So-so Park Hyatt Seoul: Potential to be Better

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I stayed at the Park Hyatt when I was in Seoul for business a couple months back. The room was lovely and I was very pleased the first night in. The room was big and very comfortable, with good views overlooking the city.

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The bathroom was huge, with separate shower and toilet areas, plus a vanity area. I liked how the wardrobe opened on both sides: one side facing the bed and the other facing the vanity area.

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The shower area came complete with separate rainshower and deep bathtub. Plus, it all came with Aesop toiletries which I like but think are horribly overpriced. They made for a happy me since I essentially got a set of toiletries thrown in with the hotel stay.

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So the room was great, but the service left quite a bit to be desired. I had a sense that while everyone was trying desperately hard to do his or her job, there was invariably something lost in translation. This not just because of the language barrier, but also because the different departments of the hotel didn’t seem to communicate well with each other. Some of our luggage took ages to be sent to the rooms, even though specific instructions and descriptions were given to the hotel rep in charge of our rooms. One of them didn’t get sent to one of our higher-ups because he accepted an upgrade from the hotel and word hadn’t been sent to the bellhops. His luggage sat outside the old pre-assigned room for four hours even though he had been upgraded (by the hotel mind you) to another room. Subsequently, a box of chocolates and a bottle of wine were sent to his room, but bearing no sign saying that they were complimentary, both remained untouched.

If you’re on business and anticipate having to rush in and out of the hotel, the Park Hyatt Seoul probably isn’t your best bet. The lifts have the oddest configuration ever. There are 5 lifts in total, but only 3 serve the ground floor entrance. When entering for the first time, my party was taken up to the top floor where the lobby was. Here was where we realised that 2 more lifts served the room floors. In essence, the middle lift shaft served all floors from ground to rooms to lobby, while the pair on the right served only rooms to lobby, and the pair on the left served only ground to 2nd floor restaurant to lobby (and not the rooms). It was a bit mind-boggling and it took ages for us to wait for the one middle lift serving the 4th floor breakfast area and the rooms. Such a difficult system for busy people on work trips.

Other little annoyances? The lack of thought in housekeeping. The first night, I knocked over a bottle of water. Nothing was done to get rid of the huge wet patch on the rug. I’m guessing that by now the rug would have gone mouldy since no one bothered to replace it in my three nights there. (The damp grey spot was still there when I checked out.) Occasionally, housekeeping would stash the complimentary water in a drawer together with the mini-bar snacks. It didn’t help that the bottles weren’t labelled “Complimentary” and only had the hotel label on it. Not friendly. My room package included complimentary in-room internet access, but it didn’t come on automatically. We all had to select the “one day” option which would be charged to the account and then removed on checkout. It was ridiculous because almost all of us dialed 0 to check with the reception. What was worse was that we had to be vigilant on checkout to make sure that we were mistakenly charged for complimentary stuff (I had to get them to reverse one day’s internet fees. Ridiculous.) Last grouse? On the final night, the turn down people didn’t bring down the blinds properly. Somehow the automated function jammed and I had to climb up and pull the blind down myself. Such a simple thing as doing a last all round check that the room was OK wasn’t done.

There was also another major no-no that involved promises made but not met. Let’s just say that insufficient followup and service recovery came from this. They had lovely rooms and a lovely hotel, but as always: the devil is in the details.

Park Hyatt Seoul
Korea Seoul
995-14, Daechi3-Dong
02-2016-1234

Giant Spiced Apple Cupcake Surprise

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I was a little tired of the typical twee cupcake thickly coated with icing everyone scrapes off and throws out. (Dudes, icing sugar is expensive yo.) Instead, I went the other way and made giant cupcakes. The good thing is that this method cuts down on the bother of filling a zillion neverending cupcake cases. I made five in this recipe instead of the usual 15 or so. To make things a little special, I soaked some dried cherries in kirsch and filled the cupcakes with these little surprises.

The recipe itself is the same as the Orange Clove Cake, just that I added two grated apples to the cake mix for a fruitier, slightly denser and moister cake.

