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Hangzhou: The Grandma’s 外婆家

6 Jul

The Grandma’s 外婆家 (formerly known as Grandma’s Kitchen) is an affordable local Hangzhou chain selling Hangbang Cai 杭帮菜 that is immensely popular with both locals and tourists alike. When I say that it’s popular, I mean that even with over 20 locations around Hangzhou, it’s still perpetually crowded and during peak hours you have to wait for more than an hour! Over my two trips and 4 days in Hangzhou, I’ve eaten it thrice so I think that attest to how yums it is :) Am updating this entry of recommended dishes to include new dishes that I’ve tried!

The picture menu (note the rather silly iPad-ish design) at Grandma’s is as thick as a phonebook but I mostly followed the recommendations on More Hangzhou.

To start you should order a few xiao cai 小菜 to whet your appetite. This cold dish of longevity vegetable 长寿菜 really stood out because of its spicy, garlicky and vinegary dressing. The type of vegetable used has a velvety mouthfeel and is something new to me. It must be local to Hangzhou as I also don’t see it in my part of China.

The century egg 皮蛋, was also something different from the usual pairings of century egg with ginger or tofu as it was served with chilli and a soya sauce dressing. Who knew that century egg and chilli could actually go together?

Another popular appetiser which I spotted on many diners’ tables was the roasted chicken wing 烤鸡翅旁 marinated in Xinjiang spices (cumin) that was extremely tasty and moist.

The Long Jing tea scented chicken 龙井茶香鸡 wowed me as I was not aware that the humble chicken could ever taste this good and sophisticated. Served in a claypot, the meat was perfectly perfumed with the spices, extremely moist and fall-of-your-fork tender. According to CNNGo, the tea-soaked chicken was first wrapped in parchment paper and then roasted to give it its texture. There was a layer of flavourful oil at the bottom of the claypot and I had to stop myself from using the meat to soak it up. I could definitely eat one of this on my own and this is a must eat in Grandma’s Kitchen.

If you have heard of the Chinese poet Su Dongpo 苏东坡, you might find the local dish of braised Dongpo pork 东坡肉 familiar. The dish is purportedly named after him. It is made by pan-frying and then red cooking pork belly, which is about 50% fat and 50% lean meat. It’s a saltier version of the popular Hongshao pork in Shanghai and it’s braised with salted fish and bamboo shoots.

As expected, the fatty layer was so unctuous and melt in your mouth. But yet it wasn’t greasy and had an intoxicating sweet, salty and wine taste. So delicious but you should probably eat this in moderation :)

We wanted to order the prawns roasted in coral stones 珊瑚虾 the first time but as it was winter, it wasn’t in season. Thankfully on my second trip back it was available! This was absolutely delicious because of the seasoning used, and it had a slightly smokey flavour. You could just eat the whole crispy prawn without de-shelling which makes prawn eating even better :)

I don’t know how they cook this dish using the coral stones, but if you’re wondering it actually looks like this! They were at the bottom of the heap of prawns.

I’ve also tried the Long Jing river prawns 龙井虾仁, which were just lightly fried with a very faint tea taste. Unlike the prawns we are used to in Singapore, these are very small but crunchy with a tint of sweetness, and we couldn’t stop popping them into our mouths.

Almost every other table had ordered the steamed fish head with chilli 外婆鱼头, so we knew it was a must order. Don’t be alarmed when it’s served to table as it’s a really really huge dish, these must be the biggest fish heads I’ve ever seen! The fish was super fresh and perfectly cooked, and the moreish sauce is just excellent. For a fish lover/fish head lover like myself, this dish is a must order. My friend found the sauce (salty and spicy) a little strong tasting after a while but when you eat it with the noodles I think it’s just nice. It’s also much less spicy than the Hubei/Hunan version we have here.

Onto the soups, the boiled fish with pickled cabbage and chili 酸菜鱼 was a big hit. It was a huge pot of tender fish slices in a very moreish salty and sour soup, and went very well with rice. Though the fish had a slightly muddy taste as like all river fish, the bold flavours of the soup managed to mask it well.

One of its signature soups, the Song Dynasty fish soup 宋嫂鱼羹 was a very fishy affair that my husband did not appreciate at all, and we gave up after a few mouthfuls. In essence, it tasted like starchy seawater with seafood bits. However, a lot of people do order this probably because it’s a traditional dish alongside with West Lake vinegar fish 西湖醋鱼. Definitely an acquired taste but I’m glad we gave it a try.

Another highly rated soup, the dough fritters with soya bean soup 豆浆油条汤 was a salty cousin of what we’re used to in Singapore. The soya bean was much lighter than the usual soya bean milk so it wasn’t too rich. Highly interesting having this in a soup format for once.

The Grandma’s is definitely a must visit when you’re in Hangzhou, for its sheer quality and value. Even if you’re a small group and order like a King (seriously, like 10 dishes for 3 pax), your bill shouldn’t be more than 80Y per person. The menu is also so humongous that you can try something different everyday though some dishes like the Long Jing tea scented chicken are obvious must orders.

