The Guest House is spread over the 17th and 18th floors of the Sheraton Grand hotel in central Taipei. It is a huge place, seating up to 285 guests at one time. The dining room is split into small sections, with wood panelled walls, well spaced tables and a mix of carpeting and wooden floor. There are no less than thirteen private rooms available. The head chef is Lin Ju-Wei, who has worked here for two decades, initially training here under the previous head chef Lin Chen Chin. In the inaugural Michelin guide to Taipei in 2018 The Guest House was awarded two stars, one of only three restaurants in the city awarded multiple stars.
The menu was vast, and came complete with pictures of many of the dishes. It is easy to be snooty about this practice, but I cannot see the harm, which at least gives you an idea of what the dish should look like. The dishes appeared to be drawn from multiple regions of China. One feature that did quickly become apparent was that the portion sizes were designed for large groups, or at least for a minimum of two people. For example a seafood dim sum plate offered eight identical dumplings. Could I order a half portion? “No.” OK then. I tried ordering a dish of “hand made noodles”, a specialty of the kitchen. “Ah, that is really for three or four people.” Could I have a smaller portion? “No, that is the size it comes in”, as if the dish was parachuted in, pre-built, directly from some remote location with no intervention from the kitchen. I mean I can understand if a restaurant is serving something like a whole chicken cooked in a pig bladder, that it would be awkward to try and do a half portion. But noodles? Seriously? Who determines that dumplings can only be served as eight (presumably chosen as eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture) since I have most certainly eaten plates of dumplings that appeared as two, three or four individual dumplings at other Chinese restaurants. I asked the waitress if she could speak to the kitchen and check, and after some deliberation I seemed that no, all dish sizes on the menu were inviolate, as if chipped out in stone on some holy tablet and brought down from the mountains, never to be questioned. I understand that Cantonese food is best shared in a large group, but have they never encountered a solo diner here, perhaps someone on business or, god forbid, an individual who just fancied some lunch?
The eight dumplings duly appeared in their steamer, and were, after all that buildup, merely pleasant. They were each filled with a prawn and some minced pork, served with some ginger vinegar for dipping. The prawns were tender enough, though the dumplings were a little thick and clunky, but I liked the ginger vinegar. Still, with the best will in the world they were only of 12/20 standard, lucky number or not. I ate half of them.
They were better that shredded tofu topped with slices of scallion, this being harmless but no more than that, the onions being the only thing with much flavour in the plate (11/20). In place of the forbidden hand-made noodles I was presented with a dish of sheet noodles with chicken oil. These had decent enough texture, but the bak choi that they came with, though cooked all right, was barely warm by the time it was served (12/20). The best dish was prawns with peas, a simple bowl with just those components. The prawns were cooked fine and the peas were small and quite sweet in flavour, cooked nicely (14/20).
Service was, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty bad. Let’s ignore the portion discussion for a moment. As I walked in another party was searching around for someone to meet and greet them. Eventually a waitress wandered over and seated them, and I discovered a meet and greet girl engrossed in a phone conversation entirely untroubled by the presence of actual guests. After some time she completed her phone chat and found my reservation. As I sat down I was served some jasmine tea. This was stewing on a communal station, the teapot used for several different tables. Not surprisingly it was lukewarm and seriously over-stewed. I tried a couple of times to get some fresh tea and then gave up and ordered some still water. The tea itself was quite disappointing, fairly harsh and not a patch on the jasmine tea at my hotel. There was a further waitress who hung around disconcertingly just next to my table for much of the meal, performing no obvious function. She wasn’t able to take a food order, or indeed a drinks order, as that was the purview of other, presumably more senior waitresses. So she merely hovered over the table, and if I asked for something like a top up of water she just nodded, stood on the spot, and waited for the appropriate waitress to turn up. No wonder the unemployment rate in Taiwan is just 3.7%.
The bill came to TWD 1,760 (£45) with just tea and a bottle of Evian to drink. If you had dessert and drank alcohol then a typical cost per person might be more like £70. This was a pretty lacklustre experience at best, which in itself would only have been mildly annoying other than the expectations set up its having two Michelin stars. If I compare this to, say, Hakkasan in London, then not one dish on this menu would ever have made deemed worthy of serving at Hakkasan, which gets a solitary star. The silky smooth service at Hakkasan is an order of magnitude better than the shambles here. Quite what therefore caused Michelin to give this place even one star, never mind one star more than Hakkasan, is a complete mystery to me.