Friday, June 26, 2009

Gora Kadan in Hakone

Healthy eating in Hakone.

It’s not often that one can combine fine dining with healthy living, but at Gora Kadan, a luxury Japanese inn in the hills of Hakone and one of a handful of Relais & Chateaux establishments in Japan, it seems that one can happily do both: eat well without adding too much calories or cholesterol.

For several decades now, Gora Kadan has been the last word in exclusive Japanese hospitality – and probably one of the most expensive as well (prices start at 100,000 yen per couple). You may be thinking right now that a six-figure fee is certainly off-putting. However, this ryokan is so full on weekends and almost everyday from April to November, that I practically had to beg the reservations staff, months in advance, for the “privilege” of handing over to them a significant amount of money for a two-night stay. While this may sound crazy, I am certainly not the only willing one. Gora Kadan is so famous that both Japanese and foreigners book way ahead and travel long-distances just to experience at least one night of first-class pampering. In fact, I’ve never been there without bumping into a handful of other foreigners from all parts of the globe.

Each guest is served the same multi-course seasonal kaiseki dinner, which changes every month. As far as ryokan meals go, Gora Kadan’s courses are fuss-free and on the lighter side so you can almost feast away guilt-free, but everything is so exquisitely done that your eyes get full on the colorful spread long before your stomach starts to feel heavy. I’ve been in ryokan where dinner is accompanied by elaborate grills, flaming plates and fancy hot pots, and the table and I both groan from the weight afterwards. At Gora Kadan, the only thing elaborate is the pottery; while the taste of the food is simple but, happily, seasoned enough to satisfy even finicky eaters.

Dinner always starts with a small aperitif of sweet home-made plum liqueur to stimulate the senses. This is followed by two appetizers, including a tray of four or five little plates and bowls. That evening, we began with the boiled meat of an echizen crab seasoned with ginger, and then a tray that included roast beef wrapped like a California roll with yuzu mustard on top, a thick slice of dried fish roe to be eaten with a slice of radish, simmered vegetables, boiled shrimp and a slice of deep-fried fish.

Kaiseki meals are sensory experiences so eye-candy appetizers are usually followed by soup, sashimi, and several main courses including a grilled dish, a pot of stew and something steamed, before ending with the customary rice and pickles, and dessert.

That night’s grilled offering was a fillet of yellowtail, rubbed with miso and then cooked to perfection, served on a Western-style green-and-white porcelain plate. It was meaty and fatty, but not oily. Afterwards came stewed vegetables and steamed tofu, followed by bowls of rice boiled with fish stock and soy sauce and then tossed with flakes of grilled sea bream.

At Gora Kadan, one can really eat well in every sense.

There’s only one seasonal kaiseki meal for guests staying one night. For those staying longer, they serve shabu-shabu, a different kaiseki meal, and then sukiyaki on succeeding nights.

The local sake on offer is inexpensive and goes well with the meals.

Meals are usually served in the room, so it’s more a matter of which room to stay in. I personally like the ground floor rooms, which come with private open-air rock baths, a steam room and your own garden.

Prices range from 100,00 yen to 144,000 yen per couple, for a room with dinner and breakfast.

Gora Kadan
1300 Gora, Hakone
Ashigarashimogun, Kanagawa Prefecture
Tel. (0460) 2-3331

This was written by The Frequent Flier and originally published in the Tokyo Weekender magazine.


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Passion for Food and Wine

We met with Bernardo Sim, president of the International Wine and Food Society (IWFS) Manila Branch for the last five years and president of the French cultural institution Alliance Française de Manille since 2002. The IWFS was founded in 1933 in the United Kingdom by Andre Simon, and the Philippines branch was established in 1982, a great Bordeaux year. “I was delighted to be part of the society—I got to meet many people who shared my interests,” Sim recalls of his first IWFS years. “The aim of the IWFS is to have a proper understanding of good wine and good food, and to find the right harmony between these two elements. Wine should complement the food and the food should bring out the inherent qualities of the wine.”

This calm, soft-spoken gentleman discusses his passion for food, wine, and the French language, which he only started learning when he was 45 years old.

How did you start enjoying wines?
Being the eldest, I was helping my dad out with the family business even while I was in school. We are in the sugar trading business and, just like any man starting out in such a business, you have to know how to drink scotch and cognac. One time, after traveling to Hong Kong, I contracted Hepatitis A, a virus you get from the air. So I was advised to stay off alcohol for six months. Then I went to the States to rest. One day I saw a bottle of California wine in the supermarket and the label looked very attractive. The label described how the wine would taste and smell like. The alcohol content was 13% so I said—why not, I’ll try it? So I did and I liked it. It was more interesting than whisky or cognac. When I returned to Manila, the father of a good friend had just brought back some good Bordeaux wines from Europe. He invited me to try some wines. I got more interested in it and started reading about it, especially French wine. I discovered wine needs to be taken at the right temperature, so I went to Hong Kong to buy a EuroCave wine cabinet.

