Monday, December 30, 2013

A look back at 2013

As the year is about to close, here's a look back at some of my favorite memories from 2013.  It was a year filled with my old favorite cities, with new favorite cities, with amazing bites and sips, and with meeting some of the best chefs in the world.  What a year!

I can't wait to see what 2014 will have to offer...

Started the year with a beach resort vacation in Bohol

Patatas bravas in Hong Kong's ViCool.  From the mastermind of Spain's Sergi Arola

A memorable birthday meal at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Hong Kong.  Lobster and uni - what more can a girl ask for?

Friday, December 27, 2013

Segovian Cochinillo in the flesh - the milky pig flesh surrounded by airy crispy skin.

Segovia.  Occupied by the Romans in 80 BC, housed the royal residence in the 15th century during the reign of Queen Isabel, and has an Alcazar which inspired Walt Disney to design California Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty castle.

If you're looking for a day trip out of Madrid, you must put Segovia on your list.  The aqueduct alone is worth the trip.  It is the most awe inspiring structure located in the heart of the city.  Built in the 1st century AD, the Acueducto is ENORMOUS.  862 meters long, reaching up to 28 meters high, with 163 arches.  When it was built, there was not a drop of mortar holding the over 20,000 blocks of uneven granite.  That is serious ingenuity, engineering, and labor.

And, of course, you can't go to Segovia and not eat.  You can't go, and not eat the cochinillo asado.  The region's specialty roasted baby pig.  It sounds horrible that it's a baby pig.  But, seriously, this is one of the best things I've ever eaten - and I'm from the Philippines.  We have a lot of lechon and cochinillo over here.

Right next to the aqueduct is Mesón de Cándido.  Run by family generations and hailed by celebrities and chefs from around the world.  This is the place to go to really enjoy this region's perfection for cooking cochinillo.

Here's a short clip of the plate cutting ceremony for our Segovian cochinillo.  Yes, it's so ridiculously tender, it's cut with a plate:

Segovia's Acueducto

Monday, December 23, 2013

Walking through Toledo's history

Spain's cities are filled with walks through history.  Toledo is no exception.  The heart of Toledo is in its Old Town.  After a series of escalator connections (or if you want, you can always trek up the steep uphill climb), you enter into the town's historic quarter.

All of the major sights are within walking distance.  You can easily spend one afternoon in Toledo.  The Catedral is an attraction worth your time.  This cathedral is said to be the heart of Catholic Spain.  Paintings and masterpieces are from famous Spanish artists.  A lavish tesoro, or monstrance, full of gold and silver is in display until its once a year parade.  The high altar is one of the most decorated and gaudy pieces of art I've ever seen.  Everything is extravagant and perfectly tells the history of Spain, its previous wealth, and its participation in Catholicism.

Aside from history, Toledo also has a food specialty.  Mazapan!  Prior to this trip, I was only familiar with marzipan; and I was not a fan.  Marzipan is too sweet and put together.  It's like overly sugared soft candy.  Mazapan completely changed my perception.  It has just the right amount of sweetness and bite to appreciate the quality of the almonds.

Toledo is a perfect destination if you're looking for a day trip out of Madrid.  You take a break from the city streets and can have a full day of walking through history.

The view from the escalator ride up to the Old Town

The narrow streets of Toledo.  Cars beware!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid

In the center of Madrid, next to Plaza Mayor, is another one of the capital's oldest markets, Mercado de San Miguel.  Built in 1916, the market renovated to incorporate modernism against the cast-iron architecture.  This is a traditional market for the 21st century and it bills itself as a culinary cultural centre.

33 food purveyors offer products to take home and/or consume on the premises.  In the center of the mercado are bar tables to leisurely enjoy the food and beverages sold at the market.  During day time hours, fresh ingredients like fish, meat, and fruits are sold.  At night, tapas, beer, and wine are the highlights of the market.

Mercado de San Miguel and Mercado de San Antón are a couple of the best places for food lovers in Madrid, both for locals and for tourists.  They highlight quality ingredients to take home, as well as traditional and modern tapas to enjoy on the spot.  Markets are really the place to live and learn the ways of the locals.

Mercado de San Miguel

Modern with traditional

The entrance

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mercado de San Antón in Madrid

After falling in love with markets in San Sebastian and Valencia, I was more than ready for markets in Spain's capital.

The first of the two markets (the second will be featured in my next post) is Mercado de San Antón.  A market literally around the corner from our hotel in the Chueca barrio.  It's a district full of boutique shops and neighborhood restaurants and bars.

The mercado is an three-story indoor market featuring farm fresh local produce.  The building and market was constructed in 1945, one of the oldest markets in the city.  In 2011, the government commissioned to renovate the market to bring it into the 21st century.  It's now one of the places to buy food while savoring it on the spot as well.

The market is full of delis, bakeries, butchers, fishmongers, etc on the first floor.  On the second floor there are tapas vendors, Greek cuisine, Italian cuisine, fresh seafood, desserts, and, of course, a wine bar.  On the third floor is a restaurant both indoors and with a roof terrace.  This is a place you can keep coming back to for lunch, merienda, and dinner.  In fact in the few nights were based in Madrid, we enjoyed three meals here.  The second floor is my favorite of the three.  You get to choose a variety of foods and enjoy it family style on bar height tables.  Seriously, Madrileños know how to eat well.

Mercado de San Antón

3 floors of food and eating

Monday, December 16, 2013

Madrid: Pride of city with endless amazing eats.

Madrid!  One of my absolute favorite cities in the world.  I was worried that I would be letdown after finally coming back to this city ten years later.  Wow, the city is far cooler and far better than I remember.  Madrid is still and most definitely one of the my favorite cities in the world.

It's a true city and capital full of history and culture, and it's clean.  Madrid is so alive, so trendy and fashionable while not being arrogant or stiff.  There are newer barrios and neighborhoods that are walkable and full of life and food, too.

