Return of the Hairy Crab

Shanghai Railway Station

Saturday was our last day. We decided to head out of town to visit the famous gardens of the old canal town Suzhou. We braved the train station and the crowds.  I remember when I was living in Beijing having to get out the elbows and thick skin and literally push my way to the ticket window.  It was an art – getting to the window, then finely judging when the woman behind it had a pause in her counting or staring off into space, and then shouting to her what you wanted – quick, decisive and concise. Mess any of that up and someone else was there to take your place, or worse, the woman would decide to ignore you and no amount of pleading could get her to sell you a ticket.  Thankfully the concierge at the PuLi dealt with getting the tickets so we just needed to turn up!

Waiting to get on the Suzhou bound train

Suzhou Railway Station

We arrived in Suzhou and promptly got lost. Thankfully we did, because we came upon these: shenjian mantou (shallow fried buns filled with pork and soup).

The pork had been lightly marinated in soy (probably light soy) and sugar so it had a slight sweetness to them.  The broth inside was (very!) hot and savoury. A nice way to start a chilly morning.  The outer shell is made with mantou, a yeast risen white flour dough, but then shallow fried. So on the top they are fluffy and on the botton, crispy, with a dusting of spring onions and sesame. All in all very nice.

B was really enamored until she found one with a hair on it. Ah well, we had 3 really good ones before we were turned off them.

I was intrigued by these hairy things which they said were lychees (i’ve only seen the non hairy kind) though they were a little bland.  We gave them to a panhandler who, disgusted, threw them promptly on the ground. Nice.

There were alot of fruit sellers around (also in Shanghai).  They certainly looked yummy.

And then we came upon my highlight of the day: fresh sugar cane juice! For only 3 rmb a glass (about 30p).  The guy takes freshly husked sugar cane, and puts it through the press.

And out comes delicous, fresh sugar cane juice! The vendor was complaining that foreigners never buy his sugar cane drink – so I offered to write him an English sign.  We wrote: “Sugar Cane Juice – Fresh! Delicious! 3 rmb”. I hope his business booms.  Fresh sugar cane juice rocks!

As the day wore on, B and I took turns feeling fluey – B feeling better after a powernap at a canalside teahouse. Me on the otherhand, I went a bit downhill.  So much so that we decided to cancel our evening date with family friends.

Uncle Dong and his family came by the hotel and we decided that we should spend the evening with them – afterall, how often will we get to come to Shanghai?  It was the right decision – the great company, the cups and cups of hot tea, and the amazing food really did wonders and I felt so much better at the end of the night.

For our final meal we were treated to a wonderful dinner by Dong Qiang, his wife & their daughter Elsie.  The table was chock full of wonderful local classics.

Soy abalone (a soy dish made to resemble abalone).

Ginger and chicken

The most amazing pickled? crunchy mooli (chinese turnip - long and white).

Jiangsu speciality pork & aspic.

Jiangsu speciality pork & aspic.

River shrimp

White pepper beef.... yummmmmy!

And the return of the hairy crab! But this time, we had reinforcements. Veteran hairy crab eaters, Uncle Dong, Aunt Dong & Elsie showed us how to properly eat them.

Return of the Hairy Crab

There is an art to eating hairy crab – and the whole family helped get us on the right track.

Panic sets in

Showing the novice how it is done

Expert Hairy Crab Eaters

We had a few more dishes, and then to end some small dim sum – mooli bun, sesame bun with spring onion, and finally an egg roll.

Elsie if you are reading this – thank you to you and your parents for a wonderful evening!

Our wonderful hosts

All in all a spectacular foodie adventure! I am still floored by how delicious, varied, and elegant the food in Shanghai is.  Though we failed to hit our 21 meals, I can safely say that we are more than satisfied at our culinary adventures in Shanghai.  As we say goodbye to Shanghai foodie scene… it’s time to say hello to a new diet regime!

