Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cockroach for dinner

Good evening! I just returned from a nice casual dinner at the Fort with my good friends Jonathan and Beliz. We were supposed to go to Je Suis Gourmand for dinner but JSG had an event tonight so we headed elsewhere in the area to another casual bistro. We three were really looking forward to catching up for a couple of hours of downtime after a hectic and quite stressful week. We actually see each other a whole lot -- almost every other day, in fact -- but oftentimes recently it's been with other people and related to projects and things we are doing together. So it's not that easy to catch up.

But this evening was not about work or projects, but about joking around and telling all kinds of stories. We got together at around 730 pm and enjoyed our meal pretty much until the main course -- a rice dish with chicken in it -- arrived. That was also pretty good until I cut the chicken up and saw something that looked like a really big piece of exotic spice at first glance.

What's that on my plate?

When I looked more closely, I realized it was a flattened baby cockroach sandwiched in between the chicken! Perhaps because I was so tired after a long day, I didn't even scream. Instead I let out something more like a yelp, which made both Jonathan and Beliz look at me.

"What's the matter?" Beliz asked. I was gesturing frantically with my hands but not saying much, but my Blackberry was right next to my plate and I had just put it down after sending out a series of messages, so she actually thought I had received a message and realized I'd double-booked myself. "What's wrong?" She asked again. "Did you have another party to go to tonight?"

I wished it was as pleasant a dilemma as that! "There's a cockroach in my food!" I finally managed to say.

Drinks on the house -- and the cockroach too

Of course the waiters seemed just as surprised as us, and they quickly took the dish away. Later on, the head waiter came over to apologize and to offer us drinks on the house. Of course, the rice dish was also made complimentary and we never saw it again.

"I thought this kind of thing -- where you actually see a cockroach in your food -- only happened in the movies," Beliz marveled.

"Well, now you know it happens in real life as well," I said.

An affordable meal after all

Incidentally, Jonathan and Beliz paid for dinner. When the bill arrived, I reached for my wallet to pay for my share, when Beliz jokingly said: "We can take care of this. With the cockroach, the rice dish and the drinks out of the way, it's actually affordable." We said our goodbyes after that. They went off to a party but I begged off to go home, catch up on emails, do a bit of Facebook and actually get some sleep before midnight. And just before closing my phone for the night, I texted Beliz: "Thanks for the cockroach dinner." Still waiting for her to reply.


Paradise has a name

If paradise were to have a name, it may very well be Amanpulo, a luxury resort situated on Pamalican Island, a 5.5 kilometer-long 90-hectare private island among the Cuyo group of islands in southern Philippines surrounded by seven kilometers of white sand and coral reefs.

The joy of an Amanpulo holiday begins a few minutes before touchdown as one finally spies the island after a short flight on a chartered Dornier 19-seater turboprop jet from Manila. I've got claustrophobia so I'm quite nervous about flying in small planes; but the thought of an Aman holiday is certainly enough to ensure that I make great efforts to conquer my fears and weather the short flight in a small plane. Fortunately there's enough to keep a worried person occupied. Each seat has a folder filled with information about the resort and the island; and since the plane is not flying so high, it's quite interesting to see the topography below in detail.

Vision of loveliness below

After about 50 minutes onboard, we broke through some dark clouds and suddenly found ourselves basking in sunshine with Pamalican Island directly in front of us. That first view of Amanpulo from the air, in its unadorned splendor amidst a deep green-blue sea, is magical.

At Amanpulo’s tiny airstrip, general managers Nicholas and Christine Juett, and their team, were waiting to warmly greet us – they do this for each new visitor; most arrive on one of two daily chartered flights, but some do take their private yachts or jets -- and escort us to a waiting golf cart that would be our main mode of transportation for the duration of our stay on the island.

Our beach casita, one of 29 seafront accommodations, was a few steps from the beach but it was still hidden by enough trees to offer privacy. Designed by Philippine architect Bobby Manosa, each casita is inspired by the local bahay kubo (nipa hut) and concieved in neutral colors, using all native materials and furniture for its interiors. It has cool wooden floors, floor-to-ceiling glass windows, and a wonderfully large bathroom space.

Civilization amidst a rocky island with wild vegetation

At close range, Pamalican Island itself is mostly made up of rather hardscrabble terrain, rocky roads, and some stubborn-looking vegetation that has been left to grow wild. But this in itself is part of the charm of Amanpulo: it offers nature undisguised and up-close but with uncompromising luxury never too far away. Amanpulo is all about the marvels of completely getting away from it all, along with the modern comforts of the best hotels in the world.

Sand as soft as baby powder

And, of course, Amanpulo’s pristine beaches, with white sand as pure and soft as baby powder, is the main reason why many people travel halfway around the world and pay a small fortune just to stay here. In this age of pollution, overpopulation, and over-development, there’s something incredibly luxurious about having a beautiful beach all to one’s self.

“We have a lot of regulars,” confirmed Noel Barrameda, Amanpulo’s sales & marketing manager, who we met at the clubhouse after breakfast one morning. “We even have a couple who spend a month here every year.”

Later, we met Christine Juett at the tennis courts. She’d just squeezed in a game, in-between the resort’s more hectic operating hours. “I’ve been working for Aman Resorts for 20 years now,” she told me. “All the resorts are beautiful, but Amanpulo is really special. Even guests who’ve been to most of the Amans tell me Amanpulo is their favorite.”

Amazing service

For me, however, the best feature of Amanpulo is its stellar service. We've holidayed here several times and the service has never ever failed us. This resort gives you the impression they don’t know the meaning of the word “no;” and the fact that all kinds of requests are being made on an island literally in the middle of nowhere – the nearest large city is at least eight hours away by boat – makes this even more impressive.

On one visit, I asked for breakfast to be served on the beach. Without hesitation, a full American breakfast was flawlessly prepared and set up, and a toaster was even waiting for us at the shore. On another visit, my husband decided he wanted to have a haircut right on the verandah of our casita. Within an hour, a lady with a pair of shears appeared on our doorstep. On our most recent trip, we had no challenging request in particular; but we noticed how unobtrusively but completely the needs of guests were taken care of.

