Sunday, July 26, 2009

Caprice in Hong Kong

Wonderful French fine dining in Hong Kong.

With so many great restaurants (and so much wealth to support the industry!) concentrated in such a small land area, Hong Kong has always been a major dining destination. And these days the hottest table in this exciting, cosmopolitan town is at Caprice, the fancy French restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel adjacent to the IFC Mall in Central. In fact, a reservation here is so in demand that the city’s power brokers and bejeweled taitai (which means wife in Cantonese, but is also often used to describe wealthy wives who lunch) have been competing frantically for confirmations.

I usually have a mild aversion to very hot new restaurants, so I intentionally gave Caprice a miss during a week-long stay at the Four Seasons earlier this year. On my second stay not too long ago, however, I phoned up at the spur-of-the-moment and luckily got someone’s cancelled lunch table on my last day in Hong Kong.

Well, as a self-confessed foodie, there are few things in life I regret, and one of them is not having made it to Caprice sooner. I walked in at a quarter to twelve, bags packed and waiting in the lobby, expecting to sit down to a fairly satisfactory meal before a flight back to Tokyo at 3 pm. I enjoyed the food so much (a sautéed foie gras to start and then an excellent rack of lamb for the main course) that I would have happily missed my plane to finish dessert (a dreamy dark chocolate tart with pecan nuts, accompanied by a cocoa sorbet) if not for the urgings of my nervous husband who had to be back in Japan that evening.

Caprice’s kitchens are run by Chef Vincent Thierry who moved to Hong Kong from Le Cinq, the Michelin three-star restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris, together with restaurant manager Jeremy Evrard and sommelier Cedric Bilien. Consequently, both the food and restaurant have an unmistakably classic Parisian feel -- which is quite rare in Asia, where many good French places either go rustic, fusion, modern, or local French.

Caprice is a beautifully-designed formal restaurant with flawless service intended to make you feel relaxed. However, instead there is a contagious buzz here that gets you excited – it makes you feel alive! I’ve only felt this same delicious energy in a few places in the world (the New York Grill of the Park Hyatt Tokyo is another).

What exactly is this buzz? It’s a combination of many factors, with good food the first prerequisite. Then it’s ten million other things including the impact of the design, the upbeat mood and laughter of the guests seated next to you (on that day, an immaculately-dressed French lady with three equally formidable-looking male companions), the confident dance of the chefs in the kitchen, the sparkle of the chandeliers and wine glasses, and the smart steps of the waiters as they bring you food they’re sure you will rave about.

Of course, it helps that most of the staff – save for the rather brusque lady who took my phone reservation -- are highly experienced at friendly and attentive, but reserved and unobtrusive service (which is actually a hard combination to get right).

As you might imagine, Caprice is not cheap; but it’s the kind of expense that will keep you smiling all the way back to your hotel room. Highly recommended on the a la carte menu are the avocado chiboust (a type of custard) with Alaskan crab (HK$280) for starters, the pan-sautéed veal chops with chanterelle mushrooms (HK$380) as a main course, and the chocolate macaroon with a Tonka mousse (HK$130) for dessert. There is also a nine-course tasting dinner menu called “A Taste of Caprice” for HK$1,080.

The best deal here is the set lunch, which is amply portioned and reasonably priced at HK$380 for two courses and HK$450 for three courses. As it is, the choices on offer daily – I counted four first courses, five main courses and five desserts! -- are some restaurants’ entire a la carte menu. Another treat to doing lunch instead of dinner is the wonderful view of Victoria harbor in broad daylight. That alone, is already a spectacular offering in itself.

Four Seasons Hong Kong
Tel. (852) 3196-8888

Note: This was written in 2006, but much of it still holds true today.


L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon

A Paris favorite comes to Tokyo.

With so many world-class restaurants in Tokyo, it’s hard to name a favorite. When my husband and I want a great dinner with a particular set of good friends (a French-Filipino couple, to be exact), however, you’ll probably find us on a Saturday night at one of the window tables at the L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Roppongi Hills.

