Archive for December, 2010

meat pelmeni (£12.50)

I’ve heard a lot about Bob Bob Ricard.  The restaurant’s savvy owners have hosted a number of blogger events, which have resulted in positive reviews like this one and this one.  The place has always sounded like a lot of fun, and the Russian-British comfort food menu, intriguing.  However, much as I longed to test out that famous “press for champagne” button, the stars never aligned for me to pay BBR a visit.

Last Sunday night, at a loss for where to meet friends for dinner (it turns out that finding a desirable London restaurant open on a Sunday night is only marginally easier than it is in Paris), I was happy to see that Bob Bob Ricard was open for business.  So off we went.

High points of the evening (other than catching up with friends, obviously)?  (1) super attentive service; (2) glitzy OTT decor and private booths; (3) the huge and reasonably-priced wine list; and (4) the meat pelmeni (photo above) and potato vareniki (£12.50).  Juicy beef-and-lamb meat inside a thick doughy skin (the meat pelmeni) were well complemented by the tang of vinegar, and the creamy potato vareniki (like a spherical pierogi) was similarly well matched with sour cream.  Both were better than any of the pelmeni/dumplings I had in Russia two years ago, though they cost about 12x more than in Moscow and St. Petersburg, so I’d expect no less.  The dumplings made a great starter for four to share.

veal holstein (£21.50)

BBR’s menu is an interesting mix of Russian and British comfort food (the latter having a retro slant).  I’d heard much about BBR’s veal holstein, which is theoretically a veal escalope, pounded, breaded and fried, and then topped with a fried egg and anchovies.  That’s exactly what I got, except the veal had been pounded a little too thin, I thought.  So the breading-to-meat ratio was a bit too high. The truffled mashed potatoes underneath the veal holstein arrived lukewarm, and so much as I love the buttery-cream decadence of a mash, it was hard to enjoy the decadence when it had cooled and congealed somewhat.

My friend’s beef onglet was over-sauced, as if the kitchen were worried this cut of meat wouldn’t be flavorful enough on its own.  Jon’s chicken kiev (£18.50) was the best of the mains we ordered – juicy and comforting, with plenty of parsley butter oozing out.

Side dishes were generally so-so:  truffled mash (£5.50) was lukewarm like the pile under my veal holstein; spinach (£4.25) was buttery and hot, so that was alright; and macaroni-and-cheese (£5.50) was hot and delightful, though the purist in me objects to the inclusion of a gooey mozzarella-like cheese in the sauce.

lemon pot (£6.50)

Portions at BBR were generous, so I was the only one of our group who was up for dessert.  The lemon pot was a refreshing and deceptively-light-tasting choice.  The lemon custard and raspberry compote are a classic pairing, and the pastry “soldiers” were a great texture and handy for dipping into the custard.  Simple and fun.

With a cocktail each (£8.50 each), a £43 bottle of wine, our tab came to £60 each.  We had a fab time at BBR, but £60 seemed a lot for what came down to really good meat and potato dumplings in a glitzy dining room.  I’d go back to BBR to sample more of their wine list and to sample more of their starters and desserts, but I’d give the mains and side dishes a pass.

Bob Bob Ricard, 1 Upper James Street (just off the Golden Square), W1F 9DF; 0203 145 1000.  Closest tube station:  Piccadilly Circus

  • To read a few other blog posts about BBR, click here to read this positive review (March 2010) by Londonelicious, and here’s a negative review (August 2010) by A Girl Has to Eat.
  • To read more about my May 2008 adventures in Moscow and St. Petersburg, click here.
  • To read about Bocca di Lupo, one of my favorite restaurants nearby in Soho, click here.

Bob Bob Ricard on Urbanspoon


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Hong Kong skyline as viewed from the Star Ferry

After our trip to Taiwan, Jon and I spent three nights in Hong Kong, partly because we flew Cathay Pacific and had to stop there anyway.  (Incidentally, the economy class seats on Cathay Pacific are awful.  They don’t recline!  Rather, the seat’s bottom cushion slides forward, which causes you to sink down at an awkward angle.  How this is supposed to be a good thing, I don’t know.  Goodbye, sleep, and hello, neck-and-back cramp.  Avoid!)

