A friend is in town from Seoul, and we arranged to meet up with her for dinner tonight. Naturally, Cantonese food was in order, and rather than going back to one of our usual suspects, I suggested that we have dinner at Imperial Treasure Fine Chinese Cuisine (御寶軒). I've been trying to find an opportunity to check the place out ever since I saw pictures of a particular dish which left me salivating, so we made a reservation and pre-ordered the dish - over the objections of restaurant staff.
When I was chatting with Da Jam this afternoon, he had mentioned his not-so-happy experience while dining here - starting with the restaurant not finding his reservation and having to wait for a table, to the excruciatingly slow service which saw a dinner with 4 dishes stretching over 2 hours. I was obviously hoping that nothing of the sort would happen to us.
Given that there were only four of us after a couple of others dropped out, and the fact that we were saving stomach space for the main event, we took it pretty easy when it came to ordering... One mistake we made, though, was that we didn't order any dishes which would considered a starter. This meant that we didn't get anything to eat for quite a while... and some of us were starving.
Pan-fried omelette with silver fish (白飯魚煎蛋) - a pretty simple dish. I've always loved whitebait, and putting them in an omelette is a pretty common way of consuming these little fishies.
The next dish took a long time to arrive, because it needed at least half an hour to cook. For some reason, though, the restaurant decided not to send us either of the two other dishes we ordered until after we've had the main event... which meant that after a few nibbles of the omelette, we would have to wait a long time to get another bite...
Roasted boneless suckling pig with glutinous rice (糯米釀脆皮乳豬) - yes, we ordered one whole suckling pig, stuffed full of glutinous rice. We probably would have had a good chance of finishing it had we been a table of 6, but thankfully this was something we could pack up and take home. Unlike our former favorite stuffed pig at the Kimberley Restaurant (君怡閣), or the equally-delicious pig at The Eight (8餐廳), this pig did not come as one cylindrical tube but as 24 smaller slices.
They're smaller than the pieces at Kimberley, but essentially served the same way. A deliciously crunchy layer of crackling, with a nice layer of yummy fat underneath. Then the chunk of glutinous rice, here flavored with Cantonese preserved sausage (臘腸), shiitake mushrooms, and dried shrimps. Pretty damn delicious for sure, but I wish they had added some spring onions for extra fragrance and flavors.
We each nibbled on one of the piggy's legs, which were unfortunately woefully under-seasoned and served cold. Since no one wanted it, I ended up taking the head and chomped off the cheeks. Slurp.
In case anyone was wondering... NO, the four of us didn't finish the pig. We took down half of it and decided to let our friend pack the rest to bring home to her parents.
Poached seasonal vegetable with assorted eggs (金銀蛋浸時蔬) - we got leafy amaranth (莧菜) tonight, and I thought they did a very good job with the century eggs and salted duck eggs.
Deep fried squid with salted egg yolk (黃金焗鮮魷) - the Great One liked this dish from her previous visit, and wanted to have it again. This was indeed very delicious, with a nice, crispy batter around each piece of squid that was completely coated in salted egg yolk. Very, very heavy in terms of flavor. In fact, these were so heavy in terms of flavor that they felt like bricks sitting in my stomach. I was completely defeated after just two pieces...
Sweetened mango sago with pomelo (楊枝甘露) - this was disappointing, because it was just too bland. Not enough mango here...
2003 Françoise Bedel L'Âme de la Terre, dégorgée en Août 2012 - initially served a little warm, so showed a little bitterness on the finish. Full-bodied, with a nice, caramelized nose with marmalade notes.
Glad to have come and checked out the pig tonight, although I wish we could have tried a few more dishes. Service was generally friendly, but the kitchen had problems delivering dishes in a timely manner - which was what Da Jam had warned me about. Good thing they didn't charge us corkage...
A couple of months ago during the whole World's 50 Best Restaurants shindig down in Kangaroo Land, the Aussie PR machine went into overdrive and arranged a bunch of outings for some of the attendees. One of those outings was to Brae, the restaurant run by Chef Dan Hunter out in Birregurra - described by Google Maps as "high-end locavore menu in chic surrounds". While the restaurant is sometimes associated with the city of Melbourne, the reality is that it's kinda in the middle of nowhere...
