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Friday, August 28, 2015

Hotel Review: Songtsam Lodge at Shangri-La

This incredible view greeted me as my driver from Songtsam Shangri-La Lodge rounded the corner and began the last couple of kilometers towards the hotel.  If that temple above looks familiar, it should.  That is Songzanlin Monastery (also known as Ganden Sumtsenling) - the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan and a mini-me version of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.  Built in 1679, the monastery, which is hugely popular with tourists and devotees alike, houses more than 700 monks and is a 15-minute drive from the town of Shangri-La (formerly Zhongdian.)

We were fortunate to stay within a few hundred meters of this historic monument at the flagship Songtsam lodge (which by the way has absolutely zero relation to the luxury hotel group bearing the same name as the destination.) This is one of five intimate Songtsam branded lodges that the founder Baima Dorjie has strategically built throughout the north western corner of China, in relative close proximity to the Three Parallel Rivers National Park.  By the way, the scenery in this region is spectacular and extraordinarily varied, with verdant terraced valleys, soaring mountainous peaks, deep gorges, virgin forests, and designated World Heritage sites abound.
Courtyard entrance at Songtsam Shangri-La Lodge
I have to admit that after roughing it a bit at Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge, checking into Songtsam Lodge was like slipping into a warm soothing bath in a lost paradise.  Fashioned after an atypical Tibetan residence, the lodge was decorated with tasteful furnishings and artworks sourced by the founder himself, very much reflective of the surrounds.  From the moment we arrived, the friendly staff was all over us, but in a gentle, unobtrusive manner.   All guests must take off their shoes, leave them in wooden footlockers by the front door, and wear the proffered canvas slip-ons which were not only comfortable but had the added benefit of making each footstep that much quieter on the wooden floors. 
Our exceedingly comfortable Deluxe Room with a terrace and views overlooking the lake

At 3,600 metres above sea level, the air was decidedly much thinner than at our last destination - Lijiang (which was at 2,400 metres.)  Luckily, we had spent a couple of days at the latter city (also home to several UNESCO World Heritage sites) to acclimatize and it was only a 90-minute drive to Shangri-La, but still, I was taking in much deeper breaths just to not pass out whilst climbing the stairs to our room that's on the third floor (there are no elevators at the lodge.)  Honestly, I felt like a geriatric who'd just wheezed her way to a marathon finish line every time I returned to my room, and I had to literally take several gulps of air before doing something as strenuous as turning the key in the lock.

The sitting area of our Deluxe Room
Copper washing sinks in the bathrooms, handpicked by the founder; guest slippers
Tibetan antiques and artifacts that are displayed throughout the lodge.

The framed embroidered tapestries adorning the walls at each guest floor; the gift shop at the lobby.
Our tree-top view from the restaurant

As a wine region, it's not as well known as, say, Bordeaux, Sonoma, Mendoza, or even Okanagan Valley, but Yunnan's viticulture reputation is slowly growing in, if not the general public's, then the wine growers' consciousness.  Mo√ęt Hennessy has already opened a winery in Deqin county, and Pierre Lurton (of Cheval Blanc and Chateau d'Yquem) may soon be making inroads in the province. 

This was the best dinner I had during my week in Yunnan. A hearty hot-pot of simmering broth filled with fresh chicken, sliced ham, Chinese cabbage, mushrooms, tofu, and a whole lot of coriander and chili padi.
The well-stocked library of Songtsam Lodge.  It was a luxury just to sit here quietly and read, but I also gave in occasionally to the impulse to gaze at the meadow, lake and the horizon beyond.
For one evening, we ventured to the sister Songtsam Retreat at Shangri-La MGallery Collection for dinner. This is a much more modern construct about a 10-minute walk from our hotel.  Don't be fooled by the similar names; this one is managed by Accor and is set behind Songzanlin Monastery.  At 75 rooms and sprawled over a larger space on a hill, the hotel is more suited for groups and doesn't have the same cosy, residential feel as the smaller Lodge I was staying in.   But the views, I must admit, were no less spectacular.
I took this photo from the restaurant at the Accor-managed Songtsam retreat just about 20 minutes before the sun set.  You're looking at the beautiful light that beamed down for a few minutes on the back of Songzanlin Monastery and the surrounding farmland. 

Songtsam Lodge at Shangri-La 
Yunnan Province
China 674400
Telephone: +86 887 8288 889

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

In Plane View: New South Wales, Australia.

Sometimes I get lucky with the perfect trifecta of a window seat, drama clouds
and a fantastic view of my destination upon approaching the airport.

This is the coast of New South Wales.


Top 3 Best Restaurants in Okanagan Valley

Driving through Okanagan Valley, it turns out, is hungry (and thirsty) work.  So it's all the more fortuitous that we were in a prime location to sample some of the best culinary offerings west of Vancouver during our recent road trip to this fertile land. With access to some of the freshest ingredients that are locally sourced from neighbouring farms, it is no wonder that there is a shared  focus amongst the top restaurants on seasonal produce and meats with an over-arching emphasis on flavour.  Here are just three of our favourite restaurants in the Valley:

Old Vines Restaurant and Wine Bar
Quails' Gate Winery
3303 Boucherie Road
West Kelowna, British Columbia
Telephone +1 250 769 4451
Open daily; reservations recommended

