Bo Innovation

Bo Innovation – lost its mojo.

Bo Innovation: Review Update

I was greatly looking forward to my dinner at Bo Innovation last Saturday. Unfortunately it disappointed on every level apart from the tea I drank throughout which was lovely.

For a start, I was avoiding booze for the weekend, but there was no chance of that here because the tasting menu had some form of liquor in almost every course. The dinner started with a ridiculous Bai Jiu frothy cocktail, (from the introduction we were given we thought it was a frothy cappuccino style consommé with some Bai Jiu in it, not a frikking hard alcohol cocktail) that did nothing to settle my stomach and then went downhill from there.

Not that the meal was particularly unpleasant, just uninspiring, gimmicky and unbalanced – plus the service was patchy.

Given Bo’s reputation, my past experience and the high price, I expected much more. Needless to say I will not be going back.

I should have known better. It’s par for the course when the head chef starts expanding their empire overseas.

Best avoided.

Champagne Caustic Candy

Best places to drink Champagne in Hong Kong – 5 bottles in 24 hours.

I’ve been inspired by the sunshine streaming into my study today and the glorious site of the islands on the horizon across a deep blue sea. This post originally appeared on Lifestyle Asia last year, but I never uploaded it to Caustic Candy.  Once again, huge thanks to Debra Meiburg for her fantastic picks.

Forget perching atop a bar stool sipping bubbly in your Choos, the best places in Hong Kong to share a bottle of Champagne require a little forethought, a cooler bag and some sensible flats to reach (don’t expect photos of these locations here I have no intention of spoiling the fun of discovering these places for the first time).

Each of these spots is best to visit at a specific time of day, and so I thought it appropriate to enlist the help of an expert and find five special Champagnes that would match perfectly.

When I say expert, what I really mean is Master of Wine and all round superstar Debra Meiburg, and I can’t thank her enough for taking the time out of her busy schedule to carefully select some truly unusual and special wines.

If you haven’t heard of Debra, where have you been? She is one of only two Masters of Wine in the whole of Asia, and apart from being an educator, speaker and journalist, she also has her own TV show Taste the Wine which you can catch on Cathay’s inflight entertainment.

1. Long Ke Wan, Sai Kung

When: Morning

Champagne: Pommery Summertime Blanc de Blancs NV

I think the best way to do Long Ke Wan is to arrive on foot and leave by speedboat.

Going to this beach should be done on a whim when the skies are clear as the view into the bay will be at its best (I’m thinking summer with its maritime airstream).

It’s great to get here by mid-morning as the sun will sparkle off the sand and bring out the colours of the sea. With the right weather, it’s breathtaking.

Have a taxi take you to the very far end of the East Dam at High Island Reservoir. At the end of the road there is only one path up the hill, so scurry up. At the top there is a short saddle, and then suddenly below you is the perfect bay of Long Ke Wan.

Descend the hillside through the buddhist pines to the beach to enjoy some of the softest, whitest sand in Hong Kong. The horseshoe  bay gets popular at weekends with motor cruisers, but mid-week or even just mid-morning it’s invariably deserted. Make sure to pre-arrange a speedboat to come and take you back to Sai Kung Town. It’s the quickest way back to civilisation, especially after a few glasses of bubbles. I get my lifestyle manager at Ten to organise this kind of thing for me — I think it, they manifest it.

Long Ke Wan - Caustic Candy

2. Hor Lan Geng, Mid-Levels

When: Afternoon

Champagne: Vouette et Sorbé Saignée de Sorbe Rosé NV

One of my favourite paths on Hong Kong island Hor Lan Geng is known to some as Snake Path and to many others as Dutch Path. Winding through the trees above Bowen Road with kilometre long sections with not a splash of concrete underfoot, the path connects Magazine Gap Reservoir with Wan Chai Gap Road.

Slip away from the office and get a taxi to drop you off in the water work’s road opposite The Harbour View, 11 Magazine Gap Road.

Walk past the playground and covered reservoir to the far end where you will see a tiny path winding into the trees. Follow this path until you come out onto the concrete road some 20 minutes later and around the start of this section you will find two or three gaps in the trees where you can sit and swing your legs over the edge and enjoy stunning views over Victoria Harbour.

There is nothing quite like being in the jungle, and yet looking out over one of the most spectacular modern cityscapes in the world, especially when you know that all of those offices below are crammed with people beavering away.

Carry on until the end of the path and you will hit the crazy steepness of Wan Chai Gap Road. It’s a 100 metre haul to the top where you can grab a taxi straightaway, or go and enjoy an ice-cream at Wanchai Gap Road Playground (avoid the coffee, it tastes like pee).

Snake Path is also a brilliant place to watch Harbour Fireworks from.  You’ll still need to arrive an hour or two early to get a good spot, but it’s well worth it.

Snake Path Caustic Candy

3. Sham Wat Wan, Lantau

When: Sunset

Champagne: De Sousa & Fils Cuvée des Caudalies Brut NV

For sunset, you have to be west-facing, and so we may as well go as far west as possible and pretty much as far back in time as possible to enjoy the next bottle on the sea wall at Sham Wat Wan on Lantau.

Again, this is a bit of an adventure and may mean you having to bribe the taxi driver another HK$100 to take you and wait.

To reach Sham Wat Wan by car (you can walk from Tung Chung or Tai O but it takes too long in my book for this specific endeavour), the taxi will turn left off the road that leads to Ngong Ping and the Big Buddha. You will snake down the side of Lantau peak for about 15 minutes until you find yourself in the village of Sham Wat.

It’s a very old fishing village, where inhabitants dig for clams at low tide, grow their own fruit and vegetables, and farm oysters in the bay.

With the pollution from the airport and the factories of the PRC you can count on a stunning sunset, and, if you are brave enough, you can enjoy one of the famous oyster omelettes that the two village restaurants serve. It’s difficult to find a more chilled out, old-school spot in Hong Kong, and the locals are super welcoming.

Sham Wat Wan Caustic Candy

4. Rock pools, above Ngau Kwo Tin, Lantau

When: Nighttime
Champagne: Taittinger Nocturne NV

Staying on Lantau for this next bottle, there’s nothing quite so delicious as skinny dipping in a rock pool on a hot and humid night with some good crystal-wear and an ice-cold bottle of Champagne.

My favourite pool is above Tai O at the end of a waterworks road that begins just below the Li Ka Shing funded Kwun Yam temple. You have to choose your seasons for rock pools, and the hot, rainy season is best as pools are likely to be full.

To be safe you shouldn’t really swim in them for 24 hours after heavy rain as you don’t want to be drowned by a flash flood or crushed by a landslide of boulders that sometimes get shifted in the rainy season. So exercise some common sense.

Get the taxi to drop you off in the car park on the right soon after the entrance to the Kwun Yam temple. Cross the road and follow the Water Supplies Department track for about 25 minutes to its end. There you will find a waterfall whose pool has been dammed making a lovely swimming hole. Set up your hurricane lamps and citronella coils and while away a couple of hours in one of the most secret infinity pools in Hong Kong. For those who can’t drive on Lantau, there is now the option of making a night of it by staying in the utterly charming Tai O Heritage Hotel in the old colonial police station. The establishment has dinky rooms but they beautifully furnished, and having Tai O to yourself in the morning before the hoards arrive is delightful.

Rock Pool Caustic Candy

5. Mount Davis Battery, Pok Fu Lam

When: Dawn

Champagne: Cedric Bouchard Inflorescence Blanc de Noirs

After a hard night’s partying, you need somewhere convenient but spectacular to watch the sunrise. For me, it’s at the summit of Mount Davis on top of the battery.

You have a wonderful view across most of Hong Kong, a fascinating network of military buildings to mooch around and some great spaces to lie down and watch the sky turn from night to day.

It’s a blissfully quiet moment in a busy city. Ask the taxi to take you to Mount Davis Youth Hostel and pay him to wait for you, otherwise you will have to wait for the minibus service to start (not a terribly sophisticated way to end this venture). You will see an incredibly steep concrete “road” continuing another 50m upwards and you just use the steps at the side to walk to the top.

