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A chronicle of all things fun - eating, drinking, traveling... plus the occasional ranting

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  • 08/25/15--07:28: A little skewering
  • We've got an old biscuit celebrating his 55th birthday tonight - along with a belated 45th celebration for another member of the crew.  As usual the task of selecting the venue fell on BM's shoulders, and he quickly got us seats at Toritama (酉玉).  This Japanese import is famously difficult to book, so we were all (once again) in awe of BM's VVIP status and pull with the best restaurants in town.  And I waited patiently for my first visit to what is supposedly the best yakitori (焼き鳥) joint in Hong Kong.

    We had the private room in the back, but as it turns out, Chef Hermanus van Dyk was on vacation... which meant that our food wouldn't be cooked right in front of us, but rather out front by Chef Matsumoto Hinorobu (松本浩暢).  I could only imagine how busy he was tonight...

    Toritama in Japan is known for their head-to-tail philosophy, offering as many as 33 different types of chicken skewers.  There aren't as many choices in Hong Kong, but we did get to try more than a few interesting bits...

    Meatball (つくね) - with bits of cartilage.  Pretty tasty, but honestly I prefer my つくね in one big, elongated chunk... with bigger pieces of cartilage inside.

    Seasonal salad (旬のサラダ)

    Fresh tomato (冷やしトマト)

    Calf muscle (とうがらし) - this was incredibly tender, and very, very juicy.  Yum.

    Aorta (心のこり) - nice and soft texture.

    Heart (ハツ)

    Liver (レバー) - mmm mmm good.

    Crown (かんむり) - not something I see on the menu very often, so I asked for it. Very, very nice and tender... and just slightly crunchy.

    Neck (とっくり) - I was hesitant about this because at battery farms, the neck is where chickens get injected with all the antibiotics and stuff.  This turned out pretty tasty, and I found it interesting that mustard was used.

    Sweetbread (おたふく) - yup, tasted like most other sweetbreads...

    Gizzard (砂肝)

    Okra (オクラ)

    I have no idea what this was, but was told it was "potato bean (薯豆)".  In reality it wasn't a bean, but the texture and flavors were more like mini potatoes.

    Japanese green pepper (しし唐) - with bonito shavings on top.

    Thigh (かしわ) - very tender and juicy.

    Wing (手羽先)

    Daylily (金針菜) - these are in season but it was still a surprise to see them being offered here.

    Thick fried tofu (厚揚げ) - a little bland even with bonito shavings on top.

    Chicken oysters (ソリレース) - sot-l'y-laisse are among the best parts of a chicken, and these did not disappoint.  Very, very tender.

    Toritama rice bowl (酉玉丼) - these bowls were pretty big, and came with minced chicken, grilled chicken thighs, and a soft-boiled egg on top.  Gotta say this was pretty damn satisfying at the end of the meal...

    Soy sauce ice cream (みたらしアイスクリーム) - I don't have any issues with savory ice cream, so I rather enjoyed this.  Remember the Kit Kat with the soy sauce flavor?  I liked that, too.  Anyway, the flavors of fermented soy sauce were pretty nice, along with what some have called "caramel" notes.  Slurp.

    Tonight was the perfect time to bring out an isshobin (一升瓶) of sake, although my request to contribute one of mine was overruled by BM, who very generously brought along a crowd favorite.

    Kikuhime Kukurihime from isshobin (菊姫 菊理姫 一升瓶), BY26 - very nice on the palate, much rounder and smoother than some of the other bottles I have had, and definitely less dry.  A little floral nose with a hint of bananas.

    We offered some of this delicious sake to Matsumoto-san to thank him for taking care of us.  The food tonight really was very, very good... and I'd love to come back again soon.

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  • 08/27/15--08:09: Californian toast
  • A night out with some of the boys, and with a fellow aficionado of Californian wines.  Our generous host decided to treat us to dinner at Fu Tung (富東粵菜), which is someplace I had never even heard of...  but I kept an open mind.  Our host ordered up a bunch of dishes which he felt would work well with our wines.

    Crispy roast pork belly (脆皮燒腩仔) - a little disappointing, as it's too lean and dry... not enough fat for me.  And because of that, this was a little too salty.

    Barbecued pork (蜜汁叉燒) - yeah, baby!  This was some pretty good shit!  Love the marbled fat here... I would have been happy with fewer dishes and just more of this to myself.  And the ends were nice and burnt.

    Deep-fried bombay duck (椒鹽九肚魚) - the pieces were a little too big, which made these a little flabby instead of having the right ratio of crispy batter to the meat.

    Beef tendon in superior soy sauce (豉油皇牛孖筋) - I think these were a little uneven.  While some of the pieces looked pretty tender, the piece I took wasn't cooked through as much, and was a little on the chewy side.  Flavors were pretty good, though.

    Eight treasure chicken (八寶雞) - this was the dish that our host pre-ordered.  I didn't have much sense as to why this was something special, until our waitress took a knife to it...

    ...and this was inside... Whole abalones, shredded conpoy, shredded ham... etc.  The chicken was very, very good... even the white meat, and especially the skin.

    Stir-fried fish maw with egg (阿林桂花炒深海魚膠) - we don't eat shark's fin so fish maw was used as a substitute.  Pretty good.

    Braised pomelo rind with shrimp roe (蝦籽炆柚皮) - our host claimed that this pomelo skin was very good, and I have to agree with him.  The texture was very, very smooth... With some versions (and depending on seasonality) the fibers are really noticeable and detract from the experience.  The citrus flavors were also very crisp and on-point... without any bitterness.  The only thing I would ask for is a little more shrimp roe for extra flavor...

    Sweet and sour pork (咕嚕肉) - Sheets requested this but asked for more lean meat... but how do you make a tasty sweet and sour pork without the fat?!  Anyway, the batter was nice and crunchy, and there was enough fat here to make it tasty... even if the sauce was made with ketchup.

    Stir-fried kailan with ginger (薑汁炒芥藍)

    Braised ox tail (古法炆鮮牛尾) - pretty good... definitely very tender, and just about falling off the bone.  Yum.

    Petits fours - these were OK but I had no expectations anyway.  The "cheesecake" was bleh, the osmanthus and wolfberry jelly was OK, as was the cookie.

    But tonight's gathering was really about the wines, and we had a pretty decent lineup of Calis!

    2002 Kongsgaard Chardonnay - ripe and sweet on the nose, with a little honey, lemon citrus.  Very lovely and buttery notes, with a little flint.  Much more ripe and mature nose.  Ripeness on the palate, too... if a touch too much on the mid-palate and finish.

    2006 Marcassin Chardonnay Marcassin Vineyard - lighter and more elegant and delicate on the nose.  Nice and sweet, with caramelized candy which developed into a full-on, incredibly sweet cotton candy nose.  A little toasty but not as powerful and in-your-face as expected.  Later on the buttery notes came out.  Palate was initially more delicate, but later developed into something incredible.  Amazing length.

    1985 Dominus - drinking surprisingly well and was much younger than expected.  A little pencil lead in the nose, slightly smoky, with some dried herbs, a hint of earthiness but in a nice way.  So smooth and silky on the palate.  Wow!

    1983 Grace Family Vineyard - apparently needed a little time to throw off the funk in the nose.  Not bad at all.  A little medicinal nose, a little smoky with a bit of soy sauce.  Definitely a mature wine, but not yet over the hill.  Pretty smooth on the palate, too.

    1997 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 - double-decanted for about 2 hours, then put into a decanter.  Absolutely not ready... as nose was very closed and would barely start to open after about an hour in the decanter.  Very tannic on the palate.  A little animal notes, a little minty, with some black fruits, and a hint of burnt rubber around the edges.

    This was a pretty good evening, and I was pleasantly surprised by the food.  That pomelo skin and the stuffed chicken... definitely worth having again.

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    Earlier in the year I received an invitation for a junket to the City of Dreams in Macau, but I was completely buried in paperwork... working 7 days a week while trying to launch our new hedge fund, so I politely declined while citing the reason.  A few months down the road, and I'm actually not that busy at work anymore... so when the invitation came a second time, I happily accepted the offer to spend 2 days in Macau trying out 3 of the restaurants in the hotel complex.

    We were picked up at the ferry terminal and whisked to Hard Rock Hotel Macau so we could check in a drop off our bags.  I had the distinct pleasure of spending a few hours here late one evening a few years ago while I conducted a key board meeting for another hedge fund - and elicited strange looks from the staff because I was checking out only a couple hours after checking in.  This time I'd actually spend the entire evening here...

    Lunch was at The Tasting Room in the Crown Towers Macau next door, and I was met by Natalie from the City of Dreams who accompanied Hello Kitty and I.  We were quickly introduced to Chef Guillaume Galliot, whose cuisine I enjoyed very much on my first visit last year.  We took our seats and waited for our 4-course lunch to arrive.

    But first, a little bubbly.  The house very generously offered us a glass of Fleury Blanc de Noirs Brut to start, which was a little yeasty at first, medium-bodied with nice acidity, seemingly nicely balanced.  After some food, palate changed and acidity became more prominent.

    Not wanting to get too drunk from lunch (like I usually do in Macau), I declined the offer of more Champagne... and also nixed the idea of ordering from the wine list.

    Our amuse bouche was a beautiful beetroot ravioli, stuffed with diced beetroot and obsiblue prawns.  When we first heard the words "beetroot", both Hello Kitty and I had speech bubbles popping out of our heads with "........" inside...  Well, neither of us enjoy the earthy flavors from beetroot, but we don't hate it enough to list it among our "dietary restrictions".  Anyway, we were relieved to find out it wasn't red beetroot but white... which was basically like turnip or kohlrabi.  The diced raw obsiblue prawns were sweet and beautiful.  Dressed with crab eggs on top and a few dots of mango sauce on the side.  Lovely and clean flavors, and a refreshing start to our lunch.

    Live abalone, carbonara style with 36 months pata negra ham - WOW!  So often when we discuss about the best Chinese restaurants, we focus on the chef's knife skills.  Here are some serious knife skills on display at a French restaurant.  Lately we have seen chefs making noodles out of cuttlefish, such as the beautiful squid carbonara at Amber and the raw version at Noma Tokyo.  But now you've got abalone cut into fine shreds, dressed in a creamy carbonara sauce, with onion compôte, shredded pata negra jamón, and a raw quail egg on top as well as a few flakes of Parmesan.

    Believe me, this was an absolutely beautiful dish.  The soft onion compôte contrasted well with the chewy shreds of abalone and the even tougher strands of jamón.  The sweet, caramelized onion helped cut down the richness of the carbonara sauce.  The finely diced chives were the perfect accent here.  Slurp!  Thank you, sir... may I have another?

    I didn't add any, but one could also have a little more of the Parmesan... presented in a beautiful abalone shell.

    Slow cooked turbot with zucchini mash, corn and Culatello ham, Comté cheese emulsion - the turbot was cooked sous vide and topped with chanterelles and morels.  I liked the grilled corn but didn't think the zucchini mash added much to the dish.  The Comté emulsion, however, was lovely.

    It was explained to us that the chef chose not to pan-fry the fish, and here I think he understands the preferences of his Asian clientele... Many of us Chinese (and especially Cantonese) do prefer the beautiful and soft texture that comes from steaming the fish... and sous vide can deliver something similar.

    Greffeuille lamb with trappeur spices, eggplant caviar - French lamb from a famed supplier in Aveyron, with two different cuts.  I loved the shank that has been cooked until tender, with rich flavors.  But I can never resist lamb fat... and there was plenty of it on the piece of saddle.  Nothing else mattered by the time this was in my mouth... not the artichoke, nor the quenelle of eggplant caviar, and certainly not the pile of seasonal veggies with that sunny-side quail egg on top. In fact, why was this piece of lamb saddle so dainty?!