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Ingredients:

240g plain flour
½tsp bicarbonate of soda
1tsp cream of tartar
½tsp salt
¼tsp ground cloves
170g butter
200g sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 eggs
2 egg whites
½cup milk
2 red apples, grated

big handful cherries, at least 30
good splash of kirsch or vodka

Method:

  1. The night before, soak the cherries in the kirsch. They should be plump and juicy when ready.
  2. Preheat oven to 160°C.
  3. Combine the flour, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar, salt and ground cloves.
  4. Beat butter and sugar till creamy. Add in the eggs one by one, beating in between each addition, followed by the egg whites and vanilla extract. Beat till light and creamy.
  5. Fold in the flour mixture and milk alternately till you get a thick batter. Stir in the grated apple.
  6. Fill up each giant cupcake case halfway, fill with a generous spoonful of cherries, then top with remaining batter till about ¾ full.
  7. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or till a skewer comes out clean.

Makes 5.

Pek Kio Market Yummies

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It was about time we tried Pek Kio Market after hearing from Hypodermically how good the prawn noodles were. The minute we got there we fanned out, each having separate missions. DC was despatched to queue for the legendary prawn noodles, while others got other stuff to fill our stomachs for the long wait ahead. Forgettable:   Hokkien mee; decent: kway chap.

The chwee kueh from Pin Le was worth a mention because it’s just so darn huge! Each goes for $0.80 and is almost as big as the plate. It’s generously filled with chai poh and the chilli has kick. I’d have it again as a stomach filler even though it doesn’t quite make my love list.

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Taking things a notch up was the oyster omelette from Tong Siew. I know the picture looks awful, like someone had puked over the omellete, but do not be deceived by looks! It was one of the best oyster omelettes I’ve had. This is different from the usual orh luak, it’s call orn neng instead because it doesn’t have distracting starchy goo. Here, it’s just egg and oyster. The egg was fluffy and the oyster fresh and yummy. Together with the chilli sauce and the coriander topping, it was egg and oyster heaven for me.

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When DC finally bore the prawn noodles triumphantly to our table, we oohed and aahed at how big the prawns in the $15 version were. C&S had a bowl each of the regular ones and they were impressed already. After all the preamble, DC and I settled for sharing one $15 portion, divvying up the 3 prawns in our usual democratic fashion: he got the head of the last one and I the body. DC adored the soup, though I was sure at first. It wasn’t as punchy and in your face as expected, but after a few sips, I realised that the clear soup had a very clear taste of prawn with no distractions. The jumbo prawns were great too, plenty of coral and the flesh was firm and sweet. Excellent.

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The noodles were done very well too. I enjoyed it much more than expected as the chilli was very flavourful, plus it was augmented by crispy lard bits and plenty of crunchy veg. Thumbs up!

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Pin Wei (#25)
Tong Siew(#23)
Wah Kee Prawn Noodles (#15)
Blk 41A Cambridge Road Hawker Centre (Pek Kio)

Braise

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DC took me to Braise for our anniversary dinner. It was a lovely place with the best service I’ve experienced in Singapore: warm and attentive yet unobtrusive. They noticed that I was cold and not only gave me a shawl, they also made sure that my hot water was topped up all the time.

It was too bad the tasting menu wasn’t very exciting, so we went a la carte. Still, the chef sent out an amuse bouche of some kind of pate on a sliver of toasted baguette. I don’t remember what it was, all I know that it was rich, very tasty and left us both wanting me. I suspect it’s a fish rillette of sorts. We’ll have to see whether it makes its way to the main menu before telling.

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DC’s starter was just his thing: a rich and unctuous pairing of foie gras and sweetbread. I wasn’t sure of the spongey-grainy texture of the sweetbread, but DC loved it. It’s pretty difficult to get parts like pancreas in Singapore.

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I had half a dozen fines de claire oysters au naturel. They didn’t even need the lemon, they were so fresh. I loved how the sharp, slightly briny taste mellowed into mouth-filling savour. It was a pity they didn’t have a muscadet to go with it, that pairing is made in heaven. I was so sad when I ate my last one, enjoying the aftertaste for as long as I could. It’ll be a while before I get oysters of that quality again.

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Now for the mains. Mine was a straightforward roast beef in jus, paired with braised beef cheek, savoy cabbage and decadent, decadent buttery mash. It was a good dish that tasted far better than it looks in the picture. (The problem with romantic settings is that pictures just don’t come out well at all.) The beef was nicely rare, just as I like it, and the beef cheek the expected melt-in-mouth tender. Coupled with the very buttery mashed potato, it was a tad on the rich side, which DC quite predictably loved. Needless to say, I finished the savoy cabbage quite quickly as it was a good foil to all the butter and fat.

