

I started with warm sake for a chilly night, but realized later that the food goes better with a nice tall glass of draft beer. I recommend starting and finishing (and going the middle) with Asahi.

Some of our food:

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Anyplace that not only has a dish that is just a grilled onion - really, grilled onion, nothing more, some salt on the side - but puts a picture of it on their menu, too, must make one mean grilled onion. So we got it. Great with beer. It takes awhile to grill through but once done, is delicious. And oniony. Would have been overkill without the beer. Definitely split this one with another person.

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We also ordered the gingko nuts, as I've never had them before. Loved the meaty, chewy texture and unique flavor, but was not so pleased with the bitter undercurrent and aftertaste. That's just how gingko nuts usually are, though - although I am generally averse and very sensitive to bitter flavors, this was okay. It added a complexity to the flavor, and worked well with the salt they were served in as well as the beer.

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Spicy bamboo shoots were a free appetizer, and entirely delicious.

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Tender bamboo shoots with a wasabi dip were also delicious.

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The wasabi taste in this raw "wasabi octopus" mini-dish was mild and subtle, but overall I enjoyed it. Not for those who can't take raw seafood or don't like the cold, slightly slimy sauce of many Japanese salad preparations.

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The Japanese fried chicken, served with an aioli or mayonnaise, was delicious (but needed salt - I recommend the spicy red salt preparation - it has a Japanese name that I don't know - provided on the counter).

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We got two sets of sticks - green onion chicken (above) and steak sticks (not pictured). Both were delicious and cooked on the grill to perfection. Both are served with a spicy mustard.

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We also got two salmon flake rice triangles (not pictured) and I got this scallop roll with sea urchin - delicious! Again, not for those who can't take raw seafood as neither the scallop nor the sea urchin is cooked. Add a tiny bit of soy sauce or tamari, roll up and eat. The final taste is a whizbang of hot wasabi that finishes off this delicious, fresh roll.

All in all I really liked this place and would definitely go back.

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