This indoor-outdoor café-bar in Jing’s childhood neighborhood had been around for more than eight years when we first stumbled across it. The shaded hipster garden is a work of outsider art. Hanging lanterns, spinning pinwheels, bric-a-brac, and eclectic music give the place a French-Corner-of-Kulangsu feel. Drinks are expensive, but there’s a full range of designer whiskies and Goose Island IPA. There’s cool vintage jewelry and home-made souvenirs at reasonable prices at the shop in the garden, where the young geniuses who run the establishment also live.
In New York, it was Milk & Honey. In Houston, it was Anvil. On Kulangsu, the next-generation cocktail culture has been shaped by a genuine, hard-working man named Gino, an island native who (in addition to being a star attacker for a semi-pro soccer team) has raised the local mixology bar forever.
Gino is about as serious about his drinks as anyone on the planet, but the decor in his dim speakeasy-style haunt is playful, too–especially the upstairs, whose darts, bric-a-brac furniture, and wainscoting give the place the look of a 1970s rec room repurposed by Brooklyn hipsters.
Thankfully, Gino’s no hipster–he’s a Kulangsu native, which is pretty much the opposite–but he does speak some English, and more importantly, he’s fluent in the international language of alcohol: just name your base spirit and leave the rest to the artist. Tricked-out cocktails aren’t cheap, but the labor and material costs are extraordinary, whether it’s dry ice, smoking wood shrubs, obscure spirits practically unavailable in China, or a Ramos Gin Fizz that needs to be shaken for a full five minutes.
Gino’s thoughtful and futuristic glassings and glass-platings are as unpredictable as his late-night hours. Come ready to be surprised, whether it’s by a perfectly spherical ice cube the size of a baseball or a steaming bowl of pork-bone broth just when you need it most.
This well-known romantic garden café on one of Kulangsu’s main tourist drags is one more piece of proof that you’re in paradise. Leaves blow in the sunny breeze, flowers bloom, and birds serenade you with a symphony while you sit at wooden tables under umbrellas in the shade of an old brick mansion.
It’s an alluring respite for weary feet and jack of all trades for passers-by. You can spend many minutes wandering around the garden and exploring its nooks and crannies, gracious lawn furniture, shaded picnic tables, fountains, statutes, and friendly cats.
Inside is a series of refashioned dining rooms, which were once living rooms and bedrooms of the old mansion.
Once seated in the garden, you can sip coffee or tea or dig into satisfactory versions of basic pan-Eurasian standards like beef filet with black pepper gravy, Thai yellow curry beef or chicken, and spaghetti bolognese (65 ¥), which comes under-salted but otherwise correctly prepared—with a good dose of extra parmesan, it really hits the spot.
Beef-and-cheese pie is this kitchen’s version of an English pasty, with peppery, mincemeat-like ground beef and melted mozzarella baked into a greasy but still enjoyable pastry crust. It’s served with a petite raw lettuce and tomato salad–an oddity in these parts–dressed in a creamy, slightly sweet whipped-mayo-vinaigrette and tomatoes fresh with garden foliage aromas.
The sweet mayo from that vinaigrette rears its big head again and nearly ruins, but doesn’t quite ruin, a competently pressed panino with tuna fish, basil, and pine nuts that evokes Wolfgang Puck’s late foray into airport quick-service.
The beef filet is fresh, thick, satisfying, and expensive ( 178 ¥) with none of the off-flavors you sometimes get from frozen Australian steaks. The meat pairs well with the Chinese-style black pepper sauce, whose mushrooms invoke a German jaeger sauce, but the steak would be even more flavorful if it were salted and peppered before searing, as normal Western technique demands.
The menu is translated into excellent English, and lists a full range of other off-dry treatments for homesick westerners, like corn chowder with bacon, tiramisu, and “heavy cream blueberry cheesecake,” which is the precise consistency of Babybel cheese, i.e. slightly gummy and unnaturally melty, but not in a bad way. It’s set on a rich, delicate crust that’s just thin enough and drizzled with chocolate syrup and blueberry sauce.
Most people come just for sweet coffee drinks or juices, whose value proposition is far less clear, especially once alcohol comes into the mix. Espresso drinks are generally very small; a 40 ¥ iced coffee shaken with Bailey’s comes in a small white wine glass and is easily finished in two gulps. They’re good gulps, but these are full-on tourist prices.
House special iced coffee, described mysteriously in English as “Signature Beverage,” is mixed with passion fruit. If this sounds like a bizarre combination, that’s because it is: sourness and bitterness fight over your palate, and passion-fruit seeds floating in the cloudy brown glass are jarring. If you use your imagination a bit, though, the drink ends up taking on the flavor of an exotic dark chocolate. Or at least it seems that way when you’re in the midst of whiling away an afternoon, without a care in the world, on one of the island’s most pleasant gardens.