I’ve long been a fan of the master chef since his days at Jamin, his Parisian restaurant, and all through his various endeavors in Tokyo including the Taillevent Robuchon and most recently the Restaurant Joel Robuchon in Ebisu. Yet, it is probably L’Atelier (LJR) which is his most successful concept yet. It’s enjoyable dining in volumes as much or as little as you please, and in an atmosphere that promotes – if not provokes – banter between staff and guests. And the LJR concept is the same, whether you are in Tokyo, Paris, London, New York, Hong Kong or Macau; although with its high ceilings, blond wood furnishings, comfy tables for four, and divinely-dressed reed-thin clientele, LJR at the Four Seasons hotel in New York is definitely the swankiest of the lot.

Anywhere in the world, LJR is somewhere you can go alone with a book or with a rowdy group of friends, and you can dress up or dress down as you wish – although at these prices (we’ve never left the place less than 45,000 yen lighter per couple in Tokyo, while in New York last week, my share of the bill came up to $120 without wine or tips included yet), I still prefer to put on a little black dress and some jewelry even if many other customers are in jeans and t-shirts.

One thing’s for sure, though, apart from excellent food and wine, you’ll never know what you to expect at an LJR. I recently sat through a five-course lunch in Paris by myself, desperate for a last proper French meal before 12 hours on the plane back to Tokyo, sandwiched in-between a Portugese banker in town for the day who wanted to retire and design dresses instead, and an elderly French couple who said they ate there without fail once a week because otherwise life bored them to tears. I'd brought a book to accompany me through my meal, but it remained in my bag that visit.

Another time, also in Paris, my husband and I came just for plates of spaghetti with tomato and basil (strong and flavorful -- one of the best I’ve had!) and ended up participating in a discussion started by a young New Yorker who announced that she had played a bit part in the U.S. sitcom “Sex and the City.” Still another time, we were amused and charmed to observe a French family with three young children in immaculate white shirts and jeans sharing tasting menus and bowls of pasta so relaxedly, as if LJR Paris was their kitchen. We later learned that indeed it was. They lived nearby, around the corner from the Rodin Museum in the 6th, and walked to LJR for a family meal every weekend. In New York, I lunched with a passionate gourmet who was probably one of the restaurant’s best clients, because we kept getting all these freebies courtesy of the chef (and still my bill for two courses and half of a dessert came up to $120), while all around us unsmiling men and women who looked like they had stepped out of Vogue nibbled on tapas.

LJR in Tokyo is just as fun and expensive, unless you take advantage of the lunch set menus or are prepared to eat very little. The food is dished up with the same French verve, although somehow the taste and presentation are much more refined – perhaps because this is Japan.

Our most recent meal, a multi-course tasting menu (Decouverte/ 12,600 yen), began with two divine palate-teasers (and artery-busters): a glass of smokey foie gras flan topped with foam of parmesan cheese, followed by the fattiest and most delectable slices of Iberico ham I have had in recent memory. Interestingly, this very same foie gras flan was served to me in LJR in New York a week later, and it had a stronger, punchier flavor perhaps to suit the aggressiveness of the city and its residents. The Iberico ham and I also encountered each other again in New York, but it was definitely Tokyo’s version that got my heart thumping.

Because this is not really fine dining, the rest of the Decouverte menu was hit-and-miss, but many were scrumptious and the others were at least enjoyable. Standouts included Robuchon’s take on Coquilles St. Jacques (and in this case, fresh scallops were seared to perfection and then left to sizzle with herb butter in their shells, rather than served with cream); a thick marron soup with shaved truffles, chunky bits of bacon and very discernible pieces of boiled chestnut; and a fatty, juicy entrecote of beef that came covered with truffles and served with garlicky mashed potatoes. I am not a potato person but even I found myself scraping the bottom of my little pot.

The Menu Decouverte (12,600 yen) is a great way to sample Joel Robuchon’s specialties. Also, this is a French restaurant but so far I’ve never had a spaghetti I didn’t like in an LJR anywhere in the world. The sauce changes with the seasons, but right now they may still have spaghetti with regular truffles (3,600 yen) or with the famous Alba truffles (11,500 yen).

Diego Requena, newly-arrived from Paris and never without his fashionable pair of Alexander McQueen glasses, is the chief sommelier. Look for him, mention the name “Bertrand” and ask for unusual, good-value wines that will complement your orders. He only orders small lots from France and has many interesting options in his cave.

