OUR SHANGHAI TRIP
Shortly after we returned back to China from our trip back home, Samuel had to jet off to Germany. Originally, I was supposed to tag along, but I couldn't fly another 20 hours for the life of me. The flight to New Jersey took my back pain to another level and I'm seriously nervous about the long flights ahead when we finally leave China in July. So instead of spending a week all alone in our apartment, my sweet mother flew all the way over from San Francisco to keep me company.
Samuel and I are staying in a smaller town in China, Wuhan, and there isn't much to do here. The city conditions are poor (more about that later in another post), and since my mom had visited us before, she had no interest in staying in Wuhan for a week. She wanted to visit some place close by, be it Japan or Taiwan or Shanghai. She decided on Shanghai -- neither of us had been there before. Even though Shanghai was on my travel bucket list, it wasn't high up there with Spain or Thailand. Nonetheless, I was excited to get out of Wuhan. In total honesty, I was not extremely thrilled about the trip. Perhaps it was because I was so fed up with the sanitary conditions and the people that I deal with here that I expected the same thing in Shanghai. Boy, was I wrong -- thankfully! My mom and I enjoyed Shanghai very much! She has plans to go back with me at least once more before we move back home. I'd like to take Samuel to see it, too.
I don't even know where to begin to explain what Shanghai is like. To me, it's kind of like Hong Kong, which you all know I love. Shanghai is a world's difference from Wuhan. It's significantly cleaner and nicer. Sure, there were a few things that made me do a double take, but it's important to remember that as far as a city in China goes, Shanghai is very impressive. One thing that is consistent in all of my favorite cities is the mix of old and new, with different cultures and eras blending together. Shanghai has some European influences -- have you seen the Concession Era buildings on the Bund? I totally could've mistaken it for London! And tucked in between high rises and in little alleys, you can still find those charming old Shanghai streets. There are temples and gardens built in the classical Chinese styles, too. There was so much to see and too little time!
Oh, and don't even get me started on the food! We were basically eating non-stop on this trip. Shanghai is home to some pretty amazing restaurants and boasts an impressive number of Michelin-starred spots. And from what I've heard, their street food is quite impressive, too. I can't attest to that because we steer clear of street food due to dietary restrictions and my weird cleanliness standards.
Anyway, enough of me babbling. Here is a breakdown of our three days in Shanghai:
We landed in Shanghai at around 1 PM and rushed over to our hotel to drop off our bags. After a quick chat with concierge (this trip was so spontaneous, I had no time to plan or research anything), we took a taxi over to Vegetarian Lifestyle for some vegetarian Chinese food right off Huaihai Road, which happens to be a major shopping district. Ooops! Fortunately, no damage was done. Before we knew it, our dinner reservations were soon approaching. We ran around trying to find a taxi (turns out they can't stop at yellow curbs, hence the difficulty), and eventually found one to take us over to The Bund.
We watched the sun set on the waterfront and then headed up to our dinner spot, Mercato. Before I continue any further, you should know that I'm not easily impressed with a lot of food. Everything that we ordered at Mercato was excellent. I don't know if it was because I hadn't had much Italian food lately or what. I can tell you that I wasn't starving, yet still enjoyed every single bite. I think that's a mark of a fabulous meal. We ordered the margherita pizza, the house made linguine chili aglio e olio with tiger prawns, and their wood-fired grilled prawns, all of which were phenomenal. For dessert, we shared the salted caramel gelato sundae with candied peanuts and popcorn -- absolutely delectable! I'm talking so much about their food that I almost forgot to mention the cozy interior. Mercato had the homiest rustic chic interior -- think lots of brick, wood, and metals. But perhaps the best part was the incredible view it had of The Bund -- talk about dinner and a view!
After a 3 hour dinner, I was not ready to retreat, though I couldn't say the same for my mom. I wanted to take her to the Starbucks Roastery that she had been going on and on about. We ran up and down the street for about 30 minutes looking for a ride, only to either be quoted a sky-high fare or turned down flat, that we just wanted to head back to the hotel. Good thing, though, because had we successfully gotten a car, Starbucks would've been closed by the time we arrived. Not so great? The taxi drivers were literally scamming tourists, and since my mom and I did not familiarize ourselves with where our hotel was located, we paid 50 RMB to be driven around the block back to our hotel. You live and you learn, I guess.