Cross the huge open space (keeping left) that really should be used to host outdoor music festivals, and at the far end you will see the battery.

Clamber on top of the complex and find a comfortable spot to enjoy the view of Hong Kong coming alight; more beautiful than any laser light show. If you go at the weekend you may be disturbed (in every sense of the word), by the Airsoft brigade who use the battery as one of their battlegrounds. They aren’t usually there at dawn, but try to restrain yourself and not point out where their enemies are hiding if they happen to be there.

Mount Davis Battery Caustic Candy

These are some of my favourite spots in Hong Kong, so go and find them to enjoy.

Le Kou'Gny

Le Kou’Gny, Isle of Pines, New Caledonia: lobster restaurant nonpareil

Review:

Eating a lobster lunch at Le Kou’Gny on Boxing Day 2012 was simply one of  the best meals of my life.

As you will know by now I abhor Trip Advisor, but when it comes to New Caledonia, because there are so few people who visit, there aren’t that many websites where you can find a list of potential eateries.

So, when I was researching NC I did end up reading Trip Advisor reviews out of morbid curiosity rather than for any intention of listening to their advice.

What I read there and what I experienced at the restaurant show what a useless tool such rating and review sites are. Find a critic (or dare I say a flogger) whose opinions you trust and go with that where you can.

This wasn’t going to be a post about the perils of Trip Advisor, but now I’m all riled up again, it’s going to have to be an illustrative case study.

Now, bear in mind that the vast majority of the few thousand tourists who go to New Cal each year are Aussies or cruise ship passengers or both. Aussies as a bunch of people are completely spoiled. We get it. You have fabulous beaches, great weather, amazing landscapes and great food, so whenever you go on holiday you compare it to what you have back home. Unfortunately this can make some of you very small-minded, and this is doubly true of the cruising classes.

To read many of the English language reviews about Le Kou’Gny you’d think that it was a horrendous, overpriced beach shack whose staff were lazy, ignorant Pacific Islanders who choose the size of the lobster they serve you based on your ability to speak French. Honestly, I kid you not. Check out the reviews.

The reality is this:

The restaurant is a simple, rustic family business. Picnic tables are set out on the sand underneath the shady pines in what is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful bays in the world. The restaurant is unreachable by road, and is a 15 minute trek along a jungle path. The Kanak guys who run it speak very little English, but are friendly and polite even if you are obviously struggling to make yourself understood in poor French. If you don’t speak French, bring a bloody phrasebook. It’s not that difficult.

Strangely enough, it’s not possible to catch 30 lobsters all the same size each day and so there is going to be variety of size between portions. However, whilst our lobsters were absolutely smaller than the table’s next to us, we were given an extra one and half slipper lobsters each, which were different and delicious. It’s obvious that the restaurant aims to serve each party with a uniform size of portion, but between tables the size might vary. Get over it.

That anyone should expect to pay buttons for a meal because they think that the overheads of the restaurant, the cost of ingredients and the material needs of the owners are limited, is frankly disgusting. I’d have paid double the US$70 per person price tag and been just as happy. They have every right to charge whatever they like.

Now the rant is over, here’s the nitty-gritty.

lobster_kougny

Food:

When you make a reservation you have to tell them whether you want lobster or fish as they will catch or buy the produce they need for their clients every morning. This is why you cannot turn up to Le Kou’Gny on spec and hope to eat lunch.

You absolutely must book in advance (I’ve been advised that you can ring as late as 6am the morning of your hoped for reservation and they will accommodate you if they have room).

Lunch is three courses of utter simplicity. A salad to start, followed by the seafood of your choice and rounding out with a fruit platter.

The salad was fresh with a really tasty dressing, a perfect starter on a hot day.

The lobster and slipper lobsters were superb. Lightly grilled, they were succulent and sweet. I’ve never had slipper lobster before and it was actually sweeter than the big lobster. I cleaned those shells, and sucked those joints and legs of every morsel, and pretty much drank the juice out of the shells too. Bliss.

The fruit was delicious. Local bananas, papayas, passion fruit etc, all sun ripened and perfectly set off with lime juice.

Simple. Delicious. Sweetly presented.

Drinks:

Ice cold beer and soft drinks on hand. Jugs of water brought to your table as a matter of course, and a small wine list. There’s also a dude selling coconuts at the restaurant which completes the tropical tableau.

Service:

We found the service perfectly friendly. We muddled through with our limited French. The food service was languid. There was no rush to get you finished and move you on. A Korean couple turned up without a booking and asked for a table (in English) for that day and were told that was not possible but they could book for the next day. All of this was in English. All perfectly friendly, if not verbose.

Ambience:

Perfect beach restaurant. An amazing view. Soft sand underfoot. Shady trees overhead.

kougny_food

Location:

Kou’Gny is up in Baie D’Oro in the north-east of the Isle of Pines. Road access is close to The Meridien Hotel and the drop-off point for the Piscine Naturelle. I would skip the piscine and head straight for Oro as it’s just as sheltered and beautiful and massive compared to the slightly crowded piscine (although there’s not as much to see snorkeling).

Our journey to Kou’Gny was organised through the Kou Bugny Hotel who were very helpful with tours even though we weren’t staying there. It involved an early start to grab a pirogue (traditional boat) at Baie St Joseph for a trip through the beautiful Baie Upi and then an hour’s easy trek through the forest to the restaurant. Such a lovely way to get there.

On the way back we just had a 15 minute walk back to the road where we were picked up in a minibus and taken back to the Baie Kuto where we were moored.

Mobile: +687 91 17 94 Landline: +687 46 10 65. I’ve read on some sites that you can leave it up to 9am on the day you want to eat to book, but if it’s a busy time of year, then don’t leave it that late.

Price:

The three course lunch was US$70 per person and then there were drinks and coconuts on top. Bear in mind that they are only open for lunch.

Summary:

Idyllic and charming. One of my favourite ever meals because of the mix of awesome location, great food and laid back atmosphere.

The Eugenia, Bangkok: Sadly getting a little tired

Update:

I am very sad to report that the Eugenia in Bangkok is starting to get a little tired. I’ve always enjoyed staying at the hotel as you will have known from my previous posts, but having advised a friend that it was worth the money I was horrified when she reported back on her experience this week.

She and her beau had shelled out for one of the most expensive rooms with a double four poster bed, only to be put in a room which just had twins beds shoved together.

The overhead shower wasn’t working in the bathroom and wasn’t fixed during their three day stay, and reports were that generally the decor and furniture is now looking rather tired and scuffed.

So. Until I hear that the Eugenia has been renovated, or at least repainted, I won’t be advising anyone to stay there.

Sad.

Fois gras with truffle brioche and berry semifreddo

Zinfandel’s, Esplanade Hotel, Zagreb: charms the socks off you

ZinfandelI have a new favourite restaurant in Europe. It happens to have one of the most beautiful original Belle Époque dining rooms in existence, amazing service, and importantly awesome food and wine.

It’s in the Croatian capital Zagreb and it’s called Zinfandel’s.

Food:

Ana Grgic is 31 and the Executive Chef. She started her apprenticeship at Zinfandel’s at the ludicrously young age of 17. She called up the executive chef at the time and asked to work for free so she could learn.  She has since worked with a couple of 2* Michelin chefs to hone her skills, holds the highest qualifications as a Master Chef, and worked under the previous exec chef James Vella for a number of years who is himself well-regarded.

Anyway, enough of that. All I need to tell you is that the food was exquisite.

Every morsel was perfectly cooked and beautifully presented. There was not one flavour combination that you noticed being slightly out-of-place. Make sure you check out the tasting menu we had.

We did have a rather amusing moment with the food. Because the tasting menu was long and Mr H and I aren’t big eaters of white carbs, we asked if we could swap the frog’s leg risotto for a delicious sounding rabbit dish, which they were very happy to do.

