September in Bali: Last Pampering

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It was time to call it wraps in Bali. I’d spent about 3 weeks diving in both Bali and Komodo and while I enjoyed it all greatly, it was time to take a break from being underwater. What better way than to do it in style – at one of the Nusa Dua resorts. I was lucky enough to get a free ride from Permuteran to the airport from a very generous Spanish couple. It was there that I met my aunt for our pampering at the resort.

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We stayed at the Hyatt, a lushly landscaped resort.

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My aunt found a great deal on it and we spent four days lazing around this resort.

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Most of the time was spent at the swimming pool, a free form one that snaked round the premises. It was lovely wandering from one coil to another, exploring the little surprises round the corner.

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One cute surprise was the slide, big enough for adults even! I enjoyed going down a few times, it was pretty fast. But soon I got embarrassed because little kids were going both before and after me.

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At breakfast, we had a choice of the open air patio or comfortable airconditioning inside. The open air patio gave us a beautiful view of birds enjoying the grounds too. They were fairly tame and I didn’t have to zoom too much to catch good shots.

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This little fella was our breakfast companion as we sat by the lily pond. In exchange for his companionship, we gave him a few morsels of bread from our table.

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And after spending the day lazing in the pool, we had dinner at Jimbaran beach. Here we had the typical spread of barbecued seafood, and here I also wave goodbye with my crab to the end of the Bali series.

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Private Affairs

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DC took me to Private Affairs one Friday night to cheer me up after a stressful week. We weren’t sure about whether this place would last as we were the only ones there that night. We opted for the Luscious Dinner 4-course set ($98++). DC had a duck carpaccio that he liked a lot but didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. My Alaskan king crab, though, was wonderful. It really was lusciously seafood-y and briny, and bursting with fresh juiciness. The avocado mousse and passionfruit cream had just the right level of richness to complement the crab and the squid ink tuile provided a nice bit of contrast with its delicate crispness.

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For mains, DC had the Maine lobster. When I tried it, I almost regretted ordering what I did because the lobster, like my crab appetiser, burst with fresh, well, lobster flavour. It wasn’t your typical vaguely rubbery tasteless boiled lobster. This one was expertly cooked in a buttery foam, making me want to devour it shell and all. In fact, I think DC gnawed as much of his lobster shell as he could!

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Remember I almost regretted my order? But I didn’t. My main course of Welsh lamb loin held its own. Again, it was expertly cooked so that the lamb loin was tender and flavourful. Accompanied with the soy bean mash and the rich, intense jus of lamb and olive, this was very very good. (Unfortunately it paled against another dish I’ll blog about next time, but that’s a story for another time.)

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Our third dish was a pre-dessert. DC had a yummy cheese platter and I had a sorbet. Both were competent though not particularly anything to rave about. Plus, the lighting in the restaurant is so dim that it was impossible to get good pictures anyway. Good thing we were the only diners that night so we took pictures with flash whenever the wait staff weren’t looking (!).

For the real dessert, DC had peach tofu with salted caramel and lemongrass ice cream. The purple thing is a lavender sheet, which I felt tasted a bit like one of those  portable soap sheets for washing your hands. I liked the tofu a lot. It was very tender and smooth, more like tau fa than actual tofu. It was a bit like eating peach-scented egg tofu that was sweet.

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I had the chocolate mousse with miso sponge. The miso sponge was a very inventive touch to an otherwise tired dessert. I’m so glad he didn’t go down the molten choc cake route. Here, the miso sponge was very tender and very savoury, making for a lovely contrast to the sweet chocolate mousse and the deep flavour of the dark chocolate chips. It’s a pity he put pop rocks in the dessert. The dark chocolate “sand” is a bit overused in molecular gastronomy and I really don’t like the popping on my tongue.

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That dinner was good enough to send us back to Private Affairs a few weekends later for a semi-buffet brunch celebration. It was good value for money at $68++ per person without alcohol. The food wasn’t quite as exquisite as the dinner we had, but it was still pretty darn good. The idea was that we ordered whatever we liked from the brunch menu, from typical breakfast staples like mini-muffins, yogurt, pancakes and eggs, to brunch staples like fresh oysters, to more exciting things like cured sardine, panfried scallops and coffee ribs with a twist. All these we could order as many servings as we liked. For the main course, each chose one. Everyone liked their own main courses and I naturally felt that mine of melt-in-the-mouth sous vide French chicken was especially nice. If you want a taster for Private Affairs, the brunch is the way to go.

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Unfortunately it was third time unlucky when DC and I returned to Private Affairs. We tried out their celebratory 8-course menu for October consisting of greatest hits in the chef’s repertoire. There was the familiar course of many dishes, with some good and many others falling flat. I was deeply disappointed by the lack of quality control and lack of service recovery for a restaurant that aspires to this calibre. First, even though I made an email booking just like the previous brunch (with acknowledgement from the PR manager), they lost our booking and took a while to get us a table. It didn’t help that, unlike our first experience, the restaurant was full as there was a big group taking up much of the restaurant with a separate special menu and a few other tables doing the a la carte option. The kitchen was obviously not ready for this onslaught and some dishes came out different from described in the menu. For instance, the raw Hokkaido scallop with lettuce gazpacho jelly came with  a pool of bright green liquid instead of jelly and there was no way of eating the dish properly as we weren’t provided with spoons. We just had to fish out the scallop from the watery liquid and the wait staff later whisked away the plates, only looking slightly puzzled when I pointed out that we had no spoons and weren’t able to enjoy the dish properly.

