First night -- score!
It is one loooonnngg flight from Chicago to Shanghai -- more than 14 hours. And since we essentially fly with the sun, it never gets dark. We step into a time machine at noon on July 28 and step off an hour and 40 minutes later, on July 29. A day gone, with an eternity sitting in a darkened cabin in between.
So we are here and the Hotel PuLi is a tranquil oasis is a bustling city. But I have to say, the portions of the city we have seen so far are lovely. New York and Paris combined, on steroids, and much of it brand spanking new. The energy is impressive. And we have only seen the upscale blocks around the hotel. Hope we get a peak at the industrial heart.
Got in late enough that we had time to shower, bathe, and catch our breaths before dinner at a Hunanese place a couple of blocks stroll away, recommended by the hotel.
Score! Guyi Hunan was a perfect choice. We were just about the only westerners in there which was an excellent sign. Also they spoke zero English, another excellent, if inconvenient, indication that we were in the right place.
Initial service took a while. I think they were drawing straws to see who would be stuck with us. But once we ordered the food appeared on the table as if dispatched by magic wand.
And it was fabulous. The first to arrive was the only thing we didn't love. Sweet and sour vermicelli was the least vermicelli thing I have ever seen. Thick strips of dense chilled rice noodle -- too heavy to be penetrated by the otherwise very good chili oil it was bathed in -- so that each bite was icy cold, gelatinous, chewy and spicy hot. Not a good combo.
BUT -- everything else was fab. Cold roast eggplant in chili oil, brought to the table in a mortar and crushed to release the chili heat. A plate of green onion pies -- fantastic light and crispy versions of the doughy scallion pancake we can find at home. A wok pot of vegetables filled with crunchy cabbage, exotic mushrooms, tofu skins, and hot, hot red chilies. Zowie!
The meat eaters had some cumin crusted pork ribs for which the place is famous. They weren't pretty but we didn't have to look at them long -- they disappeared in a flash. A wok pot of chicken and honest to goodness fresh and crisp bamboo shoots. None of that canned watery crap that shows up at home. A dish of duck with Chinese long beans and scallion. And a homey rice dish with chopped veg and preserved pork.
All of it was spicy hot, subtle, and complex. Really good. Not, as one our friends pointed out, the kind of throw away first night meal you have in a new city before you know what you are really doing. Plus it was less than 100 bucks for all that food, three GIANT BEERS and a large Pellegrino for me!
Kudos to the PuLi concierge for the rec and kudos to us for having the good sense to ask.
Then a short humid stroll back to the hotel and, for me, anyway, a satisfying but brief sleep before waking up at 3 am. This morning at 9 we are met by a guide and a driver for a day of touring, starting with dumplings for breakfast. Yay!
More to come.
Last night's blogging experience was so grueling (thank you, Typepad) that I hesitate to try again. At any rate, I'll keep it short. Great day, perfect weather, fab breakfast, a little shopping ( and a gorgeous new dress to wear to dinner tomorrow), a long trek to a Parisian rock shop and some fun finds, and good Italian for dinner.
There, does that make up for last night's babbling?
There are places I remember and ache to go back to when I am not there. Paris is one of them. With a 60th birthday approaching in a couple of days, there is no where I'd rather be.
I've tried to write before about what it is that makes Paris capture this New York girl's soul completely, in a way my own city never has. I am not particularly literary or intellectual. I am not a shopper in any way that would do justice to what Paris has to offer. I am an eater, to be sure, and I visit Paris with a mouth wide open, but that's not all of it.
Really, I think it's that Paris taps into a romanticism that I come by honestly, having had two parents who both believed in sappy (oops, I mean, happy) endings, final redemptions, and soulful connections (although not, alas, with each other.)
Paris is a city of the heart. When you walk the streets, stand on the bridges, gaze into the river, sit in the cafes or wander the parks, you feel all the weighty emotion of the human spirits who have inhabited the city for centuries and in a way, still do. If ever a place were haunted, it is this one. The ghosts don't seem to be unhappy, although some have every reason to be; they are just here.