El Corte Ingles is a standard stop for some department store shopping, grocery shopping, and eating.  It is the biggest department store group in Europe, and it's the only remaining department store in Spain.  The Gran Via location has a great Gourmet Experience on the top floor with fantastic views of the city.  You can take it all in while enjoying a selection of tapas and cuisines from around the world.

Madrid is also a city to sample the Spanish classic: churros con chocolate.  Books and Internet research lead me to Chocolateria Valor and Chocolateria San Gines.  Valor is a big name chocolate brand in Spain.  Despite the name and reviews, I actually preferred San Gines.  It has a hype for attracting decades of celebrities and big names.  The churros were fresh and crispy and the chocolate had that right amount of sweetness and darkness.  The experience of eating churros con chocolate can be done at any time of the day.  Locals, though, are known to indulge in this sweet, fried goodness in the wee hours of the morning after a long night out.  In fact, Chocolateria San Gines' hours are 9:30am to 7:00am.  Madrileños know how to party and to live, and to eat.

Walking around Madrid 

Friday, December 13, 2013

History in Seville

Our main purpose driving to southern Spain was for Jerez and Jabugo.  Sherry, tocino del cielo, and jamón.  In order to have these two day trips, we researched a city within driving distance.  Jerez does have a selection of hotels, but I'm always on the lookout for newer and clean hotels.  So that lead us to have a three day hub in the capital of Andalusia.

Seville, or Sevilla to the locals, is the region's biggest city.  In the heart of it, you can walk through centuries of medieval architecture.  Seville is an old city, though, which smells of its many horse drawn carriages trotting around the plazas and streets.  In its successful marketing, the city has drawn numerous tourists to take in this southern culture.

One of the highlights of Seville is its cathedral.  The Catedral de Santa Maria de la Sede.  It is the largest Gothic cathedral and the third largest church in the world.  Also, the cathedral houses the burial site of Christopher Columbus.

Because of Seville's history of cultures and religions, a segment of the cathedral is attached to an ancient mosque.  The bell tower, La Giralda, is famously a minaret from the former mosque.

Seville is a city full of history.  You can feel a bit of a grit and age in the city, as well as the chaos from hoards of tourists.  With that said, if you visit Seville be very careful of your belongings.  We experienced a man scouting our table and then acting drunk in an attempt to get to our bags.

Seville Cathedral's enormity 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Jabugo, Spain: Little Village, Huge Jamón

In a small village with a population of just over 2,500, lies one of the most important food landmarks in Spain: Jabugo.

Tucked away in the province of Huelva between the lush chestnut and oak trees, Jabugo is the dwelling place of some of the best jamón in the country.  Cold, dry winters, mild springs, and hot summers provide a unique environment for these Iberian pigs.

This little village is a great place to spend an afternoon breathing in the beautiful smell of cured ham.  Jabugo hams (as well as jamón from Salamanca) stand out among the best in the country because of their high quality of breeding and curing.

This is the place to buy jamón at an unbeatable price - as this is straight from the source.  Monte Sierra is a great stop for jamón and for a tour during the week days.  Cinco Jotas is a known brand for its high standards and quality.  Along the town's main street also lies Las Bellotas, a restaurant featuring Cinco Jotas/Sancho Romero Carvajal products.  This is a nice place to relax and sample before purchasing bigger quantities to take home.

If you love jamón and you're in Spain, it's worthwhile the trip into this little province town that holds so much value to the country.

The streets of Jabugo

The statute representing the jamón workers of Jabugo

A monument representing the village of Jabugo and its generations of workers whose hands tirelessly work everyday to produce this golden jamón, their unique jamón

Jamón legs upon jamón legs!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Tio Pepe Sherry Tasting in Jerez

Aside from the amazing tocino del cielo, Jerez is also known for its sherry production.  Sherry is fortified wine from white grapes grown in this Andalucian province.  Naturally, Jerez is home to over 20 sherry bodegaas.

The most famous bodega is Bodegas González Byass, also known as Bodegas Tio Pepe.  It is one of the biggest sherry houses, just next to the Alcázar and Cathedral.  Their sherry production opened in 1835 by Manuel María González Angel, who partnered with Robert Blake Byass.  The infamous sherry, Tio Pepe, was named after his favorite uncle and advisor, Tio Pepe.  The bodega opened in 1963 and has expanded over the years.  Today the company is run by 4th and 5th generation González family members.

The best way to learn about this bodega and the process of sherry production is by taking their tour.  There are several tours throughout the day in English, Spanish, German, and French.  Reservations can be made online and you pay when you get there.  The tours include 2 to 4 tastes of sherry and an option for tapas with your tasting.  It's only 18.50 Euro for 4 tastings and tapas.  It's worth it, and the sherry buzz you get afterwards is fun.

Tio Pepe Statue

Outside Bodegas Tio Pepe/Bodegas Gonzalez Byass

Friday, December 06, 2013

Taking in Andalucian culture in Jerez. And falling in love with their tocino del cielo.

Jerez de la Frontera is arguably one of the destinations to discover the heart of Andalucia.  It has the horse culture and the flair for flamenco.  The larger cities like Seville and Granada get more of the attention with their numerous buildings and monuments.  But, Jerez is a wonderful place to explore and to taste some of Spain's most known specialties: sherry and tocino del cielo - our two reasons to drive to Jerez for the day.

We arrived into Jerez from Seville an hour before our tour time at Tio Pepe/Gonzalez Byass Bodega (the infamous sherry producers.  More on our Tio Pepe tour in my next post).  To kill time we explored the surrounding area which holds a couple of Jerez's most known structures.  The Alcázar is a former Moorish fortress which now houses a beautiful park.  The first of the fortresses dates back to the 11th century.  Nearby is the Catedral de San Salvador.  It was built in the 17th century and became a cathedral in 1980 by Pope John Paul II.

Apart from the sherry, we were in Jerez's for one of their
most famous creations: tocino del cielo.  It translates to bacon from heaven.  It's an iconic Spanish dessert named because of its caramelized appearance, heavenly texture, and religious origin.  Tocino del cielo was created in the Convent of the Holy Spirit of Jerez de la Frontera by nuns who were given egg yolks from their neighboring sherry producers (because sherry is clarified with egg whites).

