A Whirlwind Work Trip: My First Michelin Star Experience

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We were very fortunate to be treated to a good dinner, my first Michelin star experience at the one-star Tano Passami L’Olio. The name literally meant “Tano, pass me the olive oil.” Chef Gaetano is very big on olive oils and treats it almost like wine in how he pairs each carefully, selecting carefully which oil he uses to finish each dish. We went for a tasting menu of sorts, starting with this amuse bouche.

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Unfortunately, it wasn’t a Wow! moment, more of a “hmm this is rather good.” It was interesting how the mousse was finished of with olive oil but I don’t remember a great deal more than that.

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The next dish was quite interesting – raw prawns Milanese-style marinated in citrus and anise, accompanied by pink grapefruit and cheese mousse and graced with caramelised peas. I wasn’t sure about the peas as they were semi-dry, with texture reminding me a bit of wasabi peas, just not as crunchy. I liked the fresh, fresh! prawns that were singing with the zing of the sea (go figure that out, I’m taking things up a notch – it’s a Michelin-starred place yo) and the grapefruit and cheese mousse was nice, though it tasted a bit like it was meant for baby food, but what lovely fine dining baby food it was!

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Now it was the next dish that really brought things up a notch. The caramelised quail eggs on tuna mousse was a revelation. The first one after going in the mouth went crackle! pop! and there were surprised looks all round the table. Then understanding dawned and we gleefully went with the second one. First, the sensation of caramel on the tongue, as it was an egg-shaped creme brulee with crackly crust all round. Just a little pressure with the teeth and tongue and the delicately cooked quail egg burst, coating the tongue with runny yolk. The tuna mousse made for a savoury counterpoint to it all. And the raw tuna in minted olive oil? Gilding the lily with its freshness.

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Our expectations went a little higher with the pasta course and we were not disappointed. We were presented with lemon risotto cooked in vegetable and milk and finished off with chocolate. I was a bit wary of this as I wasn’t sure how dessert-like a lemon and chocolate rice dish would taste. But no, this was deeply savoury, rich and wonderfully al dente. At the same time, the lemon flavour sang through and the bitterness of the chocolate balanced out the flavours. It was another eye-opener. Next time I’m in Milan, I’m coming back just for this dish.

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We were surprised by how full we were getting at this stage, we really hadn’t eaten a great deal, but it shows how satisfying the food was. We were very glad that the main course came in small portions. Small though the portion was, it was somehow the perfect portion. The roe dear saddle glazed with basil and wild berries and again finished off with chocolate was excellent. It was done very rare, the way I like it, yet wasn’t bloody (which the rest of my table seemed to like more). I think the meat must have been well hung because it was the tenderest deer I’ve had. Again, Chef Gaetano had a way with traditionally sweet foods, turning them into savoury wonders. The chocolate he personally grated over each portion at the table made all the difference again in balancing out the sweetness of the sauce and tempered the deep game flavour of the venison. Wonderful.

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What really won the rest of the table over (I was head over heels by then, no need for further wooing) was Chef Gaetano’s impeccable and very sensible wine pairings. He recommended two reds, only one of which I managed to get a photo of. This Humar Rogoves from the Friuli region was very reasonably priced at about €30 and was just right for the deer. In the words of the chef, it was a “sweety wine, very nice.” And indeed it was! Nicely balanced, sweet yet not overly so, it went better than expected with our deer in berry sauce.

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Then came the usual sorbet palate cleanser.

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And finally dessert. The almond cannoli filled with almond mousse, candy lemon, citrus cream and almond marmalade was lovely. The pastry was crisp and light as air and the mousse filling also light and sweetly lemony. It was a lovely contrast to the dark chocolate blob (I never found out what it really was), but the mousse and chocolate sauce was a deep, delicious contrast. It was a sly way of crowd pleasing, not particularly inventive but just the right to end a good dinner.

