How to Win Shanghai Restaurant Week

We’re in the middle of the 6th edition of Shanghai’s Restaurant Week. The event has evolved quite a bit since Dining City organized the first on 3 years ago. During the first Restaurant Week I was easily able to book some of the best restaurants in town: Sir Elly’s, Pelham’s, T8. Restaurants participating during those halcyon days really made an effort. I remember being served surprise courses (Pelham’s) and luxurious ingredients (Sir Elly’s) that made the relatively modest 258 RMB/person price tag a steal.

Subsequently, more and more restaurants started participating, and more and more diners started booking seats. Reservations at pedigreed restaurants like Sir Elly’s were snapped up right when booking opened. Some restaurants decided they were above the clamoring hordes of bargain-hunters who were not likely to patronize those establishments during the other 50 weeks of the year, and stopped participating. Others ratcheted back the effort and started offering unimpressive menus with cost friendlier (to them) ingredients. All the while dozens of mediocre and PR-hungry establishments were jumping on the wagon looking to stir up interest where none had resided before.

The landscape has become complex and filled with peril for those of us seeking the perfect marriage of a delicious meal at a worthwhile price. Being the veteran bargain-hunter foodie that I am, I thought I would put together a few rules that I always follow to ensure I maximize my hits and avoid as many misses as possible.

This, fellow cheapskates, is my secret to winning Shanghai Restaurant Week.

Tip #1 – Do your research

All the expat publications will give a heads up a month or so before the actual Restaurant Week starts highlighting popular participating restaurants. But you can go straight to the Diningcity website and take a look at their list. The restaurants won’t have menus up, but it’s good to have an idea of which of the top tier restaurants are available. Those restaurants will most likely be totally booked out by Diningcity’s VIP members, but a lot of them will be available that initial hour that booking is open to the general public.

Tip #2 – Move fast

Mark down the date and time the booking opens. Be in front of your computer ready to go. Premium bookings will go fast, so you have to be too.

Tip #3 – Go straight to the top restaurants

When the booking period opens and you go to the website for the first time, the list of restaurants will be organized in alphabetical order. Jump straight to the restaurants you had an eye on based off of your research. If you want to eat at T8 for instance, quickly scroll down to the “T” section and book right away. Scrolling down the list alphabetically wastes valuable booking time. You can always go back and cancel or change reservations after you’ve booked them, in case you follow Tip #3 and realize you aren’t impressed.

Tip #4 – Always read the menu

ALWAYS read the menu. Just because a reputable restaurant is available doesn’t mean they’re going to have a worthwhile menu. Also, for restaurants you’re not familiar with or places that are just recently launched, a potentially awesome menu can push you into their corner. While some restaurants make a half-assed attempt, new restaurants often want to make a splash and get butts into seats. The menu is the key to discerning who’s trying and who isn’t.

Tip #5 – Lunch is always the best deal.

I know this one can be tough for those who work far away from the city center or just cannot spare a leisurely lunch during the work week. For everyone else, lunch is by far the best bargain during Restaurant Week. Lunch reservations are easier to book because dinner reservations go so fast, and at a max price of 128 RMB you can find a ton of hidden gems. Fine dining establishments can’t really get away with skimping on their lunch offerings, so at minimum you can expect decent quality at a place like T8 or Restaurant Martin. Maison Pourcel has a three course lunch that would be worth twice it’s price. And don’t forget to ask for more bread.

Main lunch course at Maison Pourcel

Main lunch course at Maison Pourcel

Tip #6 – Avoid Western restaurants run by non-Westerners

This is a basic rule I follow, not just during Restaurant Week. A French or Italian or Spanish place run by Chinese management is a minefield: you can tiptoe your way to a good meal, but you’ll probably end up getting ripped to pieces. The probabilities of paying 258 RMB a person and getting tiny portions of unimpressive dishes are very high at these types of establishments (I’m looking at you, de Canto). I hate generalizations but since I’m in the country of generalizations, what the hell.