For instance, at any time of the day, our golf cart was always replenished with bottles of cold water. And whenever we headed down to the beach, we always found our beach umbrella open, with fresh towels and insect lotion waiting. Wherever we went on the island, as well, staff waited to greet us with smiles and cold, scented towels.

Perhaps what’s most impressive, however, is the memory of each staff member for the names and details of guests. Guests on Amanpulo do not sign any chits unless they wish to do so, and yet they are almost never asked for their names or details. We ordered what we wanted at various restaurants and then left when we pleased, without a word about orders, prices or bills. Amazingly, when we checked out at the end of our stay, all our expenses were accurately summarized.

What's the secret?

“What’s the secret?” I asked the waiter at the Windsurf Hut, where we stopped to have a margarita pizza before our flight back to Manila. There were three smiling staff and a chef on hand and we were the only customers, so we had the place to ourselves. “It’s impossible to remember everyone who comes and goes, so I can’t understand how most of the staff know who we are, when no one has asked us our names.” I already asked other staff members the same question but had failed to get a satisfactory reply.

Like everyone else I asked before him, he smiled and replied, “It’s in our training to remember.”

In turn, Amanpulo’s personalized approach is an experience guests never forget.


Pamalican Island, Philippines

Tel: (63) 2 759 4040;
Fax: (63) 2 7594044


Mailing address: PO Box 456, Pasay Tramo Post Office
Pasay City 1300, Metro Manila, Philippines

The climate is tropical with two seasons. The dry season usually runs from November to May and the wet season with scattered showers from June until October.

Amanpulo is accessed by scheduled charter flight from Manila. Guests fly directly to Pamalican Island in a 19-seat, twin-engine turboprop, landing at the resort’s private airstrip. Flight time is one hour.

Enjoy a private barbecue at Gary’s Nest. Located at the end of the pier on top of a rock, Gary's Nest is probably the most romantic place on the island for a barbecue. Guests are picked up from their casita and driven to the pier via an amazing torch-lit road. A wonderful meal, a romantic set-up with a view of the entire island, and your own chef and attendant await at the top of the stone stairs.

Sail into the sunset. Book a private sunset cruise that sails along the island’s shore and then eventually heads out into the open sea for a gorgeous sunset view. To enhance the mood further, cocktails and appetizers are served as a guitarist serenades you with romantic favorites.

Brush up on your tennis. Amanpulo has three courts (additional are opening soon) and tennis professionals on hand, ready to hit balls with you at anytime. On our last visit, three little kids were learning from the pros.

Explore the island on your golf cart. Drive around the island and enjoy getting lost, knowing it’s a small island and you’ll always somehow find your way back. Some parts look completely wild and uninhabited, with absolutely no one around.

This entry appeared in a previous issue of Travelife Magazine.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Peace in America

Gawad Kalinga founder Tony Meloto, a tireless traveler himself (but for a different reason), sends a letter from the United States.

Las Vegas, September 24

Two weeks ago I found joy in China.

I discovered that people I sadly and wrongly judged all these years were living happily with dignity, perhaps with less freedom but with less slums and beggars because they continue to learn how to care for their country and for one another. The Chinese showed me their immense capacity to be happy because of a collective perspective for family and the needy, not leaving any one behind. They are one, moving together in the same direction. This is the measure of success or progress that I must continue to learn.

In my long life, God has shown me enough proof that he blesses those who do not neglect or abandon the poor, regardless of ideology or religion. I saw this again in the United States where I am now in the way he blesses the rich who share their wealth.

This week I found not only joy but peace in America.

Filipinos in Las Vegas

I am here in Las Vegas for three days to speak about building peaceful communities in the Philippines to a group of Filipino patriots, mostly doctors, who will not simply give up on us. In their company, I found peace.

I guess I needed space away from the hostage crisis, the jueteng scandal and all that mess and some serenity in harmony after my dismay over the persecution of the poor in our villages from some leaders of the community that I love.

I found my balance on this trip in kindred spirits from the Filipino United Network (FUN) and PEACE who invited me, in their unflinching hope for our country, despite the constant negative publicity in the news, and their unwavering faith in the GK way to end poverty through justice and peace.

Both groups took the first step to peace by transcending differences and uniting for a more cohesive and effective approach to community building and good governance. Their firm resolve to rebuild the Philippines is quite impressive when one considers that they all have the option to simply live the rest of their life in comfort.

Patriots for the motherland

Again they are one Filipino in love and sacrifice for the sake of our country.

Dr Philip Chua, the founder of FUN, travels to Cebu every other month to conduct free clinics and pursue his advocacy for good governance, raising substantial funds when needed like Ondoy and the Noynoy campaign.

The same thing is true with my host and convention chairman Dr. Mike Micabalo, a hale 74 who is personally building his dream village in his hometown Oroquieta - against all odds, he claims - with unconditional support from his equally committed wife Luz who stays fashionable doing charity balls at the Strip or digging septic tanks in the barrio.

There is something about compassion with passion and all its positive energy that keeps the wrinkles away. They are never too busy, or too tired or too far to help or to give.

Dr. Rina Galvez jetted in from Chicago to find support for the clinic she is building in the two lots she donated in Caloocan City where one GK village has already been built and another one with 40 homes being constructed with funds from popular TV personalities Julius and Tintin Babao.

These patriots are like pit-bulls that won't let go once they bite on a cause that captures their heart.

They want to help us build more homes for the homeless when their own properties here have dropped significantly in value due to the sub-prime fiasco in America.

They want to build more water systems for the thirsty in our country( 500 wells by PEACE to-date, based on the latest report by foundation president Dr. Dan Santos) when some of their own wells have gone dry with the fall in income and the long dry spell in the economy.

