In the US, almost all the chefs at acclaimed Japanese fine-dining restaurants are first-generation Japanese immigrants. In Taipei, it’s more like 50/50. While many chefs of Taipei’s top Japanese restaurants are Japanese nationals, local Taiwanese chefs are helming Japanese restaurants that are just as competitive. Jiang Le is one such restaurant.
The chef/owner of Jiang Le, Chef Hong Hsinhong, is only 34 years old but already has 19 years of experience under his belt. Hong first came to prominence when he, at the age of 27, became the head chef at Sumie (澄江), a contemporary kaiseki restaurant in Taipei’s San Want Hotel. He left the big hotel restaurant after two years to join a smaller operation, Micasa – a progressive Japanese restaurant with a Spanish name and with two chefs and a manager imported from Tokyo’s Nobu. It was at Micasa where Hong learned to approach Japanese cuisine from a multicultural perspective and structure a meal beyond the traditional kaiseki format. After Micasa shuttered, Hong decided to hang out his own shingle with his old colleagues (his brother Hong Mingchin being one of them) from both Sumie and Micasa. Jiang Le opened its door in 2011.
Pronounced in Mandarin Chinese, Jiang/匠 means artisan, and Le/樂 means joy. The name pretty much sums up the ethos of the restaurant. The full name of the restaurant is actually Jiang Le Kappo Zushi. Kappo means knife work and cooking. To wit, unlike NOMURA where sushi is the main event, Jiang Le intends to showcase a wider array of Japanese cooking techniques. Tucked in the alleyways of Taipei’s East District, Jiang Le was probably the hardest-to-find restaurant on my Taiwan trip – not an easy feat. With umbrella in one hand and the restaurant’s address in another, I walked around for quite some time, only to find out that I had passed the restaurant twice in my brisk walk. The humble entry almost looked like a residence. I was both cursing at the small writing on the door and congratulating myself for finally seeing it.
Upon entering, I was warmly greeted by the waitress and was immediately taken by the comfort of the décor. The sushi bar could seat 10 people, and there was a small room to the side that had four more small tables. The décor was contemporary, with a color palette that was creamy and soothing. New-age artisan china and textured napkin completed the modern look with taste. Despite my earlier struggle in finding the place, I was still twenty minutes early for the reservation and my friend had not arrived. Several businessmen were already drinking at the bar, even though the chefs were still sharpening their knives and doing preps. Seeing that I was waiting without company and that I didn’t order any beer or sake, Chef Hong kindly offered me a small dish of pickled gobou to nosh on – crispy and flavorful.
There were two omakase menus for dinner. Having had a substantial lunch, I proposed that we went with the cheaper option, which was a bit shorter and had no wagyu. My friend agreed. The sakizuke (amuse bouche) was tara shirako. I’ve heard of shirako before, but I’ve never had it. Seeing my hesitation, my friend offered no comfort, as she said, “you know what shirako is right? It’s basically sperm sac.” Gee thanks for the encouragement! The shirako was, for lack of a better word, creamy in texture but almost insipid in taste. This was helped by a subtle ponzu marinate, giving the dish a delicate and pleasant umami. The mouth-watering acidity of the dish made this a perfect sakizuke.
Next was ika salad. The ika and the cucumber were tossed in a dressing made with miso and yuzu juice. Topping everything was ikura. The al dente ika, the crunchy cucumber, and the burst-in-your-mouth pearls of ikura gave the dish a delectable textural interest. The tartness of the yuzu, the sweetness of the white miso, and the brininess of the ikura made the dish refreshing but intense. This was a simple yet genius composition.
The first sashimi presentation was madai from Nagasaki. Madai is a common fish in Taiwan and Japan’s fine-dining restaurants. Since madai is quite lean and the skin can be chewy when consumed raw, it is a tricky fish to use in sashimi. Chef Hong skillfully sliced the fish into thin slices – so thin it was translucent. He also kept the skin in the cut, which contained a bit of fat and therefore sweet umami. Paired with ponzu, this “carpaccio” execution allowed a bit of that al dente skin to add to the flavor of the sashimi without making it too chewy. Very good. The tako sashimi that followed (sourced from Hokkaido) utilized the same technique. The tako was sliced thinly and the suction cups were separated from the tentacles. This allowed the al dente texture of the octopus shone through without being unpleasant. A side of nikiri (soy sauce blend made for sushi) was supplied for dipping; that, combined with the sprinkle of yuzu zest, gave the tako a subtle and refreshing flavor – not insipid, but not so invasive as to distract diners from enjoying the texture, which was the main event.