How did you get involved in the International Wine and Food Society? I have always been a health freak and I have always gone to the gym regularly. I met Antonio Olbes, one of the original IWFS members. He introduced me later on to Rene Fuentes who sponsored my membership to the society in 1986. I organized my first serious vertical wine tasting with Château Branaire-Ducru, St. Julian appellation with the vintages all the way back to 1970 with the IWFS members, headed by Filemon Juntareal. He was the founder of Chaine des Rotisseurs here in the Philippines as well as in Singapore.

Are you promoting the activities of IWFS?
Yes, the Philippine branch is very active. In fact we just formed the Cebu branch last June and then we’ll have Davao branch this year. We are also pretty active within the Asian region. Dong Puno will be the next chairman of the Asia-Pacific zone and Oscar Ong has just been elected as the secretary of the zone. We have monthly meetings which involve going to different restaurants, where we would taste different kinds of cuisine and find the proper wine to go with these. Occasionally we also do more challenging pairings such as matching wine with Filipino, Thai, Indian, and Chinese food.

Which cuisine has been the most challenging?
Thai and India cuisines are difficult, because they have spices and strong flavors. Filipino food is also difficult, but easier than Thai and Indian.

What have been some of the most memorable pairings you’ve had? Philip Faure-Brac of Bistro du Sommelier along the Boulevard Haussmann in Paris pairs his lunch and dinner menus with excellent famous and unknown wines from all over France and charges very reasonable prices. I’ve had fresh herring, which he paired with Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc, and some calf’s liver with a good Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Both were unforgettable.

Another memorable pairing was at Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV restaurant in Monaco. The cuisine was so simple, but the flavour and rich ingredients were very striking. The pairing of the local wines as suggested by the sommelier was just perfect. After this, I tried to look for these wines and this was how I got into importing unknown French regional wines. One of my most memorable pairings of food and wine in Manila was at Via Mare, with food cooked by Glenda Barretto herself. Glenda, her assistant Dulce, and I worked on the pairing of the Jurançon, an excellent dry white wine that can be found at Sommelier Selections in Manila. It was one of the best pairings I’ve ever done. The food included crab with curry which was striking. In Café Juanita in Barrio Ugong, Pasig, I’ve paired an excellent kare-kare nicely with a Cote-du-Rhone village wine.

Can you describe some of the most memorable wine tastings you’ve had? Among the Bordeaux, a Chateau Latour tasting would be my favorite. It’s the most complex and the breed of the wine was excellent. It really shows the imporatnce of the terroir in producing a superb wine. More so the quality of the second wine, which can be very good value. We did the tasting at Bianca’s. We paired it with very good food including French pigeon. The best vintage for the Grand Cru was 1990 and the best for the second was 1996. We did one time a 17 vertical vintage tasting of Grange Hermitage, all the way back to 1978.

In my wine quest, I was reading reviews by Robert Parker, Michael Broadbend, Edward Penning, and Clive Coats. Whenever I had a chance while traveling, I tried to look for bottles with good reviews and brought these back to share with the society members. I was so happy that I became a member, and I want to do things to help improve the knowledge of the members.

How long do you think you should keep first-growth Bordeaux wines to fully appreciate them?
I sometimes find it difficult to enjoy a first growth, especially when they’re just five or six years old. I remember I had a case of Lafitte 1979 that I bought in Hong Kong. Every year I opened a bottle, and I didn’t appreciate it until my second to the last bottle. This made me realize that you have to be patient to enjoy good Bordeaux wines.

I bought my first Petrus, a case of the 1981 vintage, and I never enjoyed a single bottle during the 10 years I was drinking this. Last year we had dinner with a friend of mine who happened to have bought the last bottle of the case from me—it was fabulous. Another French wine that impressed me was Hermitage la Chapelle. I had the chance to have two bottles of the 1978. I finished those by 1992—way, way too early. Later I bought three cases of the 1983 vintage based on the recommendation of wine writers. I drank this over the years and I never liked it until my last bottle, which I had with the owner who sent me the 1985 vintage afterwards.

You are now active also as the president of Alliance Française de Manille. How did you get exposed to French culture?
In 1993, seven Filipino members of the IWFS Philippine branch were inducted into the Society of Chevalier du Tastevin, a club of Burgundy wine enthusiasts. These included Dong Puno, Filemon Juntereal, Brian Harber, Philip Co, Dr. Federico Leelin and myself. We took the train from Paris to Burgundy, but we missed getting off at our station. When the train stopped at Chagny, we didn’t have enough time to take out our heavy luggage as we couldn’t communicate with the conductor as none of us spoke French. The train was entering Switzerland and we didn’t have visas. We got off at the next station and went through a lot of trouble to arrange a taxi to go back to Chagny. So I told myself that when I got back to the Philippines, I would take up French.