They want to do more medical missions in our remote towns and poorer provinces when the state of health care in America is uncertain, affecting those who still practice. This is really thinking beyond self-interest and doing authentic mission to do good rather than just find a noble excuse to play golf. In truth, many may have started out this way only to discover the greater joy in healing than teeing off, especially when there is no financial payback and the income is mostly psychic and a first class ticket to heaven.

Peace at a time of uncertainty

They have discovered peace at a time of uncertainty by being certain about the things that really matter in this life.

They have simplified their once lavish lifestyle, something which was justifiably claimed as a prize before for all the hard work on their road to success. Now they have less extravagant balls and gowns in order for them to clothe the naked; and less wasteful consumption to feed the hungry. They are, happily for us and for them, on their path to greatness.

A moving force in PEACE and FUN, Dr Sarie Laserna, who does not take no for an answer when she invites which brought me this time to Las Vegas post haste, showed me her unadorned wrists as she proudly proclaimed "look Tony no blings for me and my friends so we can send more Kalinga scholars from public schools to college." Together with determined cohorts from FUN, Fe Cacdac and Aly Ragasa, they hounded fellow doctors, family and friends to fund 76 homes and part of the 4 floor multipurpose building in Taguig. Hopefully, Tiffanys and Cartier will not hunt them down for being bad for their business.

Hope for the Philippines

Hope for the Philippines is high as passion for our country grows. The Philippine-building bug is spreading across America, across generations, changing mind-sets and lifestyles. Dreaming for our people is serving as a counter flow to currents of cynicism and a prop to sagging spirits as Fil-Ams wake up to the harsh realities of the American dream after 9/11, Iraq and the recession. Asians who came to America to find hope are now giving hope to America being the sector with the highest average household income -and Filipino doctors count among its top tax payers. Those who came from the east as job-seekers are now the job-givers of the west, like Boy Abay who founded the Kansas Spine Hospital in Wichita and Primo Andres who owns the Heart Center in Terra Haute, Indiana. I guess this is how the cookie crumbles or maybe just how the world turns. Some may call this social justice in the order of things where all God's children are equal in worth and value and must be provided equal opportunity for a life of dignity anywhere in the planet.

This is the source of my peace.

I am certain that poverty in our beloved land will end when we stop fighting one another and start to care and share because the squatters in the slums of Manila are made of the same cultural DNA and designed by the same wonderful God as the most successful Filipinos abroad.

Filipinos in America
use their fortunes to help those back home

If Filipinos can turn around their fortune in America they can also turn around the lives of the less fortunate in the Philippines by helping us create and spread wealth out of a sense of fairness to benefit all.

Social justice is the missing platform for prosperity and lasting peace in our country.
This is what we are fighting for - an even playing field where the genius of the poor can be unlocked and their potential for excellence can be nurtured to prosper a nation.

This is our field of dreams, the 2000 GK villages that are rising and many more intentional communities that will stand because we care.

This is what attracts top corporations, foreign universities and Fil-Ams to Gawad Kalinga -- our effort to create a massive nationwide network of empowered communities for productivity, wealth creation and good citizenship similar to the communes of China and the kibbutz of Israel - built on our values and aspirations as a nation.

"Just build with courage and integrity..."

This is how the game of nation-building has played out for us -- just build with courage and integrity and they will come.

As I look from this hillside veranda of my host at the breathtaking view of the bright lights of the Las Vegas skyline under a full moon and the cool breeze of an autumn night, I see clearly with my heart a vision of my country emerging from the darkness of poverty and corruption, of dredged rivers and re-forested mountains, of transformed slums and abundant fields. I see the best Filipinos caring for the least, the strong hand-holding the weak and the corrupt buried in the fields. The corrupt will die and corruption will end soon if we decide now not to breed new ones. All evil will pass if we decide to have less for ourselves and simply do more good to others.

I know our time to shine is now. I can feel the expectant mood even here in America.

My new President, elected in the most honest and peaceful election in memory, is in New York in his first appearance on the global stage as head of state. He carries with him an 88 percent trust rating from his people, which is his highest credential to attract visitors and investors to our shores.

For country and honor, Filipinos in America know that this is not a moment to be wasted and an opportunity to be squandered. They also want a President with a clean slate like PNoy. They know he is untried in the old dirty tricks of politics, raw to stale ideas that did not work for us, and inexperienced in cheating because he never had a wife.

America is fascinated and curious about PNoy because he just might be the game-changer that the Philippines needs.

What we can do in our own ways

Wherever I go they ask me what we can do to help him. Frankly I don't know where to begin. I just keep reminding myself and my audience who care to listen that to have a great President we must all strive to be great citizens ourselves, that lasting and effective change must always begin with us first.

*Let's keep him honest by being honest ourselves. Not bribing the MMDA, not smuggling at customs, paying the right taxes, using the right scales and not cheating the wife. For religious leaders, by being faithful to Christ and not depriving the poor with the tithes.

*Let's help him succeed with action and inspiration, not with cynicism and incessant criticism. Monitor the behavior of our government officials, report DPWH projects that are overpriced, teach patriotic education in the classroom, preach the practice of social justice and good citizenship in the pulpit, constantly honor what is good in our country.

*Let's boost the local economy by starting Filipino businesses and patronizing brands that help the poor and protect the environment.

*Let's pray for the President's protection and those who are honest around him because dismantling vested interests and institutionalized corrupt practices is a serious and dangerous game.

*Let peace in our country begin with me.

Tonight at the dinner of FUN, I was enthralled together with the crowd listening to the young Comelec Commissioner who fought for automation and made it work, giving ourpPresident an overwhelming mandate without doubt or question in the fastest and most credible election known to many of us. Atty Gregorio Larrazabal is in Vegas as a bike enthusiast, a friend who donated his prized bike for auction at the GK Hope Ball on October 8 at the Manila Pen. He is serving out the term of controversial former Commissioner Garcillano. From Garci to Larrzi -- what a contrast. What is the point here? Miracles do happen, we can have honest election and an honest government - hope is definitely in the air. (Thanks Louie for looking after our new hero and for being a hero yourself for keeping the faith).

