Thursday, December 18, 2014

Finally made it to State Bird Provisions

Just as the State Bird Provisions team opens up their second concept, Progress, I finally got to try the much-talked about restaurant a few months ago.  SBP has gotten incredible critical acclaim from top reviewers and the everyday folk eating there.

All these rave reviews and hype... they are accurate.  The food covers the globe, with a lot of Japanese and Asian influences.  And because of that Asian touch, with the relaxed vibe, this place is such a hit.

Reservations in SBP is not easy.  OpenTable 60 days in advance, or line up early for a walk in spot.  It's worth the anticipation either way.  My friends were kind enough to email the restaurant to secure a table for 8.  If you get to the restaurant early, they encourage you to have a glass of wine around the corner at Fat Angel to kill the time.  Wine really helps to spark your appetite.

Our party of 8 had a pre-set menu of 4 courses, which included 17 dishes, and any more dishes we wanted to of red wine and a glass of white (with a meal this eclectic, a red and white is a must to pair all the foods), the price is so affordable for all that you get.  It's really like you're eating in Europe and Asia.

All was served as little bites and family style.  This really emphasizes the relaxed, friendly atmosphere.  These are the kind of places I love because they remind me of Spain's tapas bars and Japan's yakitori shops.  There's absolutely no pretense - it's just the food and your companions.  Casual surroundings, serious eating.

4 courses, 17 dishes

Monday, December 15, 2014

San Francisco's Pizzeria Delfina in Palo Alto

Pizza is one of my top comfort foods.  But it's not just any pizza.  I love artisan and Napoletana style pizzas.  The best pizzas have a fully-cooked chewy dough (chewy from the high quality of the flour), not soggy in the middle, and can sometimes even have a nice crunch while maintaining the chewy bite.  The toppings don't overwhelm, instead they balance the whole pie with the quality of choice and seasonal ingredients.  The perfect pizza is not about that one perfect bite, it's about that experience of the whole slice.

Being a pizza lover, I have a small, but growing list of favorite pizza restaurants around the world.  Growing up the Bay Area, San Francisco plays a part in that list of favorite places.  Delfina is one spot that will always have my interest.  In its original location in the Mission, it's known for wait times of more than an hour.  Lining up for food in this street in the Mission is worth it.  Food here at Delfina, pastries at Tartine, and ice cream at Bi-Rite.

Now that my home base is away from the Peninsula, Delfina has additional locations around the Bay Area including one in Palo Alto.  Growing up in the area meant frequent meals in Palo Alto.  Sunday lunches at Empire Tap Grill was the perfect spot for nice sunny days.  That perfect place for outdoor eating is now housed by Delfina.  Great food, drinks, and family friendly.  This is ideal for families wanting a nice meal together in a relaxed, casual environment.  While it's good for families, it's also a great place for food and pizza lovers.

Just like its San Francisco location, this Palo Alto location has a selection of antipastis, seasonal vegetables, and pizzas.  They also have some of the tastiest meatballs in the area.  Now you don't have to drive all the way up to the city for a quality slice of great pizza.

21st Amendment's Watermelon Wheat Beer
A local summer brew

Local Spanish style spicy peppers

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Contigo in the Noe Valley

Aside from the eating and drinking, Spanish tapas is so enjoyable because of its social aspect.  Tapas is designed for groups to enjoy the night together, and the more you eat and drink the more you enjoy your social environment.

San Francisco has a big selection of Spanish restaurants.  Wanting to try something new, Contigo in Noe Valley was a great choice to nibble on tapas and catch up with friends.  Noe Valley is a quieter neighborhood in the city that has that restaurants with big flavors and that small neighborhood friendly vibe.

Contigo's Catalan inspired dishes are plated for sharing.  They have small bites that you would find at typical tapas and pinchos bars, as well as bigger plates, or raciones.  They have classic plates like boquerones (white anchovies) and albondigas (meatballs), as well as dishes serving seasonal selections.  The cocas (Spanish flatbread, aka pizza) have toppings highlighting was freshest in the markets at the moment.

Contigo means "with you", making this restaurant is a perfect place for smaller groups, dates, and neighborhood families to enjoy conversation over a meal with good food and quality Spanish drinks.

Seard caƱa de cabra goat cheese
With pears, persimmons, arugula, hazelnuts, fennel, basil, px vinagreta

Monday, December 08, 2014

Chiarello's Coqueta

There are a few cuisines that I can eat all the time.  Spanish tapas is absolutely on this list.  Traditional and modern, I love them both equally.  It's the idea of sipping wines, sangrias, cocktails, and beers along side small plates of flavor-filled bites.  And it's shared in a social setting where you leisurely take in the tastes and let the alcohol buzz slowly linger through the meal and into the evening.

I love the tapas so much that I was willing to eat at a restaurant that I've been on the fence about.  I'm a fan of nice guys and a hater of douchebags.  When I watched Top Chef and Top Chef Masters, I gained a horrible impression of Michael "How do you say my name" Chiarello.  What a douche!  Is he really like this in real life?

Against all odds, I found myself in his newest San Francisco restaurant along the Embarcadero.  Why??  Because it was all about Spanish tapas and the reviews have been greatly positive.  Coqueta, meaning "flirt" or "infatuation", interprets Spanish tapas in a playful and modern way.

To my chagrin... the food was awesome.  The cocktails and Spanish wines selection are thoughtful, and the tapas are innovative while making you feel like you're actually in Spain.

And just when I resigned myself to think that he's an okay guy because he's food is so good... A shiny Lexus pulls up next to the restaurant, on the sidewalk.  Out comes a guy who moves like he owns the sidewalk.  As fate would have it, just as I was softening up to the guy, Chiarello himself walks into the restaurant, passes by the two or three tables of patrons, and schmoozes with his managers.  Our server saw us looking and talking about him and thought we were gushing fans (hah!).  She offered to have him take a photo with us.  We politely smiled and didn't reject nor accept the offer, as we wanted to see how it would play out.  Minutes later, he walked out, still bypassing his customers, and parked his car properly.  More minutes later, he came back in, again not acknowledging any diners, and sat in a corner table reviewing business with a manager.  Now, I'm not saying he had to talk to everyone.  But what's it to simply smile at the people eating your food?

