Friday, October 26, 2012

Mediterranean Food in Shanghai

One of the great things about a city with the size and sophistication of Shanghai is the variety of options--for food, nightlife, shopping, etc.  Being transplant Americans whose hearts reside squarely in the Mediterranean, we immediately got excited when we saw the number of Spanish (and Italian, Greek or more general Mediterranean combos) restaurants here.


The newer brother to the famous El Willy, this restaurant resides in the old El Willy space left behind when it moved up in life to the new Bund location.  We loved its tranquil setting in the Former French Concession with a lovely garden.  On our first trip we had a variety of tapas.  The 5J Iberico jamon did not disappoint, an expensive treat even in Spain but here you really need to love it to pay these prices (and someone nicknamed Ham Tooth in our family does!).  We had delicious crab croquettes and I chowed down on a great crab salad also.  We visited another time to just sit at the bar and munch on the ham and cheese plates.  A little trip down memory lane!

We had to make plans to return for paella when we discovered Elefante is open for lunch.  We had thought about going to El Willy, but they are only open on Saturdays for their set brunch.  The garden at Elefante is really the perfect place for a paella Sunday anyway!  (Of course, we didn't make reservations so we sat at the window looking out at the garden--close enough for now.)  We are admittedly paella snobs.  How could we not be?  We spent almost a year in the Valencia province and put a good deal of research time in to paella.  We spent most Sundays taking in a long, leisurely paella lunch at all the best places in paella's birthplace.  We scoff at the versions we find most places outside of Spain--and inside of Spain for that matter (sometimes even in Valencia)! 

So, what was the verdict on Elefante's paella?  Yum!  (That's a valid description, right?)  The seafood paella had all the right elements and that perfect taste.  It could have used a bit more soccarat (the "crunchies") but people often mistake that for burnt or overcooked when they don't know good paella, so we don't blame the chef for avoiding it.  It did leave the delicious oil residue on the plate and two very pleased, full bellies.  I started with a worthy companion...a burrata cheese salad (Elefante is the more varied Mediterranean restaurant versus the more strictly Spanish El Willy).  Cheese really is the most heavenly food, is it not?

As you can tell, we will be revisiting Elefante on a regular basis!

Mercato at Three on the Bund

Three on the Bund, a building at that address, contains a variety of restaurants and other spaces--everything from an art area to an Armani store and several restaurants and bars.  Mercato is the newest concept, a Mediterranean restaurant/lounge centered around a pizza oven.  The concept is shared plates of fresh food, with a big focus on the pizza oven and seafood roasted in the same oven.
The uber cool dining room (note the waiter who stopped midtracks when he saw my (what I thought was subtle--no flash with my phone) picture taking to make sure he didn't get in the way--it is that kind of service.
There were two walls of wine coolers!  I resisted taking pictures of the beautiful bathrooms...
I wanted to move in to the space--they have managed to create a space that competes with the views.  It is cozy and yet refined--the kind of apartment I'd like to have but would never be cool enough (heck, I probably wasn't cool enough to be here).  There is a bar and lounge area when you first enter, followed by the pizza bar with seating all around it and more typical restaurant seating, with many tables enjoying the amazing Bund views of the Pudong skyline.
The pizza oven
We were fortunate to get a seat at the pizza bar with no reservation.  It was fun to watch the perfectionism of the pizza makers--I have never seen such concentration on stretching the dough.  They had such an efficient operation with each person managing their tasks and no one coming close to getting burned by one of the hot pizzas on the long pole.  The service was superb--one of those places where you have to be careful about drinking your wine down too much as they're always there to refill it when your glass starts to get low.
A really tasty Ribera crianza
We started with an Italian salad with fennel and figs--super fresh and tasty.  From the roasted category, we went for the mussels.  Even though you can get a lot of mussels prepared with the typical garlic, aromatics, olive oil and chopped tomatoes, they all manage to be a little different.  These were stellar.  The roasting brings the flavors together just right and there was just a small kick too--making for a sauce you just had to "sop".  Our next dish was lobster ravioli--again quite tasty, and somewhat unique.  They seemed to have a bit of an Asian twist, with no sauce and a wrapper that had a bit of a wonton feel.  They were covered with fresh herbs and a bit of lemon, which kept them nice and light.  It was a bit of a departure from what we were expecting, but there was not a crumb left.  To wrap it all up, the dessert list was too tempting to resist.  We tried the hazelnut/coffee concoction.  It was listed as a hazlenut panna cotta with a coffee gelee and hazelnut chocolate crumbles.  That pretty much describes it, but doesn't really do it justice.  The flavors came together perfectly when you placed a little bit of the crumble with the rest and it was a relatively light but delicious ending to the meal.

