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Friday, June 29, 2012

Road Trip: Picture-Perfect Positano, Italy

Six years ago in April, just before the tourist season properly rolled in, we were in Rome visiting our newlywedded friends, Seema and Stefano.  Like pretty much all of our holidays, we didn't really plan ahead, so it was on somewhat of a whim when we decided to head to Positano for a couple of nights.
We rented a car from Naples, drove away from the city centre like bats (or muggers) were after us - we had heard the usual horror stories about tourists being marked as easy prey in good old Napoli - and embarked on yet another Italian road trip, this time towards the Amalfi Coast.  We got terribly lost trying to find our hotel - had to loop back three times up and down the hill before we finally saw its tiny nameplate - but the upside is that we were super familiar with the town and all the streetside restaurants by the time we checked in.
The terrace in the little hillside hotel we stayed in.
Low season means less crowding on Marina Grande pebble beach.
It was actually quite ideal being there in early spring....hotel rates were more reasonable since it was the low (or rather "shoulder" season) and we didn't have to compete for elbow room with the mammoth tour buses in the village's winding, narrow streets.  It may have been a bit on the cloudy side at times, but that just added a welcome dramatic charm to Positano's usual peppy visage.  
The lovely Il San Pietro di Positano Hotel
For the best limoncello, head to the Amalfi Coast. 
 Here are some of the many lemon plantations on the hillside. 
Truly, there are no such thing as bad views in Positano.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bite-Size Review: Tin Lung Heen at The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong

I never could have predicted that the best place in Hong Kong to have char siew (marinated BBQ pork) would be at the new-ish swish locale like the one-Michelin-starred Tin Lung Heen.  At some dive in Wanchai, maybe; in Mongkok, yeah, I can see that; but on the 102nd floor of The Ritz-Carlton?  Never crossed my mind. 

Funny thing was that I was leading a media group to that hotel at the time, and we were being hosted for dinner at Tosca, the equally blinged-out Italian restaurant on the same floor.  As I was a tad early, my old friend and, allow me to shamelessly drop his name, Executive Chef Peter Find, invited me to the restaurants' dual kitchens for an eye-opening behind-the-scenes, where-the-magic-happens mini tour.  That's when I saw his roasted meats section tucked into a wee corner of the TLH's kitchen, and that's when he introduced me to the most succulent and tender char siew I've ever had in my life.
Outstanding char siew - marinated, char-grilled black Iberian pork
To say it was delicious, amazing, and palate-popping would be a serious understatement.  That char siew was glorious.  My limited experience with roasted meats have generally led me to the mistaken belief that it's the fatty bits that make them oh-so-tasty, but Peter assured me that was not the case here.  So what you get at Tin Lung Heen is all the lean juicy, marinated-just-right goodness with none of the evil, guilt-inducing muck that you find in most other char siew joints.
Executive Chef Peter Find and his not-so-secret roasted meats lair.
Our little group returned another day to Tin Lung Heen and got the full-on eight-course treatment by Chef Paul Lau (formerly of Spring Moon at The Peninsula Hong Kong,) held in one of the private dining rooms with a stupendous view (when do they not have one?) of both Hong Kong and Kowloon.  Some of my personal favourites include the double-boiled chicken soup with fish maw served in a coconut; sauteed asparagus and wagyu beef; and a delicately-seasoned steamed cod lightly garnished with ginger and scallions.  The fried rice was just so-so, but damn, you don't go to a place like Tin Lung Heen to order, well, nasi goreng, right?  If you do, then feel free to have your own pity party with a table for one.

Now since we were generously hosted by the hotel, we didn't pay a single dime, but I was under no illusions that everything we'd consumed would've cost a pretty penny if we weren't.  The true test would come from whether one would go back when nothing is gratis anymore, and yes, I did just that.
And it was still worth every expensive and exquisite bite.
The wondrous eight-course feast
Tin Lung Heen - 102/F, The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong, International Commerce Centre, Kowloon
Telephone +852 2263 2263.  Reservations highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

And The Winner Is......

