Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Travelife Magazine made it first to Test Kitchen, Africa's best restaurant, in Cape Town




In November 2012, the Travel Companion and I went to South Africa for the first time -- a truly amazing and enjoyable trip of great hotels, fantastic restaurants and memorable experiences.

He was in charge of choosing most of the restaurants, and one of the places he chose was Test Kitchen, a newly-opened restaurant in a pretty industrial part of Cape Town, with an ambitious young chef who previously headed La Colombe, one of the Cape Town's most venerable dining institutions.

That's one our courses at La Colombe


Incidentally, we ate at La Colombe as well, on our last full day in South Africa, and we loved it as well.

UNDER THE RADAR.
BUT NOT OUR RADAR.

It wasn't that difficult to get a reservation back then, although Test Kitchen was packed on the night we ate there.

And I remember we had the 11-course tasting menu and shared one accompanying wine pairing as neither of us is much of a tippler.


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We had a wonderful time on that trip to South Africa, and that inspired us to explore other places in Africa afterwards.

I'm reprinting below my blog entry about that dinner, as Test Kitchen has just been chosen as the best restaurant in Africa by S. Pellegrino.

TRAVELIFE MAGAZINE 
IS ALWAYS AHEAD OF THE PACK

Travelife Magazine was there ahead of almost everyone else, and almost certainly ahead of anyone else in Asia.

Test Kitchen was off the radar but the Travel Companion made a very good call. We also wrote a very lengthy article about our dinner here for Travelife Magazine -- perhaps the very first publication in Asia to feature Test Kitchen in a major way.

When we ate there, we just knew it would make records.

That's me with the Roca brothers of El Celler de Can Roca.
Jordi Roca (left) was just named the world's best pastry chef.
They're holding a copy of the issue of Travelife Magazine,
where Jerome Velasco's very detailed article on El Celler de Can Roca appeared.
Ahead of everyone else in Asia, of course. If not in the world.


Travelife Magazine was also the first to write lengthily about El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, just days after it became the world's best restaurant last year.

We even paid a return visit, wherein I personally handed a copy of our article (and magazine) to the Roca brothers. Jordi Roca was just named the world's best pastry chef for 2014, by the way.

LA RESIDENCE:
THE BEST HOTEL IN THE WORLD

My beautiful Elton John suite
at La Residence in Franschhoek

By the way, La Residence in Franschhoek, a hotel I chose for us to stay in on this same trip to South Africa, was pretty much off the radar of most people except serious hotel junkies.

We stayed here for a weekend, prior to moving on to Cape Town, and I loved it from the moment I set foot in it. The Travel Companion can attest to that.

A few months ago, La Residence was chosen as the best hotel in the world for 2013.



So between his passion for restaurants and my passion for hotels, we were a pretty good team for picking the best of the best in South Africa.


A reprint of my blog entry on Test Kitchen in Cape Town
Recently chosen the best restaurant in Africa
We ate there when it first opened in November 2012

Test Kitchen is located in
a somewhat industrial district of Cape Town

Tonight in Cape Town, living a TRAVELIFE, the Travel Companion  took me out to dinner at a cutting-edge new restaurant he'd been hankering to try in South Africa.

It's run by South Africa's most famous chef and restaurant reservations are extremely difficult to come by.

But he had made the reservations about two or three months ago, and that was how we got the best table in the house on a Saturday night in the best restaurant in Cape Town.

The bread and the menu at Test Kitchen
The evening started out very nicely with champagne -- yes, more champagne. 

We met up very briefly with a couple living in Cape Town, in the lovely gardens of the iconic Mount Nelson Hotel right in the center of the city.

Test Kitchen is very casual in vibe,
and their wines are all young and stored in cabinets on top

A 15-MINUTE TIME FRAME

As usual, we were terribly pressed for time, so we could only sit with them for about 30 minutes before heading out to dinner. 

Throughout this trip, we've been meeting people we know in South Africa for about 15 minutes to 30 minutes each, as we seem to have no time at all on this trip.