Babies on the March

Breakfast at the PuLi. Ahhhhhhh. Waiters presented a western menu to Barb, and an Asian one to Alice. Racialist? Alas, despite our protestations, we did end up going with type.

We both had morning joe, which was good and satisfying.

I had youtiao – chinese donuts, with soy milk.  Youtiao was good – but better on the streets fresh. Not crispy enough! Soy milk was fine.

B had an omelette. Her verdict: Very good omelette.

The PuLi is cool – for so many things, the Toto toilets, the great views, the buffet with 7 kinds of fresh juice and smoothies, but also for being able to order as many items off the breakfast menu as you want (as part of the buffet breakfast!). I opted for a second dish of bircher muesli. More yoghurt/fruit than yoghurt/oats, but still very nice.

The restaurant overlooked Jing’An park, an oasis of green, and amazingly clean for a city of 25 million people.

Meal 6: We had lunch at a random noodle bar, called Noodle Bar.  Surprisingly good. Beef noodle soup for Alice and chicken noodles for B. Both very yummy despite looking like worms.  We tried to order hot drinks (surely in China, tea should be as prevalent as Coke?).  We were wrong.  B decided to be adventurous and try Ginger Jujube Tea which was a sort of sourish tepid drink. She gave it a yuck face and a thumbs down. I got got sour plum juice which was fine, if also tepid.

We ended up finding a mini mall, with some great children’s clothing shops.  And wouldn’t you know it, but the faceless eyeless babies that disturbed B so much made an appearance. It was decided that and this must be providence and I ought to buy one.

From then on, our little party had a third member – CC. He came with us to the Long Bar at the PuLi and graciously posed for photos.

You’ll see them in the gallery below – CC enjoying a cold beer, sampling Sichuan Martini, then a Lychee Martini. Greedy CC!  He also went mellow and tried my ginger tea and made friends with the barman!

Meal 7 was our dinner at the Long Bar. The PuLi is lovely but its strong suit is not western food.  My seafood linguine got two thumbs down.  The pasta was ramen instead of linguine and simply didn’t taste right with the tomato sauce.  CC preferred B’s dish of sesame pork noodles. Tastier. B agreed.

Our Guilty Secret

We started our day at Starbucks, which (along with Costa Coffee & Coffee Bean) seems to be on every other street corner.  A double tall cappuccino costs 35 RMB (about £3.50) – but it is tasty!  The breakfast croissant was okay – more bread than croissant and the bacon was a bit weird. I had a green tea latte which was tasty but quite a lurid green.

With our java now in hand (and in veins) we were prepared for EXPO. The Chinese pavilion was impressive – HUGE.

We managed to find a bubble tea place – the little rabbit one that I like from HK!  Bubble tea is a Taiwanese thing – made with large brown tapioca balls that have to have that just right Q factor (Q being a chinese term for the bounce back texture of noodles, tapioca, etc).  Anyways, we found a place at Expo and filled up on bubble tea while we planned our moves.

We found the Canadian pavilion – and yes, poutine!  The cheese was off (as in, not curds, but hunks of normal cheese) but fries were very good and the gravy was actually decent. It wasn’t Ben’s, the 24 hour deli where B would end up in Montreal, drunk (shock! horror!) and needing some good late-night post-drinking fare.

We then found Nanxiang Xiaolong Bao at the food court – a famous shanghai dumpling place.  So we got in line, and ordered 2 baskets. The line was long, as the baskets were literally steamed to order.

Meal 5 Verdict: Good. But not as good as Day 1’s Ding Tai Fong Xiaolong bao which took the prize.

Sadly this was the day that I was hit hard with the flu.  I had a throat tickle on Wednesday, couldn’t sleep then Thursday in the wee hours fever set in.  Tylenol helped me function better but I felt progressively worse throughout the day.  By dumpling time I was pretty miserable and really not looking forward to heading back to our hotel.  It was boho chic, but without a heater in the room and a bathroom that was slightly tired, I really wasn’t looking forward to feeling crappy in a room that was less than pristinely clean.  Also I desperately wanted a hot bath and really did not want to have a bath in our hotel bathroom.