The build up of these minutes made the food that we thoroughly enjoyed taste different.  As great as it was, I don't want to give my money to a guy like this.  I'll save it and go to Spain where the Spanish chefs are so genuinely nice, smile fully, and converse with their customers.

Eating at the bar

Tariff Gin & Tonic
Jamon Iberico infused gin, acorn and apricot tonic, orange, and cava

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Robata in Santa Clara

After the first two visits to Sumika (within the same week), I was curious about the owner's third restaurant (the first being Orenchi).

Iroriya is located in the same strip mall as Orenchi in Santa Clara.  It's actually right next door.  To the right of the ramen shop's entrance is an unmarked wooden door.  If it wasn't for reviews and blogs, new customers would have no idea about Iroriya.  Word of mouth works.

Robata is grilled foods over a special Japanese white charcoal, binchotan.  The proteins are primarily seafood as this kind of cooking originated from Japanese fisherman.  Reservations are highly recommended for this place.  When you do get seated, first check out the daily and seasonal specials.

Diners come here ready to spend.  The seafood selections are premium fishes and shellfish.  And a great pairing with this kind of food is sake and sochu, which you see many bottles around the tables.

This is a great, authentic robata experience for seafood lovers.  If I had to choose between the two, I readily go back to Sumika because of the variety of the menu, the meat options, and the fact that it's a bit more affordable so that eating there often won't hurt your wallet as much.

Robata counter

Cold mug of Sapporo draft beer

Monday, December 01, 2014

Sumika Grill in Los Altos. My new favorite restaurant in the Bay Area.

After these past several years of living and traveling throughout Asia, my expectations for Asian food has new standards.  I'm looking for vibrancy and the flavors you get when you eat these dishes in their home countries.

There are certain US cities that do well overall in re-creating the authenticity.  There are also too many restaurants in the US that have Americanized the cuisine for acceptance or cost reasons.  And that changes the experience if you really want that type of cuisine.  Sure, there are time you want Americanized Chinese food or Japanese sushi rolls.  But for the most part, I look for the real stuff in hopes of re-living my food travel experiences.

Japanese yakitori and izakaya are meals I can have as often as Spanish tapas - which I can eat every day.  It's all about taking your time to eat and drink with a variety of food.

I found my new favorite restaurant, which actually opened back in 2008, in the San Francisco Peninsula, and it's as authentic and vibrant as any yakitori restaurant in Japan.  And it's just in Los Altos - a town that is predominantly Caucasian, where I grew up occasionally dining on overpriced Americanized Chinese and Japanese meals with my high school friends.

Sumika is a Japanese grill specializing in yakitori.  Why trust this place?  Because of their reputation.  They are also the owners of the ever busy Orenchi Ramen in Santa Clara, and now San Francisco as well.  Orenchi's ramen is also on par to some of Japan's better bowls.

In the course of our 5 week stay in the Bay Area, we dined at Sumika at least twice a week.  We tried almost everything on the lunch and dinner menus, and it was consistent every time.  Aside from their grilled selections, the donburis are also so comforting and remarkable.  Plus, they have a good selection of sakes and sochus, as well as draft beers to make the night of eating even more fun.

Just writing about this and looking back at the pictures makes me excited for my next Bay Area visit.

Open kitchen

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

And even more of Hong Kong

As I've been reminiscing about my Hong Kong trip, I found myself missing the city again.  So... I just came back from a short weekend getaway.  Yes, I know, I really can't get enough of Hong Kong.

This time around, it was a relaxed leisurely trip to enjoy the city, the eating, and the shopping (even though I didn't actually buy anything - which still feels so weird).  For part of the leisurely feel of the trip, we enjoyed getting up to room service.  Mandarin Oriental's the Statue Square view provides such a breathtaking way to start each day watching the weekend and weekday crowds bustle around Central.

Staying at the Mandarin allows us to readily eat at the hotel's restaurants.  In our past trips, we've dined at Man Wah and Pierre.  This time around it, we felt like taking things more casual.  Cafe Causette is a perfect place for a quality, yet relaxed meal at any time of the day.  Local publications recently awarded this establishment with the "Best Hotel Burger".  After dining at the restaurant for lunch and dinner, with a classic burger for each meal, I can conclude it is a satisfying burger.  They do, however, need to work on the consistency.  At lunch, the simplicity and minimalism made a clean burger with the intense quality of beef shine.  At dinner, the lettuce and mayonnaise were slathered on too much and made for a messier burger experience.

Hong Kong has been all over the international news these past weeks and months.  It was fascinating to see how protestors are still affecting the city.  The partial closure of Connaught Road is surprising to see in person.  It's such a significant road and protestors are successfully redirecting major traffic.

In other current event news, we also witnessed the ceremony of Remembrance Day, also known as Poppy Day.  While no longer an official city holiday since 1997, it was nice to see how the history of British culture is still alive in the island.

Room service with a view

A classic burger, paired with red wine

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Starting off the week at Disneyland Hong Kong

The happiest place on earth!  And because everyone wants to be happy, it's also the most crowded place on earth.  Disneyland Hong Kong is so much fun, but get ready for the crowds and hoards of people.

Following the biking afternoon adventure around Lantau Island, I extended my stay in Hong Kong just a little bit more.  My flight home to Manila was now scheduled in the evening.. so that left me with a good 5-6 hours at the park.  That's more than enough time to get a few rides in.

If you go to Disneyland HK during summer months, get ready for the crowds and get ready to spend money on cold drinks all day to stay hydrated.  It's the happiest, most crowded, AND most sweaty place on earth.  Heat and hoards of people aside, it's still Disneyland.  It's still so cool, regardless of age.

The park is smaller than Los Angeles, but it's slowly growing with many appealing attractions, like Toy Story Land, as well as an Iron Man Experience soon to come.  There are also the familiar rides like Space Mountain and the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters.  There are about a handful of rides offering Fast Track tickets before lunch.  It's so worth it.  To cool down, there are also a fun variety of indoor rides and on-screen and live productions, like the Lion King.

