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NOTICE: I wasn’t planning on it, but it turned out to be a pretty long post. You’ve been warned.

A few weeks ago I posted some photos from a Dong-Bei restaurant, saying that it had been my best meal in China – up till that day. Well today you’re getting the real deal.

One day we went hiking from the Lingying Temple to Jiuxi. A bad choice of paths led us to a sort of solitary garden with a small hutch in it, where some people were playing cards. They invited us for lunch, but it was still before noon and we weren’t hungry, so we asked for directions and said goodbye. A week or so later we were doing the same hike but from the other direction. The weather was brilliant and this time we were starving, so it seemed like a perfect choice.

The little place offered nothing by way of a menu. They just kept saying: “60 kuai per person. You’ll see, you’ll be satisfied. Don’t worry!”. But they wouldn’t tell us how many dishes it would pay for or anything of that kind. This does not usually sound like a good deal and we were considering leaving, but by that time we had been served our tea, our stomachs were starting to grumble and no one could be bothered to look for another venue. So we stayed.

Readers, we didn’t regret it. Even though at the end the owners tried to make us pay 80 instead of 60 (claiming that we asked for the more expensive menu – but we had some sturdy female natives in our group and they wouldn’t budge an inch. Actually even 60 is way, way more expensive than I usually spend on a meal, but this time I had no regrets whatsoever). That lunch was simply sublime. I tend to complain a bit about Chinese food (“This is supposed to be healthy? It’s all deep-fried! Where are my fresh veggies? Everything tastes the same because there’s always MSG in it. And all dishes are always similar: chopped stuff with rice! And where are my lovely shrimp dumplings from Taiwan?!” I mean I really like it a lot, but I wouldn’t say – like so many people do – that it’s the best cuisine in the world), but this time all the gripes melted away in my mouth as I drooled over the plates.

To sum up, these are the factors of a perfect culinary experience:

1) Good company

2) Great weather and an outdoor setting so you can enjoy it

3) No menu so every dish is a surprise – this is not irony. It’s happened before and it’s true.

And now for the pictures. I didn’t even take shots of the best things. Rule of thumb: if all the dishes are to share, you don’t waste time taking photos of them. You eat them.

For starters: tea. Of course it must be the Longjing (or Dragonwell) variety, because this is what the area is famous for. Depending on the quality, you pay from 10 to 20 kuai a glass, or rather a handful of tea leaves: after you’ve paid, you can top it up with hot water as many times as you want.

Hot-water thermoses. They’re always either red or blue and everyone has them: students at school, workers in their offices, cleaners – everyone. Hot water is indispensable.

If we had forks instead of chopsticks and wine instead of tea, what with the gentle autumn sun and the surrounding greenery I could have sworn we were in Tuscany.

Now for the fulcrum. Quite a spread, eh? Pay especially close attention to the little bowl behind the fish and the tomatoes (tomatoes! They actually had tomatoes there! And they didn’t deep-fry them! To be sure, they did put sugar on them – after all, tomatoes are supposed to be fruits – but still). I don’t have a close-up of it, but it was the most superbly delicious braised pork: tender and savoury, with a slightly sweet & sour sauce… Heaven.

I always miss fish in Asia: give me a simple trout or a cod, please! No need to chop it or anything! Well, this one satisfied my craving: braised with a bit of garlic and a smattering of spring onions on top. Heaven no. 2.

Garlicky maodou, literally “hairy beans”, ie. young soybeans. Just pop the pod and enjoy the fresh, crunchy fellas inside.

I know what you’re going to say. This doesn’t look like much, does it? It’s some sort of tofu skin filled with meat. And whatever you think of tofu, believe me or not, it was delish!

This one may come as a shocker. Yes, it is indeed a tiny pigeon. We ate them anyway (if it’s cooked already, it would have been a wasted sacrifice if we didn’t eat it). Very well done, but for future reference – I’d prefer an adult specimen. More meat. And let it have a life first!

Seafood with rice noodles. Don’t ask me what kind of seafood. We don’t get it in Poland, so I’m no expert. All I can say is: it was a Morsel of Perfection.

Shrimps. No comment. Just admire them.

Looks quite nice and colourful, doesn’t it? It’s actually my leftovers bowl. We all thought the bones and the discarded pods made for a nice little arrangement. If the trash after this meal looks that attractive, imagine what the real thing must have been like!

And finally:

NO, we didn’t eat the cat! I’m just saying it was there! To complete the splendour of it all! There’s nothing so perfect in this world that a bit of cat-presence might not improve it!

Okay, that’s it. I think I need to eat something.