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Tano passami l’olio
via Villoresi, 16 ang. via Pastorelli, Milano, Italy
Tel: +39 02 8394139
Email: tano@tanopassamilolio.it

A Whirlwind Trip: Getting into Milan

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I went for a work trip in July last year and was lucky enough that it involved a whirlwind trip of the shopping capitals of Europe, with the first stop being Milan. We took the red-eye flight which meant that we got off the plane early enough to have breakfast at a bar just before our first meeting. We were thankful for the Italian custom of drinking espresso like water and helped ourselves to copious amounts of the brew to keep us awake in the business discussions.

One of the companies we met was very hospitable and brought us to Trattoria Del Drago for a very welcome lunch. The trattoria was set in a little garden and there was a lovely relaxed vibe to it. We had a lovely white wine to go with our lunch, the Picol 2008 (14%). It was a light and crisp sauvignon blanc with a lime flower nose and plenty of slate in the finish. It was a lovely accompaniment to our appetiser.

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And what an appetiser it was! A typically Milanese starter of seafood carpaccio, this is Italy’s answer to sashimi. There was impossibly fresh salmon, tuna and white fish with two types of prawns. It was all dressed lightly in olive oil and was wonderfully tasty, each bite bursting with the sweetness of the sea. I would definitely go back there just for this dish, far away as it may be from the touristy areas of Milan.

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My main was an orecchiette in a tomato cream sauce and a meat I cannot recall, probably chicken. Sadly, it wasn’t mindblowing and it was forgettable in my seafood-dazed, jetlagged stomach.

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Trattoria Del Drago
Via Pusiano, 63, 20132 Milano, Italy
Tel: +39 02 2720 9849 ‎

Our last meeting was, curiously, in an old Roman building that housed the Milanese headquarters of a high tech company . We got through that aided with plenty of hot espresso from thermos flasks, drunk by the shot in tiny plastic cups. We thankfully sank into Hotel Spadari al Duomo, probably the most reasonably priced 4-star hotel of that standard in the area. It was a lovely and very modern hotel, with large enough and very comfortable rooms. 

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In contrast to the Duomo just around the corner, even the artwork on the walls was modern. I liked how the minibar was included in the price of the room (non-alcoholic drinks only), so I didn’t have to worry about finding a convenience store for water. It was a lovely touch especially coming in on a hot day.

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But the feature I liked best was the shower. There were three showerheads in there: a regular handheld shower head (not shown), a rain shower and a waterfall shower! It was fantastic standing under a wall of warm water after a long, long day simply enjoying the pressure of water against skin.

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It was a great hotel with very prompt and excellent service, from emailing for reservations to getting our excellent breakfast every morning to making reservations to depart for the airport. Well worth it!

Hotel Spadari al Duomo
Via Spadari 11 20123 Milano
Tel: +39.02.72002371
Email: reservation@spadarihotel.com

But no rest for the greedy. Before long, we had to regroup for dinner. We went for an early dinner nearby so that we could head back to crash out. An institution and therefore tourist hangout in the area was Trattoria Milanese, a pretty down home type place with unfortunately less down home prices. Still, it was considered reasonable for the area.

We started off with a mix of appetisers. On my plate are parma with melon; tomato with mozzarella and basil; and half a perfectly ripe, luscious summer fig. While not super fantastically good, I think the ingredients travelled far less than it would have if we had the meal back home in Singapore, making it fresher and tastier somehow.

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I made the classic glutton’s mistake of ordering osso bucco with risotto. Mind you, it was yummy and very well made, especially the osso bucco with its unctuous marrow just begging to be sucked dry. The risotto was no slacker either, al dente and richly aromatic. I managed to finish about a third of the plate and tried to parcel as much away to my dining companions as possible. It was such a pity that I couldn’t take away any for later.

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Full to bursting as I was, my greed yet again overreached and I found myself not simply ordering apple sorbet for dessert, but also nodding amicably when the waiter asked if I wanted it doused in Calvados. Unfortunately, the sorbet wasn’t at all tart and was a bit flat on taste, and the apple liqueur was more bitter than aromatic. Still, it sozzled me nicely and at the end of the meal I had to walk carefully so that I wouldn’t stumble on the cobblestones and fall flat on my face in front of the highest ranking person in my organisation.