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I think DC may have had the more interesting dish. His grilled fish with capellini was quite different as fish and cheese are not commonly paired. The pasta was doused in a very cheesy stock that wasn’t at all stringy. It was as if the essence of cheese had been distilled and used to flavour the pasta, without having any actual cheese in it. I can’t even imagine how they made this. The fish itself was good too, with a nice gratinated crust. It was ordinary in a good way.

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Dessert was a bit of a pity. I didn’t understand why they had to deconstruct a trifle. I liked the apple jelly and granite, it was just a pity that the custard was starchy. It showed that either the head chef was off-duty or hadn’t any confidence in his custard-making skills or both. I liked the cinnamon donut, but wasn’t sure of the point of it. Yes yes, I know that it’s the deconstructed trifle sponge, but it didn’t really add anything to the dessert. Braise would do better if they hired a better dessert chef.

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In summary, we’ve got outstanding starters and very competent, somewhat creative mains. Avoid the dessert and you’ll have a fabulous dinner.

Braise
60 Palawan Beach Walk
Level 2 Sentosa
Tel: 6271 1929

April in The Philippines: Long Trek to Clark (Kids, don’t try this at home)

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You know what they say about always trusting what you hear on the ground and that your guesthouse is the most reliable info source? Well, it’s not always right that I can tell you. Thanks to my guesthouse, I probably took the longest route ever to get to Clark airport for my flight out of The Philippines. I guess it turned out pretty cheap, but I sure would’ve paid the extra needed for a direct bus there.

This is what happened: I checked out at the ungodly hour of 5.30am and hopped into a cab to take me to Pasay Bus Terminal. There, I caught the onward bus to Dau. It was a pretty uneventful trip as it was an airconditioned and not very crowded coach. It was only when I got off the coach that I discovered to my horror that (a)  I still had to navigate past the gate of Clark Freeport Zone to get into the airport and (b) the trike ride from Dau would only take me to the gate. The 5 minute trike ride of less than 1km cost me 50 PHP (S$1.50). Feeling stiffed, I stood uncertainly at the gate of the Freeport Zone trying to figure out how to get inside without spending the last of my reserves on a taxi (200 PHP) and getting stranded for not having the local currency to pay my airport tax.

A couple of jeepney drivers offered to take me and my dive gear (it was a huge bag) into the complex for 180 PHP. I refused and decided to try my luck with a bit of crying. The stress of the journey and the early morning start helped. Soon enough, another jeepney driver came up to me, telling me he could take me into the Zone somewhere close to the airport for 20 PHP, but I’d have to walk to the gate myself. Wiping away my tears and thanking my lucky stars, I climbed into the front seat of the jeepney (a rare privilege), waited for it to fill up with people and we were off!

The Zone was rather large, and to my surprise (doh!), more people wanted to get to other parts of the Zone than the airport. I was set down about 5 minutes later in a fairly deserted area about 500m away from the airport. There wasn’t anyone around except the odd security guard patrolling the odd gate. They all smiled at me and pointed me in the right direction. Given the dive bag that was almost size, it was pretty obvious which direction I was heading. One of the guards even introduced himself and we had a little chat. Another one motioned to me that I had to jumped across a drain at the narrow part if not I’ll be stuck and not get to the terminal! It’s amazing how friendly they all were to an odd stranger.

After a pretty long and sweaty trek in the hot sun, I finally reached the airport gates! After showing my passport to the guards, I fairly stumbled to the cool of the waiting area outside. A chat with the locals made me realise that I was quoted the right prices, and even the lowest possible prices. They were amazed that I trekked in to the airport.

After taking a cab, a bus, a trike and a jeepney, then going on foot, I hopped on the plane and sank into the comfy seats, secure in the knowledge that Noid was picking me up in her car on the other side.

[post script: I later found out that there were scheduled buses leaving from SM Mega Mall to Clark Airport. Le sigh.]



