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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ninth Ward - New Orleans bar in East Village

H & I were on our way to try a new restaurant when we came across to Ninth Ward.
A New Orleans bar serving southern food.

Southern food is my favorite American regional cuisine.
Without hesitation, we abandoned our original plan and walked into the bar.

There was a small outdoor garden in the back that was pretty packed with the happy hour crowd.
We decided to sit in the cozy booth in the back. 

First order of business: give me some Hurricane!

Fried pickles with Gribiche (Herb & Caper Mayo)
Something I have never tried before.  
The idea of it was really strange. But it actually tasted good!  I would so order it again.

Buttermilk fried chicken with Nola sauce, slaw & abita beer biscuit
I must say that I had better fried chicken before. 

Gumbo with chicken, andoulle & shrimp
On the other hand, Gumbo was awesome!
Loved the spicy andoulle sausage, the rich flavor, and the grilled toast.

We knew that there was no way the beignet in Ninth Ward was going to live up to our expectations. 
There is only one place to eat beignet, and that is Cafe du Monde in New Orleans. 
However, we had to have it for sentimental reasons, and I still enjoyed it!

Ninth Ward is an interesting bar with creole decor and cool vibe.
The food is decent and the price is very reasonable.
Come have a drink when you are in East Village. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

BIerhaus - German beer garden in Midtown East

H came to pick me up from work one Friday afternoon,
and I asked him to wait for me at Bierhaus, a new beer garden near Grant Central Station.

It was quite surprising to have a beer garden in midtown Manhattan on the second floor of a regular block.
All the after work crowd were there and the place was pretty noisy.

The unexpected authentic decor and the Bavarian folk band caught us by surprise.
We were a bit suspicious and worried that it would just be one of those "theme restaurants".

However, when H was able to order food in German with the waitress dressed in Dirndl, we were sold!

Wienerschnitzel – Breaded pork fillet. Served with potato, red cabbage and cucumber salad.
It was good as any. 
The only bone that H had to pick was that the salad should be placed in a seperate plate
so the sauce would not soak the breaded pork fillet. 

Bavarian cream – A Bavarian cream custard with chocolate sauce and powdered sugar.
Enjoyed every bite of it. Similar to the cream puff.

More beers please!

Bierhaus is a fun place with a lot of energy. The crowd and noise are just part of the whole experience.
It is a great place to go when you need some beer therapy after a hard day of work.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Shanghai: After thoughts

It was a real struggle writing about our Shanghai trip for many reasons.  I admit that I carried some emotional baggage, whether justifiable or not, which was hard for me to experience Shanghai on a clean slate.  On top of it, the blogger failed on me and wiped out two days of my work, which surely did not help the situation. (Note to myself -  always save a back up draft.)

Growing up with the shadow of intertwined history between China and Taiwan; seven miserable years working for a Chinese owned company in New York where I witnessed many unethical and questionable business practices; the fact that China remains to be one of the most tightly controlled communist countries…. the list goes on.  All of them fed into my negative impression of China as a whole. 

When friends asked how I liked Shanghai, I had trouble forming a precise and neatly packed answer.  I knew that I liked certain geographical areas of Shanghai: Pudong,  the Bund, Tianzifang, and Xintiandi.  The rest of Shanghai failed to impress or excite me.  As for H, he also had a similar mix of feelings towards Shanghai.  

Since I grew up in Taipei, and Taipei was the first city in Asia that H was introduced to, it was hard for us not to compare both cities. And yes, we are probably biased.  We may have a different impression of Shanghai if we have not experienced Taipei.  So, don't take our words for it, Go visit Shanghai, and tell me what you think. 

Tips -
  • Transportation:  The Shanghai Metro was a great way to go about town.  But the last trains of all lines stopped between 10 to 12 PM.  If you stay in Shanghai for few days, using the Shanghai Public Transportation Card would be a good option to save you the hassle to purchase tickets for every single ride.  Purchase the standard card not only is cheaper but also allows you to get refunds for the remaining balance at designated Metro stations.  Taxi is a great option for transportation which is cheap and convenient as well.
  • Language: It might be challenging for foreigners who do not read or speak Chinese to navigate outside of Shanghai without a local guide.  Many of the railroads, metro, museums or tourist information websites also do not have an English version.  Make sure to do your homework before the trip if you are not with a tour.
  • Public restroom: There are plenty of public restrooms in Shanghai, but many of them do not have toilet paper and hand soap.  Purchase some paper soap and take them with you. You can’t find paper soap in Shanghai.

BEGINNING:  Shanghai: Prelude

Shanghai: The Bund & Urban Planning Exhibition Hall - 4.14.11

  • The Bund (外灘)
  • Urbain Planning Exhibition Hall (上海城市規劃展覽館)

It was down to our last few hours in Shanghai today.  And there was only one place to go, probably the most important destination in Shanghai, the Bund.

We began our walk from south to north, and tried to step inside the buildings whenever possible.  Unfortunately most of the buildings did not allow pictures taken inside some glamorous lobbies.

Growing up reading Eileen Cheng's haunting Shanghai stories, as much as the Bund represented a turbulent time in China's history, I couldn't help but feel a romanticized nostalgia.  Images of the old Shanghai kept popping up in my head.