After some internet research and advice from some locals, we knew there was only one place to try it, La Rosa de Oro - neighborhood pastelería with Spanish cakes, pastries, ice creams, and sweet drinks.  It's a place for locals to savor an afternoon snack and for kids to get a treat after school.

Hands down, their tocino del cielo was the best dessert I had on the entire trip.  I'm willing to drive back to Jerez for more of this.  I can still taste the caramelized sweet silky texture.  Seriously from heaven.

Near the pastelería was a local grocery.  It was so fun to see all the local goods found only in Spain.  You can host your own tapas party at home and not have to cook a thing!

An entrance to Alcázar

The courtyard

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Touring like a local in Valencia's markets

And back to the focus of our trip - markets!  Valencia has one of the best markets in Spain.  Coming from La Boqueria in Barcelona, I was ready for other markets less known.  Mercat Central, or Central Mercado or Central Market, is one of the oldest running food markets in Europe.

La Boqueria is so famous and talked about consistently, but I actually prefer Valencia's market.  There are less ready to eat foods compared to La Boqueria, but there are far far less tourists and crowds.  The market is so clean and well-lit with natural sky lights.  On top of that, the vendors are incredibly friendly and so happy to explain their products and how to properly utilize them.  This is the best place to get a feel of local life and local living in Valencia.

In another part of town, L'Eixample, Mercado de Colón is a former market built in 1916.  In 2003 the space was renovated to house boutique shops and cafés, with a lower floor containing a cafetería, wine shop, deli, and spaces for events.  It is a perfect stop for an afternoon drink and snack.  The deli below also has some great ingredients to take away and cook at home, if you happen to have a kitchen where you are staying.

Mercat Central

Monday, December 02, 2013

History and Modernity in Valencia

Valencia, Spain's third largest city, is known for the beautiful City of Arts and Sciences structures and the birthplace of paella (more on Valencia's paella in my next post about Valencia's markets).  It is a beautiful coastal city that combines history and modernity, and it's worth taking the time explore.

The City of Arts and Sciences, or Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencas, is an entertainment based cultural and architectural complex.  It is the most important and known tourist destination in the city.  The structures began in 1996, with the latest addition inaugurated in 2005.

There are currently 7 structures, including an IMAX cinema and planetarium, an interactive science museum, a landscaped walk, the largest oceanographic aquarium in Europe, an opera house and performing arts center, a suspension bridge, and a covered plaza for concerts and sporting events.  It sounds like a lot and in person it's even more incredible to see the architecture and modernity.

Balancing the modernity is the appreciation of history.  The Valencia Cathedral, also known as the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady of Valencia, was built between the 13th to 15th centuries.  Christians, historians, and Indiana Jones fans will find it fascinating to learn that one of the chapels in this cathedral holds one of the Holy Chalices - as in, the true Holy Grail.  Christian historians say this is evidence that this chalice is a likely candidate for being the authentic cup used at the Last Supper.  It was also used by many popes, including Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.

Aside from appreciating Valencia's architecture and history, there is also plenty to eat - it's Spain, after all.  Valencia is known for their chufa nuts, or tiger nuts.  The key ingredient in horchata.  There are a few famous horchaterias in the city.  We saw two of them which are right across from each other.  Horchateria El Siglo and Horchateria Sta. Catalina.  After trying one horchata in Sta. Catalina, we reached our sugar capacity with just a couple of sips.  Wow, it's incredibly sweet, and not in a way I like at all.  If you love super sweet things, you may enjoy this.  I actually preferred the horchata in Ca'n Joan de S'Aigo in Palma, which used almonds instead of tiger nuts.  It was way less sweet and had a nuttier taste as opposed to the tiger nuts' earthier taste.

Valencia's Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencas
The City of Arts and Sciences

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Roman Ruins of Tarragona

Back on the Iberian peninsula after a couple of nights on the beautiful island of Mallorca.  And back in our rental van ready for the next destination.  Barcelona to Valencia for a 350 km (217.5 miles) drive, but first a stop 100 km away in Tarragona.

Along the coastal drive, Tarragona holds one of the most significant Roman sites in the country.  The description in guidebooks say this it the stop to make to take in history.  The seaside facing amphitheatre is a bit underwhelming as it's located next to a primary school as though it's not a big deal.  But on a sunny say with blue skies, you can picture history with the Romans coming in by boat.  It is amazing to think about how this was built in the 1st and 2nd centuries, B.C.

Before getting back in the car for the last of the drive, about 2.5 hours to go, we took a break for merienda, or an afternoon snack.  We're in Spain, that means to have to have a mid-day break and eat.  We stopped at Spain's most known department store, El Corte Inglés.  Every El Corte throughout the country has a grocery in the basement and at least one restaurant on its top floors, which is perfect for a meal or snack.  The Tarragona El Corte restaurant served one of the best churros con chocolate of the trip - who would have thought it was going to be here in the department store of this town.

Roman ruins in Tarragona

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sugar rush of ensaimadas in Palma de Mallorca

2 days and 2 nights in Mallorca - that's just enough time to get a little sample of the island's specialties.  Mallorca is known for their almonds, oranges, and ensaimadas.

Ensaimadas were eventually brought to the Philippines (known as ensaymadas) by Mallorcan soldiers centuries ago longing for their region's specialty.  Mallorcan ensaimadas come in varying sizes and even topped or filled with sweets and savories.

During our two short days, we were able to squeeze in three of the more known ensaimadas stores.  Ca'n Joan de S'Aigo is a famous milk bar serving ice creams, horchatas, hot chocolates, and sweets varying from the varieties of ensaimadas to almond cakes.  Forn d'es Reco is a cute little bakery that we happen to stumble upon.  It's unassuming with plenty of sweets and savories made with love over the generations.  Their ensaimada has a unique taste of almonds in the fluffy bites.  Forn Fondo is one of the more known bake shops even promoted by Jose Andres.  I actually found this to be the least tasty compared to the other two.  There are a few more ensaimadas stores I'd love to try out, but we just couldn't handle that much sweetness in the short amount of time - a great excuse for another trip to the island.