    Chocolate banana millefeuille, variation of textures, cocoa sorbet - yes, this is a millefeuille in terms of structure, but that's about it.  Starting from the bottom, we have almond dacquoise, with bits of chocolate on top, followed by a crunchy layer of crispy rice and chocolate, then slices of bananas, milk chocolate mousse, then a layer of Valrhona dark chocolate.  Finally, a quenelle of cocoa sorbet is accompanied with pistachio sprinkles and the seemingly favorite ingredient of many pastry chefs - gold leaf.

    Besides being very tasty - and these days I am seldom a big fan of chocolate desserts - it really was an interesting combination of textures.  A nice way to finish.

    But of course there were still some nibbles to come... such as these chocolate and salted caramel macarons which came with my coffee...

    ...and the petits fours - raspberry pâte de fruits, choux filled with passion fruit cream, and chocolate brownie topped with caramel popcorn.

    This was a very enjoyable lunch.  The kitchen clearly delivered a number of very tasty dishes - many of which were developed to appeal to the palates of the target clientele.  This was also the first time in a long time that I didn't feel like dying after a lunch in Macau... which is a good thing.  I was neither stuffed nor completely drunk - so I would be good shape to enjoy dinner tonight, then...

    Many thanks to the City of Dreams, and especially Natalie for sacrificing her weekend to babysit us...

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    After a nice lunch, followed by a stroll in the shopping mall of the City of Dreams in an attempt to burn off a mere 3 more calories, and trying not to slap/strangle/kick the shit out of my misbehaving, picture-taking neighbors while sitting through a beautiful performance of The House of Dancing Water, it was finally time for dinner.  And I was actually in good shape, for once!  Not only was I completely sober, I also had plenty of stomach capacity.

    Which was needed for our dinner at Jade Dragon (譽瓏軒) - the Cantonese restaurant in The Crown Towers with a macaron.  Carmen met us at the door and very kindly set us up in the privacy of a private room.  The one thing I noticed upon entering the restaurant - in contrast with the air freshener which filled the entire City of Dreams complex - was that the air smelled of hospital disinfectant... which was a little surprising.

    We started with two nibbles:
    Sago with diced cucumber and tomato - very refreshing.

    Deep-fried prawn cutlet with kumquat oil - nice with a little shichimi (七味) powder.

    Then came a trio of appetizers:
    Signature deep-fried Fine de Claire oyster (酥炸法國生蠔) - deep-fried for 8 to 10 seconds.  Actually this was surprisingly tasty, although I was a little surprised at the sweet chili sauce that usually comes with Thai-style grilled chicken...

    Chilled cherry tomato with plum jelly (冰梅溫室小蕃茄) - this little tomato from Israel was peeled, and sat on top of some umeshu (梅酒) jelly along with some chrysanthemum petals.  Also nice and refreshing.

    Jade Dragon prime-cut barbecue Iberico pork collar (譽瓏蜜汁西班牙黑豚梅頭叉燒) - O-M-G.  Nowadays there are plenty of Cantonese restaurants claiming to use Ibérico pork to make char siu (叉燒), and while I certainly haven't tried every single version, I gotta say that this was one of the best that I've tried.  Pork collar (脢頭) is one of the best cuts for char siu as it is nicely marbled, and it definitely showed.  In addition, they use a combination of lychee wood and date wood to smoke their meats, and I could definitely taste the nice and subtle smoky flavor.  Very, very delicious.  I only have two complaints: a little more charring would have been nice... and WHY DID I ONLY GET TWO MEASLY SLICES?!

    Hot and sour soup with kegani crabmeat (生拆日本毛蟹酸辣羹) - we had a choice of soups, and Hello Kitty picked this one.  As far as hot and sour soups go, this has got to be one of the better ones I've tasted... as there was just enough spiciness without drowning the palate.

    Double-boiled dendrobium and hyacinth bean, barley and yellow squash soup with pork (石斛老黃瓜扁豆薏米燉豬腱) - I, of course, picked something that went much easier on my palate.  This double-boiled soup was designed to drive the excess "wetness" from my body, and the flavors of dendrobium were certainly prominent.  Not wanting to get too full on liquids, I decided to leave half the soup in my bowl.

    Steamed garoupa fillet with egg white in "Hua Diao" wine sauce (花雕蛋白蒸斑球) - the wild brown-marbled grouper (老虎斑) sat atop a custard made with egg white and Hokkaido 3.7 milk, steamed with 20-year-old Huadiao (花雕).

    Top grade A4 certified Kobe beef in flambé style (火焰神戶A4和牛) - the Kobe beef came wrapped inside some foil sitting on top of a hot plate, with flames shooting out of the sides...

    Our waitress flattened the foil to put out the flames, and inside there were three cubes of marbled beef, which were browned in a pan first before being cooked sous vide to around medium-rare doneness.  These were certainly nice, and came with some leeks and carrots.

    Braised vegetable with fish maw, Azuaga ham and winter melon ring in beet root chicken broth (金花白玉翡翠) - when this arrived, Hello Kitty and I looked at each other with a knowing smile... We were finally gonna be made to endure the earthy flavors of red beet root... The hollowed ring of winter melon came with spinach shoots, jamón ibérico, and fish maw.  These were all nice in their own right, especially the fish maw.  Surprisingly, the dreaded earthy flavors from the French beet root never showed... because the base of the starchy broth was actually chicken stock.  Whew!

    Braised udon noodles with crabmeat and roes (鮮拆蟹粉扒稻庭烏冬) - Hello Kitty chose the udon, and I thought the crabmeat and roe sauce was a little bland.  Apparently she felt the same, as she eventually decided to add some of the restaurant's delicious X.O. sauce into her bowl for some oomph...

    Jade Dragon signature fried rice with prawn, sakura shrimp, conpoy and roasted goose (譽瓏軒炒飯) - in contrast, my choice of "flied lice" was a real winner.  The scallop was nice and sweet, while the prawn was no slouch, either...  The rice itself had diced roasted goose for flavor, accented with ginger, spring onions, and crunchy sugar snaps pods.  The dried conpoy and pan-fried sakura shrimp (桜海老) on top really elevated the dish to a different level.  I was pretty stuffed by now, but that didn't stop me from inhaling this bowl.  If only I had more stomach space, I would have asked for another bowl!

    Chinese almond crème brûlée with bird's nest and honey (瓏皇杏汁燕窩焦糖布甸) - our dessert came in a pretty Yixing clay (紫砂) tea pot, spouting fog from dry ice inside the pot.

    The crème brûlée was actually very nice as it wasn't intensely sweet, and I liked the almond flavors.  The bird's nest on top was unfortunately wasted on me, but I guess it diluted the sweetness even further.

    Petit fours (精選美點) - the pink almond rice cakes had a spongy texture, and surprisingly were not too sweet.  The lemon sponge cakes were OK, but the peanut brittles were better.  The ginger gummies were the best.

    There were also three little cones, with lime sorbet, corn ice cream, and milk tea ice cream.

    Carmen arranged for Chef Tam Kwok Fung (譚國峰) to come and greet us.  Chef Tam talked to us a little about the restaurant's philosophy of presenting dishes with health benefits, and to that end they collaborate with the Faculty of Chinese Medicine at the Macau University of Science and Technology - located literally across the road - on a continual basis.  I thought that was a pretty cool idea.

    Cherry sorbet - Chef Tam decided to send us a little something extra to finish the evening.  This was made with the juice of Tasmanian cherries, and it was certainly delicious.  Chef Tam also poured a few drops of Port on top, and turned this into something really special.

    My initial choice of Cali Chard was out of stock, and the sommelier (who had originally served us at The Tasting Room at lunch) brought two worthy alternatives - another Cali Chard at double the price, and a Chablis at half the price.  Since I had spent some time browsing through the wine list before coming to Macau, I asked for a Sauvignon Blanc priced at the same level...

    2010 Dagueneau Blanc Fumé de Pouilly - nose of green apples, muscat grapes, then a hint of pipi de chat, a little toast.  Later on a little pungent, almost medicinal... but perhaps that was from the air in the room itself.  On the palate the wine was a little acidic at first, because the temperature was on the warm side.  As it opened it became more medium-bodied.

    At the end of dinner I asked to settle the bill for my wine selection, only to be told that it had been "taken care of".  I thanked Carmen for her hospitality, but explained that on junkets like this I will either not order any wine, or I will pay for the wines I want to drink out of my own pocket.  I have done this on my last three junkets to Macau with the Hotel Lisboa, and I was certainly not going to take advantage of their generosity.  The staff finally relented after a few more minutes.

    Hello Kitty and I were absolutely stuffed, but that was a happy problem to have tonight.  I thought the quality of the food was definitely pretty high, and I wasn't the least bit surprised that the Rubberman took a shine to this place.  Many thanks to the generosity of the City of Dreams, and also to poor Carmen - who must have drawn the short straw and had her Saturday night ruined on account of us...

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    A couple of hours after we failed to get some charcoal toast sandwiches for breakfast and had to settle for some pasteis de nata from Margaret's Café e Nata, it was time to check out of the Hard Rock Hotel Macau and head next door for lunch.

    Shinji by Kanesaka only opened at The Crown Towers Macau earlier this year.  Having paid a visit to the hontenalmost exactly 5 years ago - and having read e_ting's post on her visit a couple of months ago - I was pretty confident that the quality of food would be pretty high.  For this lunch, it was poor Emily's turn to sacrifice part of her weekend and waste it on a couple of nobodies from Hong Kong...

    We were very kindly offered the omakase lunch so that we could sample a wider range of Chef Osumi Toru's repertoire.  So glad that we decided to have a light breakfast!

    Corn soup (とうもろこしのすり流し) - made with dashi (鰹だし) and garnished with a couple of green soybeans (枝豆).  A nice and refreshing start.

    Rosy seabass (喉黒) - lightly torched (炙り).

    Japanese horse hair crab (毛蟹) - covered in a layer of yuba (湯葉), served with a ponzu (ポン酢) jelly, and garnished with a dab of crab tomalley (蟹味噌) and minced ginger on top.  Very nice.

    It was at this point that I saw Osumi-san pull out the box of tuna, and realized that when asked about our dietary preferences at the start of the meal, the only thing I offered up was cod milt (白子) - which can't be imported into Macau anyway.  At a sushiya of this caliber, I would expect that the tuna being served to be bluefin, and that would be off limits for me.  So I apologized to Osumi-san and asked for substitutes...  I could see that he was caught off guard, and maybe a little perturbed, but I hope he eventually forgave me.

    Glass shrimp (白海老) - my first substitute.  Garnished with a dollop of marinated bonito guts (鰹酒盗), as well as perilla (紫蘇) leaf chiffonade. 

    Pacific saury (秋刀魚) - lightly torched.  Love that tasty fish oil.

    Pickled mustard (榨菜) - a little surprised to find a Japanese chef serving this as a palate-cleanser... especially since it's kinda spicy.

    Fat greenling tempura (鮎並 天婦羅) - topped with a tomato tempura, and perilla chiffonade.  The acidity here cut down the oiliness of the tempura.

    Geoduck (海松貝) - crunchy as expected.
    Japanese hairtail (太刀魚) - lightly torched but still very tender, although the skin was rather crunchy.  Served with minced spring onion (葱おろし) and dressed with a little yuzu (柚子).
    Octopus (鮹) - slow-cooked and very tender.
    Tilefish (甘鯛) - nicely grilled.  Served with some sweet white miso on the side in addition to the lime.

    Now we start on the sushi portion of the meal...

    Striped jack (縞鰺)

    Squid (烏賊) - with a little sudachi (酢橘).

    Splendid alfonsino (金目鯛) - nicely torched on the skin side.  I love this fish... especially when you melt the fat a little with some heat.

    Baby seabream (春子鯛) - only around 6 months old.  This was marinated much in the same way that chefs marinate gizzard shad (小鰭).

    Horse mackerel (鯵) - a beautiful, fatty piece.  With some perilla in between the shari (しゃり) and neta (ねた), and topped with some asatsuki (浅葱).

