[dropcap size=small]O[/dropcap]verseas travel has become so fast, so smooth, that it’s easy to miss the dislocation’s magnitude and meaning – that we’ve actually passed over seas and traversed leagues while glued to in-seat screens. How best to jolt our cabin-dulled senses awake? Food, of course, the most visceral welcome to any ambassador for any destination.
We had the chance to survey how the Regent Hotels Group applies this truism to its properties in Taiwan, whose popularity rests on a solid foundation of food and heritage. Hotels under the group’s Silks Place brand that was launched in 2008, are conceived and positioned as hubs and mediators for their individual locations and cultural milieus.
Sitting on a rise, the Regent Taipei commands a royal view of its swanky Chung Shan North Road neighbourhood, dubbed Taipei’s Omotesando. It aims to impart a similarly clear-eyed culinary perspective of Taiwan to guests. In fact, VIP guests’ eyes may widen right after check-in, thanks to a stunning welcome box of iconic local snacks: dried bean curd, peanut nougat, crispy mushrooms, flaky square cookies, Tainan black sesame candy, a rice crisp ball, mochi, Penghu peanut brittle, and the Regent’s own famous pineapple custard pastries.
More expansively, the hotel’s Regent Academy, a newly launched menu of bespoke experiences (from NT$600, or S$26 upwards), delves deep into Taiwanese culture, from fashion and fi lm to music and history. Food-themed programmes include a sumptuous Imperial Treasure Feast at the Silks Palace restaurant, whose courses reference – and even resemble – the National Palace Museum’s prized artefacts and historical touchstones; cooking classes where the Regent’s master chefs teach guests how to make signature specialities such as pineapple pastries, or rice dumplings for the Dragon Boat Festival; and the very popular shrimp-fishing excursion. You can experience this traditional Taiwanese pastime on a boat, along with luxurious private butler service, and a gourmet meal of your fresh catch.
The Academy’s Rethinking Oriental Tea experience starts with a masterclass at the Fong Cha tea boutique in the hotel’s Regent Galleria mall, covering tea history, culture, and the finer points of brewing and appreciation, followed by a tea-paired, seasonally varying degustation composed with wine-and-food-pairing logic. A preview of the latter at restaurant Robin’s Teppanyaki, under the auspices of executive chef James Chen, kicks off with a lightly carbonated Bi Luo Chun; the cold-brewed tea’s hay and muscat aromas adding welcome top notes to a lobster bisque. Chilled osmanthus-scented oolong – playing a role analogous to, say, a riesling – partners fresh abalone teppan-baked under blankets of kelp and sea salt; the finishing truffle sauce marrying the floral osmanthus surprisingly lyrically. The same oolong’s umami and mineral notes are foregrounded by a salad of gorgeous organic heirloom tomatoes, setting the stage for sauteed black-mouthed croaker fillets with dill. An amber-hued, lightly tannic Tieguanyin brewed with dried pineapple slices is an agreeably mellow companion for both superbly tender seared prime rib-eye, and new-season Taitung rice fried with bacon and sesame sauce to divine, pearly perfection.
Fresh regional produce is showcased at the hotel’s different eateries. Robin’s Teppan and Robin’s Grill menus and all-organic salad bar feature tomatoes from Guanxi and vegetables from Hualien, while the Brasserie – whose mammoth Taiwanese-Japanese-Western breakfast spread has to be seen to be believed – sources seafood from Taitung. Seasonal promotions also feature local specialities such as premium free-range chicken.
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
Carved through marble mountains by the Liwu River, Taroko Gorge is so majestic a sight that having your attention diverted feels almost criminal. Yet, rebuilding a former historic lodge in the heart of Taroko National Park, Silks Place Taroko has managed to snuggle a luxury spa hotel at the river’s edge and mountains’ feet without disrupting nature’s spell.
The resort’s long windows frame vistas like paintings; its rooftop hot spring-fed pools invite summer-night contemplation under the stars. Wood, stone, water and fire motifs recall the raw elements outside. The gastronomic part of this feast for the senses is the Taroko Gorge Banquet (for groups of 10 or more, by reservation), a riveting interpretation of the cuisines and flavours of Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples by the Wellesley Restaurant’s talented chefs.
It begins with a light but precisely aimed kick of a millet wine shot, yang to the yin of a glass of cool, minty pine-needle juice. Invigorating herbs abound: local “maqaw” pepper gives a lovely lemon myrtle-like lift to steamed trout, while prickly ash adds a numbing halo to Truku tribe-style stir-fried pork. Wild mountain vegetables blanched a la minute are served with spicy, tart and pungent sauces – fermented bean curd and basil, kumquat, chilli-maqaw, and more – that vividly outline the leaves’ different textures.
Salt-marinated wild boar is almost shockingly succulent, bordered with crisp fat. Bamboo appears often: toothsome chunks dry-seared until sweetly caramelised, tender young slivers in clear soup, a stir-fry of asparagus-slim, faintly bitter arrowhead shoots. Intricately woven leaves swaddle “alivongvong”, a deliciously sticky, hearty black rice and pork dumpling from the Amis tribe; a steamed cake from the Hla’alua tribe plays up the colour and fragrance of purple sweet potato.
