Eating in Hangzhou

This past weekend Jacob and I look a train from Shanghai to Hangzhou for a short trip. His main objective was to attend a tech conference, mine was to hang out on West Lake and to chow down on local specialties like beggar's chicken and prawns in Dragon's Well tea.

After the conference(held at a hotel) we asked a university professor for restaurant recommendations. He suggested a place called Grandmother's Kitchen, a popular local chain, but gave confusing directions.

"Where can I find Grandmother's Kitchen?" we asked one of the hotel employees. He shouted the question to a colleague using his Walkie-Talkie.

"My house," the colleague yelled back. Apparently Hangzhou-ese hotel staff have a sense of humor. About 15 minutes later we got to the restaurant, which, with its bright lighting and IKEA-esque furnishings, actually does feel like someone's house.

We got Dragon Well prawns. Pork and sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves. Edamame and roasted peanuts for cold dishes. Dry-fried green beans. Some other dishes that I don't remember. And my favorite of the night, red braised pork belly with smoked fish. I almost never use the term "unctuous", but it accurately describes the delicious sinfulness of the pork. This was even silkier than dongpo rou, Hangzhou's famous fatty pork dish. Granted, the accompanying fish was too salty, but the sweet sauce of pork drippings was excellent over rice.

The next night we went to Lou Wai Lou, the famed 150-year-old restaurant right on West Lake. I was excited for beggar's chicken, a dish in which the bird is stuffed and baked in lotus leaves for hours over a low steady heat. Lou Wai Lou's chicken, which was stuffed with beef, was too dry for my taste. We also ordered crab meat in an orange cup, which was too much orange and too little crab to justify the price. The red wine pear appetizer, which I mistakenly thought would be poached, was just red wine poured over an uncooked pear. Nothing was mind-blowing, and the only thing I really liked was a cold dish of 树菇 (tree mushrooms?).

The only thing that made the several hundred yuan dinner worthwhile was our table: A little polite asking got us seats outside on the second-floor patio, instead of in a dark corner indoors. We dragged the dinner to 2 or 3 hours, watching the sun go down over the lake, the dinner boats and their strung lights pass by, and the pagodas glow in the distance. I usually hate the way travel brochures and CCTV commercials exaggerate the beauty of Chinese tourist spots. In Hangzhou's case, I will make an exception.

Grandmother's Kitchen 外婆家 (Waipo Jia) 6-1 Macheng Lu Hangzhou 西湖区马塍路6-1号, 杭州 0571-88051987

Lou Wai Lou 楼外楼 30 Gushan Road, west side of West Lake, Hangzhou 杭州上城区孤山路30号 0571-87969682