To balance the sweetness, there are a number of restaurants and cafes scattered throughout the city, many of which are of varying European cuisines catering to the groups of tourists visiting the island.

In a tiny alley off of Central Palma, La Bodeguilla is a great stop for tapas and wine.  They serve dinner choices, but I would stick with the tapas in the wine bar area which has a fun atmosphere.  Plus, with tapas you don't get overly stuffed in one restaurant and that allows you to really get a taste of a number of places during the course of one meal.

A town like Palma is all about walking around the city, getting lost, and discovering gems like Forn d'es Reco and La Bodeguilla.

Ca'n Joan de S'Aigo

Mallorca's milk bar, dating back to 1700

Sampling the specialties: Almond milk, hot chocolate, and ensaimadas

Monday, November 25, 2013

A vacation away from the vacation in Palma de Mallorca

Time for a vacation away from the vacation.  In Spain, there's no better place for this than in the Balearic Islands.  Less than an hour away from Barcelona by plane, Palma de Mallorca has it all - beaches, mountains, shopping, culture, history, and amazing food and wine.  It's literally a breathe of fresh air coming from the hoards of tourists in Barcelona.

Mallorca is especially exciting for our family of food lovers because of the island's creation of ensaimada.  But more on Mallorcan food and our eats in my next post...

For now, a little glimpse into our 3 days and 2 nights on the island.  From walking around, and especially in driving around, you can immediately tell this is Europe's playground - just take a look at Puerto Portals, Mallorca's port with hundreds and hundreds of yachts of huge proportions.

Flying into Palma de Mallorca

Panorama of the Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma

Friday, November 22, 2013

Showtime at Albert Adrià's Tickets

Ferran Adrià is the world's most celebrated chef today thanks to his legacy at El Bulli and his contributions to the modern age of gastronomy.  Just one year after Ferran began his career at El Bulli at the age of 22, his younger brother joined the staff at the age of 15.

"Without Albert, El Bulli as we know it now would never have existed," claimed Ferran.  Albert Adrià eventually became the restaurant's creative director.  Any mention of Albert always brings his brother's name into the conversation.  Albert is beyond worthy of his own name.  Jose Andres worked with both brothers in El Bulli said, "Ferran may be an incredible chef, but there is no better cook in the world than Albert."

Albert Adrià is genius in his own right.  He currently has 4 restaurants in Barcelona, with 2 more opening next year.  As soon as we planned our dates, I jumped online to book a table at Tickets.  You have to reserve 60 days in advanced online.  And the availability goes out as fast as a Jay-Z/Justin Timberlake concert (or The Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney if you want to be technical about fast selling tickets).  After 3 attempts on 3 different nights (and having to wake up in the middle of the night as soon as the next day's schedule gets online), I finally scored a lunch reservation for 4!  It felt like winning the lottery.  Now I just had to wait 60 days..

The wait is so worth it.  When you enter Tickets, you know you're going to have fun, like you just got a ticket to the coolest food carnival.

I originally reserved for 4, but our party increased to 6.. well, 6 1/2 including my nephew.  Without hesitation, but with pure friendliness the hostess immediately accommodated our increase of seats.  Eating in many high end restaurants in the U.S. and Europe, I have grown weary of arrogance among the wait-staff.  There was absolutely none of that in Spain's best restaurants.  They all welcome you like you're great friends - Tickets is no exception, in fact it's incredibly kid friendly.

The menu is an extensive list of tapas.  I'm here for one meal, so it was hard to narrow down what to order.  Our waiter offered to provide us a taste of the best - either according to our budget or until our stomachs could take no more.  No pretension nor snobbery if we had a particular budget.

We chose the stomach option, and I think I could have gone for days.  Hands down, the best celebrity chef experience.  The best food experience in the world.  And the bill came out to be waay cheaper than any other tasting menu I've encountered.

I've seen all that I want to in Barcelona (the first time was all about sightseeing, and this time was all about the food).  I'm partial to Madrid and San Sebastian where there's more of an old world culture while retaining a cleanliness.  But, my love for food will most definitely bring me back to Barcelona to experience more of Albert Adrià.  Plus, he's an incredibly sweet guy who happily obliged a photo with my family.  Stand up guy, amazing cook - there's no better combination.

Albert Adrià talking to his team

Fan girl photo with Albert Adrià!

The Setting
With these tweezers as your utensils.  Kinda works like chopsticks.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

La Boqueria in Barcelona

Back in Barcelona.  Last time, we were classic tourists walking through all of Gaudi's masterpieces throughout the city.  The city was quieter just ten years ago.  Now the city is crammed with tourists from all over the world.

For any food lover, La Boqueria is a standard.  It's one of the world's most known food markets and is definitely impressive.  It overflows with fresh produce, meats, fishes, and foods to eat on the spot.  All the products are high quality and worthy of this world class market.

Go early, you'll walk among locals and those in the food industry.  Go later in the morning and early afternoon, you'll walk among hoards of tourists.  My advice is to go early and plan on eating your way around the market as you feast your eyes on all the goods.

Bombarded with fresh produce, local goods, and colors

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Catholic Pilgrimage to Zaragoza

After a short night in Logroño full of delicious La Rioja wines, cañas of beer, and plates pintxos and tapas, it was time to get back on the road and head for the next destination: Barcelona.

But first, a brief stop along the 4 hour drive in Zaragoza.  About halfway between the two cities, Zaragoza is the 5th largest city in Spain.  After reading about the city and possible sights to check out, Zaragoza became the only city in my itinerary that did not have a food-purpose.  Instead, it was a city on our list for a Catholic pilgrimage.

Prior trips to Europe always included cathedrals, churches, etc.  All were amazing, humongous, and inspiring.  And yet after seeing five or so in a few days, they became too many and the Gothic architecture started to all look the same.  While our trip now was completely food-focused, this Catholic pilgrimage in Zaragoza was a requirement for us as a family of practicing Catholics.