B was supportive, though we both were dithering as we felt it would be slightly indulgent to change hotels… until B went to the loo. She came back and told me that we had a sign from God.  A roach had slithered out of a corner in the loo and crawled on our toiletries. YUCK.  That was the clincher: we decided an immediate room change was necessary for health reasons. And I have to say I thank my lucky stars we moved.

We present you the PuLi Hotel.

First thing you see on entering… shiny shiny pretty pretty!

Then our room! Wheeeeee!

Another perk for sickies: room service.  We both had warming soothing food -I  had congee, and B had shrimp wonton soup. Both yummy.  Wonton soup had lovely broth, and the chicken congee was a great texture… and totally warmed me up from the inside.

I had a hot hot bath (with a view of the Exhibition Hall) and finally finally warmed up.   Ahhhhhh. Whoever says 5 star doesn’t make you feel better has never had a fever made much more bearable by 400 thread count sheets and a pillow menu. We ordered a tempur pillow to join the other fluffy pillows we had 😉

Viva PuLi!

Creeptastic Fu 1088

Meal 4 (an unlucky number in Chinese): House of Horrors.  We went to Fu 1088 –  considered one of the most exclusive and best restaurants in Shanghai. Set in a 1930s villa, once owned by the son of some Shanghainese bigwig.  And when they said exclusive, they meant exclusive. As in Room for Two.  With no one else in sight.

The restaurant has 17 rooms, only available for private hire.  One does not share room space with other diners – only with your own party.   Barb and I had the attic room  – if you look at the house, and look at the top right there is a dark window where you keep your elderly insane grandma and her rickety ghosts. I mean, where you put your 2 honoured dining guests and shut the door on them.

This is me, before the full extent of the horror became apparent. We should have known, given that we were asked to sit and wait in the lobby at a fully dressed table, where it was clear that no one would be eating. At least no one still in the living world…

All we needed was an a ghostly apparition to take us to our table with “Ladies… your table awaits…. just come with me please….”

Up three flights of stairs.. “just a little further… through this empty room. Mind the violet armchairs… into your teeny creepy attic room full of nasty vibes, er I mean a nice heating unit”

This was the area outside our room. I would have happily ate at the trunk/table on the violet armchairs instead of our dining room as it freaked us out so much.  We asked to change rooms, but the waiter said no.  We asked if we could sit with other people.  He said no.  We asked if we could sit outside (with the violet armchairs). The waiter still said no.  We said the room was stinky, could we move, but he said it was the heating unit. Then he tried to close the door on us.  We asked (rather pleaded, with a slight note of desperation in our plea) if we could keep it open… thankfully he said yes.  Because if he had I think I would have had to leave.  The room really really really creeped me out.

Thankfully when the first dish came…we were very pleasantly surprised. It helped to take our minds off the eerie atmosphere. The dish was truly spectacular.  The most beautifully presented dish we had in Shanghai. Lotus root stuffed with sticky rice, with a cage of spun sugar. Glorious.

Here I am happy that the door is open and no ghoulies have grabbed me yet.

Here I am not so happy about ghoulie vibe I’m getting from this place. Eck.  B and I had to order some stiff drinks.  A couple martinis followed by a bottle of white (the only white on the menu. Apparently Chinese clientele prefer red) helped take the edge off.

Smoked and fried fish marinated in soy and sugar (teriyaki-esque)… delicious and moreish.

The deliciousness of the food did help take our minds off the Norman Bates vibes from the room.  The wine didn’t hurt either.  The shrimp dish was both B & my favourite dish of the night.  Wasabi mayonnaise fried shrimp.  Perfect  use of wasabi for flavouring- no hurting the nose, just enough for great flavour and some zing.  The batter was perfect – not stodgy at all. A nice crunch and good texture.  We were sad that we left 3 on the plate but the restaurant had this crazy minimum spend thing (we couldn’t just pay the minimum spend, we had to actually order dishes to make up the minimum spend) so we had a HUGE amount of food, and not enough stomach to fit it all in.  We ended up leaving two dishes nearly untouched.  The shrimp however – we did our best but could not finish the plate.  We are still sad that we had to leave  3 on the plate.  Barbara has mentioned this a few times and tried to pick the shrimp off the photo to eat.

