A Whirlwind Work Trip: Sightseeing Milan’s Duomo and Other Escapades

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As it happened, we had a weekend off and spent a glorious summer Saturday enjoying Milan. First was a revisit of the Duomo I last saw 10 years ago. Then, it was grey and swathed in scaffolding. Now, it’d been restored to a beautiful white and tan.

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The hotel was just round the corner and I was too lazy stand far enough back to get a good shot of the Duomo in all its glory. You’ll just have to imagine what it looked like with the sun starting to shine hotly down its spires.

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The inside, while pretty awe-inspiring in its sense of space, was pretty grey like the last time I saw it.

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Nonetheless, the rose window was a beautiful sight to behold…

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… as were the many minor side nooks…

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… and the beautiful stained glass.

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I stood for ages admiring the rich colours of the religious scenes.

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But the roof of the Duomo beckoned too. I paid a few euro to get some exercise climbing up the stairs. It was lovely to see the skyline with all the old buildings, not a skyscraper in sight.

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On the roof, there were delicate carvings on the flying buttresses repeating themselves over and over again.

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And more of them framed the brands of the shops down below.

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It was time to answer the call of commercial Milan and go shopping! And right next to the Duomo stood Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, apparently the world’s first shopping centre.

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It was beautiful inside, with a lovely glass ceiling and big shopfronts, rather unlike modern shopping malls.

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Then the photos stop because I started shopping. I walked the entire Quadrilatero, those few streets housing the biggest fashion brands in the world. It happened to be the first day of the sale and outside the major brands like Gucci, Prada and Miu Miu, long lines formed just to go in. I had to take a break after a while and ended up in Cafe Cova eating the most expensive wild strawberry tart I’ve ever had. To be fair, it was rather big, but paying something like €20 for a piece of confectionery made me blanch.  At least it was really yummy before the bill came!

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Ootoya

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Ootaya has been in Singapore for a while and they just opened a branch in Suntec City. The mains were fresh and cooked fairly healthily, tasting like home-cooked fare. Mine was a mixed bag as the pork balls with tendon just tasted a bit gristly, though still a notch above the mystery-meat balls served at economy rice stalls. I loved the onsen egg, essentially a chilled soft boiled egg, but I have a soft spot for those and this was cooked just right till the whites turned, uh, white and the yolk hadn’t yet set. Shinta and CH both enjoyed their mains and I especially liked this grilled pork dish that we shared. The pork had a layer of fat on it that charred slightly and reminded me of the reason why pork is just So Good.

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CH went for the Kyoto Uji matcha green tea mousse that came with milk ice cream, mochi and red beans. The green tea mousse was very intense and quite excellent as the bitterness of the tea comes through robustly. Much better than most insipid green tea concoctions.

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Shinta and I shared the castella parfait, a trifle made up of cake cubes, ice cream and plenty of cream. Oh I think there was jam or some kind of fruit sauce in it, but who cares? Cake cubes soaked in melted ice cream and accompanied by good quality whipped cream make my day any day.

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Ootoya
3 Temasek Boulevard
#B1-057 Suntec City Mall
Tel: 6837 3718

TCM at Imperial

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Having been discharged from A&E without incident, DC decided that we needed a second opinion and he took me to Imperial Herbal Restaurant at Vivocity to see the sinseh. For $10, the Chinese physician told me that my body was weak and I needed to eat more red meat and green vegetables, and that I needed to drink tonic soup. Nothing that my mother couldn’t tell me.

Nonetheless, we got me some soup and I had the cordycep soup which was rather tasty. It was good soup done the right way and my inner Cantonese girl thoroughly approved the strong broth and pleasant herbal flavour.

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Now what I liked even more was the herbal menthol tea that the doctor provided for my persistent dry cough. The menthol was so strong that my nose cleared immediately and I had to close my eyes to avoid the fumes. It soothed my throat nicely, like a cough drop in liquid form.

