Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Black angus prime rib, rack of lamb from New Zealand and a sacher torte from the Hotel Sacher in Vienna for an impromptu dinner with my neighbours tonight

So today, there we were at a small Korean sweets shop in the Fort on the second to the last afternoon of the year, having green tea ice cream with red bean paste and sweet shaved ice with sour mangoes with our neighbours, living a #Travelife.

It was just a very casual get-together but then one thing led to another and we all decided to do dinner somehow.


At Steirereck in Vienna last week,
living a #Travelife...

"We can go to a restaurant," one of them said. But I've been eating in restaurants every single day -- and often even twice a day -- for about six months in a row now, so I was quite happy to not eat in another one just for one night.

In fact, I'd even planned on having dinner at home -- one of the few nights I could actually do so -- so I had a Black Angus prime rib semi-waiting in the oven.


Lobster bisque at The Fireplace
of the New World Manila last night,
living a #Travelife...

I say "semi-waiting" because I thought we should have a festive dinner at home as it was December 30th, so I had prepared accordingly but we weren't really very hungry.

We'd had a massive steak dinner with some old friends of mine at The Fireplace of the New World Manila until 2 AM the previous night, you see, and then we'd had a mixture of Korean dumplings and Japanese sushi for lunch at Resorts World for lunch today.

And then after that Resorts World lunch, there we were having afternoon tea at this Korean sweets shop at the kind invitation of our neighbours.


In between the traveling, work and partying,
this is what I've been doing at home, living a #Travelife.
I've been re-coloring the wallpaper in one of my corridors myself.

I was quite happy to have everyone at home instead for prime rib under these circumstances. So I said: "Why don't you just come over for an informal dinner? We'll rustle up something."

So we agreed to meet in an hour back at my home, during which time I put the prime rib in the oven and did the mashed potatoes and gravy, lit the candles and then supervised the setting of the table.



My neighbours came with a salad and a very nice rack of lamb, still warm from their oven. It was incredibly delicious as it was the meat of a young lamb from New Zealand that they'd picked up on a recent trip to Hong Kong and hand carried back to Manila.

Usually we open a Bordeaux red to go with such a menu, but tonight we opened a New World wine, albeit a very good one.


And for dessert, I took out one of my remaining boxes of sacher torte, handcarried from the Hotel Sacher in Vienna and we each had a slice while I recounted the history of the sacher torte and the interesting rivalry between two shops about this.

Not bad for an impromptu dinner with the neighbours, decided and undertaken in an hour, as always living a never-ending #Travelife.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The best tapas in Manila are at Bar Pinxtos in Alabang. And remembering the tapas in San Sebastian, Spain.

The other night in traffic-free Manila, living a #Travelife, we took the South superhighway to Alabang to try our friend Miguel Vecin's new restaurant, Bar Pinxtos.

It's been open for close to six months now, but I'd never been until then as I've been away so much this year.


Bar Pinxtos is near Alabang Hills, at the back of a building on the main street leading towards the subdivision.

It's a little hard to find at first as it's located at the back and it doesn't even have a proper sign. But all you really need to do is look for the building with the Pancake House restaurant in front.

Fortunately, when we got there, we saw Miguel and Noel, another friend, already having a drink in front of the bar and not inside (a very Spanish thing to do, by the way), so we knew we were at the right place.



There are lots of supposed tapas bars in Manila, but I had yet to find one that transported me back to San Sebastian in Spain. Until the other night.

Bar Pinxtos does just that, with its casual atmosphere, mix of tables and bar seating, and, of course, its food.

Many foodies in the know have been making a bee-line for this restaurant for sometime now, and it's doing very well. On the night we were there, people just kept coming in all night, and this was supposed to be a slow night.


Miguel Vecin, who grew up in Spain and who still travels there whenever he can, left the corporate world to pursue his passion of running a real good pinxtos bar.

He's obviously put lots of passion and thought into the food so the tapas are really tasty.

Some of it is very authentic, like the olives and anchovies on a toothpick that Miguel serves exactly as they do in San Sebastian.

This is the original tapas of San Sebastian, by the way, and Miguel's version is just as good as the ones I've tasted in the popular bars of San Sebastian.


Meanwhile, the other tapas are pure creativity -- so delicious and also so original that I felt I actually didn't have to go to San Sebastian for tapas anymore.

Of course, I still do need to go to San Sebastian, nevertheless. But you get what I mean, right?


One of my favourites, and also the top bestseller at Bar Pinxtos, is an incredible tapas of jamon and alioli on a slice of bread.

The combination was amazingly simple -- so simple that I was surprised I'd never seen it at a tapas bar before. And it was so good that I stole my friend Catha's share of it for another serving.

With her permission, of course.


Then we had pig's ears fried crispy and served with alioli and green peppers. The tiny spicy ones. And the trick was to get a piece of pig's ear, dip it into the alioli, and then pop it into your mouth with a green pepper or too.

This is Catha's favourite. "It's basically the Spanish version of sisig," she said to me.

And it certainly was, as sisig is made with chopped up pig's ears and cheeks. Many people also like to have it with a bit of spicy hot sauce.