Before the sun had a chance to set, I had to take off to catch my flight (where the airport is also on Lantau Island).  If you go to the park and it's your first time, the fireworks show is amazing.  There's something about fireworks in Asia that's so spectacular..

A seas of umbrellas under the Hong Kong heat

Monday, November 10, 2014

Biking around Lantau Island in Hong Kong

Coming from a bustling, chaotic convention crowd over in Hong Kong Island, fresh air and nature were needed to end the weekend.  Lantau Island is a perfect place to get your nature fix.

Thanks to my best friend, who currently resides in Lantau Island, we quickly rented bikes and were on our way to an enjoyable Sunday afternoon.  I'm so impressed with the bike paths - they are so safe and off the road.  It keeps everyone in their own sections preventing accidents for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motor vehicles.

You can get all the sceneries around this island.  Greenery of trees and mountains, water, and cityscapes.  There's also the view of planes flying from the airport and the speed of trains whizzing by heading to Tung Chung and to the airport.  Water and greenery quickly blended with the rush of a city - it's pretty breathtaking and a great way to take a pause from the routine of life.

I really do love HK

Along the water

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Gogyo: A "ramen dining" experience

Ramen is a food I cannot go without.  At least one bowl a month brings balance into my food life.  But, it has to be good ramen because average and mediocre ramen just makes you hungrier for better broth and better noodles.

Hong Kong always has new restaurants every time we revisit.  In IFC, restaurants and stores constantly change or revamp.  Where one ramen shop used to be, another one opened up earlier this year.

Gogyo comes from the creator of the Ippudo Ramen.  Gogyo's concept is "Ramen Dining". It's sort of a higher end ramen dining experience, away from the rush of traditional ramen stalls.  Started in Kyoto, the ramen shop became known for it's burnt ramen, Kogashi.  Here in Hong Kong, there are also a few other bowls, including those similar to Ippudo.  I actually find the broth here cleaner tasting.  Plus, I lean toward places that have clean atmospheres and are relaxed for the diners to eat and drink.  Aside from ramen, there are also artful skewers and yakitori, all made with quality ingredients.  Another fun selling point are the selection of alcohols, as well as craft beer pairings with the ramen bowls and skewers.

Good ramen and good beer!  That's the perfect combination.

Mini Aka Ramen

Monday, November 03, 2014

Can't get enough of Hong Kong

I have come to love Hong Kong because of my mom who summered with her family in the Central district as a child.  Central is really where it's at.  You still feel British Hong Kong, and I love that.  It has culture, discipline, high fashion, great foods, and a true modern metropolitan city feel.

Visiting the city for these many years, we have a certain set of traditions or routines each time we come back: staying at the same hotel, having a Chinese feast, enjoying tapas, and trying out new establishments from international chefs.

Staying at the Mandarin Oriental is a true privilege.  The cleanliness, the service, the attention to detail - it all lives up to its reputation here in Hong Kong.  A benefit in staying at this hotel is the restaurants just upstairs.  The Man Wah has become one of our favorite Chinese restaurants in the city.  They have it all - attentive service, artful presentation, quality, and taste.

On the hotel's mezzanine floor of restaurants, Cafe Causette has a generous list of breakfast items perfect for a weekend brunch.  I'm a fan of corned beef hash, and theirs blew me away.  The plating, the quality of the beef itself and how it all tasted together was just the best I've encountered so far.  There is so much quality and finesse in it.

Across the harbour (via Star Ferry which is a fantastic way to go to Kowloon), Gateway Arcade in Harbour City has a great variety of restaurants.  Our family favorite is Sergi Arola's Vi Cool.  I can't get enough of the tapas and pitchers of sangrias.

Another international chef that has been a long stay in Hong Kong, Joel Robuchon, has recently expanded several outlets of his cafes across the city.  Le Cafe de Joel Robuchon in Gateway is a good place for dessert or for afternoon tea.

Hong Kong is really about the eating.  And I can't wait to go back for more.

View of the harbour
Mandarin Oriental Hotel

Friday, October 24, 2014

Seoul Museum: Agricultural Museum

After the first couple of museums, we were hooked and wanted to go to more.  We were able to squeeze in one final museum - the Agricultural Museum.  Smaller in scale, but just as enriching with details of everyday Korean life from past, present and the future.

We just happened to drive by the museum during a taxi ride.  Fascinated by the name and content of the museum, we researched it online and found a guide of how to get there (it really helps to have a data plan on your smartphones to get around).  Opened in 1987 and then renovated and reopened in 2005, the museum has 3 exhibition halls: 1) Agricultural History Hall showcasing agricultural communities from prehistoric times to the modern era, 2) Agricultural Community Hall containing models recreating the life of farm families from the olden days, and 3) Agricultural Promotion Hall with information on farming and agricultural cooperatives.  The halls have displays and replicas of paddy fields, traditional homes, and marketplaces of agricultural societies.  You are taken away from the city as you walk through the past.

Never stop learning.  Through these museums we learned so much about culture.  I have loads of respect for how the Korean people have better their lives in just a few decades.  It's truly admirable how they have worked together as a nation for a higher standard of living.

Agricultural Museum

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Seoul Museums: Gyeongbokgung Palace, National Folk Museum, and the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History

Museums are not only educational and enriching, but they are also a great way to burn calories between meals.  Some museums can even make you hungrier for your next meal.

Under the grueling summer heat, the Gyeongbokgung Palace is a lot to take in.  Meaning, "Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven", the royal palace was first constructed in 1395 and later reconstructed in 1867.  Much of it was destroyed by Imperial Japan in the early 20th century.  Since then, the government has gradually restored the structures and the grounds back to its original form.  It is the main and largest of the Five Grand Palaces.  And when they say largest, they really mean it.  It is overwhelming large, and it's so easy to get lost with the numerous gates, courtyards, quarters and halls.

Within the palace grounds, the National Folk Museum stands in the rear, or by a free side entrance if you wish to bypass the palace.  Speaking of free, all museums' main exhibits are free.  I'm still amazed how these museums, which should charge a lot for entrance because of their quality and quantity of displays, are completely free.  It encourages tourists and locals to learn more.  The museum has over 98,000 artifacts.  These are replicas of historical objects that illustrate the history of traditional life of the Korean people.  The 3 main halls cover: 1) the history of the Korean people through their materials of everyday life from prehistoric times to the end of the Joseon Dynasty in 1910, 2) the Korean way of life through the villagers in ancient times, and 3) the life cycle of Korean highlighting the influence of Confucianism.  The most fascinating parts of the museum for me were the food history areas which explained the past and present use of dining ware and the process of kimchi making.

