Saigon – on the back of a bike

Posted in Saigon, Viet Nam on November 2, 2014 by gannet39

There are apparently seven million motorbikes and scooters in Saigon, a city with a population of ten million. There’s something quite socialistic about everyone driving scooters instead of cars (though I’m sure if they could afford it more people would) and the traffic would be much worse if people had bigger vehicles.

Visitors go on about how crazy the traffic is in the cities here but I think it’s a lot more organised than somewhere say like India where it’s everyone for themselves, which results in complete chaos more often than not. Instead Vietnamese drivers practice the philosophy of ‘yield and forgive’;  giving way to each other and pedestrians, as you can see from this video where everyone is just getting on with it in an organic unified flow. In India this intersection would be a logjam. Unlike Delhi (where I lived for six months), I didn’t see a single instance of road rage for the whole time I was there. Sure you can hear horns beeping all the time but they’re just saying ‘I’m here, be aware’, as opposed to ‘Get out of my way mofo!’. Every one tootles along at a sedate pace so there’s no need to feel nervous when on a bike or crossing the road.

20130906_213344By far my best experiences in Saigon were the guided food tours I had with Back Of The Bike Tours, a local company owned by Chad and Thuy, an American and Vietnamese couple. In fact I’d go as far as to say that it was one of the best foodie experiences I’ve ever had.

There was no way I could have found or travelled between all the restaurants in different districts that they took me to (fifteen in all) or even know what to ask for when I got there without their help. The only downside was that I was there at the end of the monsoon in early September so during the first tour we all got soaked pretty badly in heavy squalls of rain. It was all part of the experience though and didn’t dampen my spirits one bit. Just make sure you pack a mac for when you go.

As you can see from their website, they have a few choices as to what kind of tour to do. For the first one I opted for the Saigon Street Food Tour. Fredrick (an ex-chef from the US) and Duy (a local student working part time) picked me up from the hotel, put me on Duy’s pillion, and whisked me off to five different restaurants where we tried several different dishes. Of course it wasn’t physically possible to eat everything so we’d just sample the house specialty and then move on to the next place.

Remember you can click on these photos if you want to enlarge them.

20130904_140300The first stop wasn’t scheduled so I don’t know the Vietnamese names for what we ate but it was described to me as fried cubes of rice dough.

20130904_141711I had this with a glass of Pennywort juice, an interesting drink and no doubt very healthy but not something I would seek out.

20130904_14083320130904_142931At the second place some more unknown dishes and  a Bun noodle soup with Pork Sausage. Fred told me he hardlly ever eats Pho any more as there are so many more interesting soups to go for.

20130904_142946Goi Du Du Bo (Julienned Green Papaya Salad topped with Thai Basil, Dried Beef Liver, Toasted Peanuts and Prawn Crackers, Sauced with Chilli Sauce and Light Fish Sauce.

20130904_150512B20130904_145921anh Canh Ghe (Ocean Crab Soup with Tapioca Noodles, Pork Rinds, Fried Fishcake and Green Chilli Sauce)

20130904_15474520130904_155616Banh Xeo (Crispy Rice Flour ‘Crepe’ stuffed with Shrimp, Pork and Bean Sprouts. Served with Fresh Lettuce and Light Fish Sauce.

20130904_155123I also had a Sugarcane Root drink which was really refreshing,

20130904_161122Finally a couple of desserts (sorry but I don’t know the names for these either as again they weren’t on the itinerary). I do know one was a combination of ripe and raw Green Banana with Banana Cake, and and another was with some kind of Noodles and Coconut Milk. Really delicious.

I enjoyed the tour so much that I decided to do the Saigon Chef Tour as well. This time we went to ten restaurants (!) and had more risqué dishes that included offal and more challenging ingredients like snails (though not snake or beetles thank goodness).

This time Chad, the owner of the company,  came with us, as well as Fred and a couple of the guides. Chad was using the tours with me as training exercises for Fred and the newer guides as he and Thuy were going back to the States for a while. There were four staff members and me, so I got great service. Here’s what we had:

Goi Du Du Bo (Julienned Green Papaya Salad topped with Thai Basil, Dried Beef Liver, Toasted Peanuts and Prawn Crackers. Sauced with Chili Sauce and Light Fish Sauce)

20130906_163454Bo Bia (Fresh Rice Paper Rolls Stuffed with Cooked Jicama, Sliced Chinese Sausage, Dried Shrimp and Fresh Lettuce. Served with Hoison Sauce)

20130906_16503520130906_164901Oc Buoi Nhoi Thit (Snails stuffed with Pork, Ear Mushroom, and Lemongrass. Served with Shiso and Ginger Fish Sauce). Shiso (the Japanese name) is amusingly called the ‘smells like fish herb’ here.

