Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Food inspired by El Bulli, Arzak and Noma at Sofitel

The Travelife Magazine and Sofitel teams
with Chef Jose Luis Gonzalez last night

Last night, the Travelife team was a guest of the dynamic and extremely likeable Sofitel management team for a private molecular gastronomy-inspired dinner. Our group of hosts was headed by general manager Goran Aleks and marketing head Chanelle Garvey, together with Christina del Carmen of Sofitel's PR office and Mari Litonjua of Fever. I'd been abroad since last week so it was my general manager Leah who coordinated the arrangements for the evening; she finalized all the plans and just reminded me to be at Sofitel's Fever Lounge by around 6 pm.


As usual, I was a little late since I was finishing up so many things in the office, including our wonderful Travelife Magazine June-July 2011 issue, which will be on sale by June 15. However, many of my staff went ahead to the dinner, so when I walked in at past 7 pm, the Sofitel and Travelife teams were all seated together in a square table at one end of Fever.

I've been to Fever several times now but only for events; so I've never seen it not crowded. So I'd never even noticed there were these two quite lovely square dining tables at the back where people can dine very stylishly. I was already envisioning hosting a gourmet dinner for 16 of my friends there.

"I didn't even know you could eat a dinner at Fever," I said to the Sofitel team, once I had made my round of greetings. Apparently, you can dine at Fever from 7 to 10 pm, and of course go on to party afterwards if you wish. Last night, for example, there was a big models' party at Fever later in the night so we started off with a very nice and intimate meal and by the time we got to dessert there was great music going and lots of things happening around. So we went seamlessly from dinner to a party.


The food at Fever is now being overseen by a very good, young Spanish chef named Jose Luis Gonzalez, who trained at many of the world's great restaurants including El Bulli, Arzak and Noma. Yes, you read right. Jose Luis did a variety of stints at these three very famous restaurants, and his longest stay was at El Bulli, which is now temporarily closed. We had a really nice chat about these three restaurants and he's going to help me craft a wonderful fine dining itinerary for my trip to Bordeaux and Spain later this year.

So we now have in Manila a chef who's actually worked in the kitchens of these world-class restaurants, and he's dishing up wonderful dishes at Sofitel's Fever. Much credit for bringing him to Manila goes to Sofitel's dynamic GM Goran Aleks who is forever thinking up of new events and projects at Sofitel. When he saw Chef Jose Luis, he immediately knew he had a winner and practically hired him on the spot. This is just one of the many new things going on at Sofitel. "I can't ever sit still," he admitted to me last night, and I have to say that I so know that feeling.


El Bulli, by the way, was named the world's best restaurant for many years in a row until it closed shop; and Noma has been named the best restaurant in the world by the San Pelligrino List for two years running now. Travelife's Contributing Editor Jerome Velasco dined at Noma late last year (he and his group are probably the only Filipinos to do so, so far), by the way, and he wrote a very inspired piece about his meal at the best restaurant in the world for the February-March 2011 issue of Travelife.

JUNE 19, 2011

Travelife Magazine just entered into a long partnership with Business Mirror yesterday, so we're going to be running our Noma story as well in the Travelife page in Business Mirror on June 19, 2011 -- so do pick up a copy of Travelife's Feb-March 2011 issue or the Business Mirror on June 19 if you'd like to read a first-hand account of Noma. A first-hand account is very rare, by the way, as a meal at Noma is fabulously expensive and reservations for one of its handful of tables is as rare as a 16th century coin.

In fact, after editing Jerome's piece on Noma a few months back, I actually went online to see how I could book a table for anytime this year. It's probably possible to get one of the tables for one of the meals for one of the days in 365 days of the year -- but when I checked what I needed to do to reserve, I basically gave up. The odds were just stacked up too high against scoring a table for any of the dates I could fly to Denmark all the way from Asia.

But, yes, Jerome, Travelife's contributing editor and fine dining columnist, traveled all the way from Manila to eat there, and he's written a piece on it which I consider among his best. Jerome himself feels his meal at Noma is one of the best he's ever eaten in a not very short lifetime of eating in the world's best restaurants.


