Nov 1, 2012

串串, the moment of truth

Or, how do you keep a hungry couple in suspense …

Sticks survived the flood!

If you’ll recall, before we left for Qingdao (way back in August), we were still not sure if our beloved sticks had made it through July’s flood.

Well, you can exhale, folks. When we returned to Luzhou (again, way back in August), the tables were out and the broccolis were skewered! It was an almost-Labor Day miracle.

Oct 19, 2012

Summer vacation: Street dinner


Mystery dinner tastes great
Eat on the streetWhere are we?

I talk a lot about all of the western food that we eat while we’re on vacation because a lot of it is stuff that we don’t get back at home. But, when I can figure out how to order things, we really enjoy Chinese food, too.

After a night at Beer Mama’s, we needed a little something before bed. There was an outdoor restaurant around the corner, and we plopped down and scanned the menu for characters we recognized. We were feeling really ambitious.

I tried to explain to our guy that Peter is a vegetarian and doesn’t eat meat. We came to some sort of understanding, and he hurried away. On his return, he brought some meat skewers (which I had asked for by pointing out someone else who had them) and a very tasty meat and mushroom soup. But, this is life for a hungry veggie in China. Peter ate around the meat and pronounced it “delicious, and that’s coming from a vegetarian.”

Would you like to play a game?

Oct 18, 2012

Summer vacation: Where are we?

A simple martini in an unlikely location

At the Russian Bar

I’ll be honest, that evening our pre-dinner libations had been many and strong, and we were having a little trouble finding the restaurant where we wanted to eat. But we did find this Russian bar with internet access.

We ordered drinks and I looked up our destination (which would turn out to be about 50 feet further along). I got an adequate bloody Mary, but Peter’s vodka martini was quite good. The bartender took his time making it, and he looked very proud when Peter told him that it was as good as any vodka martini he had had in New York.

Oct 11, 2012

Summer vacation: Trattoria Verde

Our Italian splurge

Real Italian food!
Our new friend at the table next door took a picture of us all fancyPeter, outside the restaurant

The online expat reviews of this Italian joint were strong, so we made a reservation and got all dolled up.

The split-level restaurant is cozy, and has a breezy, beachy style — with quirky, cute artwork and tchotchkes on the walls — that wouldn’t be out of place on Main Street in Southampton. Upstairs is a little dark, but we were sat downstairs, with a view of the open kitchen. I can verify that everyone was working very hard.

It was exciting to see a real wine list after so much time. We were trying not to go too crazy, however, at a restaurant that was at the upper end of our budget, so I ordered a glass of the house red, which did me right. Peter’s martini was garnished with a black olive — the one small disappointment of the meal.

We started with an appetizer of roasted asparagus with some sort of hard cheese shaved over the top. (It was something delicious and fancier than Parmesan, is all we can remember; one lesson of this trip was: take better notes.) This was the first time we had seen asparagus anywhere in China, and so we anticipated the dish hungrily. And, oh, it was so good! The asparagus was roasted just perfectly, and the salty tang of the unknown cheese was a wonderful compliment.

As for mains: Peter went with a cheese ravioli, garnished with pine nuts — another rarity over here — and I got a pizza with prosciutto and ricotta cheese. The ravioli were incredible, and the pizza was the Best in China So Far. The crust was thin and crispy, and the sauce (which is most often what Chinese pizza gets wrong) was light and just the right amount of sweet and salty.

It was a pricy meal, but we definitely felt that it was money well spent.

The Trattoria Verde kitchen

Let’s repair to the bar for a digestive …

Oct 2, 2012

Summer vacation: Finding that Spark

Beer and pizza still works in China

A wide sampling of the Spark menuReal microbrewThe Spark exterior

Just up from May 4th Square is The Spark, a modern little microbrew pub specializing in fancied-up American diner food. The whole menu is tantalizing (and we were seriously tempted to come back for brunch), but we ultimately settled on a pizza, a salad, a steak sandwich with fries, and pickles. (Pickles are emerging as a surprise contender in the “what do we miss most” game.) And, of course, beer.

Beer was the big reason we sought out the Spark, having read that Beer City actually had its own microbrew. And though we were well full up on Tsingtao (this was the meal had after our brewery tour), we did have room for one more — especially one more made small-batch, on the premises.

It was absolutely fantastic. The beer had a golden honey color, a good head, and it was cloudy and full of flavor. The food, also, did not disappoint. Everything we ordered was comforting, authentic and delicious. The steak on my sandwich was beautifully marinated, and it was served with hard-boiled egg slices, making it extra hearty. Peter’s pizza did pretty well by the standards of pizzas we’ve had in China.

We read about this place on some expat boards (obviously; we still don’t speak Chinese). But, as we’d seen in most of our western dining experiences in Qingdao, the Spark’s patrons were a good mix of westerners and Chinese. And everyone looked to be having a good time.

