BODY and SOUL2008.06.10


A former architect’s vision comes to life in a culinary mountainside retreat

By Jonathan Adams
but a dozen years ago, Lin Bin-hui, then an architect, had a dream that he’s never forgotten.In the dream, he was praying in a Buddhist temple and got up to get tea for his masters. But when he left the prayer room, he found his way to the tea room blocked by a huge boulder. He managed to climb over and saw a scene on the other side that greatly moved him. “I felt like crying, and said ‘I haven’t been home in such a long time,’” said Lin, sipping tea on the second floor of his Shi Yang Shan Fang restaurant. That vision, he continued,“is what you see here today.”
 The tea room of Lin’s dreams has become a reality on the lush hillside of Yangming Mountain just north of Taipei.Here, among twisting black branches and low-hanging mist that could be straight from a Chinese landscape painting,Lin has created something more than just a restaurant and tea house. On five hectares of rented property just off Jingshan Road, the 54-year-old has created a haven from the hectic city below akin to a Chinese scholar’s hushed retreat. There are three dining areas in separate buildings carefully designed in minimalist style and furnished with dark wood, tatami-mat floors, roll-up bamboo curtains, translucent partitions, low benches or mats to sit on, and carefully placed candles and flowers. The effect may seem Japanese to a Western eye that normally associates “Chinese” style with ostentatious Qing Dynasty architecture.But it’s actually the much more reserved Song Dynasty aesthetic that many view as the most authentic of Chinese styles— a model the Japanese later borrowed from and refined in their own fashion.Lin also holds invitation-only concerts,and plans to open a ceramics workshop soon.
Atmosphere aside, the major draw at Shi Yang Shan Fang is, of course, the food. Lin doesn’t like the label “new Taiwanese”cuisine, but his food could be described as one of Taipei's premier examples of that culinary trend for its use of traditional, local ingredients and styles— including seafood delivered fresh from Keelung and lots of soups — and prepared to appeal to today’s increasingly health-conscious and refined Taiwanese palate. Meals are relatively low in oil and salt and have plenty of vegetables with only small portions of meat.
Presentation is also key. Meals are served on tableware that’s either custommade or from the famous pottery town of Yingge. Add in attentive, efficient service, and the tabletop becomes like an artist’s canvas, illuminated by candles and soft track lighting.
As in many fine restaurants specializing in fresh, local ingredients, there's no à la carte menu at Shi Yang Shan Fang. Lin chooses the prix-fixe menu of the day — NT$1,000 per person for lunch or dinner — depending on what's available at vegetable and seafood markets. Then he shows his culinary “partners” how to make the dishes and they take it from there. (He doesn't like to call them his “chefs,” explaining, “we are all students in life, including me”). The meals change with the seasons, but always come in ten-dish sets inspired by local Taiwanese bandoh (outdoor banquet-style) dining.The difference, of course, is in Lin's careful refinements.
On a cloud-draped day in March, the menu started with passion fruit punch and then continued in a culinary odyssey:tofu with wasabi; tofu pockets packed with goose meat; steamed scallops with egg custard and a touch of sweet potato(good for the stomach, said the waitress Mona); soup with cabbage, mushrooms and gaozha (a type of glutinous rice popular in Lin's native Ilan County),pineapple juice with vinegar (to cleanse the palate); shrimp and rice cakes in a spicy red sauce; soup with Ilan chicken, lily flower, white carrots and lotus root; eel and pumpkin in a sweet brown sauce;a dessert of yuni (mashed taro); and an encore of fresh fruit — all washed down with tea.
The yuni was a good example of Lin’s twist on traditional Taiwanese specialties.Back in his home county of Ilan, it’s often steamed with pork oil, served in large vats, and scooped up like ice cream at wedding banquets and other special occasions.At Shi Yang Shan Fang, they skip the pork oil and serve small, carefully spooned-out portions with oatmeal, red date sauce and the dried longyan fruit.But while everything may be far lighter than countryside banquet fair, ten dishes can still add up to a lot of food. Luckily,doggie bags are provided on request, and you will see plenty of well-fed customers making use of them as they leave the restaurant.
The success of Shi Yang Shan Fang has surprised Lin, who says he doesn’t even like cooking. “I wanted to retreat into the mountains,” said Lin. “I didn’t realize this would turn into a second career.”
The restaurant was conceived as a way to support the lifestyle of his dreams.After he turned 40, says Lin, he stoppedthinking about his previous ambitions and decided he wanted more space in his life. After he opened his first teashop in Xindian, a suburb south of Taipei, he soon found his friends and customers were spending so much time drinking tea there that he had to start feeding them too. Two years ago, he moved his restaurant to its current location and began renovating the delapidated buildings to conform to his vision. Slowly, it took shape, until at last he realized that without consciously intending to, he’d created the tea house he’d seen so vividly in his dreams.
A devout Buddhist, Lin in fact runs Shi Yang Shan Fang more like a spiritual retreat than a restaurant. Every morning he gets up at 6am and does his exercises — when the weather is good, he does them next to a nearby waterfall. At 9am, he gathers together his staff for Buddhist prayers and readings from Confucius and others. Some workers actually live on the grounds, turning the dining tables into scholars’ desks late at night, and sleeping on tatami mats. During the recent visit in March, the wenshan baozhong oolong tea was carefully served by Mona, a staffer of Lin’s who is also a ceramics expert and involved in the soon-to-be-launched workshop. Afterwards, another woman performed on a seven-string guqin, a traditional Chinese instrument. Lin says he especially wants to provide a quiet place of reflection and spiritual enrichment for young people, many of whom he fears have lost their away in today's “chaotic” Taiwanese society.
Lin’s clientele ranges from local day trippers to foreign diplomats and their families and the occasional visiting dignitary.Lin says that when some mainland Chinese officials paid a recent visit, they remarked that had at last found the “real” China — a special mountainside retreat that's usually only found in nostalgic descriptions of a long-gone era. Now,Lin hopes to keep refining his vision and achieve a kind of cultural and culinary nirvana that exists in harmony with the surrounding hills and forests and is open to all comers. The aim is clear: healthy,tasty nourishment for the body, but alsoa place to find food for the soul.
Shi Yang Shan Fang
160, Lane 101, Qingshan Rd., Shihlin District, Taipei
Tel :                 +886 2 2862-0078         
(The Report From"TAIWANESE CUISINE,Fountain Arts&living "Volume3,p.64-67,2007)