Shenzhen apparently thought that wooden chopsticks were vestiges of a less affluent past because even the humblest streetside diner had plastic ones for their customers. I bought a package of bamboo utensils but always forgot to carry them with me and always wished I had. Even dumplings proved to be slippery little devils when my fingers held plastic chopsticks and my clothes were soon splashed with vinegar and chili oil.
But even so, a broad has to eat and I persisted, but some days were much worse than others. After one morning in a dumpling joint where the people sitting near me averted their eyes and the waitstaff found tasks that would give them a good view of this peculiarly inept old foreign woman, I left knowing I never wanted to go back.
As I walked down the street, still hungry and with my self-esteem far below absolute zero, I approached a place with the intriguing name of Granville Whale’s Cafe. I had been there once before, had opened the menu, and quickly left, muttering “I didn’t come to Shenzhen to eat pasta and risotto.” But it was a spot that served espresso, and I needed something that I could eat without embarrassing myself. I went inside.
It was still early and I was the only customer. I sat at a table in a regal peacock chair and looked at the bilingual menu. Charcoal coffee was something I’d never seen before, so I ordered it.
While the beans were being ground, I stared at the large, light-flooded space and saw shelves filled with hand grinders, filter cones, and long-spouted kettles. Obviously this was a place that understood coffee, and this assessment was buttressed by the careful actions being taken by the man who was making my coffee. As he poured water over the ground beans, he frequently stopped, bent his head, and sniffed at them. I was impressed and very hopeful. After a couple of weeks spent drinking Nescafe Red instant and Starbucks lattes, I was more than ready for a cup of good coffee.
But I wasn’t ready for the presentation. It arrived on a footed wooden tray with two recessed spaces; one held a graceful white gilt-trimmed porcelain cup and saucer and the other had a little white pitcher with the coffee that hadn’t fit in the cup. A demitasse spoon rested near the cup, along with cream and sugar that I was certain I wouldn’t need. The coffee smelled like the best drug in the world and when I tasted it, it was.
Undertones of bitterness made me want something sweet and I examined the pastry case at the counter. Lemon poppyseed cake came to my table, garnished with a sphere of chocolate and a miniscule sprig of parsley, on a plate drizzled with a thin border of chocolate syrup. I was enchanted.
I had found much to love in my Shenzhen neighborhood, but casual elegance was not its hallmark. This eccentrically named cafe was an anomaly and a welcome one that became my primary refuge in a fascinating but exhausting city.
Mr. Lee introduced himself on that first visit and he became a friend. Educated in the UK and a generous English speaker, he was a source of conversation and information and kindness who made this cafe nourishing in more ways than one.
Toward the end of my time In Shenzhen, Granville Whale’s Cafe had a sign advertising Row Dinners, a four-course meal with cocktail included, and one evening after a tiring trip to Hong Kong, I decided I needed a treat. The waitress brought me a menu and I asked about the cocktail choices. She smiled and fled, returning with Mr. Lee.
“I don’t drink alcohol,” he told me, “I’ll ask the man who makes the cocktails.”
“Perhaps I should just have a glass of wine instead?” I asked.
“We can’t serve wine here,” he explained, “or beer, only cocktails when they are ordered with dinner.”
I ordered the rest of my meal and went to wash my hands. When I walked back toward my table, I passed the counter that held a small but stunning collection of liquor bottles, where Mr. Lee and another staff member stood, looking a bit puzzled.
“This is what we have,” Mr. Lee said. “What would you like to drink?’
“Johnny Walker Black,” I decided, “with ice, no water.”
And soon I was presented with a glass filled with Scotch with a thin sprinkling of small ice cubes. It tasted like god on the rocks and I sipped it happily while eating a beautiful salad composee, a flavorful vegetable soup, and tender beef with perfectly cooked vegetables. There was no need for dessert.
In my two months in Shenzhen, I was comfortable in my hotel room, loved the cats and flowering potted plants for sale in the nursery down the street, found Hunan and Xi'an food that made me happy, and learned to be grateful for the neighborhood mall, but the place that will draw me back to the neighborhood of Jian’an Road is Granville Whale's Cafe and the welcoming presence of Mr. Lee.