Monday, November 5, 2012

Of sneaky waiters and rubik's cubes

Hanging with a Chinese friend, at loose ends and peckish in Taiyuan one night, we asked hotel staff for a good local restaurant.  True to form, they directed us to a two story monstrosity of the "Dragon Ate a Barrel of Gold Leaf Washed it Down with Some Red Paint Then Vomited on a Large Building" school of design.  But unlike the cavernous and generally deserted "best restaurant in town" tourist traps that we're usually sent to, this one was actually packed with locals and looked promising.  We looked over the menu - very reasonable prices! beautiful photos! - and ordered a few dishes (including fried bunny and stewed "wild chicken").

We were with Kelly, of course, so we ordered a few vegetarian dishes.  Some great tofu, some greens, and then - fatal mistake - we asked the waiter to recommend one other dish.  He described a fungus dish to us and said it was very good so we ordered it at once.  The food came and the waiter was right - some of the best mushrooms I've ever had!  It was quite a small portion - enough for each of the three of us to have a few bites - but they were tender, meaty, savory.

An hour later, full of bunnies and veggies and beer, we signaled for the check and the waiter brought it over.  Wow - that fried rabbit was only $38 RMB!  Those greens?  Only $20 RMB!  So reasonabl- SCREECH

That tiny dish of mushrooms was $340 RMB.  What. The. Hell.

We called the waiter back over and our mainland friend began a long and heated dialogue in Putonghua, which to me sounded like this:

Waiter:  Smiley smile smiley smiley SMILE
Friend: ANGRY!
Waiter (throws hands up): SMILE (wanders away)

manager wanders over

Friend: ANGRY!
Manager: Smiley smile point smile (wanders away)

Apparently our friend tried to get the dish taken off our bill.  No chance.  He then demanded a receipt, in the hopes that the university (we were at an academic conference) would reimburse us for the bill.  The manager said she couldn't give us a receipt, but directed us to an office in the basement that might be able to help us.  Okaaaay...

We trek down a dark stairwell to the basement and approach a tiny window, where more ANGRY/SMILEY negotiations take place.  I see the man in the window offer something to our friend, who shakes his head angrily and points at something else, and the man then hands something over.  Success!  We've got our receipt!

Apparently the man would not issue us a receipt but as compensation for our trouble we were offered the choice of a tiny rubik's cube or a mini flashlight.  Our friend drove a hard bargain and we walked away with both.

And surreal China rolls on.

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