Not Bad Not-Chocolate at Laurent Bernard’s

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By some freak coincidence, DC and I were both at business meetings in the Portsdown area on a weekday. It was just too bad that our favourite place in the area was closed, so we plumped for Laurent Bernard Chocolatier instead. I wasn’t expecting a great deal, mainly because I’d been disappointed at its Robertson Quay branch before (rude service, not particularly great food). This place surprised me.

I went for a healthy niçoise salad, which turned out more substantial than I expected as it came with a well-toasted piece of rustic farm bread. It went beautifully with the rare seared tuna chunks and the generous portion of salad. DC found the tuna a bit fishy but I liked it that way. It’s probably the best version of niçoise I’ve had as it doesn’t have the stuff I don’t fancy (boring boiled potato and squeaky boiled string beans) and has lots of green leaves and plenty of tuna.

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DC went for the goat cheese sandwich, which turned out very similar in style to my salad! There was the same slice of toast and a fairly substantial heap of salad greens, a bit less than the stuff for my salad. The main difference was of course the grilled goat cheese, which was of course fantastically oozy and runny under a crisped up crust. He loved it.

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Dessert was where we misstepped.  I’m surprised that the dessert here didn’t fare too well. We ordered the cherry soufflé to share and had high hopes seeing as they had an extensive soufflé section in the menu. I really like Blackforest-style sour cherries and it’s hard to find a place that does it well. Our soufflé was obviously fresh from the oven as it started to quite rapidly lose height once it landed on the table.  The dessert itself wasn’t too bad, although it was a tad weepy. I think the chef overwhipped the egg whites and undercooked it slightly. Still, it was light and airy with a tender, slightly crackly top. The raspberry sauce accompaniment was rather quotidien and didn’t do very much to help the soufflé along. I liked the cherries, although there was some kind of liqueur or flavour added that gave it the typical cherry cough syrup flavour when I had more than a mouthful of it. I suppose it would suffice if one were truly craving cherry, but not otherwise.

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Laurent Bernard Chocolatier
5B Portsdown Road #01-02
Telephone: 6475 9410

March in Laos: The Real Monkey Business

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Did you figure out how we got from tree house to tree house? Check out the picture below and see if you can now.

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There were cables strung up across different parts of the valley and also to each tree house. We were all kitted up with harnesses and a pulley and we were all set to go across the zipline. After a few zips across picturesque valleys and a couple of treks on foot, we went across the final cable to get into our tree house.

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It was loads of fun because of the incredibly high speeds. It was hard to appreciate the scenery while going past really fast. I think it was also less scary seeing the river coursing down the valley so far below when you’re worried about whether or not you’ll crash into a tree on the other side.

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But you do slow down in the end. Occasionally if you don’t build up enough momentum you end up slowing down too fast and have to climb the rest of the, thankfully, short way back to the receiving platform.

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There were some problems with rats at another tree house and this cat was despatched to get rid of them. Of course it didn’t have its own harness, so into a sack it went. It wasn’t too happy about the disrespectful treatment and gave its ride a good scratch when freed. At least it must’ve been in cat heaven hunting all the rats on the tree.

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It’s a pity I didn’t get any good pictures while on the zipline. Most of the time I was going to fast to frame the picture well, other times it was unfocussed and most time I was just having too much fun to even want to consider marring the experience by watching my camera fall hundreds of metres into the river below.

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Nonetheless, the dusk views from the tree houses were pretty amazing. It was good enough seeing this, it didn’t matter that we hardly saw any wildlife.

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Except this lizard that one of the local guides gamely displayed on his shirt.

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It was a lovely two and a half days running round the forest ziplining like rabid monkeys across the cables over and over and over and over again. It was great getting to know the others in the group swapping stories by candlelight at night, then going to sleep and waking up to another day of ziplining again. It really was worth coming all this while to Laos for this.

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March in Laos: Tree Houses

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As I mentioned earlier,  Siamesecat and I were up to some monkey business. We’d booked a couple nights’ stay in what was touted as a gibbon sanctuary. To cut the suspense, we didn’t see a single monkey, gibbon or not, in our three days and two nights in the forest. It was probably because we made so much noise tramping along the paths that we hardly even saw birds, let alone simians.

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Anyhow, it was lovely being right in the thick of nature. After being dropped off from the van that took us to Ban Toup from Huay Xai, it was a good two-hour walk from the little dot of a village to where we spied the first sign to our accommodation for the night.

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I’d never stayed in a tree house before and this excited me to no end. Seeing the first one looming ahead in the distance filled me with awe. It amazed me to think of how the first plank had to be hauled up to the top and painstakingly assembled, of course by hand, plank by plank and nail by nail.

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As we approached one by one, we were amazed by how well-made the tree house was, and how much space there was inside.

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The view from the top was lovely. This particular tree house had a stream running below it. It was great just leaning against the railing and doing nothing except enjoy the scenery.