Not so good – mashed up taro on duck, then deep fried.  Duck was horribly gamey, texture was unpleasant. Thumbs down! One of the dishes that went back almost untouched.

Pea shoots.  Good stuff. But just greens.

This was the most expensive dish. 180rmb (about £18).  Very disappointing.  Fish braised in a soy (surprise surprise) based sauce.  Sadly fish had a gross texture (like chunks of fat), overly salty. Another boo-hiss.

We love xiaolongbao! These babies were yummy.  Not as yummy as Ding Tai Fong, but still pretty moreish!  They were a bit too big for a comfortable one bite mouthful.

We were given a complimentary fruit plate, which was simple but nice.  Ripe and sweet lychee, dragon fruit, and apple.

Goodbye creepy place! I don’t care that your wallpaper is English. It’s still ugly and creepy. And net curtains! Better for ghosties to twitch behind!

Cafe Dan – An Oasis in a Shopping Frenzy

Meal 3: An interlude.  We asked for a recommendation from a cool looking woman for a lunch stop.  She said Cafe Dan was the best place in Taikang Lu Art Centre. She wasn’t wrong.

Up the stairs we found the cutest little birds nest cafe…

We had the tatami mats at the very top of cafe.

The cafe had food and an amazing array of coffees – freshly roasted, with a variety of different modes of preparation:

A skylight, and Fur Elise musak playing in the background.

I had pork ramen in miso broth – homemade noodles.  Really yummy and filling.

B had Sichuan DanDan noodles with homemade matcha (green tea) udon.  Awesome! This place was a two thumbs up!

Eat Shop Shanghai

What we meant to do today:
1) Visit Taikong Lu Art Centre
2) Sightsee in old International Concession, Mao Tse Dong’s house
3) Walking tour in old Shanghai lilongs (lanes)

What we meant to buy today:
1) Some Shokay 100% Yak Yarn from Taikong Lu Art Centre & possibly other yak products

What we actually did today:
1) Visited Taikong Lu Art Centre.

What we actually bought today:
1) No yak yarn at all or any yak products
2) Chinese animal mobile (B)
3) Went to a shop with a multitude of small toy toilets, some with little heads poking out (it was Japanese). B tempted, but ultimately decided to go with small kitty mirror instead.
4) 5 ceramic rice bowls (B)
5) Grey cotton scarf (A) At same shop, B was sized up by a shop girl and given an XL coat since clearly B is huge (not!). Coat made B look like a yeti.
6) B became obsessed with a quilt but was persuaded to sleep on it.
We had lunch at Dan Cafe (more on food in another post)
7) A load of tea, and a tea ceramic platter thing with a naked lady on it for use as a cheese platter (A)
8) A handmade doll (B)
9) T-shirt with pig dictators, and a porcelain faceless, eyeless humanoid pig (A).
10) B almost bought a tshirt with pig superheros, but settled for pig stickers and a pig dictator badge.
11) Baby booties (B)
12) Two prints from a papercut artist (A)
13) B tried on more sweaters (all cashmere) but was too flustered to commit
14) A yellow luggage tag (A)
At this point, we realised it was too late to get to Mao’s house, so decided to simply continue shopping.
15) A nearly bought some cool cotton coasters, which turned out to be organic cotton breast pads.
16) A wanted to buy some eyeless faceless ceramic babies (shop offered a place to paint them onsite). B wasn’t so convinced, wanted to know what they were for. Asked shopkeeper, but she didn’t know. A was convinced to leave without babies, which B said were creepy
At this stage, after a 15 minute conversation as to whether A should buy/make babies, and B should help her, we decided we both really needed a beer or two.
18) Back to doll shop, where B bought another doll.