    Gizzard shad (小鰭) - I've never had it served quite like this before... just one single stroke splitting it in half.  Love the vinegar marinade.

    Salmon roe (イクラ)

    Japanese green sea urchin (馬糞雲丹) - from Rishiri (利尻). 

    Clam (蛤) - not quite drenched in the sweet sauce the way Jiro does it, but still a little sweet.  A little yuzu.

    Conger eel (穴子) - grilled and lathered in sauce, with a sprinkle of sansho pepper (山椒).

    Ark shell mantle roll (赤貝のひも巻き) - Osumi-san makes some interesting rolls, and for me he used the mantle of ark shells together with cucumber - instead of tuna.  Pretty cool.

    In terms of sushi, it was interesting to find there was enough vinegar in the rice to be noticeable, without being in-your-face the way Jiro does it.  The rice grains were actually a little harder than I expected, which isn't the norm in this part of the world.  My only complaint is that I felt Osumi-san sometimes didn't pack the rice grains tightly enough, and on a couple of occasions, the shari fell apart as I picked the pieces up with my fingers.

    Egg (卵) - this was a lot creamier and mushier than most versions I've had -almost like a cheesecake.  Later I realized that this was also the style at the Kanesaka honten.

    The dessert was a combination of fruits and sweets.  A chunk of Miyazaki mango and a chunk of Melox (メロックス) melon from Shizuoka sat underneath some sake ice cream, which came with some peach coulis and... yup... gold foil.  Besides the single Kyoho (巨峰) grape was a citrus wedge.  This would be a jelly made with hyuganatsu (日向夏) citrus, with chunks of the flesh inside.

    Our last nibble would be some dorayaki (どら焼き) - Doraemon (ドラえもん)'s favorite.

    This was a very good meal... and certainly a lot to take in for lunch! I had high expectations coming in, and I took note of the creativity Osumi-san brought with him.  Unfortunately we had to make a run to the ferry terminal so that I could get back to Hong Kong for a long-awaited dinner, which cut down on the time I was able to spend chatting with the chef.  Many thanks to the PR team at the City of Dreams for treating us to so much good food over the weekend!

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  • 08/30/15--08:55: Private Buddha
  • I had been stuffing myself with good food in Macau over the last day and a half at the invitation of the City of Dreams Macau, but I had to end the trip a little early in order to be back in Hong Kong for dinner tonight.  Tonight's dinner was back at my favorite Chinese private dining space, and has been almost 2 months in the making.  We rounded up the original crowd from my first visit, and requested the chef to add something special to the menu...

    Pan-fried termite mushroom and matsutake mushroom (煎雞盅松茸) - someone (who shall remain nameless... Ahem! g4gary) shamelessly asked if our Mushroom Supplier would be bringing any shrooms, so of course our generous friend obliged... The fragrance of these terminate mushrooms and matsutake mushrooms from Yunnan (雲南) were pretty incredible after being pan-fried.  Yes, not only do we BYOB, we also BYOM (bring your own mushroom)...

    Crystal king prawns (玻璃大蝦球) - definitely one of the best versions in town that I've had.

    These prawns were simply huge... and the texture was very nice.  Enough bite here but without being too crunchy - as is the case when the chef takes baking soda to them.

    Stir-fried tripe with mixed vegetables (七彩炒肚尖) - this remains the best version I've had in town.  The pig tripe is nice and crunchy, with a satisfying springy texture as one bites into it.  One of the highlights of this dish is the Indian almonds (欖仁), and we asked if the kitchen could give us a little extra... and the chef promptly pan-fried a little more for us.  We were told that wholesale prices for these reached as much as HKD 1 per gram last year...

    Traditional Buddha jumps over the wall (古法佛跳牆) - now THIS was the reason for our gathering tonight.  Our friend had raved about the Buddha jumps over the wall (佛跳牆) here, apparently made the traditional way as a stew instead of a soup.  That left us salivating as we heard his description... Of course, we asked that the chef leave out shark's fin - traditionally one of the key ingredients in luxury versions.

    So each of us got an abalone, along with spiny sea cucumber, fish maw, pig tendons, goose web, pork belly, along with bamboo shoots.  Everything, and I meant everything, was nice and soft and delicious... from the abalone to the sea cucumber to the goose web... and especially the pork belly - as the skin had been deep-fried to a crunch before braising.

    The sauce (or should we call it a reduction?) was sooooo rich and good that we asked for steamed rice.  Yup, I could drink the reduction on its own, but it's so much better with some rice!  I just loved the feeling of all that collagen sticking to my lips...

    Double-boiled winter melon soup with shrimps, Yunnan ham, fresh crab meat and lotus seeds (原個燉冬瓜盅) - after having our luxury stew with rich and heavy flavors, it was time to balance things out with a very clear soup.  The winter gourd helps to cool down our body's constitution, so it's perfect for warm weather.

    Love this soup... so clear with a huge chunk of winter gourd... along with some Tonkin jasmine (夜香花).

    Steamed sole (清蒸海方利) - the standard fish on the menu here, and we had two of them for the 14 of us. Our resident fisherman's friend did not manage to get us a wild yellow croaker, so we were unable to BYOF (bring your own fish) in addition to BYOB and BYOM...  Oh well!  The piece of flesh I got from the body was not over-steamed, for once.

    Crispy chicken (脆皮炸子雞) - I think the Chicken Fiend was pretty happy tonight as she got to pack some of this chicken home... although we did end up eating a little more than usual.

    Sweet and sour pork with pineapple (菠蘿古老肉) - this dish seems to be popping up in my diet more and more these days... but I'm not complaining tonight!  The 肉眼筋 was very, very nice.

    Chinese cabbage with Yunnan ham (雲腿津白菜) - as usual, the veggie dish here takes much more skill than its name implies.  The finely chopped Chinese cabbage (which doesn't come from Tianjin, despite its Chinese name 天津白菜) was deliciously flavored with ground ham, and of course cooked with superior stock.

    Steamed fragrant rice in lotus leaf (飄香荷葉飯) - this was very, very good... too bad we were all pretty full by now and unable to make too much of a dent in this.

    We're in mooncake season, and Dashijie (大師姐) very kindly brought something that I desperately wanted to get my hands on last year... These mooncakes (傳統三黃欖仁豬油蓮蓉月餅) had the traditional "yellow" lotus seed paste, along with Indian almonds and three egg yolks.  Not only that, they were made with "an appropriate amount of lard (適量的豬油)"... according to Dashijie.  I especially liked the fact that she let out a little snicker after the phrase "an appropriate amount of lard"... and conveniently ignored me when I tried to get her to clarify exactly how much is "an appropriate amount"...

    These were made in very limited quantities last year and given out to friends and a small circle of the media.  That was one of the few times I dearly wished that I, too, could be considered to be from the media... so I could get my hands on these.  I was insanely jealous of some of my friends last year.  But tonight I got to have a taste, and this was very, very yum.  As I actually don't like yolk in my mooncake, I purposely chose wedges which contained the least amount of yolk.  Just that smooth and sweet lotus seed paste (and some Indian almonds) would do just fine!

    Double-boiled ginkgo nuts and lotus seeds (銀杏燉湘蓮) - a sweet way to finish our sumptuous dinner.

    Given there were 14 of us, I figured single bottles of wine may not suffice, so I encouraged people to bring either magnums or two bottles of the same wine.  We had a very good evening in terms of wine, too!

    Jacques Selosse Initial, dégorgée a 21 Octobre 2014 - toast nose, nice and yeasty, a little mineral and savory.  Nose was really fragrant.  Good acidity here, too, with a full body.

    1996 Tarlant Saga Extra Brut, dégorgée en Novembre 2004 - very caramelized and sweet on the palate, with a little salty plum.  Beautiful wine, and right up my alley.

    2006 Kistler Chardonnay Dutton Ranch - buttery, a bit toasty later.  Medium-bodied but later on turned full-bodied with orange marmalade on the palate and a long finish.

    2009 Rieussec - lots of honey, nutty notes, orange blossom, and polyurethane.  Nice and viscous.  Very successfully paired with the Buddha jumps over the wall, at the suggestion of its contributor and our resident wine expert.

    2000 Bernard Morey Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Vide Bourse - nice and toasty nose, very open.  Slightly sweet on the palate.  Yum.

    2000 La Chapelle de la Mission, en magnum - decanted 2½ hours and poured back into the bottom 2 hours before drinking.  Definitely notes of leather, with a little smoke, and pencil lead.  Nice fruit showed up once it opened up more.  Later on the nose was much more smoky with a little black pepper.  Very smooth on the palate and definitely drinking as it should.

    2003 Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne, from magnum - more alcoholic and sharper on the nose, with black fruits and ripeness on the nose.  Still tannic on the palate, which wasn't surprising.

    2005 Weinbach Pinot Gris Altenbourg Quintessence de Grains Nobles Cuvée d'Or - so much honey here, floral, orange blossoms.  Nice acidity in the nose, too.  Just so beautiful and rich and unctuous.

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  • 09/02/15--08:40: Burg and Cali double toast
  • A friend was hosting a blind tasting dinner tonight with fellow wine lovers, and the theme involved everyone bringing pairs.  Seeing that there would be way too much wine at the table, my friend very kindly invited me as his "plus one" in lieu of his wife - giving me a chance to taste some interesting wines and adding another body to soak up the excess wine...

    It's been a few years since I was last at Wagyu Kaiseki Den.  Well... it used to be my venue of choice for kaiseki in this town, but I kinda stopped going ever since Tenku RyuGin (天空龍吟) opened.  This was a good opportunity to revisit.

    Starters (前菜):

    1. Grilled hamo conger-pike, matsutake mushroom (鱧 松茸 焼浸し 菊菜) - the seasonal pike conger (鱧) was lightly grilled and which, together with matsutake mushrooms, perilla flowers, and some yuzu, made for a very fragrant start.

    2. Braised abalone, maitake mushroom with abalone liver sauce (鮑酒蒸しと芋茎 舞茸 法蓮草 肝餡 生姜胡椒) - the slices of abalone were very nice and tender, and it was interesting to see abalone liver sauce in this dish.

    3. Misuji beef shabu and fresh figs roll, ginkgo nut with sesame sauce (ミスジしゃぶ無花果巻 新銀杏 舞茸 胡麻だれ) - WOW!  Very thin slices of marbled shoulder blade (ミスジ) were blanched shabu-shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) style, and wrapped around a chunk of fresh fig.  Loved the sweetness of the whole thing.  Came with the typical acidic sesame sauce (胡麻だれ)... and garnished with finely chopped chives and some perilla flowers.

    Bowl: Grilled kinki fish, bean curd dumpling, shiitake mushroom in clear soup (椀物:北海道 香深浜産蔵囲利尻昆布 焼喜知次 湯葉真丈 つる葉 椎茸 松葉柚子) - the grilled broadband thornyhead (喜知次) had a nice, smoky fragrance.  Very delish, as it should have been.  The dumping was nice and soft like a marshmallow.  A very good bowl course.

    Chef selection sashimi platter (造り): my host knows about my aversion to bluefin tuna, so he immediately picked up the pieces of lean tuna and tuna belly from my plate...
    Red snapper (鯛)

    Pacific saury (秋刀魚)

    There was also cherry tomato with some jelly.

    Sea urchin and glass shrimp (雲丹 白海老) - yum.

    Summer hassun: Manganji pepper roll with eel sushi, seared sweetfish taro, grilled mugwort mochi cake, chilled sweet corn mousse, sweet egg with pumpkin, braised octopus (夏八寸:万願寺鰻射込み鮨 火取り鮎蓼酢 絹かつぎ 蓬田楽 玉蜀黍ムース 南瓜玉子 鮹柔らか煮 酢取り紅心大根) - there's always a lot going on with hassun (八寸)... and it's one of the reasons I love kaiseki.  The corn mousse was nice and sweet, the mugwort mochi cake nice and fluffy.  The egg with pumpkin hidden underneath the maple leaf was an upgrade from the usual.  The octopus and indeed very soft, and the sweetfish decent.  The sushi with eel and Manganji pepper was a nice surprise.