The Old Vines restaurant is very much a part of Quail's Gate Winery, perched above acres of its vineyard overlooking Okanagan Lake.  The setting is undeniably idyllic and picturesque.  Guests may choose to sit indoors in a bright, glass enclosed multi-level space, or out on the sunny terrace as they sip the winery's award-winning 2011 Chardonnay.  Diners will be treated to Winery Chef Roger Sleiman's meticulously prepared dishes that are from the most reputable and sustainable suppliers in the region. Also, the beef they serve is 100 percent BC born and raised, and the seafood is 100 percent Ocean Wise-certified.
The outdoor terrace of Old Vines Restaurant
From left to right: Wise Earth Farm greens consisting of estate watercress, pickled sprouts, daikon, seed cracker and apricot vinaigrette; a half-dozen oysters with fresh horseradish and red wine vinegar mignonette and lemon; and Dungeness crab cakes with shaved fennel and apple slaw topped with buttermilk "remoulade" dressing.  According to Chef Sleiman, the restaurant's seafood is sourced from Codfathers Seafood Market and Organic Ocean who shares a common fervent interest in preserving the fragile aquatic ecosystem.
Pan roasted Okanagan char from Oliver with pickled carrot puree, beluga lentils, heirloom tomatoes, and watercress. 
Manila clam and wild garlic tagliatelle with caper butter, nettle, fennel and penny cress.

The divine salted caramel budino with preserved citrus, chocolate streusel and rosemary snap
The idyllic view of the vineyard from the terrace of Old Vines restaurant

425 Middle Bench Road North
Penticton, British Columbia
Telephone +1 250 493 9463
Open for lunch, dinner, afternoon tapas from 11:30am – late, Monday to Friday. 
Brunch/lunch and dinner from 10am - late, Saturday and Sunday

This teeny tiny town of Penticton with a population just over 2,000 is where Sheila and Paul Jones decided to move their popular restaurant back in 2012 from the neigbouring - and much larger - Summerland.  Perched on a bluff overlooking Okanagan Lake, it's easy to see why Vanilla Pod has been voted the "best restaurant with a view" by the readers of Okanagan Life in 2013 and 2014.  On the day we were there, there were fast moving clouds under a brilliant blue sky so it made for dramatic vistas during our lunch.

It's not that unexpected that Vanilla Pod follows the trend of focusing on local and seasonal ingredients, and under Executive Chef Bruno Terroso, the menus feature flavourful tapas-style dishes (from which its fame derived) which go very well with the wines from both Poplar Grove and Monster vineyards.
Sitting up high on a vantage point overlooking the lake is Vanilla Pod restaurant.  Clear glass wall panels fill the interiors with natural light.
Enter through the tasting hall and showroom serving Poplar Grove and Monster Vineyards wines to head over to the restaurant within.

A very refreshing chick pea salad with tomatoes, red onions, spinach and cilantro white balsamic vinaigrette.  Serving staff were friendly but not terribly fast or efficient.  This salad was already ready and sitting on the kitchen counter for five minutes before it was picked up.
Paella comprising spicy saffron tomato rice, prawns, clams, chicken, chorizo, bell peppers, red onions and pea shoots.  Wine: Poplar Grove 2013 Munson Mountain Pinot Gris.

BBQ pulled pork with house made sourdough bun, spicy mayo and fennel slaw.  Served with potato wedges.

Vanilla bean gelato cake with oreo crust, Italian meringue and coulis

1560 Water Street
Kelowna, British Columbia
Telephone +1 250-868-8805
Open daily from 5 pm
Reservations are only accepted for groups of 8 to 20

Support local, buy local, eat and drink local.
Many restaurants in the Valley exhort this farm-to-table philosophy but at RauDZ - co-owned by British Columbia Restaurant Hall of Fame chef Rod Butters and Audrey Surrao, it's a revered calling.  Since 2008, this urbane restaurant which sits within the main downtown grid of Kelowna (pop: 106,710) features fresh local dishes with most of the ingredients sourced from a carefully curated pool of the region's farmers and ranchers. 
When I walked in, I noted that all the hipster zeitgeist touch points were in place - exposed brick interiors, the giant chalkboard crammed with a mish mash of (semi) popular quotations, black and white photos of neighbourhood purveyors - but it would be a huge mistake to dismiss RauDZ as a flash in the millennial pan.  If anything, the menu is a glorious gastronomic testament to the masterful skills of Butters (formerly of the Four Diamond-awarded Fresco,) his executive chef Brock Bowes and their culinary team.
Chef and co-owner Rod Butters working his magic
The Ultimate Salad Greens with pecans, pickled rhubarb, and strawberry vinaigrette

Butter glazed asparagus
The Butcher's Cut: Roast duck breast (from Fraser's Valley) with polenta, cornbread, bakchoy, kale and heirloom tomatoes.  Wine: Sandhill 2012 Syrah, Kelowna

Lamb shank with sundried tomato, cucumber cous cous, asparagus, mint chimichurri 
Creme brulee with sliced apple shavings

As you can see, I had only sampled a teeny portion of this menu but what I would like to have on my next visit to RauDZ (and you can bet your last dollar there will be a next visit) are the frothy crab cappuccino; poutine made from chicken leg confit and artisan cheese curds; the RJB which is essentially a grilled beef tenderloin burger with butter poached crab, shaved cured bacon, onion jam (!) on a brioche bun and complemented by roasted potatoes with - wait for it - duck fat mayonnaise.  I'd end the meal with the restaurant's signature dessert of double chocolate mashed potato brioche with raspberry sorbet and warm chocolate sauce (I swear I must have just gained five pounds typing the above paragraph.)

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