We like the tables for four by the window and can sit here all evening. Book in advance if you can.

At least 45,000 yen per couple for a proper dinner and a bottle of wine.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
Roppongi Hills Hillside
6-10-1 Roppongi
Tel. (03) 5772-7500

This appeared in the Fine Dining column of the Frequent Flier, in the Tokyo Weekender magazine.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Per Se in New York

Thomas Keller's New York restaurant is now an institution in the dining scene, and still among the world's best.

Being a value investor, it’s not often I will happily pay for lunch what a car dealer might ordinarily accept as a downpayment for a small vehicle. But there I was, on my way from Tokyo to New York, when an email from my friend Maurice Graham Henry, noted restaurant critic and authority on fine French food, arrived, suggesting lunch at per se (yes, this is not a typo) during my week in the city that considers itself the center of the world. With just a few days’ notice, he had first dibs on one of the hardest tables to get in restaurant-crazy Manhattan -- if not in the entire United States -- and was I interested?

Of course I was, even if this meant possibly passing up on a slinky black dress I had hoped to buy on sale at Barney’s. Urban legends on per se reservations are rife, that I myself did not even remember to try my luck at securing a reservation this time around. I’d heard of a guy who’d spent years speed-dialing the restaurant and still hadn’t gotten through to reservations, and a dying woman who included a confirmed booking for four in her will. In reality, however, all you really need is a little bit of advanced planning (at least two months), a good hotel concierge or a really nice way of asking, and the flexibility of dining at odd hours such as 5:30 pm or 9:45 pm. Having a well-connected friend like Maurice who can get a proper table at a proper time and even arrange a tour of the kitchens afterwards will also help. (Pls note: This review was written sometime back. The odds of securing a reservation have reportedly improved slightly with the onset of the global recession.)

This may all sound incredibly strange to readers in Asia, who never really have to fight for tables at good restaurants; but New York is a different story with a restaurant culture as competitive as anything else here. This is, after all, a city where people can spend entire evenings dissecting the hottest new places, and where dining out is almost a second occupation, if not a sport or a substitute for a long-term relationship.

Here’s another tip: Lunch, served only Fridays to Sundays, is slightly easier to book because all the first-timers and visitors want the complete per se dinner experience. If you're paying top-dollar, why not get dressed up and have the works at a proper dinner, after all? But apparently many regulars book lunch because the menu is the same $275 multi-course tasting menu and the (heavy) meal can last up to five hours, so lunch will give you plenty of time to digest and even walk over to Broadway for a play afterwards. You get wonderful daytime views of Central Park thrown in for free as well.

Two things differentiate per se from top restaurants in other parts of the world, including even the finest that Tokyo or Paris can offer. First, the service is smooth and confident, and frankly very enjoyable. Our servers were as politely talkative as we wanted them to be – or not be -- and they were incredibly knowledgeable about food and wine. This is perhaps a by-product of, again, New York’s competitive culture and the kind of employees that per se attracts.

Second, the food experience is among the best I have had in a not very short lifetime of splurging on good meals. Chef/owner Thomas Keller describes his cooking as American cuisine with classic French influences and, indeed, each dish was creative in composition, refined in taste, and pleasantly beautiful rather than spectacular in presentation. I particularly enjoyed his famous “oysters and pearls, ” which is a medley of pearly tapioca, Island Creek oysters and sterling white sturgeon caviar; and a delicious terrine of Hudson Valley duck foie gras served with four different kinds of exotic salt. And in between, as well as after, were many lovely dishes that seemed equal parts talent and the kind of controlled discipline that is able to consistently delight diners and maintain regulars.

After our meal, we visited the kitchens, which were so spacious, clean and spotless that lunch could have probably been served on the floor and still satisfied the sanitation inspectors. It's not at all a big restaurant, but each minute subdivision of food had a proper preparation station of its own, including ones for ice cream, bread, pastries, meat stock and vegetable stock. I was also surprised to see a giant monitor on the wall, constantly beaming video in real time from the kitchens of Thomas Keller's California restaurant, The French Laundry, so that Mr. Keller can literally keep an eye on the cooking in both restaurants, no matter where he is.