April in The Philippines: Warm People and Strange Bands

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The Philippines is full of the loveliest people ever. They are so warm, friendly and plain trusting in their hospitality. There was the breakfast lady in Coron who gave me the best and cheapest morning meals ever who told me that it was dangerous to travel as a lone girl (not once in The Philippines did I feel at all unsafe) with that look of earnest concern on her face. There was the friendly shop assistant at the mami stand, where I stopped for a quick snack, who insisted that the water wasn’t safe for delicate stomachs like mine. There was the friendly security guard who gave me directions in the middle of nowhere (more on that in a bit).

Most crucially, there were Natalie and Derrick, a couple I met in transit at Manila airport. Our planes were delayed as usual and we somehow struck up a conversation. Natalie was Filipino and Derrick Australian, they returned to The Philippines often to see her extended family. After just about an hour of chat, they gave me their contact number and invited me to stay with them in their service apartment in Manila when we three got back into town.  Natalie even suggested making arrangements to let me in should I get back earlier than them!

Taking things on the cautious side, I went to visit instead when I returned to Manila and we went out with Natalie’s niece, Anne-Marie and Pristine, her daughter. It must be pretty cool for Natalie to be such a young grandaunt. Pristine was such a sweet 8-year-old. She held my hand and called me Tita (aunt).

After dinner, I adjourned with Natalie and Derrick to a bar for some drinks. Here’s where we met the T-Rex. It was rather amusing as I had to peer past it to see the rather bad but amusing cover band. The girls wore midriffs, which was fine for the slim ones, but one of them had way too much baby fat still. The boys weren’t hot at all and the lead singer couldn’t help but hog the limelight even when he was doing backup for a girl song. So amusing.

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Natalie and Derrick later sent me back in a cab right to the doorstep of my guesthouse. They also insisted that I text them the moment I got safely inside. It was another moment where I felt guilty for not trusting enough.

April in The Philippines: Intramuros

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I spent my last days in The Philippines exploring Manila, the most interesting of which was Intramuros. It’s the old part built in the Spanish walled-city style.

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I enjoyed how faded the area looked. Somehow none of the buildings in the area looked very restored at all.

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The decay reminded me of the faded decadence of Havana.

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To me, the highlight of Intramuros was the San Agustin Church, supposedly the oldest church building in The Philippines. Its baroque facade was beautiful despite the decay and overcast day.

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The interior was even more breathtaking with its domed ceiling and trompe l’oeil paintings. It’s amazing that this cathedral is still in daily use.

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There were other nooks in the place with more beautiful decorations, like this side chapel.

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What impressed me most was the area towards the back of the cathedral, where the organ was.

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See the huge music books on the stands? There were four of them.

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While not illuminated to the degree where it’ll be a treasure to be kept behind glass, these music books showed the art and incredible workmanship involved. Beautiful.

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Special Oat Cookies

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I made these oat cookies as a birthday present for someone special. Not only did it have to have less sugar, it also needed unique flavours to distinguish it from store-bought or other quotidian home-baked stuff. Oat cookies can be boring as it seems so healthy, but fiddling around with the flavours gave the old-fashioned recipe a nice lift. The verdict? She liked it!

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Ingredients:

250g rolled oats
130g plain flour
130g sugar
1 tsp cream of tartar
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½tsp salt
200g butter, melted
1 egg

cherry and chocolate
1 small handful dried cherries, chopped
20g dark chocolate, chopped

pistachio and orange flower
1 handful of shelled pistachios, chopped
1 tsp orange flower water

apricot and almond
5 dried apricots, chopped
1 small handful almonds, chopped

crystallised ginger and walnut
6 cubes crystallised ginger, chopped
5 walnut halves, chopped

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 150°C. Line 2 cookie trays with greaseproof paper.
  2. Mix all the dry ingredients thoroughly, then stir in the egg and butter. Feel free to use your fingers to mix thoroughly.
  3. Divide into 4 lots and mix in the flavourings separately.
  4. Using your hands, roll the mixture into tight balls and space out about 2 inches apart on the lined trays.
  5. Bake for 20 to 30 mins or until golden brown. Remove immediately and cool on a wire rack.

Makes about 40 cookies.

Chronicles of MPT: Opera

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I’ve been a regular at Bedok South Hawker Cenre’s Opera for a long time. The auntie who took order would take one look at me and tell me my order immediately. It’s too bad she’s not there anymore, but the auntie who makes the noodles is still there.