After the rabbit dish, we were brought the risotto anyway, but we had so much food to go we sent it back assuming that it had been a mistake. A minute later the restaurant manager (Stjepan Okun, a charming silver fox) came back with the dish and told us that there had been no mistake and that the chef insisted we must eat the dish because it was very good.  Who were we to argue with that?!  So, eat it we did, and enjoy it we did. She was absolutely right: chef knows best…

Drinks:

I fell in love with the avuncular sommelier who was also our waiter for the evening. Ivan Šneler is Croatia’s first Sommelier and the star turn.

There was no specific option on the menu for pairing wine with food but Ivan offered to do one for us. The wine list was long and reasonably priced, so we had full confidence in asking him to bring us all his best Croatian wines.

Holy smokes Croatia has some amazing vino! We’ve spent a couple of holidays in the country and have had some very passable wines, but nothing extraordinary.  Ivan knocked our socks off, with a raft of wines made from Croatian grape varieties that you don’t find elsewhere.

Service:

Service was brilliant. I’ve never had this much fun with the staff at a fine dinning establishment. Ivan doubles as ‘Comedy Waiter’.

Every time he comes near the table with a dish you think it’s going to end up in your lap, or he’ll manage to sweep everything on the table to the floor.

He must do it deliberately because somehow he avoids impending disaster, finishes with an elegant flourish and your food or wine perfectly placed. It was a roller-coaster of muscle-clenching terror followed by delighted, hand-clapping relief every time he approached. He’s incredibly proud of Ana as well, which was very touching.

Because Ivan knew we were rather full, instead of the dessert intended, he brought us a champagne sherbet he prepared instead. What a sweetie.

The staff handled risotto-gate with real charm too, and seemed genuinely pleased that we’d enjoyed our meal at the end of the night.

The Ambience/The Space:

You can get a bit of a sense of the decor from the photo. The restaurant is intimately sized and very elegant.

The restaurant was very quiet that night, and we were surprised at how late guests were showing up. Once party of four arrived at getting on for 11pm and they were seated and served in a leisurely manner. No clock watching from the staff.

The Price:

The seven course tasting menu was US$123 (Kn695) which was great value considering the quality of the food and the overall experience. I can’t find the exact cost of the wine, but it was less than US$100 for the pair of us.

Location:

Zinfandel’s is on the ground floor of  the Esplanade Hotel, which itself is a very pleasant place to stay. Mihanovićeva ulica 1,  10000, Zagreb, Croatia. Tel: +385 1 4566 666. www.esplanade.hr

Summary:

If you are looking for somewhere a bit different in Europe for a weekend break, I would highly recommend bouncing into Zagreb and staying at the Esplanade to eat at Zinfandel’s. The city is interesting, and the people friendly. It feels like a real undiscovered destination.

Zinfandel’s, Zagreb: Tasting Menu

Zinfandel’s, Esplanade Hotel, Zagreb – 6.10.2012

Adriatic langoustines, bloody Mary Granitte, coconut rolls.

Fois gras terrine, wild berry semifreddo, Istrian summer truffle brioche.

Langoustine consommé, fresh Adriatic shrimps and coriander.

Risotto, asparagus disc, frog legs and truffle juice.

Sole fillet, truffle, roasted asparagus pie, brown nut caper butter.

Veal, ox tail croquettes, horseradish foam.

Lemongrass panna cotta, tangerine sorbet and orange bisquit.

Extra course:

Rabbit roulade, artichokes confit, broad bean paste.

ccquay

Quay, Sydney: Well worth the reputation

Review:

Mr H and I spent the first few days of the new year in Australia, staying on the Hawkesbury River at Berowra Waters for some quality relaxation time, and then we spent 36 hours in Sydney which included just one night.

It was my first time to visit the city and we’re not sure when the next opportunity to go will present itself, so we only had one option for dinner, and that was Quay (don’t worry, lunch was at Harry’s Cafe de Wheels at Woolloomooloo the next day, so we did feast on Aussie pie too).

When I was reliving the meal at Berowra Waters Inn for an earlier post I was inclined to think that the food was pretty close to that at Quay, but once I went through the menu again for Quay I realised what a special meal it was, and what a talented chef Peter Gilmore is.

Food:

Just beautiful food. The execution of the dishes is very impressive. There’s that 3* delicacy of flavour and precision of presentation that’s really delightful, (think flowers and micro herbs arranged using tweezers).

However. I had to ponder why I thought that the food at Berowra was close to Quay, and realised that the last three courses at Berowra were absolutely amazing and the whole meal reached a crescendo at the cheese course so it sits firmly in my mind as a great meal.

Whereas, Peter Gilmore’s menu was (to my palette at least) extraordinary for the first few courses, but once we’d scaled the giddy gastronomic heights of the smoked and confit pig cheek with scallops (literally cannot ever be topped), the rest of the meal wasn’t quite as good, and the whole ‘signature’ snow egg extravaganza just completely passed me by. And, whilst we are on the subject of desserts, why does anyone need two? Plus petit fours at the end. I do wish chefs would reel themselves in. Sugar overload at the end of a big meal doesn’t do anyone’s digestion any good.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome food, and worth every penny when you can spend the same amount of money in Hong Kong for food not one smidgen as good. Make sure you check out the menu.

Drink:

We chose the Classic Wine Match menu to pair with the meal and it was almost exclusively Aussie wines. The premium wine matching is Old World wines, and we had no inclination to drink those in our host country. I think that would have been rather rude.

The wines were great, but I think that the sommelier at Berowra Waters actually did a better job. The wines she chose (apart from the Topaque) really made the dishes pop and they were actually enhanced by the wine, whereas at Quay you didn’t notice that so much. You just noticed that they were really nice wines.  Again, I’m nit picking, it’s just that because I ate at these two restaurants on consecutive nights, I can’t help but compare.

The Space/The Ambience

We were warned when the reservation was made that there was a cruise ship in so there would be a very limited view from the restaurant. This didn’t bother us. All we wanted was a quiet corner to enjoy our food, which we got.

It was quite hilarious watching all the cruise passengers watching us right back, especially as we kept a running tally of the ratio of normal sized people to the utterly obese, (about 1:10). If that Royal Caribbean liner had gone down like the Costa Concordia, there is no way in hell that everyone would have been able to move fast enough to get off, let alone would there have been enough room in the lifeboats for all those fatties. I suppose at least they’d survive longer if rescue was delayed…

I digress. Without the view, the restaurant itself is nothing special.It’s tastefully Hyatt bland if you know what I mean. I presume they keep the lighting down so low to enable guests to get the full effect of the view across the harbour at night, but I would prefer to be able to see my food properly, and not have to worry about falling over steps that are impossible to see in the dark. Although going back to the cruise passengers, maybe they turn the lights down so that the restaurant isn’t such a goldfish bowl for people to stare into.

Service:

Can’t fault the service. It was efficient and friendly. Our sommelier was an American lady who was very informative and relaxed.

Price:

The set menu is AUS$220, and the Classic Wine matching option was another AU$95. All this is ++

Location:

The Quay is on the top floor of  the International cruise terminal on the western edge of Circular Quay.

Upper Level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks, Sydney 2000. Tel: +61 2 9251 5600.  www.quay.com.au

Summary:

It’s nice to have the luxury of being able to go to restaurants like this. The food was great with platefuls of genius early on, but I still can’t quite shake the slight disappointment of everything post pork and scallops. The wine was good, the service was good, but now I feel like I’ve been-there-done-that, and I’m raring to try some other restaurants the next time I’m in Sydney.