    Eggplant cauldron: eggplant dumpling stuffed with chicken meat and kuruma shrimp with grated turnip sauce (茄子釜:茄子饅頭 青森地鶏 車海老 平茸 おりし餡 九条葱と茗荷 鬼生姜) - so this came in a ceramic cup designed like an eggplant, and was capped by the top of a real eggplant.

    Inside the bowl were eggplants with chicken and shrimp.  The kujo spring onions (九条葱), myoga ginger (茗荷), and minced ginger garnish on top added some final touches that brought out the flavors.

    Steak and tomato sandwich - that wasn't originally on the menu, but the kitchen added this additional item since they know my host likes it.  And so do I!  It's been years since I hast had these phenomenally delicious finger sandwiches.  Thin slices of grilled beef, with a lovely sauce made with ripe and sweet tomatoes, all wrapped between two slices of fluffy, milky toast.  INHALED.

    Main course: charcoal grilled A-5 wagyu tenderloin, variety of vegetables (主菜:和牛テンダーロインA-5炭火焼 季節野菜そえ) - well, the name of the restaurant starts with the word "wagyu"... so it's no surprise that the main event here is always going to be Japanese beef.  And they never fail here.

    Rice: sea urchin with truffle rice served with pickles and red miso soup (食事:海栗 トリュフ 土鍋ご飯) - the other signature dish is the rice casserole, and tonight we had sea urchin with black truffle paste.

    A very nice bowl, with plenty of fragrance from the black truffle paste, and the smooth textures of the sea urchin.

    Chef selection dessert (シェフセレクションデザート) - along with the chunk of mango, pear, and the white grape, we also got some coffee mousse topped with vanilla ice cream and foam made with soda and milk.

    The food was still very good, but with the exception of the beef, this was clearly a notch below the level at Tenku RyuGin.  I was still very glad to come back, though...

    But... this was a "pairs dinner" to taste wines, and everyone was incredibly generous with their contributions.  We ended up with 16 bottles for the 9 of us... HIC!

    1980 Moët and Chandon Cuvée Dom Pérignon - definitely corked, with green and grassy notes.  Nicely caramelized nose otherwise, with manuka honey, orange blossom water, and nice and toasty notes.  Drank wonderfully on the palate with good acidity still.

    First pair:
    2001 Kistler Chardonnay Cuvée Cathleen - plenty of sweetness in the nose, rich and butter, with a little toasty corn.  Fattier and flabbier of the pair.

    2003 Kistler Chardonnay Cuvée Cathleen - much bigger nose of toast, almost burnt rubber.  Flinty and sharper, with perhaps acetone notes, along with lemon.  Sharper acidity here on the palace.

    Second pair:
    2004 Louis Jadot Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Clos Saint Jacques - nice fruit with some exotic spices, a little animal.  Later more mineral and savory.  Pretty acidic and grippy on the palate at the same time, but surprisingly light mid-palate.

    2004 Armand Rousseau Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Clos Saint Jacques - a beautiful wine.  More animal and leather notes, a little smoky.  Almost some savory notes.  Floral and lovely.

    Third pair:
    1995 Claude Dugat Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Lavaux-St.-Jacques - a little ripe and sweet, with stewed prunes, but also seemed a little stemmy.  Pretty grippy on the palate.

    1995 Dugat-Py Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Lavaux-St.-Jacques - very savory nose, perhaps a little cooked?  Got a ton of sediment in my glass.  Not very enjoyable.

    Fourth pair:
    2007 Marcassin Chardonnay Three Sisters Vineyard - really nice and toasty, beautiful, lovely acidity, with ripeness on the palate but not too much... a little round and nice on the palate.  Nice focus here.  Simply an awesome wine!

    2007 Marcassin Pinot Noir Three Sisters Vineyard - really sweet and almost minty, lovely fruit, with ripeness but not quite to the point of jammy.  A little leather notes here.

    Fifth pair:
    2003 Roumier Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Cras - corked with lots of green notes, and some leather.  Lovely and ripe on the palate.

    2004 Roumier Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Cras -  a little forest, cool fruit here, nice and pleasant on the palate, not too heavy and tannic.  Very elegant.

    Sixth pair:
    2003 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir Ten - a little metallic, burnt rubber.  A little lean on nose but not on the palate.

    2004 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir Ten - nice and ripe fruit here, with a little rubber.  Lovely.

    Seventh flight:
    1966 Vieux-Château-Certan - a little mature, dusty on the palate, very savory.  Very smooth but slightly acidic.

    1966 Cheval Blanc - a little ripe on the nose.  Nice acidity.

    1966 Lafleur - a little vegetal and green pepper on the nose, with some fruit here.

    No points for guessing how drunk I was at the end of the evening...

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  • 09/04/15--08:29: Summer surprise
  • It's finally my turn to host my MNSC dinner.  The schedule this year has been somewhat jumbled up, and thanks to scheduling conflicts that often happen over summer, it was finally happening more than 2 months after my birthday.

    I was scratching my head a little while trying to find a suitable venue.  The venue for my tasting last year - The Principal - has closed due to skyrocketing rent.  I had wanted to host my tasting at my favorite new restaurant in town, but gave up on the idea when the restaurant couldn't provide enough wine glasses.  This drove me to explore choices located in 5-star hotels, because they generally don't have problems providing a large number of wine glasses.

    Someone had recently gone to Summer Palace (夏宮) at the Island Shangri-La and commented that food had improved.  Frankly, I had never cared to dine here.  The place was always crowded - and incredibly noisy - at lunch, and the food was never anything outstanding.  When one has a choice between dining here and at Golden Leaf (金葉庭) at the Conrad Hong Kong just a stone's throw away, it's always been a no-brainer.  Which made it even more puzzling that the Rubberman has chosen to give this place two macarons ever since their very first edition for Hong Kong and Macau in 2009...

    Every single one of the boys asked me why I had chosen this place for tonight.  None of us have been here for the last few years, and FourSquare reminded me that my last "check-in" here was more than 3 years ago while lunching with Ann Colgin.  These days the restaurant is well-known to be frequented by Mainland Chinese customers - especially since the hotel itself is popular with this demographic - and a quick scan across the dining room seem to confirm this popular belief.

    But hey, they didn't blink when I told them upfront that I was doing a wine dinner and needed lots of glasses and decanters.  They also didn't seem to have any issues when I showed up with the wines yesterday, and explained to them I needed some of the wines decanted a full hour before the restaurant actually opened its doors... so other than the issue of only providing Bordeaux-style glasses for red wines, this place seemed to fit my requirements.

    I showed up promptly as the restaurant opened its doors at 6:30 p.m. and was led to our private room at the back of the restaurant.  I should have been relieved at the sight of all the wine glasses and decanters on the side, but I became nervous immediately.  After years of staying away, I had completely forgotten that the signature "Shangri-La smell" filled the entire hotel - even in the restaurant.  This would most definitely have an impact on our ability to taste wines, and I could see the boys slamming me to picking such a poor venue.  Thankfully, that never came to pass.

    Baked stuffed crab shell (焗釀鮮蟹蓋) - I've always loved stuffed crab shells, and I wanted to see how these stacked up.

    There was plenty of crab meat stuffing, plus onions.  Gotta say I was pretty impressed.  Loved the sweet flavors from the crab and the shredded onions, and of course the breadcrumb crust.  One of the boys remarked that he thought this was better than what you'd get at Fook Lam Moon (福臨門) which, incidentally, has always been a favorite of mine.  I wouldn't disagree with him.  I'd do this again in a heartbeat.

    Double-boiled chicken with matsutake mushrooms (松茸燉雞湯) - nice and clean flavors, with the fragrance of matsutake mushrooms (松茸).

    Deep-fried shrimp toast with truffle pesto (松露醬鳳尾蝦多士) - another dish that I've always loved when it's done right.  These were pretty good, too... with enough oil to make the toast really crunchy and satisfying.  The truffle paste on top made it a little different, and nice.

    Pan-fried beef ribs with goose liver paste (鵝肝醬煎牛仔骨) - I guess I was expecting a little more goose liver, and it took me a while to pick out the flavors from just the soy sauce, but I guess the flavors were a little more complex than usual.  The beef was very tender as expected, and I do love the onions.  A nice twist to the usual.

    Deep-fried mashed taro stuffed with cheese and mixed fungus (芝士雜菌芋盒) - the worst dish of the evening.  I chose this instead of a plain veg to see what creations the kitchen can come up with, and...

    ...this wasn't impressive, at all.  Inside the mashed taro shell, the cheese and the mushroom were simply bland.  Wasted calories.

    Steamed garoupa fillet with aged tangerine peel (陳皮蒸斑球) - not bad at all.  Love the shredded aged tangerine peel (陳皮) for the wonderful fragrance.
    Deep-fried chicken wing stuffed with crab meat and onion (脆皮炸釀鳳翼) - I also have a soft spot for stuffed chicken wings, and wanted to see how well they do it here.

    Inside we've got crab meat and onion, which is kinda like the stuffed crab shell all over again.  Well, since I really liked the stuffed crab shell, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that I liked this chicken wing, too.  That crispy skin!  Definitely a crowd favorite tonight.

    Fried rice with seafood and X.O. sauce in a stone hot pot (X.O.醬海鮮石鍋炒飯) - OK, so this probably wasn't the best dish to serve at a wine tasting... with the spicy kick coming from the X.O. sauce running interference with the palate.  But I gotta say this was a damn delicious bowl of "flied lice"... and the fact that it came in a stone pot meant that there were some rice crispies (飯焦) to be had.

    Double-boiled whole young coconut with fresh milk and egg white (原個椰黃燉蛋白) - very nice with simple flavors that are not too sweet, and the faint fragrance of coconut.

    I'd been planning this line-up for a while, and had to change one of the wines because my original choice has shown up at an MNSC tasting earlier this year.

    Jacques Selosse Brut Rosé, dégorgée à 18 octobre 2009 - definitely mineral and salty plum nose, very yeasty... almost like what you'd get from a freshly steamed Chinese bun (包子).  Nose was also initially a little strong, not quite pungent.  Very nice on the palate with a pretty long finish.

    First flight: opened but not decanted about 45 minutes prior to serving.  I had planned to put the bottles in the "wine condoms" to disguise their identity, but the restaurant had thoughtfully wrapped them up in aluminum foil.  Unfortunately I didn't look at the wrapping job properly, because I hadn't realized that the white capsules were peeking through to tops of the foils.  Given this crowd, pretty much everyone figured out that I was serving old Leroys...

    1970 Maison Leroy Clos-St.-Denis - more sweetness and ripe fruit here, with some savory notes.  Went downhill quickly.  85 points.

    1970 Maison Leroy Chambertin Clos de Beze - savory nose, with lots of soy sauce notes.  Very ripe, and surprisingly grippy on the palate - perhaps from the sediment.  Went downhill pretty quickly.  85 points.

    Second flight: decanted around 2½ hours prior to serving.
    1990 DRC Echezeaux - there was a decanting mistake that I didn't catch earlier... This was supposed to be opened 2½ hours before, but not decanted until 30 minutes prior to serving.  The extended decanting time obviously hurt the wine, and it didn't drink anything like I had hoped.  Initially a little savory on the nose, still got some nice fruit, and it was clearly over-decanted.  Too acidic on the palate.  88 points.

    1990 Angélus - nice and lovely nose.  A little medicinal, with nice fruit and concentration here.  Very fragrant nose.  Smooth on the palate with medium-to-full body.  What a beautiful wine!  98 points.

    Third flight: decanted 2 hours and 45 minutes prior to serving.
    1995 Harlan Estate - a little burnt rubber at first, smoky, still slightly closed.  Opened up a little later, and it was very well-balanced.  Still grippy on the palate after 20 years.  96 points.