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Trattoria Milanese
Via Santa Marta, 11, 20123 Milano, Italy
Tel: +39 02 8645 1991 ‎

Thankfully, I made it back to the hotel in one jetlagged, sleep-deprived, espresso-ed out, stuffed-to-the-gills and pretty much sozzled piece. Another lovely waterfall shower later, and I was fast asleep, dreaming of my weekend to follow.

Don Quijote

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Don Quijote is a little gem of a Spanish place tucked in a little corner in the far flung west side of the island. It’s hard to get to because it’s not really near to a MRT station and parking is practically impossible here. The food here is pretty decent. We started with bellota ham at the request of the jamon-loving DC. It was fairly cheap for bellota ham and I guess you pay for the quality. While it certainly was very tasty and good ham, it was too greasy from being left at (hot, humid) room temperature. In the world of bellota ham, this was but a pretender.

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The ravening pack then moved on to the clam special. They normally have a clam tapas on the menu but that night, they had a special clam dish. Presumably they managed to get their hands on a good batch of imported clams and boy were these good! They were sweet and briny, full of the sea and picked up the wine, herbs and garlic in the sauce very nicely. These were swiftly mopped up with plenty of bread.

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Finally, the ravening pack of two came to a standstill with the squid ink paella. The good stuff came al dente just as we requested and was enveloped in a black and almost solid sauce. The flavour was somehow of intense savoriness, though not overwhelmingly salty. It was crammed with squid and prawns and with a squirt of the lemon, came together to give a very comforting yet not quite stodgy dish.

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The food here was really decent. Just don’t bother with the sangria if you’re like me and not fond of syrupy and very mildly alcoholic drinks.

[P.S. Pardon the poor lighting, it’s one of those places with dim yellow lighting. Almost impossible for food shots.]

Don Quijote
17 Lorong Kilat
Tel: 6465 1811

A Very Comforting Stew

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It’d been raining quite a bit and I decided that I needed something warming and comforting for dinner instead of having leftovers. A quick whizz through the supermarket and scrounge in the fridge later, I’d assembled a whole bunch of root and other vegetables that completely overshadowed the meat. Let’s see, I had butternut squash, mushrooms, an onion, celery, carrots, potato and basil. The squash was an excellent addition as it added a lovely sweet dimension to the stew, I didn’t need to tweak the seasonings much at all. Lastly, the belly pork worked well as I didn’t have time to really stew it properly till melting soft and falling apart. It was tender enough after the one hour cooking time, though it definitely could have benefited from a stint in the slow cooker. I cheat a bit by adding some Marigold organic vegetable stock powder that I get from the UK. It helps give that extra little oomph. Lastly, adding basil at the end just before serving gave it a lovely fresh herby lift. Serve with bread, rice, or whatever carbs you have leftover in the fridge.

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Ingredients:
1 tbsp oil
300g pork belly, cubed
20g butter
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 onion, chunked
1 large carrot, chunked
2 sticks celery, chunked
2 potatoes, peeled and cubed
butternut squash, cubed
250g button mushrooms
1 tsp organic vegetable stock power, optional
2 tbsp or a good splash dry vermouth

Method:

  1. Heat the oil in a large pot and brown the pork belly on all sides in batches. Set aside in a dish.
  2. Turn down the fire and melt the butter in the residual oily juices and toss in the peppercorns, bay leaf and garlic. Cook gently till fragrant, then toss in the onion, carrot and celery. Stir to coat with butter and cover. Let sweat for about 5 minutes.
  3. Toss in the potatoes, squash and mushrooms and stir. Add in the pork and turn up the heat. Keep stirring.
  4. Mix in the stock powder and splash in the vermouth. Bring to a boil then turn down and simmer for at least one hour. If available, transfer to a crock pot and finish off the cooking there.
  5. The stew is done when the vegetables are soft and the pork is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 3-4.