Quay, Sydney Tasting Menu

Quay Tasting Menu – 6 January 2013

Sashimi of local lobster, bergamot, green almonds, grapefruit,   elderflowers

Salad of preserved wild cherries, albino and chioggia beetroots, radish, crème fraiche, violets

Line caught iki jime Tasmanian squid, squid ink custard, society garlic, pink turnips

Smoked and confit pig cheek, shiitake, shaved scallops, Jerusalem artichoke leaves

Hawkesbury free range chicken cooked in Vin Jaune and cream, steamed brioche, egg yolk confit, truffle

Poached Rangers Valley beef, bitter chocolate, black pudding, morel, ezekiel drubs, shaved mushrooms

Andalucia citrus and almonds

White nectarine snow egg

thai_kca

A Good Thai in Kowloon City: Saeb-E-Hleelub Ped

Review:

There are so many Thai restaurants in Kowloon City (hence its epithet Little Thailand), that it’s a bit pot luck which one you end up at. Faced with so many, you wander around and end up just plumping for one that catches your eye, most of the time. Open Rice is not much help as there are about a gazillion reviews for hundreds of restaurants, and no handful of restaurants stands out.

After a couple of disappointments using the zen navigation-technique of choosing restaurants, I finally struck gold in the form of Saeb-E-Hleelub Ped (?!).


Food:

thai_kc

First off, the restaurant serves Thai sour sausage which immediately puts it in the top 10% of Thai restaurants in Hong Kong.  If you’ve never had these slightly fermented, coarse and garlicy pork sausages, trust me, you are missing out.

Secondly, all the food we had was really tasty and authentically hot. It’s standard Thai food, nothing fancy, just well executed.

A solid menu that’s not too long, but includes all the staples and favourites.

Drinks:

What you’d expect in a simple Thai restaurant; lots of juices and sodas on offer plus Thai and international beers. Loved the preserved lemon and honey hot tea that I had, and Mr H had the same but iced.

Service:

Reasonably quick service, with each dish brought out separately. Very friendly female staff – Canto and Thai – sporting some flamboyant sartorial choices that added a certain panache to the proceedings. Ordering using English was not a problem, and the menus are bilingual.

The Space/Ambience:

It’s a Hong Kong canteen style restaurant: plastic stools, laminated tables and melamine crockery. Loud and jovial.

Price:

Mr H and I had four dishes between us with a couple of drinks each. The bill without service came to a ludicrously reasonable HK$222.

Location:

You’ll find the restaurant at 27 Nam Kok Road, Kowloon City. Tel: +852 2716 2938

Summary:

I’ll happily go back here until I’ve exhausted the menu before going out and searching for an alternative Thai in Kowloon City. Fabulous value, friendly atmosphere and most importantly good food.

IMG_5088_Snapseed

Berowra Waters Inn, Sydney

Review:

After our sailing trip in New Caledonia over Christmas we spent a few days staying on the river at Berowra Waters. Awesome spot, and just perfect for total relaxation. I found the location when I was looking for places to go for lunch by seaplane from Sydney and saw that Berowra Waters Inn was a recommended trip.

Long story short, the inn has a rather convoluted past with a few dramas and changes of fortunes (this is maybe why the Short History section of their website is currently disabled). But it’s a new year in 2013 and, fingers crossed, the restaurant in now entering a more stable phase of existence.

berowra_waters_inn1

Food:

We thoroughly enjoyed the food. It was beautifully presented, intricate and very tasty. You can see the full menu in the previous post to see what we were able to savour.

The slow cooked beef rib was superb, and topped the beef at the Quay the next night, and the cheese course was inspired. I never realized that Australia had such fantastic cheeses. As good as anything you’ll find in France or the UK.

Drink:

We opted for the wine pairing with the dinner and weren’t disappointed. All really good Aussie wines that we would never have known about otherwise.

The wines really set some of the dishes alight in fact, so full marks to the sommelier, a fiercely enthusiastic Aussie chick.  The only one that didn’t catch my fancy was the Topaque – sorry, but the Hungarians can’t be beaten when it comes to Tokaji.

Service:

The service was very good, friendly etc etc. The sommelier forgot to bring us one of the wines for the second course and was mortified. They slowed down service so we could enjoy the glass, and gave us the cheese course in recompense which was worth AU$70. A very sweet thing to do and certainly an overcompensation that was much appreciated as the course was delicious.

The ONLY thing I would say about the service is that the evening felt rather serious. Food was introduced with reverence and hushed tones, and felt a bit like a performance that wasn’t suitable for this bushland restaurant.  This is Australia after all, and I was expecting a little more camaraderie with the wait staff. You don’t need to have such formal service in order to be taken seriously as a fine dinning establishment, which is what I felt might be behind this.

The Space/Ambiance:

The restaurant faces the creek and floor to ceiling windows overlook the Hawkesbury River and cliffs opposite. It’s a lovely space and not at all cluttered with tables. Light, airy and modern.

Price:

There is one six course set menu on offer with optional cheese course and wine matching. The menu is AU$165 and with the wine pairing it rises to $240.

If you have any allergies or special requirements then let them know when you book, although they asked us as a matter of course when we made the reservation.

Location/Opening:

The restaurant is only open at weekends.  Friday night, and then Saturday and Sunday lunch and dinner. Diners generally arrive by car and park at the Berowra Waters Marina before being brought by the restaurant’s boat downriver to the site. It is not accessible by car.

You can also take a seaplane from Sydney for lunch, or be picked up by the restaurant’s boat if you are staying in Berowra Waters like we were (remember to leave a light on in the porch, else you’ll be struggling to find your house. You live and learn…)

Summary:

Comparing the meal to The Quay in Sydney the next night, I think the AU$240 including wine matching was worth every penny. It was a great meal and if only they’d have lightened up a little then it would also have been a fun meal.

Berowra Waters Inn Menu

Berowra Waters Inn Menu – 5 January 2013

Sydney Rock Oysters, Cucumber, Ginger & Dill

Confit of Ocean Trout, Smoked Milk, Dashi & Wild Rice

Vegetable Garden, Pumpkin & Licorice

Roasted Duck, Peach, Lavender & Fennel

Slow Cooked Rib of Beef, Potato Terrine & Braised Cos

Gippsland Triple Cream, Caramelised Red Onion Sorbet, Celery & Walnut Crumb

Tropicana

Central Park Hotel Website
This is what the rooms are advertised as on the hotel website.

Central Park Hotel, Hong Kong: A shabby filthy hole

Review:

I’m currently investigating hotels in Hong Kong that can be had for US$200 or less a night.

A couple of weeks ago it was the turn of the Central Park Hotel in Sheung Wan. A 3* hotel that is used by many overseas travel agents who put tour groups there or those who are staying just one night in HK on a transfer through to somewhere else.

So, was it the “hip boutique hotel…in the heart of Hong Kong’s financial and commercial centre” that it claims on its website to be?

Nothing could be further from the truth.

For a start, when I last looked (yesterday), the financial and commercial heart of Hong Kong Island was definitely still Central and Admiralty, whereas Sheung Wan was still the heart of sharks fin and dried bark trade. But petty differences in geographical opinions aside, onwards to what I actually experienced.

After an unnecessarily long 15 minute check-in process, the first room I was assigned (2504 I believe it was) was so musty, and the atmosphere was so damp I couldn’t believe they’d dared give me the key. Uninhabitable.

Central Park Mould

The mould covered the entire wall

Keeping the door wedged open so as not to be overcome by the smell, I rang reception for a new room. As I was on the phone holding for a response, I realised that the odd pattern on the wallpaper I was staring at was in fact mould. It was all over the entire wall behind the bed.

I then looked at the other walls and found rising damp above the skirting boards, stained carpets and general scruffiness – and this was one of the rooms on the Executive Floor!

On to the second room.

I went to meet a porter on the 7th floor, and as soon as the lift doors opened the reek of stale cigarette smoke was thick in the air. I told the porter I wouldn’t stay in a smoking room as I had indicated on my booking reservation, so there was no need for me to see it, yet he assured me that it was just the corridor that smelled. Hmm, what a bloody stupid thing to say, and what a bloody stupid room to try and check me into when I’d asked for a non-smoking room, and already turned down one room partly because of the stench.