Just outside the palace grounds, next to the US Embassy (the building with a ridiculous amount of guards stationed every 3 feet along the sidewalk) is the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History.  Regrettably I took one photo because I was so fascinated and drawn to all the content of the museum.  It was my favorite museum of the bunch by far.  We sought out this museum because we wanted to learn about the Korean War and how the country moved its way to being one of the top global leaders today.  This is the first national modern contemporary museum in Korea, which opened late 2012.  It covers politics, the economy, society, and culture of the Korean country and people in 4 detailed halls: 1) the prelude to the Republic of Korea from 1876 to 1945, 2) the foundation of the Republic of Korea from 1945 to 1960, 3) the development of the Republic of Korea from 1961 to 1987, and finally 4) the modernization and Korea's vision of the future from 1988 on.  It is truly admirable how the country coped from the war and how successfully they have thrived in recent years.  I have so much more respect for the country and its people, in large part because of what I learned from this museum.

Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds
And the Heungnyemun Gate in the background

Main entrance gate
Gwanghwamun Gate

Monday, October 20, 2014

Seoul Museums: National Museum

Aside from books, the best way to learn about a country's history and culture is by visiting the country itself.  The people, the food, and the museums share so many stories about the past, present, and future.

I was one of those kids that really enjoyed school field trips to museums.  And it wasn't just because we were off of campus for the day.  I actually really enjoyed exploring all the exhibits and pieces in order to complete the class assignments.  Yes, I enjoyed (most) school work and really enjoyed learning more from museums.

And then there were family trips to New York and Europe where museums were a staple in all our itineraries.  Throughout and after college, I loved visiting art museums in San Francisco once a month.  That's where I found compatible friends who appreciate culture... and the happy hours that followed our museum days.

It's safe to say I've seen a good selection of museums around the world.  So when I'm blown away by museums, it means they are truly impressive.  Seoul's museums are truly impressive.  AND, free!  Yes, free admission.  These are museums where you'd normally pay $20+USD or feel obligated to donate in the box to walk around the museum with a "I'm a good person because I donated" pin.

Over the course of the week, I'll feature the few museums we managed to visit.  First, the National Museum of Korea.  Opened in 1945, the year Korea gained independence from Japan, this is the country's largest museum.  It is the flagship museum for history and art in South Korea.

Working your way from the first floor up, you walk through the country's ancient history to it's modern era (pre-Korean War).  The museum is filled with national artifacts and relics.  In the upper floors, national and international art feature crafts, calligraphy, and paintings highlighting the best of Asian art.

If you find yourself in Seoul, the National Museum is a must.

Entrance to the National Museum

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Seoul Food

As a food lover and food traveler, Korea has been on the top of my list to discover.  For years, I've been drooling over food magazines and television shows highlighting the best of Korean grills and the spreads of kimchi and banchan.

In my traveling experience, very few cuisines are as good abroad compared to their homelands.  There's a certain vibrancy to the food in their own respective countries.  It just tastes more right, as it should be.  So now that I was in Seoul, I was so excited to eat from the source.

Because of the comparisons to Japan, I was expecting the prices to be similar.  Despite it reputation, eating in Japan is actually incredibly affordable for the quality.  Surprisingly then, Seoul was really expensive.  Everything was surprisingly expensive, especially compared to the rest of Asia.

We varied our eating with restaurants, take out from the food markets, and also with room service meals at our hotel.  Before you knock it, room service at luxury hotels can be a phenomenal experience.  You have the comfort of your room, the fun of eating in your hotel robe, and the luxury of a fine dining setting all cooked by high quality hotel chefs.  After long, hot days out under the Korean sun and on our feet all day, taking a shower and eating in the atmosphere of our spacious room was just the best.

Aside from meals, I was impressed with the numerous coffee and bread shops and their food packaging.  There is a coffee and bread store almost in every corner of the city.  As for their food packaging in the groceries, it's admirable with the care they take for their products.  They also give so much importance to their fruits and vegetables.  They obviously learned from Japan and have made the produce thrive beautifully in their own country.

The fruits and vegetable were too nice just to look at, and because we flew back to Manila where you can bring back produce and meats, we were able to enjoy at home the apples, grapes, gigantic cabbages and radishes, and some of the sweetest sweet potatoes.   (Travel tip: Always pack a foldable duffel that you can put into your luggage.  That way you have an extra bag for goods on the flight back home.)

After a week of eating in Seoul, I'm really happy to find that some of the Korean food served in the states (the Bay Area and Los Angeles particularly) is actually pretty darn authentic.  The Koreans and Americanized Koreans have done a great job of upholding their cuisine.  I came back home from the trip more educated with how well the Koreans have lived over the recent years, post-Korean War.  They have educated themselves and can take pride in the good their country continues to produce.

Grilled beef and ban chan

The tables

Monday, October 13, 2014

Discovering Seoul

Flying a lot encourages you to fly even more.  Thank you, frequent flyer miles programs.  My airline alliance miles were just about to expire.  So to make the most of them, I treated my mom on a trip to a new food destination.

Seoul!  A city which I've heard likened to Tokyo with a reputation of vibrant local food.  This was going to be a mother-daughter adventure in a new country and city where we had no knowledge of the language.

Seoul reminded us of the parts of the US, in that the roads were spacious, tree-lined, and clean.  In the Gangnam area, where the shopping district has been likened to Ginza and Beverly Hills (though I'd argue otherwise because of the quality, and flashiness of the stores), we came across a fun food hall in the Galleria department store.  Gourmet 494 is definitely a food destination in Seoul.  It is considered to be a luxury food hall filled with eating stations of varying cuisines from Korean, Italian, American, etc.  There are also quality sweets, breads, fruits, vegetables, and grocery goods.  Of all our food stops, this was definitely the winner.