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.

April in The Philippines: Wrecks and Good Food

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Coron is less than an hour away by plane from El Nido. By ferry, however, it takes an eternity. I caught the morning ferry and only got there 10 hours later. Nothing much happened on the way, save that we saw an eagle of sorts kept as a house bird.

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The scenery wasn’t quite as good as that in El Nido. The limestone crags were still draped with lovely green, but the cloudy skies turned the water a dull grey-blue.

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We finally arrived as the sun was going down. Thankfully I’d booked ahead and the dive resort was right where the boat dropped us.

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Coron is famed for its wreck diving. An island surrounded by shallows, its warm waters are ideal for diving year round. It was this same shallow water that stranded a whole fleet of WWII Japanese warships and all of them went down under Allied fire. I didn’t yet have my underwater camera at this point, so all I have is this photo of the dive brief.

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I wasn’t particularly keen on wreck diving. All wrecks look pretty much the same to me and marine life on wrecks hardly seems varied enough to sustain my interest. I feel that wrecks, being dead things, are very unnatural and it’s quite spooky even in the day time to go there. The idea that people died there, that I’m diving a grave site is quite unnerving.

Obviously, I enjoyed mealtimes a lot more. The crew made excellent food and there was plenty to go round.

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Aside from the food, other things caught my fancy too. Here is the entrance to Barracuda Lake. The lake is enclosed within the island and to get there, we had to scramble up and down craggy rocks. Only some bits of the way was a proper path connected by wooden planks. And if that doesn’t sound hard enough, we had to do this with full scuba gear on. OK fine, so we hung the fins round our necks, but you get the idea. It was awful!

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The dive itself was fantastic though. I didn’t see the barracuda, later someone told me others had spotted it on the other side. What an experience it was! Fresh water running into the saltwater lake somehow forms a film on the top which traps heat from the sun. It results in (relatively) cold water of 30ºC at the top and warm water of 38ºC at the bottom. It felt like diving in a nice warm bath. I loved it. At 10m, there’s a halocline where salt water and fresh water meet in a hazy muddle. It’s really strange to pass through that transition. I saw the bottom at the shallower part of the lake and it was made of a strange kind of earthy, soft sand. You could dig your arm right inside and still not reach anything hard. Squeamish about odd encounters with the unseen, I only reached in up to my elbow. The dive guides told me that someone had once taken a photo with his head buried in the sand like an ostrich!

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As usual, the food was excellent, with fresh grilled fish at practically every meal. It was great.

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While we’re still on the topic of food, there was this great French place on Coron that served up amazing food, especially considering that we were hours away from freshly imported gourmet food. I had the booziest coq au vin ever, so full of red wine that I had to go back to my room to lie down before heading out to check my email and then head back Coron Bistro for some very good apple tart.

March in Laos: Exciting Eats at a Sleepy Town

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Siamesecat and I certainly weren’t going to stay idle as we cooled our heels in Huay Xai. We immediately set off to eat. The first thing we saw was a little stand selling tam som AKA papaya salad. It’s not commonly known, but Thai papaya salad (som tam) really originated in Laos. It’s made by pounding green papaya shreds into, among other things, cherry tomato, cucumber, dried river prawns and fermented river crab paste. The river crab paste made me slightly worried as I peered into the container full of tiny crab carcasses in gloopy brown goo. My venerable guide book cautioned that food made from such fermented pastes, especially in this area, could give one liver fluke.

Nevertheless, the tam som was made by such friendly people Siamesecat and I just had to pull up a chair at the stall. It was reassuring how locals in mopeds kept pulling up for their tam som fix but not so when they took over the mortar and pestle and tasted the salad as they made it (double-dipping as usual). Of course the mortar and pestle wasn’t washed in between salads. We resolutely ignored hygiene concerns and plucked up the courage for our own order. Like most Lao food, it looked awful but tasted really awesome. We slurped it up in double-quick time as more people DIY-ed their salads, then tried to pay the man who made our salad. He gave us a puzzled look and then it dawned on us that he was another customer and was doing us a favour to make the tam som! He called out and a young girl appeared from nowhere. She accepted money from us but put it down somewhere behind the containers of ingredients, then scuttled off somewhere else. The funny thing was that we never found out who the owner really was. In case you’re wondering, we never got sick eating Lao food. Having said that, I haven’t specifically checked if I’ve got liver fluke!