20130906_17045920130906_170550Banh Canh Cua (Thick Mud Crab Soup With, Tapioca Noodles, Prawns, Pork Crackling, and Blood Cake)

20130906_182104Chao Long (Pork Offal Porridge, with Blood Sausage, Mungbeans, Bean Sprouts, and Black Pepper)

Banh Beo (Tender Rice Dumplings Topped with Dried Shrimp, and Crispy Pork Skin)

20130906_184301Banh Bot Loc (Hue Style Tapioca Dumpling, Stuffed with Dried Shrimp and Topped with Green Onion and Sweet Fish Sauce)

20130906_184246Banh Nam (Tender Rice dumplings, Topped with Minced Pork, Dried Shrimp and Steamed in a Banana Leaf)

Banh Tom (Crispy Sweet Potato and Prawn Fritters. Served with Bibb Lettuce, Mixed Herbs, Rice noodles and a Light Fish Sauce)

20130906_184447Banh It Ram (Steamed Sticky Rice Flour Dumpling with Crispy Sticky Rice Served with Dried Shrimp and Spring Onion)

20130906_192215Banh Mi Thit (Crispy Bread, Sliced Pork Sausages, Shredded Pork Floss, Fresh Pate, Pickled Carrot and Cucumber)

20130906_19502220130906_194803Bun Mam (Sweet Seafood Soup from the Mekong, with Braised Eggplant and Bitter Vegetables. Served with Fresh Seafood and Roasted Pork)

20130906_203803Ca Ri De (Spicy Goat Curry served with Toasted Bread)

20130906_211338Rau Cau Dua (Young Coconut Jelly)

20130906_211515Dau Hu Ca Cao (Soft Tofu with Coco Powder Syrup, Crushed Ice, and Jellies)

20130906_211156Bi Sua Hot Ga (Vietnamese Pumpkin with Sweetened Condensed Milk Custard)

20130906_211806Sau Rieng Sua (Durian with Milk) and Sinh To Mang Cau (Sour Sop Smoothies)

Chad was a mine of interesting information. In his opinion the Thais do the best desserts and I think a couple of the last sweets were Thai in origin.

You might have noticed also that several of the dishes use the name Banh even when they are quite different e.g. noodles, dumplings, crepes, fritters and baguettes. Chad thought that what unites them is they all employ a flour of some kind.

He also told me that Vietnamese fish sauce is lighter than the Thai version and a bit sweeter. The best stuff comes from Phu Quoc, an island off the south-west coast which is also famous for its powerful black peppercorns. I made sure I stocked up at the market before going home.

So I learned a lot in a very short time, and had some great food as well. I’d like to thank Chad, Fred and all the guides profusely for such a great time. I definitely recommend you hop on the back of one of their bikes if you are in town.

Saigon – Quan 1

Posted in Ca Phe Nguyen Chat, Saigon, Viet Nam with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2014 by gannet39

After finishing work in Changsha, I took the opportunity to take a short holiday in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) for a few days. After all the travelling I’d done for work in China I was feeling pretty lazy and didn’t feel the desire to visit any of the local tourist attractions. Given more time I would have liked to have gone to the Mekong Delta though but it’s always good to save something for the next time. The only other interesting things might have been the War Remnants Museum (sad and depressing) or the underground passages (claustrophobia inducing) so I preferred to just stuff my face instead. These are the fruits of my labours from my brief stay:

Banh Mi Huynh Hoa (Elementary A++), 26 Le Thi Rieng Street, Quan 1 (on the right as you come off the roundabout if I remember correctly)

20130906_191925The best Vietnamese baguette you will ever taste (A++). It was recommended both by local food blog and was also a stop on the food tour I did (see next post).

20130906_192215I was told it contains five kinds of pork (liver pate and cold cuts) as well as pickles and chillies (god I’m salivating writing this). It’s pricey in comparison to other vendors (28,000 VND or $1.33) but who cares when it’s the best. There was always a short queue on each of the three times I went but you don’t have to wait long thank goodness.

Pho Hoa (Elementary A), 260C Pasteur Street, Quan 1

The most famous and I think oldest place in town for the famous Pho soup (pronounced ‘fur’). I wasn’t expecting much after having read a few criticisms on the web, but I really enjoyed it. The broth was tasty and sweet and everything was as it should be (A). On every table plates piled high with herbs, lime chunks, chillies and Gio Chao Quay, a kind of fried bread originally from China. The interior is quite quirky and atmospheric with walls bearing pictures of pastoral scenes, Buddhist paraphernalia, water bison heads and flintlock rifles. Definitely worth a visit.

By the way ‘Quan’ means ‘district’ and different guides could use either word in the addresses. Quan 1 is the town centre where most of the action is for visitors.

Pho Quynh (Elementary B+), on the corner of Rham Ngu Lao and Do Quang Dau, Quan 1 (in the back packers district)

This place and the food I had were suggested by one of the Back of the Bike guides (see next post). I had the Pho Bo Kho, or as I call it, Irish Stew Pho with chunks of beef and carrots (!). It was ok (B) and an interesting fusion concept, but I think I’d just go for the normal Pho next time.