Zaragoza is home to the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar - the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar.  In January 2, 40AD, St. James (Santiago as he is locally known) saw the Virgin Mary descend atop a marble pillar here in Zaragoza.  This was the only reported apparition of Mary before her Assumption.  On the sight of the pillar, a chapel was built by St. James a year later, followed by the surrounding churches years and centuries later which eventually became what is the Basilica today.  It the first church in history to be dedicated to Blessed Mary.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar

Friday, November 15, 2013

A taste of Marques de Riscal in La Rioja

We drove into La Rioja hours later than anticipated all because of our horrible afternoon in Pamplona.  Instead leisurely touring three wineries, we could only choose one.  I opted for the most iconic in the La Rioja region - Marques de Riscal.

Just a short 25 minute drive from Logroño, El Ciego proudly holds one of the oldest and most traditional wineries in the La Rioja wine country.  The winery dates back to 1860 and carries its tradition, while representing the future.  After the success of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Marques de Riscal contracted Frank Gehry to lend his vision in the design of their hotel.  The hotel's outer design is Gehry's interpretation of a red wine bottle - brilliant.

If you can't splurge with a stay at the hotel, a tour of the vineyard is a must.  The property is gorgeous and the facilities are world class.  It only costs 10.25 Euro ($13.80 USD) per person for the 1.5 hour tour which includes 2 tastings.  It's an amazing value for a memorable tour.

View of the vineyard and hotel

Grapes almost ready to be harvested 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Eating in Spain's wine country

When I was last in Spain, I was just 19 and starting my discovery of wines.  Years and bottles later, I now have a huge desire to explore the different wine countries around the world.  If I'm traveling near a known and delicious vineyard - I have to stop by for a taste.

Reds from La Rioja in Spain are my favorites - they are so drinkable and pair perfectly with many kinds of foods.  Just 2 hours south from San Sebastian is La Rioja, with Logroño as the capital of the region.  Logroño is a small town with amazing pintxos, which are mostly located around 2 streets.  Just 2 streets with so many options and possibilities to eat, and, of course, to continue drinking the night away.

The beauty of pintxos crawls is that you taste a variety of specialty foods while sipping on small glasses of beer or wine in every bar.  The night is as epic as you can last.

Early start to pintxos crawling

Monday, November 11, 2013

Towed away in Pamplona

Pamplona, synonymous for the running with the bulls.  A city that's famous for their 8 day festival in July full of complete madness, bulls, crowds, and tomatoes.

What happens in the city outside of those 8 days?  Not much, at all.

So how does the city earn?  Well, let me tell you...

My itinerary for the day was a drive from San Sebastian to Logroño, via Pamplona.  Pamplona is so hyped about because of the bulls and all that tomato throwing.  Since it was along the drive, it seemed like an interesting stop.  Driving through the city and into the fortressed walls, we approached narrow streets and a policeman.  We asked the policeman in black and neon yellow where we could park to walk around the old town.  "Just outside those walls."  So that's exactly where we parked.

After an hour of strolling through the town and into the Catedral's museum, we grabbed some food for the road - fresh bread and chips to eat with our jamón purchased in San Sebastian.  Walking past the gated entrance, my heart stopped.  Our van was gone!  My first thought, "Our van was stolen with all our luggages!"  Horrified, I observed the vicinity and noticed tiny towing signs and a sticker on the ground where our van was parked.  We were towed!!

On the bright side, our car wasn't stolen.  But still, we were in a foreign country and our car was towed!  What happened to parking tickets?!  A Spanish couple told us it's a permit only area - something the policeman did not mention at all.  We called the towing company who refused to speak to my brother in English, so my mom had to speak to them.  Our only option was to find our own way to the police station.

With God on our side, a cab showed up and took us to the police station 20 minutes away.  This city and town are pretty old and you can see Spain's struggling economy in these empty streets.  There's no struggle at all at the police station.  It's modern and way too nice - with its own towing entrance.

After paying a ridiculous 130 Euro fine ($173.75 USD), we found ourselves surrounded by dozens and dozens of other towed cars - I feel their pain.  We tried to ask for why we were towed so quickly, and if there's any way we can pay a lesser amount.  "City package".  WTF.  Clearly this is how they make their money outside of the 8 days in July.  And to make matters worse, the office was filled with policemen dressed like the one who told us where to park.  Truly, it's a city package.

Gated entrances

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Mugaritz Experience

We're not stopping with just one dining experience.  No way.  This trip was designed to be epic.  The schedule for the following day: Continuing my mom's birthday with dinner at Mugaritz.

The morning of this meal, we actually called the restaurant to request moving our dining time to lunch.  We had toured San Sebastian as extensively as we intended, so we were ready to drive out to the countryside and eat another highly anticipated meal.  Fortunately, they easily accommodated our request.

If you're driving, lunch is actually a better option because of the dark roads at night.  Plus, you can enjoy the outdoor setting that surrounds the restaurant while letting the wear off the alcohol before getting behind the wheel.

Mugaritz is a true dining experience in every way.  Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz has more than earned its spot in the world's top lists.  The food showcases nature's ingredients and its seasonality with every bite full of emotion, ingenuity, and execution.  The service is phenomenal, too - Spaniards have such charm.  There's absolutely no stiffness.  You enjoy fine dining, and yet you feel like a VIP at home.  The Mugaritz experience is all about the journey that brings the food towards exceptional and perfection.

Mugaritz Tasting Menu
20+ course tasting menu.  You have a choice whether you want to keep the menu closed and have a surprise for every course, or you want to read the courses and anticipate its arrival based on the title and description.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The Arzak Experience

If you make the effort to visit San Sebastian, one of the culinary meccas in the world, you have to make the effort to eat in at least one of their Michelin rated restaurants (San Sebastian holds 14 Michelin stars with a population of just 183,000).  And if you're passionate about food, you have to try to score reservations at the world's top restaurants.

And that is exactly how I formed this trip.  Every city we visited had a food destination.  Spain has specialty foods originating from certain cities or towns.  This country birthed some of the greatest chefs in the world.