We also went to the Hyundai department store in Gangnam and the main Lotte department store.  While they also had food halls, there weren't as impressive because they were smaller than those in Tokyo and Osaka, and they didn't have products that were extraordinary.  Perhaps I was really expecting them to have the scale and originality of products like in Japan, but it didn't quite measure up.

Aside from the department stores, we also strolled down Apgujeong Rodeo Street.  This is the area that has been compared to Beverly Hills.  So again because of that expectation, I was let down.  The shops were not as fashion forward or as boutique as I had expected.  It is a nice little street, though, for a quiet walk, and there's also a great bakery in the main corner (the city is filled with coffee shops and bakeries).  In terms of the shopping vibrancy on the luxury level, I felt like Seoul has the big brands, but they aren't as vibrantly present compared to Tokyo or Hong Kong.

In researching for the trip, I booked a room in the Lotte Hotel above the main Lotte department store.  According to TripAdvisor it's #1.  Despite that ranking, we weren't too happy with the hotel.  Yes, the location is good, but the department store is dated and mid-level.  It's like Macy's in NYC.  A famous destination, but when you shop there you feel the age of the store so it's not as fun as the shopping on Park, Madison, and Fifth avenues.  Additionally, with the unpredictable rainy weather, it was hard to walk around outside and during the day it was painfully hot to walk under the sun for so long.  The hotel itself is decent, and we stayed on the ladies' floor which is probably cleaner than the rest.  But the room and bathroom still felt old, dark, and dated for our standards.  Sometimes, renovations aren't enough.  I'd rather stay at brand new hotels.

So after one night, we woke up early the next morning to compare our backup hotels: Conrad and JW Marriott in the Dongdaemun area.  For our preferences, JW was not our place.  It's the newest hotel, but the area is purely for wholesale shopping, particularly textiles.  Not our thing.  Thankfully, the Conrad was exactly what we were looking for.

The Conrad Seoul is located about the IFC building in the city's financial district.  Our room was incredibly spacious as were were tucked in a corner room with huge floor-to-ceiling windows.  Staying in the IFC building allowed us the conveniences of later night dining, a younger crowd, a quality grocery, and indoor access to the subway.  Seoul's subway system is so impressive, clean, and spacious.  The crowds are educated to be orderly, quiet, and properly dressed.  And, every station has well set up entries and exits; it's so convenient for where you want to go.  Their subway system is a mixture of Japan's complexity with Hong Kong's of foreign-friendly signs.  Not as easy as Hong Kong, but not as overwhelming as Japan.

Aside from department stores and food halls, we also covered some cultural sights and museums.  In my next posts, I'll cover the food and museums.  For now, here's a little glimpse of our stay.

Gangnam streets

Galleria Department Store

Gourmet 464 in Galleria

Friday, July 25, 2014

Black Ginger at the Indigo Pearl Phuket Resort

A vacation with my best friend is not complete without at least one dress up meal.  Setting aside the beach flip flops for the night, we cleaned up and made ourselves presentable for our first and last nights' meals at the resort.

Black Ginger is truly an experience from the moment you enter the restaurants property in the Indigo Pearl Phuket resort.  The blue lit decor against the dark entrance guides you to a wooden porch.  From there, you wait for a floating platform to pull you across a moat.  (Seriously, it's such a cool entrance - it makes a statement for a memorable night ahead.)

You are greeted by the hostess who takes you to the outdoor bar if you wish to start your night there.  Then you are seated outside, in private rooms, or in the main restaurant inside.  I highly recommend the main restaurant because of the impressive decor.  The dark black wood contrasts the blue lights and industrial glass art pieces around and up along the ceiling.  It's modern, rustic, and industrial; and it sets the mood for a fun, yet refined dinner experience.

The menu is quite extensive.  Our choices were narrowed down because of allergies and our focus on Southern Thai cuisine.  My best friend and I have both frequented Bangkok and Chiang Mai.  So we are pretty familiar with the staple dishes and Northern specialties.  This was our chance to try what Phuket is known for.

Everything we ordered was so delicious.  It had that mouth watering blend of spicy, sour, sweet, salty, and bitter.  This Thai combination of flavors makes the food come alive.  The southern dishes highlighted more of the sour which really opens up your appetite for more food.  The best dish of our first and last meal was a salad using a local flower.  We were so fascinated with the flower that our server, who was so sweet and gracious to us, brought out the whole flower to show and explain what we were eating.  In our second and last meal, she brought out the chef to our table.  She's a local young-looking older lady who has been working at the resort's property for over 20 years outlasting the changes of ownership and the horrible tsumani in 2004.

The service and hospitality from these ladies and, of course, the remarkable dishes makes the Black Ginger a must dine experience if you come to the resort.  It's truly unforgettabe from the moment you step foot onto that floating platform.

(I mistakenly deleted my food photos on the flight back from Phuket.  It was a painful realization.  The photos below are courtesy of my best friend who has a brilliant artistic eye.)

Entrance into the restaurant property

Waiting for our floating platform

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Endless eating and relaxing on Nai Yang Beach in Phuket

Aside from the anticipation of a luxury resort, the beach was one of the main reasons why we chose Phuket.  Nai Yang beach is one of many beaches around Phuket.  While it is next to the airport (where you can see planes take off all day), you are tucked away from pollution and commercialism.  The lush trees and forests give the beach privacy.  There are local vendors, restaurants, and massage parlors but they all co-exist for locals and tourists alike.  With young children and couples strolling around, the beach has a family friendly atmosphere.

The Indigo Pearl Phuket resort has its own space along the beach with loungers and a cafe to take in the ocean breeze.  If you want to get out of the resort prices, the restaurants and bars right along the beach have some incredibly cheap prices for great Thai food and cold beers.  I thought fish and chips by the pool was the way to go, but now Thai food on the sandy beach is my go to.

Pineapple fried rice, huge stuffed squid, pad thai, grilled fish, and salads all with that refreshing tastes of sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and bitter.  We were eating so much, but Thai cuisine doesn't make you feel guilty - so it's truly the perfect beach food.

Laying out at the beach

Family friendly

Monday, July 21, 2014

Vacation time in Thailand at the Indigo Pearl Phuket

It's time for another beach getaway!  This time I was in the mood for South East Asia, staying away from crowds, and a guarantee of excellent food.  Destination: Thailand!