So another year, another World's Ugliest Dog ® Contest at Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma, California.  This is the 24th year this contest has been running, and I say, just give those Chinese Crested dogs their own competition already.  Year after year, one of these gnarly, hairless, snaggle-toothed, whiskered-head, acne-ridden, cataract-prone beauties would inevitably snag the grand prize from, well, their other gnarly, hairless, snaggle-toothed, whiskered-head, acne-ridden, cataract-prone peers.  I mean, seriously, does anybody out there think that any other breed would stand a chance against these Champions of Fuglies?
2012 Winner (Sonoma-Marin) - Mugly
2011 Winner (Sonoma-Marin) - Yoda
2009 Winner (Animal Planet) - Miss Ellie

2009 Winner (Sonoma-Marin) - Pabst.
Ok, he wasn't a  Chinese Crested but a Boxer Mix who was understandably an upset win that year.

2008 Winner (Sonoma-Marin): The three-legged Gus
2007 Winner (Sonoma-Marin) - Elwood
2006 Winner (Sonoma-Marin) - Archie
2002 Winner (Ring of Champions) - Rascal 
And this one below was the reigning champ for three consecutive years - Sam -
who gained international fame and celebrity, and at whose death at nearly 15 years old,
made major headlines around the world.
2003 to 2005 (Sonoma Marin) - Sam
Now having said (and seen) all that, and being a parent of a dog with an unusual visage as well, these Chinese Cresteds do look kinda endearing - sort of; and from what I've been reading about them, they have terrifically sweet dispositions too.  But while I do have a soft spot for funny looking dogs, it might be awhile before I'm persuaded to adopt a canine that has pimples, crazy whiskers, and bear an uncanny resemblance to Zuul from Ghostbusters.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Of Loony Despots and Weeping Tweens

I'm fascinated by all things North Korean, especially by the succession of despotic, loony tyrants who've headed the country for 40+ years.  The rare bits of information and images, especially those that are sanctioned by Pyongyang, depict what I'm sure is a highly distorted rendering of what's really going on in there.  And yet, paradoxically, through all the Gursky-type visual hoopla, there's generally grains of truth in what we are seeing.  If only we knew what it all means.

Case in point: Here's a picture from today's New York Times with the caption: "An officially distributed photograph shows Mr. Kim surrounded by weeping members of the Korean Children's Union during a national meeting." 
Photo: Korea Central News Agency, via European Pressphoto Agency
So many questions, right?

Like, obviously, WTF is going on? Why the wailing? Did KJU just issue an order to kimchi their pets? Is that why he's beaming? Are those tears of utter joy, extreme sadness or debilitating fear? Are weeping and gnashing of teeth normal reactions to seeing him? Could he be the Bieber or the Butcher of Pyongyang? What exactly goes on at these Korean Children's Union gatherings? Are those canvas flats comfortable? 

Fascinating stuff.  Truly.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

McDonald's Breakfast: I'm Loving It - At All Hours

What can I say? I'm a product of the fast food generation and I do love me those Mickey D breakfasts. Lucky for me that they're served all day and all night long in Hong Kong - sometimes for twenty-awesome-four-hours.  Beats having to rush to McDonald's at either 10.35 am or 11.05 am (remember the scene from that shrill Adam Sandler movie Big Daddy?) and being frustrated to learn they'd juuuust switched from the breakfast to the all-day dining menu.  Happened to me too many times to remember when I was living in Honolulu, Singapore, KL, Dubai, Toronto, and Bahrain.  Now I can freely order those hotcakes, Sausage McMuffins, hash browns, Big Breakfasts, and even that odd local contribution - macaroni in chicken broth and topped with mixed veggies, a meat patty or an egg - at any hour of any day of my choosing.  Not that I necessarily would, but it's nice to know that I could.  And that's, honestly, the point of it all, really.
My breakfast order on Saturday, 23 June 2012 at McDonald's on King Kwong Road, Happy Valley