I started studying the language in 1994, and I still go to my class twice a week. In Alliance Française de Manille I met Philippe Gauthier, then-president of the French Business Club, Le Club. He gave me an issue of La Revue du vin de France, a French wine magazine which influenced me a lot. I subscribe to it even today. It’s completely in French, so it motivates me to continue studying the language. Through this magazine I discovered a lot of small wineries in France that produce outstanding wines, but are not known by many wine writers.

I also learned a lot about the proper pairing of wine and food from this magazine. I believe that it’s really only the French, with 200 years of tradition, who have established the proper pairing of local wine with local food. One’s experience of wine is completely different when tasting it on its own and tasting it with food that complements it.

This originally appeared in the March-April 2009 issue of Travelife Magazine.


Remembering Mumbai

The memory of a luxury holiday in this vibrant city is marred by violent terrorist attacks

I watched the recent terrorist crisis in Mumbai on TV with horror and sadness. It was terrible to witness the blatant acts of violence and to learn about the senseless loss of so many lives. But the tragedy also struck a personal note when I saw people – including a good friend from Hong Kong -- fleeing the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers and thick plumes of smoke coming out of its historic main building. My husband and I stayed at this lovely and gracious old hotel for a week last year, and this visit quickly became among our favorite and most memorable.

The Taj Mahal Palace is one of those great hotels from a lost era that are destinations in themselves. It shares this distinction with other grand dames like the Oriental in Bangkok, the La Mammounia in Marrakech, the Ciragan Palace in Istanbul, the Danieli in Venice, and the the Raffles in Singapore. These hotels offer special experiences of luxurious stays steeped in history, coupled with unparalleled service – the kind of confident service that comes from decades, if not centuries, of providing accommodations for discerning travelers.

We flew into Mumbai from New Delhi on a muggy afternoon and were met by the smiling Taj driver who cheerfully regaled us with local anecdotes on the hour-long trip into the city. My first impression of Mumbai proper was a jumble of orderly messiness: drivers with little regard for basic road rules; pedestrians and vendors crossing at random; dilapidated colonial buildings, modern skyscrapers and dusty slum dwellings all co-existing happily. Then our car turned into a seaside boulevard that mesmerized us the rest of the way with a wide frontage of golden sand and the calm Indian ocean peppered with sailboats and native fishing boats.

Finally we spied the Taj Mahal Palace, which proudly stood in an enviable location in the southern part of the city, fronting the sea and a stone’s throw away from the Gate of India, a 26-meter basalt arch which remains the city’s best-known symbol. We drove up to the old wing of the hotel, where turbaned attendants efficiently took care of our luggage, offered cold drinks and whisked us off to our suite on the second floor.

Our designated room at the Taj Mahal Palace had to be one of the most beautiful suites we had ever stayed in. Full of antiques and rich architectural details, but with all the comforts of more modern hotels, it had high ceilings and a grand foyer and living room area worthy of a villa, and an intimate dining room right in the circular tower that is visible in every iconic photo of the hotel, with windows that all faced the Gate of India. Our room spoke dramatically of a more genteel age of travel, when a trip was a journey of several months rather than a package tour, and people were more observant travelers than busy tourists. Outside our windows, too, it was like time had stood still – perhaps because the Taj Mahal Palace is located away from much of Mumbai’s modernity. Food hawkers and trinket peddlers noisily made their way along the street, jostling for space with hundreds of other pedestrians, the way they always have been doing for hundreds of years. I often had afternoon tea in the living room with all the windows open, just to savor the sounds below.

Staying at the Taj Mahal Palace was akin to living in a wondrous museum. No matter how many times we walked around the hotel, we were completely entranced by its graceful designs and details, its numerous artworks, and the richness of the overall experience. The entire hotel was a feast for the senses; with delicately carved balustrades made shiny over time, old carpets still laden with vibrant colors, intricate oil paintings of maharajas’ lives, and wooden corridors lined with brass oil lamps. I remember escaping from a dinner function at the hotel one evening just to sit quietly in one of the hallways and to try imagine the dramas that had been played out here over the years. The romantic atmosphere was conducive to recalling glorious tales and even to making up stories when reality failed.

I had no idea then that only a few months later the hotel would indeed be at the center of a very real and painful drama that will perhaps forever change its image as the perfect oasis of luxury and comfort.

This originally appeared in the January-February 2009 issue of Travelife Magazine.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

One Night in New York

My friends and I had drinks at a Manhattan piano bar one evening while on holiday in New York. The piano player was extremely skillful so I decided to request my favorite song by French composer Michel Legrand. It was not the sort of place where one would normally make song requests but I decided to give it a try. I reached for a paper napkin and simply wrote, ''What are you doing the rest of your life?''

''Could you give this to the pianist?'' I asked the waiter, who delivered the note during the break.

''Ben says he's busy tonight,'' the waiter told me, when he returned shortly after, and with a slightly conspiratorial smile. ''But if you're here next Tuesday night, he knows a nice little spaghetti place not too far from here.''

The original version, written by Travelife Magazine publisher Christine Cunanan, first appeared in the New York Times in 1997.