💙 Cai Zi Yuan Music Restaurant (菜子园音乐餐厅)

They say that back in the day, every house on Kulangsu had a piano. This touristy but impressive garden across the street from the tea house is holding up the tradition–barely–with an out-of-tune upright that sits just inside the entrance. Otherwise, the restaurant’s name is a tease: there’s no live music here, except for the occasional round of Lightly Row played by a six-year-old. There is, however, a lush, expansive garden with a koi pond that elevates lunch here on a pleasant day into a zen-like experience, in spite of the screaming toddlers and inattentive waitstaff.

When ordering, use restraint. This is not the place to try top-end seafood, but the kitchen does a fair job of preparing and pricing Xiamen standards like spicy wok-fired clams (la chao hua ge 辣炒花蛤), which swim in a typical local brown gravy with rice wine, garlic warmth, and chili heat; or Chinese national dishes like sliced pork with green peppers and wood-ear mushrooms (qing jiao rou si 青椒肉丝). This dish, popular in Shanghai as a rice-bowl topping, has some back heat and metallic tang from the peppers and unsurprisingly dumps well onto steamed white rice. The wood-ears are the house addition, adding a spongy crunch. Worth missing is a relatively oily and undercooked version of shredded potato with red chili (酸辣土豆丝), China’s answer to hash browns. This dish is light and addictive when done right; try it elsewhere instead.

Tu long bao (土龙煲), a local species of eel without any English culinary name or paper trail, sounds promising: the Chinese name translates roughly as “dragon from the local land,” and it’s a Minnan delicacy prepared in a clay-pot casserole. Unfortunately, the reason it’s a delicacy is medicinal: tu long bao is believed to promote bone health. For this reason, a medium-sized eel costs more than ¥200, and possibly also for this reason, it has so many little bones in every bite that you may burn as many calories spitting them out as you ingest from the sticky flesh beneath. To complicate things further, the delicate clay-pot slow-cooking process is abbreviated, keeping mushrooms leathery. The dark, savory sauce is still delicious on rice, but that’s one expensive rice bowl.

For more Kulangsu (Gulangyu) travel ideas, see the new Kulangsu Island Visitor’s Guide.

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