No less, two dishes stood out. The kurobuta pork cheek with blood orange jelly was very good. I’m not sure about the slightly odd gel-like texture of the accompanying avocado gnocchi but the pork cheek itself was done so that it was meltingly good. The slightly tart and sweet blood orange jelly really lifted the flavour very well.

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The second noteworthy dish was the apple cake dessert. Again, there were parts that I didn’t quite agree with, in this case the apple cinnamon spaghetti. DC liked it a lot and slurped up mine too, but I found it a bit too molecular gastronomy, and too reminiscent of past biology experiments dealing with calcium alginate gels. It was a cute idea nonetheless. What blew me away what the apple cake itself. It was essentially an apple-flavoured cross between mousse and semifreddo, with apple jelly in the middle. I loved how it was just on the verge of melting and how the clean green apple flavours shone through very well. The lemongrass ice cream was a lovely light yet creamy accompaniment to the cake. Thumbs up!

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It was the last part of the dinner that disappointed me. The PR manager came over to chat with us. No matter that she didn’t apologise for the mix-up in reservations. She asked how the food was and I responded that it was patchy. Taken by surprised, she asked why and was reluctant to probe much further after I asked how much she wanted to know, showing her the brief notes I took on my slip of printed menu. She did concede that the lettuce gazpacho was meant to be a jelly and not liquid, and then said that the chef designed the menu out of popular dishes. Telling us that other people liked the menu certainly does not make me like a less than ideal experience more.

In short, this restaurant has lots of potential as the chef is obviously very talented. His kitchen and staff do on occasion let him down. It took me a long while to decide to post about this place as I have very mixed feelings about it. If you take my experience as a gauge, you’d probably get a good experience two-thirds of the time. For me, unfortunately, I’m not going to come back for a little while.

Private Affairs
45 Joo Chiat Place
Tel: 6440 0601

 

July in Vietnam: A Close Shave in Sapa

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My experience in Sapa was definitely head and shoulders above that in Ha Long Bay. Here I experienced something a tad more opportunistic. Although the personal danger was higher, somehow I felt far less upset about this experience, and filed it away under things to watch out for in future.

Here’s what happened. I’d booked my short tours in Sapa through a travel agent recommended by, of all people, my pastor. He’d been on a wonderful trip in a large group from church, enough for the travel agent to personally show them around Sapa. I hadn’t the same luck, which wasn’t a big deal. The tour guide who took me on a group tour to Cat Cat, seemed like a nice enough and friendly guy. Dzong was informative and also very fluent in English. After a very pleasant day trip to Cat Cat, he asked the group to join him for dinner. The rest seemed fairly interested but later backed out because they were all on pre-arranged package tours with dinner included.

Dzong invited me to his place for tea. Eager to make friends with a local, I readily agreed.  Turned out that he shared a room with his brother, one in a row of many little rooms in a building. We sat on little stools drinking green tea and eating lychees. Too bad he was really bad at choosing fruit. He obviously hadn’t spent a great deal of time living on his own. We chatted a while about all sorts of random things and I foolishly set the location a bit too far away when I fibbed to him that I had a boyfriend waiting for me in Ho Chi Minh City.

Later that evening we met for dinner and headed out to one of the local barbecue joints serving grilled black chicken and various glutinous rice specialties.  We sat down at the low wooden benches and enjoyed all the delicious local delicacies. Dzong got a half litre mineral water bottle recharged with the local firewater and I obstinately sipped at it while he exhorted me to scoff it down like the locals. No way for something at about 20% bv!

Soon dinner was over and it was time to retire for the night. I was a little buzzed as we walked back down the path leading to both our places. He asked me to wait outside while he picked up something at the pharmacy. Thank God for my curiosity as I wandered into the shop consisting of a single counter and looked around. Before long I realised to my horror that he was picking some prophylactics. That brought me straight out of my buzz and immediately put me on the alert. I kept my distance from him and true enough, he asked if I wanted to go to his place for a drink. It was my cue to profess exhaustion and head back.

Unfortunately, he insisted on being gentlemanly (whether faux or not I care not to explore) and escorted me back to the hotel. I kept insisting that he needn’t go to my floor or to my door but he did. I unlocked the door, said a quick goodbye and slipped inside, closing and locking the door firmly behind me. I was incredibly lucky that he didn’t try any harder because I later found that the door didn’t shut properly and really needed a chair pushed against it.

Boy did that teach me a lesson. I never told my parents about this, not even now, two years from when it happened. I wonder what Mum would say if she finds out, if she ever gets back to reading this blog again!