We went upstairs to check out the views at the HOW (House Organic Wine) Bar and New Horizons.  HOW was a cozy little wine bar, with a small outside area/view, but New Horizons is the place to go for the view.  The front bar was unfortunately closed for a private party, but we'll definitely return for a bite or cocktail some time.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Daily Life in Shanghai

The skyline view from our balcony

Shanghai is a wild and wonderful city in which to live.  There is so much to say about China in general and Shanghai specifically.  So, I thought it might be easiest to start with a few daily observations--the "givens" of any day in Shanghai, which might help formulate an impression--something I couldn't even conjure up before I arrived.

The traffic: I could not have really pictured the city at all before arriving.  I was thinking New York on a massive scale and pictured bumper-to-bumper cars packed within skyscrapers and people bustling about on the streets.  But, car traffic is limited in Shanghai, so it is not the sheer number of cars that make up the "traffic" of the city.  It is the mad mix of bikes, pedestrians, bikes and carts with all sorts of loads on the back, electric bikes, scooters...all going in different directions with seemingly few traffic rules.

If you live by European or even American pedestrian standards, you won't be around very long.  You learn to become adept at the fine sport of walking--it is not a leisurely activity.  But, it keeps your senses sharp...especially when an electric bike with no lights whizzes by you at night, or you're strolling along the sidewalk when a loud honk sounds in your ear from a scooter about to overtake you.  But, if this guy can do it, I can too:

Hard to see but he was the tiniest, slowest pedestrian who crossed right in front of a large bus and then went diagonally across on of the largest intersections, casually strolling with his market purchases.
And, while the car traffic seems much less than in many other big cities in the world, you couldn't tell it from the noise.  The horn is a must for every occasion, or no occasion at all.  
The zebra stripes?  Meaning (if any): pedestrians, watch out!
I love watching how people have adapted and prepared for all of the variables getting around via open air vehicles.  Many motorcyclists have special padded hand/arm protectors and all sorts of baskets and carts have been fitted to bikes.  Delivery persons ride bike carts carrying everything from large loads of laundry (read: the sheets and towels of an entire neighborhood) to building supplies.  Women and men hold toddlers on their laps on scooters (I saw a Dad yesterday with a toddler in front of him holding on to his baby brother-wow!).  When it rains, bikers break out their rain suits or large ponchos designed to fit entirely over them and the handlebars.
The variety: I only have to step outside my apartment complex to immediately be surrounded by the commerce of a massive city managing the lives of some 20 million people.  In the streets surrounding home, we have a massive grocery/all purpose store that even provides its own private buses to bring people from around the city.  The side streets are filled with delicious (and not so-have you ever smelled stinky tofu?) smells of street food and noodle shops.  There are convenience stores everywhere, along with minuscule shops specializing in everything from mops to extension cords to towels.  Most of these also function as social gathering spots for meal times and Mahjong games and I love strolling past at dinner time to see the families sitting on small tables outside having their rice or noodles.