Tomorrow, I fly back to Manila as the President meets with West Coast eager supporters in San Jose, California. A thick crowd of new generation Filipino Americans organized by San Diego resident Marcel Ocampo and GK USA Chairman Tony Olaes will be there at the "we are one Filipino" rally to claim their heritage, reconnect with their roots and express solidarity with a new leader that will make being Filipino a brand of honor anywhere in the world.

The new generation is finally coming to terms with the amazing reality that being Filipino in America is beautiful. And that they also have a beautiful home and career and investment opportunities in Asia.

This is also their moment to send a profound message of peace to the rest of America: Filipinos will continue to create wealth and jobs and help ease recession in America. Filipinos can be strong and happy in America if they are one. They can help bring peace and prosperity to the Philippines if they are one.

With these thoughts, I went back to my room to sleep in peace, eager to fly home to be with my family that I miss in the country that I love.


RP's top chefs are in the kitchen for the Blacktie Event of the Year

Menu for the Gawad Kalinga Hope Ball
organized by the Peninsula Manila,
TRAVELIFE Magazine and Rustan's Corporation

in cooperation with Mercedes-Benz, Weber Shandwick
and Crown Fine Arts

Five of the most prominent chefs in the Philippines have agreed to don their aprons and cook one course each for the five-course dinner to be served at the Gawad Kalinga (GK) Hope Ball on October 8, 2010. This black-tie ball will be the most talked-about event of the year.

Cocktails and Philippine appetizers
to be followed by dinner.


by Chef Claude Tayag
Sautéed fresh vegetables topped with crisp wonton
and prawn, sweet mango, garlic-soya sauce

Montes Classic Series, Chardonnay 2009

by Chef Glenda Barretto
Chicken soup in light custard with ginger and lemongrass

by Chef Myrna Segismundo

Seared tuna kinilaw with scallops, tomatoes, oranges and coriander,
and laced with warm coconut cream

Montes Classic Series, Chardonnay 2009

by Chef Jessie Sincioco
Frozen kamias fruit and sugarcane on a stick

by Chef Freddy Schmidt
Grilled beef tenderloin, crispy onion, and sweet mashed potato
in a soy-calamansi Sauce

Montes Classic Series, Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

by Chef Jessie Sincioco

Iced halo-halo parfait

Montes Classic Series, Late Harvest Gewurztraminer Riesling 08

Fresh ginger tea infused with lemongrass


Wines provided by Philippine Wine Merchants


Seasoned restaurateur, chef and proprietor of Philippine cuisine. Glenda Barretto is a well-known force behind Via Mare restaurant, which has been a showcase of her pioneering innovations to Philippine cuisine.

Freddy Schmidt introduces a unique international culinary expertise to The Peninsula Manila and their sophisticated diners. His substantial experience in designing creative, exciting and innovative menus escalate the hotel to a whole new level.

Myrna Segismundo is one of the most valuable leaders in today’s Philippine culinary industry. She attributes her success to an intelligent approach to cooking and, more importantly, to passion.

Jessie Sincioco jump-started her culinary career by winning the grand prize at the Great Maya Cookfest and became the first Filipina pastry chef. She considers her successful replication of her mother's exquisite sapin-sapin her greatest accomplishment.

Claude Tayag is an accomplished painter, sculptor, furniture designer, handy chef, and food and travel columnist. He is also well known for his passion for food that is evident in his art, writing and cooking.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Promise of a New Day -- or at least a New Body

If there was a day I so needed a massage and some TLC, it was today. So perhaps it was lady luck or my guardian angel who beckoned me to the Devarana Spa on the second floor of the Dusit Thani hotel in Makati. I'd made the booking last week, simply because I'd wanted a little taste of authentic Thai massage, not realizing I'd be needing a major "pamper me" session exactly today. Dusit's Devarana Spa, you see, has flown in from Pattaya, Thailand a special therapist to do Thai-style oriental therapies; and she is accepting bookings at the spa until the end of October.

Spas in Thailand are truly special and the techniques used set Thai massage apart from other types of Asian massage. In addition, Thai therapists have a wonderful sense of touch. It's like the Thais were born to be experts at massage therapy -- I've never had a lousy massage in Thailand, and I try to get as many as I can. Even the 200 baht massage on the streets is pretty good. And if I have a half-hour before boarding my flight at Bangkok's international airport, I'll even try and squeeze one in at the airport spa.

Knowing this, I just had to take advantage of the fact that Dusit actually has a Thai masseuse on its premises for another four weeks. Driving across Makati for an appointment, after all, is certainly more convenient (and invariably more cost-effective) than flying to Thailand!

Massage at the end of a maddening day

But today was just a jampacked day of meetings and lots of work. I was still at the office past 6 pm, when I closed my Mac and fled my desk. Breathless and rather agitated, after having already postponed my appointment for half an hour, I arrived at Dusit tonight at 630 PM, not exactly in a spa frame of mind. But the moment I entered the spa, like magic I almost felt my tension away. Decorated in white and muted earth colors, the spa reception lobby was calming, tranquil and very relaxing.

I didn't realize you had such a pretty spa here," I exclaimed to Sudaporn Prasertsang, the spa manager, who greeted me as I walked in. It was my first time at the Dusit's spa, which is rather suprising, considering I'm at this hotel at least once a week. I'm a great fan of Dusit's Benjarong restaurant, you see, and so I come as often as my schedule permits for my standard green chicken curry, grilled pork neck, pad thai noodles, and bagoong rice -- and Thai halo-halo. In fact, I'm such a regular here that most of the restaurant staff know what I order and don't even give me the menu anymore. (Another Benjarong regular is former Thai country manager Nivat Chantarachoti who, unfortunately, is leaving Manila to take up a new post in Zurich, Switzerland.)