Tip #7 – Hotel buffets are your friend

Every year there are a few hotels that want to get in on the fun, and offer up their buffets for Restaurant Week. Hotel buffets have a low profile because the general public avoids them and no food writers really write or blog about them. However, booking one at the 168 RMB price point is a cheapskate’s dream. We booked the buffet at the Hilton Honggiao last Restaurant Week. The hotel was fairly new and it’s a major hotel chain, so we went in knowing there was a minimum bar of quality they would meet. We were greeted with a raw oyster bar, fresh sashimi station, and steamed lobster tails. For 168 RMB (+15%). What a steal.

Armed with these tips, you greatly exceed your chances of securing a meal at a quality establishment at a very good value. A 258 RMB meal at CAPO will be 10 times better than a 258 RMB menu at La Finca, so knowledge up kids!

Here is the starter we had at CAPO last Friday

Here is the starter we had at CAPO last Friday

Visual Effects Oscar Winners

Here’s a very cool montage of all the Academy Award winners in the category of Best Visual Effects. Prior to 1977 there was no annual category for special effects.

Academy Awards: Best Visual Effects Oscar Winners from Nelson Carvajal on Vimeo.

I was caught off guard when “The Matrix” was shown at 1999. It’s personally depressing in a “confronting mortality” kind of way when realizing that move is 15 years old, but it’s a credit to the vision that the Wachowskis had so long ago.

(h/t kottke)

Lives Changed Forever

In the past few weeks tragedy has befallen our house, and April and I have yet to recover.

At home, we’ve subscribed to a broadband cable service that pipes in programming from Taiwan. As with all things in China, I’m not sure how legal this service is, but for many expats paying a few thousand RMB a year for a similar cable box or a satellite dish is the only way to get programming from their home country. The company we’re paying is a third party that either does or does not have a formal agreement with the cable provider in Taiwan, so from all appearances it looks like they have no real say over the shows and channels that make up that package.

Anyway, for over a year since we started paying for this service, basically the only channel we ever watched was Food Network Asia. Essentially a food porn channel for the two of us, I loved the shows that documented unbelievably delicious food from back home that made me question my decision to live in Asia. April liked re-runs of a show called Unwrapped, which ran on the US Food Network in the middle of the last decade, and which gave us behind the scenes access to the factories of many popular brands. Also, Alton Brown and Ina Garten.

The Food Network Asia was comfortable in its own skin as the ugly half-sister of the US Food Network. In addition to Unwrapped, most of its other shows were also re-runs. But food porn is timeless, and it was a comforting (albeit hunger-inducing) bedtime story right before sleep.

Then one day last month we were horrified to discover that our favorite channel had been replaced by an illegitimate, bastardized poseur called the Asian Food Channel. Instead of Alton and Ina and Giada, our television was now filled with aliens from a foreign food land, instructing us in thick Malaysian or Singaporean accents on how to make Indonesian dishes that I have no interest in learning. Food Network gave us American comfort food drenched in cheese and grease. This ungodly excuse for a replacement now gives us Martin Yan doing his shtick in the rice paddies of Malaysia and making staid, 90’s era dishes. We loved Iron Chef and Chopped because they showed us professionally trained chefs doing their craft. AFC has a 25 year old kid named Donal Skehan who has never been formally trained but now has his own cooking show, which is so elementary and basic that when I first came across his show Kitchen Hero was waiting for stuffed puppets to appear and sing along in the background.

As my friend Viv, whose cable box succumbed to the same food channel apocalypse, beautifully put it: “AFC only has pussy shows.”

We never watch AFC anymore. We haven’t been able to replace it with anything else, so there’s this big gaping hole in our lives. Being an expat in China means that I don’t have many options. I could find another 3rd party company that may carry a bundle of channels that still has Food Network, but I paid a hefty renewal fee a few months ago for my current services and am stuck with it for the time being.

I suppose if there’s anyone out there who still has our favorite channel…maybe you could invite us over every now and then? We can bring homemade salsa that we learned how to make from watching Alton Brown!