Enter, Juan Mari Arzak.  What better way to start our trip than with a dining experience from the godfather of all contemporary Spanish chefs, and, perhaps, of most western chefs today.  And what better way to celebrate my mom's birthday.  Seriously, there is no better way.

Arzak is located just outside of the central parts of San Sebastian.  You enter welcomed by a formal wait staff in traditional garments.  The restaurant is classic, simple, modern, and refined.  The staff and service have that unique Spanish hospitality that graciously makes you feel at home.

We ordered the tasting menu instead of a la carte selections because we assumed this may be our only chance eating here, our once in a lifetime experience.  After eating course after course with some "whoa - that's amazing!" bites, I have a feeling this wasn't our last time.  I could go back and eat the cromlech course and lamb course all over again.  Plus, the a la carte menu had offerings now offered in the tasting menu.  And of course, the menu constantly changes according to season and availability.

The icing to the meal and the whole dining experience was meeting Elena Arzak, Juan Mari's daughter.  She walks around the restaurant unassuming and readily welcomes guests who are eager to meet her, like at our table.  What an amazing night.

Our Tasting Menu
Printed out at the end of our meal.  Complete with our course selections, special requests, and wines for the evening.

Monday, November 04, 2013

San Sebastian - Is this heaven?

If you love food.. love to eat, love to cook.. you have to go to San Sebastian, a true culinary mecca.  All that hype you read and watch about this place, it's all true.  In fact, it's beyond true.

San Sebastian, or Donostia in Basque, is a coastal city in northern Spain just about 20km south of the French border.  With endlesss blue waters along clean beaches, mixed with lush greenery covering this culture-rich city, this is truly one of the finest destinations Spain has to offer.

Centro and Parte Vieja are the heart of the city filled with shops, cafes, mercados, and endless back to back pintxos bars and restaurants.  The mercados, or markets, are indoors and incredibly clean.  All these fresh fishes and meats make you dream of having an apartment to cook everything offered there.  The pintxos bars just don't stop, and it's amazing.  There's a mix of traditional and modern, with specialty dishes in each of them.  Pace is the trick.  Take it easy on the eating and drinking in each spot, so you can seriously have the whole afternoon and/or evening of nibbling and sipping everything your heart desires.  I think San Sebastian could be heaven.

Non-stop eating, and drinking, starts now.

San Sebastian coastline

Friday, November 01, 2013

Now Entering the Basque Country

The Basque Country - there's no better start to a culinary roadtrip in the Iberian peninsula.  Located in the north of Spain by the French border, this region is filled with history, culture, and amazing eating.

After 17 hours of flying from Manila to Madrid via Bangkok, we arrived shortly before sunrise in Madrid.  (Sunrise happens after 8am.)  Straight from immigration and customs, we loaded our rental van and headed 389 km, or 241 miles, north to Bilbao.  The 3.5 hour drive passes smoothly and quickly thanks to the efficiency of Spanish roads and the gorgeous lush scenery - from golden lands, through vineyards, along rocky mountains, and into green forests.

Bilbao is a city to be desired.  It retains its history and culture, while maintaining clean roads and alleys.  The city is full of pride displaying its love and attention to the arts.  Frank Gehry's Guggenheim certainly brought popularity to the city, and Bilbao has flourished since then.

Aside from the arts, the city houses the largest covered market in Europe, the Mercado de la Ribera.  The market is full of fresh fish, meats, and produce.  It is such a clean market, too!  This was the best introduction into the quality of Spanish food and cooking.  If there markets are this clean, then I knew I'd have no worries about questioning the quality of ingredients during the next 3 weeks of restaurant eating.  What a great taste of what's to come on this epic trip!

Driving from Madrid to Bilbao
Immediately boarded the rental car after exiting the airport.  389km/242miles in 3.5 hours.  The roads and the ride was smooth and gorgeous.  Spain has beautiful countrysides, making it ideal for an early fall roadtrip.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Back with Goodies

I'm back!  These past months have been a recharge for me, and now there's so much to share - including a trip back to one of my favorite countries in the world.

In the coming weeks, I'll feature my family trip to Spain.  I fall harder and harder in love with Spain each time I visit.  I can't wait to share with you all my food adventures.  Each blog post will feature a brief look into the different cities and highlight meals over the course of our three week culinary roadtrip.  Yes, it was a serious culinary roadtrip.

At the end of this Spain feature, my website will have a map detailing this culinary roadtrip of a lifetime, and a travel guide will be published in the near future.

For now, here is a little peak at the plane food to get in the mood for a long haul flight on to vacation time.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Pardon my lack of updates in these coming weeks.  I'm currently researching and preparing for two extended and back-to-back trips.  The first is a trip back to SF at the end of this month.  The second will be my mom's birthday trip to one of my favorite countries in the world - Spain.

In the meantime, check out my social media accounts (links on the right) to follow my latest food chronicles as they happen.

Friday, August 02, 2013

A few sights of Hong Kong and beyond

Hong Kong is one of my favorite cities because of so many reasons.  The quality and accessibility to a high standard of food is number one.  Everything else is number two.  The vibrancy and city-feel of Central, the transportation system, the whole culture, and the beauty of the city.

Hong Kong is beautiful and there are so many picturesque moments throughout the island and its surrounding islands.  Entering into the city, Victoria Harbour, HK Island, Kowloon, the nightly light show, and even the beaches within the city.

If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Sights of HK

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Pierre. Pierre Gagnaire in Hong Kong

In these past couple of trips to Hong Kong, my family and I have come back to the Mandarin Oriental.  This is sort of a nostalgic place for myself and my family.  This was the first hotel I stayed in when I first traveled to Hong Kong in the late 90s.  And, in its 50 year history, both my grandfather and mom are loyal MOHK (Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong) "fans".  So it's a special place for me as a third generation MOHK fan.  

One benefit in staying at a nice hotel is the access and proximity to the hotel's restaurants.  At a place like MOHK, you can't go wrong with any of them because they are all top notch.