Anyway, little did I know that all these times I've trooped to Dusit's Benjarong, an oasis of bliss was just one floor above.

90 minutes of Eastern Promise Therapy

I tried the Eastern Promise Therapy (PhP 3800++ for 90 minutes), which is supposedly the specialty of Dusit's visiting masseuse, Apinya Buajapoh, and booked a deluxe corner suite with a steam shower and an outdoor shower plus a large massage area, for my treatment. The Eastern Promise Therapy is a 90-minute treatment that involves stretching based on yoga principles, followed by a hot ginger compress on the small of the back, and then a Kati Vasti (a special ayurvedic treatment for lower backache that involves pouring an ayurvedic oil on the lower back area) was done.

The stretching was especially welcome as it's done well so rarely by local therapists. The Thai style of stretching, which is done in spas all over Thailand, use of hands and feet in a way that really addresses the pressure points. You're stretched to just below the point of pain and discomfort, and the result is complete relaxation afterwards. Meanwhile, the ginger compress was hot and almost itchy at the beginning, but it worked so well in relaxing all the stress in my back. The heat helped to promote circulation and the warm feeling stayed on long after the compress had been taken away.

Similar to Japanese shiatsu

Then the treatment ended with a full dry pressure point massage similar to the Japanese shiatsu, and concentrating on the spine. According to Apinya, applying pressure on the key points along the spine helps to relieve tension and muscle stiffness, while balancing energy and improving circulation.

Balancing energy is a principle often heard in health spas in Asia. Practioners of Oriental medicine believe that illness is caused by unbalanced energy within the body that must be realigned for healing and optimum health. When energy pathways are blocked, sickness starts to form in some part of the body. Apart from relaxation, this is one of the reasons for massage therapy. Bold
Needless to say, I felt so much better after my extremely stressful day. "You've got very tight shoulders," Apinya said to me. "You should come back for at least one more treatment before I leave."

If I had the time (and the budget!), I'd probably be back at least once every week -- preferably before or after my weekly meal at Benjarong.

If you've never had a proper Thai massage,
this is your chance to try it.

Apinya is only in Manila until the end of October
so book your authentic Thai massage treatments now!

About Devarana Spa

Devarana is actually pronounced as Te-wa-run. It comes from Thai-Sanskrit, meaning "garden in heaven." Founded in Bangkok in 2000 as part of the Dusit Group and the recipient of numerous spa awards, it now operates from within Dusit hotels in Bangkok, Pattaya, Hua Hin and Chiang Mai, as well as in the Philippines. Last year, it also opened a stand-alone spa in Florence, Italy.

* * * *

My favorite massage experiences in Thailand
Chiva-Som International Health Resort in Hua Hin
Peninsula Spa at Peninsula Bangkok
Devarana Spa at Dusit Thani Bangkok and Pattaya


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dutch Treat

Tonight I spent a very pleasant evening at the beautiful Ramon Antonio-designed home of Ambassador Robert Brinks of the Netherlands. The occasion was a dinner for 16 friends which, as he himself said at the start of the meal, was not a celebration of any sort but to just get some friends together.

The artwork

Ambassador Brinks' home is full of quirky, modern artwork that really catch the eye. Much of it is from the Netherlands, of course, but he also has on display some beautiful things picked up from various postings and his travels. My favorites include a couple of bird figurines -- the ambassador is an avid bird watcher -- and a large statue of a cow in the garden. I also like the lithograph of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in the foyer, and the very long row of KLM dutch houses all along his dining room sideboard. I thought I had a lot of KLM houses, since I have a collection of about 18 - 20 houses; but there must have been over 40 houses running the length of the sideboard!

KLM's lovely Delft houses

In case you're wondering how one gets these beautiful blue-and-white Delft houses that are actually mini-containers for liquor, you get a choice of one each time you fly business class on KLM long-haul, such as between Asia and Europe. In the beginning, I used to not pay attention to these little giveaways at the end of the flight; and I was always amazed seeing other passengers take out lists of numbers from their wallets when the stewardesses started coming around with trays of these KLM houses.

Why would anyone take a collection of little porcelain houses so seriously? I always said to myself.

"I'd like # 27," one passenger would say, while another would request: "# 16 please." If told that #16 was not available on this flight, for example, the passenger would consult his list again and say something like: "Then I think I'll have #22 or 34 instead."

KLM houses on the bathroom wall

These numbers corresponded to the different styles of KLM houses -- and I believe there are now something like 90 different styles. And lots of frequent fliers just love collecting these KLM houses and trying to get as many styles as possible. They don't want to have doubles of the same style so they keep a list of the style numbers they have or the ones they want.

On TV in Amsterdam one day, I just happened to see a feature about a guy who had about 50 KLM houses, and he plastered them all onto the wall of his bathroom so that only the facade showed -- resulting in a cute mural of blue and white houses on his bathroom wall!

Later on, the KLM house collecting bug bit me too, and now I too have my own wishlist of KLM houses to request on my next flight with them. I also regret having given away a couple of houses at the beginning when I just couldn't be bothered to collect these. If I hadn't given these away, I would probably have about 25 by now!

The menu

At Ambassador Brinks' home, the meal began with a very nice salad topped with crispy shrimp and a thick aubergine soup, followed by roast beef with vegetable sidings and a potato galette. Dessert was an assortment of cut-up fruit in a chocolate cup topped with cream and a passion fruit sauce. It was all very delicious and so professionally presented that we asked the ambassador if he had had the meal catered.

"Of course not," he replied, always the straight-talker. "My cook made everything. If I were going to have this catered, I would have invited you all to a hotel instead."

The conversation at dinner

We had a lot of interesting exchanges over dinner. We talked about the sad state of our denuded mountains, the way the Dutch are coping with ever-rising water levels, and how the structure of the European Union is changing signficantly. I was seated to the left of the ambassador, and diagonally across the Singaporean ambassador, who spoke about the impressive economic performance of Singapore in the first half of the year. To my left was the country representative of the World Bank, who is also from the Netherlands.