Pho Ha (Elementary C), 31 Hai Trieu Street, Quan 1

This place was recommended by (usually dependable) but the Xoi Ga (chicken breast) with sticky rice and fried onion (B), was disappointing. Perhaps it’s better when it’s warm, or perhaps they just didn’t like me. The place didn’t feel particularly welcoming.

Grillbar (Intermediate B+), 122 Le Thanh Ton, Ben Thanh, Quan 1

I got this place off the web somewhere. They serve street food in a modern, sanitised environment but the staff are friendly and the food was good. In fact the Banh Mi baguette with pork meatballs was delicious (A) and they also sold Sapporo Black Label which is my favourite Japanese beer. For dessert I had yogurt with local honey which was very nice (A) so I bought two jars of it to take home.

The Sushi Bar (Intermediate B+), 2 Le Thanh Ton, Quan 1,

Le Thanh Ton street is known as Little Tokyo and is lined with Japanese restaurants. This place is the last one on the street on the left as you’re walking from the centre. I came here seeking a change from all the Chinese and Vietnamese and was pretty satisfied with what I got.

The Edamame (fresh steamed soya beans in their pods) were spot on (A).  The Abogado (avocado) and Sake Maki (salmon rolls) likewise (A) and the Aburi Yari Ika (rare grilled squid) was good (B) while the Hiyayakko (cold tofu) was ok (B-).

I scored the Nigiris as follows for flavour: squid (A), salmon (B+), prawn (B) but they were tiny and a bit flimsy as they were made with local rice rather than the real Japanese sticky rice. Also there was no maguro (tuna) which is my favourite. I think I just arrived a bit too late in the evening.

To drink I had two atsukan ( hot Ozeki Sake) which was good (B) and a beer, all for the equivalent of about £22. It made a nice change.

So not the greatest of restaurant selections, except for the first two which are great, but generally ok. The real food experience comes in the next post.

As for drinks it seems that Bia Hois (pubs that brew their own beer) are more of a Northern thing and so are quite rare in Saigon.

The Rex Hotel has a rooftop bar which is one of Bourdain’s favourite places for ‘novelty cocktails’ as he puts it. There’s a good view and they have live music. An experience but nothing out of this world. The Chill Skybar in the super modern AB Tower, Le Loi, Ben Thanh, has spectacular views but the music and people were pretty horrible. I’ve since heard that The Observatory is a good place to go for more underground music.

Coffee is another French legacy and there seems to be a café on every corner here.

20130906_123427Kita Coffee, 39 Nguyen Hue, Quan 1

This is a nice little spot where you can sit on a balcony and watch the world pass on the street below. I had an iced coffee with condensed milk that was very short and unfiltered (B). Also an orange and passion fruit juice drink with ginger and sugar syrup which was very refreshing (B+).

20130906_143533Ca Phe Nguyen Chat, 93 Nguyen Thong P9, Quan 3,

20130906_143125I heard about this place from a blog about cafes. It’s probably not worth the taxi journey I made but it’s ok if you’re in the area.

20130906_141826They have several rows of display jars with various local coffees, including Chon, aka weasel coffee.

20130906_142045I bought some to take home but I had to draw a picture of a weasel having a poo in order to explain what I wanted! Although there’s no guarantee that the coffee wasn’t fake, the cafe wasn’t in a tourist area so I don’t think they stung me.

After some enjoyable experiences learning to make Vietnamese food in Hanoi and Hoi An (see separate posts) I thought I’d try one here to:

Mai Home Cooking Class, Saigon Culinary Art Centre, 269B Nguyen Trai,

One of many cooking classes that I found on the net. In this case the guide/chef came and picked me up from the hotel lobby and drove me to the venues. First stop was the Cho Ben Thanh Market (on Le Loi, Ben Thanh) which was an interesting experience. I bought some peppercorns and fish sauce from Phu Quoc island which has a great rep for both.

After this we went to the cooking school/restaurant which was nearby. We were first given a brief talk where we were introduced to the Tsao, or the three cooking gods, who it is believed are present in every kitchen.

Then I was taken upstairs where all the ingredients and utensils were already laid out on a large table. I was shown how to make stock for Pho,  spring rolls, a chicken dish and a fried rice. To be honest this was all a bit too simple for me and I wish I had taken the advanced class instead of the beginners one. It tasted delicious though if I say so myself.

I stayed at the Hotel Continental, 132 Dong Khoi St, Quan 1,

This hotel is the oldest in town (since 1880), and was where the novelist Graeme Greene and more recently Anthony Bourdain have stayed. You can book the Graeme Greene room for an extra price though I don’t know if it’s any different from the others. As it was off season I got a room on promotion for $80. The room was plain but spacious and the outdoor breakfast under an awning in the courtyard was nice. However the ‘gym’ (a tiny antiquated treadmill and an ageing weights station) and the overpriced Restaurant Bourgeois (French cuisine) left me cold.