Because of summer rains, we opted out of our dinner at Cataluyna and were more inclined to stay indoors and nearby.  With the help of the concierge (which is another fantastic perk of higher end hotels because of their professionalism and connections), we managed to get a table at the hotel's French restaurant.

Pierre.  As in Pierre Gagnaire's restaurant on the 25th floor of the MOHK.  After years of being spoiled in San Francisco, NYC, and Europe with rich meals from French chefs, I tend not to be inclined towards classic French cuisine.  But, this time, I was eager to check out Pierre because for this particular weekend Chef Gagniere himself was in town to introduce his Summer Tasting menu.  In fact, prior to ordering he came out to personally great all the tables.  At our table he graciously shook our hands and more than willingly accepted our request for a photo opp.  Such a nice guy!  And because of that, we proceeded to order his Summer Tasting Menu.

The tasting menu is not for the faint of heart.  And I mean that quite literally.  Wow, it's such a rich indulgence course after course.  I haven't felt that heavy after a meal in a long long time.  Classic French food...  If I were to order a few of the courses a la carte, the meal would have been easier to handle; but all 7 including the grand dessert was a feat.  I woke up the next morning feeling hungover from all that butter and cream.

The overall experience is a real indulgence.  You start the night with some amazing champagne paired with a fun display of amuse bouche courses across the table.  The individual dishes were all spectacular with the presentation and the execution.  But all together, with cream courses after butter courses after foie gras courses, was insanely rich.  If I were to come back, I would take it easy on my heart and go a la carte.

If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Pierre HK

Friday, July 26, 2013

Manhattan eating in Hong Kong at Michael White's Al Molo

If you're looking for a place to dine with a stunning view of Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong Island, Ocean Terminal and it's connecting buildings (Gateway Arcade, etc) are an excellent option and the restaurant selection is becoming increasingly appealing.

Hong Kong, being one of the food capitals in Asia and the world, is also welcoming more and more foreign celebrity chefs.  Hailing from New York with refined Italian influence, Michael White brings his Al Molo.  Classic Italian cuisine with homemade pastas, pizzas, and signature entrees.  You really feel like you're in eating in Midtown Manhattan with food worthy of the address and the chef.

Two rounds of pizzas and a couple of his signature dishes proved that he's more than a celebrity chef, but a chef that knows good food and how to serve it well abroad.

If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Al Molo HK

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Ippudo Ramen, Hong Kong

While I do love all kinds of foods and cuisines, I have my favorites.  Ramen is totally one of my favorites.

After strolling around Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong and touring the museums in that area, I ready for a late lunch.  When I'm by myself and looking for a place to eat, I tend to look for either cafes or ramen places.  Both are comfortable for lone diners.  Lately, ramen has been my craving.  So it was finally time to try out Ippudo Hong Kong.

Ippudo is a Japanese ramen chain from Fukuoka - the home of tonkotsu ramens.  It has several branches around Asia and a couple in New York City.  The reviews in NYC are always raving with the lines out of the door.

Does it live up to it's hype in Hong Kong?  Yes, it completely does.  This is a chain establishment that does not at all feel like a cheap chain establishment.  Milky, deep broth, chewy noodles, and a contemporary setting make a fantastic ramen experience.  There's additional toppings to order, such as vegetables or eggs, as well as an a la carte menu if you're hungry for more than just ramen.  Plus, the drinks selection with sakes and beers perfectly complement the ramen.  I can't wait to go back for more bowls.

If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Ippudo HK

Friday, July 19, 2013

A city break in Discovery Bay

When there's blue, sunny skies in Hong Kong, you have to enjoy the outdoors.  It can be a stroll through the city streets, a ride to see Buddha, a hike in the mountains, or a visit to the beach.

Discovery Bay is a great city getaway to enjoy the beach for an afternoon and some great food and drinks.  You can get there by ferry from Central or public bus.  Taxis and cars are not allowed within the Discovery Bay compound.  In fact, if you're a resident and want to drive around the only way to do so is with golf carts.  It's a totally different world from Central, and it's pretty refreshing.

Expats are dominant in Discovery Bay and that's reflective in the restaurant selection.  There's a range of Western cuisines to choose from, as well as a fun choice of bars.

After enjoying a couple of beers at the beach while taking in the sunset, my best friend and I were hungry.  And when we're hungry, we can totally eat.  So what could fulfill our grumbling stomachs?  German food.  Meat!  Berliner serves up some great pork knuckles and sausages.  The servings are large and satisfying.  Plus, the food goes perfectly with cold beers, cold German beers.  A perfect ending to the night.

And, to make the night even more special, Discovery Bay is so close to Disneyland HK that you can see and enjoy the nightly fireworks from the amusement park.

If you can't see the slideshow here, check out my Flickr album: Discovery Bay HK

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Thai with a golf course view in Hong Kong

A trip to Hong Kong usually involves endless walking and eating around Central and Tsim Sha Tsui.  If there's enough time and stomach space, I usually venture out of Central and into Sheung Wan, Wan Chai, and Causeway Bay.  Basically sticking to the bubble of Hong Kong Island.  So when there's even more time and good company, it's refreshing to explore beyond HK Island.

Hong Kong International Airport proudly has a nine-hole golf course just 10 minutes away from the airport.  A free shuttle takes you there to enjoy the links and the clubhouse.  In the clubhouse sits a Thai restaurant, Erawan, which serves home-cooked Thai cuisine with a relaxing golf course view.  

The restaurant provides indoor seating when it's raining or too hot and outdoor seating when the weather is just right.  It's a peaceful and tasty escape from the bustle of the city.  Whether you're a golfer or an eater, this is a fun option for something completely different.

If you can't see the slide show check out my Flickr album: Thai Golf Course HK

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

I'm currently in Hong Kong and taking a brief break from updates.  I'll be back soon with my eats from this trip.  Until then, continue to check out my social media accounts (links on the right) for up-to-date food and eating action.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Day Trip to Yokohama

For a change of pace from Tokyo, we hired a hotel van to drive us to Yokohama, about a 30 minute drive.  Yokohama is where my dad went to high school, up in the hills in a pleasant suburban location.  What's really cool is that the location of his school (which sadly no longer exists after nearly 100 years) was right next to the former Kirin factory headquarters.  That's dangerous yet so cool if I went to school near something like that!

