This was a disappointment I did not expect. When I first set my gaze upon the two pieces of red-bean rice cake (紅豆松糕) sitting in the traditional dim-sum bamboo container, my heart sank and a bad feeling immediately set in. There it was, the legendary snack of Shanghai origin, the favourite of Madame Soong May-Ling (the First Lady of the Republic of China and the wife of the controversial figure President Chiang Kai-Sek); a dessert which was once shrouded in mystery when Yuan Yuan Restaurant (圓苑) produced it as a “not-for-sale” item strictly for the exclusive consumption of Madame Soong, until her passing away in year 2003 at the age of 105. The making of this white glutinous rice cake involved a cumbersome process of mixing and steaming the rice flour paste with shredded green papaya, red dates, raw sugar, and embedding a slightly less than an inch diameter of red bean paste filling in the middle of the cake. Could you blame me for having my expectation unreasonably lifted after reading from the food reviews and travel guide books about how compellingly delicious the rice cake was and how it used to stir up such a crowd of intended buyers when the rice cake was first sold to the public (until a restriction of number of purchase had to be imposed at a time in order to meet the sweeping demand)?
The texture of the rice cake was as per the picture above: dry and almost too difficult to be swallowed without a sip of oolong tea. When I am writing this piece of amateurish food critique from a point of view of a non-food-connoisseur, I am silently hoping that this will not inflict the wrath of any Taiwanese that accidentally chances upon this blog post (especially remembering how we Malaysians could get over-reacted when our Malaysian food was being criticized). But truth be told, I do honestly feel that the 50 cents per piece of Nyonya Kuih from the local night markets in Malaysia has a taste more flavoursome and texture more fluffy than this world renowned red-bean rice cake from Yuan-Yuan Restaurant in Taipei (and the timid me apologized in advance again for any unintended hurt feelings).
The wok-fried snow flakes dumplings (冰花煎餃）and jade-green open-top dumplings (玉翠燒賣) too were nothing to shout about, although the appearance of these two dishes did look a bit more tempting than the signature rice cake itself. Perhaps the only compliment that I could offer is the unpretentious interior design of the restaurant; the wooden square tables and low stools reminded me of the ancient teahouses in China that we might have once seen in movies such as “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, but the ambience was unfortunately destroyed when a minor argument ensued between a woman (believed to be the restaurant manager) and a male chef or kitchen staff over some trivial issues on how to display empty plates in a presentable manner, which ended with the man yelling “so you have a problem with that?” (talk about the advantages of having an open concept restaurant kitchen?)
Despite the not so satisfying experience in Yuan Yuan Restaurant, we did enjoy ourselves immensely in the sea of red grandeur in this magnificent hotel. We were blown away by the extravagant and intricate design of the bright red pillars, yellow-tiled roof and marble white dragon-carved staircase railings at the lobby. The imposing exterior of the Grand Hotel perched on top of the Yuan Shan mountain sets the building apart from the rest of the modern skyscrapers of new Taipei city, making this Forbidden-City-like architecture even more charming than what it already is. The palace-style hotel attracts a steady stream of high level politicians, business executives and esteemed guest members annually, and I have no doubt of the top-quality service offered by this majestic hotel, something which I myself am very much looking forward to experiencing one day.