So we have this charming and no-fuss Spanish chef in Manila with impeccable pedigree and pretty fantastic food. I especially liked his trio of appetizers, which I could have easily had several servings of, if I wasn't thinking about the five other courses down the line. These appetizers were a Parmesan mousse with Coppa ham, a caramelized melon cheese ravioli, and lobster with micro herbs and truffle vinaigrette. All three were wonderful but I have to say that the melon cheese ravioli certainly took the prize for originality and honest-to-goodness tastiness. Who would have thought that melon and cheese would go so well in a ravioli?

Caramelized melon and cheese ravioli

Lobster with micro herbs and truffle vinaigrette

STARTERS. We then had a lovely appetizer duo of sauteed shrimp coated with almonds and a foie gras cream cheese dip, followed by a poached egg with sweet mousse chorizo. The sauteed shrimp coated with foie gras was especially tasty as the tender shrimp went very well with the creamy foie gras.

Sauteed shrimp with foie gras cream cheese dip

FISH MAIN COURSE. Then just when we thought that dinner was over, it turned out that the main courses had just begun. We had a fish dish which was a big winner at our table, consisting of grilled sea bass with a tomato-olive emulsion and black olive powder. The emulsion really made this entree interesting as it provided a strange but very nice consistency to the soft seabass flesh.

Grilled seabass with tomato-olive emulsion

MEAT MAIN COURSE & DESSERT. For the meat course, we had grilled beef tenderloin with a double concentrated fungus essence. Meanwhile, dessert again was a very strange but delicious combination of pumpkin cream with beer ice cream (yes, ice cream with a beer taste), followed by a pistachio cream cappucino. Frankly, I didn't think the pumpkin cream and beer ice cream would work as neither is sweet enough for dessert -- but this dessert actually turned out to be among my favorites that night.

Pumpkin cream and beer ice cream

But perhaps what was even more interesting was the after dessert. As I mentioned earlier, there was a big party for some models at Fever and so our table just naturally got integrated into the party after we'd had dessert. We'd already said goodbye to our hosts -- but not such a serious goodbye, as we are seeing all of our Sofitel friends at the Travelife Magazine party tomorrow night, June 2 -- and I was preparing to leave and head over to Seventh Heaven to double-check on arrangements for our party.


If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I promised an account of good food and scintillating conversation last night. Well, here’s the scintillating part.

So I’ve said goodbye to my hosts and was ready to leave Sofitel for the second venue for the night when who should walk in but my old friend Z who’s regarded as one of these guys about town. He’s quite busy but he sometimes comes to events in our city and I do know that he makes not a few girls’ hearts flutter when he does make an appearance. I once was at a hotel dinner party when I overheard his name mentioned by some party girls, and there was a noticeable wave of excitement when it was found out that Z would be arriving soon. Apparently he’d texted one of the girls that he was on his way.


He’s pretty mild-mannered -- which probably adds to his charm -- but by now we’ve had enough interesting conversations for me to know there’s a lot of boyish naughtiness behind that innocent demeanor.

Well, he’d called me last week about some business so it wasn’t one of those haven’t-seen-you-in-so-long encounters last night. “You’re coming to our party on Thursday, I hope?” I asked him, the moment he sat down next to me.

He nodded and smiled. “Yeah, but I’m double-booked on Thursday,” he began. Of course he is. In this party-crazy town, who isn’t double-booked on a weekday night? Even I was double-booked on Thursday to very quickly attend the National Day celebrations of Italy and then to rush over and host my own party at the Fort.

“I really don’t care whether you’re double-booked or not on Thursday,” I retorted, but smilingly. “You’re coming to my party.”

He took out his phone to check what was the other event on Thursday. Then he showed it to me. It wasn’t Italy’s National Day, but it was something rather minor. “Goodness.” I said, after seeing what was written on his phone. “We shouldn’t even be having this conversation about whether you're coming or not.”


