Friday, October 31, 2014

A tale of three "gargouillou" salads, and one of them has too many things in it for my taste

This week in Japan, living a Travelife, I had two very similar salads -- one at a Michelin three-star restaurant in Hokkaido several days ago, and the other at a Michelin two-star restaurant in Tokyo last night.

I also remembered the salad that started this trend in salads -- the gargouillou of Michel Bras, which I first tasted about 15 years ago, already living a Travelife.

I still can recall how this truly blew my mind away.

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The gargouillou salad of Michel Bras spawned a thousand inspirations all over the world, as many enamoured chefs tried to create their own versions.

Some with great success and others with more flat results.


Out of the two Michel Bras-inspired salads this week, I truly enjoyed the one in Hokkaido.

It had less ingredients, and this is maybe why I was able to enjoy every taste and crunch. It really isn't about quantity but quality -- but some people just never get that.

This Hokkaido salad also was accompanied by three different pastes or sauces dabbed on the side of the plate, that we were asked to mix in before eating.

This gave the salad lots of depth, in my opinion.

It was truly refreshing in every way. How really wonderful this was, now that I think about it.

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Last night, I had my second Michel Bras-inspired salad for the week.

It was a pretty salad at this trendy two-star restaurant that everyone is saying is the next new best restaurant in Tokyo.

Indeed, it came beautifully arranged -- but perhaps it had just way too many things in it for my taste, so that I left the restaurant with a bit of a distaste in my mouth, regretting why I ever ordered it in the first place.

The overall impression was a diluted and poor version of the salad in Hokkaido, as the Hokkaido salad had less things competing for my attention and it was an overall superior salad in spite of having fewer ingredients.

Each ingredient in the Hokkaido salad was chosen with care.

I never thought I would ever say this, but some salads are really just way too crowded for my taste, even in my never-ending, and never-endingly eventful and usually delicious Travelife. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Climbing Mount Everest and the Matterhorn, and a Tuscan dinner after a Hokkaido holiday

Last night, we arrived from Sapporo's Chitose Airport after a short but happy holiday in Hokkaido, living a Travelife.

There's never enough time for anything and everything in a never-ending Travelife, and there certainly wasn't enough time for us in Hokkaido.

But it was better than nothing, and we had a very good time enjoying good food, wonderful scenery and some very nice Japanese inns.


It was really nice, actually, and I especially liked being able to get away from almost everything for some hot springs time.

Noboribetsu, which is one of the hot springs towns we stayed in, is supposed to have some of the most "powerful" geothermal waters in Japan, and it's reportedly excellent for regaining vitality.

But after our trip it was back to reality, and almost straight from landing at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, we headed to our respective dinner appointments.


I was set to meet my neighbour S, who I have been so remiss about catching up with.

The last time we'd had a really good talk was about two years ago, when I was a guest at her beautiful weekend home by the sea in Chiba.

But last weekend, I bumped into her at the neighbourhood Halloween festivities, and we arranged to have dinner last night.

Initially we were going to go somewhere fancy.

But after non-stop eating, especially in Hokkaido where every single meal was the equivalent of at least eight courses, I couldn't think of any more food and would have been happy to just have a glass of water for dinner.


So at the last minute, we ended up going to a neighbourhood Italian restaurant famous for its Tuscan cuisine.

We ordered the steak Florentine to share and a couple of salads and pastas and exchanged updates.

Talk about an update. 


My friend S is planning to climb Mount Everest.

Apparently she's climbed almost all the major mountains in the world, save for Mount Everest and one other mountain.

She's climbed most of the ones in Europe, Asia and Africa, including Mount Kilimanjaro, which I only saw from an airplane.

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I asked her: "So which is the most enjoyable mountain to climb?"

She replied: "Probably the Matterhorn. Because you can climb it and then get a helicopter to pick you up at the top and take you down. Then there's a spa when you're done."

She added: "Climbing up isn't really a problem. It's the going down that's so hard on the knees."

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Then I asked her: "And how on earth do you prepare for a climb up Mount Everest?"

She seems like such a regular girl, after all. She runs a company in Tokyo, grows organic vegetables in her weekend home, and likes holidaying at the Aman resorts.

Halloween festivities in Tokyo

When I saw her over the weekend, she and her husband were putting up Halloween decor all over the front of their house.

S shrugged and said: "Climbing isn't really very difficult, especially if you're not heavy. It's really a matter of luck with the weather and getting a very good guide. And hiring someone to carry your gear if you don't want to do so on your back, although I always carry my own."

How's that for an entirely different kind of never-endingly eventful Travelife?

Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening in Hokkaido. And a poem by Robert Frost.