Having survived that, I thought I’d go on to more challenging things and hired a motorbike plus driver to take me through hill country the long way. Of course, not without thoroughly haranguing the travel agent who arranged Dzong as a tour guide to make sure that the motorbike driver was a decent chap who wouldn’t try a thing on me.

June in Thailand: Life with the Karen

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The next village we got to was slightly more remote. Again, we stayed in the house of the village chief where they provided bedding and cooking space. Jare and Kiat did the honours for the cooking and while waiting for dinner to be served, the village headman brought out home made rice whiskey.

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We sat round on very empty stomachs downing shots of (thankfully not very strong) local whisky from the same chipped china cup. Even though we could only communicate through sign language, the villagers were always smiling and trying their best to ask questions about us, like which country we came from and how old we were. When we were through with dinner, the villagers did the washing up after us. In Karen culture, a visitor who washes up after himself is one who never returns. After dinner, we rolled out sleeping rolls provided by the family and dropped straight off to sleep, the incessant rain still beat on the eaves of the hut. We wondered how our damp clothes would have any chance at all of drying.

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In the morning, the rain seemed to have stopped for a while and we woke to the sounds of inquisitive children staring in at the door. They were none too discreetly trying to make enough noise to get us to wake up and pay them some attention yet not alert the adults of their innocent mischief.

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We got up, put away the bed rolls and went out to find that the whole village was awake and it seemed like the day had started long before we arose. Only the youngest and the oldest were still around. Here is the village headman’s wife and one of her many grandchildren.

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She was very happy to have her picture taken and I hope the photo got to her safely. It was so lovely to see the great love for her grandchild in her eyes. Beautiful.

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After a quick breakfast of chillied sardine with rice for me, Jare and Kiat, and toast for the farangs, we said our farewells to whoever was left in the village and headed off. There was quite a way to cover yet.

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15 Minute Stir-Fry Dinner

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When I’m tired from a hard day’s work but don’t want to cop out by having instant noodles, I go the wholesome route by doing a quick stir-fry. This time, a quick run through the supermarket got me some organic choy sum, mixed agro-tech mushrooms, ginger and some pork shoulder. Once I got home, I washed and cut the vegetables quickly, then sliced the mushrooms, ginger and pork. (I can never be bothered to wash them.) That takes about 10 minutes and then the stir-fry itself takes 5 minutes. If there’s leftover rice in the fridge, then a 2 minute microwave sorts out the rice. If not, it’s a 5 minute boil of noodles. No, the minutes don’t add up to 15 because a lot of them are done simultaneously. After that short time of quick work, a piping hot and very home-cooked satisfying dinner.

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Ingredients:
1 tbsp oil
6 thin slices of ginger
handful mushrooms, cut into chunks
small piece pork, sliced
good splash Chinese shaoxing wine or dry sherry
salt to taste
soy sauce to taste

Method:

  1. Heat your wok over the highest possible flame. Coat the wok with the oil and allow to get as hot as you dare. Make sure all your ingredients are ready.
  2. Slide in the ginger (gingerly!) and stir. Just before the ginger burns, toss in the pork. Stir rapidly till just about cooked, then add the mushrooms and keep stirring furiously. Now add the vegetables and keep going till the leaves are completely wilted.
  3. Splash in the Chinese wine and add salt and soy sauce to taste. Turn off the heat and serve over rice or noodles.

Serves 1.

Quick Roasted Vegetable Couscous

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Some evenings I go for a post-work run and want to come back to something quick and good. One night I popped some mushrooms and cherry tomatoes into the oven and went out. By the time I got back, the tomatoes were on the verge of drying out and the mushrooms prettied much burnt in the toms’ charred juice. Do as I say, not as I do: only leave the vegetables in the oven for max 15 minutes! I suppose you can try this with any other non-leafy vegetable. Think eggplant, courgettes, peppers and the like.

The couscous was very easily done: some vegetable stock (I use an organic no-msg stock powder) and a quick buzz in the microwave, then top with chopped basil and the grilled vegetables and it’s good to go. If you feel like you can’t do vegetarian, try adding a chopped anchovy or top with a grilled chicken breast. Quick and cheerful for a weekday dinner.

This recipe of course has way too much couscous. Keep the rest for another meal.

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Ingredients:

handful mushrooms, I used oyster mushrooms in this recipe
as many cherry tomatoes as you like, I used yellow ones here
olive oil

¾ cup vegetable stock
½ cup cous cous
handful basil leaves, finely chopped
1 anchovy fillet, finely chopped
1 wedge lemon

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Line a roasting tin with foil and set the mushrooms and tomatoes on. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Roast for 10 minutes or until the vegetables just start to brown.
  2. Heat up the vegetable stock and pour over the couscous. Microwave for 2 minutes on high. Set aside for 5 minutes and fluff with a fork.
  3. When the vegetables are done roasting, pour it and any pan juices onto the couscous. Stir in together with the basil and add salt and pepper to taste. If you’re using chopped anchovies, add them here too.
  4. Top with the lemon wedge and serve.

For 1.