Friday, June 22, 2012

Bite-Size Review: Australia Dairy Company, Kowloon

Finally made it to the "other side" of the harbour one fine weekend afternoon only to dutifully take my place in the ubiquitous queue in front of the famed Australia Dairy Company among the loyal faithful and the gawky tourists (I count myself somewhere in between the two camps.)  The wait wasn't as fearsome as I'd thought, as I snagged a seat even before I'd even finished checking my Facebook updates. Of course, the catch is that for the entire course of your meal you get to rub elbows and avoid eye contact with the perfect strangers sharing your table.  Not a bad price to pay for the quick wait and the yummy goodness this cha chaan teng serves.
To say this place is popular is mega understatement.  It was packed from wall to wall, and that was during the neither-here-nor-there time of three o'clock in the afternoon.  Service was brisk and perfunctory; turnover was as high as James Franco hosting the Oscars.  This was definitely not the place for analyzing horse racing stats or dawdling over your yin-yang (that curious local combo beverage of coffee and tea.)
Yin-Yang on the rocks
Now I'd thought the main thing to order was the steamed egg white and milk pudding  (you'd think so too, right? With a name like Australia Dairy Company?) but it turned out I was kinda mistaken.  No matter, I love this confection anyway, especially when served cold.  Pity it didn't come with a fine dusting of cocoa powder like they do at other similar dairy eateries (Yee Shun Milk Company at Causeway Bay comes to mind.) There's a scalding hot version too, but that's way less fun to slurp down and not that welcome to my palate on a hot summer afternoon.
My order of the cold steamed egg white and milk pudding.  Lovely, firm texture.
It turns out the most popular dish in the house deals with another dairy item: eggs.  Everywhere I looked, there were plates of canary yellow scrambled eggs on each table, topped with thin slices of ham and equally skinny portions of tomatoes, and served with slices of toast. 
My scrambled eggs with ham and tomatoes, plus white bread on the side.
This seemingly basic but oh-so-tasty breakfast dish is served all day and all evening long (the eggs may also be ordered sunny side up,) and more often than not, is part of a set that includes that other highly sought-after culinary wonder - macaroni soup garnished with bits of ham.  I didn't order that though - I'm not so local yet as to crave instant noodles and macaroni in a restaurant, but I'm getting there....slowly but very, very surely - so I just surreptitiously snapped a picture of a fellow table mate's dish instead.
My clandestine photo of some stranger's macaroni soup with ham.
So my advice (which I have every intention of following faithfully myself) to anyone who wants to head over to this restaurant?  Get in, order a set, eat fast, get out, come back again.  And soon.

Australia Dairy Company - 47-49 Parkes Street, Jordan, Kowloon, HK. Telephone +852 2730 1356

Typhoon 1 or 3?

Everday is a brand new day, with a brand new typhoon warning. 
But through it all, the Star Ferry chugs on.
Hong Kong skyline as seen from Kowloon Star Ferry pier.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Novel Storage Space Idea

Kids, the next time your mom tells you to put away your toys, you know what to do.
Photo of this second storey apartment taken along Jalan Alor in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Portrait: Eddie Buay

Snapped this photo of my friend Eddie when he was Arabic lamp shopping in Dubai for
his new house.  I like how how the pattern on the wall-hanging rug inadvertently
"halos" him dead centre, and best of all, gives off an overall trippy 3D-ish vibe.  Namaste.


Monday, June 18, 2012

Most Garish Hotel in the World? Maybe, But So What?

I admit it, I was going to write something snarky about the OTT kitschy-ness of this First World Hotel - once the world's largest until another gargantua, The Palazzo of The Venetian in Las Vegas, claimed that title in 2008.  Now it's got the number four spot with 6,118 rooms but at least it can boast that it's the highest hotel in Malaysia (well, even that honour has to be shared with its sister hotels in the mammoth Genting Highlands complex.) 

The reason I can't quite bring myself to hit all the easy targets hanging below the belt is because I have a certain soft spot for this place....I mean, this was my childhood holiday destination every weekend for what seems like years, and I've spent many an afternoon all wrapped up in woolies (the temperature was only in the low 20's but it could have been the Artic as far as my equatorial family was concerned,) paddle-boating in man-made "lakes," and hanging around the video arcade (my first introduction to Pacman and Space Invaders!) while my batik-clad dad and mom headed off to the casino for hours on end, trusting the resort to play babysitter to my brother and me (yeah, our parents were stupendously optimistic about leaving their two giddy children, both under 10 years old, to their own devices, armed with just 10 ringgit (about US$3.16) in coins - for the arcade, you see - in one of the largest playgrounds in the world.)  We loved every minute of it.