I had seen series of pictures and videos taken by The Great One and Chef Richard Ekkebus from their trip, so I wasn't too surprised when I got the announcement that Dan Hunter would be doing a series of four-hands meals with Richard at Amber. As is my practice, I put my hand up for a table at #AmberHKxBrae within minutes of seeing the announcement, then proceeded to syndicate out the extra seats at my table. I gotta say, though... it was noticeably more difficult this time around compared to previous 4-hands or pop-ups.
Two out of the six of us were actually flying back from New York City today, and one actually touched down just as dinner was supposed to start - so we were especially grateful that the restaurant had offered us one of their two private rooms for our little party. We were able to relax in the privacy of the space while waiting for everyone to arrive - and browsing the restaurant's wine list trying our damnedest to dig for bargains. We would eventually start our dinner just about an hour late...
We started with two "snackings" from Brae:
Sea urchin and bitter bread pudding - the macaron was pretty dense and chewy in terms of texture, and the cookies were sweet as expected. The sea urchin tongues were certainly creamy and sweet, and kinda oozed out from the pressure being applied by taking a bite. Didn't taste any of the bitter bread pudding that was supposed to be in the 'ganache'...
The tail of the prawn has been diced by left raw, then mixed with a paste of lemon juice, tomato juice, and tarragon (or was it tamarind, as the stated in the Brae recipe book?). The mixture was wrapped inside a blanched nasturtium leaf, and topped with finger lime caviar. As there were no serving utensils for me to cut the package in half, I put the whole thing into my mouth. Biting down delivered a very springy sensation, with the contents seemingly wanting to push back against the force exerted by my teeth. The acidity from the finger lime was immediately apparent - and rather overpowering.
The head of the prawn was grilled with apple cider and olive oil. The juices inside the head tasted wonderful, but unlike my Malaysian neighbor, I did not eat the whole head.
Then we had two snackings from Amber:
Caviar, leek and crème fraiche tart - we were told that the caviar from Schrenki sturgeon farmed in Heilongjiang (黑龍江) China would taste like sea urchin, but it tasted pretty much like how I expected sturgeon caviar to taste - which was to say salty, fishy, and oily... and opposite of the sweet and creamy flavors from sea urchin. The layer of crème fraîche on top was a perfect complement to the caviar, along with finely diced leeks. The pastry shell, though, was a beautiful surprise... delivering amazing fragrance once the tart was inside the mouth.
Foie gras, Campari and 100% bitter chocolate - yes, foie gras goes well with chocolate, although personally I would have preferred a lighter chocolate for a sweeter sensation.
Iced oyster, by Brae - the lovely fragrance of sea lettuce greeted me immediately after this arrived, and I love the umami from this type of seaweed.
There was actually no oyster to be found underneath the top layer of dehydrated sea lettuce powder. Instead the oyster shell was filled with ice cream made in a Pacojet. While the ingredients for the ice cream was supposed to have included oyster water and dehydrated oyster powder, all I could taste besides the sea lettuce was milk and sugar... along with some acidity.
Saba mackerel "kombu-jime", kyuri cucumber and sake leese, by Amber - the mackerel has been cured by wrapping kelp around it in the classic Japanese process of kobujime (昆布締め), which imparts very subtle flavors. The fish came with rolls of kelp (昆布) and cucumber, as well as cucumber coulis, cucumber balls, sake lees (酒粕) balls, and gel made with bonito dashi (鰹出汁). A couple of edible flowers left some amazing fragrances in the mouth. A very refreshing dish perfect for the summer.
Tomatoes and uncommon leaves in sea water, by Brae - delicious raw and confit tomatoes - no doubt from Brae's gardens - along with ice plant, salicornia, perilla leaves, and other "uncommon leaves". Drizzled with sauce made with with "mussel water" and olive oil. Absolutely delicious, showcasing the purity of flavors from ingredients.
XL Pertuis green asparagus, Sicilian pistachio and amanatsu, by Amber - I wasn't surprised that Richard would choose to match Brae's tomatoes with a giant spear of green asparagus from Provence. The asparagus was blanched in pistachio oil and came with a dollop of Maltaise sauce on the side - no doubt made with the Japanese amanatsu (川野夏橙) which was also presented on the plate. The little slice of orange peel was particularly nice and fragrant.
Calamari and fermented celeriac, barbecued peas and beef fat, by Brae - this was probably the most interesting dish of the evening for me. Both Hello Kitty and I detected fermented flavors when the plates were laid down in front of us, and indeed there were thin strips of fermented celeriac in between layers of calamari jardiniere. I loved the flavors of the calamari, plus of course the sweet green peas which had been barbecued. You've got beef fat mixed in there, which made it all the more sinful and delicious - along with herbs like mint leaves and other incredibly fragrant flowers.