    1995 Bryant Family - lots of coconut butter, tons of oak, vanilla, much sweeter on the nose than the Harlan.  Less tannic than the Harlan, but they're still there.  Fantastic wine!  98 points.

    Fourth flight: decanted almost 4½ hours prior to serving.
    2000 Mouton-Rothschild - incredibly open and fragrant nose.  Lots of coffee and smoke, slightly savory notes and some pencil lead.  What a beautiful wine!  99 points... and tempted to give it 100!

    2000 Pavie - more muted compared to the Mouton, with a hint of smoke and a little pepper.  Nice and smooth on the palate.  Maybe this was over-decanted? 94 points.

    A very, very fun evening... at least for me!  The food was a surprise... and definitely a lot better than what I remembered.  I think everyone else was surprised, too...

    But there was one little annoyance.  Well, maybe two.  I wish the staff had a little bit more training with wine service, especially when it comes to wine dinners.  I know that all the different decanting times and serving times can be a little confusing, but I was still surprised that it took repeated instructions from me to have the first couple of flights served in pairs.

    The second annoyance came at the end as we were packing up the leftovers.  We were told that we couldn't take the dessert "as is" because the coconut shells couldn't be taken away.  If we wanted the dessert to go, we had to spoon it out of the serving shells.  WTF?!  What was so precious about them shells?!  Does the restaurant plan on re-using them?!  What other reason would there be for not allowing them to be taken off the premises?  Anyway, our waiter checked again, and eventually we were able to take the dessert out in their shells...

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    After much trials and tribulations, an entire day of missed flights, airport diversions, and long immigration lines, I finally arrived in San Francisco about 8 hours later than originally scheduled.  I missed the opportunity to check out a food truck or a taqueria for lunch, but that didn't matter.  Upon arriving at my friend's apartment some 15 minutes before dinner time, I took a very quick shower while she helpfully ironed my crumpled dress shirt (something which she doesn't even do for her own clothes!).  After a short walk of a few blocks, I eventually arrived at my destination about 20 minutes late.

    There was absolutely no way that I was going to miss dinner at Saison.  This was the first restaurant I booked when I started planning my trip just a month ago, and would certainly be the culinary apex of my entire trip.  This was the reason I re-routed my itinerary to arrive in LAX and connect to a domestic flight, instead of taking the next available flight to SFO... because I would have missed this dinner otherwise.  And I was so grateful that I took the 8:30 p.m. seating!

    We were led to a table facing the kitchen, where my friend Ducky and I were seated side-by-side... rather intimately.  One of our neighbors looked vaguely familiar and we kinda figured he was a famous musician of some sort.  At the end of the evening, we found out that it was actually Kirk Hammett - the guitarist for Metallica.  What a soft-spoken gentlemen he turned out to be.

    After checking our dietary restrictions, we were told that there would be about 15 courses coming our way.  We were both pretty hungry by now, and eagerly awaited for the food to arrive.

    But my string of bad luck seemed to have continued even in San Francisco.  As I was going through my usual routine of setting white balance for my camera, something weird seemed to be happening.  Many of the pictures had dark shadows across part or even all of the frame, and it seemed to occur mostly when the camera was pointed at a downward angle.  I was never able to properly set white balance, and was pretty much frustrated the whole evening trying to get in a decent shot of each dish.

    Infusion of home herbs from our garden - our server poured some Meyer lemon-infused hot water into the tea cup, letting the flavors of the herbs infuse into the liquid.  While the fragrance and flavors of the Meyer lemon was immediately recognizable, there were also sweeter flavors that came later, almost anise-like.

    Tomato - the tomato is from the restaurant's own garden, garnished with grilled tomato gelée and aromatic herbs on top.  At the bottom there was some corn pudding and tomato preserved in the wood oven.  I thought this was pretty good, as I love the umami flavors of a tomato essence.  The basil and mint on top were especially intense in terms of flavors.

    The Parker House roll on the side was lightly grilled and brushed with smoked (something that I didn't catch)...  Definitely got the smoky flavors, and the roll was a little salty than I expected.

    Ducky was very happy when the staff laid down these shiny ducky chopsticks rests...

    Broth of grilled roots - giant radishes stuffed with scallops and sea cucumbers, soaked in the broth of grilled root vegetables.  Loved the radishes, and we were trying to figure out whether they cooked the radish separately from the "stuffing".  I thought both pieces were stuffed with scallop... Oh well.  Nice charring on the radish giving plenty of of smokiness.  The scallop was done mi-cuit.  The broth definitely tasted of dashi (出汁), but we thought there was also some butter or cream mixed in.  The broth also had shaved yuzu (柚子) rind, giving it a little bit of citrus fragrance.

    We were "encouraged to drink directly from the bowl", so once again I had my face buried deep into the bowl, and asked Ducky to take a picture...

    Spot prawn - from Half Moon Bay, freshly killed about 10 minutes prior to serving.  With grated daikon and jalapeño, as well as greens on the plate.  We could dip the prawn with either the toasted seaweed salt or the citronette on the side.

    The prawn itself was delicious and just barely cooked.  Not a fan of the lettuce that covered it, though.  The seaweed salt was surprisingly meh, but the citronette was full of shellfish broth and had loads of umami.

    Battle creek trout, its skin and roe - a beautiful presentation.  The trout was smoked in the wood oven, with the crispy skin on top.

    There was a layer of trout roe between the skin and the trout, which was arranged beautifully.  This was a really beautiful fish, although the first impression was that the smoky trout was pretty salty.  But the saltiness quickly gave way, and the combination of all the ingredients in one bite was pure harmony.  I especially liked popping the trout roe one by one in my mouth...

    Sea urchin, liquid toast - the sea urchin comes from Santa Barbara.  I could see that this was someone's favorite ingredient, and I gotta say that it was very, very good.  We were trying to figure out what made the "liquid toast" underneath so delicious, with deep flavors that almost reminded us a little of Japanese marinated crab tomalley (蟹味噌).  As it turns out, the secret was beurre noisette.  なるほど...

    Abalone, grilled over the embers, sauce of the liver and capers - Monterey abalone with kelp.

    Lifting the kelp cover revealed the abalone, grilled artichoke, rice, and the liver sauce.  So I guess everyone's doing abalone with liver sauce these days...  Not bad.

    Pickles - a palate-cleanser, I guess? Preserved cucumbers with seaweed gel, topped with horseradish ice.  Nice combination of acidity of the vinegar, salty flavors from what tasted like dashi, and light "spicy" flavors from the wasabigranité.  Unlike Ducky, my sinuses didn't get a good clearing...

    Custard - Saison's version of a chawanmushi (茶碗蒸し), made with very creamy Red Hawk cheese on top, with pickled green onions which tasted sweet.

    Brassica leaves, blistered in the fire, broth of the cultured vegetables - all types of leaves from the Brassica family such as kale, cabbage, leafy mustard... with some "fermented cabbage" at the bottom.

    Side view shows the other leaves underneath.  I thought there was also some radicchio or red cabbage.  Anyway... Ducky tasted the "fermented cabbage" and immediately declared that this was simply "washed down kimchi made by a white person who is vegan"... Well, I guess that's what a Korean would say...  As for me, I just thought it tasted a little like sauerkraut...  But I really did enjoy the roasted kale.

    Fire in the sky beet, bone marrow, roasted over coals - Michael joked that this was their "vegan dish" while presenting the hunk of bone which has been roasting next to the fire for an hour, but he wasn't too far off the mark!  First he took a spoon to scoop out the marrow from the bone, then it was heated in a little copper sauce pan...

    It was then poured on top of the beets, which have been hung over the fire for 3 days while they have been smoked and dehydrated.  There were also elderberries and pickled rose petals on top.  The vinegar sauce was surprisingly nice.  In fact, the whole dish was much better than

    Duck - roasted in embers, with neck, tenderloin, and 2 pieces of loin. Garnished with both fresh and dehydrated gooseberries.

    Duck was served with Saison hot sauce, which has a hint of cumin.

    Duck bone broth - infused with mitsuba (三つ葉).

    Ice cream and caramel, cooked in the fire - smoked cow’s milk, smoked and churned into ice cream. Topped with cocoa nibs along with salted and smoked caramel. Very, very smoky and yummy. Love.

    Citrus and tea - looks cute.

    Citrus sorbet (or ice cream, since it has buttermilk?) made with mandarin orange, with chunks at the bottom. Texture was very smooth and different. Turns out this was made with a Pacojet.

    There was also a pot of sobacha (そば茶).

    Wild berries - from California.  Delicious.

    I browsed through the impressive wine list of the restaurant a couple of weeks ago, and decided it would be far more economical to bring my own wine and pay corkage... since I have a couple of hundred bottles lying just north of the city.

    Robert Moncuit Le Mesnil-sur-Oger - nice and a little yeasty.  Ripe on the palate.

    2006 Kistler Pinot Noir Bodegas Headlands Vineyard Cuvée Elizabeth - nose was really sweet, so incredibly sugarly, so fragrant... with cedar and almost floral notes.  More than an hour and a half later, there were more mineral and metallic notes.  What a beautiful wine!

    Certainly a very good meal.  While there were fewer "WOW"s than I had anticipated, there were no fails out of the 15 courses offered, which is actually really hard!  Very consistent throughout, with a lot more Japanese influence than I had expected.  I'm glad I took Ducky here...

    P.S. We were listening to mostly 80s music throughout the entire evening, which was pretty cool to me but probably a lot less meaningful to Ducky.  I asked Michael about it at the end of dinner, and was told that it was Chef Josh's idea to keep things less stuffy and more casual - in line with their "come as you are" attitude.  Indeed, a neighboring table were occupied by guests in shorts - similar to my experience with Martin Berasategui in Spain.  Whatever the reason, I was pretty happy!

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    I woke up this morning after some broken sleep, and my friend Ducky very kindly drove us around to get some breakfast.  Neighbor Bakehouse apparently serves up some really good pastries, so I picked up a couple of items and brought them back to her place.

    Their butter croissant was pretty good, but what really bowled me over was their everything croissant.  Imagine an "everything bagel"... except that it comes with layers of flaky pastry... and buttery goodness.  Take the butter croissant and add sesame seeds, poppy seeds, toasted onions... and add what seemed to be cream cheese on the inside of the croissant.  So freakin' good!  Those onions really pack a punch!  I wished I had bought 2 more of these...

    Lunchtime rolled around, and I found myself at Campton Place Restaurant inside the Campton Place Hotel around Union Square.  These guys have themselves a little macaron from the Rubberman, and given that it's located inside an Indian hotel, the food naturally had Indian elements.  I decided to take their 5-course tasting menu for lunch.

    The amuse bouche was a green apple, arugula, and avocado foam.  You get the sweetness from the apple plus the very strong flavors of arugula.  Nice.

    Spring pea salad, fines herb relish, snap peas, burrata and pickling juice - you've got quinoa, coriander, pea shoots, sugar snaps, watermelon radish, pickled pearl onions, and tomatoes.  Then you've got the burrata.  This made for a very interesting mix of textures, from crunchy to soft and mushy.  I really liked having this salad to start, but the burrata made things a little too heavy... and I could feel it filling up my stomach.

    Maine lobster, puffed black rice, cauliflower and coconut curry - the lobster was mi-cuit and still pretty crunchy.  Loved the classic Indian curry with cauliflower and potato pearls.  The tomato salsa was a nice touch, as was the puffed rice to give some crunch.  The curry was nice and tangy.

    I was feeling a little full after just two courses... but there were three more to go!

    Liberty Farm duck samosa, tomato butter, peach and cucumber salad - this was a lot bigger than I expected... The shredded duck inside was delicious and spicy, and interestingly came studded with crunchy green soy beans instead of the traditional green peas.

    Angus beef tenderloin, soubise, caper-jalapeño relish, king trumpets and lemon-thyme jus - now pretty stuffed after the samosa, this wasn't what I was looking forward to...