Against my wishes he hauled me into the room, and lo and behold, on entering it was more like walking into a smoking lounge at an airport than a hotel room. Having reiterated my request to change room, poor Mr Porter suggested that maybe all it needed was some air-freshener! Um…No…What it needs is a thorough gutting.

I tilted my head to one side and looked at him with pity, “That would be like spraying perfume on a pile of poo, dear. It’s still a pile of poo, and will still stink like a pile of poo, although probably just more rancid once the smell of pine and lilies has worn off a little.” He smiled back weakly in bafflement, as these were not the English words he was used to hearing. Poor chap, but by this stage I was gently fuming.

On the march again, and on to the third room.

This room was still shabby, dented and scratched, but at least it didn’t smell, but by now I was running so late that it would have to do.

I had a quick shower, where I noticed that the window frame didn’t fit properly so there was an air gap down the entire length of one side, and the loo was surrounded by a blooming stain of rust.

In the bedroom I also saw that not only was the bed so low to the ground that it didn’t even come up to my knees, but I also realised that it was rather short. Rather too short for even a person of just 5 foot 10 inches, which isn’t overly tall by anyone’s standards apart from probably the Mbuti tribes of central Africa. Livid and running late I had no time to do anything about it.

My night out was not starting well.

Central Park Hotel Horror

Rising damp, ill-fitting windows, leaking toilets

Later that evening, after a fine meal at a surprisingly empty Roka and a trip to the flicks, the bed as expected was found to be too short for Mr H, who had to sleep diagonally across it and I had to sleep with my knees round my ears (and not for any kinky reason at all).

In the morning before even 7:15am had rolled around, the cleaning staff were crashing about with their walkie talkies squawking at full volume, so the only thing to do was admit defeat, forego the lie-in and check-out as quickly as possible.

The night out was thus not a great success I’m sad to report, but at least it has given me the chance to reveal the full horror of the hotel to you here, and thus save countless others from a night of misery (and potential infection). I did wonder about reporting the hotel to the Food and Hygeine Department, but instead have settled for exposing the hotel for the disgusting, health hazard it most surely is through these pages.

Price: We paid HK$1308 (US$168) for a Garden View room for the night through Agoda, booked on the day. We ended up staying in a cheaper City View room, but I didn’t have time to argue once I’d finally settled on the 10th floor, and as we’d pre-paid it wasn’t worth my while walking out to find another hotel at so late an hour.

Website: www.centralparkhotel.com.hk

 

Chao Phraya

Anantara Dream – Luxe cruising in Bangkok?

Review:

Anantara Dream’s is a funny old offering: some of the most expensive river-cruising accommodation in South East Asia, but on what you usually think of as one of the least picturesque rivers in the region.

Although the first day is spent sliding past some of Bangkok’s more industrial areas, I didn’t find that to be a bad thing, as it was absolutely fascinating to how the Chao Phraya is such an important communications route for Thailand, and to watch a bit of everyday life along the way.

I also quickly realised that we would never have got round to visiting all the sites we did on this tour if we’d just done them as day trips from Bangkok. The likes of the Royal Barge Museum and the Bang Pa In summer palace are a lot more interesting than they sound, and although we visited  more than six temples and monasteries in just 72 hours, I was only just on the verge of temple-fatigue.

Anantara Dream

Concept:

Anantara Dream is a two-cabined 55ft converted teak rice-barge that you charter exclusively for a 3 day/2 night cruise from Bangkok to the erstwhile capital of Ayutthaya. Along the way you visit a number of temples, markets and palaces, eat on board, and sleep tied up along the side of the river. All the while you are looked after by the three-man crew – a host, helmsman and chef.

 

Interior Anantara Dream

Accommodation:

Fifty-five feet is plenty big enough for four guests and three crew to live on very happily. The whole boat is wood floored and wood pannelled. Up top there is an open viewing deck that leads into a large lounge area with a barrelled roof. The eves come well down so that even if it rains you won’t be soaked, and when it’s very sunny you are still shaded when sitting on the sofas placed around the sides.

The two cabins downstairs are similarly sized with big, comfortable beds, large windows, traditional artifacts and furnishings, air-con, dimmer switches etc, and then downstairs again, in the bowels of the boat, you have the ensuite bathroom.

The cabins were really delightful, and certainly everything that I expected they should be.

I have to admit though, that when I first got on board I was a little bit peeved at the slight shabbiness of the upper deck. The pictures on the website gallery are true to life, but up close some of the wood is quite scuffed and there are stains on the sofa cushions. Both these issues are so easily fixed that I was quite annoyed that the Anantara hadn’t bothered to. When you are paying upwards of US$1,300 per person for a two night trip, I think you can expect the cushions to be clean!

However, that is literally the only complaint I have. Everything else about the trip was superb.

Service:

Johnny was our host, Witiya was our Chef and Milky was our helmsman and these three guys were just brilliant.

Johnny was an absolute fountain of information about Thai history and culture, and was super-willing to answer all of our questions about Thailand in general, ghost stories in particular and himself as well.

He took us to be blessed by the head of a monastery that we moored beside on the first night, and had organised gifts for us to offer in thanks for letting us stay there. He showed us how to fold lotus lilies, which we then bound together and took to offer at another temple later in the day. He also helped us haggle for goods in Koh Kred’s market, and took us on walks and around some of the lesser temples we visited.

All of this could sound very contrived, especially as I have an almost pathological dislike of guided tours, but because we were such a tiny group, and Johnny’s enthusiasm to show us his culture so sincere, we really had an awesome time, and even Mr H finally got into his flower arranging, although in a rather competitive way…

Finally there was Milky our captain who was always ready to answer our questions about what we could see along the river banks and about the river traffic itself. After hours of driving up or downstream he would then help Wity prepare dinner.

If you want to experience Thai service at its best it would be difficult to beat this team.

Tea time Anantara DreamFood:

Having a personal chef for three days cooking some really, really good Thai food was a complete treat. We had to ask for less food by the end of the first day as we were overwhelmed by the quantities of dishes coming out of the galley. It was our guests’ first time to Thailand and I couldn’t have been more happy with the food that they were introduced to. It was traditional Thai fare, and a little easy on the chili, but the variety, quality and care taken to produce it was impressive. Our guests loved it.

Wity gave us a cookery lesson too on the final day, so we made a nahm prik and a prawn and green mango salad with him that formed part of our lunch.

Excursions:

Anne was our expert guide for all the main sites we visited like Wat Arun, the royal barge museum, Wat Panancherng, Ayutthaya and the Bang Pa In summer palace. She was hilarious. Not only knowledgable and engaging but had a really cheeky sense of humour that made our time with her a lot of fun. These on-shore tours were organised by Exotissimo and they did a great job. I can highly recommend using them across SE Asia, (we used them again for a day trip out of Hanoi later in the trip).

Scenery:

It takes all of the first day to really get out of Bangkok’s cityscape, and there is a good deal of industry and housing along the riverbanks. It’s not exactly picturesque, but it’s fascinating to see the day-to-day life on the river. From mid-morning on the second day you are out in the countryside so you feel much more in the rural rhythm of Thailand.

Chao Phraya

Summary:

The trip was definitely worth the money. To begin with, when I got on board I did wondered what we had paid so much money for as I’d been totally focussed on how opulent I was expecting the vessel to be and it wasn’t quite there. But by the time lunch was served and we’d already visited a couple of sites I was completely won over because our hosts were fantastic and the food brilliant.

Floating around on a boat is a lovely way to spend a few days around Bangkok. As our guests were visiting three countries and four cities in two weeks I didn’t want to subject them to very long road trips or more internal flights when we were in Thailand. I needed to find something close to Bangkok to while away a few days.

I also knew it was going to be ridiculously hot in April, and so to be able to see so much at low speed and low impact, with ice-cold towels permanently on-hand, this tour was perfect for us.