Artbook, 158ED Dong Khoi, Quan 1

Dong Khoi is the main shopping street. There was nothing I wanted to buy on it but I liked the small bookshop at the river end of the street, where I picked up a couple of books on Vietnamese cooking.

A word on visas; you can arrive without one (I had to as I didn’t have time to send it to the embassy before going to China), but it will cost you in terms of money, time and hassle. I had to fork out $160, about £100, for a ‘landing visa’, which hadn’t been the case on my previous visit to Hanoi the year before, but heigh ho.

The money can be a bit confusing for people not used to having so many zeros on their bank notes. It’s worth having a little look up table with you so that you don’t get ripped off, as one of my buddies did. When I was here in 2013 the approximate note values were: 100,000 = £3, 50,000 = £1.50,  20,000 = 60p, 10,000 = 30p.

I will be adding more images to this post at a later date. Make sure you check out my next post for the food pics!

Stinky tofu in Changsha

Posted in Changsha, China, Hunan with tags , on March 10, 2014 by gannet39

20130831_141556Changsha is the capital city of Hunan, a province famous for its fiery food.

According to Wikipedia,  it differs from neighbouring Sichuan province in “its liberal use of chilli, shallots and garlic, Hunan cuisine is known for being dry hot (干辣) or purely hot, as opposed to Sichuan cuisine, [which is] known for its distinctive mala (hot and numbing) seasoning and other complex flavour combinations, [and] frequently employs Sichuan peppercorns along with chilies which are often dried, and utilises more dried or preserved ingredients and condiments. Hunan cuisine, on the other hand, is often spicier by pure chili content, contains a larger variety of fresh ingredients, and tends to be oilier. Another characteristic is that, in general, Hunan cuisine uses smoked and cured goods in its dishes much more frequently”.

I had just two days here and only managed to get downtown on one occasion.

20130831_201123The main entertainment district seems to be on the eastern bank of the Xiangjiang river, south of Juzizhou bridge and around its continuation Wuyi Avenue. The area has lots of glitzy shopping centres, branded shops, night clubs and eateries of all kinds which attract all ages but especially the young.

20130831_200436A lot of street hawkers were selling this strange vegetable. Can anyone tell me what it is?

20130831_200956Next to the river is the Xiangjiang Scenic Belt, a riverside walk where people go to listen or take part in outdoor karaoke. I enjoyed wandering around here just people watching.

As a lone, non-Mandarin speaking traveller, it’s a challenge for me to get to try traditional dishes wherever I go. I managed it in Changsha though, by doing the following:

I went to this Wikipedia webpage and took a photo of the ‘list of notable dishes’ from Hunan with their English/Chinese translations. In the restaurant I just zoomed in on the dishes I fancied eating and showed them the Chinese translation.The waiting staff were ever so relieved they didn’t have to communicate with me verbally (the source of surliness in some places?) and I got quite good service. The other diners that I was sharing my circular table with were gobsmacked at what I managed to get and I got several smiles as a result.  Ah, the wonders of technology.

20130831_193150On one occasion I had Changsha-style stinky tofu or Chángshā chòu dòufǔ or 長沙臭豆腐长沙臭豆腐 This dish is prepared by soaking the tofu in a brine and fermenting it for a number of months. Different styles take different colours but the Changsha version is coal black. It’s said that the more the tofu smells the better it tastes but the stuff I had didn’t have a strong odour and tasted fine (B+). It came with a spicy sauce but wasn’t too hot.

20130831_193810I also had another famous local dish; shredded pork with vegetables or nóngjiā xiǎo chǎoròu or 農家小炒肉农家小炒肉 (sorry about the blurry picture). Again a bit of spice but not too much. I loved the whole cloves of garlic though (B+).

I’m so sorry but I don’t recall the name of the restaurant I went to, and have lost my notes, but there are a few specialising in Hunanese food  on Tripadvisor you could try.

20130831_194435I was staying at the Grand Sun City Hotel (Block 3, 269 Furong Middle Road). I received good service here from most of the staff, though not many of them spoke English. In terms of facilities, they have a large triangular pool and a basic gym with a couple of fair-sized running machines. The breakfast is ok but limited for Westerners as is usually the case. The fried rice, pak choi and cold Harbin beer that I had in their Chinese restaurant was fine (B+). Go early though as you may be the only customer and they will want to close as soon as  your done.

There’s not much in the way of things to do in or near the hotel but, if listening to the usual piano recital in the lobby isn’t your thing, it’s only a short taxi ride to the downtown entertainments district. Just ask the receptionist to write the address for the cab driver, and grab a hotel business card so you can get back again.

Xiangyang Style

Posted in China, Hubei, Xiangyang with tags , on March 5, 2014 by gannet39

Xiangyang is a small city in Hubei of only half a million people, about 2.5 hours on the train from Wuhan. Foreigners are relatively rare here so you can expect to get stared at a fair amount but the flipside is that people will be quite friendly and well disposed towards you, unlike larger cities where you are less special. I had just two nights here so there is not that much I can tell you about the place. 

