Sat 13 Aug 2005
Dateline: China Eastern flight between Shanghai and Beijing, August 12, 2005:
First, readers should note that I am posting this from YOUR FUTURE! We are 15 hours ahead, and have already lived through your era. So to you, we offer this tip: You won�t be able to eat two orders of the xiao long bao. Just get one.
On the topic of xiao long bao (little dragon buns, aka the steamed pork dumplings they serve with vinegar instead of soy), in this installment I discuss Shanghainese food, particularly what we ate, where, and whether or not it was good. This meditation will also dovetail with the theme that the guidebook is not as wise as one would wish.
Monday night, we had dinner with Michael and Zoe. Michael is a friend of a guy who plays on Brad�s journalist softball team, The Muckrakers. We met at a restaurant called Lao Tan which serves Guizhou food. Lao Tan is located at 42 Xing Fu Lu, 2F, a part of Shanghai far from where we were staying, at the Westin. Guizhou is a province of China even further from the Westin.
The cab dropped us at a storefront where two men were sitting on a pile of sheetrock and residents were walking home dragging 15 foot long wheelbarges stacked with chairs. I figured we were in the right place because a woman standing at the door was wearing a costume with bells, and I�d managed to glean from the Internet that the restaurant was serving food characteristic of an ethnic minority. As in the U.S., an ethnic restaurant often requires the waitstaff to be attired in some kind of costume. (Later in our trip, at the Shanghai Museum, we saw these costumes on display.)
Zoe grew up in a province near Guizhou, so she is an expert in the food, which is noted for spiciness. M advised that we just get whatever Z ordered, subject to whatever dietary limitations we might have. �Is there anything you don�t eat?� he asked. �No, really, anything?�
Fortunately, we failed to mention either snails or baby octopi, because what followed was without question the best food we had in Shanghai. Unfortunately, we were so happy I failed to photograph any of it. First we had some kind of weird root, which looked like insect legs and tasted like ginger and bamboo. The second cold dish was soba noodles in a spicy sauce. It was a lot like something you can get at the delicious Spices II in the Richmond District of San Francisco. M & Z know the owner of this restaurant, and he ferments his own wine out of a kind of Chinese �plum�. So we ordered a little carafe of that, to drink out of tiny white cups. (Tip: When a place serves an alcoholic beverage in tiny cups, there is a reason. Too bad I�m not writing this from Brad�s future.) We had pieces of fish with scallions and garlic, a dish of soft, fluffy tofu puffs atop a chili hash, smoky pork rice, baby octopus with red and green papers, and sea snail in a brown hot pepper sauce. We also had some smoky pork laden rice and some kinds of vegetables. It was unbelievably fantastic. [The place is also known for its hot pot, and we saw people enjoying a particularly red one. If you are ever in Shanghai, you should definitely go to this place. The menu has no English, but you can point at what other people are having.]
By the time dinner was over, we�d discussed Michael�s interest in Shanghai literature, and his new job as arts editor for a French magazine. Zoe, curator at a modern art museum, told us where the best galleries to see contemporary Shanghai art are located. And Brad, Brad was totally sauced. He�d had a few Qing Tao�s and a couple of shots of that plum wine, plus a couple strong Chinese cigarettes, and was over the edge. Nonetheless, he staggered with us across the street to a local bar that had beds for couches (just like S.F.) and had another drink. There, Zoe told us what Chinese people think of the Iraq war, and assured us that people in China don�t tip. Michael assured me that its okay to pay more than you might otherwise have to just because you don�t feel like bargaining. We left happy and grateful to them both.
La Tan spoiled me for Shanghai food, and I often found myself wishing for Zoe�s advice and guidance during the rest of our trap. Still, there were other culinary highlights, made sweeter by the fact that we were figuring stuff out on our own.
On Tuesday, we went for lunch to this strange place near the Peace Hotel that caters to Chinese tourists. The first thing on the menu was �dog with paste�. I wondered whether they had actual dogs back there that they were going to kill, so we didn�t order it. We did get the dumpling filled with crab roe, which you eat with a straw, and a sweet stew of eel and garlic. Tuesday night, we were supposed to go to the highly recommended 1221, but we got stuck without a cab near the Shanghai Center beautiful view of Pudong New Area from the fifth floor of the building.
