Sunday, December 19, 2010

The weekend before Christmas

The weekend before Christmas began delightfully enough on Friday with an invitation to lunch from a serious foodie friend who had just returned from Europe and was on his way to Japan, and in between he was spending his time enjoying meals at some of Manila's best restaurants. He's just been to Noma in Copenhagen, reportedly the best restaurant in the world right now, and returned to Manila raving about the experience. Noma's ambience was simple and rustic, but the food, he said, was just amazing. Watch for his article on Noma in the February-March issue of Travelife Magazine.

Some people certainly know how to live well. And for our pre-holiday lunch on Friday, being crazy about Japanese food, he'd initially booked seats at Kobikicho (also known to many as Sushi Kappo) in Makati, which was just about his favorite restaurant in this part of the world (it's certainly my favorite Japanese restaurant in Manila as well). However, I myself had just flown in from Tokyo a few days before, and I'd literally overloaded on sushi while I was in Japan, so I was not exactly keen to see raw fish again so soon.

So I arranged things so that we ended up canceling the Japanese restaurant and booking a table instead at Masseto, even if I'd just had a nice, long lunch there the day before. I had so enjoyed their burger the day before and was of a mind to have it again -- or to have the pan-fried sole that my friend from lunch the day before had had.

Passing up on the sushi

So last Friday, I was at Masseto again for lunch. When I walked in, Michi, the restaurant manager, welcomed me with a "Let me guess -- the burger again, today?" But later on, just when I was about to choose either the burger or the sole, Tippi, Masseto's chef, began talking to me about a 38-day dry-aged steak that sounded so tantalizing that I just had to have it. So we ended up having the steak for lunch, and then a very wonderful salted caramel ice cream and chocolate tart for dessert.

Masseto that day felt like a private club, because practically everyone knew everyone else in the other tables -- which made for a happy atmosphere. We sat at one corner, surrounded on all sides by friends and acquaintances wishing each other happy holidays and exchanging notes on where we were all spending Christmas. I was spending it with family in Manila but almost everyone else was headed off to cooler climes like Tokyo, Canada, New York, San Francisco and Paris.

Tokyo in vogue as a destination

"What's with Tokyo these days?" My friend asked. "It seems so many people are spending the holidays there this year."

It was true. There seemed to be an exodus of friends and acquaintances flying to Tokyo for Christmas and New Year's -- so much so that I'd practically acted as booking office for hotels, restaurants and tours over the past months. The irony here was that I was going to be in Manila, while so many people I knew were going to be roaming around Marunouchi, Omotesando and Hibiya. I could have hosted a New Year's Eve party in Tokyo and invited all the visitors from Manila, and it would certainly have felt like a New Year's Eve party in Manila by the sheer number. "Tokyo's been in vogue for the past two years," I confirmed. "It's so noticeable how there was a dearth of visitors until three years ago, and then -- wham. Suddenly, it's everyone's favorite destination."

"What happened?" My friend asked. "It certainly can't be the prices, because the exchange rate is a killer at the moment."

"Maybe the visa process got easier," my other friend suggested. It was true, though; once upon a time, people had to apply in person for their visas, while these days, all you have to do is furnish an accredited travel agency with the necessary documents and then wait for the results to come back.

However, I shrugged and said, "Personally, I think a couple of people visited some years back and began talking about what a wonderful time they had. Word spread. And that got people excited to visit Tokyo." This was entirely possible, considering what a small world Manila can be -- that even in Masseto, everyone literally knew everyone else having lunch on that Friday.

Christmas concert at Mandarin Oriental

We would have continued forever with lunch but work got in the way, and I returned to office in time to get a few hours done before the Christmas concert of the Mandarin Oriental that night. I love going to Christmas concerts and consider this part of my Christmas traditions; and one I never miss is the Peninsula Christmas concert. Unfortunately, the concert this year took place on December 12th and I was in Tokyo. So when the invitation to the concert at the Mandarin Oriental arrived, I happily confirmed attendance.

I was so happy I went. For one thing, it was an incredibly intimate and private concert of truly wonderful and unique Christmas songs. They hosted this in the Captain's Bar, with the large Christmas tree and the orchestra taking up most of the space in the center (as you will see from the photo above), and the audience seated at the sides of the Captain's Bar or on chairs around the mezzanine floor ledge. The result was a very intense experience, and the orchestra played Christmas songs from all over the world, including the Philippines, while we all listened with glasses of wine and canapes. It was a very civilized and pleasant way to officially begin the week before Christmas and to end a rather chaotic week of traffic, work, last-minute shopping and -- as always, for Manila -- too much merrymaking.


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