20130829_125051Xiangyang is also known for its old city walls although reviews on Trip Advisor say they are a modern reproduction. I didn’t have time to go see them but it may be possible to get to them on foot from the hotel in about 30 minutes. As you can see on this Google map, the fortress is just south of the Hanshui river, though I’m not sure whether either of the two bridges have pedestrian access. A taxi would be pennies probably.

I was put up at the Celebrity Hotel (Te No.1 Paopu St, People Square, Tel. (710) 348 8888), a rather old and dingy hotel that I doubt has ever seen a sleb. The rooms are a fair size but the carpets are pretty grotty and the TV didn’t work in my room. On the other hand I could access my email for the first time since arriving in the country.

The breakfast is probably fine if you’re Chinese but other than a couple of boxes of All Bran, some cheap white sliced bread with jam, melon and a greasy omelette there was nothing tailored for the Western palate. I went native for the duration and had the beef noodle soup each morning which was pretty tasty. Noodles are a bit risky for the work shirt though , it’s best to get your face right down to the bowl as the locals do to avoid splashes.

There is a rudimentary gym with some flimsy looking machines and a pool full of noisy kids, both of which I avoided. The staff were unimpressive except for Felix the assistant manager who was very helpful and spoke a bit of English, unlike any of his colleagues. The check out receptionist struck me as being a racist though as she didn’t even look at me or say thanks. An experience you occasionally get sometimes as a Westerner in China unfortunately. I just ignored her back.

So why stay here when you could be at the Crown Plaza uptown? In my case it was because my place of work for the two days I was here, the Happy Castle Disney Magic English Language Training Centre (!), was just five minute’s walk around the corner.

20130829_121937I couldn’t find any data about local restaurants on the net, or anywhere else, and the one time I did go out there was no picture menu to be had. Instead I just ate a big lunch and had the hotel’s complimentary fruit in the evenings. The school took me to a place down the side street over the road from the school (the restaurant is on the right in a small square/car park) where, rather than reading a menu, you pointed out what you wanted to eat from a series of cards hanging on the wall, although without help from the teacher I was with, I wouldn’t have known what most of it was.

20130829_121931On the first day we had some steamed pak choi in garlic (B+), thin slices of stir fried silk tofu with chilli in a tasty sauce (A) and a mixed plate of lean and fatty pork with yet more chilli (A+). It was so good I couldn’t stop eating it but the hot spice combined with the humid weather meant I was dripping with perspiration by the time I left. The next day I went for the much blander stir-fried lettuce (!) with garlic (C+) and some cold roasted duck (C) which were much less appetising.

20130829_204529For some entertainment in the evening I went to see what was happening in the People’s Square (turn left out of the hotel and go straight, over the crossroads, and you’ll see it on the left after a couple of minutes). Half of Xiangyang seems to be here letting their hair down in the cool evening air.

20130829_204540There’s a stage where the local kids can get a taste of stardom singing solos or dancing in troupes (love these kids in wigs and green outfits!) in front of an appreciative audience. There are several other competing sound systems where groups of middle aged women perform ballroom dancing moves together while the men stand around and watch. My favourites were the troupe of all ages doing the chachacha to Mercy by Duffy. The younger generation seem to prefer dancing to a frenetic form of electronic dance music (EDM) that’s all the rage in China, Korea and South East Asia generally. The dance style for this seems to basically be shuffling at high speed, as demonstrated by a couple of youngsters in the square.

Behind the square there are the back streets lined with street kitchens offering piles of greasy looking bird carcasses, pig trotters and hearts and quite a few other things I couldn’t work out. I have given these kinds of places a try in the past (for noodle  soups) but the lack of hygiene standards means that I can’t risk getting sick and jeopardising my job.

Xiangyang is not a pretty place from what I saw but it was friendly enough and I enjoyed working there for a couple of days.

Weary in Wuhan

Posted in China, Hubei, Wuhan with tags , , on February 28, 2014 by gannet39

Wuhan is the capital of Hubei prefecture in central eastern China. With a population of 10 million it is the biggest city in central China. During my brief stay, there was little that distinguished it for me from other Chinese cities except maybe the air pollution seemed even murkier than usual.

I stayed for three days, most of which were taken up with work or sleep as I recovered from the long journey, via Manchester, Amsterdam and Beijing. Thankfully my luxurious super modern room at the Hotel Marco Polo (Times Square, 159 Yanjiang Avenue) was an air conditioned haven from the heat (33C at the end of August) and pollution outside. I could lie in my bath on the corner of the 15th floor and gaze out over the river and other tall buildings sitting ghostlike in the soupy air. The view should have been much better but visibility was down to just a few hundred metres at times.