We always stay at the Relais St. Germaine. We came for the food -- Yves Camdeborde made good his escape from the Michelin star chasing atmosphere of competitive cooking and opened Le Comptoir, a teensy dining room whose food is just about perfect. Your best shot at eating that food is to stay here, so we do. As a bonus, only hotel guests get the breakfast that is included in the room rate -- perfect croissants, crusty baguette, fabulously sourced egg and yogurt, fresh squeezed orange juice, amazing ham and cheese like nothing on earth. That alone is worth the price of the room.
But if we came for the food, we've stayed for the wonderful welcome, the coziest beamed rooms with the loveliest antiques, the most comfortable beds on which to lay a jet-lagged body. And the ghosts. Stitched together from existing townhouses, the Relais has seen a lot of living. I don't want to know its story, I'd rather imagine it and hear it from the ghosts who soothe me to sleep on wakeful nights.
I know why I love Paris so much. In a very real sense it is coming home. I think I must be one of the ghosts myself, revisiting a life once lived, long ago.
I told you. Sappy. And maybe a tad melodramatic to boot. It's in the genes. What can I tell you?
So here we are at the end of day two. It's way after midnight and Jerry is snoring. I, having succumbed to an ill-advised late afternoon nap, am wide awake. I did Sunday's NYT crossword. There's nothing left but blogging.
We've had a luscious two days. Lunch yesterday at Le Comptoir. Hotel guests get to skip to the front of a very long line that forms midday. We sat outside and people watched. I started with radishes in a puree of radish and mustards greens sprinkled with unsweetened cocoa crumbs so it looked like the radishes were poking out of the earth. Weird as can be, but really good. Had an assisted des legumes to follow -- every good vegetable in the world, braised and held together with orange zest and pickled garlic. Jer had oeufs mayonnaise (a little redundant but superb) and the best damn brandade de morue I've ever had. Usually I order it but we decided to switch things up. Afterward we strolled across the street and got 4 miniature koignettes (small versions of the Breton koign amman, a buttery, caramel my pastry that has to be tasted to be believed. By bedtime all 4 were gone.
Today was middle eastern day. By an odd coincidence the copy editor who has seen us through four editions of the textbook but whom we have never met was in town with her family. Facebook can be really handy for things like this. We took them to L'As de Falafel for lunch so I could get my fix. It had been a long time -- when we were here last I was too sick to go. It's still great and they still won't give me the secret recipe for their Harissa. Damn it.
Amy and her family were delightful and lunch was a total pleasure. When we left Jerry and I strolled around for a bit and ended up back at the hotel where I was jumped by a nap attack and out for hours. I woke up in time to eat again, however, and because I can never get enough middle eastern food we went to a local Lebanese place for a meze platter and a man'ouché (grilled flatbread wrap) -- mine had haloumi (firm, salty cheese, excellent for grilling) with vegetables. Jer's had a spicy meat filling.
Walked on back through the late dusk, listening to street music and looking for an ice cream shop that wasn't jammed. Found one on the rue de Seine -- had a scoop of apricot with bits if dried apricots in it to give it an intense flavor, and salted caramel. The combination was magic.
Cross posted from dcbrocks.com.
Have you ever taken a walk on the beach and not gone home with your pocket jingling with stones and shells? Gone hiking in the hills and not found an interesting piece of rock that ended up in your backpack? Visited a faraway country and not been tempted to bring a tiny piece of it home?
I call those memory rocks -- stones (or shells, or fossils or beach glass, or the odd piece of something-or-other) that I pick up on my travels. I often come back from a trip with a sack full of rocks -- a habit I got from my mom.
(I'll never forget seeing her through airport security once after a trip to Scotland. My beautiful, delicate-looking, elderly mom -- hardly terrorist material -- was pulled over and her heavy carry-on bag searched because the scanner couldn't determine what was in it. I stifled a smile because I knew what they would find. Rocks. Just rocks that had appealed to her and that she had packed up as a way of taking a bit of an amazing vacation home with her.)
