I hadn’t expected any acknowledgment of Halloween in China, and I was completely wrong. I don’t know that anyone actually does anything on October 31, but stores and restaurants were decorating with pumpkins, ghosts and witches and sales clerks donned costumes during the week leading up to the holiday.
South Beauty also was getting into the game on my Halloween eve visit. This Sichuan restaurant was kind of hard to pin down. Typical for China, it’s a chain with many branches in malls. I chose this particular Shanghai location because it sounded the most over-the-top décor-wise and it was walking distance from our hotel.
And it really was tricked out like a tycoon’s mansion. The multi-leveled bar takes up the entire front building and feels like an enormous study in a British country manor. You half expect to see men in smoking jackets and decanters of port in the wood-paneled side rooms. It all opens on to a reflecting pool lined with outdoor seating and beyond that is the restaurant proper, all glass and shades of ivory.
So, it feels upscale but it’s not expensive (by Western standards, at least—I’m pretty sure most entrees were under $10) and the food isn’t “serious” in a fine dining sense. Everything is garnished to the nines, though. We were given what seemed to be one of the prime tables, flanked by two impractical sofas. The distance between seat and plating was so vast you felt overexposed and bound to drop something from chopstick to mouth.
The service was typically Asian in that you’re constantly being watched and hawked over, yet ordering is kind of painful, involves lots of pointing and head shaking and misunderstandings abound. All over Shanghai our attempts to order fish were thwarted. I’m not sure if they had run out, the fish in question weren’t in season or what. But after about three attempts, we got an affirmative on the fish head. I don’t know why fish heads freak people out—the meat is flavorful, you don’t have to eat the eyes, plus, this one was practically disguised by sauce and chopped onions, anyway.
I also ordered gong bao ji ding. Wouldn’t you want to see how this take out favorite is cooked in its homeland (yes, kung pao chicken is a real dish not an American invention). The flavors were more pristine and vinegar-sour, though I didn’t really get hits of Sichuan peppercorn The tiny uniformly cut bits were tough to tackle with chopsticks and our slow picking meant it got cold before we could finish. You don’t want cornstarch-thickened sauces to cool too much or they turn gooey.
I had no quibble with the sautéed green beans, which was the only dish that hinted at mouth-numbing properties. I didn’t find the food to be terribly Sichuan, at least the little I know about the cuisine. Nothing we ate was emphatically spicy, and the ma la sensation was absent. I’m not sure if that was due to weird ordering or a toned down preparation. I’m always wary of food in pretty surroundings while traveling. We were similarly underwhelmed at easy-on-the-eyes Celadon in Bangkok, which served elegant yet flat Thai food. I would love a stylish setting and kick ass food.
More notable was the freak show that kept parading through the restaurant as we ate. A Chinese woman, clearly a manager, in a skirt suit with a witches hat, was accompanied by two guys wearing Scream masks and they would periodically trail through the room blaring an electronic device making tinny, wailing ghost sounds. We were like, “oh shit, I hope they don’t come over here,” kind of how I feel about the Martians at Mars 2112, but you’re asking for trouble at Time’s Square theme restaurant.
They stopped at every table to try and convince skeptical diners to stop by the bar for their Halloween party. On their second pass through, they upped the ante and offered a free drink. I always feel guilted into taking unwanted coupons and amNY’s on the street, so I was like do we try to sneak out after dinner (you have to walk through the bar to exit) or stay for a damn cocktail? Free is good, plus I wanted to see what the hell was going to transpire. Despite a predominately western clientele, I was fairly certain we were the only Americans in the restaurant.
We were eventually accosted and planted on bar stools next to the only other takers, a middle-aged German trio. The huge space was empty and overstaffed by kids who looked like they’d be breaking American child labor laws. They were really trying. Cobwebs were everywhere, spooky masks had been affixed on available surfaces, a spastic green laser light eventually made an appearance, as did a fog machine. House of Wax subtitled in Chinese was being projected onto the wall. Classic scary songs like, you know “My Humps” and “SexyBack” were blaring. A mojito with so much mint it was nearly a salad and a fruity thing in a martini glass were placed in front of us. Do we pay? Do we tip? Did we ask for these? It seemed best to just start sipping and go with it.
Then, a teenage bartender who was like 5’4, 80 pounds with white oxford shirt, suspenders and a shaggy, mod moptop started flair bartending. I really should’ve taken photos but I was so disoriented that I couldn’t focus. Plus, the staff to patron ratio was so stifling you felt like your every move was being watched.
Each group that passed through, the 30-ish lady boss (who reminded me of a former supervisor, a London-Educated Chinese Malaysian I dubbed The Cyborg because she had no warmth or emotion like she’d been raised in a laboratory. I used to joke that she’d go into the bathroom and just wash her hands [I never saw her in a stall] so everyone would think she was human. Cyborgs don’t cut loose and they get drunk on one glass of wine. They also don’t let their departments leave even an hour early the Friday before a holiday weekend even when the entire company has gone home. ) tried corralling them to stay with about 50% success rate.
Now, they really needed someone to show them how to party. I was all we need to fuck this shit up and show them what Halloween is all about. Part of me wanted to TP the entire immaculately groomed grounds and start egging all the spotless floor to ceiling plate glass window. See, it’s not all about treats, ok? Tricks might bring tears to a cyborg’s eyes.
We had nothing better to do so we stayed for a few more drinks. And a few more parties had settled into sofas in adjoining rooms, so we didn’t feel so on the spot. While peculiar, the bartenders at least knew cocktails by memory and were able to cobble together a whisky sour for me. At our even emptier hotel bar in Beijing, the young bartender seemed super eager to make drinks, handed us a cocktail menu, but had to consult a recipe book for everything. He painstakingly measured out every little drop, shook just so many times, then went and washed everything out by hand before giving us our beverages. If there had been more than two customers, he would’ve freaked. And these tuned out to be $8 drinks, quite high for Beijing. My Chinese bar experiences made me edgy and nervous for the staff.
The manager began consulting with some of her staff and clearly seemed to be talking about us. You don’t need any Chinese language skills to know you’re being talked about. She approached us to explain, “I’m so sorry, but only the first drink is free.” Well, duh, we fully expected to pay for the two additional rounds and had to reassure her that we knew and that was fine.
That exchange crystallized Chinese-ness for me. Like they’re very rah rah and desperate to win over foreigners but when you take them up on their hospitality and settle in, they start to worry. It kind of made me want to TP the place for real, just to see how they’d react to a genuine problem.
South Beauty * 881 Yan'an Zhong Lu, Shanghai, China
Restaurant interior photos from SmartShanghai.com