The beautiful Mount Nelson Hotel.
Perhaps South Africa's most famous hotel institution.

We met someone for 15 minutes in Joburg, and another person for about 20 minutes in Franschhoek, which is about an hour from Cape Town.

This time, though, having drinks with this couple in Cape Town, it was a big shame as the Travel Companion and I both liked them and had a very animated time discussing travel and experiences in different countries.


*    *    *



TRAVELIFE MAGAZINE
FEATURED THE BEST OF SOUTH AFRICA
WAY AHEAD OF EVERYON ELSE
in our 2013 issues and in our blog

*    *    *


At just before 7, The Travel Companion began signaling me that it was time to go. 

The restaurant we were headed for is in a new trendy commercial/ warehouse district about 20 minutes away from the Mount Nelson, and he was afraid that we were going to lose our reservation if we appeared late.

Otherwise, we would have stayed on talking into the night with champagne and all.

Test Kitchen is under pressure to make it fast
as a top restaurant locally and internationally.
It's owner-chef used to run La Colombe, 
South Africa's most famous restaurant,
until he broke off and decided to go on his own.
We're eating at La Colombe tomorrow, by the way.
So after hurried goodbyes, we jumped into a taxi and headed across town to this hot new restaurant called Test Kitchen and it's run by Luke Dale Roberts, arguably South Africa's most famous chef.

We made it in time and we got the best table, which was a table for two right by the kitchen.

The Travel Companion was really excited, and I was quite excited too, since he'd told me about it and talked up the merits of the chef.

THREE CHOICES FOR DINNER



There are only three course choices at Test Kitchen: a three-course meal, a five-course meal, and an 11-course degustation meal.

We chose to have the grand 11-course menu and then to share a wine pairing for one person between us.

The first time we'd done a wine pairing in South Africa, it had been for a seven-course meal and we'd drank so much. So since then, we've decided to just split one wine pairing between us, and it's been working fine.



The meal was the most cutting-edge we've had so far in South Africa -- and that's a pretty big statement considering we've eaten or are eating in almost all of South Africa's top restaurants

Almost all our meals have been very enjoyable, but some have been more cutting-edge than others.

Our 11-course meal at Test Kitchen was very enjoyable. 11 courses took us over three hours to finish, and in-between we watched the action in the open kitchen, took lots of photos and observed what people in other tables were doing.

That's the open kitchen set-up for Test Kitchen.
We were right next to the action.

WHO'S GETTING TIRED FIRST?

Across us was a couple seated sideways almost the entire time so that they faced the kitchen instead of each other. They hardly talked.

I said: "What do you think's the story there?"

Without hesitation, The Travel Companion replied, sure as usual of everything in his world: "They've been together for a long time so they've run out of things to talk about."



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It certainly looked that way. 

And on our way back to the hotel, I remembered this earlier conversation and said: "Hey, we've been together in South Africa for eight days now and I'm not too tired of you yet."

An interesting set of appetizers

8 MINUTES, 8 HOURS, 8 DAYS

We had a running joke about who would tire of whom first, and what was the time frame we were talking about: 8 minutes, 8 hours, or 8 days. 

The Travel Companion is on the hyper side and he has a fairly short attention span for everything and everyone, whereas I have a long attention span but only for things I like.

Put a boring thing or person in front of me, and I shut down in about two minutes. But we've been laughing the whole time and I think we're enjoying much of the trip even if he'll never really admit this to me directly.


Morocco, see you soon...

(PS: I guess it's been working out not too badly because we went on to travel to Tanzania for two weeks, on a completely different kind of trip; and soon we're off to Morocco...)

Not one to miss a beat, the Travel Companion said: "More importantly, you haven't asked me whether I'm tired of you yet..."

I retorted: "No need to ask a question I know the answer to already."

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


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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The private dinner of a lifetime, cooked by a Michelin three-star chef for six people. And seven more nights of fine dining in Tokyo.



The other night I flew to Tokyo to join a heart-stopping dinner someone was hosting for just six people at his beautiful home.