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Imperial Herbal Restaurant
#03-08, Lobby G VivoCity
Tel: 6337 0491

Tart at Toast

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Toast, like its sister joint Marmalade Pantry, is another one of those dependables that shouldn’t go too wrong if you’re stuck in the Orchard area. A bunch of us went shopping, first just me and G, then we picked up Misa and finally HM. When the troops were assembled, we thought tea would be a good idea and wandered over to the little corner of Taka that’s Toast.

I normally go for the ice lemon tea, it’s quite different from the norm as they blend it with whole pieces of lemon so the zest flavours it nicely and it turns slightly cloudy, almost milky. I like how fresh it tastes, though I’m on the fence on the latest less-sweet formulation.

I liked the lemon meringue tart. For something that’d probably been sitting around all day, the pastry was still quite short, unlike the slightly soggy texture you invariably get with stuff that’s not fresh out of the oven. I’m quite fussy about meringue and am not keen on super high spongy peaks. This version was nicely thick with smaller air bubbles and had lovely burnt tips. It contrasted very well with the sweet-sour lemon curd. A winner.

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Toast
#02-11 Ngee Ann City
391 Orchard Road
Tel: 6733 8489

1 for 1 at Zambuca

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I was lucky. It was my cousin’s birthday and First Uncle and Aunt asked me along to make up the numbers for the 1 for 1 offer at Zambuca. It was a four-course meal that started with an amuse-bouche they called “tomato tea.” It was pretty well executed as the very pale yellow tinged liquid tasted startlingly like tomato. I wonder if it was just strained fresh tomato juice but it was very good as something to tickle the palate.

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I picked the scallops with muesli as a starter. True enough, two small scallops made a plural; even though I felt the portion was far too small, one really couldn’t complain about misrepresentation on the menu! The scallops were fresh and the barley-currant mix added an interesting texture to the dish. It was a pity the foam didn’t taste of very much, otherwise this would have made a rather imaginative and unique starter.

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The crab, caper and anchovy angel hair pasta was a bit of a letdown. It sounded like it had such promise on the menu but the execution fell flat. The capers and anchovies were too salty, while the crab was a bit bland. The flavours just did not meld well. This was probably the weakest link in my dinner.

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The beef pretty much saved the disappointment of the pasta dish. Here, however, was where there definitely was misrepresentation. The menu said that the beef was aged but it certainly did not taste like it. Also, I was shocked that the restaurant could overcook my beef. I asked for rare but it came out on the medium side of medium rare. Having said all that, it was decently flavoured so I didn’t bother to send it. In any case, I couldn’t be too fussy because I wasn’t paying anyway. The onion was decent though too sugary as the chef cheated when he caramelised the onions. The sprouting broccoli was a nice touch though.

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Last of all was dessert. My cousin got a bonus tiramisu complete with candle and singing waiters. That was a lovely touch and it was good for the rest of us greedies since she needed a lot of help to finish her extra dessert. For my own dessert I had creme brulee with rhubarb compote. It was a typical creme brulee, rather forgettable and the rhubarb compote wasn’t particularly flavourful. Nothing to complain about yet nothing particularly exciting.

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I know that this post isn’t particularly glowing. It was great stuff since it was free for me: I guess it’s one of those cases where the food was up to standards but not particularly remarkable but the company more than made up for it.

Zambuca Italian Restaurant and Bar
Pan Pacific Singapore
7 Raffles Boulevard Level 3
Singapore 039595
Tel: 6337 8086

March in Laos: Eating in Luang Prabang

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Laos in general and Luang Prabang in particular had lots of great food. Siamesecat and I started off one misty morning with a glass of thick, sweet and strong coffee chased down with a glass of steaming hot tea. Sitting on a wooden bench watching the morning bustle while sipping hot robust coffee was one of those subliminal moments of the trip.