Hakoo Farm Miyazaki wagyu beef striploin, red onion, dulsey, cassis and Shiraz, by Amber - again, not surprised that Richard has chosen A5 Miyazaki beef to finish.
The beef, of course, was cooked perfectly... with all that marbling to make it tender and succulent. This came with "ratassio" radicchio, red onions, pearl onion, blackcurrants, and a Shiraz sauce. While I liked most of what came on my plate, I felt the blackcurrants delivered way too much acidity for my taste.
Parsnip and apple, by Brae - interesting that parsnip would be made into a dessert. What looked like a conical pastry shell was actually the parsnip skin that has been baked and then fried. Within the shell was a tube of mousse made with apple and parsnip. Served with an infusion with camomile, honey, caramel, along with dehydrated Granny Smith apples. Finally sprinkled with shavings of freeze-dried apple in place of caster sugar. Pretty delicious.
Hokkaido corn and Western Australian winter truffle, by Amber - corn as dessert is definitely an acquired taste, and one which I have acquired during childhood growing up in Singapore. At the bottom of the bowl was corn custard, with cornbread encased in the middle, topped with a quenelle of corn ice cream along with some popcorn on the side. The fragrance that hit our noses, of course, was coming from the chiffonade of Australian winter truffle. This was not bad. The feuilletine on the side was topped with corn and truffle sauce.
Pineapple sorbet - with lemongrass and ginger powder making it a little spicy.
Orange and pistaschio tart, chocolate with coconut cream.
Framboise pâté de fruit - with red bell pepper gel and red perilla leaves (?) on top. Very delish and clearly the crowd favorite.
I would have been more than happy not to drink wine tonight, but as usual My Alcoholic Favorite Cousin supposedly had a rough day at work and needed alcohol. So Baller and I combed through the wine list in search for wines which we felt were ready to drink and had the most reasonable markup. We did try to look for a bottle of Aussie red to tip our hats to Brae, but failed miserable to choose one fitting our criteria... We eventually ended up with a bottle of bubbly and a red.
2004 Bollinger Grande Année, dégorgée en Septembre 2012 - nice and caramelized nose, with salty plum. Acidity was rather high at first, but became smoother with some prawn juice in the mouth. Nice toasty notes with sweetness from vanilla. Drinking nicely now.
2001 Clos des Papes - decanted for 1½ hours at room temperature, so it was served a little warm for my taste. A little less stinky after aeration in decanter, but the alcohol was still a little sharp. Good sweet fruit, with cedar and almost a little coffee notes, along with smoked meats. Good acidity on the palate. Not drinking as well as hoped.
This was an interesting introduction to the dishes from Dan Hunter, and I think one would only get fully immersed in the experience while dining on location. One disappointment tonight, though, was that I didn't get to have any roo for dinner. Given the number of recipes on wallabies and kangaroos in Dan's book, I'm sure it will be on the menu when I visit.
A while ago, Hello Kitty asked me where I wanted to go for my birthday dinner. She was clearly hoping that I wouldn't insist on having her treat me to dinner at Spaghetti House (as I did last year) or Pizza Hut, since both suggestions she offered were fine dining establishments.
One of them happened to be Caprice at the Four Seasons Hong Kong - an establishment both of us have banned ever since a particularly disastrous dinner. But a lot has changed this year: Chef Guillaume Galliot - formerly of the Tasting Room at the Crown Towers in Macau - is now running the kitchen. I'm a big fan of Guillaume's, and have been looking forward to trying his dishes after he settled in. Long-time sommelier Sebastien Allano has moved on to Épure, and Four Seasons George V has transferred in one of theirs. Given my personal relationship with Guillaume, I decided that I would use this "birthday dinner" to end our self-imposed exile from a restaurant that was once my favorite in Hong Kong.
Hello Kitty booked us a table under her name, although a few days ago I decided to tell Guillaume about our visit tonight. He had offered to host me for a preview of his new dishes a few weeks ago, but I didn't think the kitchen would be fully ready only a couple of weeks after his arrival. It's now been more than 6 weeks since he officially started, and I was hoping that the kitchen brigade would have gotten used to him by now.
We were seated at a table by the window, with great views of the harbor - as Hello Kitty requested. Unfortunately this came with the downside of having very poor lighting, which made photography a challenge. Oh well.
