I've never been to a city with so many "famous" restaurants. If Chinese art isn't your thing, then come to Taipei for the food. The night I meet Nelson, he takes me to the Really Good Seafood Restaurant, which is noisy and garish, and festooned with gold light fixtures ("We Chinese like bright things because they're a sign of prosperity"). Our meal is delicious—sautéed abalone, steamed lobster, shark's fin soup—but I tell Nelson that I prefer places that are more low-key. (Where are my manners?)
Contrite, he takes me after dinner to his favorite teahouse, where we drink chrysanthemum flower tea and eat red-bean cakes. Orchids surround us, and on our table are two small stones in a dish of water, each a lilliputian mountain overgrown with moss and miniature ferns.
Dintaifung dumpling restaurant is Taipei's most famous (of course), and Jay takes me there, along with Xavier, an FOM and a French artist, who is a finalist in a public-art competition. The boiled, steamed, and pan-fried meat and vegetarian dumplings are sublime at this packed, Formica-topped palace. The Shanghainese dumplings spurt steamy juices with each bite, and the chicken ginseng soup is especially good.
In Taipei, you can taste all the cuisines of China. Wandering through the sprawling, raucous Shihlin Night Market, I sample squid stew, oyster omelette, stuffed pig's intestines, Taiwanese tempura, and all manner of fish, fowl, and meat. My great tolerance for odd foods is tested only by "stinky tofu": the name for this fermented bean curd doesn't begin to suggest its repugnant smell and taste.
Taipei is known for its "beef bowl" restaurants. World-class food sleuth that he is, Jay takes me to Chung Fu Yuan, a dingy shop that serves only this beef-noodle soup. It arrives at the table with a bowl of chopped pickled cabbage, which you dollop on top. Jay tells me there used to be five other beef bowl restaurants on this tiny lane, but Chung Fu Yuan, the best in town, drove them out of business. "And then, of course, there was that unfortunate fire…" he adds as an afterthought.
Now I am food drunk as well as tea drunk. Nelson, still smarting from my thoughtless criticism of his restaurant choice, calls to say he knows just the place for me. Shou Lan is in Yong Kang Chu, a charming neighborhood of narrow streets, antiques shops, and teahouses. The restaurant is clean, spare, and comfortable, with boxes of tissues on the tables and waitresses in blue-checkered aprons.
Shou Lan specializes in home-style dishes. Though we're only two, Nelson orders food for eight: Hot green chili peppers with ground pork. Bitter melon with salted black beans. Silk squash with dried baby shrimp. A generous platter of tender pork marinated in soy sauce, chives, and ginger. It's amazingly good, and I pronounce Shou Lan my favorite restaurant in Taipei, which makes Nelson very happy.
While we eat, we discuss life, work, and Taiwan. "The Taiwanese don't know how big the world is," Nelson says. "They think Taiwan is the whole world." They sound like New Yorkers, I observe.
HOT SPRINGS I don't know why Tai- pei isn't a more popular tourist destination. Poor public relations and a dearth of decent guidebooks, possibly.
Tourists go to Singapore, yet Taipei is more interesting. It's not glamorous, but it's a big, vibrant, crowded city where you can experience both traditional and modern Chinese culture without the hassles you encounter on the mainland. As for the legendary traffic: I rode taxis during rush hours, on weekends, and on a national holiday, and found congestion no worse than anywhere else in Asia (thanks to the rapidly expanding subway system).
One of the best things about Taipei is that it's surrounded by lush, steep mountains. Early one evening, Arthur Chen, a Harvard-educated doctor and university professor, swings by my hotel in his black Mercedes and takes me to Yangmingshan, a half-hour north. The air cools as we gain altitude, and we're soon in a drizzly fog. Hot-spring resorts, where the price of a meal often buys entry into the baths, line the road. But we're headed deep inside Yangmingshan National Park, to the Hwa Yi Chuen Hot Spring, where men and women dine together but bathe in separate outdoor pools of varying degrees of heat.
On my last day in town, Arthur, Jay, and Xavier all appear at my hotel, a farewell committee, and we head into the mountains once more. This time, we drive a half-hour southeast of the city, to Mucha, an area of tea plantations and teahouses with views of Taipei. For hours we sit and chat and sip tea.
America, I tell them, you must visit America, and let me return your hospitality. Jay pours me another cup of tea. Yes, but you must come back to Taipei, he says. There are so many restaurants you haven't tried, so many places you haven't been.
Far below, the lights of the city twinkle. My head is spinning and the blood is thundering through my veins. Uh-oh. Tea drunk in Taipei again.