What I love about this stall is how healthy and clean everything tastes. It’s not your usual fishball noodle nor bak chor mee. It’s invariably full of fresh ingredients like baby romaine lettuce (which other stall uses baby romain?), sprightly beansprouts and incredibly fat free minced pork. Coupled with homemade fried shallots, good chilli sauce and excellent vinegar,  the dry version is heavenly. I could eat here every day. In fact, I see lots of old-timers order their daily fix from this stall. (For the record, it’s not the one with the queue, I personally can’t see why people like the famous fishball stall with the long queue.)

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I also ask for extra vegetables for $0.50 more and they give me a much bigger bowl of soup plus extra fishballs and other ingredients. This is worth my while because it’s the only accompanying soup worth drinking. At other places I invariably leave the soup untouched because it’s just msg and water. Here, things are quite different and I always finish every drop of the soup. It’s fantastic.

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What’s not so great about it? The meatballs are only a notch above run of the mill and the meepok can sometimes be soggy. Go for the meekia or meesua, both the dry version. Both are excellent.

Opera
#01-175
Blk 16 Bedok South Road Hawker Centre

Possibly the Best Vegetarian Food in Singapore

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Naive was so good we went there twice in a month, a rarity considering how promiscuous we are with our food places. This post is an amalgamation of both visits. At the start of the meal, a waiter will bring round a mortar and pestle filled with black and white sesame seeds for a wellness ritual of sorts. It was quite a nice start grinding up the seeds for sprinkling onto our food later.

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We started off with the excellent and almost unbelievably good brown olive rice. With the savoury olive paste inside, it was tasty enough to eat on its own. The kaffir lime leaf strips on the top brought it up a notch so much so that it was almost a waste to eat the rice with the dishes!

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The tamarind tofu cake was flavourful and the firm tofu tasting almost meaty. It really didn’t taste at all like I was eating a vegetarian dish. I liked how the seaweed wrapping the tofu gave it plenty of umami flavour that went well with the spicy tangy sauce.

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My favourite dishes were the monkeyhead mushroom ones. I can’t decide which is better, the braised version (Enchanted Forest) or the slivered and fried version (can’t remember the name).

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Both versions tasted fairly similar, they probably used the same sauce. It was made from good stock nonetheless and I’ll definitely have it again. I liked the texture of both versions. The fried version had a very nice crisp-chewy texture while the braised version was somehow firm and again, almost meaty. It certainly didn’t feel like I was eating vegetarian here.

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There were quite a few dishes that didn’t work for me. DC liked the golden oats (it’s his soft spot), but I felt that it was too pedestrian. The tofu in the dish didn’t shine at all. There was also the rendang tofu paired with mantou. That flopped because the taste was neither here nor there and the mantou gave the wrong taste associations: tongue was expecting darkly savoury and sweet, but got spicy instead. A big no-no.

I also didn’t like the steamed tofu with water chestnut and orange sauce. It didn’t help that the service is a bit odd: our waitress was this “I know better than your mum” type who didn’t get her recommendations right. She told us that the special of the day was two kinds of steamed tofu, one was orange and watercress and the other something I can’t remember. I expected that it would be a pairing of tofu, which would be rather interesting, but we were disappointed. It was also a bit annoying to find that the portions were really small. At first, we ordered only one olive rice and asked for a bowl so we could share. When the food arrived, we realised that we needed extra. At this point, the server took away the empty bowl, meaning that we couldn’t even share out the first bowl of rice and start eating. Sure, the second rice arrived very soon, but befuddling moments like these punctuated our entire meal.

Last gripe: the bowls are pretty but hopelessly impractical. The sloping sides made it impossible to rest our chopsticks  naturally in between bites. I kept trying to put my chopsticks down only to realise belatedly that I had to angle them 90 degrees before it would work. Eat there and you’ll realise it.

Final verdict: the cooking at this place is very good, if they fail it’s because of the flavour profile falls flat, not the textures or cooking technique. There are some dishes that work really well, especially the signature monkeyhead mushroom and tofu cake dishes, as well as the olive rice. Other dishes aren’t so good, so be careful of the side-ish dishes. The place is too expensive for what you get and the service is very odd! (See above, plus they don’t take reservations for groups of less than five. I don’t see what’s stopping people from making reservations for five, turning up with three and telling the restaurant that the others didn’t want to go because of their odd requirements.)

99 East Coast Road
Tel: 6348 0668