I was happy to note from the two gentlemen on either side of me that they had so far very good experiences and positive impressions of the new government of President Aquino, from their dealings with him and his officials. They both believed that this government is pro-active and ready to listen.

Teddy bear at dinner

But perhaps the most interesting encounter came at the start of the evening, when, after cocktails on the terrace, we had moved inside to take our seats at the long table and start on our appetizers. One seat was empty and, at the suggestion of one of the guests, the ambassador placed a little teddybear by the plate.

"This is for the superstitious who believe we shouldn't have an empty place at a dinner table," he said, with a twinkle in his eye.

We were then just starting to eat when a lady came rushing in, all apologetic and quite agitated.

"I hope I'm not too late," she said, after some profuse apologies. "Traffic was awful, and on the way here, you'll never believe what happened..."

Same street, wrong house

It turns out she'd gotten down at the residence of the Italian Ambassador a few houses down on the same street, and even got as far as the dining room where there were about eight people ready to eat as well. It was only then that she realized she'd entered the wrong ambassador's residence and quickly made a beeline for the exit.

I laughed so much when I heard this, imagining the surprised looks of Italian Ambassador Fornari and his charming wife Silvana, upon seeing their unexpected guest walk confidently into their carpet-strewn living room. I also could imagine how easily this could have happened as I'd also passed the Italian residence earlier that evening and it was indeed all lit up for the arrival of guests. It would be so easy to assume that this house ablaze with lights on an otherwise darkened street was the Dutch ambassador's residence.

"It could have happened to anyone," said one of the other guests.

"And especially in Manila, where there are a handful of parties on any street in Dasma or Forbes on any given night," I added.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Tokyo's great little restaurants

Yesterday was a holiday in Tokyo so we spent the day walking from our home to Yoyogi Park, Tokyo's equivalent of Central Park. Before going to the park, we planned to have lunch around the Omotesando area, which is a pleasant stroll away.

Omotesando, which is perhaps the most European-looking district of Tokyo (the main drag, Omotesando Avenue, is even referred to as Tokyo's Champs Elysees), is home to lots of great Italian and French restaurants, as well as good sushi shops and the famous tonkatsu restaurant Maizen, which many Filipinos visit when they come to Tokyo.

Japan is literally awash with very good French and Italian restaurants -- many of them run by Japanese chefs who trained in Europe. Almost every neighborhood will have a decent place with an authentic atmosphere. People have attributed this to the single-mindedness of the Japanese. When a Japanese decides to become a French chef or a sommelier, for instance, he will study with such zeal -- and oftentimes at quite a big expense for schooling -- that he will beat the locals at their own game.

Kurobuta at Maizen

Meanwhile, regarding Maizen, Tokyo's famous tonkatsu restaurant. It's not at the very top of my tonkatsu list, but it'd definitely be among the top 5. And it's probably the best-known and also the most foreigner-friendly.

If you're planning a trip to Tokyo, you must have the kurobuta tonkatsu teishoku (black pig tonkatsu set) at Maizen, which comes with its own home-made tonkatsu sauce made from grated apples and worcestershire sauce, giving it a spicy-sweet thick sensation.

I myself always bring friends and acquaintances from Manila here, and everyone is always delighted with the place. Come early or late to avoid the long lines and crowds. When I eat here, I go at 1130 AM so I can get a parking slot and a table right away.

Great curry for $12

Back to my story about Tokyo's great little restaurants. On the way to Omotesando, we passed by our neighborhood shop district (called shotengai in Japanese) and were very surprised to see so many quaint and interesting new restaurants and bars. This was always a rather quiet street with nothing much save for a fish shop, a tailor, a dry cleaning shop, and a couple of soba restaurants. But it never really mattered as everything else was just a few minutes away by car or train.

We're quite spoiled, living in central Tokyo where some of the world's best restaurants are all nearby -- Tokyo, after all, has the most number of Michelin starred-restaurants in the world. But we never had a whole lot of choices as far as our shotengai down the hill was concerned.

Well, apparently this has all changed in the past 12 months or so. It seems our little shotengai -- perhaps because of its convenient location -- has become quite fashionable. Every other house or building is now a little bar or restaurant, oftentimes run by an entrepreneur-couple or an ambitious young guy by himself.

And, just in case you're put off by the idea of a tiny restaurant, let me tell you that some of Tokyo's best restaurants are tiny and nondescript, but absolute jewels. They're not on the Michelin map but they're fabulous all the same -- and probably reasonably priced, too, since they're not so famous.

Sukiyabashi Jiro:
The world's most low-key three-star Michelin restaurant

Tokyo's small restaurant scene is really among the world's best. Look at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the three-star Michelin sushi shop that is supposed to serve the best sushi in the world. It's not a fancy place and it's so small and nondescript that you'd probably pass it by without even imagining for a second that world-class culinary wonders could be inside.

(Read more about Sukiyabashi Jiro in an article by Jerome Velasco in the Aug-Sep 2010 issue of Travelife Magazine. Still on sale everywhere now)

Well, in my shotengai, we don't have a Sukiyabashi Jiro, but we have discovered some pretty good and extremely reasonable small places that have recently opened for business.

After seeing so many stores close in the past few years due to Japan's record-breaking (not to mention bank account-breaking) recession, it's really nice to finally see some signs of life in this city again, and to see some brave entrepreneurs setting up shop in what is probably the toughest and most competitive environment in the world.

Curry at a counter at Taka's

Lunch yesterday was at a casual French restaurant called Taka (named after the owner-chef, I guess) with a stylish dark interior and a main dining area consisting of about 10 stools around a counter.

We decided to go in after looking at the menu and liking it: only French-style curry (at least that's what it said) was served at lunch, and it came with sizable salad (by Tokyo standards) and a drink for US$12. The price certainly wasn't bad.