Luckily, horrible plane seats aside, Jon and I had a fab time in Hong Kong.  Because we were there for so brief a period, we relied exclusively on food tips from close friends who either lived there until just recently or who visit there often for work.  We ate four outstanding meals in Hong Kong, and for that, I give many thanks to Cathy, Bobby, Phu and Aaron.

Jon and I arrived on a Sunday, around lunchtime.  Because we wanted to make it to dim sum during proper dim sum hours, we took the unusual-for-us step of avoiding mass transit, and instead we took a taxi to our hotel in Causeway Bay.  It was an easy and scenic 40-minute ride, costing 370 HKD ($48 or £30 at 8 HKD = $1 and 12 HKD = £1).

loh boh gao at Lei Garden restaurant in the Elements Mall

shu mai at Lei Garden

First stop:  Lei Garden Restaurant.  The West Kowloon branch in the Elements Mall.  A must for dim sum, said our friends.  True that.  Don’t be put off by the fact that there are numerous locations in Hong Kong, Macao and Singapore.  While I can’t vouch for this Lei Garden being the best of all the Lei Garden locations, I will say that the dim sum we had was outstanding.  All the classic dim sum dishes were represented; ingredients were great quality and fresh; everything was well made; decor was chic and comfortable; and we were surrounded by large groups of Chinese-speaking family and friends catching up over good food.  The true spirit of dim sum.

Shu mai was especially memorable — flavorful without being filled with fat, as is too often the case with shu mai.  The loh boh gau (radish cake) was thoroughly perfumed with pork and turnip and had a perfect crisp to the exterior.  Prawn cheung fun also deserves special mention for its silky-but-firm noodle and sweet, perfectly-cooked prawn and celery filling.

Jon and I didn’t see any unusual dim sum dishes on the menu, but if we lived in Hong Kong, we’d be here every weekend.  Of course we over-ordered and had 8 dishes, costing us 264 HKD total ($34/£21).

West Kowloon Lei Garden Restaurant; Second Level, Elements Mall, No. 1 Austin Road West, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong; +852 2196-8133.  Closest metro station (which even has an exit directly into the Elements Mall):  Tsim Sha Tsui (red line).

beef and prawn dumpling noodle soup at Tsim Chai Kee (22 HKD/$2.80/£1.80)

Our second stop:  Tsim Chai Kee.  When I think of Hong Kong food, dim sum and noodle soups jostle for prominence.  Tsim Chai Kee sits across the street from the more-famous Mak’s noodle shop near the start of the Midlevels escalator.  Jon and I were told by different sources that Tsim Chai Kee’s noodle soups were bigger, tastier and cheaper than Mak’s, and although I can’t weigh in on Mak’s, I feel confident arguing that Tsim Chai Kee serves a best-in-class Hong Kong noodle soup.

The restaurant is small, so expect to share your table with strangers.  You get a choice of noodles (the thin, yellow egg noodles are the classic and TCK’s version were wonderfully al dente, rather than rubbery like they often are in London), and a choice of toppings.  A soup with one topping is 17 HKD ($2/£1.40).  With two toppings, it’s still a bargainous 22 HKD ($2.80/£1.80).  We ordered a soup with just prawn won tons and another with beef and won tons.  As if the sweet, plump prawn won tons and the tender slices of beef weren’t enough of an attraction, the soup broth was wonderfully meaty and fishy.  Go.

Tsim Chai Kee, 98, Wellington Sttreet, Central, Hong Kong (close to where the Midlevels escalator begins).  According to TCK’s business card, there’s another location at 153 Queen’s Road Central, and an associated noodle shop called Yeung’s Noodle at 219 Hennessy Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong.

the "queue" at Tim Ho Wan at 2 pm on a Monday

I first got the idea to visit Tim Ho Wan after reading Hollow Legs’s June 2010 post about it.  A Michelin-starred, divey, no-reservations-taken dim sum place in HK?  This I had to see.  Hong Kong friends warned me about the queues but recommended I put my name down, take a deli-counter-style number from the lady manning the door, and then wander around the nearby Ladies Market until my number was called.

