These days, Chinatown seems to be divided between two major players – the Bar Shu people and the Leong’s Legend people. Both restaurants have been building on the success of their initial ventures and expanding in the neighborhood. Presumably there’s a rivalry in there somewhere, and if so, I side with the Leong’s contingent (having felt that Bar Shu’s food was very mediocre and expensive and that in contrast, LL’s serves reliably-good dim sum at very good prices).
In light of my LL fan status, it should be no surprise that a few weeks ago, despite several highly-negative reviews (see e.g., Jay Rayner’s Guardian review here and Charmaine Mok’s TimeOut review here), I had dinner at Keelung, the latest offering by the Leong’s gang.
I’ve been to Taipei six or seven times, and several of those visits were two- or three-months long. While there are certain dishes I remember eating a lot of (and loving) in Taiwan — for example, pan-fried baozi at the Shilin nightmarket, oyster omelets, xiao long bao, beef noodle soup, and a fajita-type thing called ren bien — if you asked me what characterizes Taiwanese food, I’d have no good answer. I’ve always thought of Taiwan as the culinary melting pot for Chinese food. The place to get great versions of food that originated in the varied regions of mainland China.
Which is all to say that I didn’t go to Keelung expecting to eat some definitive list of Taiwanese classics, notwithstanding Keelung’s description of itself as a “Taiwanese restaurant.”
Jon and I started with one of our LL favorites, the crab xiao long bao. They were fine, but not as great as I’ve had them at LL’s on weekend dim sum outings. Perhaps they’d been sitting around too long before being steamed. (That said, I feel obliged to note here that Jay Rayner’s dismissing xiao long bao, generally, on the basis of having to eat them in one go is silly. Any xiao long bao lover knows that the trick is to use your chopsticks to lever the dumplings into your soup spoon and take small bites, letting the steam out while collecting the soup in your spoon).
But things picked up with the seafood dishes we ordered. I liked that Keelung was generous with the chilies, generally, and the chili garlic prawns we tried were wonderfully tender-yet-firm and packed with flavor. It was a simple dish using large, sweet-tasting prawns. Perfect with plain white rice.
From the many-fish-served-many-ways matrix, we chose a pomfret and asked for it to be served crispy. And it was good stuff. Lots of firm white meat on the pomfret, lightly-battered skin, and lots of chili and scallions to lighten up the soy-sugar-based sauce. No gloppiness in sight.
The pork belly served in a steamed bun was a monster and really should have come sliced thin to avoid the meat tasting relatively dry. Sliced thin, I’m convinced the fat-t0-meet ratio would taste better, even if the actual ratio stayed the same. Maybe next time I’ll slice it thin myself, because the dish did offer well-flavored pork belly, which can’t find a better partner than the plain steamed man tou accompanying it.
Our biggest disappointment of the evening was a side of choi sum we ordered in a misguided attempt to be healthy. The choi sum was sadly flavorless despite the chilies and preserved veg it was served with. Then again, it’s a steamed vegetable. How exciting could it have gotten, really?
Service was attentive; the decor was surprisingly nice for Chinatown. And unlike other reviewers, I didn’t mind the classic rock soundtrack or memorabilia on the walls. In a way, it’s nice to visit a Chinese restaurant that doesn’t feel obliged to play pentatonic everything in the background.
Tab for two people, including a few beers, totaled £45. It wasn’t the best Chinese food of my life, but it was far from the worst. So I’ll definitely be returning to Keelung to try its other seafood dishes. Keelung seems an ideal place to go for reasonably-priced, good Chinese food served in a comfortable, feel-free-to-linger space.