After the lean and al dente pieces, Hong next presented us something more fleshy – two slices of kanpachi, sourced from Kyushu. As it was already the end of winter (during which kanpachi is the fattiest), the pieces were between medium fat and lean. It had a nicely springy texture that only exists in wild-caught kanpachi. Very nice. The ama ebi that followed was of similar textural narrative. But as compared to the ama ebi I ate at Nomura two days prior, this was not as dense and springy.
Next Hong presented two pieces of tuna (sourced from Amami Ooshima) that was half akami and half chutoro. You could see the color of the sashimi transitioned from the ruby red of the akami to the pink of the chutoro – a stunning visual that embodied the transition of the meal into the fattier territory. Next was samagarei. I had never seen samagarei before in the US, and I was glad I got to try it. It was extremely fatty, literally oozing oil. To curtail the heaviness, Hong lightly grilled the fish and gave a brush of lightly sweet nikiri. It was smoky, sweet, and incredibly unctuous. Somebody needs to sell this fish in the US!
The end of sashimi courses was marked by the fried head of the ama ebi we had earlier. Crunchy, savory, and perfectly executed.
The meal next moved into a brief interlude of cooked courses. First was nimono. It was a bowl of crab-broth with a piece of supple and sweet scallop from Hokkaido. There was a white ball, which at first glance, escaped recognition. It turned out to be the liver of kawahagi (file fish) wrapped in a batter made with Yamato yam and yurine (lily root) puree. A very unique execution indeed, and the combination of different seafood and earthy root vegetables created a nuanced mix of umami. However, I thought the texture was rather one-note – you didn’t have to bring teeth to this dish.
Next was yakimono. The fish was amadai (Japanese tile fish) – the same fish I had at Robuchon days ago. Jiang Le’s amadai was just as meticulously executed as that of Robuchon. The fish was broiled to perfection – a nice smoky crust with tender and juicy meat. The crust was topped with a paste made with miso and onion puree – sweet and savory, the sauce added a satisfying weight to the supple fish. The fish was paired with mashed-daikon and sweet potato, which continued the sweet and savory profile of the amadai. The experience of the yakimono was enhanced by the smoky aroma of lightly-burned pine needles, the same olfactory trick employed by Grant Achatz at Alinea and Next. This was my favorite course of the day.
The meal now progressed to nigiri zushi. First was shiro ebi from Toyama Bay. Shiro ebi is considered a luxury ingredient in the US, rarely seen outside of high-end sushi restaurants in New York and LA. In Chicago, I’m not aware of any restaurant that serves this outside of, interestingly enough, L2O when it was under Gras. Since shiro ebi are quiet small, one would need many to make one single sushi. This one seemed to have been packed with five. The shape of this sushi, because of the necessary packing technique, was almost rectangular, much like a saba battera (a kind of boxed mackerel sushi from Osaka). The neta was brushed with nikiri, which filled crevices to form a beautiful marble pattern. The texture was creamy, and the flavor was subtle but sweet. It was a very different shrimp experience from the ama ebi earlier.
The shyari, as compared to that of NOMURA, was more al dente and less vinegary. I like al dente rice, but this was slightly undercooked for my liking. The next several pieces were fish sushi. Overall, I thought the pieces were cut a bit too thick, making the neta hard to conform in shape to the shyari beneath. As a result, the aesthetics of the sushi was not as jewelry-like, and once in your mouth the fish and the rice felt like two different affairs, rather than one bite of sushi goodness where the neta melts right into the shyari. It was a bit of a disappointment for both me and my friend. That said, the ingredients were top-notch and the temperatures were spot on. It went from lean to fat in texture, and from refreshing to unctuous in mouth-feel. The first shima aji was so fresh it was almost crispy. Very good. And the saba was equally impressive in quality. In Chicago, saba is my least favorite fish, as it is often fishy and mushy. My trip to Taiwan changed my opinion of the fish. At its best, it is springy and has the kind of umami that went perfectly with grated ginger. We ended the sushi-run with samagarei engawa. Engawa is the piece of meat right around the fin, which gets a lot of exercise during the fish’s life. As such, it had the fatty quality of samagarei but also a pleasant springy texture (kind of like the dark meat of poultry) – a delicious paradox! The neta was done aburi style (roasted with a spray-torch), balancing the extremely fatty quality of the fish.