Price:

Approx US5,500 (THB170,000). This exclusive charter includes two nights accommodation for four people. about one zillion meals and three days of guided tours and activities including entrance fees. Soft drinks were also included in the price, so we only had to pay for our wine or beer with dinner as we had brought our own Hendricks for some top quality sundowners.

Find out all about the tour at www.bangkok-cruises.anantara.com

Loch Voil

Monachyle Mhor Hotel: A little slice of Scottish heaven

 

Review :

Chances are that when you rock up at an unassuming boutique hotel on the edge of a Scottish loch far from civilization and there’s a helicopter sat on the lawn, you’ve probably found somewhere worth the journey.

Loch Voil is just an hour away from both Glasgow and Edinburgh airports in the less visited part of the Trossachs National Park. It’s a stunning landscape of glens, babbling rivers and forests, and is steeped in the history of Rob Roy McGregor, made famous by Daniel Dafoe and Sir Walter Scott, who lived, fought and died here.

Far down a single track road, which is barely marked on the map, the Monachyle Mohr estate has been owned by the Lewis family since 1983. It’s a real family run business that has been built up with hard graft over the intervening years to bring it to where it is today – a lovely boutique hotel, a working farm producing quality meat and veg, an award winning restaurant, and owner of a host of other business in the area including Mohr Bread (a bakery), Mohr Fish (a fishmongers and restaurant), and Mohr Tea (a tearoom).

 

Monochyle Mohr

On our visit, we stayed in one of the feature rooms in the old granary on the ground floor across the courtyard from the main, rather startlingly pink house. It was a spacious and warm, wooden-floored bedroom with a homely gas fire, a steam-room, and a very comfortable bed. It didn’t have much of a view, but that was hardly a deal breaker as it was the only bedroom available when we booked just the day before.

When we arrived, lunch had already finished but we were offered door-step sandwiches and huge mugs of tea in the cosy lounge in the main house instead. Just what we needed after a long, wet drive from Grantown-on-Spey way up north in The Highlands.

What we had really come for though was the promise of a great evening meal, as it was the award winning restaurant that attracted us in the first place when it had appeared in Mr H’s internet search for “best Scottish restaurant”. The subsequent discoveries that the hotel itself was rather wonderful and the location so stunning were purely bonuses.

Using local game, the farm’s own grass-fed, dry-aged angus beef and lamb, and vegetables grown in the garden, Tom Lewis prepares wonderful food from the ingredients available on the estate, and from the best fish and seafood Scotland has to offer.

 

Mhor CourtyardI can understand why people fly in from the city by seaplane or helicopter for lunch to enjoy the likes of Perthshire spring lamb, mustard celeriac remoulade, chantenay carrots with juniper jus, or crispy hen’s egg, new season’s white and green asparagus, with lemon sorrel – we certainly weren’t disappointed with what we were fed.

As ours was a bit of a whirlwind tour around Scotland we only had one night to stay in the Mohr, so we left wanting more. You could spend days wandering the countryside, fishing the loch or birdwatching, and the estate manager Alan will take you on safari to tell you the history of Rob Roy and to spot the local wildlife – well worth the money for a morning of exploring.

Sent on our way at noon the next day we were given a hearty packed lunch of sandwiches, fruit, local cheese with homemade oatcakes, and even a butter knife each from the restaurant. As we drove away and came to the end of the loch we spied a for-sale sign on a piece of land, so promptly took down the details for further investigation. One way or another we’ll definitely be back to Loch Voil and The Mohr to experience this little slice of Scottish heaven again.

Price: Rooms start from US$312 per night.

Location: Balquhidder, Lochearnhead, Perthshire, FK19 8PQ. Tel: 01877 384622.

Website: http://mhor.net

A quieter moment on Hang Gai
One of the quieter moments on Hang Gai

The Golden Silk, Hanoi – Elegance in Exclusive Luxury my arse…

Review:

I found the website to the new Golden Silk Hotel in Hanoi back in February. It was yet to open, but from the website it looked as though it might finally be the breakthrough boutique hotel that Hanoi so desperately needs, and I was all for trying it.

If money isn’t a concern and you just want to stay somewhere small, stylish and 4* or 5* in Hanoi, it is utterly impossible.

The options at the deluxe end for a quick weekend break are:

  1. The Sofitel Metropole‘s Historic Wing – very pleasant, but unless you stay in one of the history soaked suites, ultimately it’s just like any other 5* hotel. The rooms have been refurbed to the point of losing their historic feel.
  2. The Sofitel Metropole’s Opera Wing – pleasant, but modern with no real connection with the older areas of the hotel, so could be any Sofitel in any city in the world.
  3. The Hilton Opera – pleasant, modern, again could be any Hilton hotel in any city in the world.

The Metropole has a lovel swimming pool and landscaped courtyard, so definitely rates higher than the Hilton and is a very nice hotel, but it has somehow lost most of its former charm in the refurbishment, which is a great shame, (oo, and don’t eat at Spices Garden)

There are other 5* hotels in Hanoi, but none of them are within easy walking distance of the Old Quarter which is where you want to spend most of your time poking around, so aren’t very convenient for tourists.

The next level down in price are the raft of Hanoi’s 3* boutique townhouse hotels. These include the Luxe Guide recommended  Church, and the Zephyr  (no idea why these two in particular, they don’t seem to offer much to me), and whilst all of them try to deliver an international standard of styling, quality, amenities and service, none of them actually manage it.

Plus, if you want to stay in a decent room at any of these hotels, it’s going to set you back upwards of US$100, (all their cheapest rooms are well under US$100), and it starts making more sense to just suck it up and go to the Metropole.

Under this level, are the plethora of small, honest to goodness 2* and 3* townhouse hotels, that are just as comfortable and have the same amenities as their ’boutique’ brethren, but with none of the deluded aspiration.

Find one in a quiet spot (I’ve had a lot of luck with a number of the Prince Hotels over the years), and you’ll enjoy family style service and clean rooms at great value.

The Golden Silk is unforunately yet another example of that merry middle band of boutique hotels that promise luxury and barely deliver anything beyond necessity, (i.e. four walls, a bed and a basin). Here’s my take.

Service:

This hotel had been open barely six weeks when we stayed and so I didn’t expect much of the service.  It was horrendous though – painfully slow, staff who weren’t empowered to make decisions when faced with a problem to be solved, and no managers around in the evenings or at the weekend to sort out such problems personally. We spent much of our time forcing the staff to ring the managers for their input when there was an issue.

Weird to stay in a hotel where the staff thought that their managers’ leisure time was more important than their guests’.

The staff need training, and I’m sure that the service will improve when they get it. Unfortunately the rest of the problems with the hotel will not improve without a complete refurbishment, or maybe a few days with a bulldozer…

Rooms:

The bathrooms: Let’s start at the design travesty of the bathrooms and get one thing clear. For all those idiots à l’étranger who post on Trip Advisor and think that a separate bath and shower are the very quintessence of sophistication: it’s not, it’s a basic human right. Any hotel that describes itself as luxury and then makes you clamber into the bath just to get clean deserves a rating of zero. The Golden Silk has actually managed to screw this up even further by installing showers that spray water everywhere but the bath, and so unless you dam the edges with towels you end up with a flooded bedroom.

Not content with designing a bathroom with merely safety hazards to negotiate, the Golden Silk has gone one step beyond in the silly stakes and inexplicably, (but like a growing number of its Asian contemporaries who can’t afford switchable smart glass), erected a clear glass wall to separate bathroom from bedroom…and then plonked the loo in full view of the bed.

Although there is a “modesty” blind of sorts it covers both the wall and door, so it’s impossible to get in and out without hoisting and lowering said blind on each visit.

I just don’t understand the f**king stupidity of the interior designers. It’s not just the fact that I don’t want my beloved to inadvertently catch a glimpse of me straining on the pot; what about when one of us needs to visit the bathroom in the night? There is no way to not disturb the other person unless we start wearing bloody headlamps to clamber around the room. The bathrooms are so awful that I wouldn’t stay here again just because of them.