    This was cooked medium-rare, as suggested.  Perfect doneness and color.  Wonderfully soft and tender.  I liked the caper and jalapeño relish on top o the king trumpets.

    Blackberry, sorbet, buttermilk cake, lemon-verbena and pistachio "crumble" - a beautiful dessert, but I was already over the edge.  I took the blackberry sorbet with the fragrant lemon-verbena foam on top, and ate the blackberries, but took only one bite of the buttermilk cake.

    I was so stuffed after this lunch that I had to take an espresso for digestion, even though I've already had coffee at breakfast...  Anyway, I thought the lunch was very good, and certainly something very interesting.  Unfortunately it was definitely more suited for American-sized appetites than mine.

    The godparents picked me up early in the evening, and after checking ourselves into the hotel near the airport, my wonderful godfather indulged me by taking us to one of the places on my "hit list"...

    ...which is how we ended up at IHOP, just a few minutes' drive away.  It's just one of those things... from school days when I was younger, and much poorer...

    I was devastated to find that they no longer have piggies in a blanket on the menu, so I decided to DIY by ordering a short stack of three pancakes, with two sausages on the side.

    Then I rolled the pancakes around the sausages myself, creating a not-so-elegant version of my favorite dish.  The pancakes were, of course, drenched in the traditional syrup.

    A totally satisfying dinner, although many wouldn't exactly consider IHOP gourmet dining.  But it was what I wanted on my hit list, and I got it.  Having filled our tummies, it was now time to pick up the parental units from SFO and get the road trip started...

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    After padding our stomachs with simple breakfast at the hotel, we set off for our day in Napa an hour early.  Smooth traffic into and out of San Francisco meant that we arrived in the valley an hour before our first appointment.  So we spent a few minutes strolling Main Street in St. Helena and enjoying the sunny and warm weather.

    We had good directions from the winery and navigation help from Google Maps, so we showed up at the gates of IX Estate for our visit to Colgin Cellars.  I've been a fan of Ann Colgin and her wines for a long time, and after meeting her and Joe a couple of times in Asia, I'm glad I finally made it here.

    I finally met Beverly, who's responsible for mailing list customers, as she came to greet us.  Annie was kind enough to show us around the winery.  As we arrived in the middle of the harvest, we watched as the crew unloaded boxes of grapes onto the de-stemming machine.  The grapes were then loaded onto a conveyer belt for sorting.

    We went to look at the tanks below, and for the first time I got to see "gravity flow" in action as the grapes were fed from the sorting belt into the tanks.

    Photo courtesy of dad
    The winery's "library" included all of Colgin's vintages in various formats, including a couple of bottles of Ann's very first vintage, which had been sold at auction and had the famous "Colgin kiss" on the labels.  We were also privileged enough to visit Ann and Joe's prized collection next door, housing many, many bottles of large format DRCs and Bordeaux First Growths.

    Finally, we went back up to the main drawing room area and got a chance to admire the couple's art and antiques collection, as well as their basketball collection, before sitting down for a tasting.  But I did manage to greet one of the residents... just wasn't sure whether it was Corton or Gevrey...

    Annie very generously poured us 3 different wines to taste:

    2012 Colgin Cariad - a little cool and muted at first, slightly smoky, pretty alcoholic on the nose, with forest, bacon, and minty notes.  Pretty spicy going down the back of the throat.  Opened up a little more as time went on, and became more aromatic.

    2012 Colgin IX Estate Cabernet Sauvignon - more fruit here, with more oak, along with forest, bacon, and leather notes.  Vanilla and caramel notes came out later, along with tropical notes.  So nice! Initially tannins were more noticeable here.

    2005 Colgin IX Estate Cabernet Sauvignon - much riper on the nose, with blackcurrant and cedar notes.  Much more developed in terms of aromatics, and so fragrant!

    We went out on the terrace to take in the gorgeous view over Lake Hennessey, bid our farewells and headed to lunch.

    We were running late from a slow lunch, and arrived at Araujo Estate quite a bit past the time suggested for us.  As the weather was so hot it didn't make sense to do a walk in the vineyards, so we headed indoors.

    Photo courtesy of dad
    Araujo was also in the middle of harvest - where they pick the grapes at night - and were only about 2 days from finishing picking.  They were also busy sorting the grapes when we arrived...

    We went straight into the cellar for a tasting, among barrels of 2014.  Burges generously shares 4 different wines with us.

    2012 Araujo Eisele Vineyard Syrah - very ripe fruit, a little alcoholic, but so fragrant!  Sweet on the palate.

    2012 Araujo Altagracia - apparently this vintage had all the cabernet franc and petit verdot, which meant this had a lot of character.  Nose was more metallic, lots of exotic spices, almost tea smoked.  Very soft on the palate.

    2012 Araujo Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon - this was the first year that the team from Latour took over, and thanks to Frédéric Engerer's analytical (and scientific?) approach, only the best blocks of cabernet sauvignon went into this wine.  The nose was very fragrant, with lots of cedar and floral notes.  A little savory, too... and perhaps also a little dirty and funky at the same time?

    2013 Araujo Eisele Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc - wow!  What a beautiful wine!  Lemon, mineral, flinty notes.  Soooo fragrant!  Ripe and almost sweet on the palate.

    Mom had a little incident while tasting, which served to cut our visit short and made sure that Burges was on time for the next group.  While the visit was a little short in terms of time, I still really enjoyed our visit and my conversation with Burges about the changes that the Latour team were making.  And I'm sad that the delicious Araujo Grappa was no longer being made.

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    Napa Valley has its share of well-regarded restaurants - and more than a few with macarons from the Rubberman.  Unfortunately, as we started planning this trip too late, I wasn't able to take the Parental Units to the French Laundry... or get into the Meadowood.  In the end I picked a couple of places out of curiosity... which didn't turn out so well.

    After our visit to Colgin Cellars' IX Estate, we drove north to Calistoga for lunch at Solbar.  The place is attached to the Solage Calistoga - a spa resort.  The concept of a "healthy" restaurant with a macaron intrigued me, and since it was just down the road from Araujo Estate, this turned out to be the perfect venue.

    The Parental Units and the godparents all wanted to eat light, so everyone ended up taking just one course... except me, of course!  I had to have two courses so I could try more dishes here.

    Spicy shrimp lettuce wraps, rice noodles, tamarind dressing, avocado and nam pla dipping sauce - I guess I wasn't expecting large, whole shrimps here, but they were pretty fresh.  There was probably a little too much rice noodle in each of the lettuce cups, so eating them became a little challenging, especially with the dipping sauce already dressed.  Speaking of which... the fish sauce I get, but where's the avocado?

    Crispy petrale sole tacos, sweet and sour cabbage, cilantro and spicy aioli on warm tortillas - I nicked one of mom's fish tacos, and these were pretty good.  I never thought I'd like fish tacos, but these days I'm definitely coming around.  The spicy aioli was nice.

    Lucky pig, slow-roasted shoulder of Homestead Hampshire pork, black sesame crepes, pickled pineapple, Mongolian peanuts, lettuce cups and more - the menu says this thing serves two, and I ordered it for everyone to share.

    The hunk of pork shoulder definitely serves more than two... and was cooked beautifully.  Very, very tender and delicious.  Ganma looked at it and immediately said "Oh, 蹄膀!" Wrapping it in crêpes was a little messy, and this should just be eaten on its own.  In the end we had to take half of it to go.

    My food was decent, but a Michelin star?  Hmmm...

    We had a lot of time to kill before dinner, so we decided to show up at Auberge du Soleil early and just parked ourselves at the bar.  The terrace overlooks the beautiful Rutherford section of the valley, and it's nice to hang out here and relax - when the temperature isn't as high as it was today.

    The sun was still out by the time our 5:30 p.m. seating came around, and thank to the weather we chose to sit indoors.  While the old fogeys took the basic 3 courses, I decided to take the 6-course tasting menu by myself.

    This little nibble seemed to be a slice of zucchini with some cream and maybe beet purée...

    Amuse bouche was chilled ginger and carrot soup, with lemon oil and chives.  There seemed to be a little cumin here...

    Day boat scallop, glazed pork belly, matsutaki, grilled cabbage, Thai broth - the scallop was cooked perfectly mi-cuit, and sliced into two.  The pork belly was pretty charred but I'll take any pork belly.  The jasmine rice was made into a congee that was incredibly mushy, and you could see speech bubbles with "WTF" popping up from my head...  Why did they have to ruin a perfectly good dish this way?!

    Foie gras torchon, pink pearl apples, rosemary almonds, horseradish - the torchon was actually very nice and smooth, and worked nicely with toast on the side.  Didn't really get much of the horseradish purée but that was OK.  One of the better dishes tonight.

    Veal sweetbreads, creamed little gem, chanterelles, fava beans, sherry - the sweetbreads came in little nuggets and were a little dry on their own... and definitely needed the egg sherry sauce.  Not one of the better sweetbreads I've had.

    Mom cut me a little bite of her halibut and asked me what I thought.  It was on the dry side and the flavors weren't great.  She thought it was made with frozen halibut.  Not something I would expect from a restaurant at this level.

    Paine Farms Squab, foie gras, figs, thyme, grilled fennel, balsamic red wine sauce - this squab was very, very good.  In fact, it was the standout from the entire menu.  The breast was perfectly cooked, and the leg was yummy, too.  The pan-fried foie gras was nice.

    Prime beef pavé, tempura eggplant, baby bok choy, nardello peppers, Asian vinaigrette - I took the beef medium-rare as suggested, and the color certainly looked good.

    Unfortunately, I got the "end cut", which meant that 5 of the 6 sides of this piece of meat was charred, and overcooked. The tempura egglplant was also a little bit of WTF.  For me this dish was a definite FAIL.

    Hibiscus jelly with pomegranate seeds - interesting, but given that it's a quarter of a bite... kinda neither here nor there.

    Pistachio financier, zee grand nectarines, chamomile, lemon gelato - the financier was OK, if a little on the hard side.  The lemon gelato was nice, the St-Germain gel was an interesting touch, and the chamomile foam was pretty nice.

    Petits fours - chocolate all the way... with almond caramels.

    I brought along another bottle that I fished out from local storage, and treated the old fogeys to a nice bottle...

    2005 Harlan Maiden - decanted and put on ice as it was too warm initially.  A little rubber and smoke.  Definitely sweet on the palate.  Opened up after 45 minutes in the decanter, but still pretty tannic.  Nose was really nice after 2 hours, with coffee notes at the end.

    Frankly, this was a very disappointing meal.  Poor execution, WTF concepts, less-than-fresh ingredients...  I gotta wonder what the Michelin people were thinking.  If this place is good enough to have a star, then I gotta thank my lucky stars that I have easy access to places like the Mandarin Grill + Bar... because I'll take Uwe's cooking any day.

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    With our Napa trip cut short, we made an early exit towards Yosemite today.  We had no plans or itinerary other than Yosemite on our calendar, and were gonna take it easy.

    Minutes after getting on the highway in Fairfield, we came across the Jelly Belly Candy Company's headquarters.  I decided that we should make the unscheduled stop so that I could pick up some flavors that are impossible to get outside the U.S.

    Once inside the shop, I looked around and immediately found something to bring home for friends' kids... the Frozen Jelly Bellys, which contain sparkly beans.  I ignore the Hello Kitty and Star Wars special packs...  But the real goal was Tabasco Jelly Bellys, which a friend had brought me last year.  I love the kick and also the real taste of Tabasco.  Grabbed a whole bunch of these.  I also picked up some A&W Root Beer flavored Jelly Bellys.

    You would expect this company to have a bunch of cars decorated with Jelly Bellys.  Besides a VW Beetle and others, you've also got a Jelly Belly food truck!

    We move on to Stockton, where mom made an obligatory stop at Costco.  The good thing about this stop was that there's a Five Guys Burgers and Fries right next to Costco.  I made a beeline for the place at lunch time...