I think of my mom when I make jewelry out of memory rocks. In fact, the first memory rock ring I made was from a Lake Michigan beach stone, smoothed by sand and waves, that I picked up on a walk along the beach where her ashes were scattered. That's a ring I cherish and it fills me with warmth and joy to wear it. She'd have wanted one too, because it's a piece of the beach she'd loved all her life.
My earliest memory rock jewelry came from that same beach, where as kids we'd collect what we called, without a hint of political correctness, "Indian beads:" crinoid fossils, millions of years old, that I would string into bracelets with bits of beach glass. In the cold days of a New York winter they brought back the sun and sand and good times of a happy vacation. Memory rocks.
Almost all my personal jewelry has some sentimental (in the best sense of the word) connection to me. When we lost a beloved dog I wanted a physical way to keep her near my heart. I contacted the phenomenal Jennifer Dawes of Dawes Design and asked her to make me a "dog tag" with an engraved name and a small sapphire slice to honor every one of our pets, past and present. Those are memory rocks too, though of a different sort. I wear that gorgeous necklace almost every day.
Before I started designing jewelry (and still, for that matter) I was a food writer and I tend to see the world on a plate. Memory rocks are the comfort food of the mineral world, something that has the power to warm our hearts and send us home no matter where we are.
If you have a memory rock that means something special to you and you'd like to have it made into a pendant or a ring (or a key chain, for that matter) -- something you can hang on to and savor, send me an email and a picture and we can discuss it. There are some rocks that just don't work as jewelry (and I've learned that it's wise to listen to the rock!) but let's see! There's nothing more satisfying than turning the best trip of your life into a bit of wearable art.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 24, 2015 by Christine Barbour
Cruising out of Vienna at midnight -- lights fading in the distance, dancing on the water, air cold and clean, (yes, we have the balcony open so we can stretch out and see the city go by.) Vienna was lovely -- graceful and gracious. And cold to the bone with a damp chill that hurts your toes and frosts your ears.
We toured around in the morning (the Amawaterways European tour guides to date are nowhere near the class of the Vietnamese and Cambodians we met this summer, by the way.) Then we visited some Christmas markets but it was cold (did I mention that?) so we went for a coffee and a strudel. The real thing, and boy was it good. I've seen pictures of how they make that flaky pastry but this was light and crisp and filled with apple and spice and swimming in custard.
They say you can hang around in a Viennese coffee house for three hours and no one cares but we had lunch reservations and could not put it to the test.
Le Ceil is in the Grand Hotel Wien -- the lobby so beautiful and unfortunately smoke-filled. But the restaurant was beautiful and the food was really special.
Been in Budapest two whole days and starting to adjust to the time difference. We board the riverboat today and spend a week winding our way to Nuremberg, and then to Prague. If it's anything like the last couple of cruises it will be great. Plus -- Christmas markets!! I can't wait.
So far my view of Budapest looks mostly like outdoor markets and crowded bead shops, with a touch of leftover soviet style architecture. It gets dark around 4 pm and then it smells like grilling meats and mulled wine in cold crisp air. There are worse things, I suppose.
And although we haven't ventured into the lavish and enticing world of street food yet, there have definitely been some culinary high points. My lunch
Thursday featured lecso, which is billed as a Hungarian ratatouille.
It's really an injustice to both lecso and ratatouille to call it that. Ratatouille is the concentrated essence of summer. Lecso in November is a very nice pepperonata. Excellent in its way but not so sun-filled.
While I mopped up the buttery, peppery sauce my dining companions were eating barbecued ribs and "traditional" Hungarian fried chicken. And no,
we didn't detour through. Nashville. It was all great.
Oh, and strudel!
Dinner that night was Italian and the only must-mention was the most fabulous, light, creamy, not-too-sweet "cheesecake" I have ever had. More like a panna cotta with cheese and cream. The waiter said it was unforgettable and he may be right -- and I don't as a rule love cheese cake.
I got something that can loosely be construed as a recipe. Let's see if Its unforgettable enough that I can remember how to make it when I get home.