The hotel has a very well equipped gym and also a pool but the latter was closed for renovation when I was there so I can’t comment on it. Every staff member I met was really helpful and friendly. My only gripe was that I couldn’t access my BT Yahoo email account. I was prepared for having my WordPress blog and Facebook blocked by the Great Firewall of China but losing email as well was a new one on me. Whether Wi-Fi or cable, in the room or in the lobby, the internet was really slow and eventually I just gave up on it. Unusually though, the hotel did have both BBC and CNN on the TV, both of which are often blocked in other hotels where Westerners don’t usually stay.

20000101_141621The hotel breakfast is pretty comprehensive, catering for both Western and Chinese tastes. A typical Hubei breakfast food that I tried here was Hot & Dry Noodles, the spice coming from the dried chillies and the dryness from the sesame paste which the noodles are tossed in. There was a diced vegetable in the mix but I couldn’t work out what it was. It was edible enough but I can’t say I was wild about it (C+).

20000101_141626I also tried Doupi which is sometimes described as a kind of pizza. In fact it’s two large sheets of beancurd sandwiching a filling of rice and perhaps other ingredients like beef, shrimp or mushroom, although they just had the plain version at the hotel.

I did eat in the rather boring hotel restaurant one night as I was too tired to go out. The food was fine (A) but expensive. I paid double what I would elsewhere for three small beers, a plate of fried rice and some steamed pak choi. On another night I decided to get out and about, so I went to this place recommended by the Eyewitness guide for China.

Yanyangtian (aka Sunny Sky), (Advanced B+), Jiefang Dadao, Baofeng Lukou, Tel 027 8375 0706.

This place is a fifteen minute cab ride from the hotel but as taxis are really cheap it only costs about £2 to get there. There are two floors, a large, noisy and plainly decorated main room at ground level and a more intimate and nicely decorated smaller room upstairs. As is often the case, the staff were pretty shocked to see a Westerner but they were friendly enough. I was armed with my food flashcards (see my post on Getting Fed in China) and dictionary app so communications went fairly smoothly.

20130825_201104On the advice of the guide I tried Nongjia Xiaochaoru which was described as a spicy pork dish but was actually okra tossed in chillies and tiny chunks of cubed pork and some other ‘stuff’, all good (A) .

20130825_202613Usually, alongside my main fish or meat dish, I have a plate of stir fried green leafy veg of some description so I just pointed at something green on the picture menu without knowing what it actually was. In the end it turned out to be green peppers with larger slices of fatty pork sitting on chunks of a hard rice cake, which was fine (B) but resulted in a bit of an overkill on both the veg and meat fronts!

20130825_200353Both dishes were good but the portions were huge (meant to be shared by a group) so I couldn’t finish them. However, even with two 500ml Snow beers and a big bowl of steamed rice, the bill was much cheaper than the hotel even though this was quite a posh restaurant.

The Eyewitness guide mentions a few other restaurants which I list below, even though I haven’t been to them. It’s best to have reception call them first to make sure you can get in and also write the address for the taxi driver. Take the phone number so the driver can call if he’s not sure where to go.

Changchunguan Sucaigan (269 Wuchang, Tel 027 885 4229) is a vegetarian restaurant next to a Daoist temple, the decor of which it mimics. The guide suggests you try Lazi Tianluo, apparently a veggie version of river snails, or Xiaopinpan which is a sample platter of their most popular dishes.

Fang Fang Caiguan (1 Jiqing Jie. Tel 027 8281 0954) is the oldest and largest restaurant in town. Apparently you can pay to be serenaded with pop hits or trad classics which for me makes it sound like a place to avoid, but others might like that kind of thing. The Ya Bozi (duck’s neck) and caiyu lianou (fish and lotus root) are supposed to be good.

Mr Xie Restaurant & Pub (558 Jiefang Dadao, Baofeng Lukou, Tel 027 8577 7288) is a busy expat hangout which lots of locals also go to too. The steamed Wuchang Fish (Qingzheng Wuchang Yu) is recommended.

I wanted to go to Xie’s most of all but the taxi driver told me it was shut so I went to Sunny Sky instead.  I don’t know whether the closure is just temporary or permanent.

Other than this I can’t say much about Wuhan. Important historical events have taken place here (various uprisings and battles) but there is not much to see as far as I can make out. There are a few old buildings with some nice architecture along Yanjiang Avenue. If you turn left out of the hotel and walk straight you will soon come to the former Bank of Indochina building on your left which looks quite nice. There are a few bars next to it that look good but I didn’t have the time or energy to check them out.

Catching the train in China is much like catching a plane, complete with trolley pushing stewardesses and meals in trays that you can purchase on request. The stations in major cities are huge terminals where thousands of people sit waiting to be released onto the platforms. Rather than buy the tickets at the station (involving long queues and ticket sellers that don’t speak English) you should buy them, at least a day in advance, via the hotel concierge. Travelling first class guarantees you a seat but don’t hang about because all the seats in both classes usually sell out very quickly.