And when we finally got out curries, we were happily surprised to find they were very good. Choice cuts of grilled chicken, with the skin charred just right, were placed on a bed of rice and spicy fried onion rings were scattered all around. On the side came a serving of spicy curry sauce to eat as we wished.

The meal was so satisfactory for this price that we asked to see the dinner menu. It was an entirely different assortment of Western food with a French touch, but still all within $12 an entree. Considering tip is not accepted in Japan, so you pay only as is, the meal would certainly come out cheap compared to London, New York, Paris or even Hong Kong standards.

And perhaps the most surprising thing was the number of people working behind the counter.

The restaurant sat about 7 at the counter and there were a few tables at the back, but there were 6 people working at the restaurant. No matter which way I did the numbers, a small restaurant like that with so many staff would certainly find it challenging to turn a profit.

"I hope this restaurant survives," I said. Fortunately, in the short time I was there, a lot of people came and went for curry lunch. The counters were especially popular with people dining solo, surfing on their mobile phones or reading a magazine as they ate.

A small restaurant called Petit Bateau

At the other end of the spectrum, and only a few doors down, is another small and new restaurant called Petit Bateau, run singlehandedly by a young guy who cooked, cleaned and served. This restaurant was actually at another location, where it had gained a good reputation for decent French food at equally decent prices; and I'd actually eaten there a few times.

Well, last month in Tokyo again, my friend Keiko persuaded me to have dinner with her here, as she'd heard about it from a friend. "It's just down the hill from your house, anyway," she said to me. "And it's so hard to get a reservation here because it's got so few seats. But there was a cancelation so I got us two seats at the counter."

Gamely, I agreed to meet her at the restaurant at 7 pm.

It looked promising and the guy struck me as friendly enough. We were the first ones there and we excitedly looked over the menu, handwritten on a blackboard. "Set Menu for dinner -- pls inquire about the day's offerings," it said at the top in Japanese.

When I go to a restaurant in Tokyo for the first time, I usually like to take the set menu because it's usually good and also great value, especially when I don't know what's good to eat at the place. Keiko was leaning towards the set menu as well.

"What's the set menu like?" Keiko asked the chef.

"It's for people who can't make up their minds about what to eat. I don't usually recommend it," he practically growled at her, as if he was angry she had even asked.

Well, we were very shocked by such a response, especially in service-oriented Japan. Also, the sign on his menu encouraged diners to inquire about the menu, which is what he did.

That sort of set the tone for the evening. Dinner may have been good, but it was tainted as far as I was concerned.

Because he was singlehandedly running the restaurant, an multi-course meal took an incredibly long time and service was almost non-existent. And when the bill came, I found it neither expensive nor cheap. Nevertheless, I continue to hear good things about it and it's still always full -- so perhaps we'd just gone on a bad night.

Great sushi for $50

Interestingly, the chef's brother-in-law runs a fabulous little sushi shop just across the road. I tried it for the first time last night.

It had a wonderful atmosphere and incredible sushi at quite good prices for Tokyo. We'd eaten a lot and paid about $50 per person, which is very cheap for good sushi in central Tokyo.

And elsewhere along this road in Shibuya Ward are dozens of quaint places just waiting to be tried on my next visit to Tokyo.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Thirst among equals

Clifford Lichayto of Bacchus Epicerie reveals why Cognac is the real men’s drink

You haven’t really experienced drinking if you haven’t tasted cognac. For cognac takes drinking to a whole new level. Cognac is perhaps the ne plus ultra of liquors, when it comes to drinking with men.

For truly any company of heroes—and their varied experiences—deserves a drink that matches the nuanced boldness, cleverness, and gutsiness of their day-to-day actions, whether that be closing billion-dollar deals or, well, burping the baby.

I digress. There is rarity in this drink, and cognac exudes the image of exclusivity, tracing its history as the drink of royalty and members of the aristocracy. For again, any band of brothers is a restricted order, like cognac: known by many, admitting only the few.

Cognac requires aging to fully reveal its flavor, precisely as time weathers friendships among any league of extraordinary gentlemen, deepening it and adding nuance upon nuance. Speaking of which, there are many ways to enjoy the cognac. Some prefer it with lemon, just as others enjoy it with strong, black coffee, or dark chocolate. Then there is that largely male domain where cognac accompanies a full-bodied cigar; a maduro torpedo, perhaps, and a habana at that. In any case the rule of thumb is that neither must overpower each other, as in friendships among comrades-in-arms.

The Tesseron family is one of the world’s most notable cognac makers; their tradition of cognac ageing began in 1905 in the Cognac region, north of Bordeaux. Brothers Alfred and Gerard Tesseron have created a unique collection called XO—for ‘extremely old’—signifying the best selection in their cellars. It is a point of pride that Bacchus Epicerie houses rare Cognac Tesseron Lot N°29 Exception. This jewel of the Tesseron collection boasts of a unique blend of the legendary Grande Champagne, the cream of the rarest stock aged for at least three generations. Its floral bouquet is infused with chocolate and mocha notes. With its elegance and exclusivity, the Cognac Tesseron Lot N°29 Exception is the night capper.

The beautiful Cognac region of France

A typical vineyard scene in Cognac

Other Tesseron classics:

Lot N°90 XO Selection

Its unique character comes from long ageing in oak barrels, adding richness and complexity, revealing fresh pear and quince notes that open to herbaceous elements, dried fruits, and nuts with almond hints.

Lot N° 76 XO Tradition

Matured to perfection in old casks, this selection exhibits a mixture of caramelized peaches, almond, and candied fruit aromas. It assaults the taste buds with its spicy vitality. Best paired with chocolate, nut based pudding, and apple crumble.

Lot N° 53 XO Perfection

Topaz in color with an abundance of plums, figs, and chocolate on the palate, this drink has a heavy aromatic tang and an overpowering taste of long wood ageing. This appetizing selection reveals a peppery and spicy taste followed by dark chocolate and fresh herbs.