We were offered some Champagne to start, compliments of the chef.
Vouette et Sorbée Cuvée Blanc d'Argile, en magnum - a blanc de blancs extra brut. Good acidity here, but also some sweetness. Surprisingly showing some tropical fruits on the nose.
Guillaume came over to greet us, and of course we offered him carte blanche to send us whatever he felt we should have tonight. Not being a seasoned front-of-house staff, naturally he assumed we would eat everything and neglected to ask us about our dietary restrictions. After he walked back to the kitchen, Hello Kitty and I wondered whether we would get any beetroot tonight... but I decided that since Guillaume didn't ask us, we wouldn't volunteer any information... and just go with the flow.
Tuna tartare tart - with salmon roe, diced cucumber, and dill.
Cauliflower and bell pepper mousse - with sea urchin on top. The cauliflower flavors were kinda buried underneath the bell pepper.
Pita pocket with chicken curry mouse - damn delicious!
Amuse bouche: Tartare bœuf-huître et caviar - the beef and Gillardeau oyster tartare came mixed with finely diced shallot confit, topped with a layer of Baeri de Sologne sturgeon caviar, and served with egg yolk confit as well as parsley gel on the side. This was very delicious. The stronger, salty flavors of the caviar were tempered by the softer flavors of the beef, and the Gillardeau was a little more briny than I had expected. A really good start to our dinner.
Blue lobster, tomato and cucumber, gazpacho water - homard bleu from Brittany is always good, and this was lightly poached. Along with tomatoes wedges and cucumber slices, we've also got some coriander and basil with really strong flavors. The lukewarm "gazpacho water" - which seemed like Raymond Blanc's tomato water - had lots of sweetness, acidity, and umami. Very, very clean flavors here... and very refreshing.
Even though we weren't done with our flute of Champagne - drinking slowly as usual - the sommelier offered us a glass of white to go with the lobster.
2015 Pascal Cotat Sancerre Les Monts Damnés - very flinty and tropical, with stone fruits in the pretty sweet nose. Body was on the light side. After the gazpacho water, there was more body and sweetness on the palate. Lovely, fragrant nose.
Slow cooked egg with onion and potato capuccino, Tasmanian truffle - Guillaume came over and told us matter-of-factly that he didn't need to introduce this dish, which was very true. We knew exactly what this was, since it was hands down my favorite dish the last time I paid a visit to The Tasting Room.
Thankfully Guillaume had downsized the portion so that it was more manageable. I gleefully took a spoon and folded the egg yolk into the potato, along with the caramelized onion compote, lots of chopped chives, crispy bacon bits, croûtons... and chopped Tasmanian truffle.
While this was delicious on its own, I couldn't resist spooning some of it on what was left of my little baguette... and watch the potato and onion drip down... So.Fucking.Good.
The sommelier very kindly offered us another glass of wine to go with the egg dish, and I'd say it worked incredibly well with the richness and the caramelized onions.
1960 Barbeito Boal - very classic, with a very savory nose that reminds me of salted plum (話梅), minerals, and a little nutty. Since it's a Boal, the palate wasn't as sweet as the Malvasias I normally prefer. Still lovely.
L'Adour salmon confit with mint, tarragon, truffle, and fava beans - a special of the day. Apparently the best season for wild salmon captured as they swim up the Adour River only lasts about a month, so we were pretty lucky. This was the same type of salmon that I had seen Chef Alain Passard serve my friends in his private garden.
The salmon was absolutely beautiful. Very silky smooth in terms of texture, and actually kinda slippery. Bboth mint and tarragon are strong herbs, but there was just enough of both to make their presence known without grabbing one by the collar for attention. The mint also delivered a subtle, cooling sensation. The fava beans and green peas? Beautiful. Neither Hello Kitty and I were expecting a piece of salmon to deliver this kind of "wow", but this was damn good!
Pigeon Rôti, Cuisses Confites, Variation de Betteraves - Guillaume knows we like pigeon, and while I knew that he came from the Loire Valley, I didn't realize he's from Racan... where this pigeon came from.
But we started chuckling when he introduced the dish. Spread out all around the plate, in addition to the pigeon, was - you guessed it - BEETROOT! Guillaume didn't understand why we were laughing. You should have seen his face when I asked him: "Nobody ever told you that we don't like beetroot?" He was mortified, as if he had just committed the ultimate faux pas of offering a slab of delicious pork belly to a Muslim. He offered to change the dish, but we declined. It wasn't his fault, after all. For several minutes afterwards, we giggled hysterically like teenagers who are high on weed... And to think he had taken all that trouble to give us all those variations on something we hated... gel, purée, and cuit à l'anglaise...