    Got myself a bacon cheeseburger with the works.  That's a lot of toppings there!  Very satisfying.  The beef patties were a little more charred than I had expected, but still pretty good.  The fries were floppy.

    We continued towards Yosemite and after checking into our hotel, finally entered the valley mid-afternoon.  We knew things weren't gonna be perfect by breathing the air in the area... it was smoky.  There were clearly a couple of forest fires nearby, and that left a haze in the air.

    Our first stop inside the valley was El Capitan, and once we parked I immediately looked in the opposite direction for Bridalveil Fall, but I didn't see any sign of gushing water.  We hiked over to the vista point at the bottom of the waterfall, and had to squint to see just a trickle coming down...

    I took out my telephoto, tacked on the 2X extender, and got a close view of the very top of the falls.  Not a lot coming down...

    Back across the road, El Capitan was looking pretty hazy.  The sky was gray and didn't provide much color to any pictures I was taking.

    Disappointed, we drive along further to get a look at the Half Dome - another sight immortalized by Ansel Adams.  Things didn't look any better there...

    This was pretty disappointing... so we went over to the Village Store to pick up some supplies, and headed back to our hotel.  I doubt there were any decent restaurants around for us to have dinner at, but we had brought along our doggy bags from two Michelin-starred restaurants in Napa, so we actually had a pretty good dinner in the comfort of our hotel room.

    I did bring my wines along with me, so we opened up a bottle during dinner...

    2009 Kongsgaard VioRous - nice and ripe, sweet on the nose, with orange blossom.  Nice acidity here balancing out the ripeness.

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    Got up this morning, took a peek outside the hotel room window, and saw that the sky was still a little hazy... although there was a lot more light at this hour compared to yesterday afternoon.  Decided we should do another loop around the Yosemite Valley and see if pictures would come out better today.

    El Capitan looked a little better, but I wanted to do a proper filming of Bridalveil Fall - and I carried my tripod along today.  There was a little more water coming down this morning, but it was still a trickle and not exactly a proper waterfall... Certainly not what it is famous for.  Apparently Spring is the best season for it...

    By the time I finished filming here and got back to El Capitan, the haze had drifted over.  I took a few more disappointing snaps, and we drove over to another spot discovered yesterday to get look at Half Dome.  Well, it wasn't completely obscured today - even worse than yesterday.  So instead of taking pics of the famous rock formations, I took snaps of some flora... like these blooming thistle - which, incidentally, is the emblem for my alma mater.

    Disappointed, we went over to take a look at Lower Yosemite Falls.  When we reached this part of the highest waterfall in North America, we were surprised to discover that it was completely dry.  Not even a trickle was visible.  This sucked.

    We decided to make our way out of the park, but along the way we came across El Capitan from a different angle - and found ourselves much closer so that the haze didn't affect our view as much.  Happy to have gotten a few good shots...

    I made a quick stop at the Ansel Adams Gallery after a trip to the Yosemite Valley Visitors Center.  Naturally they've got all sorts of posters and postcards featuring the finest works from the master, as well as a bunch of other stuff for sale.  But if you're itching for a real masterpiece, you can buy signed photographic prints from the master himself.  Prices were running from about USD 15k to just under USD 50k...  Well, maybe some other day.

    We made a quick stop at the Village Grill for lunch.  I haven't had a BBQ pulled pork sandwich in a while, and that was pretty satisfying.  In fact, it was so good that this bee wouldn't stop coming for it.  I had to carefully unwrap the paper, take a bite, then quick wrap it up again until I was ready for my next bite!

    Finally, as we were on our way out, there was one last vista point named Tunnel View - right before we get into a tunnel, naturally...  Here from our elevated position, we can take in all the sights at once - from El Capital on the left... to Horsetail Fall... Clouds Rest was pretty faint, but I was surprised Half Dome was still visible... then Sentinel Rock... and finally Bridalveil Fall looking pretty invisible from this distance.

    It wasn't long after we exited Yosemite when we came upon a fire in the hills around Oakhurst.  I guess it's fires like these - plus a few more in the area - that contributed to the smoky and hazy conditions...

    From then on it was a long drive south, and we finally reached Bakersfield after dark.  After checking into our hotel, we headed out for a quick dinner.  None of us knew where to eat in Bakersfield, so I decided to look up Mexican joints on Yelp.  After all, we are in California!

    Nuestro Mexico Restaurant seems to have gotten decent reviews, so I thought it was worth a shot and dragged the old fogeys there.  They weren't very busy, but it didn't matter.  I just wanted something different.

    We had barely sat down before a couple of baskets of tortilla chips were brought over with some salsa.  I was very hungry by now, and these chips tasted really, really fresh and good.  We must have gotten the "mild"salsa at first, because Ganma asked if they had anything hotter...  But of course they did!

    I was really disappointed to be told that they ran out of chicharrones, so I took the manager's (or was he the owner?) suggestion and had the cheese and cilantro taquitos instead.   These were actually pretty good, and came with a scoop of guacamole, a scoop of sour cream, and some salsa.

    Ceviche verde bowl - done with green bell peppers, cilantro, and onions.  Served with more tortilla chips and saltines (!) on the side.  Pretty good.

    Fish tacos - it's my second time having fish tacos this week, and I thought these were pretty decent, too.  I liked the pico de gallo, but the chipotle sauce was even better.

    I wasn't gonna drink any alcohol with my dinner, but I did get a bottle of Jarritos Tamarind, which was not bad.  But I cracked opened another bottle of wine to share with the family once we got back to our hotel rooms...

    2006 BOND Matriarch - smoky, a little earthy, very much floral, definitely lots of concentration here.  Very tannic, actually.  Underneath the tannins the palate was definitely sweet.

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    After staying in Bakersfield overnight, it was time to head into Vegas.  We went back onto State Route 58 and headed east, and soon entered the vast expanse of the Mojave Desert.

    Naturally the landscape looked a little bleak, and the only thing worth noting was the huge windfarm in the area, so it was pretty boring for a while.  Suddenly, I looked out the window and saw what seemed to be a collection of airplanes near a control tower.  Was there an airport here in the middle of nowhere?  Suddenly I remembered about the famous airplane boneyard in the Mojave Desert, and sure enough, the Mojave Air and Space Port was right here besides Route 58.

    Things didn't look any more interesting for a while, until I passed road signs bearing the name Hinkley.  Hinkley, California?!  Isn't that the town featured in the movie Erin Brokovich?!

    Which made me remember that Barstow was also mentioned in the movie.  But Barstow was made famous decades earlier, when it was included in the lyrics of the song Route 66.  While the song was first popularized by Nat King Cole, personally I prefer the Depeche Mode version...

    Well, we did end up stopping in Barstow at the Tanger Outlet Barstow for a little shopping.  The Visitors Center was full of souvenirs touting the town's history with Route 66.

    But these days this outlet mall was full of Asian tourists coming in by the busloads...  When the Nike outlet has signs like these... you know how much Mainland Chinese traffic they're getting!  And this outlet mall is full of brands that the Mainland Chinese love - Bally, Coach, Michael Kors...etc.

    We didn't spend a lot of time here, and as it was lunch time we went across the road to grab some food.  I was very, very, very tempted to try and get my American Chinese food fix at Panda Express, but figured that there would be busloads of Mainland Chinese here.  So I went to the joint next door...

    ...and found more Asian tourists at In-N-Out Burger.  There was a huge line inside, so the parental units parked themselves at a table while I stood in line to place our order.  I got myself a Double Double combo with some fries.  The burger was mmm mmm good, but I wasn't so happy with the fries.  A little too dry and puffy, and surprisingly bland.

    With our bellies full, we went into the home stretch and got to the godparents' place in North Las Vegas.  We unloaded the minivan, settled in, and rested a little.

    Dinner ended up being a casual affair at the nearby Outback Steakhouse.  I ordered a bloomin' onion for everyone to share, which is always good.  I finished with a half rack of baby back ribs, which were pretty tasty, too.

    For the first time in 6 nights, I finally slept in a bed by myself, in the privacy of my own room.  Zzzzzzzzzz........

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    Instead of sleeping in on our scheduled day of rest, I dragged my ass out of bed again early this morning.  Ganba offered to drive me to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, and I jumped at the chance to get some good pictures in.  We headed out shortly past 8am, which meant we got there past the "magic hour"...

    As we turned into Red Rock Canyon Road, I could already see that I was gonna get a ton of good pictures.  We turned into the Scenic Drive and stopped by the Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center, which has information displays explaining about the geology as well as the people, flora, and fauna of the area.  It also has several strategic vista points to get one started - especially since it's very close to Calico Hills.

    We kept going and came to the Calico Hills 1 Overlook.  Here you get real close and you can actually go and climb up these beautiful red rocks.  The clouds were low this morning, and the light kept changing depending on whether the sun was hiding behind the clouds at any given moment.  But when the lighting was right, the rocks looked simply stunning.

    We ran into a lady who told us that we had just missed a pretty rainbow - while I was missing looking through the viewfinder of my camera.  It had rained a little this morning, and I would have been pretty cool to have seen that rainbow over the Nevada desert and the rocks.  Oh well...

    Driving along, we come across from stunning red rocks of the Calico Hills.

    Next we stopped in the middle of the road to get a look at Turtlehead Peak.

    Stop number 3 along the Scenic Drive was Sandstone Quarry, where I starts to get a closer look at the three major peaks along the western rim of the canyon:

    Mount Wilson

    Rainbow Mountain

    Bridge Mountain

    You've also got White Rock Hills further north...

    A little farther along, we come to High Point Overlook, where the vista was indeed better.  Here we run into a group of people who are driving along the Scenic Drive in these rented buggies.  This would normally be a great move, except that the wind was very, very strong today... and when I have trouble standing up straight against the gusting winds, it definitely wasn't a day to drive an open-top vehicle!

    The 13-mile loop was well worth the time this morning, even though the clouds made lighting conditions a little tricky.  I was really happy to have made it here, and happy to have found something interesting to do while in Vegas...

    After a home-cooked lunch by Ganma, we went over to visit one of mom's bridesmaids who recently bought a vacation home in Vegas.  Not surprisingly, we ended up having Chinese food for dinner in Chinatown...

    Chef Ching's Kitchen (小胖川菜) is run by a Taiwanese chef from the Gangshan District of Kaoshiung.  They are known for their Sichuan cuisine, but since that doesn't work for either mom or myself - nor the nice wines I brought along - our host ordered mostly dishes that aren't spicy.

    These spicy marinated bamboo shoots (辣扁尖筍) were actually pretty good.

    Marinated cucumber (涼拌黃瓜) and marinated shredded tofu (涼拌干絲)

    Pork intestine and noodle (大腸麵線) - we ordered two big bowls of this Taiwanese classic, but the flavors weren't classic at all.  In fact, they were relatively mild and bland compared to what we usually get in Taiwan.  But this proved to be the most popular item... and while I was busy rinsing my empty bowl to get some more, Ganba had quietly taken the last serving.

    Fish fillets broiled in pickled leafy mustard (酸菜煮魚) - this was originally meant to be fish fillets broiled in spicy sauce (水煮魚), the famous Sichuan dish, but was changed due to the prohibition on spice.  The soup was nice and tangy, with a little bit of spice.  Besides the fish fillets and pickled leafy mustard, you've also got the flat rice noodles.  Very yum.

    Shredded pork with dried bean curd (香干肉絲)

    Braised hearty pork meatballs (紅燒獅子頭) - "hearty" would be the right word here, because these two meatballs were HUGE... even bigger than the ones mom makes.

    The problem here, though, is that the meatballs were simply too tough.  The shells were really hard, and the insides were too tough and chewy.  FAIL.

    Smoked duck with tea flavors (樟茶鴨) - not bad.

    Stir-fried morning glory (炒空心菜)

    Mom thought I should bring a couple of wines to share with our hosts, so I dutifully took out a couple of nice bottles... and was a little sad that the food or glasses didn't do the wines justice.