Per se may be a celebrity hangout, but it’s also the kind of place a serious foodie will feel right at home in. A meal here is a work of art, and a splendid way to (literally) spend a holiday in New York.

What to eat
Whatever they give you. There’s only one menu each day, and you will almost certainly not be disappointed.

What to drink
I heartily suggest the accompanying tasting menu for wines, which costs $75. The sommelier serves unusual pairings such as a very dry Japanese sake to go with the oysterd and caviar, and finds interesting selections you are unlikely to find elsewhere. The food experience would be so different without this wine tasting menu.

How much did it cost
About $400 per person, for the food and wine tasting menus, plus service and gratuities.

Where to sit
If you can request a table, try for the window-side. However, it’s a small place and anywhere they seat you will make you feel glamorous and special. Just think of everyone trying to get in....

Who goes there
People who genuinely love food, and also those who just want to be able to say they’ve been to New York’s best restaurant – because so few haven’t. During our lunch, there was a group of casually-dressed young European guys (including one who resembled Prince William, but who probably wasn’t – I dared not inquire) and two Upper East Side-type women in matching cashmere twin sets. The private room, which can comfortably seat 12, was occupied by a group of elderly Japanese, while one of the window tables had two Asian couples, with the women in long gowns and lots of jewelry.

Per Se
Time-Warner Building
10 Columbus Circle (at 60th Street)

4th Floor
New York, NY 10019

Tel. 212.823.9335

This originally appeared in the Fine Dining column of the Frequent Flier, in the Tokyo Weekender magazine.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Messy Business of Tipping in New York

Tipping is such a touchy issue, and moreso in New York. This opinion piece originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune's editorial pages in May 2006. It literally created a firestorm. Days later, an entire Letters to the Editor section was devoted to responses to this short essay, with about 70% in favor and 30% against.

To Tip or Not To Tip

New York – It may be very politically incorrect to publicly admit it, but the business of tipping in restaurants infuriates me whenever I visit the United States. I can’t understand why a payment that has obviously become so mandatory is not just factored into the price of the food or automatically calculated and placed as another category after taxes and service charges – say as “service tip” or “personnel fee” – to save everyone the grief of having to think about it each time they go out for a meal.

In its present incarnation, as a 15% to 20% supposedly voluntary add-on that you must nevertheless pay as “tip” at the end of each and every meal, this fee is almost hypocritical. It’s not a tip at all that you can bestow at your discretion, it’s forced payment or a tax; and if you somehow pay an amount deemed unsatisfactory, certain parties are going to do something about it. Some establishments actually ask you to increase the tip or else they change it themselves if they're not happy with what you've given.

This happened to my husband last year on a trip to New York from Tokyo, where we live. After dinner with three colleagues at a fancy Upper East Side restaurant, he signed a credit card bill for close to $600 and added what he thought was an appropriately decent tip. The maitre’d literally chased after him on the street as he started walking back to his hotel and, after catching his breath, pointedly inquired: “Was there a problem with your dinner, sir?”

Fortunately for the maitre’d, my generous husband quickly caught on and returned to the restaurant to revise the amount, adding $50 more to that night’s damages. If that had happened to me, I would have given the maitre’d my sweetest smile and said, “No, absolutely none at all. Thank you for asking.” And then walked away.

Meanwhile, at a luxury spa resort in Arizona some time back, for instance, I was surprised to find at check-out that all my tips for breakfast (buffet) had been revised upwards by the resort staff to reflect not the 10% I had placed for simply showing me to my table, but 15%. I crossed this out and reverted to 10%. In hindsight, I should even have canceled everything entirely to protest their impunity.

In general, I actually have no problem paying tips – and large ones at that – for extraordinary service above the call of duty, which is what I have always thought tips were for anyway. Like at places you’ve been going to for years, for waiters who actually go out to buy you a pack of cigarettes at the corner store or for a waitress who patiently dishes each course onto two plates so that you and your spouse can share the whole meal. Or for the elderly waiter at a great little neighborhood trattoria who steers you towards a dinner close to perfection and shares a few stories as well.