Golden Silk Hotel, Hanoi

Can you see the similarity?

Right -onto the rest of the bedroom.

The styling: Hotel marketing 101 suggests that you don’t lie about the rooms on your website. None of the rooms (and I looked in four) looked anything like the renderings on the website. Shiny floors, square rooms not rectangular, no rugs, no dimmer switches on the lighting etc, etc, meant that I couldn’t actually get the room to look even close to what was displayed on the website. I was standing scrunched in the corner to take my photo, so the perspective in the hotel’s rendering is way out, and the Studio Suites are far smaller than suggested.

The noise: It seems rather a large screw-up that in the Golden Silk the more expensive your room, the noisier it becomes. The “better” rooms have balconies, are larger and apparently have more furniture. Unfortunately they have the same bathrooms and hanging rails and  are also on the front of the hotel.

Hang Gai is pretty much the busiest street in the Old Quarter, so the noise is appalling. Plus, the windows and doors don’t fit, so though they are double-glazed, they are pointless.

Even if I didn’t nearly die of shame every time I had to take a pee, I can’t recommend anyone to stay in a room above Luxury class (which are all at the back of the hotel), because of the cacophony of constant traffic and early morning loudhailers they will be subjected to.

The terraces: None of the rooms have terraces. They have balconies wide enough for a table and chairs, but there are none provided, so it’s pointless to have a balcony.

Again, do not stretch the truth on your marketing material, over-promising and under-delivering is unforgivably bad business practice.

The wardrobe: There was no wardrobe. Simply a couple of short hanging racks along part of the bathroom wall. A complete mess and somewhat in contradiction to the idea of luxury in a hotel.

Powerpoints: The one powerpoint in the luxury room took five minutes to find and was behind a heavy bedside lamp that had to be moved to access it. There was one powerpoint in the Studio Suite in the same position and another thankfully near a shelf in a more convenient place.

Bedside lamps: The bedside lamps in all the rooms had their switches hanging off the far edge of the bedside table making it impossible to reach whilst actually in bed.

Electicity and Water Pressure: Hanoi does seem to have a bit of an issue with the stability of its water pressure and electricity, so it was no worse here than at any other of the townhouse hotels I’ve stayed in. Don’t expect hot water on the higher floors by 9:30am.

Beds: Surprisingly the beds were not rock solid, and were actually pretty comfortable. In the luxury rooms though the beds are so wide that there isn’t really space for much else. However on the plus side, if you are six foot five inches tall you can sleep across the bed, which makes it one of the best hotels for tall people in the whole of the capital.

Summary:

If my expectations had been managed properly before I arrived  - a photo of the bathroom, realistic descriptions of rooms, and photos not renderings, then I think my impression of the hotel would have been more forgiving. But having been dumped in a room in a lower category without being told when I checked in, and then at every turn when I wanted to do something in the room being faced with inconvenient and downright stupid design, I’m not in the mood to be charitable. The Golden Silk provides a brilliant case study of pretty much everything you shouldn’t do when building a new hotel.

So, once again  I shall have to make my way back to the Metropole or the Prince until someone in Hanoi finally comprehends and then manifests a Boutique Luxury Hotel. I’ve been travelling to the city for seventeen years, and I’d have hoped by now that the hoteliers here would have caught up with the rest of Indochina. Heavens to Betsy! If Laos can manage a dazzling array of small luxury hotels why the darnation can’t Vietnam?

Location: 109-111 Hang Gai Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam, Tel: 84-4-3928 6969

Website: www.goldensilkhotel.com

Thanh Chuong Palace

A handful of Hanoi Restaurants

Review:

So, we went to Hanoi for a quick getaway with some guests last weekend. Apart from the irritation of having to fly out of the ridiculous Gate 500 hub in the middle of what feels like Hong Kong Airport’s runway, the Dragonair flights leaving at 18:00 on a Friday and returning at 19:50 on Sunday were perfectly timed.

We arrived at our hotel in Hoan Kiem just after 20:00; well in time for dinner and a night out. We therefore were able to fit in two dinners and two lunches before jumping back on the plane to Hong Kong on Sunday evening.

Hanoi

Here were our meals:

The Spices Garden, Sofitel Metropole

Rapacious prices, mediocre food, dreadful service.

I don’t understand how the best and most expensive hotel in Hanoi is happy to run a restaurant this dismal.

I usually get my restaurant advice from the boards on Chowhound, but there is precious little on the Vietnamese capital, so I relied on a website called Rusty Compass that described the joint as “for those wanting to gently ease into local cuisine off the street in a 5 star space…a very nice upscale Vietnamese cuisine experience.”

Sounded perfect for our guests who weren’t yet comfortable to sit on plastic stools on a pavement to eat food delivered from a hole in the wall, or a bunsen burner in the gutter. How wrong that decision turned out to be.

Beef was tough as boots, everything that was fried was oily, the waiter kept jabbing his fingers into the food to tell us what to dip into what, and completely failed  to mention that many of the items in the traditional platter were repeated in some of the other starters we ordered.

Green Tangerine - Caustic Candy

Green Tangerine - a quiet courtyard oasis

Please don’t waste your money on dinner here. Have a drink at the lovely Bamboo Bar, but sidestep the monstrous Spices Garden. We spent US$240 for four people eating only starters and mains with one reasonably priced bottle of wine.

Ngon (Quan An Ngon), 18 Phan Boi Chau, Tel: +84 4 3942 8162

Fun, great service, good food. The safe-bet.

It’s loud, it’s packed, but at least it’s packed with tourists and Hanoians alike. Service was very good. It was efficient despite there being about 300 diners there at any one time. They suggested dishes when they thought you’d made the meal unbalanced, and no one has offered to peel my prawns at the table for a very long time. The food was good and the cost very reasonable.

Green Tangerine, 48 Hang Be, Tel: +84 4 3825 1286

I’m a bit sentimental about the Green Tangerine. I’ve been going since it opened in 2003. Its quirky French/Vietnamese fusion works pretty well, the presentation is interesting and I’ve never taken anyone there who hasn’t enjoyed their food and the styling of the restaurant. It’s expensive for a restaurant in Hanoi, but nowhere near Metropole pricing. Sitting inside or out, it’s a great little oasis, especially at lunch time.

Thanh Chuong Palace

One of the houses in Thanh Chuong Palace

Thanh Chuong Palace, Hien Ninh Commune, Day Dieu, Keo Ca Dam, Soc Son Town, Tel: +84 043 793 0667

We had lunch in the restaurant here after looking around the palace. It’s a quirky oddity of a place, and you wouldn’t expect the restaurant of a tourist attraction to serve great food, but our lunch was very tasty, with really generous portions. We enjoyed it sitting out on the terrace overlooking one of the many ponds.

I highly recommend visiting the palace as part of a half-day trip out of town. Exotissimo teamed it with a visit to the Giong Temple which was also beautiful. I rate these guys highly having had their guides in Thailand a couple of weeks ago during a trip on the Anantara Dream in Bangkok, and had friends use them to great success in Laos.

It’s safe to say that we ate well within our comfort zone in Hanoi. We were considering the sensitivities of our guests so were eating only upscale and super-safe.

That said though, apart from The Spices Garden we really did enjoy our food, and I’m looking forward to going back to Hanoi again soon and getting lowdown and local on the pavement.

Nahm Bangkok

Nahm Bangkok – food to get on a plane for

Review:

I don’t need much of an excuse to bob down to Bangkok for a weekend from Hong Kong. Who does when you have great shopping, awesome food and cheap massages just 2.5 hrs away?

However, the excuse I’ve been using most for the past couple of years, is that when a movie I particularly want to see opens there before Hong Kong it is permissible for me to go to my favourite cinema to watch it – the wonderful Enigma Shadow Lounge in Siam Paragon.

Now though, I have a new excuse: I have to go to Bangkok because I need to satisfy my addiction to David Thompson’s food.