The food highlight of the trip so far, for me, anyway, was dinner last night at Aszu. It was just across the park from the Meridien -- a quick stroll past the really lovely Ferris wheel. The place was lovely. Soft music from violins and something that looked
like a xylophone on steroids but I am sure was more sophisticated than that. Decorative mirrors (meaning they opened up the room but you didn't actually have to watch yourself chewing) and gorgeous chandeliers. The smelly cigarette smokers next to us were a small price to pay for a lovely ambiance and at least they had to go outside into the frigid air to indulge.
The first sign of good things to come was the amuse bouche -- a concentrated mouthful of caramelized onion that as our friend said, tasted just like onion soup without the soup.
and our friend had pork tenderloin with potato croquettes that tasted more like crispy bread stuffing, and some
fabulous and silky kohlrabi purée. A few vinegary tart cherries stopped the whole thing from being too rich.
Everyone in Saigon still calls it "Saigon." So much more melodic and fitting than the clunky "Ho Chi Minh City."
You can really tell the French had a hand in this place. Wide boulevards, lots of green space -- an open and pretty city filled incongruously with billions and billions of crazed and overloaded motorbikes. (Really, it feels like billions.) Quite an experience.
We are tired at the point of the trip so we spent our time in the city shopping more than learning. By now we are almost numb to the details of the war, if that is possible. We saw Reunification Hall, heard the story from a South Vietnamese perspective of the American effort to disentangle itself from the conflict it had long supported, and learned about the
double whammy of becoming a suddenly socialist economy while suffering the withdrawal of the huge numbers of dollars the American soldiers spent on a daily basis. It was devastating. I am fascinated by the fact that these guys don't hate us.
We did do some excellent shopping here (doing our bit to put American dollars back into the economy. 😏) and had a couple of great meals with good new friends we made on the cruise.
Two nights ago we went to the Deck, just out of the central city, and sat by the Saigon River sheltered (mostly) from the rain. Had some great lemongrass-crusted tofu and fabulous spicy eggplant (!) on steamed rice. OUTSTANDING lime trickle cake with mascarpone. Why have I never heard of trickle cake before??
Last night we went around the corner of the Sheraton to a truly fantastic place called Xu. Kind of an old meets new Vietnam cuisine it was just delicious -- probably the best meal of the whole trip.
I started with first class vegetable spring rolls -- crisp and intriguingly spiced with a wonderful shredded vegetable salad. Jerry had a trio of spring rolls -- I only tasted the prawns, but yum! For an entree I had chili prawns on papaya pomelo salad -- an even better version of the Thai dish I had a couple of weeks ago. Sweet, citrusy and very spicy. Jer had pork belly braised in coconut milk (seriously!) and our friend Phyllis had chunks of sea bass skewered on lemongrass. All fab. Desert was tiny bites for a dollar or so served in Chinese spoons. Skipped the durian tiramisu.
At the end the maître d' came by with some small cubes of puffed rice that had been cooled in liquid nitrogen. He gave one to Jerry, had him warm it briefly in his hands and pop it into his mouth and chew. Immediately what appeared to be smoke poured out his nostrils -- he looked like a totally startled dragon. We all tried it and it was a hoot. Not at all tasty but very fun.
Said goodbye to our cruise friends last night (funny how you can connect with people over the course of a couple of weeks!) and got up early this morning for our flight to Bangkok.
Arrived starving. Had lunch at a small, homely cafe around the corner from the Sheraton we are staying at on the river. Honestly, this little place was nothing special or fancy and the food was LOVELY. We split some corn fritters that were crunchy and corny and not greasy at all. I had a spicy prawn and pomelo salad that was amazing. Sticky sweet and hot as fire, full of fresh herbs and tangy citrus. How do they do that? I have had a version of that salad four times now on this trip (counting last night) -- each exquisite in its own way. Where am I going to get pomelos at home?
Jerry had a really good green papaya salad with prawns, and then we had curry -- mussamen beef for him, green tofu for me. It should come as a surprise to no one that we waddled back to the hotel and crashed. Thinking dinner might be something VERY light from room service.
One more day left of this amazing trip.