The restaurant is entirely populated with Americans and other English speakers, particularly people entertaining as part of business, as you might expect. The prices are San Francisco level, and the book says that the menu is �Mediterranean-influenced� so that screens out a lot of people. But it may also be that locals know the food isn�t worth the price. For an appetizer, Brad and I shared the asparagus, which was probably about US$8. It was five or six thin spears, in anchovy butter, with a poached egg and shaved pecorino on top. It was pretty good, but you can�t go wrong with anchovy butter. The pecorino was mild and the egg added little. Then I what the menu described as �our salt roasted lamb� and Brad had the duck with scallops wrapped in bacon. Both the duck and the lamb were stringy, in the way overdone duck confit often is. The lamb had the virtue of being salty, and the duck of being fatty. That�s all I can say. Mine came with spinach, which was unremarkable, and with home fries. Brad liked his duck, which had a crispy glazed skin. His scallops however, were overdone and the bacon was chewy. About 2/3 through our meal, a party of 8, which included some unknown famous person came, and our waitress totally abandoned us to the ministrations of a nice young man who was perfectly fine, but wore a name tag emblazoned with the word �Trainee�. Not confidence inspiring.
Whatever my critique of the food, the dessert was great. We ordered the chocolate cake, which came with the only chocolate ice cream I�ve ever liked. I also got a glass of the cold orange Muscat, which I greatly enjoyed. After, we went out on the balcony to hear businessmen from Alabama flirt with whatever women were available and to watch the boats go by. The bill came to about US$100. (We each had one substantial and powerful cocktail, also, included in that price.)
On our last night we went to 1221, which was promised as a favorite of locals and expats alike. Its located down a little alleyway, behind some other stores, in a modern space that�s cleanly designed and looks really nice. The menu is in perfect English, reasonably priced, and, unlike the snooty M on the Bund, they serve affordable wine and wine by the glass. (Tip: When the nicest restaurant in town refuses to serve Chinese wine, there might be a reason. Too bad I�m not writing this from my own future.)
Though it may be snobby, my problem with 1221 is the same problem I have with Eric�s or Alice�s or Eliza�s or any of those American Chinese places we have in S.F. Its American. Where�s the snails? Where�s the pork tendon or the duck tongue? I might very well want to order something easy and mainstream, but if I�m in China, I want the option to get something out of the ordinary, or to make a mistake. I ordered a glass (and later another) of Dragon Seal white wine. We had hot and sour soup, which initially I poo poo�ed out of snobbishness but later begrudgingly admitted was good. We also ordered shredded pork with bamboo shoot. The shoots and meat were in some kind of black sauce. From the flavor, I could tell it was made with the kind of pork that is a specialty in Zhouzhuang (Wushan pork) but which we didn�t order when we were there because it looked like a red shellacked ham hock and the smell in the heat was gross. I was really glad we got that so that I would know what it was. We also ordered sweet pea with bread stick, which was like a lot of deep fried croutons with a few peas and onions. It was yummy, greasy, not a vegetable. We tried to order the Lion�s Head meatballs, but they were out. So we got the xiao long bao, which came four to an order and were salty and pretty good. Brad particularly liked how they are full of liquid when you bite into them. (The fact that they were four to an order was the precursor to today�s error of getting two orders at the dumpling place on Maoming. There, its 12 to an order.) Finally, we ordered a steamed fish
By the time we were done, I was surprisingly tired. I had wanted to go out to some bars on Maoming, but we both decided to call it a night, as we had plans to wake up early and catch the Jade Buddha Temple on our way out of town. I fell asleep/passed out on the cab ride home, then fell asleep for good 5 minutes later in the hotel room. I think that Dragon�s Seal wine poisoned me! But what doesn�t kill me only makes me stronger, and I plant to have another bout with it tonight.
Again, everyone there was white, except for two tables of Chinese, both sets American. If I were walking by a Chinese restaurant at home and saw this many white people in it, I probably would not go in. Still, I must admit the food was perfectly fine and the restaurant was nice. And they had that powerful wine!
We arrived in Beijing this evening and promptly went to the food stalls near our hotel. More on that tomorrow, and more links to photos in this section, including more hats (!!!) as I organize them.