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After having our caffeine and sugar fix, we table hopped to the next stall and tucked into the typical breakfast of foe (yup, almost exactly like Vietnamese pho). I don’t know how they make it so tasty, but thin flat rice noodles with hot broth, topped with herbs and raw vegetables to your preference hit the spot for me every day.   This morning the noodles came with pork strips and tomato. I could have noodles three times a day and not get sick of it. The trick was to experiment with the toppings provided at the table. They typically have salt, sugar, msg and chilli powder but there’s normally lime, basil, coriander, mint, sweet chilli sauce, various types of belachan (fermented shrimp paste) and fish sauce. I especially liked trying out the pongy variations of belachan at the different places.

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Foe is normally served in really small portions, which was fine with us because it gave us all the more reason to snack along the street. Here I’m stuffing my face yet again at a barbecue stand selling grilled animal parts like spicy minced pork patties, water buffalo jerky and belly pork. It was all mmm good.

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For lunch, we again had noodles, the one here a beef version with popped rice cracker-cakes on the side. If you look carefully you’ll spot the two small tubs of belachan on the table. One was the typical shrimp one and the other made of tiny river crabs. We noticed a lot of Lao people take a chilli padi, dip it in belachan, take a chomp and double dip it while waiting for their noodles. I guess the heat from the chilli kills the germs.

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Heavily fortified by all this food, Siamesecat and I proceeded to wander the streets. It was evening when we came across this vampire-phobic cat lying on a bed of garlic. It was obviously bed time.

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It looked incredibly satisfied at the end of that yawn!

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As the sun began to set, Siamesecat and I decided that we really should have something quite special. While we both loved noodles and never got tired of them, we had to try the slightly fancier food too.

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We found a restaurant along the Mekong and enjoyed the view while waiting for our food.

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This place served mainly set menus catering to tourists. We figured that it was as good as any other. Not having any locals to take us to truly authentic places, at least this would allow us to try a bit of everything.

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The set dinner started with watercress salad, a fresh minty salad with sharp watercress and other herbs dressed in a type of mayonnaise. Then it progressed to dried pork sausage with very spicy buffalo skin dip. The pork sausage was like a slightly less fatty salami with lovely smoked overtones while the dip had strips of rather tough buffalo hide bound by a fiery chilli paste. Crispy sheets of dried riverweed with sesame seeds helped to balance out the fire but the extremely spicy beef stew didn’t help things out.

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Siamesecat and I then hit the night market for incredibly cheap buys like a beautiful silk and cotton mix pair of fisherman pants for about USD2.50. There were pretty handicrafts and all sorts of ethnic and hill tribe knick knacks on sale. Apparently a lot of these items were brought over the border to Thailand for sale in their own tourist markets.

I stopped to buy something that couldn’t be exported easily to Thai tourist markets: more food. Supper that night was baguette filled with ping kai (barbecued chicken) and lettuce. It was up to me to choose my sauces again. This time it was at least three kinds of chilli sauce, two of which had some kind of fermented seafood incorporated within, and two types of soya sauce. Amazing.

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August in China: Life in a Tulou

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Despite the gawking tourists, life goes in as usual inside a tulou. People move in and out of the place, though I suspect more out than in given the lures of big city lights for the young ‘uns.

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Young and old still work at the main cash crop of the area, green tea.

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They pick through the dried leaves that come out of special tea leaf dryers.

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They also raise rather cute but slightly feral puppies. These puppies were gamboling about merrily by the tulou well until a villager walked over with some bloody off cuts of meat and casually tossed it at them. Predictably, the puppies tore at the meat with great gusto. I’d taken out my camera to shoot the meat fest but by the time it turned on and focussed, all the meat was gone and all that was left was five puppies with bloody mouths. They looked at me rather hopefully but I was afraid to pet them lest they think my hand was round two of lunch!

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In another part of the tulou lay some cuddly creatures on the other end of the equation. I’m sure these cute white bunnies weren’t raised purely for the kids’ enjoyment. They were mighty adorable though. I wonder how the villagers cook them!

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