A morning hike after such a bountiful banquet – or indeed, after Silks Place’s freshly made breakfast breads and congee – is mandatory, and the hotel’s guides will obligingly lead or advise you on Taroko’s best trails, whether you’re after scenic strolls or a challenging workout.
Silks Place Yilan prides itself on its family-friendliness. With two entire floors and themed play spaces just for kids, a stunning spa with honeymoon suites and packages, cinema movie passes, and a large modern mall next door, there’s something for every grandma, teenager, tot or lovebird. However, we think it’s the foodie family members who are best served. The hotel’s Red Lantern restaurant is a temple for duck devotees, using fat, flavourful birds of the British Cherry Valley brand, locally farmed exclusively for the property. “Everything except the quack” is no cliche here – it’s the golden rule.
Executive chef Jeffrey Lin begins our duck fest by carving a sizzling Peking duck, laying wafer-crisp curls of bronzed skin on warm sushi rice and cheese to make unabashedly rich – but not at all heavy – “nigiri”. Juicy slices of the meat are brushed with miso sauce and wrapped in scallion pancakes with whole sanxing scallions, feted for their sweetness and no-tears pungency. Oyster mushroom “fries” clothed in home-made salted duck egg yolk crumbs are instantly addictive, while classic Taiwanese braised duck tongues, webs and wings are worth every sticky finger-lick.
Chinese cabbage is double-boiled with duck bone stock into a collagen-rich soup as silky as qipao fabric. Minced duck replaces pork in fall-apart-tender “lion’s head”-style meatballs. Any menu with a whole page of duck-fat dishes is a winner, but the duck fat ma po tofu waddles away with top honours, its velvety lusciousness and expertly judged spice draping a swoonsome cloak over hot rice. If you need a walk after such extravagance, Silks Place lies right within Yilan’s culture and heritage districts. Just an intersection away is a vibrant morning street market, whose pristine produce and abundant street eats are more chill but just as charming as those offered by the night markets.
Shops along Yilan’s five-foot ways sell handmade lanterns, ai-yu jelly, freshly steamed mochi, preserved fruit and other artisan must-haves. The local rice wine distillery has a fascinating museum and huge gift shop where you can stock up on jars of its famed “jiu” and wine lees for your pantry.
Though small, Jiaoxi is densely packed with lodgings – mostly occupied by holidaying folk from elsewhere in Taiwan, converging here to bathe in hot-spring waters and hike the countryside. The city’s only luxury five-star hot spring hotel, Wellspring by Silks, has a restful Japanese aesthetic, with minimalist lines and nature-inspired works by local artists in the lobby. Every room has a private hot-spring tub, or you can slip on the blissfully comfy yukata and sandals laid out for you and pad up to the rooftop’s hot-spring infinity pools.
Alternately lazing and being pummelled by massage jets, you may feel a spiritual connection with your dinner at Wellspring’s Mihan Jiaoxi restaurant, in whose hotpots of kelp broth bathe supremely fresh regional vegetables – said to owe their concentrated flavour to the mineral-rich water table – and seasonal seafood such as spiny lobster and succulent squid from Taiwan’s east coast, plus prime US beef and pork. Besides dinner, the restaurant also offers a lavish Japanese-style buffet breakfast, both meals making good use of signature local ingredients, such as sanxing scallions and plump tomatoes glowing scarlet red.
Wellspring’s concierge can advise guests on popular food stalls mere steps away in the town centre. Look out for shops vending local specialities, such as kumquat sauce and vinegar, soya-sauce-pickled “bopi lajiao” green chillies, and of course those wondrous tomatoes and scallions – you can even find tomato ice cream.
TAIWAN’S SIGNATURE BITES
Tuck into some of Taiwan’s must-try snacks and confections.
From stinky tofu to savoury doujiang, Taiwan runneth over with beany treats. A short walk from the Regent Taipei is Fuhang Doujiang (108 Zhongxiao East Road, second floor), whose velvety soya milk, shaobing (order the omelette-stuffed flaky shaobing), youtiao and pastries rack up long, long queues. In Yilan, head to Yuanlai Douhua (171-2 Jiucheng North Road) for exquisitely fresh douhua in hot brown sugar syrup or over frozen brown sugar granita, with myriad toppings such as Job’s tears, sweet potato, red beans and taro balls.
Every Taiwanese province and town has its own style and famed purveyors of cong you bing, aka spring onion pancakes. For example, Hualien’s Lao Pai pancake (102 Fuxing Street) is deep-fried a dark gold and encloses a deep-fried, runny-yolk whole egg, whereas Jiaoxi’s puffier, lighter Ke’s pancake (128 Jiaoxi Road, Section 4) is shallow-fried over a cracked egg and chunky-cut scallions.
Rice underlies many classic Taiwanese dishes – lu rou fan, gooey ba wan, QQ mochi, pork-laden gua bao – but the plain grains are lip-smacking in themselves. Look for organic short-grain, brown, black and sticky varieties in supermarkets and markets to bring home as souvenirs – even 7-11 sells 2kg bags.
Tainan is most famed for traditional goodies, but some iconic brands are distributed islandwide, such as Jiu Zhen Nan, which has a branch in the Regent Taipei’s Galleria mall, and Kuo Yuan Ye, which designs and displays its confections like modern luxury goods.
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PHOTOS CHRISTOPHER TAN