We ate enough tapas to last me for the rest of the year (which is ending in a few days anyway), but Noel went on and ordered Miguel's special chuleton anyway as a main course -- as if we needed one still.

Bar Pinxtos has become his "kitchen" so we were happy to eat anything he recommended.

Well, the chuleton was wonderful, cooked by Miguel himself. The meat was flavourful, well-seasoned and cooked perfectly, that I'm still thinking about it now.


We also had Miguel's very original lamb paella which came highly recommended by Noel, who does a mean paella himself. It was delicious.

Tapas aren't that hard to make, as you might imagine. But to put good ingredients together in a combination that works is quite difficult. 

Most tapas places in this city place a slice of jamon and an olive on top of a piece of bread and serve these with potato croquettes and call these tapas.

But the tapas I had at Bar Pinxtos were of another level, and these sure made me dream of returning to San Sebastian sometime soon, for another chapter in my never-ending, and never-endingly eventful #Travelife.    

PS: Here are some recommendations for tapas bars in San Sebastian, Spain:

1) La Cuchara de San Telmo
2) Bar Borda Berri
3) Aggoregi jatetxea
4) Atari Gastroteka
5) Zazpi Bar

Sunday, December 27, 2015

A roast beef and champagne dinner party at home with friends that ended with nightcaps of a 27-year-old Hibiki

Tonight I hosted one of my few holiday dinners over this season, and I had so much fun at my own dinner party.

Usually I host quite a lot of dinners over Christmas and New Year's -- approximately one on every evening that I am not out at someone else's party or dinner -- but this year I took it easier as I just did a two-week Christmas markets cruise through Eastern Europe and Germany, leaving just before the peak holiday rush began and returning just in time for Christmas Eve.

And since then, there have been friends and relatives to meet up with every single night. So fatigue and a bit of work caught up with me, and entertaining at home took the back seat.


But today, I asked some friends over for a roast beef dinner which turned out very nicely.

The meal was very good, if I have to say so myself, and I deliberately made the slab of rib-eye rare and then prepared a tableside griller for guests who wanted their roast beef slices more on the medium side.

We began with champagne, and then I opened a bottle of red from the 1990s and then we ended with multiple nightcaps of a 27-year-old Hibiki.



As for guests at my dinner parties, I have several informal parameters.

My ideal number is between a dinner for two and for four because I like intimate, in-depth conversation rather than general social chatter. And I dislike having to divide one's attention between 10 guests, for example, as this makes me tune out quite quickly.


And my maximum number for hosting a dinner is generally about three couples. If it's more than this, the conversation tends to get too diluted unless everyone knows each other very well -- in which case it becomes a party.

But I don't cook dinner for parties, I cook dinner to get to know people better, so large numbers don't work for me.

That said, I have hosted some very large parties including Travelife Italy Night with 485 guests and a formal seating plan, Travelife Japan Night with about 275 guests and a formal seating plan, and a joint birthday party with my friend Mr. Jaded with 400 of our friends coming in all night.


I also choose the mix of guests way more carefully than most people, taking into account the personality, interests, and occupation of each guests. In other words, I curate my dinners with great detail, from the exactly right mix of guests down to the plates to use and the decor on the table.

I so dislike just inviting a bunch of people I know and hoping they all get along and find something to talk about.


Vegetables flown in from Budapest
for tonight's side dishes

Today was just right.

We all laughed, talked and planned trips together, and everyone had seconds of everything including the roast beef and the dessert.

We finished all the alcohol save for the Hibiki, and we might have sat all night with the Hibiki, too, if only I didn't have work tomorrow, and someone else had to play golf while another person was flying to Hong Kong.

But this is just how it always is in my never-ending, and never-endingly eventful #Travelife.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The best sacher torte in Vienna. Is it at the Hotel Sacher or at Demel? And about the most famous coffee houses in Vienna and the things to do in Vienna when visiting for the first time.

So last week, even before my friends and I had set foot in Vienna, living a #Travelife, one of them asked me: "Which one should we go to? Hotel Sacher or Demel?"

She was talking about the best place in Vienna for getting the genuine and the best sacher torte.

I replied: "We're going to both Sacher and Demel, of course."



The sacher torte is a rather dry chocolate cake with apricot jam spread between the layers, coated with an equally dry and hard chocolate icing.

It's not everyone's cup of tea -- or perhaps I should say plate of cake, instead -- but those who appreciate it tend to like it very much.

The original sacher torte was reportedly created by Franz Sacher in 1832 and it immediately became a big hit at the Viennese Royal Court, particularly for Prince Metternich. He reportedly passed it on to his son Edouard who then worked at nearby Demel, and this is how Demel got its own version of the sacher torte of the Hotel Sacher.

Later on it became a great favourite of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, as well, and eventually the beloved cake of Viennese. So of course it's a must for someone visiting Vienna, especially if they're doing so for the first time.

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It's still a toss-up between Demel and Hotel Sacher, on which is the best sacher torte or even the authentic one.

But nevertheless, tasting the sacher torte is one of the things you must do when visiting Vienna for the first time, along with having a Viennese schnitzel for lunch and sitting in a famous Viennese coffee shop to have a drink and people watch.


