18 February 2009

Day 01 Shanghai

Our first morning in Shanghai dawns sunny and hazy (as you can see from the view from our hotel room window), but since this is China, a little pollution doesn't scare us. Reconnaissance the night before left us with no breakfast options within a coffee-cup throw of our hotel. I can really only make it a few blocks sans caffeine.

We decided then to try out the hotel's room service and dutifully filled out our door-hangey with our breakfast requests. Playing it safe, we only ordered one breakfast because either a) there would be enough food for two of us or b) the food would be awful (this is a Chinese hotel doing a western breakfast so we were already on shaky ground). The food arrived on time and warm, so it had two things going for it. It also included a cup of coffee, so another point for the hotel breakfast. Alas, the toast was square, white (no sign of having been near a toaster), and dry. The eggs, while cooked fairly well, were covered with chopped ham, which we had ordered but did not expect to come as basically a garnish. The juice was essentially Tang and I preferred my cup of instant coffee to what came in the cup. All this enjoyment cost us almost $8 US. Needless to say, this was our first and last hotel breakfast. For our subsequent mornings, we had our instant coffee with yogurt, fruit, and the occasional croissant (more on these delicacies later).

Sometimes we would grab a cup of authentic coffee from Starbucks later in the day. They have them on almost every corner in the more touristy, commercial parts of the city. I remember reading that Starbucks was kicked out of Tiananmen Square because of its symbolism for all things capitalist. Well, Shanghai is more ready to embrace its western attitudes than Beijing. This Starbucks is a stone's throw from the Yu Garden, publicized as the most famous garden in southeastern China. Most of the tourists we saw were Chinese, so Starbucks clearly has a strong foothold in the Chinese market despite its high prices.

For lunch we ate at a crowded dim sum palace in the Yu Bazaar, enjoying some spring rolls and baozi, or meat dumplings. Unlike the baozi of the north, Shanghai baozi taste more like the wontons from the wonton soup that is ubiquitous in American Chinese restaurants. I actually quite enjoy them.

Yu Garden (Yuyuan) provided a tranquil break from the chaos of the Chinese marketplace just beyond its gates. Though small in size, the garden is emblematic of the Chinese style of landscape architecture that creates a labrynthine, enchanting setting in the middle of a crowded city. There were twisting corridors, serene pavilions, flowering trees, hidden nooks, still ponds--everything characteristic of the feng shui philosophy that became popular in the West only recently.

After touring the gardens, we decided to return to our hotel for a rest before heading out for dinner. We had made reservations at a Thai restaurant earlier in the day, so we took a taxi to its location and looked for a place to have a drink before dinner. The area we were in is called Xintiandi and is a reconstruction of a town street from Old Shanghai (kind of like a cutesy downtown pedestrian area with upscale shops and restaurants). While it was clearly built for tourists and well-heeled locals, it has some nice, relaxing places to eat and drink.

We had drinks on the patio of Cantine (a cosmopolitan for me and a martini for Turner) before deciding to cancel our Thai reservations because Turner saw a steakhouse and couldn't resist. It turned out to be Steak Out Thursday at Kabb (the restaurant) so we both ordered the set dinner that came with a salad, a steak, sides of vegetables and mashed potatoes, and a glass of the house wine. We also got another round of drinks, another martini for Turner (this one better than the previous one) and a chocolate martini for me (it was like dessert in a glass) and an appetizer of a bread and dip platter, which consisted baguette slices, Turkish flatbread, and another sort of bread along with hummus, baba ganoush (eggplant dip), and an olive tapenade. The whole meal was delicious. The steaks tasted authentic, the potatoes were garlicky, the dips rich and flavorful. Combined with the mellow lighting and dark wood decor of the room, our dinner was relaxing and comforting.

With very full bellies, we needed a walk around before heading back to the hotel, so we cruised the area taking in the strange surroundings of an area that could be dropped into any American town and no one would notice anything Chinese other than the occasional sign (and a larger percentage of people with dark hair).

It's a good thing we decided to explore because we never would have found the delicious little treat that is Paul, a French boulangerie and patisserie that has outlets around the world. It's no small surprise that Shanghai has its share of French food, what with the French running a large part of the city after the Opium Wars. This enjoyable little shop had a few counters and display cases filled with baguettes, boules, pains de campagne, tartes, macaroons, quiche, and many other delightful gems from the oven. We ordered their Valentine's Day special--a linzer cookie with custard and raspberry filling and a chocolate-dipped sable (shortbread) cookie garnish--along with a croissant and pain au chocolat for breakfast the next morning.

My eyes were probably wide as dinner plates as I took in this delightful establishment. This is my version of heaven: wood panelled walls, purple velvet-covered banquettes, plush rose-tufted chairs, all Old World charm in a very modern city. Turner asked me if I owned it what would I change, and I said almost nothing! It was the perfect piece de resistance to our first day in Shanghai.

So, for now, "Bonsoir, mes amis!"

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