Our neighborhood is part of the ancient city that once was all of Shanghai--small alleys full of tiny shops and old homes.  Private living is very public--so the lanes are filled with laundry in every space, people using the common sinks, meals enjoyed on sidewalks and all manner of daily life.  While the style of living is changing, it remains ever-present in our neighborhood and many others.  Our neighbor recently had a visitor who commented on her surprise at seeing the old homes and low-rise communities in the midst of the skyscrapers.  Here you find modern and sleek aside tiny and ancient.  We can take one metro stop or short walk and visit shops I cannot afford.  Gorgeous high end stores line the large shopping street around the corner from the tiny maze of lane houses.  The city is a study in contrast.  It is certainly thought-provoking as a newbie (a much more daily, in-your-face reminder of this gap, which exists everywhere but is often segregated, nicely air brushed over or simply not so extreme in close proximity).

Just up the street from our home:  the Lamborghini store, next to Rolls Royce.
I honestly had no idea what to expect of China and was woefully ignorant.  I still consider myself woefully ignorant.  And, I have only been in what I know of this vast country is nothing.  But, I am slowly taking it in and trying to learn as much as possible...and enjoy the positives.  As with any big city, but more so here, it can be an assault on the senses that wears you down at times.  Things are crowded, air quality can be very poor and the noise is constant.  I can see the need for a week on a beach in Bali.  But, for now, we are enjoying the urban lifestyle and excitement.  In addition to what I described above which I enjoy being part of every day, here are a few of my favorite pleasant surprises of Shanghai:

  1. The "international-ness" which means you can get products from anywhere, albeit for a price, and can meet people from all corners of the world.  There is a long (shady) history of foreigners in Shanghai and it remains a magnet for expats--so you can always get your fix of native English speakers or junk food from back home.  I did expect this somewhat, but after living in Europe, it amazes me that I can find so many more things so much more easily here.  We didn't miss much in Spain from home, but I'll never forget my surprise when I saw Jif peanut butter at the local market here (we had to go to the "American store" and pay through the nose if we got a peanut butter craving in Spain).  And, there is much better Spanish, French and Italian cuisine thus far here than we can find in the U.S.  Of course, we are in Shanghai and my point of reference is living in much smaller cities in the U.S.
  2. Delivery!  Really--everything is available to be delivered to you here, for nothing or next to nothing.  We can get: organic food/groceries, restaurant meals from hundreds of places, beverages and ice, large water bottles for the water machine (in 2 minutes, directly from our apartment management office), dry cleaning, bagels and homemade cream cheese (delicious, New York-worthy), cookies, cupcakes....too much to list...
  3. The Chinese food.  Ok-this might be stupid to list but then again I did have someone ask me "Is the Chinese food better there?"  I feel like I've been cheated my whole life by what has been passing for Chinese food at home.  Again, I say this not having lived in New York or San Francisco, where I know legitimate options exist (and I know there is plenty of bad food here too).  But, this has been a wonderful surprise for someone who never listed this high on my favorite cuisines.  I am now a proud dumpling addict and seek out noodles as my new favorite comfort food.  I'm just getting started trying all the different regional cuisines and dishes.  Expect many more posts and pictures on this topic!
For others who have been expats or traveled long-term, you can probably relate to one truism which can be a positive or negative, depending on the day.  Daily life becomes an adventure and the simple tasks become accomplishments.  This is very "in your face" in China, where our cultures are so far apart and we have absolutely no language skills (yet)-meaning things can feel either more discouraging or more fulfilling, again depending on the day (and attitude).  When we open our bank account successfully, complet our residency "health check", or get (what we think is) a bargain, we practically "high five" each other!  (Which reminds me, I may have to add bargaining to the list above--expected to hate it and have found out just how addicting it can be!)

