Guangzhou goings on

After shivering in 5C in Beijing at the beginning of November it was bliss to step off the plane into 20C in sub-tropical Guangzhou, capital of Guandong. Of course the city is still shrouded in pollution but at least it’s warm pollution.

I stayed at the four star Riverside Hotel which is a bit old and run down but cheap (£45 a night) and very central. The breakfast is pretty average and the waiters are so bored that they hover like vultures waiting for your used teaspoon. Each level also has a floor captain whose main job seems to be pressing the lift buttons for you. I found the front desk staff to be very friendly and helpful however. There is a small 10 metre pool and a gym with several old weight machines and one serviceable running machine, for an average-sized person that is. The sauna is pretty pointless with cracks in the door jamb letting all the heat out. The pool terrace, and hopefully your room, has a great view of the Pearl River which is quite a spectacle at night when the waterfront buildings, bridges and pleasure boats are all lit up in multi-coloured neon.

Dong Jiang Hai Xian Jiu Jia aka Hong Xing (East River) Seafood Restaurant, (Advanced C). Turn left out of the hotel and walk along the riverside for about ten minutes, continuing nearly as far as the first bridge, you will see the restaurant on the right just before Hai Zhu Square.

Hong Xing is the best of their many branches. In Britain we like to think that Chinese people will eat just about anything. In China the saying goes that Cantonese people “will eat anything with four legs except the furniture”. Cantonese people in turn say that about people from Guangzhou, and in Guangzhou this is probably the place where you can get them all, as well as two, six and multi-legged life forms.

With five floors of dining rooms and seating for two hundred and fifty on my floor alone, excluding the private rooms, you would think this would have to be the biggest place in town, but apparently there’s somewhere even bigger (Fisherman’s City in Panyu). Normally I would avoid such places but it is quite a spectacle, mainly because of the big tanks full of various kinds of sea life on the ground floor. It’s kind of like being at Sea World, except you can pass the death sentence on anything you see.

The atmosphere is pretty raucous, like any busy restaurant in China, but made more so on the night I went by the close basketball final of the Asian Games between China and South Korea on the telly. (China won 77 points to 71). There are tables outside on the ground floor but if like me you’re a lone diner you’d probably better arrive sometime between lunch and dinner (3-5pm) to stand a chance of getting one.

The twenty page menu has plenty of scary pictures but rest assured there are plenty of other highly edible things you can tolerably eat. This is primarily a Cantonese restaurant but there are pages for Japanese Sushi, Szechuan and Thai food.

My friend John tells me there are even good veggie options but other than a page of greens and the odd bunch of mushrooms, these didn’t jump out at me.

I’m a huge sushi fan so I jumped at the chance to have some fresh sashimi and went for the Sendai Sashimi Platter for 380 RMB. For that I got nine kinds of raw seafood (octopus, white tuna, whelk, sea bream, two cuts of salmon and three cuts of mackerel, one with red sea-urchin roe and another with a yellow roe I couldn’t identify). You get four slices of each on a bed of ice with a flower arrangement and a garnish of lemon and erm… maraschino cherries.

The roe/fish hybrids were something new, as was the white tuna (bottom right on the plate), which I’d never come across when I lived in Japan. The reason I found out later is because it’s banned there for health reasons! It seems there are two fish which are both misleadingly called ‘white tuna’ in some countries. One is Albacore tuna which actually has light pink flesh in relation to other kinds of tuna, and the other is Escolar which isn’t tuna at all but a deep water fish, also known as Butterfish.  It seems the wax esters (similar to omega fatty acids) it contains can have negative effects on some people (not me) if eaten in large amounts but a few slices of sushi shouldn’t do anyone any harm. Here’s the debate on Chowhound.

I thought all the sushi was generally ok, except the sea bream was still partly frozen and soya sauce wasn’t Kikkoman (pretty essential) and the waiters had no idea of how much wasabi to put in the dipping dish. It was nice enough (C+) and fulfilled my craving but I wouldn’t have it here again.

I also love bean curd so I also incongruously ordered the ‘house special’ of braised tofu but sadly this wasn’t special at all when it arrived (C-). Eight thick slabs of overcooked tofu in a meaty sauce which looked nothing like the picture in the menu (a common problem in China). At the bottom of each page there is the disclaimer “the real dish is up to the cuisine, the picture is only a sample” which translated into Yorkshire means “tha’ll get what tha’s given and effin well like it”. There was little to no chance of being given a clip round the ear here though so I pushed it to one side.

To finish I had an order of six piping-hot Portuguese egg custard tarts which I couldn’t fault them too much on (B) except there were too many and I could only manage five, brupp! At 541 RMB (with 3 beers, a bowl of steamed rice and another round of salmon nigirizushi because I like it so much) this was my most expensive meal so far in five weeks of being in China but it was my penultimate night before leaving the country so a treat was in order (any excuse).

I put this place in the advanced category simply because of its sheer size but to be honest the food is nothing special, and fairly expensive. It’s worth going though just for the experience, although you could just walk in, take pictures and leave.

With thanks to John Harrop

Bingsheng (Advanced A), 33 Dongxiao Lu. This is a famous time-honoured restaurant that my friend and work colleague Nicky took me to for a great meal. He knows the manager so bagged us a private room although I wouldn’t have minded sitting in the large modern main room.

While we perused the menu, a couple of appetisers arrived. The first was raw cucumber with a shot glass of soya sauce and wasabi for dipping, a nice combination I hadn’t considered before (B). Less inviting was the beef tripe that came with it but I literally swallowed my inhibitions and got stuck in and it was delicious! It came in a white liquid with small chunks of carrot and giant radish (mooli or daikon) and had a very peppery aftertaste that was very pleasant (B).

Nicky ordered for us, taking into consideration my desire to try the suckling pig which is very famous in Guangzhou. The first taste of little piggy was two squares of fatty pork skin on a gem lettuce leaf with small chunks of pineapple and peach in a white sauce, utterly delicious (A). We also had a dish of two kinds of pork, one which seemed to have been steeped in honey and barbequed (A) and another perhaps grilled and tossed in hoisin sauce (B).

Bean curd (dofu) seems to be a speciality here too with three pages of the menu given over to it. We had the ‘three style bean curd’ which had two slabs each of white, cream and black silk bean curd made from three different kinds of bean in watery soy based sauce and sprinkled with chives, again wonderful (A). We also had some roti-like fried pancakes which seemed Indian in origin to me but are apparently a local dish (B).

On the veg front we had Huai San, a kind of root vegetable paired with mange tout and tossed in a sauce of minced pork, which was interesting but didn’t do much for me (C). Much better was my favourite of stir fried baby pak choi (called something else here) which I just couldn’t stop eating (A). Great food in a great restaurant, go if you can.

Another famous place for roast suckling pig is Datong at 63 Yanjiang Xi Lu (Tel. 8188 8988 or 5933) but Nicky says it’s not as good as it once was. They are also renowned for inventing a dish of crispy chicken skin and have good dim sum in the mornings. The restaurant takes up several floors with great views of the river from the roof top terrace. Another famous dim sum place is Tao Tao at Dishipu Lu.

Guangzhou also features in Episode 4 of the 2012 BBC series about Chinese food; Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure.

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