He smiled again. I knew he was just teasing me. Then he asked: “You’re going to have pretty girls there?” I replied: “Of course we are. I’ll make sure to introduce a couple of nice girls to you. What’s your type anyway?”

He thought for a moment. “Pretty. Sexy.”

Easy enough. Then just to tease him back, I said: “I have a question for you, though. Do they have to be smart?” This time, he didn’t even hesitate. Not even for a second. “The dumber the better,” he replied. I’ll leave you to guess whether he was joking or not.

And if you have received your invite to the Travelife Magazine party tomorrow, I hope you’re coming. Quadruple-booked or not.

Travelife's Special Summer Issue
with Angel Aquino in Boracay
Angel Aquino in Bora
for Travelife Magazine's April-May 2011 issue


Monday, May 30, 2011

A Day in a Travelife

Back in Manila, I was working all yesterday afternoon to close Travelife's June-July 2011 issue. Then at half past five, I left work to head to Forbes Park to visit Indian Ambassador and Mrs. Yogendra Kumar at their lovely and sprawling home, full of antiques and Indian accents.


Unusually in this very socially active city, where there are three or four events to go on any night, Ambassador and Madame Kumar were home for the evening and I'd gotten a call on my mobile from the Ambassador inviting to their home to discuss some possible future projects. After so much rushing around, it was so nice to visit them at home and just sit in their living room at leisure, discussing Indian culture and artists.

The icings on the cake were Madame Kumar's delicious samosas and Indian sweets. I always eat too much of these when I'm invited over, and last night, their cook had just made a fresh and piping hot batch that went beautifully with spicy yoghurt sauce. I still had a kare-kare dinner to go to last night but I ate a handful of samosas anyway and enjoyed these very much with some spicy Indian tea.

Travelife is planning another true Indian cultural event soon, and I'm personally very excited. Please keep track of our new project via this blog and our magazine.


Then this morning, we met up with the senior executives of Business Mirror bright and early to sign the partnership agreement between Business Mirror and Travelife Magazine with Ricky Alegre, Business Mirror VP of Corporate Affairs. Travelife Magazine will soon be providing world-class travel content for Business Mirror. I'm really excited about this.

Tonight, one of Manila's leading luxury hotels has invited the Travelife team for a gourmet dinner. More on what is sure to be a fabulous dinner with scintillating conversation tonight.

Travelife's Special Summer Issue
with Angel Aquino in Boracay
Angel Aquino in Bora
for Travelife Magazine's April-May 2011 issue

Travelife's June-July 2011 issue


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Pork barrels of memories

On Sunday night, for a dinner with friends, I made perhaps the best pork dish I've ever made in my life. Of course, the top quality of the ingredients had a lot to do with. In Tokyo over the weekend, I spotted a pack of special Iberico pork for sale, straight from Spain, so I bought the whole lot up and brought it back to Manila in a special chilled container.


There are only two times when I've cooked pork that I've been truly happy with the outcome. One was last Sunday and the other was during a trip to France about two years ago, when I'd made dinner for 18 friends in Paris. By some stroke of luck, I had access to a drop-dead gorgeous five-bedroom apartment in the heart of Paris for two weeks, right behind the Hotel Bristol and a block away from the French president's official residence. It was really a beautiful flat with huge bay windows that opened up to a private garden; and even now, every time I think of it, my heart skips a beat.

Anyway, a beautiful apartment in Paris filled with antiques and oozing with style is meant to be shared with friends. So I invited some friends from Manila and England to stay, so I had four house guests on that evening. I also had other friends from all over the world who were staying at nearby hotels plus a couple of Parisian friends, making the total for dinner at 18.


Cooking dinner for 18 people in a foreign country may sound daunting, but it actually wasn't. I needed little encouragement to slave over the ovens in Paris because the produce is so good and it was such fun to shop in the weekend markets and the supermarche with my friend Fides, who'd traveled from Manila to holiday with us in Paris for the second time in four months. Plus, we had a whole team of housekeepers who came every morning to ensure that the flat was spic and span the next day, no matter what mess we left it in the previous day or night.