I just don’t like being forced to pay a so-called “discretionary tip” for perfunctory service, especially at places with only basic service or at obviously profitable high-end restaurants where I believe a dinner costing at least $150 per person more than covers the cost of bringing my meal from the kitchen to the table. I don't like it either that I should tip someone who opens a $50 bottle of wine an amount between $7.50 to $12.50, but then need to "upgrade" this tip three times to the range of at least $22.50 to $37.50, if this same person opens a $150 bottle of wine for me. I usually don't nitpick -- but did this person use a different corkscrew for the more expensive bottle? Or is a special technique involved in opening a $150 bottle vs a $50 bottle? And, in the first place, aren't restaurant personnel really supposed to open the wine for you anyway, when you order an already overpriced bottle at their restaurant?

I also don’t buy the explanation that we need to pay tips because waiters and waitresses are paid so little that they live off these. I’m sorry, but most of us work hard for a living and if anyone wants to be paid more, they should do some other job instead. Or perhaps restaurant owners or star chefs who have grown rich on the success of their ventures should plow more of the profits back to their employees instead of keeping the profits for themselves and shoving the burdens (and the guilt) to customers. Or raise the prices of food to already include a tip if it’s expected each time anyway. If we're really supposed to pay a certain amount anyway, why don't restaurants just factor this in or compute this for us and save us the extra mental hassle?

Japan, for example, is a no-tipping country but prices reflect service employees’ wages and service is almost always excellent. Once, an American restaurant in Tokyo initiated tipping by placing a notice on each table. Everyone almost furiously refused to do so, anxious to avoid introducing into Japan the stress of having to think of such matters each time one is out to dine. The restaurant eventually changed back its policy.

Last night we arrived from Tokyo and walked to Grand Central Station for two bowls of soup and one glass of wine at a casual diner. The waiter quickly took our order, wordlessly plunked the food and drink on our table, and then we didn’t see him again until it was time to pay $29. In my gut, I didn’t think we needed to follow the 15% to 20% rule for a waiter we hardly saw, but as tourists we ended up doing so anyway.

Back at the hotel, I emailed my college friend, who now lives in Manhattan. “What’s the tipping policy for New York these days?” I asked.

The reply came quickly. “15-20% at restaurants. And everyone else, from taxis to delivery people, about $2 to $3 each time.”

I emailed back. “15-20% for food and $2 to $3 at every corner on a daily basis. How can ordinary New Yorkers afford to live?”

“No kidding,” she replied. “I hate it. That’s why I never take cabs, do most of my own errands and avoid going to restaurants nowadays.”

Good idea. Or maybe I’ll just avoid going to New York at all – at least until people start calling a spade a spade.


Monday, July 6, 2009

A Golfer's Pilgrimage

What's the perfect present for a golfer husband? A game on the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, where Mary Queen of Scots once played.

For my husband’s birthday one year, I arranged a week’s holiday in St. Andrew’s, Scotland, the mecca of golf; and a chance to play in the venerable 600 year-old Old Course. To ensure a complete golf experience, I even booked a set of rooms at the Old Course Hotel directly along the 17th hole and in full view of the 18th hole and the Royal & Ancient clubhouse. This enabled us to sit on our balcony at all hours of the day -- with a cup of coffee before breakfast or with a glass of wine before dinner since the sun sets very late during a Scottish summer -- and watch golfers from all over the world try their hand on the same set of greens that Mary Queen of Scots reportedly played in over four hundred years ago.

Getting to St. Andrew’s from our home in Tokyo and other logistics was easy enough. Booking play time for my husband was much harder – especially since this was before the Old Course actually went online. It was April, and we wanted to visit Scotland in September, as autumn arrived. However, when I called, I was told that all tee times were booked for the rest of the year and for early next! They offered to look for an available slot after spring.

It took some months to coordinate this tee-off opportunity. But finally in October, we were given a slot at 11:23 a.m. on the following July 28 with three strangers – and the fee was something like 90 pounds payable in advance and non-refundable, please.

Thankfully, all went as planned. 11 months later, we found ourselves driving up from Edinburgh along the coast of Fife on a beautiful day that allowed us a sparkling initial glimpse of the course set off by a cloudless sky. I am not a golfer, but even I experienced that rush of excitement that all players must feel when they first set foot in St. Andrew’s.