After finishing the fattiest of fish, a soup course came as expected (and needed). It was a Kyoto-style miso soup made with rice-based white miso and yuba. I love miso soup with tofu as I think it’s a great way to marry two excellent uses of soybeans. This Kyoto yuba soup offered another perspective on this combination – simple yet flavorful. After the soup was a piece of akami zushi. The neta was marinated in nikiri and sprinkled with yuzu zest. But again it was cut too thick, and so the shyari and the neta did not become one, so to speak. I thought it was strange to get akami at the end. And by now I knew Chef Hong didn’t just give us a piece at random – it always figured into a carefully planned road map. Sure enough, after the singular and humble akami came the finale.
The finale turned out to be a small bowl of chirashi zushi. It might seem unassuming, but it was packed with drama. First, it was topped with red bafun uni. Bafun uni literally means horse-turd sea urchin. I’m assuming that the amusing name came from the shape of the animal, which doesn’t have the spiny appearance of regular sea urchin. It had markedly more sweetness and more umami than regular uni. The second reason this dish was great was that it incorporated tamago-yaki – an egg cake usually served at the end of a sushi-tasting. And most of all, underneath all the, um, horse shit was cubes of all the major ingredients we had that night – from saba, ikura, kanbachi, tai, to cucumber, seaweed, and tuna. The only one left-out was shrimp, which would have been too mushy in this presentation. This was such a genius and spectacular end to the meal my friend and I were sort of left in awe (she had to facebook about it right after our meal!).
After the sushi came the traditional fruit plate. You can always count on a good Japanese restaurant to serve the best fruits of the season. Each of the three pieces was the best specimen of their respective fruit families. I had never had golden kiwi before, and I was suspicious of its anemic color. It turned out to be the sweetest piece of kiwi I’ve ever had! The last bite of the day was a bowl of hot red bean soup. Very comforting in both style and flavor, the soup was finished with miniature brown rice beika (Japanese rice crackers) and house-made mochi. The textural contrast between the beika and mochi again revealed Hong’s interest in exploring the versatility of a single ingredient in one dish.
Service was genuine, friendly, without losing professionalism and courtesy. Hong and his brother were very observant and in tune with the pace we ate and whether we were talking. They always seemed to know exactly when we were ready for the next course. They were also funny and conversational. Throughout the meal, we talked about sushi, Japan, Japanese restaurants, our cameras, other food blogs, and a host of other interesting topics. It was as if we were with old friends, chatting naturally without forced humor or awkward silence, except that they were also making and serving us food, without missing a beat. By the end of the meal, I already felt like a regular. This warm and effusive atmosphere was in contrast with the serene and zen experience at NOMURA. If I live in Taipei, this was the kind of place I would frequent.
This was a spectacular and emotional meal that was, nevertheless, not without some glaring missteps. Specifically, the fish pieces on the nigiri zushi were too thick – making the presentation and the mouth-feel a level below the sushi at NOMURA. However, Hong was a thoughtful composer. The structure of the meal was carefully divided to showcase different kappo repertoire – marinate skill, knife technique, boiling, broiling, torching, and sushi making. Within the sashimi segment, we started with leaner cuts and moved toward fattier cuts. We started with clean flavors and ended with rich flavors. It was obvious that the sushi portion mirrored the movements of the sashimi. Just like reading a Shakespearean sonnet, you could essentially match up the stanzas. The meal imparted a familiar sense of pattern as well as the excitement of dynamism. For a menu composition so calculated, it was, paradoxically, nothing short of sensational. If Jiane Le is not Michelin-worthy, I don’t know what is.
Jiang Le Kappo Zushi 匠樂割烹壽司
No.31, Alley 52, Siwei Road, Da’an District, Taipei/臺北市大安區四維路52巷31號