Now that we’re well fed, let’s get out on the water …

Sep 27, 2012

Summer vacation: Tsingtao Brewery Museum

The secrets of “China’s well-known trademark”

Inside the Tsingtao Beer MuseumInside the Tsingtao Beer Museum
Here is me, sticking my head in their giant copper vat. It was for display only, nothing was inside.
Inside the Tsingtao Beer MuseumInside the Tsingtao Beer Museum
There are beer cans on the roof of the museum!

Brewery tours everywhere are pretty much the same: “Here are our grains, here are our giant copper vats.” But you can’t go to Beer City, China1, and not visit the place where the beer was made!

It turns out, actual beer making plays only a small part in the Tsingtao beer museum. The bulk of the two-building installation takes you through history of the brewery. The early German era is represented mostly through advertising from the time and recreations of old equipment. The intervening years, in which the brewery hit some hard times in the form of both quality control issues (ex: a bottle of beer shipped with a brush inside) and a tanking economy post-World Wars, are summed up in text on a couple of placards. The exhibit really gets going in the modern age, when Tsingtao started to get its stuff together as an international brand.

Touring the Tsingtao Beer MuseumTouring the Tsingtao Beer MuseumTouring the Tsingtao Beer Museum

This period is treated with a slew of corporate speak, and a lot of attention is given to the slogans the company used. In the ’90s, Tsingtao made the huge step of changing their expansion strategy from “First bigger, then stronger,” to “First stronger, then bigger.” There’s a photographic display of the Tsingtao brand around the world: a Russian pop star drinking a bottle, an American with a 纯生 tattoo (translation: “pure draft”), a neon ad in the movie “The Mummy 3,” etc.

After catching up to the present, the installation turns toward environmentalism. There are large posters outlining Tsingtao’s commitment to the green movement, but also a small display explaining what environmentalism is and why it’s important. They suggest Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” as a good starting point, if you are unfamiliar with the concepts discussed.

Touring the Tsingtao Beer Museum

Then comes the bar. Like all good tours, this one includes a (small) free sample of the product. But surprisingly, the tour isn’t over there. Outside the bar area, there is a little display on beer making throughout the ages. We completely breezed on by it. Next, we walked through some pretty big replica fermentation tanks and other machinery, all staffed by grotesque plaster figures. It’s tough to say if this would have been more interesting before or after the beer.

After a pass through the gift shop, there was another bar! This time, this really was the end. Our tickets had a stub good for another free beer, which of course we redeemed. It was early evening and we were on vacation, so we also bought a small pitcher. As we drank, we sat at the end of a long wooden table and watched the Chinese tour groups disgorge from the tour. You could tell who was with who, because each group had its own member hat or backpack.

At the end of the tour

We watched group after group ganbei and skeddadle. As we’re learning, Chinese generally do not linger over meals or drinks; It’s consume and go. Which is alright, because it gives us slow pokes plenty to watch.

One of the funniest things we spied happened several times: the reverse photobomb, in which nearby tourists tried to sneakily capture us in a photograph of their friends. The giggling usually gave it away.

Follow us as we stumble out into the street …

1: The beer is called Tsingtao because that’s how 青岛 was Romanized back in 1903. When pinyin was adopted in 1949, the spelling of the city’s name changed to Qingdao. But it’s the same place. (See also: Peking duck, from Beijing.)

Sep 23, 2012

Summer vacation: Fatema Indian Restaurant

The best Indian meal in China so far!

Fatema Indian RestaurantOur mealOur meal

The exterior of Fatema Indian Restaurant was modest and unassuming. It was in the middle of a quiet block that we had written off as non-commercial on a previous jaunt through the Hong Kong Garden neighborhood that the restaurant called home. Inside, the setup was no more fancy — but the smell of spices wafting through the air was immediately inviting and set our taste buds to watering.

The owner and staff of the restaurant are all Indian residents of Qingdao, and we had heard that Fatema was the most authentic of the city’s (two) Indian places. With Bollywood videos blasting on the overhead TV, we looked over the menu. The hardest thing to do was to not blurt out, “One of everything, please!” We narrowed our choices down to an aloo chaat, a chicken curry dish, a cauliflower something or other (I’ve got to take better notes!), garlic naan, spring rolls and the most delicious spicy pickles. The cauliflower was kind of a dud compared to the rest of our dishes, which were absolutely glorious. The chicken was tender and well-seasoned, and the aloo chaat was savory and rich. The star of our meal, though, had to be those pickles, which were tangy and sweet with just the right amount of heat.

We only managed to eat about half of our meal, so we took the rest to go. Back in our hostel room, we didn’t have forks, but the leftovers still made a fantastic midnight snack.

Qingdao’s signature attraction is up next …

Sep 22, 2012

Summer vacation: Beer in a bag?

Yup. Beer in a bag!