It’s also a good idea to aim to arrive at the station 45 minutes early as taxis can be scarce at peak times and traffic jams can seriously delay you (see my Ningbo post for the nightmare I experienced on my last trip). The hotel told me it takes about 20 minutes to drive to the station but they didn’t say that it can take nearly as long again for the bell boys to get you a vehicle. I eventually went out on the street and got one myself after only a couple of minutes but perhaps I was lucky.

Once at the station you need to factor in a bit of a walk due to the size of the building. Tickets and signs are all in Mandarin so you only have the numbers of your train, carriage and seat printed on your ticket to help you. There are usually two entrances down to either end of the platform which are numbered according to the carriages that are at the front or back of the train.

Thankfully after a traffic jam scare, I made it with about 20 minutes to spare. Next stop Xiangyang.

Bilbao – Plaza Nueva

Posted in Basque Country, Bilbao, Spain with tags , , , , , on February 26, 2014 by gannet39

Placa NuevaPlaza Nueva, so named because it replaced Plaza Vieja in 1821, is in my humble opinion, the buzziest and best place for pintxos (basque tapas) in Bilbao.

Under the neo-classical arcades are a throng of famous bars and cafes that will meet all your canape needs, and more.

Click on the pics to get a better view. See this post for other places in Bilbao.

Gure Toki (Intermediate A+), 12 Plaza Nueva, north west corner.

This is my favourite. It doesn’t look as venerable as the others I mention below, but that’s because they are taking a different, more modern approach to pintxos. International, particularly Japanese influences are very apparent. 20130621_212912

Carpachio de Avestruz (A++). Ostrich carpaccio! The best thing I ate all year! Thinly sliced raw ostrich marinated with parmesan and if I remember correctly soya sauce, although it doesn’t seem so from the picture. I must go back to make sure! 20130621_224655

Foie a la Plancha con Manzana y PX (A) goose liver pate from the hotplate, with apple and a Pedro Ximenez reduction. Standard. 20130621_214741

The Hamburguesa Wagyu was fine (B) but probably more hype than substance. It sounds good though. 20130621_221513

Costilla de Vaca con Algas was a revelation (A); a small rib steak with local seaweed, showing the Japanese influence once again. 20130621_214431

With the meat I drank two glasses Juan Gil Monastrell 12 meses (A+) at €2 a glass. This stuff blew my socks off, it’s so different from any other Spanish red. I tried to source it in the UK but their supplier didn’t reply to my emails.

Ironically, the guy next to me noticed I was drinking it and he happened to be a friend of Juan Gil’ who lives in Murcia! He’s a very nice chap apparently, which made his wine taste even better! I try to buy a bottle to take home every time I go to Spain now. 20130621_220704

I also had a glass of Ribeira del Duero, ‘Nacimiento’ by Avan which was good (B+)…

20130621_232438…before moving on to the local Txakoli ‘Senorio de Otxaran’ which was a good example of the genre (B) but I have yet to be fully won over to this wine. 20130621_232344

Sold to me by another friendly customer, Sopa de Idiazabal seemed to consist of a quail’s egg with cream, mushrooms and giant kernels of maize (Peruvian choclo?). The bar won a prize for this tapa in a local competition. It was interesting (B+) but I’d probably try other stuff over it next time. 20130621_234116

The only let down was the lack of decent desserts. They gave me a bowl of dry, flaky mini chocolate croissants which didn’t really do it for me. A chupito of excellent ‘La Gallega’ Orujo des Hierbas (A) cheered me up though. 20130621_234212

As you can see, I met a lot of people while I was here, including a big group of Mexicanas on their jollies. With all the good food, wine and company, I rolled out of here a very happy man!

Café Bilbao, (Intermediate A), 6 Plaza Berria, north east corner of Plaza Nueva (there are two doors, one on Plaze Nueva, the other round the corner on Plaza Berria).

Old school and very busy, the traditional pintxos here are a feast for the eyes. 20130621_203703

I had Makailua Pilpilean, aka in Spanish, ‘bacalao al pilpil’, which was good (B+). Pil pil is a basque cooking technique  where a sauce is made from the oil that the fish was cooked in, along with garlic and small hot peppers called ‘guindillas’. 20130621_204402

Also a canapé with a mushroom and cured ham (A). 20130621_205843

And another with black pudding, pepper and camembert (B+). Victor Montes

Victor Montes, (Intermediate A?), 8 Plaza Nueva, Tel. 944 155 603, Montes Tapas

This local institution (since 1931) is for me the most beautiful cafe in town. I’ve only put my head in for a coffee (A) but the pintxos on the bar top looked very enticing. There’s also a sit down dining area where you can have a full meal. Montes Deli

They also have a deli, La Alacena del Victor Monte, on the next side of the square (at # 14 Plaza Nueva on the west side, near Gure Toki) which is a good place to stock up on treats for home.

I like to get some Jerez vinegar, truffles, foie gras and some good Jamon Iberico Bellota from the Jabugo 5 Jotas or ‘Five J’s’ brand from here.