Lot N° 29 XO Exception

The XO collection’s crown jewel is perhaps the most fantastic distilled alcohol on earth. Offering nothing but richness and warmth, it has the qualities of an elixir: pure and simple. Supremely elegant in taste, Lot 29 is made from Ugni Blanc, Folle Blance and Colombard Grapes, and aged for more than three generations in Limousin oak casks.

This appears in the August-September 2010 issue of
Travelife Magazine.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Taipei: old-fashioned charm and modern glitz

Hello from the sub-tropical island of Taiwan. I landed in Taipei yesterday, to a rather strong downpour and lots of Friday night traffic. Fortunately today is clear and sunny (but as hot as Manila!) and I spent the morning touring the construction site of Taiwan's upcoming flower expo and then lunching on pasta with a seafood cream sauce at The Film Institute, a film venue with a nice Western-style cafe in what was once the former US ambassador's residence, in a posh part of town.

It's a lovely old villa with a decent garden and a circular driveway on a wide boulevard with both luxury retailers and small boutiques. I can imagine what a pleasure it must have been to live here once upon a time when it was just a graceful avenue without the retailers. More on that later.

Eva Air's Premium Economy to Taipei

Since it's a long weekend, I decided to join a group organized by Chal Lontoc-Del Rosario of Jeron Travel for a quick sightseeing trip to Taiwan. On the way over here on Eva Air -- a pretty comfortable flight with Premium Economy, an upgraded sort of economy class with more legroom and comfortable chairs right up at the front of the jet, where First or Business would usually do; it's slightly higher in cost than regular economy at the back, but it's great value as it's almost like Business Class without the food -- I was reminiscing about my last trip to Taipei. This was ages ago when Taipei was merely a backwater of a city and I spent three weeks living with a family in an old-fashioned apartment in the city center, while working for AIESEC International as officer for the region and operating out of the AIESEC Taiwan national office.

At that time, English was almost nonexistent but the older generations knew enough Japanese to get by (because of the Japanese occupation and the subsequently close ties between Japan and Taiwan), so I subsisted for three weeks communicating with my host family on Japanese. Again, because of the language barrier, then I ended up hooking up with a bunch of Japanese students studying at Taiwan National University (affectionately called Taita by everyone) and going all over the city on motorbikes with them.

Japanese influence in Tokyo

The Japanese feeling in Taiwan is still very prevalent. As I drove into the city, I couldn't help noticing the amazing number of Japanese shops, restaurants and businesses -- so much so that some parts of Taipei looked more like suburbs of Nagoya to me. They had all the major Japanese chains and practically every other restaurant in the commercial district was Japanese.

Just before dinner I stopped at Taipei 101, the now iconic bamboo-inspired skyscraper in the city that stands out and is visible from almost everywhere in central Taipei. It's a spankingly modern shopping mall and business center that is also home to many international luxury brands. Again, it was just full of Japanese businesses and products! I walked around the food basement looking for something local to try, and all I could find were sushi, shabu-shabu, teppanyaki and even Mos Burger, one of the best hamburger chains in Japan. Of course there were also some Chinese food stalls, but the Japanese food stalls certainly seemed more popular with the locals.

Taiwan's famous pineapple cake

It was here at Taipei 101 that I also tried Taiwan's famous pineapple cake, which our guide had urged that we try from the outset. "What's there to buy in Taiwan?" I asked our guide, as we drove into the city from the airport. Without any hesitation, she mentioned pineapple cake.

It's supposed to be among Taiwan's most famous souvenir products and very good. I didn't really like the pineapple cake that I tasted at a cake store in Taipei 101, which had a medicinal and very sweet filling that didn't at all seem like pineapple to me. But this morning, our guide brought a sample of another pineapple cake -- "this is the best in Taipei," she said -- and it was good, crusty and not very sweet. So I'm thinking of buying from her instead.

Dinner at Din Tai Fung

For dinner, we went to Taiwan's most famous dumpling shop, Din Tai Fung, which was awarded one star by the Guide Michelin this year. Din Tai Fung now has branches all over Taiwan and also all over Asia (except Philippines), but we went to the original shop somewhere in a busy section of Taipei. This original Din Tai Fung was a hole-in-the-wall with the typical Chinese shophouse layout: cashier and packing on the ground floor and tables for diners on the upper floors. Apparently it gets really crowded at around 6 pm as Taiwanese line up for their version of comfort food. But when we finally got to the restaurant, it was past 9 pm so we only had to wait a few minutes to get a table. It was cramped but clean and the dumplings were good -- especially as we were very hungry.

Since Din Tai Fung had received so many awards and recognition, I was expecting to be blown over. But while Din Tai Fung was very good, I wouldn't call it fantastic. However, the prices are very reasonable and it's an authentic dimsum joint, so I'd say it provided excellent value. I'd certainly go back there again. The best dishes on the menu were the garlic spinach, the spicy cucumbers and the Shanghai-style dimsum. The fried rice with seafood too was excellent.

An old-fashioned Chinese city with a modern bent

It was very nice to be back in Taipei after all this time, and to return to a bustling and vibrant metropolis that is cleaner and more orderly than Manila, but still as interesting and authentic as an old-fashioned Chinese city. I love Taipei's wide avenues, many of which have trees lining both sides or right in the island in the middle. It gives the city an old-town feel even if it's actually a bustling metropolis with lots of construction going on, just like most other Asian cities. The old-fashioned feel is very important as this enables Taipei to avoid the nameless or colorless modern city feeling of other Chinese cities found on the mainland. It's also very safe -- or at least much safer than Manila.

"We have little crime here," said our guide, Angela. "Taiwanese people are very nice and helpful, in general. Also, the standard of living is quite high for most people, so there is little reason to resort to crime."

Din Tai Fung
No. 194, Sec. 2, Xinyi Road
Da-an District, Taipei
Tel. 02-2321-8928

The Film Institute
No. 18, Sec. 2 Zhongshan North Road, Taipei
Tel. 02-2511-7786