Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Adventures in Dining

In case you haven't already picked up on this, I'm not averse to trying new things. If I'm feeling fickle, I know I can order chicken just about anywhere and be satisfied. If I'm feeling fine, there's very little I won't eat. During my travels to Malaysia I was told I was one of the few American's they'd ever known to try chicken feet. I assured them I was familiar with po-man's food. I maintain that boiled chicken feet is a dish for those with little else to eat. It shouldn't be considered a delicacy. The foot is literally skin and bone. Whatever meat might exist is hardly worth the effort of parsing through the bones. I did, however, draw the line with the "Spare Parts" hot pot – another soup dish with, well…spare beef parts. By "spare" they mean "the parts that most people won't eat". In this case, I went with "most people".

During my travels to China I've enjoyed dining at several buffets. Buffet dining offers the benefit of letting the diner check out a variety of dishes, picking and choosing at will. All of the dishes are (usually) labeled so the diner knows what they're getting (such as Braised Seaslugs shown here, and "yes, I tried them"). Traveling with vegetarians and picky eaters has made me appreciate buffet dining even more, if only because my meal is not held up by the effort to find something on the menu which appeals to and appeases my companions. One alternative is to find a restaurant with dishes they like and then frequent the same restaurant. Another alternative is "family style" dining. This works well with Mandarin-speaking hosts who can order a variety of dishes and highlight which are vegetarian or spicy, etc. as the dishes arrive.

A common approach to dining is the "set" meal, with an appetizer, soup, main course, fruit, tea and dessert for each diner. Each patron can select a unique set of dishes for their meal. A variety of dishes are brought to the table and each diner can help themselves to whichever appeals to them. I think there are hybrids where the set meal can be family style or more like traditional American style (each person gets their own main course).

And even with our most seasoned hosts, there is still the occasional opportunity for the unexpected. On Tuesday we went to lunch at a local restaurant in Kunshan. The atmosphere was homey. There was a fireplace, bookshelves and magazine racks inviting the diner to get comfortable and stay a while. Two of my companions were picky – one a "meat and potatoes" man (he ordered steak and fried rice) and the other, a vegetarian (she ordered spicy tofu noodle soup with vegetables because, she said, it had turned out so well for her when we dined in Shanghai). Most of the ordering effort went into deciding what they wanted. My three other companions hail from Taiwan and they could read the menu. As noted, I'm not picky. I was asked "chicken or fish"? "Chicken." "Is curry okay?" "Sounds fine." And with that our orders were placed.

One of the first dishes to arrive was a fried fish dish. The expression on my hosts' face was priceless. I wish I'd had my camera poised and ready, but unfortunately that opportunity was missed.

Here's the dish.

Later I was told they were also surprised to learn that the meal was not a "set" so they were charged extra for my tea. Also, there were no free drink refills, so one of our guests' refill was on the bill. And completely outside of anything I would notice (given that the entire exchange was in Mandarin) I was later told that the waitress's communication skills were not very good.

Add to the list of surprises: our vegetarian's request for "spicy tofu noodle soup with vegetables" resulted in two main courses (one dish with spicy tofu noodles and one dish of soup with vegetables) and our other guests' request for steak with fried rice resulted in two main courses (steak and fried rice). The team's assessment was that the ambience was nice, but the food was overpriced and the service was not good.

Room service occasionally brings its own surprises. One night this week, I ordered beef tenderloin which came with a side of fried mushrooms with butter, grilled potato chips and spaghetti.

I was most interested in the tenderloin. Good thing since the sides actually turned out to be grilled bell pepper, sliced zucchini and macaroni with ground beef.

Alternatively, today's "box lunch" delivered to the factory turned out to be scrumptious fried dumplings and soup. Perfect for a cold wet December day.


Anonymous said...

Okay now I'm hungry when I should not be. ;)

I'm behind on following your posts. :(

I get a little irritated with picky eaters and inflexible restaurant partners. Too. ;)

Bless you as you continue in your work. Barbara

Cha Cha said...

This is the stuff that fascinates me about traveling - thanks for sharing! The picture of the fish really took me by surprise ... bet it did you, too!