We headed out bright and early to check out Nanjing Street, which plenty of people told us to visit. I don't understand the hype -- it's literally a long pedestrian street with stores on both sides. Nothing spectacular, and definitely not a great place to souvenir shop, as I discovered. We walked the entire length East Nanjing Street, were unimpressed, and decided to walk over to Masala Art for lunch. What was supposed to be a short stroll ended up being a 30 minute walk and we were beat when we arrived. After catching our breaths, we ordered some curry prawns, aloo gobi (my favorite!), garlic and plain naan, poppadoms, and mango lassis because we deserved it after all that walking! I'm happy to report that it was another excellent meal. The curries were drier, almost as if they were baked or pan fried, less saucy than typical curries, but nonetheless equally as delicious. They also used more onions and even some bell peppers, which added a unique taste. If you're a fan of Indian cuisine, I'd recommend you stop by for lunch. It's right across the street from a massage parlor that we wanted to visit (but eventually got sidetracked) and only a few blocks away from the Starbucks Roastery.
And if you love shopping and coffee, you’re in for a treat. The gorgeous Starbucks neighbors a cute outdoor shopping plaza which leads into a shopping mall. But the Starbucks alone is worth a visit. My mom’s eyes literally lit up when we entered. This was no ordinary Starbucks, unless your local store has a doorman. Once we entered, we were hit with coffee aromas and loud chatter. We made our way past the chocolate shelf(!) into the gift shop(!!) and settled down by the in-store bakery(!!!). While my mom watched the baristas roast beans from afar, I checked out the rest of the two-story landmark. Downstairs was very coffee-centric, with all the main roasting action and the coffee companion treats. Upstairs housed the Teavanna section, complete with a tea bar. There was also an actual bar serving alcoholic coffee drinks. There was something for everyone.
The seating was a bit chaotic though. They had waitstaff ready to help seat you and take your order, but given the volume of people, the mess was to be expected. My mom and I snagged a seat by the upstairs roasting action, and since we had just finished a finger-licking meal, we didn’t have much room for anything other than a drink. We ended up both ordering butterscotch lattes. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I was not impressed. The espresso barely came through past the saltiness of the butterscotch. It tasted like the coffee I once made my dad when I was in middle school when I accidentally put in salt instead of sugar and then added sugar to mask the salt. Not great and definitely not worth the price, and I wish I’d just gone with a classic latte. We sat around a little while longer to rest our feet and to watch some more coffee beans get roasted. After we had our fill of all things coffee, we hopped outside to check out some stores, but to my dismay, left empty-handed.
Not sure what to do next, we caught a cab back to The Bund to indulge in some Japanese food. Our concierge did a fantastic job picking out restaurants for us. Since this trip was so spontaneous, I had no time to plan out activities and restaurants. So we just went with the flow, and we were satisfied with all but one meal while in Shanghai, which is a pretty great track record. Sun with Aqua was another unexpectedly wonderful meal. They sat us at a table by the window with a direct view of the sparkling skyline. If there's one thing you do, it's eat at one of the restaurants on The Bund because you seriously can't beat the view. For the second time, my mom and I weren't even hungry when we sat down. We just wanted a light and leisurely meal, and that's exactly what we got. We ordered several small dishes to share, like agedashi tofu, tempura prawns, chawanmushi, teriyaki unagi don, grilled cod, and some king salmon sushi. While my mom worked on her favorites (the steamed egg, unagi, and cod), I dove right into the agedashi tofu. It was the airiest agedashi tofu I'd ever had. If you've never had agedashi tofu before, it's essentially tofu that's lightly fried and served with some dashi broth. It's a favorite dish of mine and always insanely satisfying despite its simplicity. The tempura prawns were delicious, too, but not all that different than all the other tempura prawns I've had. The star of the show was the king salmon sushi. I ordered it per our waitress's recommendation and it was such a treat. It was not fishy at all and tasted like a buttery piece of goodness. I couldn't stop ordering more, and had we not needed to rush over to the Oriental Pearl Tower, I definitely would've been able to chow down on more of that king salmon sushi.
I found out mid-dinner that the Oriental Peal Tower closed at 9 PM, which was ridiculously early for a big city, so we had to hurry along so we could make it up the tower. Because we went about an hour before closing, we missed the crowds. It was pretty disorganized -- they usher you to a mid-level observation deck and then you're on your own. They had very little staff and signage and we had to figure out how to get to all the other levels that were included in our tickets. The views were cool, but in my opinion, not as breathtaking as the ones from our dinner restaurants. My mom and I both agreed that while it was cool finally getting to go up the tower, it was not worth the hype.
