Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Salmon, oysters, and a fantastic sacher torte

I'm out about 350 nights of the year and -- as long as I'm in Manila -- at the office by mid-morning at the latest; so I usually prefer to work through lunch to get my mountainload of work done. The only lunches I actually attend are working events or lunches with business contacts rather than friends.


Today, however, I made an exception because we're waiting for our new Oct-Nov issue (on sale from October 15) to be delivered and so things are pretty slow compared to my usual fast-paced days.

At noon I closed my computer and headed to the Tivoli restaurant of the Mandarin Oriental, to have a catch-up lunch with Charisse Chuidian, grand dame of Manila's formidable PR ladies and also grande dame of the Mandarin Oriental. The last time we'd actually sat down and had a proper conversation over a delicious meal was some months back, when I attended a French cooking class at the Tivoli on a Saturday and we'd had a long and delicious lunch full of laughter (and full of foie gras!) after our three-hour cooking lesson. So a catch-up was long overdue.


When I arrived, Anna, the manager at Tivoli, greeted me and showed me their lunch menu. They had very reasonable two-course and three-course business lunches which included an appetizer buffet, a main course, and a wonderful dessert for the three-course lunch. Then she showed me the buffet selection and everything was incredibly tempting. I was heaping my plate with oysters, jamon serrano, and some interesting-looking maki, when she asked me: "Would you like a cesar's salad as well? I can put slices of jamon on top of the salad for you."

Tivoli has always been famous for its cesar's salad, so of course I said yes. Never mind the calories and the fact that I was having tea at the Austrian ambassador's house immediately afterwards, and then cocktails at the Spanish ambassador's house for their National Day celebrations.


The oysters were so fresh and simply delicious. And I really liked the idea of a tastefully done and calm appetizer buffet instead of one of those set-ups groaning with so much food that you don't know where to start. Then I tried one of the two Japanese maki (rice rolls) I'd taken, and they were so good that I'd barely eaten them both when I asked a passing waiter to bring another plateful.
What was so good about them? Charisse wanted to know. It was the very nice combination cream cheese and salmon for a filling and bonito flakes on the sides. This was about the time that I really threw my caloric concerns to the wind.

"This can so be my new favorite lunch place," I said to Charisse, even if I rarely do lunch out on my own initiative. "The food's good, the lunch menu is certainly good value, service is great and the ambience is very nice." Tivoli used to be all prim and proper, which was also nice, but not my type. Then Chico, the new F&B director, apparently waved his magic wand through the restaurant and instantly transformed it into a more inviting place. What's so different about it? Well, for one thing, it has more color and accents now, and feels warmer and more comfortable for a nice lunch.


"I also like it because there's enough people in the room but you don't have to watch what you say," I giggled. In the short half-hour I'd been there, I saw two groups of people I knew, which made everything more familiar. But because it's quite a large restaurant, you can see the other people in the room but you don't necessarily hear anything they're saying. Lots of my other favorite restaurants are great but they're often so crammed with people I know that I have to avoid certain topics or speak in whispers so as not to be overheard. The spacing in Tivoli is just right for me.
For the main course, I asked Anna which she'd recommend. I was torn between the leg of lamb and the salmon, cut into fillet slices from a whole roast. But she gave me a big smile and said without hesitation: "The salmon is my favorite." So salmon it was.

And fortunately, Charisse gave me a few slices of her order of leg of lamb as well, so I actually got to try both. It was very good, but frankly, the salmon was superb. Interestingly, it was a whole roasted salmon and it was served to me in a very interesting way: a silver carving wagon -- the type used more for roast beef, for example -- was wheeled out to the side of the table and then the chef proceeded to carve a few slices of salmon for me. Just writing about it here is making me hungry all over again.


So I was so full just with two courses, but -- as my friends very well know -- I can never turn down dessert. So we went on to have the blueberry parfait flambé. Boy, was I glad I did, because it again as just superb. Kudos to the chef.

The blueberry parfait flambé was also prepared tableside for us, and as the kirsch was being whisked in a copper pan on a stove, a gentleman walked past and sang praises about this very same dessert. When he left, Anna told me: "That gentleman actually already was on his way out after paying for lunch. But as he walked out, he saw this dessert being prepared for someone else, so he went back to his table and ordered it."

By then it was 230 pm and I was exactly due to leave the Mandarin and head over to North Forbes to the residence of Austrian Ambassador William Donko and his truly sweet and charming wife Yan for tea. We had a very nice chat about the history of Austria and Ambassador Donko was quite surprised that I could keep up the conversation on the Hapsburg dynasty. I told him: "I've actually read a great deal about the Hapsburgs -- particularly the last decades of the dynasty. And I'm truly fascinated by the story of Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elisabeth, more popularly known as Sisi."

Ambassador Donko said: "So few Filipinos really know about Austrian history." I shrugged. Of course it's so far away from us so it's not surprising. But I just happened to spend a lot of time in Vienna and I took home lots of history books for private study afterwards.

Madame Donko had an authentic sacher torte and apple strudel prepared as well. She said: "You must try this. It was baked just this morning so it's very fresh." It truly looked delicious.

Ambassador Donko added: "Many people order sacher torte from around the world and many famous cakeshops in Vienna send it abroad. But frankly, the best sacher torte is the freshly made one." He was also very proud of his version of it, made by his personal cook of many years. He told me: "I daresay it's almost as good as the sacher torte in Demel's (which is my favorite Viennese pastry shop); and I'm confident that it's the best sacher torte in Manila."

We could have talked for a very long time because we were just getting started discussing the fate of the Emperor Maximillian of Mexico, who was the brother of Emperor Franz Joseph, and the Archduchess Sophie, who was mother to both of them. But the three of us were due at the Spanish ambassador's residence a few blocks away for a cocktail party to celebrate the Spanish National Day, and I still had to get home and dress up.

"See you in a few minutes," Ambassador Donko said to me, while Madame Donko pressed a bottle of Austrian wine into my hands. We'd been talking about the wonderful new red wine you can get at the wine taverns in the upmarket district of Grinzing, which is halfway between Vienna proper and the Vienna woods. I'd attended a party there once with former Ambassador to Austria Victor Garcia and his wife Connie, and a dinner of cold cuts and fresh red wine harvested that same year -- yes, I can almost hear the wine snobs saying something about this -- in one of these historical taverns is a Viennese experience you just can't miss.

Just another day in our never-ending, and never-endingly eventful, Travelife.


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