I ate in Nahm at the Halkin in London a few year’s ago and enjoyed it, but wasn’t blown away. However, having found out more about David Thompson since then and on discovering he’d be opening a restaurant in Bangkok, I had an inkling that with access to the full range of fresh indigenous ingredients, he might do wonders.

After an abortive attempt to go to Nahm in early 2011, twice this year I’ve been to Bangkok, and twice I’ve flown earlier in the day so that I can get to Nahm for dinner. Yes, it’s one of the most expensive restaurants in Thailand, and yes it’s in a hotel (the Metropolitan), and yes, the chef is a farang, but by crikey he puts together some mouthwatering food! This guy has really nailed it.

Now, we all know that the delight of eating in Thailand is that you can get the most wonderful food from the most humble of restaurants and food-stalls. But for a long time it’s been exasperating that there hasn’t been a really exciting restaurant in the capital pushing the envelope of Thai cuisine. The only difference between a good cheap restaurant and a good expensive restaurant was the decor, the wine list, and the lighting.

The chef and the magic:

Thompson is an Aussie who first visited Thailand some 20 years ago and moved there a year later after being utterly seduced by the place. He was very lucky to meet a lady called Sombat Janphetchara whose family worked in the palace, and who had somehow been taught the intricacies of palace cuisine.

The basis of Thai cuisine is its pastes – the marrying together of the vast array of herbs, spices and aromatics in ideal proportions to produce the taste you want, is an art not a science. This is why you will see many of the same dishes on the menu in the north of Thailand as down in the south, but the flavours are very different because they use different ingredients in different proportions in their pastes.

David Thompson seems to possess an extraordinary gift for creating wonderfully complex flavour profiles in his dishes that reveal themselves in stages through each mouthful, and it’s all because of Sombat Janphetchara teaching him how to use herbs and aromatics with extreme care, presence of mind and unending patience.

And that’s it really. That’s what makes eating his food a startling pleasure. I don’t think I’ve eaten a meal where I’ve wanted to concentrate on each mouthful as much as I have at Nahm.

The best chefs in the world almost universally place a number of different elements on a plate that together create a balanced flavour profile for the dish. You pick a little of this, with a little of that and a bit of another to put on your fork to eat, or you have to eat the different elements in turn in a suggested order to experience the flavour that the chef wants to impart.

Not so with David Thompson’s food. The most you will have is a dip, the rest of that flavour profile is just sitting there in the bowl or the plate, innate in the curry, the salad or the parcel before you. That’s the clever part. That’s the magic.

The decor and ambience:

There’s not much point in going into details about the restaurant’s styling. You come here for the food not for the very standard, could-be-anywhere-hotel-breakfast-room decoration.  The ambience can often be rowdy. There are many people who dine here for celebrations and it can get rather noisy on weekend nights, so ideally I’d suggest going on a weekday.

Service:

The initial front of house service can be maddening. Once the food starts arriving it’s been absolutely fine, but to begin with you can easily be forgotten. Stay on the waiters if you feel you have been overlooked just once, and persevere as the food is worth it.

Having said that, the service the last time I went was impeccable, but that might be because I noticed the note “Take Care!” by my name in the reservations book. Why that’s there is another story, but one with ultimately a happy ending…

Choosing your food:

There are some intense flavours in the menu and to get the best out of the meal make sure that you choose dishes that will balance each other.

We were so excited the first time we ate at Nahm that we ordered a lot of the more unusual, pungent and rampantly hot items, and ended up a little overwhelmed by the flavour punches, (there is no manipulation of heat here; if a dish should be fierce with chilli, then fierce it shall be). The second time we went we chose more carefully and created a more satisfying overall meal, rather than just opting to try as many new things as possible.

There is one starter that absolutely no one should go without and sets the tone for the rest of the meal, and that’s the grilled mussel skewers.

Drinks:

There’s a good list of interesting cocktails and a very adequate wine list. I’m used to just plumping for beer with most Asian cuisine, but the sommelier was informed and helpful and we ended up with a Thai wine from Monsoon Valley, which was very decent.

Price:

You can eat à la carte or opt for a menu that gives you the option of choosing one dish from each of the sections – a relish, a salad, a soup, a curry and a stir fry along with a taster of every one of the starters. This menu costs 1700THB++ (US$55) per person which is a complete bargain in my book, but drinks prices are up there with every other 5* hotel in Bangkok, so it can add up. Overall I think Nahm is great value given the quality of the food.

Location:

Ground Floor, The Metropolitan Hotel, Sathorn Tai, Bangkok. Tel: 02-625 3333. It’s next to the Banyan Tree, so if it’s your first time in Bangkok go to Vertigo before or after for drinks.

Summary:

Ignore the service and the decor, insist on a table in a quiet corner when booking and concentrate on the food.

I have no hesitation in saying that Nahm, without doubt, serves the best food in Bangkok at this point in time, and it’s because of David Thompson’s intense passion and deep respect for his adopted home’s food and culture.

The Roman Forum at night looking up to the Collesium

Rome: A few quick tips

Well, I’m just back from spending a week in Rome, and I thoroughly enjoyed strutting around as a tourist. This isn’t something I do very often, I must admit.

Usually when I travel I’m either working or doing my damnedest not to look like a tourist. Standing on a street corner looking perplexed map in hand and a camera slung round my neck? Not I (thank god for smartphones).

But then I got to Rome and realised that as I would be walking pretty much everywhere paying HK$168 a day data-roaming charge just to use Google maps was probably not worth it, and if I didn’t have my camera slung round my neck, I’d be diving into my bag so often to get it I would end up with a repetitive strain injury.

Will post proper reviews later, but here are some tips:

Go to Rome in late winter/early spring.  The weather was perfect, the skies clear, the humidity low and the temperature a cool 14 °C to a balmy 19°C.  We never queued for a single museum, and even the Vatican wasn’t crowded.The idea of wandering the narrow streets of the Centro Storico with a million other people in the height of summer makes me feel queasy.

If you’re not fussed about 5* service, then seriously consider renting an apartment. There are lots of good apartments if you take the time to look, and they are very reasonably priced for the size when compared to the tiny hotel rooms in most of Rome’s hotels.

Do try and get on the Vatican Scavi Tour. It was fascinating, and one of the highlights.

If you don’t get to the Collesium, don’t worry – it’s like the one in Gladiator, but rather a mess, and the centurions and caesars outside lower the tone rather drastically.

Do go to the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill – the context it gives you after learning about the Romans so many god-damn times in school makes you wince at the superficial knowledge your teachers imparted.

Don’t miss the Pantheon – it’s extraordinary. Even if you only want to go because you saw it during Angels and Demons once you see it and learn a bit about what it actually is, you’ll be truly impressed.

The Aventine Hill is a chilled place to watch the sunset over the roofs of Rome, and you can also pop along to peep through the keyhole of the gate to the Malta Knight’s old HQ.

Sorry to say, but the taxi drivers are some of the most obscene swindlers I’ve ever experienced. Pick up a Roma taxi guide at their booth at the airport before you leave it so you know what you should and shouldn’t be paying for, and be on the lookout for the switching of banknotes when paying.

Much of the food we ate was pretty damn average and on the expensive side. Rome seems to be completely stuck in the past and even it’s modern variations on trad dishes still seem old fashioned. Do your research before you go as you could end up mightily disappointed. The nights Mrs H cooked at the apartment were some of my favourite meals as the ingredients on offer are fabulous.

Bring your walking legs as the metro and buses are only good for certain sights, and you’d miss so much by not scooting down the smallest of alleys.

Finally, buy the Blue Guide, and not just the concise one but the big tome. The Blue Guides focus overwhelmingly on history and culture rather than shops, restaurants and hotels, so in a city like Rome it is an absolute must.

Stuff looking like a geek, it’s more important to know what the hell you’re looking at when faced with the latest unnamed Roman ruin you happen across in an alley, or a statue that could be a Bernini or a Canova. I have the internet for the latest and best hotels, bars and restaurants, whereas history doesn’t change quite so quickly.