He'd hired a world-famous Michelin three-star chef to prepare a 12-course meal, giving the chef no budget and a free hand to source the best ingredients from all over the world. 

He asked the chef to create the dinner he'd always dreamt about -- meaning the kind of dinner the chef himself had always dreamt about.

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THE KIND OF SURPRISE I LIKE

This guy had told the chef: "Surprise me. Don't think about the cost, and don't even mention money."

He also said: "Make me the kind of dinner that has so far existed only in your dreams. Order whatever you want from anywhere in the world, do whatever you need to do. Just make this dream dinner happen for me."



WINES OF THE CENTURY
FOR THE DINNER OF A CENTURY

Then he had some of the best vintages of the 20th century flown in from his main wine cellar in London, to accompany this 12-course dinner.

He's not only a very big businessman on the global stage and an astute investor, but also a very serious wine collector.

It was a simply amazing night. Unfortunately I can't blog about it. This guy's completely anal about his privacy.




I couldn't even take photos with my little iPod because of the kind of dinner it was. One very eminent couple at the table made it impossible to do so, protocol-wise -- not because they didn't want me to, but because of who they were.

I can't say anymore, even if I really would love to.

But if you're familiar with what kind of VIPs need strict observance of protocol, then you'll have an idea of the very nice couple I was seated opposite at this dinner.

A VERY SPECIAL CELEBRATION



Our host was celebrating something special, and this is why he'd organized this dinner of the century and pulled out all the stops for the evening.

Of course I was flying to Tokyo for this amazing event.

I'm sure you would understand that I would have flown halfway across the world, and not just halfway across Asia, if only I could tell you who cooked dinner and who sat across me at the table for six.

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A PRETTY LUXE WELCOME

When I arrived at Narita Airport on Monday night, my dinner host sent his driver with the white gloves and his fancy limousine -- one of his two fancy limousines, actually -- to pick me up.

When he rang me on my mobile in Manila just before my departure, to tell me he was sending a car to pick me up at the airport, I'd actually told him: "I can easily take a cab, you know."

This is Japan, after all. You don't have to worry about taking any kind of transportation from the airport, or about taxi drivers trying to fleece you upon arrival.

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But he said: "You are flying across Asia for my dinner. It's the least I can do."

Who's going to turn down a fancy limousine ride? I'll make the motions of turning it down once, but certainly not twice.

HELLO, HELLO



So I got into his car at Narita Airport, and instead of going home directly, I passed by his house just to say hello for a bit.

The big dinner was the following evening, and there would be four other people in the room, so I thought it would be nice to catch up ahead.

I knew he was flying out to Europe the day after the dinner, as well, so there would really be no time to talk in person.



His butler showed me into the house.

Yes, he has a butler in Tokyo, who wears the coat and the gloves just like in the movies. He's the only one I know in Tokyo with a butler, although I do know of two or three people in Manila with butlers like these.

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My friend was in his study, gazing at the computer and I'm sure it was New York or London stocks he was looking at, because of the time, when I walked in.

We didn't indulge in niceties, as we'd already talked on the car phone practically the whole way from the airport into the city, while I was updating this blog, posting updates on Facebook and posting photos on Instagram.


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A FAVOR I DIDN'T WANT TO REFUSE



So immediately, when I walked in, he said, without even taking his eyes off the computer screen: "When are you back in Japan?"

I shrugged. I had no immediate plans as my schedule for the next few months is pretty full.

Then he continued: "I need a favor from you. Can you come back at the end of May?"

I have a trip to South Africa coming up, and then Morocco's next. But in between I do have several days to squeeze Tokyo in again if I really need to.



THE CHARM OFFENSIVE

He knew I would say yes if I could, so he simply went on: "I really need to wine and dine a few people in this town, along with their wives. If you can give me a week of your time in Tokyo, I'll line up dinners every night. The kind of fancy places you like."

Basically, he needed help in charming seven very important people, and in a very subtle way.