So party away, we most certainly did. I organized long boozy Sunday lunches, buffet breakfasts and this dinner for 18. One day, the guys who were in Paris decided to have a meeting in the apartment dining room to talk about the world of international finance. Meanwhile, we girls
had decided to go across town for some bric-a-brac shopping. But before I left the apartment, I even set up an all-day dining buffet complete with wine, fresh orange juice and coffee on the large roundtable in the apartment's central hallway so that the guys could help themselves whenever they were hungry. I had a friend then who'd flown over from Palo Alto to join us for a few days, and he was part of the guys' meeting. When he saw the elaborate set-up prepared just for them, he said: "Wow, this is even better than the Four Seasons."

Of course I could do everything so nicely because the apartment was so well-stocked with cutlery and dining accessories, and I could let my imagination and creativity run wild with entertaining, knowing I didn't have to clean up afterwards.


Well, the morning of the Paris dinner party, I was sitting alone in the breakfast room having a croissant and thinking about the dinner menu. I can't remember where everyone else was at that time, but I think Jojo was out for a run, Fides was getting ready for a day of sightseeing, and my fund manager friend Chris, from Surrey, who was staying two nights, thought he'd be a good houseguest and please us girls by going out and looking for a bakery to buy freshly baked croissants. The one I was eating was from the day before but it was certainly still very good.

I remember looking at the big platter of fruits so nicely arranged for breakfast, that no one was eating because we were so enamored with croissants for breakfast and also trying to eat sparingly in the mornings to make way for the mammoth Michelin-star lunches and dinners we were having everyday. What a waste of perfectly good fruit, I thought to myself. That was when the idea hit me to use these fruits to accompany a very nice pork roast I had bought which I'd intended to stick in the oven for that evening.


So I quickly took out a Le Creuset baking casserole and placed the pork roast in after seasoning it with all sorts of spices and rubbing it with garlic and olive oil. Then I mashed all the fruit up -- we had oranges, apples, peaches and grapes -- and covered the roast in it, for roasting later in the day.

I'd never done anything like it and I had never even seen a recipe for pork with fruit. But I figured that pork and fruit just had to go well together -- pork is often eaten with apple sauce, after all. When I finally took the pork out of the oven that evening, my initial shocked impression was that I had burned dinner and there were 18 hungry friends in my dining room. It was all black and smoking when it came out. But after I had scraped off the blackened fruit, the result was incredible soft and tender pork roast with just the right hint of sweetness from the fruit.


Last night was another moment of inspiration -- although, frankly, with choice cuts of Iberico pork, you can hardly go wrong. Iberico pork is the most tender and juiciest piece of pork I have ever tasted, and even simply frying it with garlic like a pork chop will yield excellent results. But last night, I smothered it in thyme and other spices and placed it on a Le Creuset sauteeing pan which I'd bought at Bacchus Epicerie in Rockwell and which I stuck in the oven. For a finale, I got the pan out and then placed it on the stove top to fry the outside and crisp the fat.

Just another Sunday evening in a Travelife.

Travelife's Special Summer Issue
with Angel Aquino in Boracay
Angel Aquino in Bora
for Travelife Magazine's April-May 2011 issue

Travelife's June-July 2011 issue


Live each day like it's your last

A shorter version of this appeared in the Frequent Flier column in the April-May issue of Travelife Magazine.


People who were in Japan on March 11, 2011 will forever remember where they were during the powerful earthquake that devastated northern Japan with catastrophic losses. Tokyo was badly shaken by this earthquake but not damaged as badly as other prefectures up north and by the sea. However, the crisis is not yet over as I write this, and the disaster management situation is now complicated by failing nuclear reactors.

I travel all around the world and spend at least half my life living out of a suitcase. But on this fateful day, I was unlucky enough to be caught in Japan in the worst possible place to be in an earthquake. I was on an a chartered bus bound for Narita Airport, and the bus was right in the middle of Tokyo’s long Rainbow Bridge, which is a suspension bridge with nothing but the wide expanse of Tokyo Bay’s freezing waters underneath.