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There was plenty of space for the six of us. The tree house turned into a bit of a tent city at night as each pair of mattresses had a thick mosquito net strung over it. We were definitely glad to put up the nets so that we could escape from the incredibly lot of insects at night. It was the jungle after all. In fact the only entertainment at night ,given that there was no electricity, was chatting in the candlelight. That until Discovery Channel came on, live mind you, as someone spied a large spider champing in its prey in one of the webbed alcoves.

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Meals were lovely. It was mainly plainly cooked vegetables with rice, but they were always skilfully cooked with a deft hand that I couldn’t help marvel that none of us particularly missed meat nor did anyone complain that the food was monotonous. There was plenty of fruit and occasionally one of our guides would swing by and ceremoniously cut up a pineapple or mango for us to devour.

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Smoking was not allowed in case of forest fires and drinking was only possible if we’d paid our guides an exorbitant sum to go out to Ban Toup for a warm beer. It was worth the hassle at all, so all the exercise in the day, healthy food and early nights going to bed soon after the sun went down, coupled with the fresh, fresh air made it feel like we were on a health camp. It was lovely.

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We didn’t have electricity at the tree house but we certainly did have running water. It was a bit of a pleasant shock to come into a tree house and see the sink and tap and use it to wash my hands. They’d rigged up a series of pipes and pumps to get filtered water running to each tree house. It was fantastic. There was a toilet and shower in the tree house too. Toilet paper had to be disposed of separately because it took ages to break down and having squares of toilet paper litter the ground below wouldn’t do at all in an eco-sanctuary. It was lovely taking a shower in the open concept bathroom, though standing on the slats and seeing how far one could fall was a tad frightening. However,  looking out at the valley from this height really took singing in the shower to a new level.

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One thing you may wonder is: if we were so high up in the tree, how did we get there? Well, we certainly didn’t climb up, that’s for sure. Believe me, nobody in their right mind would walk under a tree house with this kind of toilet system. It wasn’t quite a boot camp. Guess, I’ll tell you in my next post.

Chicken Poached in White Wine

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What happens when you have too much leftover white wine or (horrors!) some of your white wine goes off? Easy, if you can drink it, cook with it. I had a bottle go off from neglect: it sat in my store room for far too long. My bad. The good thing about it was that I got to make a very decadent yet simple meal out of it. It’s also quite healthy depending on your sides.

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Poached chicken really goes places when you do it in white wine. The floral and mineral flavours penetrate the chicken well and there’s little need for heavy seasoning or very much fat to help it along. If you really want to gild the lily, try adding herbs like the classic tarragon (fresh or dry both work well) to the poaching liquid.

I use chicken breast here because it is the sweetest tasting cut and the gentle poaching keeps it tender. If you have chicken fillets, use those instead, cutting down the cooking time accordingly. The results will be even more tender than chicken breast.

For the sides, you can go the healthy route by having it with apple, cabbage and caraway salad and plain rice, or you could make like me and have buttered rice (melt a knob of butter into hot rice) and grilled chicken skin (from the same piece of chicken) with the salad.

Ingredients:

½ bottle dry white wine
1 sprig tarragon, optional
2 chicken breast portions

Method:

  1. Combine the wine and tarragon in a saucepan, then lower in the chicken breast.
  2. Simmer on very low heat till small bubbles start to form. Do not allow to boil. Constantly skim foam off the surface.
  3. Keep simmering for 5 minutes.
  4. Take the pan off the heat and leave to steep for 15 minutes.
  5. Heat about one cup of poaching liquid in a frying pan. Boil till reduced to about one-fourth of its original volume. You should get a thin sauce at this point. Season to taste. If you like the sauce a bit thicker, either stir in a knob of butter or a half a teaspoon of cornstarch mixed with water (or both).
  6. Slice chicken and drizzle with the sauce.

Serves 2.

The poaching liquid freezes very well for future poaching sessions. You can also add it to your next batch of chicken soup or stock for added oomph.

Dinner Party Solutions: Apple, Cabbage and Caraway Salad

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This is another one of those dishes that can be made a few hours in advance so you can have guests come over early for drinks without any need to fuss over the food. It’s a kind of grown-up coleslaw, made healthier with yogurt instead of mayonnaise. Carrot is a good idea too, but only if you enjoy the extra work.

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Ingredients:

100 ml yogurt
¼ cabbage
2 apples
lemon juice
2 tsp English mustard
1 tsp caraway seeds, or to taste

Method:

  1. Drain the yogurt over a sieve for at least two hours.
  2. Finely slice the cabbage. Dry thoroughly in a salad spinner.
  3. Finely slice the apples and toss in the lemon juice to stop it from browning.
  4. Combine the sliced cabbage and apple with the yogurt, mustard and caraway seeds. Mix thoroughly and season generously with salt and pepper.
  5. Leave it in the fridge for an hour or more to allow the flavours to mingle.

Serves 8.