My husband was not scheduled to play on the Old Course until the fourth day, although he had bookings every day in other courses around town. But we excitedly visited the clubhouse upon arrival anyway to reconfirm arrangements.

“You’ll be wanting a caddy, I expect, sir,” said the man at the links office.

“I was actually thinking of going alone,” my husband replied.

“Oh, not on this course, you wouldn’t, sir,” the man advised. “This is a tricky set of greens and many a fine player has been thrown off by the unpredictability of the course and the winds. You’ll be wanting someone who knows the course by heart, and who can tell you how to avoid those bunkers and hazards.”

Of course we took his advice, and a friendly caddie named Darren was assigned to navigate my husband through the Old Course’s minefields. On the big day itself, we walked past the sightseeing crowds gathered around the starting point to join my husband’s flight, rather pleased to finally be on the ancient greens on official business. Interestingly, two players – a jolly Scot from Aberdeen and a rather serious-looking IT engineer from Denmark – were also on tee times arranged as birthday presents by their wives! The fourth player, a financier from Boston, scrambled to the rear at the last minute, breathless and eager to play.

I watched the group tee off and then spent the next few hours walking around town, intending to rejoin the group as they approached the 17th hole. I stumbled on a Scottish Highlands game in full progress in the outskirts of town, and spent the early afternoon watching very large men in kilts trying their prowess at all kinds of games. But at the appointed time, I was waiting for my husband's flight by the 17th tee-off. It was easy to coordinate meeting times as I simply asked other golfers passing under my balcony what time they had teed off, and calculated my husband's arrival at the 17th from there.

“I’ve been playing badly all the way,” my husband said by way of greeting, when they arrived at the 17th tee-off.

“This course has humbled its fair share of players, sir,” Darren remarked, trying to make him feel good about it.

Fortunately, and rather to Darren’s amazement, my husband’s game suddenly picked up then. He deftly managed the notoriously difficult 17th hole, with its Road Hole Bunker, earning applause from other players watching. Then he actually birdied the final, all-important and highly visible 18th hole -- prompting the entire rim of spectators to clap loudly just like in international tournaments! This was just like in the golf tournaments on TV -- seeing him being given a round of applause on the last hole of the Old Course.

To cap a triumphant day, we returned to our hotel and spied golfing legend Gary Player sitting in an adjacent function room. We introduced ourselves, and Mr. Player told us he was at St. Andrew’s for the start of a 72-hole charity tournament that involved playing at four of Scotland’s most famous golf courses in one long summer day. We marveled at his strength and dedication to a good cause.

The next morning at just past 5 a.m., I went out on the balcony to watch the sunrise. Some golfers were already on the 2nd tee followed by television crews. It was Mr. Player embarking on his noble golf adventure, on what looked like another beautiful Scottish summer day.

This originally appeared in the March-April 2008 issue of Travelife magazine.


Friday, July 3, 2009

Travel & Terrorism: One Night in Mumbai

Travel isn't always fun. Last year, a friend of ours underwent a harrowing experience in India.

On November 26, 2008, terrorists stormed multiple sites in Mumbai India, including two luxury hotels. The attacks killed 179 people and injured over 300. Rakesh Patel, Asia-Pacific head of equity sales at HSBC, was among the hostages taken at the Oberoi Hotel. Over drinks at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, we talked to him about his ordeal and escape.

Can you recount how the attack started that day, for you?

I was having dinner that night at the Oberoi’s Kandahar Restaurant with two colleagues from the local HSBC office. At about 10 pm, just as we were finishing, we heard sounds that seemed like fireworks, but that we realized later were actually gunshots. After a lot of “fireworks,” we noticed smoke coming from the restaurant door. There was panic and we all ran away from the door towards the kitchen, and into the fire exit stairwell. When we got to the stairwell, none of us knew what had happened so some of us went down and others went up. One of my colleagues went down the stairs and he escaped out of the hotel in 15 minutes. Meanwhile, myself and another colleague were herded up the stairs by some of the staff.