Earlier this week, in Hokkaido living a Travelife, we drove to a lovely lake in the middle of nowhere with a luxury Japanese inn by the edge of it.

We were in Hokkaido for a hot spring and foodie holiday, and I'd chosen this inn because it's supposed to be very beautiful and the food is excellent.

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The Travel Companion and I were not disappointed at all by this inn I had chosen.

It was simple but stylish in a very contemporary way. We liked it at first sight, with its interesting art work and decor.

We also had a very nice hot spring pool on the terrace with a view of the mountains and the forests. 

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So just before a very big dinner of delicious Hokkaido specialties, we decided to take a stroll at sunset by the edge of the lake.

Hokkaido is about the same latitude as Europe so it's very cold, and at least 10 degrees colder than Tokyo. Fortunately we were well prepared for the cold, so we headed out into the forest and walked down to the lake.

How beautiful and peaceful it was to be amidst all this nature, especially as there was no one else around.


We saw snow on the nearby mountains, and some of the trees were dramatically lit up to showcase their flaming autumn colours.

And then, as we walked around the lake, towards a footbridge at one end, it began to snow ever so lightly, making everything so pretty, and reminding me of a poem by Robert Frost.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening 

Whose woods these are I think I know. 
His house is in the village though; 
He will not see me stopping here 
To watch his woods fill up with snow. 

My little horse must think it queer 
To stop without a farmhouse near 
Between the woods and frozen lake 
The darkest evening of the year. 

He gives his harness bells a shake 
To ask if there is some mistake. 
The only other sound’s the sweep 
Of easy wind and downy flake. 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep, 
And miles to go before I sleep, 
And miles to go before I sleep.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The best sushi in Hokkaido, Japan, and it has a Michelin star and cheap prices

In Hokkaido on a hot springs and foodie holiday until last night, living a Travelife, we had so many wonderful and delicious meals.

This part of Japan is just full of fresh and incredibly high quality produce, so that it's almost very hard  to find a bad meal there.

Nevertheless, we weren't taking any chances, so we'd booked some of the best restaurants on the island for lunches, and some of the best hot springs inns for stays that included dinner and breakfasts.

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The Travel Companion left almost all the planning to me for this trip, unlike in our trips to Africa where I chose the hotels and he did his homework on other things.

But thankfully we have almost the same taste in everything Japanese, save for a world-famous innovative restaurant in Tokyo which he loved from his very first visit there, and which I'm not too impressed with.

But almost every visitor from Manila wants to eat at this world-famous restaurant he likes so much, so I'm stuck with eating here pretty regularly. It's quite good food, but it's way over-hyped, in my humble opinion.

Hokkaido is simply beautiful in the fall


Anyway, the Travel Companion made me laugh yesterday as we were driving back to Chitose Airport from a hot springs resort to catch our flight back to Tokyo. We've traveled a lot together -- over 40 days in just short of the last two years, to be exact -- but mostly it's been to Africa, which we discovered almost on a whim.

So we already have a pattern for planning trips and traveling together, and so far it's worked out rather well.

Hokkaido is simply beautiful in the fall

And as he was driving us back to the airport, he reminded me: "When I landed in Japan last weekend, I had no idea where we were staying or eating. Or even what kind of car we were renting."

Of course he knows me well enough to understand that when I book a holiday trip for us, it's always going to be best of breed. 


Well, the first place I'd booked for a meal upon arrival in Hokkaido was one of the island's best sushi restaurants.

Of course, when you're in Hokkaido, you must eat sushi, and so I'd booked a Michelin one-star sushi restaurant in the middle of nowhere. 

This was my second choice, actually, as the only other highly rated sushi place -- a Michelin two-star -- is only open at night, making it impossible for us to visit from our hot springs resorts.


Really good sushi in Japan is quite expensive, but we knew that Hokkaido would certainly be cheaper than Tokyo.

Still, when we passed a completely nondescript soba restaurant near our sushi destination, after parking the car, I'd teased him: "You might want to take me there for lunch instead."

Wouldn't that be rather funny? For two pretty serious foodies to fly to Hokkaido, drive two hours to a town facing the Japan Sea, and to end up in a nondescript soba restaurant with plastic displays in the windows.

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The prices at this nondescript soba restaurant were pretty attractive, though. A comprehensive soba set with tempura included cost something like 1200 yen, which comes up to US$12.

Not one to miss a beat, with his usual dry humour, he'd replied: "Well, if I took you to lunch there instead, I would sure save a bundle of cash."

But of course, that wasn't going to happen.

We were both psyched for really good sushi since Tokyo. In fact, for breakfast on the airplane, we'd shared a chocolate and banana pastry from Joel Robuchon just to be hungry for lunch.