    2012 Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc To Kalon Vineyard I Block - lots of green apple, nice and tropical, oaky.  Ripe on the palate with good, crisp acidity.  Yum!  So glad I went over to Robert Mondavi Winery to pick up two bottles of this very rare wine.

    2005 Harlan Maiden - really sweet on the nose, with lots of fruit here.  Nice vanilla from the oak.  Not decanted, so the bottom half of the bottle showed a little more tannin thanks to the sediment.

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    We're on the road again today and heading east towards the Grand Canyon.  But our first stop today was the Hoover Dam, since it is just east of Vegas and on the way.  I chose to forgo walking on the new bridge over the dam, and just spent a little time on top of the dam itself.

    It's obviously a real feat of engineering in its day and pretty impressive.

    There are four penstock towers on the Lake Mead side of dam, with two on the Nevada side and two on the Arizona side.  There is a clock on each side showing the time in the state.

    After going back on the road for a while, we made a stop at a truck stop in Kingman to refuel and pick up some supplies.  This is another town mentioned in the lyrics of Route 66.  I got myself some Ho Hos just for the hell of it... more memories from my years spent in this country.

    We drove into Williams, another town proud to be on Route 66 and declaring itself "the gateway to the Grand Canyon".  We saw some picnic tables in the outskirts and decided to stop to have our picnic lunch.  There was a statue of Bill Williams, the namesake of the town, as well as a memorial honoring people from the town who had served and given their lives in the U.S. Armed Forces throughout the years.

    We drove north after lunch, and not long after we found ourselves inside Grand Canyon National Park.  We parked the car and immediately walked to the area around Mather Point and the Amphitheater.  This is the area with the most tourists as it's right by the parking lots and the Grand Canyon Visitor Center.

    After hanging around the area for a little, I decided to trek out to the western end of the canyon.  We drove the car and parked by the lodges in the Grand Canyon Village, and then took the Red Route Shuttle Bus and headed west.  As the bus has set departure times at each stop along the route and needs to wait for a couple of minutes, I was able to hop off, snap a few quick pics, and hop back on.

    The bus stopped at Hopi Point - said to be the most popular spot to take in the sunset - but I wanted to head further west.  We got off at Pima Point - the second-most westerly stop on the route - and the second-most popular spot to watch the sunset.  We got a good view of the Colorado River from this spot, and stayed here till the sunset.

    Unfortunately there were lots of low-level clouds today, so much of the canyon was shrouded in shadow.  The winds were also pretty strong, which swept up lots of dirt and sand into the air - and made the sky a little hazy.  Not the best conditions to produce beautiful pictures, but the view was still stunning.

    We caught one of the last buses back to the village, and drove back to our hotel in Williams.  We had brought along lots of leftovers from last night's dinner, and used the microwave oven in our room to warm them up for a sumptuous dinner.

    I'm so glad I finally made it to the Grand Canyon at my age.  Would definitely love to come back and take in the views another day.

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    Decided to take it a little easy today and not torture the old fogeys by going back to the Grand Canyon again this morning.  Instead we headed south to Sedona, where there are beautiful red rock formations all around town.  It was a destination that none of us have ever been, so everyone was looking forward to it.

    Once we went through Sedona going south on 89A and veered onto 179, the rock formations were all around us.  First and foremost among the sights would be Cathedral Rock, and we went onto the Back O Beyond Road and parked at the trailhead.  I spent a little time snapping pictures here, as it was a magnificent sight.

    Going further down Highway 179 not only afford us a view of the other major rocks in the area, but actually allowed us to see that Cathedral Rock was not simply one large piece of rock, but a collection of 4 different rocks.

    The other major landmarks included the Twin Buttes, along with the Nuns (two of them) nearby... well as the Bell Rock and the Courthouse, shown here from the back because the lighting sucked shooting from the front...  This was from Yavapai Point.

    There were a number of trails in the area, each with a parking lot which afforded magnificent views.  We spent a little bit of time here taking in the scenery and getting baked.

    I kinda wish we could have spent some time in the town itself, maybe hitting up a restaurant for lunch, but the old fogeys had other ideas.  We still had a ton of food in the cooler, so the decision was made to go back to Williams and have a picnic lunch in the same spot where we did it yesterday.

    My lunch today?  Slices of honey ham, chunks of Ganma's braised pork shoulder in soy sauce and five spice, arugula, and tomato in a bagel.  Needless to say, the pork shoulder half of my sandwich tasted better...

    There was a long and uneventful drive back to Vegas after lunch, and we got back just around dinner time.  I had told the old fogeys that I was gonna get my General Tso's chicken fix no matter what, and Ganba was very helpful in accommodating my wishes.  After passing by Panda Express countless times during this trip, I finally stopped in at an outlet in North Las Vegas...

    ...only to find that General Tso's chicken wasn't on the menu!  I thought for sure this was the place for me to get it!  Disappointed, I resorted to searching the internet for it, and fortunately found a place nearby my godparents' for it.  New China Cuisine to the rescue!

    General Tso's chicken - it's been decades since I last had this on American soil, and it wasn't bad.  I was a little surprised at the thin batter, and though it was crispy it didn't give me that deeply satisfying crunch that I was hoping for.  Love that sweet, brown sauce, though!

    Beef and broccoli - not happy with this.  The beef has clearly been marinated in baking soda to the point where the texture just became too tender and soft, and there was too much soy sauce here.

    I opened up another bottle to share with Ganba...

    2006 BOND Matriarch - nice and sweet nose, a little oaky, plenty of cassis, smoky, cedar.  Still a little too tannic.

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    Since early 2007, I have been wanting to gear my future travels towards visiting more locations which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There are so many amazing places around the world to see!

    Here is the list that I have already visited so far. Click on the links to see pictures from my Picasa albums.

    Total count: 64 sites in 20 countries

    Greater Blue Mountains Area - 1976
    Sydney Opera House - 1976

    Angkor - 2001

    The Great Wall - 1997, 1999
    The Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing and Shenyang - 1997, 1999 (Beijing only)
    Mogao Caves - 1999
    Temple of Heaven - 1997, 1999
    Summer Palace - 1997
    Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties - 1997
    Historic Centre of Macao - 1990, 1995, 2005, 2010
    Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang'an - Tianshan Corridor - 1998, 1999
    South China Karst - 2000
    Xinjiang Tianshan - 1998
    Westlake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou - 1998

    Bordeaux, Port of the Moon - 2009
    Cathedral of Notre Dame, Former Abbey of Saint-Remi and Palace of Tau, Reims - 2002, 2009
    Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars - 2002, 2009
    Climats, terroirs of Burgundy - 2010
    Historic Center of Avignon: Papal Palace, Episcopal Ensemble and Avignon Bridge - 2011
    Historic Center of Lyons - 2011
    Jurisdiction of Saint-Emilion - 2009
    Palace and Park of Versailles - 2009
    Paris, Banks of the Seine - 1994, 1995, 1997, 2002, 2009, 2010, 2011
    Roman Theater and its Surroundings and the "Triumphal Arch" of Orange - 2011

    Agra Fort - 2007
    Taj Mahal - 2007
    Fatehpur Sikri - 2007
    Humayun's Tomb, Dehli - 2007
    Qutb Minar and its Monuments, Dehli - 2007

    Borobudur Temple Compounds - 2005
    Cultural Landscape of Bali Province: the Subak System as a Manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana Philosophy - 1997
    Prambanan Temple Compounds - 2005

    Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration - 1983, 1985, 2002, 2004,
    Himeji-jo - 1998
    Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) - 1998, 2006
    Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara - 2006
    Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range - 2003
    Shrines and Temples of Nikko - 2007

    Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi - 2008
    Petroglyphs within the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly - 2008
    Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang'an - Tianshan Corridor - 2008

    Changdeokgung Palace Complex - 2008

    Melaka and George Town, historic cities of the Straights of Malacca - 2003

    Bahla Fort - 2007
    Falaj System of Irrigation - 2007

    Monastery of the Hieronymites and Tower of Belen in Lisbon - 2006
    Historic Centre of Oporto - 2006
    Alto Douro Wine Region - 2006

    Singapore Botanical Gardens - 1974, 1975, 1976, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1999, 2004

    South Africa
    Cape Floral Region Protected Areas - 1995

    Works of Antonio Gaudi - 2006

    Lavaux, Vineyard Terraces - 2008, 2011

    Historic City of Ayutthaya - 2008
    Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns - 2008

    United Kingdom
    Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret's Church - 1976
    Tower of London - 1976, 2005

    United States
    Grand Canyon National Park - 2015
    San Antonio Missions - 1995
    Statue of Liberty - 1994, 2006
    Yosemite National Park - 2015

    Itchan Kala - 2008
    Historic Center of Bukhara - 2008
    Historic Center of Shakhrisyabz - 2008
    Samarkand - Crossroads of Cultures - 2008

    This list will be continuously updated as my travels take me to more sites.

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    Now that we're back in Vegas, the last two days of my trip are focused on family.  After all, the whole raison d'être of this trip was a family wedding and gathering!  My aunt and uncle wanted to catch up with the parental units before the wedding, so we arranged to have lunch today.  For reasons unbeknownst to me beforehand, Cheesecake Factory in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace was chosen as the venue.

    As it turns out, my aunt had been told that this place was quiet and therefore a good place for conversation.  Well, I wasn't the least bit surprised when the music turned out to be pretty loud, but I was surprised when my aunt flagged down our waiter and asked him to turn the volume down!  As if the place wasn't noisy enough to start with, the Fall of Atlantis show is literally right outside the restaurant, so... nope, this ain't no place for a quiet conversation...

    I've never eaten at a Cheesecake Factory, and was surprised at the large selection of dishes.  I, of course, spotted something that pushed a button in my mind immediately...

    Macaroni and cheese burger - I just had to order this when I saw the name, so I didn't even bother to read the description.  If I had, I would have known not to expect a smothering of mac 'n' cheese... because it came as a fried mac 'n' cheese ball.

    But it was still a very tasty and satisfying burger, with a juicy patty and creamy mac 'n' cheese.  Slurp!

    Now, you can't come to Cheesecake Factory and leave without having any cheesecake, can you?!  So I made up my mind to get me a slice, and announced that I wasn't sharing my slice with the rest of the family... just mom... so my aunt decided that they will order another slice.  I did, in fact, share my slice with the family but kept a good portion to myself.

    Salted caramel cheesecake - what's not to love?  Cheesecake AND salted caramel.  This being my first slice from Cheesecake Factory, I was a little surprised at how soft and fluffy it was.

    Mango key lime cheesecake - not bad, and the taste of mango was distinctive.

    We did a little shopping around the Strip, where the parental units and I each managed to pick up a pair of shoes.  A couple of hours later at dinner time, the parental units and I joined the rehearsal dinner for my cousin's wedding.

    Brio is a chain of Italian restaurants, and at the location south of the strip they had a circular private space called "the coliseum" - which was entirely taken up by our party.  All the food was served family-style, and there was a ton of it!

    Caesar's salad

    The other salad had tomato, lettuce, cheese, and chopped bacon.  A little salty.

    Shrimp pasta fra diavolo - with spicy tomato cream sauce.  This was reasonably tasty, and probably the best dish of the evening.

    Tuscan grilled pork chops - served with grilled vegetables and mashed potatoes.

    Overcooked.  While it hasn't gotten to the point of tough and chewy, it was definitely dry to me.  FAIL.

    Gorgonzola crusted beef medallions - I was wondering whether the older, Chinese contingent of the party would take well to the Gorgonzola...

    Very nicely done.  At least the beef was still pink in the middle and very tender.

    Tiramisu - a little disappointing, as the taste of coffee was pretty weak here.

    Given the size of the party tonight, I didn't have any expectations on food.  What was really important was the family gathering - I got to see my cousins again, as well as their cousins from the other side of their family.  Looking forward to the wedding tomorrow!

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