Octoberfest in Taipei

Well, not really. When April told me her uncle wanted to treat me to sashimi and beer during my quick 2-day jaunt through Taipei to take care of some family business, I quickly agreed. Her uncle is an adorable old man whom we hosted in Shanghai last winter. He spent most of that week in Shanghai devouring meals of all shapes and sizes and origins, followed by thanking me vociferously for feeding him so well. Letting him foot the bill for some fish and brews seemed fun and harmless. I was sure I would be able to get back home early and rest enough to catch my 7 AM flight back the next morning.

And then the beers arrived:

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These were not only steins with two comically small handles on each side. These were messengers sent from the underworld. These were Indian idols of destruction. These were Boeing 747’s of despair. My face was rendered the color of overripe strawberries within 5 minutes.

And they were absolutely awesome. Thanks April’s uncle for the 20 leaks I took that night!

Eats: Gumbo and Dr. P

We stopped by DAFF this past Saturday and we’re pleasantly surprised at the available food options. Lots of delicious looking homemade cakes and pastries, along with a super nasty churro stand. Had my first Dr. Pepper in years and some non-spicy homemade gumbo furnished by a bro from Detroit. Glad to see expats taking root and selling stuff here you’d never find 5 years ago.

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Mila Kunis, please don’t ever change

Like everyone else on this planet, I have a huge crush on Jennifer Lawrence and I can’t wait for her to become President of the United States and give blunt and raspy State of the Union addresses. But before Jennifer stormed onto the scene, there was Queen Mila the Flawless. Watch her go back and forth with this real life Hugh Grant 2.0 interviewer and I dare you to find one imperfection.

Need more proof? Here is she chewing out a reporter in Russian when she questions why JT is acting in movies:

And of course, she confirms here that she accepted Sgt. Scott Moore’s Youtube invitation to attend the Marine Corps Ball back in 2011. And no, she doesn’t want your applause for it, either!

Never forget…never forget

Taco Bell’s Superbowl quite similar to Volkswagen China’s Beetle ad from last year

VW China’s spot last year introducing the new Beetle stood out from the thousands of other ads on Chinese television running at the same time. First of all, the production value was high. Savvy ad watchers could easily discern that this was a global production; homegrown ads don’t have this type of production value. But mostly, the creative was outstanding. Who doesn’t get a kick out of watching a bunch of cute old folk running around trying their hand at young people activities such as surfing, skateboarding, and head-banging at a punk show?

The spot was good. It was cute, it was memorable, and most importantly for marketers, it shared the brand’s voice.

Cut two a few months later during the sweaty and high caloric advertising orgy that is the Superbowl. One of the more praised ads from the commentators was Taco Bell’s “Viva Young” spot, which finds a crew of old-timers escaping their nursing home reality and embarking on a whirlwind of unbridled chaos. We’re treated to shots of old folks grinding at a club, getting inked, taunting innocent diners with a decrepit nipple, and carnal activities with young men in bathrooms.

Awfully familiar concepts…but goddamn it, this can’t be a rip-off, can it? Ad agencies NEVER recycle ideas! Aren’t rebellious elderly universally side-splitting, just like dancing babies and talking animals?

Inappropriate, Smartshanghai! (?)

I like Smartshanghai. Well written food reviews, tons of listings, funny features. But in the process of looking up an address a few minutes ago, I noticed that the first pic on their photo gallery is a bit of a line-crosser.

poor girl...

Poor girl…although she IS at Bar Rouge. I hope this was an editorial miss and not editorial misogyny. Or have I just watched too much porn in my life?

Europeans like Chinese people

中欧合璧 – AJ and Natalie from Jason Lee Wong on Vimeo.

From director Jason Lee Wong’s site:

Sponsored by the European Union in China, Love Love Love is a series of ten short films showing European and Chinese relations, through love! The series will explore the challenges and joys that are faced in intercultural relationships as well as what it means to be in China today.

Some dust got in my eye during the scene where Natalie gets emotional after AJ’s dad says that they have to learn how to forgive one another.