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April 29, 2017

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Food review: Intimate kaiseki that won't break the bank

Ximending, often dubbed by travel guides as the "Shibuya of Taipei," is a popular hangout for middle and high school students. There are also older hangerouters thanks to the myriad of entertainment options on offer — from KTV parlors to streets dedicated to cinemas and tattoo studios.

Despite having plenty of legendary, authentic Taiwanese street food, the area is home to more tourist traps than quality restaurants, and I still find myself drawing a blank when asked to recommend nice sit-down restaurants in the area.

After stumbling across the well-reviewed CobaSushi, a tiny Japanese restaurant on the outskirts of the bustling shopping streets, I was hoping a visit there would change my mind.

It didn't.

CobaSushi is a more affordable offering run by the same owner as 33 Rooms, a famed Japanese kaiseki restaurant nearby. 33 Rooms, with a per-head cost of NT$1,500 and up, has cultivated a loyal fan base over the nearly 30 years it has been in business, though I've yet to try it.

Kaiseki is a traditional multicourse dinner known for its meticulous preparation and presentation — some have described it as the Japanese equivalent of French haute cuisine.

I admit that I had high expectations for Cobasushi's kaiseki meal, which has attracted a lot of attention because it's priced at only a fraction of what other high-end restaurants typically charge. Kaiseki meals in Taipei often run between NT$1,200 and NT$5,000 per person.

We ordered the Kaiseki set for two (priced at a little over NT$1,200), which included an appetizer of five bite-sized hors d'oervres, a second course consisting several small side dishes, a bowl of salad, seasonal sashimi, assorted sushi, thinly sliced roast beef, grilled salmon, tempura-fried shrimp and dessert.

Their house wafu salad dressing is delicious, and the portions of fish and sashimi are generous; I and my fellow diner were served only three slices between us — but they were exceptionally thick. The only truly underwhelming part of the meal was the watery ice cream and bland, unpleasant cake at the end.

No dishes really surprised us, and I left feeling that the price was only acceptable at best. Personally, I would rather spend more for a Kaiseki meal that makes me want to scream for joy — preferably in a more spacious, serene and comfortable dining environment.

Perhaps it was the first impression that put me off.

Walking into the restaurant was not a pleasant experience, as I had to stumble over shoes overflowing from the wooden cabinet — some shoes were damp from the rain, and passing by this fetid footwear was a full-on horror show. I knew we wouldn't be seated in private rooms like some high-end Kaiseki spots, but I wasn't expecting it to be cramped CobaSushi: It can take a lot of effort just to stand up to get their complimentary hot barley tea and miso soup, and the proximity with other customers can sometimes feel a tad too intimate.

The experience has been said to be much better during sunnier weather and on less busier weekdays, so I would recommend picking your visit times wisely for a more comfortable meal.

Key takeaways:

► An OK place to get acquainted with kaiseki

► Best time to visit: when the sun's shining

CobaSushi 小林英夫

► 120 Kangdin Road, Wanhua District, Taipei

台北市萬華區康定路120號

► Daily from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

► (02) 2388-5233

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