It was just early afternoon of March 11, but already it had been a long day that saw me rushing around for most of the morning prior to my planned flight out of Japan to Manila that evening, and also prior to meeting some good friends for lunch at the Tokyo American Club. I'd arrived at TAC intent on ordering a steak; but then my friends at lunch had all ordered salads, prompting a wave of health consciousness and caloric guilt to come over me.

I'm not one of these people who can survive the day on a salad for lunch but I certainly didn't want to be the lone person wolfing down a steak either; so I scanned the menu and settled on a pork burrito. Of course, if I had known that lunch at TAC would be my last meal for at least 10 hours, I would probably have ordered two porterhouse steaks instead.

After lunch, I took the airport charter bus to Narita Airport from the ANA Intercontinental Hotel, which is just a few minutes away from TAC. Settled in my seat and with a row to myself, I set about getting to sleep as quickly as possible since the whole week so far had been about sleepless nights. I was finally deep into a nap when the first jolt came, shocking me out of sleep. Then the strong tremors just kept coming, and we thought these would never stop.


At the first sign of the earthquake, our driver stopped the bus right on this very dangerous spot midway on the bridge. He was just following emergency protocols, but it seemed to us a most insensible place to be in an earthquake. The tremors rocked the bus like a piggy bank being shaken enthusiastically by a child, and we were truly in danger of falling into Tokyo Bay at any minute. We all thought we were going to die.

Get off the bridge!” We all shouted to the bus driver. Some people were already preparing to flee the bus, since they believed they stood a better chance on the bridge on foot rather than in a bus swaying like a mad man with fire in his shoes, and about to fall into freezing Tokyo Bay. Fortunately, our many angry shouts finally pushed the driver to action and he slowly moved off the bridge once the tremors weakened.

We all sighed with relief as we made it back to land. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of our ordeal. We were stranded in this same bus for close to ten hours, with no food or water other than what we had initially brought when we boarded. I had a thermos of water for the ride to the airport but that was it – and that got me through the long day and night ahead.


Our bus driver actually drove us to a major train station at the outset, after the police had closed the highways, with the intention of leaving all his passengers and their luggages there. I guess he was eager to get rid of us as soon as possible so he could try and make his own way back home. But all modes of normal transportation were down, most roads were at a complete standstill and the station was open and completely exposed to the cold. I knew that if I stepped off that bus, I would most likely have to stay on the streets all night without any kind of protection.

Interestingly, the Japanese on the bus reluctantly followed orders and alighted. I’m sure they had a much worse time on ground because there was inadequate shelter and no way out of that station for the next 24 hours. However, the 10 foreigners on the bus refused to get off in spite of the bus driver’s angry shouts. We stayed on that bus and were alternately parked or driving around slowly for much of the time as our driver waited for further instructions from his office on what to do with these 10 stubborn foreigners.


In those ten hours of paralysis, a lot of things happened. For one thing, I saw a factory blow up right in front of me, about a kilometer or two away. "A factory just blew up in front of me," I BBM-ed my friend J. The phone lines were all completely down but strangely, BBM was working fine. Later on, still via BBM, he told me he'd seen this factory on the news on television. He messaged back a few hours later, after seeing it on the news: "Now I have an idea where you are."

Looking back at that day now, I don't know how I spent ten hours in that cold bus without food, water or much communication -- and still kept my sanity. I'm sure a lot of it had to do with J on BBM -- at that time, he was the one person on my BBM and nothing else was working -- who'd kept me company for eight out of those ten hours. A lot of times, when he wasn't BBM-ing me a joke, he was watching the news on television and updating me on what was happening since we had no news from outside otherwise

By a stroke of luck, too, I happened to have a small book with me which I read whenever I wasn't typing out a message on my phone. I can't remember the exact title right now, but it was about achieving greatness in all kinds of small and ordinary ways. It was certainly apt for that trial of patience I had to undergo in the aftermath of the earthquake.