On our last day, we wanted to squeeze in as much as possible, even though we were beat from all the walking the past two days. After brunch, we walked over to the famous Yu Garden. Right outside of the garden, there is a block of old-fashioned buildings that seriously make you question if you've traveled back in time. We didn't spend much time in the garden itself, but next time I'd love to hang around for a bit. It's supposed to have beautiful ponds, greenery, and architecture.
While I was in deep slumber, my still jet-lagged mother, went down to ask all about places we could visit to pick up some unique Shanghai souvenirs and of course, chinoiserie. They suggested the plaza outside of Yu Garden and Tianzifang. Since we didn't find much other than typical tourist souvenirs by Yu Garden, we decided to give Tianzifang a try. It was definitely a lot like what I had dreamt up in my head. What was once old Shikumen-style buildings are now stores. There were lots of beautiful crafts, like finger paintings and 3D paper art that's made right in front of you. I spotted lots of chinoiserie that, had I not only packed a carry-on suitcase, I would've swept up. There were plenty of restaurants, bars, food stalls, and candy shops. My mom and I even did a tea tasting at a local tea shop, something that I've wanted to do since coming to China.
Yes, Tianzifang is probably a tourist trap, but it's one with lots of character. I loved the clash of old and new, and it made for a fun afternoon activity. I believe it's actually located in the French Concession (though I can't be certain -- it's spans a large area), but we didn't know this at the time, so we trekked all the way over to the First National Congress Building looking for the French Concession. The First National Congress Building has a museum that is worth checking out if you want to see where the Communist party first communed. There wasn't much by way of artifacts, but it's free and only takes about 20 minutes.
Before heading in, we stopped by Lady M next door for some crepe cake, which we are both obsessed with. Along that street, you'll find stores, like Lululemon, housed in old historic buildings. Kudos to them for repurposing the site and not tearing it down to make way for new modern buildings. Long story short, we're still not certain if we saw what needed to be seen in the French Concession. I originally thought it was a dedicated block of old architecture versus a neighborhood, but I guess we'll delve deeper next time.
A long day under our belts, we went back to our hotel to clean up, and walked over to Jean-Georges for dinner. I had been looking forward to this meal since my mom told me that the concierge was able to score a reservation. I come from a family of self-proclaimed foodies, and when given the opportunity, we jump at the chance to dine at Michelin-decorated spots. While it would be wonderful if everything that was Michelin-approved was flawless, that's not usually the case. We typically find that 1-star Michelin restaurants are a hit or miss. In the case of Jean-Georges, the food was just average, nothing exceptional, and nothing deserving of a Michelin star. The service, however, was embarrassingly bad. The waitstaff lacked enthusiasm, seemed clueless or mad the entire time, and were sloppy. When we made our reservations, we made sure to tell them about my dietary restrictions. At most restaurants, even your average neighborhood spot, they usually make sure to reiterate it so the message is relayed properly to the kitchen. I knew something was off when nothing was mentioned when we were seated. And call me crazy, but whenever I order a dish, I always make sure to ask if there is any other meat or broth that it's cooked in. Every single time that I asked our waitress this question, she responded with a hasty, "No," without checking with the chefs, as if she knew all the ingredients in every single dish. When my mom or I would get up to go to the restroom, we came back with our napkins exactly how we left it -- no one even came to fold our napkins (which, again, they do even at non-upscale restaurants that we dine at). My mom and I exchanged glances throughout dinner due to the insanely unpleasant service. I thought things would turn around come dessert time because we ordered soufflés, our favorites, but when they only brought out one, we knew things had gone further downhill. When we asked the waiter who took our dessert order if the second one was coming out, he said that he only placed one and told us to wait for the second one to come out. No apology -- he just told us to wait. By then, my mom had lost her appetite, so I had the soufflé all by myself. It was soggy and just so so wrong. The appetizers and entrées that we ordered were average, but I would not recommend dining at this restaurant. Our dinners at Mercato or Sun with Aqua far surpassed Jean-Georges in both food and service. We were bummed that we ended our last night in Shanghai with a disappointing dinner, but as my dad always says, "You never know if it might be your next favorite restaurant until you try it!"
The next morning, we filled up on a big breakfast and headed for the airport.
My mom and I had a fabulous time in Shanghai. I'm so glad that she was finally able to visit after all these years, and that I could go with her. It is a vibrant city with a beautiful mix of Eastern and Western culture. The food, for the most part, was excellent and I haven't stopped talking about it since leaving. Best of all (Samuel's excited about this!), the city is quite English-friendly, which is always nice because while my mom and I can speak some Mandarin, we are in no way considered very fluent, so it's helpful to have something to fall back on.
Have you ever visited Shanghai? I would love to hear some of your recommendations for our next trip!