21 February 2009

Day 04 Shanghai

Our intention was to have brunch at a restaurant in the French Concession, which was a good 1/2 hour journey from our hotel (because we did not want to take a taxi). Turns out, this is too far for me to travel in a strange city without any sustenance, so we made it as far as McDonald's and succumbed to their breakfast menu. We got some egg sandwiches, hash browns, and coffee--a welcome change from the mornings of instant.

From there we meandered to the People's Square. As it was Sunday, the park was full of men and women, father and mothers, trying to marry off their children. Picture eHarmony without the internet and a feisty old woman as the matchmaker! Parents (or grandparents) wrote all the pertinent information--birth date, height, salary--on a piece of paper and attached it to a bush with a binder clip or secured it to the ground with some stones. Some even had pictures. Over a hundred people were taking part in this weekly activity, as marrying a Shanghaiese is very desirable in order for the hukou, or residency, of the bride and future children to be in Shanghai instead of a rural village. I think the parents or matchmakers exchange numbers and hopefully leave the rest to the couple, but I'm not sure.

After standing on the sidelines for awhile, we went to the Shanghai Museum, which I had heard was the best museum in China (or at least cost the most money to build). Entry was free, but you had to wait in a security line. They made me drink my water to prove it wasn't acid or something that could destroy the "relics." The museum had four floors organized by type: coins, jade, furniture, calligraphy, ceramics, painting, sculpture. Each exhibition contained the most exemplary objets d'art from across the country. I thought the most impressive were the ceramics (china from China) and the sculptures.

Around lunchtime we were hungry but had only seen half the museum. If we wanted real food we would have to leave the museum and then wait in line again, which had gotten much longer as the day wore on. This left the tea shop. Tea and cookies--not very filling and very pricey as "museum food." Then, by the time we left the museum, it was past lunch and we did not want to ruin our appetites for dinner, so we had a bit of street food and made our way back to the hotel.

Deciding on where to go for dinner took some time. We started looking through the city guides with the intention of going for Cantonese (or dim sum), but most of the restaurants were large, expensive hotel venues, which we were not in the mood for. Then the pendulum swung to pizza, which sounded okay, but not quite perfect. After frustratingly looking through literally hundreds of restaurants, I was getting very hungry and cranky (they usually go together). When this happens, one of the cuisines that can quickly cure my foul mood is Indian. Turner and I consider it comfort food--warm, satisfying, spicy, sweet--everything you want a good meal to be.

We chose Vedas, recommended as having very authentic food that could have come straight from Delhi. I was doubtful when we pulled up in the taxi to a large house in the French Concession with daunting wooden doors and a club next door. It seemed pretentious from the outside, but inside was inviting, with subdued decor (nothing overly exotic) and very friendly fuwuyuan (waitresses). Ours was downright giggly! The restaurant also has an open kitchen, glassed in to save the restaurant from being smoked out from the tandoors (Indian-style ovens, of which the restaurant had two, a good sign), but giving diners a view of the Indian chefs (another good sign).

We ordered drinks, a martini and an apple martini (guess who got which), and started salivating over the menu. This almost literally happens when I read descriptions of Indian food. I went straight for the naan section, happy to find more than one version--plain, butter, garlic--and knew we would need more than one order. We ended up getting butter naan and garlic naan, plus chicken tikka masala, palek paneer (spinach with housemade cheese), dhaba tadka dal (yellow lentils with ginger and other spices), and lamb botti kebabs (tandoori lamb with a crazy spice rub that tickles all your taste buds).

The chicken tikka masala was by far the best dish of the night. The chicken was tender, the tomato-based sauce was sweet and spicy, the whole thing just worked. I could have eaten bowls of it. The paneer was good, but there was too little cheese in the dish. The lamb was on the verge of being overpowering, but it was tasty. Of the meal, the dal was the least inspiring, slightly one-note and lacking salt. For dessert we shared a mango kufti, housemade mango ice cream, which was like eating a frozen mango--divine! We had enough for leftovers that we ate with dinner the next day. Restraint is hard to come by when I eat Indian food. It's becoming one of my favorite cuisines.


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