Finally, by almost threatening the bus company, we succeeded in forcing the driver to take us to Narita Airport via the back roads. That began another tortuous process of movement, but at least we were going somewhere in the right direction. We arrived at Narita at 2 AM and we were probably the only bus to make it there after the earthquake.

This was where I finally appreciated Japan's efficiency. The moment I stepped off the bus, there was a team of airport emergency personnel waiting for us with sleeping bags and bottled water. So, yes, we may have been evacuees in an airport -- and never in my Travelife did I ever imagine that I would actually lay my head down on an airport floor -- but it wasn't too bad.


At the airport, we spread out sleeping bags on the floor and tried to rest amidst the constant jangling of the ceiling from aftershocks and the movement all around of people in crisis. My lifeline was my Blackberry and a spare electric plug near the public phones in the airport lobby. I camped out here and plugged my computer back on. Amazingly, Narita's WiFi outside of the business lounges is fee-based; but exactly where I was, I could surf for free that night -- and update my blog on what had just happened. After that, I popped a sleeping pill which I always carry for jet lag and caught a few hours of sleep. Anyway, there was nothing else we could do until daybreak.

It had been a long and tortuous ordeal since the first tremors began. And, frankly, it’s impossible to describe adequately the nightmare on the bridge, when death was at least a 51% reality. But by noon the following day, Saturday, I was on the first flight out of Tokyo, which was ever so luckily headed for Manila; and that evening, I was drowning my ordeal and celebrating the life I almost lost over a very good dinner and lots of wine with friends from the Commanderie de Bordeaux at Masseto in Salcedo Village. I think I drank enough for three lifetimes that night.

The next day, my temporarily disrupted Travelife began all over again - perhaps a testament of my commitment to travel. I was on the early morning flight to Singapore, editing articles all the way and making it in time for a 1230 pm lunch appointment for chicken rice along Orchard Road. And then I met up with friends for a drink and then had a very nice dinner with the general manager of the posh Hotel Fort Canning. Of course, we talked of nothing else that day but the Tokyo earthquake and the ordeal I'd just been through.

And on Monday, I was up bright and early for a 9 AM flight from Singapore to Bali, where I stayed a total of six hours and saw nothing but a couple of streets from the car window. From the airport, I was driven straight to Bali's port and here I boarded Silversea's Silver Spirit cruise ship and we slowly sailed out towards Malaysia at 6 pm. I spent that sailing hour on the top deck of the Silver Spirit with a glass of champagne in hand, watching the sunset as Balinese music played in the distance.

Let me tell you, my 72-hour journey from near-death on the Rainbow Bridge to camping out on the Narita airport floor, and then to a gourmet dinner at one of Manila's top restaurants, followed by a day in Singapore, six hours in Bali and then ultimately catching my breath and admiring the sunset from a beautiful suite in one of the world's most luxurious six-star ships, was completely surreal. But that's a Travelife for you.


I hate to use the phrase "moral of the story" here as it sounds so self-righteous; but there is something to this experience, and I try to remember it every single day now:

-- Live the life you want.

-- Don't put off plans and dreams for another day.

-- Disregard small annoyances.

-- Be happy every day.

-- Tell people you care about how much they mean to you.

-- Live each day as if it's your last.

-- And, yes, do order two porterhouse steaks when you wish to do so. Even if everyone else around you is having a salad for lunch.

When something like the Tokyo earthquake or the tsunami comes roaring at you, everything else will be completely unimportant. Just another week in our neverending – and neverendingly eventful – Travelife.

Join us in Italy this September 8.
Travelife Italy Night
with Margarita Fores

with Margarita Fores
and the Embassy of Italy & Bacchus Epicerie
September 8 at Whitespace

Please call TRAVELIFE at 8138400/ 8922620
to reserve a limited seat
For reservations and information, please contact:
Bernice or Rachel at TRAVELIFE
813-8400/ 892-2620