With a few hours to myself one afternoon, I figured that I could avoid Tim Ho Wan’s infamous queues if I if I showed up as a party of 1 on a Monday afternoon at 2 pm.  Nope.  I still waited 45 minutes, which was fine.  I spent that time bargaining down the price of dozens of pairs of chopsticks at the Ladies Market, which was enormously entertaining.

The beauty of dining alone at divey restaurants like Tim Ho Wan (whose press, ironically, seems to have originated from the chef-owner’s background as the former dim sum chef at the Hong Kong Four Seasons hotel) is that the resto will automatically seat you with other solo diners.  I sat with a local Hong Kong man who had *taken the day off from work* to eat here because apparently the queues on weekends are just too insane to bear.  In any event, I was pleased to have someone with whom I could share (maximize) dim sum orders.  And it was nice to hear Tim Ho Wan enjoyed fame among locals.

Tim Ho Wan's signature dish: baked BBQ pork bun (12 HKD/$1.50/£1)

First up:  Tim Ho Wan’s signature dish:  “baked BBQ pork bun.”  A twist on the classic char siu bun, but here, instead of using a steamed bun, a crispy, sugary biscuit-like exterior is used.  This was very tasty, but rich.  It’s the offspring of a buttermilk biscuit and a char siu bun.  I can see why it’s popular but feel sorry for the poor soul churning out thousands of these every day.

spare ribs with fermented black beans (12 HKD/$1.50/£1)

The other standout dishes I ordered were the steamed spare ribs in fermented black beans and the fried beef balls.  The spare ribs had a great kick and a perfect ratio of meat to fat. Not too gloopy.  Beef balls were impossibly tender.  Great examples of classic dim sum dishes.

the "kitchen" at Tim Ho Wan

Everything else I tried – pan-fried turnip cake (loh boh gau), sticky rice dumpling and beef cheung fun – was good, but not any better than what I’d had the previous day at Lei Garden.  Overall, I’d agree with everyone who says that there is delicious dim sum to be had at Tim Ho Wan, but I reckon there’s equally good dim sum all over Hong Kong.  I definitely have no idea why Tim Ho Wan has a Michelin star.  People who depend on the Michelin guide to give an approximation of the level of service, decor and cooking they can expect from starred establishments . . . well, let’s just say Tim Ho Wan would drive such people mad.  In any event, the food there is indeed good quality and very cheap, with very few dishes costing more than 12 HKD (or $1.50/£1).

Tim Ho Wan is open daily from 10am-10pm. Shop 8, 2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok, Kowloon (00852 2332 2896).  Closest metro:  Yau Ma Tei (red line).

spicy crab at Under the Bridge Spicy Crab restaurant (390 HKD/$50/£31)

Under Bridge Spicy Crab Restaurant was where Jon and I had our last meal in Hong Kong.  I was skeptical and wary when I saw multiple photos of Anthony Bourdain plastered all over the restaurant facade.  But the restaurant’s signature dish, spicy shelter crab, was outstanding.  The crab was sweet, but the best part is the garlic-salt-chili crust the crab is fried in.  The other stuff (clams  for 60HKD and sauteed chives, 39 HKD), was forgettable.  With two drinks, we paid 560 HKD ($72/£45) total, with most of that cost being the crab, which was worth every penny.  In fact, when you’re finished with the crab meat, the fried garlic-chili is addictive with white rice.

For a super-complete point of view on this place, read this May 2010 Follow Me Foodie blog post.

Under Bridge Spicy Crab Restaurant, 414-424 Jaffe Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong; +852 2834 6268; closest metro:  Wan Chai or Causeway Bay (blue line).

So that’s it on the food, but before I go back to blogging about London restaurants, I feel compelled to offer one last Hong Kong tip:

a very-hidden gem: Chun Sang linens

It’s no secret that Hong Kong is a shopper’s paradise, but bargains are hard to come by these days.  For anyone looking for table linens, though, I highly recommended Chun Sang linens in the Midlevels.  Overlook the horrible store facade and try to ignore the horrific merchandising (or lack thereof).  Show up with your table measurements, and the shop keeper can find you anything.  Gorgeous linen tablecloths for less than £50.  We combined our shopping trip with the obligatory ride up the Peak Tram, whose terminus is nearby.