I've gotten a lot of questions about life and customs here and will be glad to answer what I can (especially as I learn more).  I have also read some wonderful books about both Shanghai and China, in a small attempt to gain some knowledge and understanding, and I'm glad to recommend some to anyone who is interested.  I heard a lot about China on the news before coming, but never really had a clue...and still don't, but I'm enjoying learning.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Culture Overload: Museums in Valencia

Living in the old city of Valencia, the neighborhood is a living museum.  Walking out my door, I see historic buildings, beautiful churches, crazy street art.  Within minutes, I can be at the Modernist Mercado Central (yum!), the gothic Lonja de Seda and the Cathedral and Michalet Tower.  I can take a stroll through the Turia (a former river, now a beautiful park) and view the extremely modern buildings that make up the City of Arts and Sciences.  We are situated between two towers  (Torres Serrano and Torres de Quart) from the old city walls, which I can climb for a magnificent view of the city's rooftops (free on Sundays!).

In addition to the living museum that is the city, Valencia is full of wonderful museums.  With their ever-changing exhibits in addition to the art galleries and other events constantly going on in the city, I experience bouts of "cultural guilt" when I just want to indulge in the popular Spanish past-times of relaxing or lingering over a long lunch followed by siesta.  However, just walking to lunch can be an artistic journey, through beautiful buildings and amazing graffiti works.

 Here are just a few of the museums I enjoyed visiting:

The Museum of Prehistory and Valencia Ethnology Museum

I was so impressed by this "two for one" museum (ethnology museum in one side of the building, prehistory in the other).  Both are housed in the former Casa de Beneficencia right next to the IVAM modern art museum in The Carmen neighborhood.

The ethnology museum provides great context to the people and life in the Valencia province.   It is beautifully done and includes little information sheets in various languages so you can interpret the exhibits.  The prehistory museum is a poignant reminder of the deep, long history of Spain.  Is is dedicated to the archaeological heritage of the area and spans from the first inhabitants through the bronze age to the Roman world.  I particularly enjoyed the section on Iberian writing as well as the money display between the two museums (on par with the British Museum's exhibit).

I'm not sure this museum would be as interesting to someone visiting Valencia for the first time, but it should be appealing to almost anyone with how well done it is and wonderful for history buffs or anyone with a great interest in the area.

MUVIM (Museo Valenciano de la Illustracion y la Modernidad)

So, this was actually my second trip here (one of the great things about most of these museums is the ever-changing exhibits).  They've recently had a breathtaking African photo exhibit and a traveling jewelry exhibition.  Currently, they have quite apt futbol exhibits in light of all the excitement over the EuroCup championship.  I really enjoyed Cathedrals of Football and Football and Identity.

The permanent exhibit here is quite unique and more an experience than an exhibit.  It is called the Adventure in Thinking.  You tour it as a group at set times--they have regular tours in English but you need to find out the times and plan ahead.  I don't think it is really possibly to describe, but the concept is bringing you through the evolution of man and our relationship with the world around us as we developed science and philosophy and different ways of understanding our world.  Towards the end it can feel quite grim as you ponder some of the horrible things done in and to the world and think about where the future might be leading.  It was a truly unique experience.  The only part we found odd was when there is a brief "break" in a parlor where they give you some chocolates (that part was great!), but you just sit there for quite a while as they tour guide sits and reads a book (it kind of replicates a Victorian parlor and I guess this helps time the next stage and might be needed for larger groups).  I'd highly recommend checking this out, I think I'd like to go back and see it again to further "digest" it all.

Museo de Bellas Artes

Bellas Artes Museum

The fine art museum has some great Spanish classics, particularly from the Valencia school.  While it is no Prado, there are some real gems here which you can enjoy in a short time (unlike the Prado which I feel I have barely touched upon in two visits).  The building was used as the Convento del Carmen but has been added on to in order to house the museum and related offices.  There is a wonderful park adjacent as well, and the museum is just off the Turia, on the opposite side of the old city.  I particularly enjoyed the Sorolla paintings.

Valencia has so much to offer for all tastes, but don't miss some of the wonderful museums as well as some dedicated time to strolling to see the living art of the streets.  The best days can be spent wandering, getting lost in the old city and discovering.  Within Barrio Carmen there are small museums and historic buildings around every corner.  You just need a lot of extra time to look around, take photos and take things in at a Spanish pace...