Madrid – Huertas tapas crawl

Posted in Spain on February 24, 2014 by gannet39

Huertas (also known as Barrio de las Letras)  is a very popular area for going out at night with lots of tapas bars lining the main pedestrian street Calle de las Huertas and the side streets off it.

Personally I like to start on Calle de Jesus at the bottom of the hill and head up Huertas to Plaza Santa Ana, which is another great spot for pintxos.

Click on the photos for the best view.

Los Gatos

Los Gatos (Intermediate A), 2 Calle de Jesus Los Gatos barMadrilènes are known “los gatos” or the cats because they like to stay out so late.

Despite being accused of being a tourist trap, with prices to match, this is my favourite tapas bar on this strip, just for the bizarre decoration which covers every inch of the ceilings and walls.

Los Gatos back roomI love the eccentricity of having bull fighting paraphernalia mixed with classical and pop art treasures and spend all my time in here just gazing at it all. canpes

The tapas are top quality too, which makes it a good place to start a night on tiles.

La Fabrica (Intermediate B+), 2 Calle de Jesus (next door to Los Gatos) 20130612_201622

Loved the Roquefort canapé (although the waitress told me it was Cabrales) with a salted anchovy (B+) Also, Bacala over tomato pulp and topped with a mild chilli (B). 20130612_202315

With two creamy cervezas this came to €5, which isn’t too bad at all. Cheaper than their more famous neighbours I think, but that’s just an impression. 20130617_204603

El Diario (Intermediate A), Calle de Jesus (no number but a couple of doors down from the above, on the corner with Calle Cervantes).20130616_222606

This Andalucian place is my second favourite, due to the friendliness of the staff (unlike others along this strip) and the quality of the food. 20130616_215552

Their Calamares a la Andaluza are very good, especially with their sublime honey alioli, although I wish they’d remove the beaks as they can be a bit off putting (A-). 20130616_215525

And, in summer, this tuna salad was also one of the best I’ve ever tasted (A). Taberna la Dolores

Los Dolores (Intermediate A), 4 Placa Jesus (just along the street from Los Gatos above).

This is a classic 1920’s place with a beautiful tiled exterior and an atmospheric old wood bar inside. great boqueronesThe tapas are very good but quite traditional and a bit expensive. Casa Alberto

Casa Alberto (Advanced B), 18 Calle Huertas,

This is another beautiful old place with a classic zinc bar.

Days gone byYou can have tapas in the busy bar or sit down in the restaurant at the back.

Service is brusque because they’re busy but efficient when it eventually comes. 20130618_210330

Vermout Grigio (B+), from the tap, is €2 a glass here. 20130618_205806

With that I got a complimentary plate of pork scratchings (B+).

With a second vermouth, I had a canapé with Solomillo Iberico con Cebolla Caramelizada al PX y Queso de Cabra for €4.75, which was heaven on bread (A).

Restaurants: 20130617_204934

Los Chanquetes (Intermediate B), 2 Calle de Moratin, Tel. 91 4290245,

A bullfighting themed place which I was tipped off about by a colleague who recommended coming here for the Rabo de Toro. It was good (B+) but I’ve had better.

I tried a bottle of local Vinos de Madrid red, a Tagonius Roble (B+) For dessert Queso con Membrillo, manchego with quince, always finds favour with me (B+). 20130617_215202

Especially with a glass of sweet Moscatel. This one was called Lagrimas del Jabalon (B+).

I incurred a reasonable bill of €26.70. It was ok but there are other better places to go to.

Tierra Mundi (Elementary C), 32 Calle Lope de Vega. Tel. 914 295 280

If you’re on a budget I can’t fault this pseudo-Galician place but if you want good quality food, I’d go elsewhere. It’s marked as inexpensive in the Eyewitness Guide so I tried it in the interests of research. In the spirit of eating cheaply I went for the Menu Nocturna for €10.50

I had a mixed salad with tuna to start which is hard to get wrong although obviously the tuna was not the best (B). 20130612_205910

For my main, an only slightly chewy but quite oily veal steak (C+), with a sometimes soggy, sometimes slightly raw portion of patatas fritas (C+) on the same plate.

After tasting a glass of the undrinkable (D) house red (a very young Riveira Sacra) I thought I’d upgrade to the only half bottle of Rioja (Alta Rio) on the wine list which was marginally better but unfinishable (C+).Beware half bottles is the lesson.

20130612_213821Finally, a slice of apple pie which was mainly dough with a sniff of apple (C-). I opted out of the cream but it might taste better if you had some.

Even my most beloved Spanish digestif Orujo des Hierbas was the most sub-standard version I’ve ever had (C+).

The decor is brash and modern and the service is just ok. I was lucky to get an English speaker although I had to correct her understanding of ‘ternera’ (veal not venison).

There are lots of other much better places nearby but come here by all means if cutting costs is important to you. The empanadas and octopus are good according to Eyewitness.

Total cost €25.10, which is hard to beat in expensive Madrid.


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