Hmm. Tough decision, don't you think? 

To fly back to Tokyo for a week, so that I can be part of a fancy dinner for four every night at a beautiful French restaurant or at a Michelin three-star restaurant in Tokyo?

Of course, I'm going to do so, if I can, for seven nights of amazing and enjoyable dinners in my never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.





The wolf of Wall Street and great service on Japan Airlines to Tokyo


Yesterday I flew into Tokyo on Japan Airlines.

Unusually for me, I left for the airport in Manila quite early, fearing traffic and mayhem along the way since US President Barack Obama was due to arrive at about the same time and air traffic was supposed to stop for at least 30 minutes.

I was pretty sure that the roads would be clogged as well.

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ALL ROADS LED QUICKLY TO THE AIRPORT

For the first time in quite a long time, there was actually minimal traffic on the way to the airport. And when I got to the airport, it was actually pretty empty.

I now realize that flying out of Manila's NAIA 1 mid-afternoon is best for a pleasant experience, compared to taking an evening flight.

In the evenings, NAIA 1 is complete chaos.

NICE TO SEE EVERYONE AGAIN

Business class on Japan Airlines

So it was a pleasant check-in experience, and I was glad to see all my old friends at Japan Airlines.

I used to fly this airline to Tokyo almost every two weeks, so there was a time when I literally knew everyone on the airport staff.

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I don't go to Tokyo as often anymore, and some people at the airport have changed.

But today I saw about four people I knew at JAL who I've been talking to for years in the course of riding this airline like a bus, and they certainly helped me with a seamless flight experience.

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They all know I'm always last to board the flight as I'm always online in the lounge until the last minute, for example; and yesterday someone came to get me at the lounge with a walkie talkie, and so I did last-minute emails while she monitored the boarding process.

I finally stood up to head for the gate when there were only five people left who still had not boarded the plane.

JAL STEWARDESSES ARE SO NICE


Onboard, I was reminded of how nice the service of JAL is.

Almost every major airline's business class staff is very good, but I have to say that JAL stewardesses are in a category of their own. They help with everything and they notice everything.

Today, for instance, I was rubbing my hands with a wet paper napkin dipped in some tea, just because it felt very dry in the cabin. I have been almost living in an airplane for the last few days, after all.

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I wasn't doing this very conspicuously -- in fact, I was trying hard not to attract attention because it does seem unusual to be placing tea on your hands.

A stewardess came up to me with a worried look. She then asked me if I had hurt myself or if she could help.

To an observer, it did seem like I was applying some first aid to a cut.

THE MEAL ON JAPAN AIRLINES

The meal yesterday on JAL

Meanwhile, I had the Japanese meal yesterday, as I've just come from two weeks of European food and all I want to eat now is Asian.

AND THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

And while I was eating, I finally got to watch The Wolf of Wall Street.

Many people have been talking about this movie, but I don't have the luxury of watching movies or videos in my never-ending Travelife -- except on airplanes. So I've been waiting for this movie to pop up on an airline's inflight channel.

NOWHERE LIKE THE MOVIES



Having known people in the financial industry all over the world, including Tokyo, Hong Kong, London and New York, for over two decades, I have to say that the people depicted in this movie "The Wolf of Wall Street" seem so unreal.

However, this is mainly a movie about brokers breaking rules and doing drugs to get to #1 -- and I don't really know any brokers, as most of the people I got to meet in the global financial world were fund managers, hedge fund managers and CEOs.


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And most of them were -- and still are -- incredibly driven, terribly competitive, and very successful at what they do.

But none of them were into drugs or unhealthy lifestyles.

In fact, most of the people I know are almost fanatical about keeping their health and energy levels up.



THE ONLY BROKER I KNEW

The only broker I really knew in Tokyo just happened to be Japan's most successful broker -- he had the girls and the glitzy lifestyle, but he was incredibly vain, so he was way more into maintaining his health and physique than into drugs and shady deals.

So although the movie The Wolf of Wall Street was interesting, it seemed quite exaggerated to me.