We lingered around for quite a while at the former Shanghai Club, the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai.  It is now called the "Waldorf Astoria Club". It was timeless, classic, and elegant.

After the walk, we had lunch at a cafe inside the Peace Hotel.  There were still some time left before leaving to the airport.   We hailed a taxi and headed to the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.  I read many great reviews about this museum but I did not find it living up to the hype.

Looking at the ambitious vision of Shanghai's future urban development in the museum, I imagined myself ever to return to Shanghai in a distant future.  The world would look very differently and the city of Shanghai would probably be beyond recognition.  The future would be full of excitement and possibilities for younger generations.

I had a fleeting thought of my own mortality. 

But there was no time for such sentiment.  We had to be ready to leave in an hour to rejoin the rest of the world where future seem far more distanced than it was in Shanghai.....


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Shanghai: Suzhou & Xintiandi - 4.13.11 Part 2

  • Suzhou Waterway tour (古城河水上導覽)
  • Fengqiao (楓橋)
  • Xintiandi (新天地)

After lunch, we had to make a stop at a so-call "Silk Museum", but it was just a silk shop where the tour guide would make commissions from if we bought something.  This is one of the reasons that I hate group tours.  Thank God we only stayed there for 30 minutes. 

The next stop was a boat ride through the water town.  The boat ride was my favorite part of the trip.  The scenery was so delicate and dreamy.  Even the tour guide trying to sell some playing cards as souvenirs did not dampen my mood.  I did not want to get off the boat. 

The boat ride took us to the Fengqiao.  The bridge was mentioned in one of the most famous poems written by a poet, Zhong Ji, from Tang Dynasty.  We stayed there for another hour.

It was pretty much the last leg of our tour, and I found myself rather underwhelmed by what I had seen in Suzhou so far.  The facades of the old architectures were there, but the spirit was completely stripped away.  Unfortunately the government did not do a good job preserving these historical sites.  The "Exit", "Toilet", and other signs were on display like eye sores everywhere.  Unlike Shanghai that revamped the old architectures with the modern twist to inject an exciting yet nostalgic energy, there was really nothing much going on except a few vendors selling boring souvenirs. 

After we took another scenic boat ride back to our bus, we were supposed to go to Tiger Hill as told by the lady who sold us the tour tickets.  The tour guide pointed to the tilted Yunyan Pagoda on the highway and drove straight to the next tourist trap, a stone and jade shop.  When I questioned the tour guide why we did not go to Tiger Hill, he said that looking at Yunyan Pagoda on the highway was considered a stop.

Okay. so maybe I was just constantly finding faults in China and this proved my point.  Both H and I found ourselves unable to shake the feeling of suspicion when we interacted with the locals.  We did not feel that they could be trusted.  I felt guilty and judgmental for feeling that way, but our next stop did not help us to change the impression.

So, clearly we were annoyed that the tour guide thought we were idiots.  Then again, we did have a train to catch and would not mind the tour to end earlier.  The tour guide skipped Tiger Hill so that he could take us to this "NOT TO BE MISSED" Jade and rare stone shop.  He was frank about getting a commission from this place.  He explained to the group that the tour itself was not profitable enough and this was the main source of income.  Although I was annoyed about the shop, I did appreciate his honesty.

Once we arrived at the shop, we were whisked away to a conference room to hear some sales pitch.  Then the shady owner who acted like some gangster showed up talking some more crap.  There were two Russians and one American tourists in the group.  Through out the course of the tour, I became the designated translator so they would know what was going on.  Ten minutes in, H and I had enough of the bullshit and left.  The American guy followed our lead.  We decided to share a cab for a short 5 minutes ride to the train station.   Once we were at the train station, we bought train tickets back to Shanghai.  The American was waiting in line trying to exchange his return tickets that was scheduled to depart 3 hours later in the evening.  Since we still had some time before the train departed, I helped him to exchange the tickets so that he was able to get on the same train with us.

The experience made me realize that this trip definitely was made a lot easier for H since I read and speak Mandarin.  A tour might be necessary for foreigners venturing out of Shanghai.

I was relieved to return to Shanghai earlier than we expected.  We went back to our hotel to change before going out again.  At the hotel, we were checking our emails and tried to log in to Facebook and realized that the Facebook access was blocked.  We were reminded not to be fooled by the modern development and evidence of capitalism everywhere.  China is a communist country with highly controlled news censorship and online surveillance.

H seemed to take that more to heart than I did.  He pointed out the propaganda in the English newspapers provided by the hotel;  was quick to criticize the hypocrisy in the inequality and abuse of power in a country which was suppose to embrace communist principles; and passionately argued that if the Chinese government was as strict about counterfeit products as any protests for freedom and democracy; there would not be anyone approaching us on the streets and asking if we were interested in buying those fake watches and handbags. 

Okay, we are getting off track here.  Let's get back to the rest of the evening. 

Xintiandi was another restored shikumen architecture that housed many trendy bars, cafes, restaurants and boutiques.  Unlike Tianzifan that had a bohemian and relaxed flair, Xintiandi was much more swanky and posh. 