At the 10th floor landing, some of the gunmen caught up with us. They had AK-47s which they fired above our heads, and this made us stop. Then they lined us against the wall with our hands up, and asked for British and American passports. Of course most people don’t carry their passports with them, so they didn’t really get any.

What were the terrorists like?

They were young-ish kids who were always on their mobiles to their colleagues, who we later found out were at the Taj Hotel. The leader of their group was apparently at the Taj Hotel. They spoke little English except for basic words like “British passport” or “American passport.”

What happened next?

I later learned that they had planned to kill us on the 10th floor, but for some reason, they didn’t. Instead, they decided to take us to the rooftop. At that point, I remember thinking that I was probably going to die, so I decided to try and escape. If I was going to die, I thought I should at least try and raise my survival rate to 10%.

As we were moving up to the rooftop, I managed to position myself somewhere in the middle of the group. On the 18th floor landing, I slipped out a door unnoticed and then I waited behind the door for 10 minutes until everyone passed. The smoke at this time was very bad – I guess from the detonators -- and I could hardly see in front of me. I walked down the stairs very slowly, partly because of the smoke, and also because I didn’t want to make any noise in case someone noticed me.

Where did you go from there?

I eventually reached the ground floor stairwell, where I saw some others who had also managed to escape. We could hardly see anything because of the smoke, but together we looked for a way out. We found an emergency exit door but it was padlocked. Then we heard a phone ring, and I went to pick it up. When I got to the phone, I realized that we were actually in the lobby and there was no one around. So we ran out the front door.

What was the scene like outside the hotel?

We escaped about an hour after the attack. In this kind of situation, you expect paramedics, emergency services or military forces to be waiting outside. There were literally two policemen on the scene.

I couldn’t walk far after all this, so I ended up sitting on the street against a wall for about two hours. I had nothing on me – my mobile phone had been burned and I had no money. I was resigned to sitting where I was for the rest of the night and then just walking to the local HSBC office when it opened. Fortunately, a local television crew eventually came on the scene and interviewed me. Then one of my colleagues in the local office saw me on TV and he somehow managed to find me on the scene.

Do you know what happened to the others in your group who didn’t escape?

They were taken up to the rooftop. After 30 minutes, the terrorists suddenly said, “Prepare to die” and started firing at them. Everyone died except three people, and luckily, the 2nd colleague I had dinner with that night was one of the three. He took two bullet grazes and dived down. Then people started falling on top of him until he was covered by dead bodies. To survive, he lay like this for several hours, pretending to be dead.

Unfortunately, the terrorists returned and realized that some of the people were still alive. They set up a detonator and left. This was when my colleague crawled out. He went into the boiler room and hid there for 40 hours until the government forces finally re-took the hotel.

Having survived a terrorist ordeal, what advice can you give others who might find themselves in a similar situation?

It’s hard to predict how people will react in such a situation, but it’s good to not panic – although, of course, it’s very easy to say this. In my case, from the moment I accepted that I was going to die, it was easy to calm down and make rational decisions. I realized that it’s only when people are trying to protect something that they become emotional.

Has this experienced changed you in any way?

This is my only disappointment. I expected to experience some sort of epiphany but I didn’t. People ask me if I’ve changed my life, if I’m now going to drive my car at less dangerous speeds, or if I’m going to do something like retire and start meditating in the Himalayas, but the answer is no. My attitudes to life and to the people around me are the same.

This appeared in the May-June 2009 issue of Travelife Magazine.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Restaurant Sant Pau in Tokyo

My husband and I recently trooped to Nihonbashi, Tokyo’s business district, to sample the delights at Restaurant Sant Pau, Japan’s most cutting-edge Spanish restaurant. I was quite excited to finally eat here, having missed a chance at the original Sant Pau in the tiny coastal village of San Pol de Mar, about 50 kms from Barcelona, some years back. While on a driving trip from Barcelona to Rousillion in France, I had tried to make reservations at this nine-table restaurant but was told that the place was booked for weeks. Sant Pau is one of Spain’s culinary stars and its chef, Carme Ruscalleda, is considered by many to be the country’s foremost lady chef. Then, and perhaps moreso now that Sant Pau in Barcelona received its third Michelin star (Tokyo's Sant Pau has two stars), everyone who enjoyed food was practically fighting for a seat at this tiny establishment. When I told a Barcelona friend then that I could not get a table but still held out hopes for a cancellation, he said, “Only the dying cancel a reservation at Sant Pau.” Thankfully, Tokyo’s Sant Pau has a little more room (19 tables) and reservation leeway.

