Saturday, August 7, 2010

Saturday Night with Wine and Friends

Last Saturday we joined a group of wine friends -- Bordeaux wine lovers, specifically -- for an intimate dinner for 16 cooked by Chef Cyril Soenen of Restaurant Cicou, one of Manila's top French restaurants. The dinner was held at the lovely and sprawling home of E in South Forbes, full of antiques and art. E is widely recognized in local drinking circles as among the most knowledgeable about French wine in the Philippines.

When we arrived close to 8 pm, the rains were just starting and most of our friends were already there, standing around in the verandah enjoying champagne and canapes. We soon moved back inside to where a table for eight to be headed by E was set in the living room, and an almost identical table was also prepared in the dining room with E's wife seated at the head. Just as we were late to arrive, we were also late to find a seat at one of the tables since we were lingering around the verandah catching up with some friends we hadn't seen in months. When I finally went inside, there were still some seats in E's table in the living room, but I found myself wandering over to the dining room where there was still a single seat at the other end of the table opposite E's wife.

"Come join us," said E's wife, and it was the only encouragement I needed to slide into the remaining seat in their dining room with interesting paintings on the walls and glass cabinets displaying antique porcelain heads. On my left were two guy friends, a well-known doctor who only drinks fine wine and an architect with a great taste for the finest things in life and some of the best hotels in the world. He was planning to stay at the Aman Resort at Summer Palace in Beijing soon. On my right were two very charming ladies, both wives of wine connossieurs. One of them had just visited us in Tokyo and the other had recently been to Spain, where she and her husband had indulged in a driving, drinking and eating trip that had taken them from one end of Spain to the other.

The table was rather large so it was not very easy to keep up a conversation that the entire group could participate in; so for most of the evening, in between fantastic food and some quite rare wines, our end of table #2 happily discussed all sorts of things related to food, wine and travel among ourselves.

Favorite destinations

"Where have you been to recently?" The Doc asked me. When I mentioned Turkey, he and the architect both lit up. The Doc had always had a visit to Turkey on his bucket list, while the architect cited Istanbul as one of his favorite destinations -- as it is ours.

"I was in Istanbul recently, and I stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel," the architect mentioned. We then exchanged notes about places to stay, restaurants to eat in, and things to buy. Personally, no matter how many times I go to Istanbul, I still love shopping at the 13th century Grand Bazaar, with its labrynth of shops and tourist traps. In June, I walked down the more touristy part of the Grand Bazaar and found a lovely accessories shop selling the most unusual necklaces. As I went on my last day in Turkey, just before going to the airport, I went slightly overboard and bought six necklaces. But each time I wear one of these, I remember the fantastic time I had and always get a barrage of compliments. Travelife Magazine is organizing a trip to Turkey in November, by the way, and we're opening this to the public. I so can't wait to go back to this shop and pick up a couple more necklaces. I also discovered a very good outlet shopping mall in the outskirts of the city mainly for high-end local stores like Vakko, selling high-quality Turkish goods at 50% off retail prices. Again, this'll be one of the shopping stops on the Travelife Magazine Turkey Tour this November.

Where to stay in Istanbul

The Doc, who is also one for luxury travel, then asked me which hotel I would recommend. Well, there are four great hotels for the luxury traveler. At the very top of the list is the grand Ciragan Palace Hotel, which is run by the Kempinski Group. It's perfectly situated along the Bosphorus, although you'll need a car to go practically everywhere from here. The rooms, especially the suites in the Palace Wing, are just breathtaking -- and so are the prices. I remember getting the biggest surprise of my life when I checked out of Ciragan Palace once to find that they had charged me for an overnight shoeshine service, which is usually complimentary in most top hotels anywhere, and also for charging a teppanyaki lunch at their Japanese restaurant to my hotel bill! Yes, there was an extra charge for not paying cash at their own restaurant!

"Do you charge to breathe the hotel air as well?" I couldn't resist asking sarcastically. The duty manager didn't miss a beat. "Only if you breathe deeply, madam," he responded. Thankfully, he took off those stupid charges from my bill.

There are also two Four Seasons hotels in Istanbul, both equally nice but catering to a different crowd. There is a small one right in the heart of the Old City -- this is where JFK Jr had his honeymoon -- which I would recommend to the luxury traveler with little time to battle Istanbul's traffic as you can walk to almost every major sight from this hotel. The Topkapi Palace and Museum, recognized as one of the great museums of the world, is literally a few minutes' walk from here. Four Seasons also opened a larger hotel right along the Bosphorus as well, and this is a good option as well for travelers who want to stay along the Bosphorus. It is quite an experience to stay along the Bosphorus -- personally, I could sit around gazing at it all day.

Istanbul's most fashionable district

The last time I was in Turkey, I went to the Park Hyatt Istanbul, which has some of the biggest hotel rooms in the city and incredibly personalized service. This is for travelers who want to visit the tourist sites but not stay too near them, and for those who want to be pampered in that incredibly personal Park Hyatt way. Everyone will know your name here, when you check in, so it's just like staying in someone's Istanbul mansion. And, indeed, in a previous life, it was someone's mansion. The Italian ambassador to Turkey's official residence in Istanbul -- to be exact. The hotel is right smack in the very fashionable Nisintasi area of Istanbul, which feels more like Europe with its lovely street cafes and posh shops, and is a great favorite of local high society; and most tourists will probably never find their way here. But yes, this is where the celebrities who don't want to be seen and the moguls with lots of cash to burn stay. One high-flying fund manager rented the entire eighth floor, which is an all-suite floor with a wrap around balcony separated by planter boxes. He stayed in the presidential suite and gave the other suites to assorted members of his family, and asked the hotel to remove all the planter boxes so he could jog the entire length of the balcony every morning, enjoying the fantastic view of Istanbul.

Evening ends with a fantastic dessert

Anyway, the very enjoyable conversation last Saturday continued like this, as everyone traded stories and travel secrets all night. The great evening was further helped by the very rare wines courtesy of the Manila chapter of the Commanderie de Bordeaux and the really good food Chef Cyril, working so hard in E's kitchen, served us that night. As I probably talked the most that night, I was still relishing every bit of my main dish -- a capon done two ways with the breasts roasted and served with gravy, and the leg stuffed with duck liver, chestnuts and mushrooms -- while everyone else was already raving about dessert. Dessert was a cake version of the kouing aman (A very sinful pastry from Brittany that is really hard to find done well anywhere in the world -- even in Paris. My favorite version is served as part of breakfast at the Park Hyatt Paris on the Place Vendome.) served with salted caramel ice cream.

The one upside to being the last to finish was that I heard everyone rave about dessert. When my time to be served came, I couldn't very well ask for another cake, but I did ask the waiter for an extra serving of that delicious ice cream.

"Why do you have two ice creams?" The Doc asked incredulously, as a waiter set my cake and two helpings of ice cream in front of me. "They like me," I replied.

When Chef Cyril finally came out of E's kitchen, all of us complimented him on the dinner, and especially on dessert. "Well, that's available at Cicou if you'd like to have it again," he said.

It was a really lovely evening in every way and long after it had ended, about eight of us were still in E's verandah chatting happily about -- what else, but -- wine, food and travel.


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