Price: $ (50RMB to 70RMB per person)
Locations: 3 Hubin Rd 湖滨路3号2楼. Many other locations including original branch at 6-1 Macheng Lu 马腾路6-1号(浙江省高级法院对面).
Opening Hours: From 10am. Differs from store to store, call to check.
Tel: +86 571 85101939 (No reservations, go there and take a queue number, they will message you when your table is ready)
Website: http://www.waipojia.com

Hangzhou: Kui Yuan Guan 奎元馆

6 Jul

I read about the historically famous Hangzhou noodles shop Kui Yuan Guan 奎元馆 on CNNGo, and it sounded like such a must eat so we headed there for a pit stop on the way to the train station to do a quick taste test. Although originally founded by an Anhui business in neighbouring Ningbo, Kui Yuan Guan has been around Hangzhou for more than 150 years since the Qing Dynasty. It has been featured in a famous martial arts novel by Taiwanese author Gu Long, which probably further contributed to its popularity. The restaurant is also known as 江南面王 (as you can see on the old school chopsticks holder) which means “King of Noodles in Southern China.” Enough said!

This was their supposedly signature bowl of shrimp and fried eel noodles 虾爆鳝面, with chewy hand made noodles and a light broth that is made using shrimp and eel. I’m personally not a fan of eel and I felt that this was a little too bland for my liking, especially since river shrimp is very mild in taste.

Now the seasonal crab roe noodles 蟹粉面 on the other hand, was a different story. It was bursting with pure unadulterated crab roe and flavour and made my tastebuds sing – if there was liquid gold, this broth would be it! :) The same noodles complemented the salty and rich broth well and even though I was so full (this was just a snack) I couldn’t stop myself from eating as it was so good and addictive! A must order for crab/crab roe lovers! Btw, the noodles come in pretty big portions so small eaters could share.

I realised that both noodles we tried were seafood based, although they do have other ones with pork and vegetables in them (but then again you’re in Hangzhou, surrounded by lakes). Depending on what you order, it could be a hit or miss, but if you’re happy with a pretty decent bowl of noodles in a sanitised yet historically significant place in Hangzhou, then do give it a try.

Price: $ (~40Y per bowl)
Location: 124 JieFang Road 解放路124号
Opening Hours: Daily 930am to 10pm
Tel: +86 571 87028626

Hangzhou: Green Tea Restaurant 录茶餐厅

6 Mar

Like Grandma’s Kitchen, Green Tea Restaurant 录茶餐厅 is another popular chain to get your Hangbang Cai 杭帮菜 fix in Hangzhou. It feels a little more upscale than Grandma’s, but is still very affordable. We went for a late lunch to the Hubin Rd branch (perpendicular from Grandma’s Kitchen, same building) so we didn’t have to queue, but reservations are highly recommended. There is also a more popular and scenic branch near the Long Jing plantation.

Since they only had a one sheet paper menu with no pictures, we ticked our choices based on the restaurant’s recommendations. Hangbang Cai supposedly has light flavours and uses more of the steaming, boiling and roasting methods so that’s just right up my alley.

The BBQ chicken 绿茶烤鸡 had a spice rub was reminiscent of the Xinjiang spice powder which is always delectable IMO, and the skin was nice; but I felt that the meat was a little tough and dry. Give me Grandma’s Kitchen’s tea scented chicken anytime. Maybe we should have gotten the BBQ pork or char siew instead.

The stir fried crab meat with egg white 赛螃蟹 was very sweet and sour at the same time (probably because of the vinegar and sweet egg yolk) which I quite enjoyed due to the interesting flavour, especially since I’m partial to anything with vinegar. My husband on the other hand found the dish weird so it’s definitely not for everyone. It’s a little misleading from the name but it actually comes with crab stick (instead of crab meat, doh) and tofu.

Despite its plain looks, the Green Tea signature pot rice soup 绿茶招牌泡饭 served in an old stone pot was the bomb. Cooked using a seafood stock, the porridge was super tasty and moreish. The use of another type of grain other than the normal short grained rice and veggies gave it more texture too. Comfort food max.

The stir fried cabbage in Lingnan bean sauce 岭南豆豉娃娃菜 was another winner. How could cabbage ever taste so good? When soaked in chilli oil, and the miracle that is “Lingnan bean sauce” – trust me, it will. It was so good that when I tabao-ed the extra bits home, I cooked noodles and ate it with the sauce (which is perfect since its on the salty side anyway).

I don’t normally eat offal but since the husband was craving for it, we ordered the stir fried pig’s kidney with scallions. I tried a little and it was surprisingly good. Tasty, no smell in the kidney and crunchy to the bite.

The tofu stew 土豆腐煲 was a little plain for my liking after all the dishes we had. It was such a huge portion though, and for 18RMB only – I can’t really complain.

Many other tables ate the steamed fish head temptation 鱼头诱惑 and home-made bread topped with ice cream 面包诱惑 which we didn’t try so I definitely need to make a return trip. The restaurant is also quite tastefully decorated, with dim lighting, dark wood, and a lot of teapots, arts and crafts and antique looking objects on display. We sat upstairs but the dining area on the first floor is very pretty, like a quaint old library of sorts.

Verdict: I definitely was not disappointed with my meal at Green Tea, even after dining at Grandma’s Kitchen. Though some dishes far outperformed the others, everything we had was at least of a pretty decent quality. And the prices are so reasonable given it’s comfy setting and nice ambiance that you really must give Green Tea a try.  7.5/10

Price: $ (70-90 RMB per person)
Location: 83 Longjing Road 龙井路83号
Telephone: + 86 571 8703 0016
Website: www.lv-cha.com.cn