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Salad obviously wasn’t going to fill us up for long. A stroll to the edge of town (not very far away) took us to a rickety makeshift stand with quite a few people having their share of some kind of spicy noodle. We did our usual mime of sitting down, looking pointedly at the other noodle bowls on the table, then grinning expectantly at the proprietress. She smiled back, pointed at the same noodle bowls and then starting scooping out broth of some sort for us. Contentedly, we sat back, expecting something like this to appear in front of us:

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We were shocked to find that all she placed in front of us was tomato pulp in plain water. First I sniffed at it, then took a little taste (it was slightly sweet and tomato-y), looked up in horror at Siamesecat and then arched a quizzical eyebrow at the proprietress. She apologetically pointed out a large container full of a sambal chilli paste on the table and gestured at the toppings. It was the usual DIY till you get the perfect personalised taste approach so common in Laos. We added some of the incredibly lethal chilli paste, probably about a tenth of what the locals added, some shredded coriander and spring onion, then salt, sugar and msg. The proprietress kept signalling to us that we needed to add more of the msg and was rather puzzled when we demurred. “Crazy tourists,” she must have thought.

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Only after we’d mix-mix-mixed to our (her?) satisfaction did the proprietress retrieve our bowls from us and add in the noodles. The result was cold and a very refreshing burst of hot, spicy and salty with hints of sweet and ferment. The noodles were probably made by shaving a block of steamed rice flour (think something along the lines of Singaporean chwee kuey). They were so good that Siamesecat and I decided to try another bowl of a variation: not shaved noodles but the same cut into cubes. The best part? It cost us next to nothing for each bowl (about SGD0.10, I kid you not).

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We were so pleased with our good cheap eat that we asked for a photo with the proprietress and here we are below. She wrote down her address in Lao for me to send her a copy. I hope she got it.

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As we wandered back into town, Siamesecat spied this lady making egg omelettes on a bamboo fire. Despite Siamesecat’s egg allergy, we went ahead and had one each (bad girl!).

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This omelette was filled with kang kong (some kind of water spinach) and bean sprouts, and eaten with a dipping sauce of fish sauce and garlic. Simple but gratifying.

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We didn’t spend all day eating. My intermezzo was heading to the local Red Cross where for about SGD5, I had a massage and a session in a traditional steam room. The wooden stilt house was built such that a massive wood fire under the house heated a vat of water steeped with local herbs. I don’t know how they managed not to burn the house down. The herbal steam was shunted into a steam room. In a provided sarong, I sat there for as long as I could, apeing the locals by rubbing the condensed steam (and sweat??) onto my arms and legs. Then I sat outside for a while, sipping hot herbal tea, before going in again. Repeat three times and I was relaxed, zenned out and ready for dinner.

With such a name, we couldn’t resist going to Nutpop for dinner. The English menu was a nice change from our usual order-by-gesticulation routine.

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We celebrated making the 15-hour journey in one piece with some local ginger whisky.  I don’t know how it was made, neither do I want to find out. It didn’t taste as good as it looked in the swanky wine glass. We both had difficulty finishing it!

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Thankfully, the food was far better. In our usual greed, we ordered enough for a family. The food was really good as was standard in Laos. What stood out was the pork larp, a meat salad of minced pork, fish sauce and green beans finished off with lime juice; and the steamed river fish. The fish was a lovely departure from the norm of saltwater fish and was done “Thai-style” (whatever that meant). It helped that the lime and lemongrass made it refreshing and thus easier for us to eat more than we should have!

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