We were lured by its ambiance and decided to dine at 俏江南 (South Beauty) even though it was a chain restaurant serving Sichuan cuisine.  We had bitter melon salad, fish, half duck, hot oil beef that the server prepared by your table, and red bean pastry for dessert.  Each individual dish was all very delicious, but the combination of all the dishes felt too greasy and too rich.

It was a beautiful spring evening, and we took a stroll through Xintiandi after dinner.  There were many westerners and people dressed to impress.  We randomly walked into a bar, had some drinks, and chatted with other guests.  Despite a not-so-successful day trip to Suzhou, we had a really fun night in Xintiandi. 


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Shanghai: Suzhou & Xintiandi - 4.13.11 Part 1

Writing this day's blog was like pulling teeth, I worked on it for two nights and was half way finished.  In the middle of writing, Blogger had some kind of a technical problem and not only that it was not able to save the last few minutes of changes that I made, it wiped out everything I wrote. 

For the next ten days, I was mourning the work that I lost, trying to contact Blogger to get my lost work back in vain. I struggled to re-write everything and could not put down even one word. 

As I tried to recall the itinerary in my head, I realized that Suzhou was my least favorite part of the trip.  It was hard to write it the first time, not to mention I had to re-write it again.  

The bottom line is, it was down to a week before our next trip.  I knew I had to finish Shanghai before my next travel report is due.  So here I was, dragging my fingers across the keyboard, reluctantly back to the morning of April 13..... 

  • Lion Forest Garden (獅子林)
  • North Temple Pagoda (北塔報恩寺)

Ever since the trip to Barcelona & Madrid, I decided to always make an effort for a side trip when I visit big cities.  Suzhou would be our side trip when we were in Shanghai.

There are many tour companies that offer day trips to Suzhou and can be easily arranged through hotel concierges.  The day tour costs around CN¥ 800 per person.  Since I hate group tours, we decided to go on our own.  We arrived at the Shanghai Railway Station just before 9 AM.  The high speed train from Shanghai to Suzhou was less than 45 minutes and cost only CN¥ 41 per person.  The train station was modern and orderly.  Free bottles of water were given with the tickets we purchased.  The cart  and seats were assigned to each ticket but written in Chinese.  And the entrance point to each cart was marked on the platform.

The high speed train was kept very clean.  After we settled down at our seats for awhile, I noticed some Beijing Opera was playing in the background.  I pointed out to H and said, "Really? is this what we have to listen to the whole ride?"  Then, only to find out later that it was another passenger behind us watching some show on his laptop without the headsets on.  I guess, in a land that houses 18 billion people, the personal space in many forms do not exist. 

40 minutes later, we stepped out of Suzhou Train station.  There were many taxi drivers, vendor selling maps, and tour companies selling day tours.  H and I were a bit lost about what we should do next.  Reluctantly, we took a day tour with a company for CN¥ 120 per person including all entrance tickets. The price was a steal, I assumed that it was because the tour was catered for local tourists as they did not provide any English guides.

Our first stop was the Lion Forest Garden (獅子林), a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in 1342.  Once we arrived, we were surrounded by groups of Chinese tours.  We dissed our tour and wondered off on our own.  The grotto maze in the garden was quite unique for Chinese garden designs.  Unfortunately, it was just too crowded. 

An hour later, as we left the garden and hopped back on to the bus, we noticed a fruit vendor in front of the garden selling some scary bright colored plums.  The guide confirmed our suspicion and warned people not to buy them because those plums were dyed with artificial coloring.

The next stop was  North Temple Pagoda (北塔報恩寺).  Once we entered the temple property, it was required that we followed the temple guide for a 15 minutes tour before we could venture out on our own.  The tour guide hinted a few times about donations.  After the tour, some "high ranking monks" came out to greet the visitors. When the monks talked to me, they asked where I was from and suggested donations again.

I have developed this unfortunate defense mechanism that every time when locals of the countries that I visited asked me where I was from, I immediately had my guard up.  Often times, I had the impression that these people were either:
A) trying to distract you with the conversation and pull some tricks or,
B) to seize you up and see how much higher they could jack up the price.

The whole thing felt quite shady.  Since they only spoke Chinese, H had no clue what was happening.  It was probably safe to assume that if you were a foreign tourists, they would not bother you for donations.

So far, the restroom situation in Shanghai was pretty manageable.  I encountered people smoking in the restroom stalls, and there was never any toilet paper or hand soap. But overall, it was definitely better than I expected.  At North Temple Pagoda, my limit was tested.  Don't get me wrong, the restroom was quite clean.  What I had problem with was the design of it.  There was a long gutter in the ground that connected all stalls.  Water would pull down the gutter periodically to flush waste.  Which meant you could see other people's waste if you got unlucky....  The thought of that freaked me out.  I did not want to see other people's "stuff" nor did I want other people to see mine.  Thank god I was the only one in the restroom at the time.

After the temple, we had a quick lunch at a small restaurant across the street.  The pork in the Xiaolongbo had this weird dark red color which scared us a little.  But the noddles were quite good.