With its pale yellow-ochre walls, red leather built-in banisters, interesting artwork and large on-display kitchen, Sant Pau Tokyo is an elegant restaurant decorated in the best of modern Iberian traditions. Meanwhile its menu is a proud assembly of original creations based on Catalan cuisine, with a few local specialties like the Canelo, a long pasta roll filled with meat often made by Catalan mothers for Sunday family lunches.

We opted for the tasting course as this seemed the best way to fully appreciate the talents of Chef Carme. Chef Carme’s signature style contrasts tastes and textures, particularly the subtle marriage of salty and sweet, and smooth and rough. So our meal began with a micro-menu of four appetizers including a brochette of sweetened meat and karashi mustard, and a piece of bread dipped in olive oil and served with seaweed and chocolate. Three proper appetizers followed. To start, warm apple consommé was poured into a bowl containing Hokkaido sea urchin and red peppers; the sweetness of the apples highlighting exquisitely the saltiness of the other ingredients and vice-versa. Meanwhile, for the second appetizer, tender morsels of lobster were sautéed with caviar and then topped with Japanese tokoroten (grass noodles) tossed with green olives for an awakening mix of understated flavors.

My main course, the Canelo, took on a crazy twist at Sant Pau, where a roll made of roasted chicken, veal and pork was instead filled with pasta. Meanwhile my husband’s entrée consisted of cubes of boneless lamb loin flavored with mint and corn. I tasted a forkful and was astonished at how wonderfully the meat paired with the strong taste of corn.

Chef Carme is a very hands-on lady with a passion for perfection. Unlike many other famous European restaurants with branches in Tokyo that merely lend their name and a few token recipes, Sant Pau Tokyo is so tightly controlled by Chef Carme that it may as well be located in the next village to San Pol de Mar. The menus served in Japan are exactly the same as the ones served in Spain and, once a menu has been decided, Chef Carme or her chief assistant actually flies over to Tokyo to demonstrate these to Esther Bedmar, Sant Pau’s young and talented Tokyo chef. Chef Carme is on the phone or email to Tokyo everyday as well.

During the course of the meal, I was charmed by tiny watercolor-and-ink sketches placed unobtrusively on our table. These illustrations explained the appetizers and desserts we were about to eat and were actually made by the creative Carme herself. And the dessert course, which is an entire menu in itself, is a labor of love and playfulness. Be prepared to have your tastebuds tickled as an assortment of trays laden with cheese, sweets and chocolates are laid out before you, each with a contrasting sauce to enjoy with. It was certainly a fun, eye-opening finale to a three-hour dining extravaganza.

For the ultimate gourmet Catalan meal, try the eight-course Menu Degustacio (21,000 yen) designed by Chef Carme herself, which includes four appetizers and two desserts. But those hankering for Jamon Jabugo, the ultimate of Spanish hams, can also opt for an authentic tapas dinner at the bar next to the restaurant.

The Degustacio de 4 Vins, a tasting menu for wines (7,500 yen), offers unusual Iberian choices, many of them directly imported from Spain and rarely found in Tokyo. Considering that refills are allowed, it’s also excellent value.

Every table in this modern restaurant has a good vantage point of the room and the art on the walls.

This three-star Michelin restaurant has three-star prices as well. Expect to spend around 60,000 yen for the wine and food tasting menus for two.

Many Japanese executives, particularly those familiar with Barcelona and its environs, and not enough expatriates yet. Not too many restaurants in Tokyo offer such top-calibre Spanish cuisine so go and splurge on a special night out.

Sandra Martorell, who is temporarily seconded from the original Sant Pau, can help with menus and share interesting tidbits about the Catalan region and cuisine.

Restaurant Sant Pau
Corredo Nihonbashi Annex
1-6-1 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku
Tel. (03) 3517-5702

This originally appeared in the Frequent Flier's Fine Dining column in the Tokyo Weekender Magazine.