Chun Sang Trading Co. (Distributors of Embroideries), 3-4 Glenealy, Ground Floor, Block B, Central, Hong Kong

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Clearly I am guilty of the blogger equivalent of living under a rock.  For the last month, a whole bunch of travel bloggers have been busy fundraising for Friends of LAFTI (Land for Tillers’ Freedom).  I just noticed this today, which happens to be the last day to enter to win a lot of incredible travel-related prizes.

Salient points:

  • $10 buys you one chance to win the particular prize that interests you (hands off the iPad and the 2 nights’ at any Kimpton Hotel – they’re mine!)
  • You can buy as many tickets/chances as you want
  • You have to purchase your tickets by 11:59 tonight, 13 December 2010, US Pacific time (i.e., those of you in GMT have until 7:59 am tomorrow, 14 December).
  • Winners will be notified on 17 December 2010.  You’ll have three days to claim your prize.

Click here to see the fab prizes and to donate to a great cause.


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Food stalls at the Shilin night market in Taipei

Night markets are a feature of many Southeast-Asian cities (well, definitely cities with large Chinese populations, anyway), and while I appreciate the beauties of a sunny daytime market in, say, France and Italy, in my opinion, night markets are the best of the market genre.

First, they’re practical.  When you’re in a hot, tropic climate, it makes sense not to go out until dark, and after being cooped up in air conditioning for much of the day, being outside again is a heady release.   Second, there’s a liveliness that only nighttime brings.  The carefree and festive atmosphere of night markets is hard to match.  In Taipei, night markets open at around 4 or 5 pm, but they really don’t get going until 8 or 9 pm, when families and friends meet up for a stroll, some shopping, and/or a bite to eat.

Shilin night market in Taipei isn’t the only night market in town, but it’s the biggest.  You could happily shop or play carnival and arcade games there for days.  I, of course, go for the food.  I was last at Shilin night market in 2002, and the major change today is that there’s an enormous covered tent now that houses the majority of food stalls in one place.  It’s certainly convenient, but it means you can expect an unbelievable human traffic jam at around mealtimes.

jian bao at Shilin night market

I already talked about the brilliant jian bao in my previous post about dining out in Taipei, generally.  These are a must-have.

zen bing (a burrito-type deal) stall

zen bing seconds before being rolled up into a burrito-like shape

Zen bing.  They’re a Chinese burrito.  You take a thin flour-based shell (almost like an eggroll skin), and you get it stuffed full of goodies like Chinese sausage (which is sweet), roast pork, fresh bean sprouts, sliced up egg omelet, scallions, crushed peanuts and a little chilli sauce.   For normal people, a zen bing constitutes a solid meal, for less than $2.  For me, ’twas but another snack.

dan bing

Scallion pancakes (tsong you bing) are great.  But throw on a layer of egg and eat it hot off a griddle, and it’s even better.  That’s a dan bing.  They’re commonly eaten as a brekkie-on-the-go in Taiwan, but in my humble opinion, they’re good at all hours of the day.  Much like breakfast foods, generally, yes?

Chinese spiced fried chicken breast at Hot Star

Hot Star is one of the more famous stalls in Shilin night market.  There are at least two stalls in the market, in fact.  For 55 NT (less than $2), you get an *enormous* wedge of what appears to be schnitzel (chicken breast pounded thin, breaded and fried).  Bite into it, though, and you’ll know this thing is all Chinese.  The spices.  A little star anise, a hint of cinnamon,  some turmeric and fennel in there, too, I think?  I must confess that I should have shared this one with someone.  I made the strategic error of eating one on my own, which left scant space for the dozens of other goodies on offer at the night market.

Chinese sausages

Chinese sausages.  The ones at Shilin night market are famous, though I suspect it’s because they’re so large.  If you’ve never had a Chinese sausage before, this is a good place to try them.  For me, it was just a Chinese sausage.  Sweet, porky, smoky.  Good stuff.

owa jen (oyster omelet)

Last but not least, owa jen.  The oyster omelet.  One of those staple snacks of Taiwan.  You can guess what’s in it based on the name.  There are a huge variety of them at Shilin night market though.  The oyster-to-egg ratio varies; the runniness of the egg varies.  I could have devoted a whole separate meal to testing out all the owa jen stands, but when you go to the night market, make sure you try at least one.