At this famous sushi restaurant, we ate about 19 pieces of truly good and fresh sushi each, which is really quite a lot of food. And neither of us can recall one piece out of those 19 that was just okay or ordinary.

In other words, we'd had 38 excellent pieces of sushi between us, and two bowls of miso soup.


We stopped by a famous fish market in Hokkaido
before our sushi lunch
Just before the Travel Companion asked for the bill, we'd done a guessing game on how much our lunch would cost.

In a good sushi place in Tokyo, it's not unusual to pay $200 or $300 per person at all, but we were in Hokkaido.

Both of us had the same guesstimate. US$200 for lunch, which would make it US$100 per person. And the Travel Companion had said that if this fantastic sushi lunch of 38 pieces of sushi for two would only cost him US$200, he would be a happy camper.


When the bill came, I didn't look at it at first.

But then I literally felt his shock, seated next to me at that sushi counter, and so I peeked at the bill just in case he was having to fork out US$500 for what we thought would be cheap-ish sushi for two in Hokkaido.

It turns out the bill was something like US$60 per person, which is really unheard of for what we ate at a Michelin-starred sushi restaurant in Japan.

The Travel Companion said, when he saw the bill: "I wondered whether this was the bill for the tea or  for the parking. Or maybe they were going to give you your own bill. That's certainly the most delicious value-for-money sushi I have ever had in my life."

As for me, it was one of the most enjoyable sushi lunches I've ever had in Hokkaido, living a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Eating at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo

On Saturday night, in Tokyo living a Travelife, we went for dinner with some friends to a famous sushi place that's fondly known by long-time residents of Tokyo as the "stock market bubble sushi restaurant."

It was once the epicentre of success on any weekday night, and every successful fund manager or broker worth his salt had this restaurant on speed dial.

A sign of your prominence, or the fact that you had "arrived," was your ability to get a good table here at a moment's notice.

And when you got to this restaurant, you usually had to spend the first five minutes saying hello to everyone, because this is where everyone who wanted glamorous sushi went in this big but small town.

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Just like at the New York Grill of the Park Hyatt Tokyo, which was the other epicentre of success in this town.

We laughed a lot on Saturday night, thinking about the good old days and how sushi restaurants came into the picture.

THE 50,000 YEN PEG

One guy said, and it's still true of many non-tourist sushi restaurants these days: "Sushi restaurants peg customers not according to what they ate but according to what they thought you could pay. From our first visit here, we were pegged at 50,000 yen. So no matter what we ate, and how much or how little we ate, we would always be charged around 50,000 yen."

He added: "So I would tell my guests: eat whatever you wish and as much as you wish, because we'll get charged 50,000 yen per person anyway, either way."

The non-tourist sushi restaurants don't provide you with an itemized bill, you see. Most of the time it's just a number on a scrap of paper. And if you want to eat there again, you'd be wise not to question how the bill was added up.

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Then I added my own observation. I said: "In sushi restaurants run by a husband-and-wife team, you'll always get a higher bill if it's the wife who computes it. So what everyone should do is ask the man for the bill when his wife goes into the kitchen to get the miso soup or a fresh pot of tea."

Our conversations about the good old days lasted late into the night, in Tokyo, living a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Plush toy making workshop at Yuchengco Museum on November 9

What a wonderful activity for children and parents to do together, in between a Travelife.

Create your own stuffed toy from scratch and spend quality time with your children at Yuchengco Museum’s hands-on Plush Toy Making Workshop on November 9, Sunday, from 2 to 5 p.m. In three hours, learn how to make your own plush toy, from cutting the pattern (or making your own!) to stuffing the toy and sewing it all together.

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Choose from three plush toy options:

1) Pink teddy hug bear
2) Blue teddy hug bear
3) Googoo monster

The workshop is open to children at least 5 years old, as well as adults. Children between 5 to 8 years old must be accompanied by an adult, who will help create the plush toy.

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Apol Lejano-Massebieau established La Pomme, an online shop of handsewn whimsical fabric objects, in France in 2007. Having relocated to her birth country, the Philippines, Apol opened her own brick-and-mortar shop in Makati, specializing in handmade toys and offering a craft space for children.

Co-facilitator and former teacher Fiona Fajardo-Hernandez is a practicing child psychologist who has been teaching craft workshops for a decade.

Workshops slots are limited, and registration is required.

Workshop fee is P1,000, which includes materials and supplies.


Yuchengco Museum 
RCBC Plaza
Corner Ayala and Sen. Gil J. Puyat Avenues, Makati

Saturday, October 25, 2014

L'Embellir, a two-star Michelin in Omotesando, is my new favourite French restaurant in Tokyo

Yesterday in Tokyo, living a Travelife, I met up with my friend Y for a long and lazy Friday lunch at a Michelin two-star restaurant in fashionable Omotesando, which I'd never been to before.