Still, it was good entertainment on the way to Tokyo for just another chapter in my never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.




Sunday, April 27, 2014

Morocco, for a reason and a season. See you sooner than later in our Travelife...



So this year, the Travel Companion and I are still sticking to the African continent, although we've decided to put the safaris on hold for a bit and explore an entirely different kind of Travelife from what we've done so far.

About 18 months ago, we went to South Africa for a safari, a weekend in Johannesburg and a week of driving through the Western Cape's wine country.

TANZANIA LAST YEAR



Then last October, we did three safaris in Tanzania, plus a couple of days in Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam besides.

This time, as usual, the world was our oyster, and we literally had the whole world to choose from, for a destination.

The only things that determined our choice of destination were convenient flights and time constraints.


TIME WON'T GIVE ME TIME

It's always an ongoing debate with the Travel Companion, as to how many days to allot to a country.

He can never stay put in one place for long, you see, and, if he had his way, we'd be cramming three countries instead of three cities into two weeks.

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In fact, at the start of our planning for Morocco, he said to me: "I don't know why you give me a hard time about the number of days for a trip."

If I'm on a private holiday, you see, I'm the type to schedule in spa treatments and very long breakfasts. And to just take a little more time.



So we're always trying to find a compromise on travel time, but so far it's worked out passably enough; in both South Africa and Tanzania, I even got a decent amount of spa time into the picture.

If I remember right, I think I got two spa treatments in when we were in South Africa, and then three spa treatments in during our trip to Tanzania.

I can't remember what he was doing while I was at these spas, but I'll bet good money he was on his Blackberry or his iPad.

Scroll down to read more about our upcoming trip to Morocco...



As for the destination, so far we've done places that we both have never been so it's really been a journey of discovery.

NICE TO SEE YOU AGAIN



But this time, we picked Morocco, which I visited about 12 years ago, but to which he's never been to.

I was happy to go back again, though, as Morocco is a fascinating country with endless possibilities. I got especially pysched to see Fes again, after reading an article on this intriguing royal city written by Travelife contributing editor David Lim for a recent issue of Travelife Magazine.


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We're on our way to Tokyo as I post this.



When I visited Fes 12 years ago, there was only one luxury hotel to book (so everyone stayed here), and it was truly like time had stood still. David went back last year, and he said Fes was still pretty much like that.

TWO NEW PLACES FOR A TRAVELIFE

But I did add two places I haven't been to yet, into the itinerary.

They're secondary places compared to the major attractions of Fes and Marrakech, but I've been wanting to see them. I even booked a stay in the desert, in the middle of nowhere.


And when we were going through the itinerary I'd planned, the Travel Companion asked me, about those secondary destinations.

"So those are on your bucket list?" He asked.

Kind of. I didn't have time to visit these places on my first trip to Morocco, you see.

THE FUN PART OF PLANNING A TRAVELIFE


As usual, the general itinerary and the hotels to stay in have been left to me to decide.

This is the part I like doing best, although it was harder than usual to do this, this time around, as there are just so many wonderful hotels to stay in in Morocco and too little time -- thanks to you-know-who and his never-ending time constraints.

THE BEST OF THE BEST IN MOROCCO



But as always, I've tried to pick the best of the best from a very wide universe.

And so far, I've booked two palace hotels, three exquisite riads and one amazing villa that's supposed to be the best in the world.



This way it's a nice balance of everything -- and, of course, lots of luxury, Travelife style.

A VERY NICE CAR
FOR A TRAVELIFE TO MOROCCO

And today, the Travel Companion reminded me in a very subtle way how he'd just booked the very best car possible, for our trip around Morocco. We fly into Casablanca and a driver will be picking us up there.

I don't want to go into specifics as to what kind of car he'd charged to his credit card; but in not a few countries, presidents use this same car to get them from place to place.

And now Morocco is all booked and done, and only a few weeks away -- but still two trips (and two safaris +  1 spa holiday) away in my never-ending, and never-endingly eventful  Travelife.