In case it’s not obvious, I didn’t make it to dessert that night.  Next time.  And before someone busts me – no, I didn’t eat stinky tofu that night.

Shilin night market.  Closest metro station:  Jian Tan (red line).  Just exit the station and you won’t miss the giant covered tent housing most of the food vendors.  Bring wet wipes and arrive hungry.  If you’re on a budget, you could happily eat at the night market every day and never get bored.

Here’s a sampling of other blog posts about Shilin night market:

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Taipei 101 (tallest building in the world until the Burj in 2010)

Happy (belated) Thanksgiving to all my American readers!  I trust you all gave thanks, over-ate and over-shopped.

It’s been exactly a week since I’ve returned to London after having spent 9 days in Taiwan and 3 days in Hong Kong.  I’m still jetlagged beyond belief, which is yet another annoying sign that I’m getting old.

I spent several happy childhood summers in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital city, so take this next sentence with a grain of salt:  Taiwan is a *superb* place to visit if you like to eat Chinese food in all its many-regioned glory.  Thanks to 50 years of Japanese rule, as well as the ocean bounty that comes with being an island nation, the sushi’s delish, too.

There are dozens of direct one-hour flights between Hong Kong and Taipei each day, so the next time you’re planning your fab long weekend in Hong Kong, don’t overlook little ol’ Taiwan.

gua bao from Shi Jia Gua Bao at 21 Tong-Hua Street, Taipei

Small eats, xiao chi, is a major aspect of dining out that Taiwanese peeps are justifiably proud of.  In every city we visited (and on this trip, we visited Taipei in the north, Kaohsiung and Chiayi in the south, and Yingge on the outskirts of Taipei), storefront shops, street vendors, and stalls in nightmarkets sold, at all hours of the day, xiao chi.  My two favorite examples of xiao chi are gua bao (braised pork belly sandwich in a mantou, a steamed yeast-risen bun) and jien bao (pork-and-soup-filled buns that are steamed and pan fried).

In Taipei, my favorite gua bao was to be found at Shi Jia Gua Bao (special thanks to Taipei local, Wei-Ming, for this tip).  The shop is at 21 Tong-Hua Street, which you’ll find close by the Tong Hua night market.   A bite of the melt-in-your mouth braised pork belly filling, garnished with pickled mustard greens, fresh cilantro and crushed peanuts is to experience savory, sweet, crunchy and soft all at once.  At the shop, you can order a gua bao that’s mostly fat, no fat, or half-and-half.  The best part:  each costs NT 45 ($1.50 or 95 pence at current exchange rates.  Namely, $1 = 30 NT; £1 = 48 NT).  Closest metro stations:  Liuzhangli and Da’an (both on the brown line).

jian bao at ShiLin night market

My fave jian bao of this trip was a version I picked up at Shilin night market, which is such an extravaganza of delicious food, crazy carnival games and random things for sale that I’ll do it more justice in a separate post.  The jian bao had a perfectly crispy bottom, soft, fluffy bun wrapping, and juicy, meaty-porky filling.   They differ from similarly-soupy xiao long bao because the dough is fluffier/thicker – it might even be yeast-risen, actually.  Like the dough of a mantou.  In any case, I’m pretty sure I bought five jian bao for 60NT ($2/£1.20) or something ridiculously cheap like that.  Closest metro station:  Chien Tan (red line)

I could wax lyrical for ages and pages on Taiwan’s xiao chi, but instead I’ll cover more of those in my planned Shilin night market post and move on to restaurant meals.

Si Hai Yi Jia, "Four Seas One House"

We ate at a couple of fancy, relatively-pricey restaurants while in Taipei and Kaohsiung, and most of those meals were Chinese banquet style, meaning we’d sit at the table for hours and be served a dozen different courses. It’s an interesting dynamic to be the guest of honor at a Chinese banquet — everyone’s counting on you to eat everything and register appreciation.  No pressure, of course.

Among the sea of banquet meals, though, the restaurant meal that stands out was at a popular neighborhood place, Si Hai Yi Jia, whose name translates to “Four Seas One House.”  Sort of a “we are the world” kind of saying.

spare ribs at Si Hai Yi Jai

There, we ate some outstanding Beijing duck, dumplings of all varieties, the best scallion pancakes I’ve had in years, and memorably-good sweet-and-tart ribs.  On the Beijing-heavy menu were also delicious examples of local specialties like drunken chicken.  I’d highly recommend dropping by this place for tasty, good-quality food in a bustling, casual setting.  Also a plus were the servers, who weren’t shy about sharing [strong] opinions (in Chinese, though) on what you should order.