I never had the privilege of staying at this particular colourful hotel - it didn't even exist back in my day; we were always ensconsed in its slightly statelier grand auntie, the Highlands Hotel - but I've no doubt my brother and I would have been delirious over the 500,000 square feet of FUN-O-RAMA (my words, not theirs) that is the First World Plaza, complete with (deep breath now) shopping malls, arcades, food outlets, Starworld Casino, the Genting Indoor Theme Park, a mini stage for weekly "live" magic and music performances, a replica of the Statue of Liberty and an Oscar statue, the Watersplash Pool (an indoor water theme park for children), Genting Sky Venture (Asia's first free fall simulator) and a cineplex.

We'd have loved every minute of it too.
Resorts World Genting -
Situated 51km northeast (45 minutes) of Kuala Lumpur, Genting is easily accessible by road (and partially by cable car.)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Road Trip - Musandam Peninsula, Oman

On a lazy Sunday morning such as today, when the only excursion I'm planning is to the IMAX cinema to watch Prometheus in 3D at iSquare over in Kowloon, I can't help but remember how differently my weekends were spent when living in the Middle East. One of my favourite past-times was piling into the trusty X3 and driving north on beautifully paved roads, slicing through at least five emirates - Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Ras Al Khaimah - to a whole different country - Oman, in just under two hours.
Morning light on one of the many public beaches in this Omani peninsula
To me, this incredible stretch of coastal road that starts at the Omani border ranks way up there with Highway 1 (California,) Hana Highway (Hawaii,) and the Great Ocean Road (Australia.)  Flanked by steep mountains on one side and the Arabian Gulf on the other, you will pass through sleepy clusters of traditional flat-roofed houses, the occasional herd of goats and a few fishermen on their way to the market or back home for the afternoon siesta.  Even though the beaches are popular spots for UAE residents (locals and expats alike) for weekend BBQs, there are no picturesque villages or garish tourist traps along the way....from the moment you drive past the checkpoint at the Omani/UAE border till you reach the town of Khasab (dubbed the "Norway of Arabia," according to Wikipedia) at the tip of the Musandam peninsula, you'll find only rugged, unspoilt and jaw-dropping scenery at every turn.
Incredible sights enroute to Khasab

Friday, June 15, 2012

Bite-Size Review: Open Door Policy - Singapore

Request for a table under the sunroof
Got into Singapore and called up Anton, my former PR protege and proud papa of Frenchies Lulu and Fifi, to recommend a new place for Sunday Brunch.  Without missing a beat, he insisted we go to Open Door Policy

Not that I didn't trust his judgement or anything, but I hadn't been back to the Lion City in awhile and I'd not heard of this joint - in Tiong Bahru, the land of chee kuehs and wet markets, no less - so I had to look it up. 

This little nugget that's within browsing distance of Books Actually has a menu by Tippling Club's executive chef Ryan Clift, and describes its own concept as "modern bistro fare with a rustic twist."  That alone told me jack, mainly because I'd made a tidy living from sprouting and rearranging the same tired restaurant cliches to form other variations of the same tired restaurant cliches.  But then again, this is Anton.... the very knowledgeable food and beverage connoisseur Anton, fer cryin' out loud, who'd picked this place, so whatever misgivings I had about its spiel on its own website, I knew what I was going to experience that Sunday was going to be good.

And it was.