By this point it was dark, so we went back to the hotel (we found it in the Lonely Planet and mentioned on Trip Advisor).

A few photos of today’s retail therapy, plus random selection from the Taikong Lu Art Centre shops.

Shanghai, baby!

We landed in Shanghai on Monday afternoon, after a pretty hilarious and sleepless flight. B and I ran the gauntlet of trying to get seats next to each other on the 11 hour flight – we had been allocated seats 20 rows apart as we checked in too late… luckily, after asking every single person in an airline uniform we could, we snagged one of the last available single seats for B which happened to be a seat away from mine. A lovely chap swapped his seat with mine and B & I got to sit next to each other on the flight – we even had exra leg room seats. Result!

Of course, we failed to take into consideration the Chinese tour group which took up half the plane. I suspect that being in a country that is so populous, that they are not quite so precious with their personal space as we are – one lady kept climbing over us to get to the other side of the plane and then back again to her seat. She kept kicking B as she did it, which meant B had a tough time sleeping. Especially as there were so many exciting things happening around us. Such as the following conversation between lady A on far side of plane and lady B in window seat of other side of plane, over the heads of us in the middle.
A: Did you sleep? I couldn’t sleep.
B: Yes, I slept.
A: Oh, I just couldn’t sleep at all.
B: I was able to sleep. I feel asleep right away – like sleeping at night.
A: Aiya, I wasn’t able to at all.
Very informative and interesting to all I am sure. Particularly when shouted over our heads at 2 in the morning when the entire cabin was dimmed, and people were supposed to be sleeping. Except those who couldn’t sleep, and then decided to share with everyone present sleeping or not.

Meanwhile, the chap next to me had his head in his hands – I think he was about to explode, what with monkey lady climbing over us, the crinkling of people eating some kind of snack in crinkly wrapping (very loud when everyone else is sleeping), the sleeping/not sleeping conversation, and of course the inevitable opening of the window blinds here and there as alot of the passengers were busy taking loads of photos out the window. B and I were in hysterics after the ‘i coudn’t sleep’ discussion, and I think the lack of sleep just sent us into more giggle fits.

I wish I could have taken a photo of the customs agent desk – but alas no photos permitted. The customs desk had a customer satisfaction survey gadget – with buttons you can press to indicate how happy you were with your customs agent experience! My guy was lacking in smiles, but very quick and efficient, clearly taking his role seriously by how he held up my passport photo to compare with the person standing in front of him (me!). I gave him a 5 (very satisfied).

I’d been to Shanghai before- I actually think I’ve been there twice, once to visit my friend Romain, and once as an intern at my old law firm. But I think my mind has blanked the episode because I cannot for the life of me remember where I stayed as an intern (French Concession somewhere), and much of my sense of direction/where places are is lost.

Driving into the city from Pudong airport was a trip – wild to see just how much construction has taken place. Loads of new apartment blocks, most with some kind of italianate flourishes. We passed the Expo site – which was HUGE. And then the buildings of the Bund came into sight. Such an interesting contrast. We finally arrived at our hotel which is just the most amazing place.

Our hotel is actually an old villa, with a small walled garden. The villa was built in 1937, and is a little ramshackle but just oozes with character. It is less a hotel and more a home – filled with weathered Chinese antiques and sculptures.

Our room is huge, with two double beds, a huge curved sofa at one end and lots of chinese antiques. It’s more like staying in someone’s guest room, in the 1930s than actually being in a hotel which suits us perfectly.

Right. It’s 855am, and I’m off to get a Starbucks. Yup they have it, and the coffee is really good (actually, nicer than at home!).  I’m not going to blog about the food as B & I are going to do separate entries solely dedicated to the food… which has been just amazing.  I will say that I am in seventh heaven – and that the xiaolongbao at Ding Tai Fong might have something to do with it. 🙂