Yokohama has progressed over the years because of its port location.  It's a metropolitan city with quieter aspects from Tokyo.  There's a nice downtown street with boutique shops, both local and foreign.  There's also an old brick warehouse which from the facade you wouldn't think anything of it.  On the inside, though, is this shopping warehouse full of local vendors and fun eats.

If you've exhausted Tokyo and want a slight change of pace, Yokohama is an option for a day trip to another city calmer than the bustle of Tokyo.

If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Yokohama

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Eating my way through Tokyo

When I travel I tend to let go of my health conscious eating.  I eat more salads than usual and workout double time prior to these trips.  As a result, I fly into the city a couple pounds lighter just so I can freely gain a few pounds over the next days of travel.  All to I eat carbs, fats, and sugars with no abandon.

Tokyo was certainly no exception.  I felt like I ate 5 meals a day, including soba for breakfast from 7-11 (it's so fresh and a clean way to start the day).   Every one of these "nibblings" are still ingrained in my head as some fantastically memorable bites.

The handmade ramen noodles from Ramen Street in the Tokyo Station, the tonkatsu and katsudons, curry over rice, fresh sushi and seafood from the department store grocery, a huge piece of karaage from the department store food hall, Korean food with loads of vegetables, Japanese Italian pizza done to perfection, beer beer and more beer, convenience store soba, the tastiest salted caramel crepe, the fluffiest cheesecake, and sinful croissants that are worth all the butter intake.

Whew, I cannot wait to go back to Japan and eat all this and more finds.  In the meantime I'll look fondly at these photos and workout for the next big weight-gaining trip.

If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Tokyo Nibblings

Friday, June 14, 2013

Yakitori at Birdland, Tokyo

Japanese cuisine has so much to offer that every restaurant focuses on its specialty.  By doing that, the specialty is of a higher quality and close to perfection.  That's the beauty of eating in Japan.

Walking from the Tokyo Station back to the Palace Hotel Tokyo, there's an "underground world" in Marunouchi.  Almost all these financial buildings have a sort of restaurant row in their basement floors. The Marunouchi Eiraku Building has a great selection of the world's cuisine on one floor.

What looked like an unassuming yakitori restaurant from the facade actually turned out to be one of our best meals in the trip and in Japan.  Birdland is one of two restaurants.  The other in Ginza has held its Michelin stars consistently.  Here at Marunouchi, the food and service are equally Michelin worthy.

Even though we waited for our table, the service from pre-beginning to end was impeccable.  The waiter spoke to my dad in Japanese apologizing for the wait and even made sure we found a comfortable waiting area.  Suddenly his limited English ability turned flawless when he and the rest of the staff served our courses with an excellent range of English describing the dishes as though we were celebrity judges on a food show.

The service was so excellent that at the end of the meal with our last course, my mom was about to take her vitamins with the cold water.  Our waiter suddenly ran by us and yelled, "Wait!"  I stopped my chopsticks thinking he meant, "Wait, there's more food or a condiment coming."  Of course that's where my mind went.  He came back in a hurry with room temperature water, explaining it's better for my mom to take her vitamins with that degree of water.  Wow, what detail and care!

Aside from the amazing service, the atmosphere (a casual but clean wooden set up) and the food were so memorable.  All 13 courses with some of the cleanest and tastiest chicken I have ever encountered.  Each course and its progression is so well thought out and detailed.  This is a meal worth paying for and worth waiting for.

If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Tokyo Birdland

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Tempura at its best in a tempura bar

Tempura is one of those classic Japanese dishes.  In my experience, it's either been done well or mediocre.  When it's done well, the crispy batter shines with the freshness of the seafood and vegetables.  When it's done mediocre, the batter is heavy and too oily - it becomes a heavy, guilty meal.

With all the tempura I've eaten, I can really only count a handful of restaurants that do it really well.  These days, I tend not to order tempura unless I can properly guess that it'll be done well, usually in higher end restaurants where they change the frying oil more often.

I've had two amazingly memorable experiences with tempura.  One was well over 10 years ago in Japan at an ordinary tempura bar.  I can still remember each course freshly fried as we ate and savored the lightly battered fishes and vegetables.

The second time was this most recent trip back to Tokyo.  Again at a tempura bar - that seems to be the only way to go when you want tempura done the real way.

Tatsumi is the tempura bar in the Japanese restaurant in the Palace Hotel Tokyo.  It is an exclusive six-seater bar.  You definitely have to book ahead for a seat.  The whole meal is like edible performance art.  Watching the chef's artistry and craftsmanship while he plates the raw ingredients in preparation for the frying.  You're pampered with leisure as you eat one dish at a time.

Lightly battered, piping hot, and crispy while showing off the fresh taste of the seasonal vegetables and fishes.  This is another tempura bar meal for the books.

If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Tokyo Tempura

Friday, June 07, 2013

Highlights and Sights in Tokyo

Looking back at my photos in Tokyo, I didn't really take too many "tourist shots."  I now realize that's because we spent most of our days surrounded by food.  Those photos will be coming up in the next two weeks.

For now, here are a few highlights and sights:
-  Tokyo Station
The purpose and highlight of our food trip.  This is the busiest railway station in Japan with over 3,000 trains running through each day.  It was built in 1914 and just recently renovated with an even cooler "underground world" featuring a ramen street, countless restaurants, and a character street.  Plus, the station is connected to Daimaru department store, which like all high end department stores, has fantastic food hall floors.
-  Sophia University
A Jesuit university 100 years old and my dad's alma mater.
-  Roppongi Hills
There's a pretty large shopping center here, and another highlight is the density of extreme-luxury cars in this small area.
-  Marunouchi
The financial center of Tokyo with high rises and plenty of underground restaurants and food destinations.

If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Tokyo Sights