Here are some of the highlights from that brunch:
48-Hour Cooked Braised Beef Cheek with Mochi Potatoes, Carrot Puree and Snow Pea Tendrils
The braised beef cheek was worth the price of admission alone.  Tender, tasty, yum.  Other fast favourites were the halloumi cheese appetizer with olives and white anchovies, and the papaduck papadum with crusted duck fillers and mint yoghurt dip.
What we ate: That's my halloumi cheese appetizer in the middle 

Chocolate and Pistachio Souffle with Creme Anglaise
Order this the second you enter the bistro. 
Before you even check out the open kitchen or even set eyes on the drinks menu. 
If I have only one gripe, it's that this is one of those places that demands your credit card details upon reservation.  And if you're cancelling, better do it 24 hours or more earlier.  They will also give away your table if you're 15 minutes late.  And charge you $50 for being a no-show.  With the service charge included.  If you do manage to make it to the bistro, you've got to GTFO when you dawdle over your micro-lot coffee towards the two-hour mark. Truly, it is that popular but as someone who has time management issues and leans towards calling for impromptu brunch gatherings, that's a right pain in the papadum.  For now though, I have to admit that their chocolate and pistchio souffle alone is worth the hassle of rooting for that piece of plastic from my wallet, and investing in a solid alarm clock topped with a healthy sense of urgency. 

For now.

Open Door Policy - 19 Yong Siak Street (Yong Siak View), Singapore
Telephone: +65 6221 9307. 
Reservations highly recommended, and break out that credit card to hold your table.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Gee, What's This For?

First time I am presented with cutlery that has its purpose etched on. 
Feeling a bit like my IQ's being questioned....
Room 1430 of the Tower Wing at Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Please Sir, May I Have Some More...Of Whatever You're Eating?

Allow me to introduce you to a bull terrier who's perfected the art of looking all wide-eyed and waif-like,
as if she's been starved for weeks and would just like, if you please, a little nibble of that delicious and life-sustaining piece of chicken wing in your hand? Well, her schtick would be flawless if she didn't have those grains of rice stuck to her giant shnozz from the dinner she just inhaled a few seconds ago.
Emma, the perpetually hungry Bullie

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Dinner at Home - June 9, 2012

I knew all those basil plants would come in handy one day.

What's Better Than Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Kittens?

There are two things I love about Salzburg: first is its ever-stunning cityscape (like Brad Pitt, the city has no bad angles)....
Salzburg in twilight.
Photo taken from MDM (Museum der Moderne) Salzburg.
.....and the other is that very famous culinary specialty and pride of the nation: Sacher Torte.  I've sampled it in this city and Vienna, both times at Hotel Sacher.  This "Original Sacher Torte" is available exclusively at these two hotels (including their online shop,) at the Cafes Sacher in Innsbruck and Graz, the Sacher Shop in Bozen, and in the Duty Free area of the Vienna airport.  It's totally worth taking home as a tasty souvenir, along with all those Swarovski crystal, Klimt prints and snow globes....assuming, of course, you can make it all the way home without devouring this chocolate yummers in transit.
My very own slice of Sacher Torte at the riverfront Hotel Sacher Salzburg

Friday, June 8, 2012

Bite-Size Review: Obika Mozzarella Bar in Milan

My first real meal upon arriving in Milan was here at Obika, on the 7th floor of the food market at La Rinascente Duomo, as recommended by my friend (and reluctant Milanese resident) Seema Gupta.  Even though the temperature was hovering very close to the single digits, the sun was out and the sky was brilliantly blue, so why not sit outside on the terrace where the bonus was an uninterrupted view of the Duomo? 
My order of Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP: Burrata.
Accompanied by cherry tomatoes, basil pesto, and olives.
Obik√† is a relatively new restaurant concept (and I'm happy to say there's one in downtown Toronto just waiting for it to land on Hong Kong shores) which revolves around its signature menu offering - handmade Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP - a fresh product made from 100% buffalo milk, very nutritious and highly digestive, rich in calcium, and high in protein, vitamins and mineral salt content. Seriously, if "non-fat" was added to the above mix, I'd put all my life savings into buffalo stock options, like, yesterday.
Orecchiette with Mozzarella di Bufala (burrata) and organic tomato ‘La Motticella’ sauce
As if life isn't complicated enough, Obika offers four mozzarella types from which you may choose:
Paestum (delicate taste,) Pontina (strong taste,) Affumicata (naturally smoked,) and Burrata (deliciously creamy) - I picked the burrata both times and thought that "creamy" was a  major understatement.  So is "holy mother of all goomers, this stuff is goooooood."

