Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Senior Level Seminar in Culinary Culture Shock

Today was an exercise in cultural extremes. Well, food culture extremes anyway. And some architectural ones too.

Began the day with the traditional penthouse breakfast, this time minus the window washers swinging on the side of the building. After that, another cab ride to our first day of business review. Clear your mind for a moment and visualize if you will, the last stab at the Bauhaus aesthetic, dropped down in an Asian development sector with a rotting Communist era concrete monstrosity in the back yard which sports its very own corrugated steel pagoda on the roof. That more or less describes our meeting place. Steel, glass, more glass and more steel formed into a giant inverted ice cream cone and surrounded by sections of giant cylinders and big, square boxes. You get the picture, right?

The meetings were interesting, and I was excited to see my first Shanghai kittycat stalking in the privet hedge.

Lunch was the first intimation that today was going to be a very special day, one to share with you, my loyal readership. Catered by Shanghai's premier German provender, we feasted upon schnitzel, spaetzle, sausage and sauerkraut, the Big Four "S"es of the Deutsche Diet. Desert was even more grand - little cheesecakes with white chocolate Stars of David embossed with musical scales. Those plus a large chocolate log emblazoned with "Bavaria Uber Alles" done in tan ganache and swimming in a pool of what may have been maple syrup.

Coffee was plentiful and strong, in the true Prussian tradition which excludes all other forms of beverage. More meetings and then we gathered for the coup de grace - a trip to the Live Food Restaurant. No, you didn't misread that name.

Imagine for a moment a world-class aquarium that's situated in a hall that's one-half 1950s Las Vegas casino and one-half pinball parlor. Got that? Well, what makes this aquarium different from every other one you've been to is that here, you get to eat the animals!

Say what! How's that work? You go to your table, collect your server and then head to the tanks. "I'll take one lobster, one sea snail, half a shark, a scallop and two flounder." "Throw in a soft-shelled turtle, a sea snake and the other half of the shark for my date if you will."

(It's just a little too much like the scene in Douglas Adams' opus "Restaurant at the End of the Universe" where the talking cow goes from table to table telling the patrons that they might like a nice slice of his shoulder.)

It all then appears at your table as if by magic.

Knowing this was coming, I was heavily into the Tsingtao and then Coca-cola figuring a healthy dose of alcohol and caffeine could stave off all those dire warnings about seafood, shellfish and anything raw.

We had many courses, starting with raw lobster sushi. The tail had been removed and scooped out. The head was included for garnish which was enhanced by the fact that it was still waving it's legs at us. In the words of a co-worker, the wasabi is provided to kill all the germs. That was followed quickly by a plate of barbecued duck jaws. Next up a half dozen dishes ranging from baked lobster to crayfish to bull frog (yes, I said bull frog) to langoustine tails that looks so much like legless New Mexico centipedes that they mostly went uneaten. Some tasty white fish, head and all was presented along with plates of asparagus and broccoli. In the middle we had a palate cleanser of bananas smeared in tortillas and desert was a tasty little custard tart. Isn't it funny how tortillas appear is all cultures going by many names yet still remaining tortillas?

So now I sit here staring at my watch and wondering if food poisoning really does kick in after only three hours. Two down, and one to go.

Pictures below of the essential elements, including the bull frogs (yes, I did say bull frogs) in their before and after configurations. Make sure you stare long at the Abalone that are the size of salad plates. IIf Steinbeck were still alive, their presence would surely transport him back to the Cannery Row of the 30s. The pictures run in chronological order, from meat on the hoof to dinner on the plate. Sadly, I was not able to go out with the fisherman and giggers to capture the pictures of them being pulled from their habitat.

I should count my blessings, I neither had to eat the shellfish whose homes we often find at Pilar nor the sea snake.


































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