Beer and BBQ
Beer in a bagThe corner bar is pretty much just stools and kegs outside The wonderful Beer MamaBeer Mama's future dinner
Beer Mama is a neighborhood fixture in the old town. You can even find word about her online, although I don’t think she is aware of her Internet presence.
This chicken was to be Beer Mama’s dinner later in the week. She was feeding it beer to make it extra tasty.

While they weren’t all as refined as the Ratskeller, the streets of Qingdao were filled with places where one could enjoy an outdoor beer. Scattered throughout the old town were tiny little establishments that basically consisted of a few kegs and some folding chairs. During the day, trucks from the brewery rumbled through the neighborhood dropping off fresh beer, and at night, locals and tourists alike crouched around the small tables for a refreshing drink. Some of these places also had a little grill, and you could order delicious skewers of meat.

Beer was sometimes drunk out of a mug, but often it was sipped straight out of a plastic bag with a straw. (This could get precarious.) Neighborhood denizens would even stop by to get a to-go bag for home consumption. Lighter to carry than a growler, I guess.

Our favorite of these sidewalk bars was run by a woman who called herself Beer Mama. Ask around in the neighborhood of the Kaiyue Youth Hostel and you’ll find her. She knows just enough English to entice western passers-by to come sit and drink her beer. And she gets a lot of takers. “Beer Mama’s beer is the best,” she said one night (thanks to the German guy at the table next to us for translating). “It’s good for the brain.” She also admitted to drinking a lot of her own wares herself.

The way to the bathroom
Peter, on his hunt for the bathroom: “It was like playing ‘Resident Evil,’ when your flashlight is dying, and you’re about to be killed.”

The only drawback was the bathroom situation. Even out of a bag, a liter of beer can fill you up. On our first night at Beer Mama’s, we saw other customers going in and out of the building that we were set up in front of. They handed off a flashlight to each other as they came and went. When we got to a point where it came to alleviate the problem or go back home, Peter stepped up to check it out. An Australian girl gave him the flashlight and directed him toward the building.

On his return, he reported the situation: “It’s terrifying in there.” Apparently, the “bathroom,” was a grate in an outdoor courtyard in an apartment building. But the whole area was pitch black, and there were mysterious noises coming from all directions. “I swear I heard a zombie sputtering from a room down one hallway,” Peter said. That’s when he turned around. We’ve acclimated to many things in China, but we both decided that this was a sign to call it a night.

But it definitely did not dampen our enthusiasm to return!

Coming up, it’s time to eat again!

Sep 21, 2012

Summer vacation: Zwei bier, bitte

Hoisting a stein in the Far East

We've got sauerkraut
The Ratskeller

With all that German-ness around, it made sense to check out some German cuisine. The Ratskeller is on the luscious grounds of the former German governor’s residence, and it has an absolutely beautiful outdoor patio. The night was pleasantly warm, and the cicadas droned their lovely bagpipe tune all through dinner.

As is our habit, we shared many dishes between us so as to taste the most of the menu. The food was slightly on the bland side, though there was a squash soup that was pretty good. But my schnitzel was flavorless and the sauerkraut lacked bite. It’s possible that the cooks didn’t really understand the flavors; Peter’s salad had both shaved Parmesan and nori. But it was nice to have something different, and now I’m further inspired to try to make my own sauerkraut at home. (So many projects!)

A gentleman of leisure
A gentleman of leisure enjoys his martini.

The martinis were also weak and bland. But the beer (Tsingdao, of course) was served in tall, frosty steins, and it was just delicious. The drinking culture in China is completely different from the United States (it’s basically: do shots until your wife has to carry you home), and all summer I was dying for a place to sit outside and just sip a good brew. So if nothing else, the Ratskeller did that well.

You may be asking, “Isn’t this a beach town?” Well, hold your horses, we’re getting there …

Sep 16, 2012

Summer vacation: A pizza hunt

Ending up in a familiar place

Dinner at Pizza Hut
Shapingba District is not the city center, but it is a city center — and much more convenient to our hostel.

We were too tired to get into the main city center for dinner, but there was another center, Shapingba, that was a short bus ride away. So we researched a pizza place on the internet (we’re always on the lookout for good pizza in China) and hopped on the bus.

After much searching and a very long walk, we never found the internet pizza place … but we did stumble upon a Pizza Hut!

And I can report that Pizza Hut pizza tastes exactly the same in China as it does in America. It really brought me back to those days of grabbing a Personal Pan at Penn Station on my way out to visit my parents on Long Island. But for Chinese people, Pizza Hut represents a really fancy night out. It’s expensive (relative to a normal Chinese dinner), for one thing. And we saw many dressed up couples out for a date.

The menu, much like many of the Western restaurants in Luzhou, is about 20 pages long. In addition to pizza, they offer salads, pasta, rice dishes, fried snacks … pretty much any kind of stereotypical western food. We tried a garden salad and onion rings. They weren’t very good. But the iced tea we got was pretty tasty.

Next stop, Qingdao …