Highly recommended accompaniments to your mozzarella intake include:
- Cherry tomatoes and light basil pesto
- Violet artichokes from Castellammare in olive oil
- Caponata (eggplant) alla Siciliana
- Sicilian vegetables and tomato casserole
- Grilled seasonal vegetables and light basil pesto
- A delicate DOP prosciutto from Parma
- A DOP prosciutto from San Daniele
- Charcoal roasted Ham
- A mild salami from Tuscany
- A distinctive handmade mortadella with a smoky flavour
- Anchovies from Cetara, near Amalfi and sundried tomatoes
- Smoked wild salmon
- Tasting of prosciutto from Parma, Mortadella from Tuscany

Obika - La Rinascente Duomo
7/F, Food Market, via S. Radegonda 1 corner Piazza Duomo - Milano. Tel.: +39 02 8852453

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Portrait: Alex and Annabel

My secret goddaughter Annabel and her brother Alex.
Photographed at their home in Adelaide, Australia.
Photo by Evelyn Kat

Bite-Size Review: Nha Trang Vietnamese Restaurant, Hong Kong

I first got into Vietnamese food in a really big way - and I mean consuming-copious-amount-of-pho-on-a-weekly basis-for-a-year kind of a big way - in, of all places, Honolulu, Hawaii.  That's because it was the only authentic Asian fix I could get in the Aloha State, which is ironic for a bunch of islands most noted for its high ethnically Asian-originated population.  However, a whole lot of their current Chinese and even Japanese restaurants have been watered down throughout the generations, and they've also rather unfortunately adapted to Western tastes to the point that the cuisine is not really all that recognizable anymore.  Familiar, sort of.  Authentic, not so much.  But for some reason, to my very rudimentary knowledge at the time, Vietnamese food in Honolulu was still pretty much left as they were.  And hence, my first real education in northern and southern Viet cuisine, with their liberal use of shallots, fresh vegetables, clear broths, and more herbs that I can possibly name, began.
Gui Cuon or summer rolls: Rice paper-thin rolls that often include shrimp, herbs, pork, rice vermicelli
and other ingredients wrapped up and dipped in nuoc cham or peanut sauce.
Super healthier alternative to their deep-fried cousins: the spring roll.
When I got to Hong Kong, there was no shortage of eateries with soupy noodles (still one of my favourit-est comfort foods,) but what I was really hankering for was good pho (the noodle soup with a rich, clear broth made from meat - generally beef - and spices,) gui cuon or summer rolls, banh xeo / savoury crepes and banh cuon (rice flour rolls stuffed with ground pork, prawns, and assorted green vegetables.)  So that was a really fortuitous day, in my gastronomic wai sek world, when I found, whilst strolling down Wellington Street one fine day in Central, Nha Trang Vietnamese Restaurant. 
Pho with shaved-thin slices of medium rare beef.
I've since found another of its outlets a bit closer to home in Wanchai.  Like its sister restaurant in Central, this one fills up fast.  I mean, the place opens at noon, and there was already a long line of hungry pho-philes outside, with me right in the mix.  Now, aside from the pho (and if you're not a beef-eater, your loss,) there's a fine selection of wraps and crepes to sample.  I'm particularly partial to banh xeo which are crepes made from rice flour batter with a touch of coconut milk and curry, and filled with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts and, again, a whole lot of fresh herbs.
Order this banh xeo - a particularly tasty rice flour crepe with a lot of goodness inside
I have to admit, one of the reasons why I like banh cuon so much is because it reminds me of the Malaysian chee cheong fun, another form of steamed rice flour rolls, only the former is waaaaay more tastier that its southern neighbour's offering.  The killer edge? Has to be that divine dipping sauce - nuoc cham - which is a divine blend of lime or lemon juice, vinegar, fish sauce, sugar, and water.
Banh cuon: not for those with peanut or shrimp allergies.

Nha Trang Vietnamese Restaurant
88-90 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong.  Telephone: +852 2581 9992
2/F Wu Chung House, 213 Queen’s Road East, Wanchai, Hong Kong. Telephone +852 2891 1177
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