Si Hai Yi Jia, Lane 36, Ba De Road, Section 4, Taipei, Taiwan; +886 2 2873 9288; closest metro station:  Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall (blue line)

Second-fave restaurant meal in Taipei was actually somewhere in the middle of Yang Ming Shan National park.  No lie, though.  It’s a pain to get here without a car.  We took the underground/MRT to Chien Tan station and then took a 30-minute bus ride to the national park visitor center, followed by yet another 30-minute long shuttle to the restaurant.  The only plus side about the journey (which would probably take an hour, total, by car) is how every form of public transportation in the Taipei metro area accepts the EasyCard – a sort of mega Oyster Card.  I know this isn’t a food-related tip, but definitely get yourself an EasyCard the minute you get to Taipei.  It’s so much handier than (a) having to figure out what the fare is; and (b) digging around for change all the time.

kitchen at a mountain top Yang Ming Shan resto

The restaurant is no great shakes to look at.  It’s basically a shack near the bus stop at the top of a mountain.  But here you’ll find some of the freshest and most interesting greens of your life.  Nothing is cooked until you order, but it comes to the table fast.

dragon's beard

We loved the fresh mushrooms, braised tofus, sweet yam-and-ginger soup and variety of greens (including a melt-in-your-mouth dish of sweet potatoe shoots).  But I will always remember the colorfully-named “dragon’s beard” greens, which were crunchy, slightly sweet and just refreshing.  It was great mountaintop eating.

Finally, quick notes on two restos in Taipei that fell short of the hype:

Shin Yeh fried oysters

Shin Yeh restaurant has several branches in Taipei, including one inside Taipei 101 (which we couldn’t get a reservation for).  The resto got a rec in this New York Times article from March 2008, and we ended up at a Shin Yeh location not far from Taipei 101, close to the Taipei City Hall metro station, inside yet another luxury goods shopping mall.

The restaurant was huge and decorated in that generic beige look that’s all the rage among luxury hotels around the world.  That said, the service was great — attentive and helpful — and the food, while enjoyable, wasn’t anything special (see e.g., Shin Yeh’s version of drunken chicken and their crab-and-sticky rice).  The restaurant’s “thing” seems to be to use good-quality ingredients to prepare typical Taiwanese dishes.  Prices are relatively high, but still affordable by US/UK standards. Shout out to Shin Yeh’s fried oysters, though, which ought to be served in bars everywhere.  Juicy, briney and battered-and-fried with a deft hand.  Probably a nice place to get oriented to local specialties if you don’t speak or read any Chinese, or if you miss the tidiness and calm of a fancier restaurant.

salmon belly (200 NT) and premium fatty tuna (250 NT) at Mitsui

Jon and I had an afternoon to ourselves in Taipei (the trip to Taiwan had been to attend a wedding, so most times, we were not alone).  So we set out to find premium sushi in a city that claims to have more Japanese restaurants than any city outside of Japan.

Cue Mitsui, which I’d read about on London Eater’s site earlier this year.  It sounded delicious, high-end, but cheap by London standards.  We ordered a lot of items a la carte, and strangely, the sashimi was underwhelming.  Maybe we went on a bad day, but my fatty tuna was still part-frozen, rather than silky-smooth, melt-in-your-mouth.  The salmon belly had a slightly better (less frozen) texture, but it was flavorless.  Grr.  Jon and I did better with the “cooked” items like grilled eel, but that’s so wrong in a sushi restaurant with a great reputation.

Service was nice, and the room is sleek and chic in all black.  But we ate much better sushi when we were in the southern port city of Kaohsiung (if you’re down there, the horribly-translated-into-English restaurant “Sea World” serves some mean sashimi). At least our meal cost only 2600 NT (£28/$43 each), including drinks.

Mitsui, No 30, Nong-an St., 1F Taipei City, Taiwan; +886 (02) 2594-3394;  closest Metro:  Minquan West Road (red line).

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