It's been raining terribly here and yesterday was the first fine day in a while, so I left the car at home and decided to walk to the station and actually get a train to the next stop as this restaurant is still in my neck of the woods.

In fact, if I hadn't been running late, I would have walked to the restaurant just to burn off some calories before a calorific lunch.

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I let Y choose the restaurant as she knows my preferences for very good food on the fancy side of things.

This restaurant was excellent.

There are so many Michelin two-star restaurants in Tokyo these days that it's hard to keep track of all of them, but yesterday's restaurant was definitely at the top of the Michelin two-star category.

Before writing about it today, I thought long and hard about giving it publicity, as this will of course make it harder for me to book later on. But this chef and his staff deserve more recognition as the food is really good and the experience excellent, for the prices they charge.


The restaurant is called L'Embellir, and it's in the district of Omotesando in Tokyo.

I liked it the moment I walked in, as its interiors were refined, contemporary and upscale, but not over the top. Then, even before we were even given a menu, two lovely and delicious plates of amuse bouche were each set in front of us so we could already enjoy a bite or two while deciding on the menu.

The restaurant only offers two set menus at lunch, and it is basically a matter of how much you want to eat. We chose the lesser of two courses simply because I have ten more days of good eating at Michelin-starred restaurants to get through, so I thought I would pace myself yesterday.

How I regretted it later, as everything was so good that I wanted to eat more.


The style of this restaurant is French contemporary, rather than "innovative," although each dish is so creatively plated with a twist, that it's like a less hard-core version of Les Creations de Narisawa, just a few block down.

There's lots of creativity and a couple of surprises, but nothing you'll not recognise as food.


This looks like such a simple dessert.
But it blew my mind away.

Also, taste is very important to me.

Many famous restaurants on the innovative side of things like to shock and awe and think about taste later. I don't mean to say that the taste is bad, but sometimes the taste is just okay and it's the presentation that's the wow factor.

These kinds of restaurants are interesting to visit every so often, but these don't really float my boat.

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In contrast, yesterday's meal was so good. 

I found everything very well thought about in conceptualization, and almost perfect in the actual undertaking of the meal.

The "salad" -- or at least what passed for a salad -- was delicious and so beautifully presented, with lots of little side dishes to enjoy each course with, just like in a Michelin three-star restaurant in Europe. 

And the fish was perhaps the best I've had in the last four weeks of eating in some of the best restaurants around the world.

Meanwhile, the dessert looked so simple, but it was simply out of this world. It was made of fruit, and I don't usually like fruit desserts at all. But it's a testament to the chef's creative genius that even now, as I write this, I'm dreaming of it.

The weakest link yesterday was the meat dish, which was a combination of beef cheeks and slices of filet on the side.

The filet cut, although good enough, paled in comparison to everything else served yesterday.

And for autumn flavour, the chef served this with mashed pumpkin topped with pieces of bone marrow inside a bone. This was very good.

This bone marrow was the side dish
to the beef


The price, too, was excellent value for what this restaurant offered in Tokyo. It was truly a Michelin two-star lunch for something like US$70 per person, including a bottle of Chateldon in that price.

When it was time to go, the chef was waiting for us by the door, smiling and ever so congenial.

Chef Kishimoto of L'Embellir.
Officially now one of my favourite French restaurants
in Tokyo.

This is a plus factor for me, as sometimes chefs think they don't need to do this goodbye thing when they become famous. I eat in famous restaurants all over the world, and I find that the truly great chefs and great restaurants take the time to give each diner a warm reception or a warm farewell.

You have just plunked a small fortune for a meal, after all.


I was at another two-star restaurant the day before, a Japanese kaiseki, and the chef didn't even show himself at all and the waiters didn't even make up for it with the traditional niceties usual in a Japanese restaurant. 

So the food was good but I didn't feel like returning after a pricey meal with such a cold goodbye.

It's not mandatory for chefs to greet customers, of course, but it sure makes a difference to the customer's feeling of satisfaction, even if they don't actually realize it.

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And, in ever so competitive Tokyo, after paying US$70 for lunch, it's a nice touch to see the chef at the end.

At L'Embellir, we were even given these nice boxes of sweets at the end. Clearly, this chef is gunning for three stars and I really hope he gets it.

If this was his US$70 experience, I sure can't wait to see what his full-blown dinner experience is like.

Then I said goodbye to Y and walked back home through Omotesando Avenue, Tokyo's most beautiful street.

While looking at the new fashionable shops in my neck of the woods and trying to burn off some calories in the process, I couldn't stop marvelling at the wonderful meal I had just had, on just another beautiful day in my never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.