It goes without saying that Hotel Sacher and Demel are among the most famous of the Viennese coffee houses -- the Sacher has a very opulent atmosphere while Demel is lively and busy.

And here are other places to try if you have the time and inclination:

1) The circa 1880s Cafe Sperl offers antiquated surroundings a good Sperl torte, in case you want to try another kind of cake.

2) The Cafe Landtmann is my personal favorite, as well as a great favourite of artists, intellectuals and politicians for the last 120 years or so. At Sacher and Demel, you're more likely to see tourists and maybe a celebrity or two, but Cafe Landtmann is for serious people watching for those interested in Viennese society. Good coffee and also good hot meals. I've actually never had cake here.

3) Other people recommend the Cafe Mozart. It's perfectly situated near the Spanish Riding School, to enter after a day of sightseeing, although you will probably find it full more of tourists than locals.


But back to the sacher torte, which I personally think is an acquired taste as a moist chocolate cake is way easier to like.

And just for the fun of it, I always go to both Hotel Sacher and Demel. Demel is a short walk away from Sacher, and both are easy to go to whenever I am in Vienna.

There's a rivalry between these two for recognition as the best place and the most authentic place for sacher torte, and I'll save the story for another entry.


This time in Vienna, though, I bought boxes of sacher torte at both the Hotel Sacher and Demel to bring back home, as we did go to both and someone very kindly carried all our shopping for us girls and I actually had four check-in luggage, so there was great incentive to buy these rather heavy boxes of cake.

When I got home and gave someone a taste of the real deal sacher torte from Vienna, he simply said: "It's a dry cake. I don't see what all the fuss is about. Maybe it's the packaging."




Sacher torte at Demel in Vienna

Admittedly, both the sacher torte of the Hotel Sacher and the sacher torte of Demel are so beautifully packaged that you almost don't want to open it. The cakes are carefully placed in handstamped wooden boxes that are then wrapped in glossy red paper and ribbons.

Nevertheless, it is a dry cake that crumbles when you slice it without much experience, and that also crumbles in your mouth. Some people like and others don't.

But each time I have this -- the most recent time was this afternoon on Christmas Day -- I remember Vienna in all its winter glory, as I have always visited Vienna only in the winter, for some reason, each time living a never-endingly eventful #Travelife. 


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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The best shopping in Budapest and buying caviar, foie gras and vegetables in the Great Market Hall. And about the Omorovicza cult skincare brand and its copper peel set.

The view from my room at the
Four Seasons Gresham Palace in Budapest

So our last day on holiday in Europe at the tail-end of a Christmas markets cruise was spent shopping in Budapest, living a #Travelife. I'd arranged for a big van and a driver for all of us and two of us girls had mapped out the itinerary for the day.

I'd been to Budapest a very long time ago, but the rest of the group hadn't.



And after the sightseeing, we all wanted to pack the remaining space in our luggage with interesting and rare finds from Budapest.

We went to the best wine shop in Budapest, as well as a couple of boutiques of local fashion designers, and some vintage stores.

That's Buda across the river from the Four Seasons.
But for shopping, we mainly stuck to the Pest side.


The vintage stores were my request as I'm always looking for high-end vintage shops in major European capitals on my never-ending hunt for vintage Issey Miyake creations, and vintage Halston, Pucci and Missoni.

There are lots of new designs from Pucci and Missoni everywhere, as well as lots of Pucci fakes masquerading as overruns from China, but I think the real, old designs are the best ones yet.


I also had fun checking out the local designers. In fact, I picked up a dress from one Hungarian designer's summer collection on sale, and I love it for its quirky uniqueness.

In general, I found the designs were either very colourful -- perhaps because of the Magyar culture -- or very minimalist modern in a German way. But this summer dress I found was elegant, graceful and handprinted.

Some of the vegetables I took home
from the Budapest Central Market


I also wanted to go to the main shop of the Hungarian skincare line Omorovicza, which I love, and which has become a pretty famous brand with a global cult following.

The Omorovicza thermal skin cleansing balm, made with Hungarian spring waters, is legendary. And this time, I tried one of their newest products which is a copper peel product also made with Hungarian spring waters.



The Four Seasons Gresham Palace
also carries the Omorovicza line in its spa.
I wish I'd bought more products here,
as I love this cult skincare brand...


Of course we went to the circa 1887 Great Market Hall, which is also called the Central Market Hall, to pick up sausages, cured meats, foie gras, and caviar -- including bottles and tins of Ossetra caviar and foie gras in all kinds of preparations.

They even had dessert foie gras in a tin. This is the city's largest and oldest indoor market, by the way.


Some of the vegetables I brought home
from Hungary, living a #Travelife...

As an extra, I also bought lots of lovely and hard to find vegetables at the market for a Christmas Eve dinner.

The vegetables were beautiful and tantalizingly colourful. I'm posting some photos here so you will see what I mean. And by the time you read this, I'll be on a plane home with these, thinking about a menu for a holiday dinner after another wonderful trip in my never-ending #Travelife. 


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