There are countless beach resorts all around the country.  After days and weeks of research, my best friend and I finally decided on Phuket.  It has an international airport and our desired resort is just mere minutes away.  Convenient, private, and luxurious - that is what makes for a relaxing vacation.

Indigo Pearl Phuket  is a private resort along the Nai Yang beach in Phuket.  While it is just 5-10 minutes away from the airport, you are tucked away from pollution, crowds, and commercialism.  The resort is set in an industrial chic theme amidst the lush greenery of nature.  The architecture and decoration pays tribute to Phuket's history of tin mining and rubber plantation.

All rooms in the resort are suites.  The base room, the Premium Pearl Bed Suite which we stayed in, is so spacious - especially if you enjoy bathroom space.  The room is modern and warm which feels great coming back to the room after a day under the sun.  And it's even better waking up to the lush views of the resort's greenery.

In the mornings you are treated to the daily breakfast buffet.  It consists of the usual Western selections of eggs, bacon, etc., Chinese dim sum, fruits, breads and pastries, cold cuts, and so on.  There is also a station for freshly made pancakes, waffles, and donuts.  The best part of the morning buffet was the Thai dishes that changed every day.  Curries, braised pork, chicken wings, and freshly made noodles.  That was the most memorable part of every morning.

We stayed in Phuket for 4 nights, so we made the most of the resort by checking out each of the pools and bars.  There are 3 pools around the property.  A main pool for all ages, a quieter and smaller pool for a retreat, and the best pool - with a pool bar and happy hour.  It was hilarious how every afternoon at 4pm sharp, all the habitants of the pool lounges jumped in the water for an afternoon beverage.  Also, you are treated to ice cold waters, fruit sticks, and cold towels to cool down throughout the day.  It soo nice to be pampered.

In the next posts, I'll be sharing photos and stories from the beach and the beach food, as well as our most excellent eating at the resort's gorgeous Thai restaurant.

Premium Pearl Bed Suite

Balcony 1 of 2

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Man Wah - A Classic Hong Kong Experience

My first memories of Hong Kong dates back to the late 90s.  And from then on, the city became my respite from trips to Manila.  The city was a breathe of fresh air, and the expat community around Central reminded me of home (which was the San Francisco Bay Area at the time).  I only remember one or two meals that really stood out and that I still carry with me today.

Man Wah is a Hong Kong tradition that dates decades back.  I first dined here as a young girl over the Christmas season.  I can recall the classy fine dining setting and the proper attire of all the diners.  Growing up, I really valued all those meals my parents took our family to when we would have to dress up and indulge in course by course meals and five star service.  It was so special (and that feeling still holds true today).  And then, to make the holiday dinner even more memorable, a line of school girls came in, lined up around the restaurant, and sang traditional songs to the diners.  Wow!  As a girl who grew up endlessly replaying the Sound of Music and Almost Angels, this made me fall in love with the restaurant.

Flash forward 15+ years, and I'm still finding myself dining at Man Wah.  The restaurant remains located on the 25th floor of the Mandarin Oriental - a hotel my grandfather loved, who passed on the love to my mom, who in turn passed on that love to me.  The panoramic views of the city are reason alone to dine here.  Another reason, it's legitimately Michelin starred - and by legitimate, I mean there are other restaurants in the city who earned it by hype, but Man Wah actually earned it and continues to earn it.

And the food!  You know that feeling you sometimes get after eating Chinese food?  Oily, heavy, lethargic, etc.  There's absolutely none of that here.  So much so, we ate there three times over the course of our three day trip!  And trust me we take each meal in Hong Kong seriously since we're only there for a limited time.  Yes, Man Wah is that good.  It's just as delicious as it was in the 90s, maybe even more so.  The best part of it all, it's luxurious while being completely unpretentious.

Today, Man Wah has kept up with the high expectations of food lovers.  It's serving traditional cuisine with worldly influences and unforgettable plating.  I can't tell you which to choose, dinner or dim sum, because both are amazing.  When you have dinner here, you must get the Iberian pork.  Succulent, fried, savoury, with a hint of sweetness.  I can eat this for days.  And the dim sum was almost too beautiful to eat, but I'm glad I ate it because it's the best dim sum I've had in Hong Kong (which pretty much means it's the best dim sum I've eaten around the world).  To top it all off, the service is beyond impeccable.  The captain waiter, Richard, details the meal with such knowledge and passion.  The best part before tasting the food is when the server describes the dish and its background.  Richard excelled in this because he cares for the diners, the food, and the whole dining experience.  Even if it's pricey, the plating, the taste, the atmosphere, and the service makes you want to come back for more, and more, and more.

Deep fried codfish, preserved olive, black bean, five spices

Deep fried crab claw coated with minced shrimp

Friday, June 27, 2014

Chris Cosentino's Porcellino

Aside from the feeling of home, San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in the US because it really is one of the world's best food cities.  Real food, local markets, global influences, and unpretentious eating.  This is what food and dining should strive for, and it's easy to find in San Francisco - even when you're at celebrity chefs' restaurants.

The prime example of this is in Chris Cosentino's restaurants.  He's a celebrity chef who I love to watch on television - originality and playfulness shining on his food and personality.  Last year, I visited Incanto for my nephew's third birthday dinner.  I know what you're thinking - A 3 year old's dinner at a celebrity chef's restaurant??  Aside from a well behaved boy, the restaurant was actually incredibly kid friendly and ready with high chairs and crayons to color in cartoon pigs.  The service was friendly and well trained, and the food was impeccable - just as I imagined everything would be at his restaurant.

Flash forward half a year,  the restaurant would be closing to renovate and rejuvenate into a new concept also by Cosentino.  Flash forward another few months, and enter Porcellino.  In the same space as Incanto, with almost the same look (with some new art work) the restaurant has turned into a casual neighborhood spot.  Casual in the relaxed sense and not cheap while maintaining its classiness

You order at the counter, get a number, seat yourself, and the food is shortly brought to your table.  The menu consists of pig parts, pastas, and more.  There are familiar items from Incanto, as well as the daily blackboard of specials.

Porcellino makes celebrity chef dining highly approachable and hits all those expectations.  As friendly as Incanto was, Porcellino is somehow even friendlier - perfect for the neighborhood and those wanting a spontaneous night out.

Chicharrones, pecorino, rosemary, and chilli

Pate di Campagna, radishes, cornichons

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A San Francisco legacy reborn

A San Francisco legacy reborn in the hands of a world class celebrity chef.  Tosca Cafe is a low key legend for its late night patrons like Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, and other celebrities and politicians dating back to the 80s.  As decades passed and food became a greater priority, the bar reopened as more of a restaurant bar in the hands of April Bloomfield and her trustworthy partners.

After seeing Bloomfield's Instagram photo that she was in SF for the week, I jumped at the chance for an early dinner at the no reservations restaurant.  A short 20 minute wait later, which flew by at the bar with a delicious Negroni, we were seated at a cozy booth that had a great view of the kitchen and restaurant while remaining private.  Even though we didn't catch a glimpse of Bloomfield in the kitchen, you can tell she was there because of the energized vibe of the whole staff.  They were all performing their best because the big boss was in town.  This was a great first impression of the restaurant and April Bloomfield.

Tosca Cafe is a great place to relax, enjoy sips of drinks, and bites of food.  The cocktails are crafted with a depth, many of which are classics of the bar.  The pastas are both traditional and some have a world class touch.  My favorite dish of the night was a chicken liver pasta with balsamic and sage - so simple and brilliant.  (And knowing that she is inspired by the Filipino adobo, you can totally taste the influence.)  The night was comfortable, tasty, and awakened my taste buds.  I'll definitely be going back for more, and now I'll also make a greater effort to dine at Bloomfield's Spotted Pig and the Breslin in New York City.

A negroni while reading the menu
Casino Bar Negroni 1919.  Beefeater Gin, Campari, Antica Formula, Orange Peel, Hand Cut Cube

Monday, June 23, 2014

Family Style at Ad Hoc

Yountville is Thomas Keller country.  And rightfully so.  French Laundry, Bouchon, Ad Hoc, Addendum - all highly talked about and highly loved.

If you want a casual but quality family dining experience, Ad Hoc is the place for you.  On Easter Sunday, we landed a lunch reservation on Open Table.  We were hoping to get fried chicken on the menu, as Addendum was still hibernating.  But you only find out the menu for the day on the day itself.  And what is on the menu is all that you'll get.  It's fixed family style that increases in quantity depending on how many people are at the table.

For our particular menu, we had an Endive Salad, Fish and Chips, Ribeye, a cheese course, and Sundaes.  I was really impressed with the fish and chips - the best fish and chips I've eaten so far.  Perfect batter around a light white fish.  This kitchen does magic with fried dishes.  The salad was a bit underwhelming and the ribeye wasn't too special either.  But everything was fun, quality, and the service was excellent.  They even accommodated with an extra cheese plate when one person at our table couldn't eat the goat cheese.  This is what service is about, and these are the memories you take with you.  The sundaes were a fun ending, especially with kids at the table.  It's admittedly easy to prepare as it was deconstructed.  But, these were some of the tastiest sauces ever - caramel, chocolate, and strawberry.  You can taste the thought put into these toppings.

I'll definitely find myself at Ad Hoc again.  If I really want the fried chicken, though, I'll make it out back to Addendum since it's finally during these warmer months.  It's a fun idea that you don't know the menu until that day and it's family style.  It creates an opened minded dining experience with the warmth of sharing everything with your table.

Apple and endive salad

Fish and chips

Ribeye with Yorkshire puddings and creamed spinach

Friday, June 20, 2014

A relaxing meal at the Oxbow Public Market

Napa Valley is a place not just for wine, but also for fantastic food.  After all, it's only natural because of how perfectly food and wine pair with each other.

Before, after, during, or instead of a day of the usual wine tasting around the valley, downtown Napa offers a haven for food lovers in the Oxbow Public Market.  This market brought me back to Spain - how it's set up, the cleanliness, and the variety of food vendors selling their dishes and products with passion.

You can nibble around the various small dishes or you can also sit down for a meal.  Ca'Momi is the perfect place in the market for a relaxing meal, and it's great for families and parties.  The Italian restaurant specializes in Italian pizzas, but also offers some memorable slow cooked plates.  They serve one of the best places of liver and onions I've ever tasted.  I'm a huge fan of quality liver and onions, and this topped it in my list.  Even if you don't like the dish, you just might be a convert with how clean and smooth it tasted.  The restaurant also pours delicious wine on tap, and has a variety of fun desserts including cream puffs for a light ending to a big meal.

Glass of Bianco di Napa on tap

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Eating and drinking the night away in Ichiza in Las Vegas

Thanks to The Strip, Las Vegas has solidified a place as one of America's best food cities.  But not all the best eats are on The Strip.  There are a good number that are not only Off The Strip, but also so deliciously affordable.

Ichiza in Las Vegas is one of my favorite restaurants.  There are so many well-rated restaurants on Yelp, but few are actually as good as reviewed.  Ichiza is better than good.  Even in an area full of Asian eats, this establishment is as great as places in Tokyo.

Every night the restaurant is full of locals and Japanese both young and in town for business.  There's always a wait and line, but it's worth it.  The place is boisterous for a reason.  And it's a reason your palate and stomach will happily understand at the end of the night.

There's a standard menu that doesn't change, and written all throughout the walls are the ever-changing daily specials.  The perfection of the regular menu and the constant introduction of new items brings you back again and again.  Plus, to make it more fun all this food is perfect for a long night of eating and drinking.  If you want to keep drinking, you can also keep ordering.  The plates come out in nice small portions for variety.  But save room for dessert!  Ichiza serves one of the best honey toasts around.  It's simple but so memorably good.

Toro sashimi

Toro salad

Friday, June 06, 2014

Discovering Malaysian Cuisine in Kuala Lumpur

When it comes time to choosing a destination, I let my stomach do the deciding.  Kuala Lumpur was my chosen destination because it's a new city, and I had yet to really discover Malaysian cuisine.

It's so much fun to learn about a culture through it's food.  You learn about local ingredients, local diets, and how other cultures and countries have influenced them through their cuisine.  Over the course of a few days, we feasted of Malay cuisine, Indian cuisine, and surprisingly had a really great burger.

It may be "playing it safe" but I enjoy hotel restaurants.  When you stay at a good hotel (I'm talking about five star status), you have the reassurance of quality ingredients and handling.  And, many of the chefs are locals with a good background in culinary education which means the food they serve is not only authentic but possibly also with a higher level of thought and sophistication.

At the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur, you get some of the best views of the Petronas Towers and some of the most enjoyable eating at their local cuisine restaurant, JP Teres.  It's Malaysian cuisine that's clean, classy, and quality - exactly how I like to eat.  We ate here for majority of our meals because it's that good.  Breakfasts and dinners, both a la carte and buffet.

Prior to discovering our hotel's restaurant, we also explored the selections at the nearby Suria KLCC Mall.  Madam Kwan's is a local restaurant serving classic Malaysian cuisine in a casual environment.  You can sample the country in one sitting.

For a brief break in between Malaysian and Indian dishes, we also enjoyed the view and burgers at the hotel's Thirty8 restaurant.  This is definitely one of the better burgers I've had in Asia.

Overall, the eating in Kuala Lumpur provides a unique diversity of cultures and flavors.  It's definitely worth a visit to explore and taste for yourself.

Breakfast at JP Teres
Nasi lemak, tosai,  and samosas
All this for $10 USD!  Not bad at all for a hotel restaurant.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Exploring Kuala Lumpur

A new South East Asian destination to explore - Kuala Lumpur!  KL is a bustling city with diverse cultures.  The blend of cultures are distinct and contribute to the unique Malaysian experience.

The city is most known for the Petronas Twin Towers, which was the tallest tower in the world from 1998 to 2004.  From all angles, and day and night, the towers are truly a sight to see in person.  Whether from down below near the Suria KLCC Mall or up in the buildings nearby (the Grand Hyatt hotel in our case), it's pretty awesome.

I'm not a fan of big tours, especially those big bus tours.  I like exploring places from my own research or from private tours where the guide can really take the time to explain everything and answer all your questions.  A half day tour of KL booked through the hotel concierge took us around the historical and cultural sights of the city: from the royal palace, to the memorial grounds, to the mosque, and then for some chocolate indulgence, and finally art and clothing shopping from local vendors.

Aside from the private tour, you can also learn so much in a city's national museum.  KL's Muzium Negara was the highlight of the trip.  Malaysia's history with its surrounding neighbors is so deep and rich.  The mix of Malay, Chinese, and Indians have really contributed to the history and culture of the country and in the density of KL.

The view from our hotel room

The view at night

Friday, May 23, 2014

Feasting in Singapore

The sights, architecture, museums, culture, and nature.  That's a lot to take in for a short getaway to Singapore.  And the highlight of it all is the food.  You can eat cheaply or luxuriously; the choice is up to you and your wallet.  Either way you go, you're guaranteed to end the day with a happy stomach.

Hawker centers and food courts are the way to go for cheap meals.  In the better areas, the price is slightly higher because the quality and cleanliness is what you pay for.  (We actually ate satay in an outdoor hawker center which was really nice, but unfortunately food poisoning was a result.  So you should still be careful of what you eat and the handling of it even if you're in Singapore where the standards for street food are supposed to be better.)  There are so many classic dishes to choose, so it's best to go with hungry stomachs and share everything.

On the other end of the budget spectrum, there are also many choices for big splurges as well as mid-ranged meals from international celebrity chefs.  From Australia, Luke Mangan has his Salt tapas & bar which is a fun restaurant for refreshing sangrias and small plates to share.  From the states by way to France, there's also the iconic Daniel Boulud and his db Bistro Moderne.  There you can enjoy his signature burger decadently filled with short rib and foie gras.  You can have a meal from these reknown chefs from all over the world in just one small city.

In Singapore, there's so much great food for every budget and for any craving.

First stop, hawker centers
Chicken wings and carrot cake

 Nasi Lemak at 1983 Taste of Nanyang

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Museums in Singapore

Whether you're a tourist or a local, museums are a great place to learn more about history and culture.  Plus, if you're visiting a city with hot or cold weather this gives you at least a couple hours of relief in some air conditioning or with a heater.

Singapore is a small city with a good number of museums.  For a basic background of the city and its history, the National Museum of Singapore is the place to start.  Aside from the history, there are also special exhibits further exploring the culture through it's textiles, photography, film industry, and food.  The food exhibit is a fun space that details the history of popular dishes still eaten today in Singapore.

Over by Marina Bay Sands, the ArtScience Museum is a fun stop with rotating exhibits featuring varying science exhibits and featured artists.  The entrance fee is on the higher side, but you get what you pay for from the extensive pieces displayed and information provided.  It's a great place for some fun knowledge and inspiration.

While you're exploring the Gardens By the Bay, the conservatories pretty fascinating and so nice to cool down in.  The Flower Dome has an impressive amount of flowers and trees from all over the world.  The dome also houses UK celebrity chef Jason Atherton's Pollen.  You can have a casual meal at the cafe, or a fine dining experience up in the formal dining room.  The Cloud Forest is trippy and so cool.  If it's unbearably hot outside, you will not want to leave this misty forest.  And when the sun goes down, the nightly light show at the SuperTree Grove is a fun place to chill out and have an Avatar-like experience.

Singapore is a city that you'll constantly be eating, so these museums are the perfect place to burn off some calories while gaining knowledge and inspiration.

Inside the National Museum of Singapore

Food Exhibit in the National Museum

Monday, May 19, 2014

More from Singapore

Back in Singapore for the second and third time!  This is a great destination for a short getaway to enjoy local eats and culture.  It's a small, small city so you really don't need to spend too much time there; but, it is truly a world class city that's clean and orderly.  And, everything is within walking distance or within an easy ride on public transportation.

On these two trips back to Singapore, I continued to explore Marina Bay Sands and its vicinity.  This is a fun place to explore both during the day and at night when the sun's scorching heat has gone down.  It's a gorgeous city that is bringing in modernity while respecting nature and the greenery.

Singapore at night