The breast came with a nice little pile of truffle shavings on top. Almost perfect doneness. Absolutely delicious.
I never figured that the leg would be so much tastier than the breast, but that was exactly what happened. The flavors of fat coming from the skin - not to mention the rest of the leg - were pretty amazing.
Oh yeah, that's the finger I'd normally be giving any beetroot that comes my way...
Agneau de l’Aubrac en 2 façons, caviar d’aubergine - aaaaaand we also love lamb! So we've got it two ways: the shoulder was done as méchoui and shredded. It was incredibly tender, and very, very tasty - topped with a quenelle of eggplant caviar seasoned with Middle Eastern spices. The two gnocchi were pretty tasty, too... Oh... and where have I seen this plate before...?
The lamb rack was roasted, and very tasty, too. And that sprinkle of cauliflower couscous - done with a knife and not with a blender - with the argan oil is classic Guillaume.
1970 Jaboulet La Chapelle - not decanted. Initially showing plenty of soy sauce, savory black olives and tapenade, with perhaps a hint of coconut butter underneath, and definitely some fruit there, but more stewed prunes instead of fresh and sweet. A bit of smoke, too.
Melon verveine - a very nice pre-dessert. It's Cavaillon melon season, so we've got some diced cubes at the bottom, with some melon sorbet, and verbena foam on top. Very clean and refreshing flavors, and best of all, not too sweet for Hello Kitty.
Fraisier Gariguette - if there's a dessert that I've been dying to try, it's the signature raspberry from Nicolas Lambert. I've seen pictures of it over and over on his Instagram, but since I haven't walked through the front doors of this restaurant for the last 18 months, I've never had an opportunity to taste it. So I decided to walk up to the kitchen and ask Nicolas for this particular dessert... until I see him working with a bunch of strawberries. I beat a hasty retreat to our table, knowing that whatever is coming my way would be awesome.
What we have here is a failure to communicate base of almond biscuit soaked in strawberry juice, with Gariguette strawberry marmalade, sorbet of Ruinart Rosé Champagne, some vanilla cream, and topped with a raviolo with strawberry juice reduction inside - along with Gariguette strawberries and seasonal fraises de bois.
This was absolutely fantastic. Breaking the raviolo released the contents, which tasted just like one spooning strawberry jam straight from a jar. The Gariguettes and fraises de bois have some acidity in them, so they balanced out the sticky sweetness of the reduction. I was in strawberry heaven.
Caramelized puff with vanilla cream and strawberries - this, too, was delicious. Same ingredients, different experience.
Mignardises - the coffee profiteroles were really, really good. The raspberry macaron was as expected, and the dark chocolate had plenty of coconut filling along with desiccated coconut.
The filling of the passion fruit chocolate was very, very tasty.
The orange chocolate was probably one of the best I've tasted - leaving that beautiful fragrance inside one's mouth from the candied orange peel.
Raspberry and pistachio financiers - plenty of pistachio flavors here, along with a surprising kick of acidity.
Dark chocolate with sea salt
This was a really, really good meal. I was so glad that Hello Kitty took me here for my birthday. Every single dish was excellent - including the amuses bouches and the pre-dessert. I've watched Guillaume's career progress and tasted his cuisine sporadically over the last 3 years, and I can see that he's on an upward trajectory. Clearly that was what the management at the Four Seasons Hong Kong had in mind when they hired him.
There was a complete change in the front-of-house, too. With Sebastien Boudon now in the Four Seasons Beijing, and a couple of other departures, I now recognize just about no one. Thankfully they have been able to hire new staff who are clearly passionate and knowledgeable, and our server Ken, in particular, made an impression on both Hello Kitty and I. With fantastic food from the kitchen and attentive service from staff who do more than just recite a script, I can see Caprice becoming my favorite fine dining restaurant in town once again...
I'm back in Taipei for a few days to spend my birthday with the Parental Units. As luck would have it, I've got uncles and cousins in town from the States again. So once again a gathering of the clan was arranged. Once again we booked a table of 16. This time, though, we went back to Shanghai Kitchen (上海鄉村) for some reliable Shanghainese food.
Diplomatic Uncle wasn't be happy with the set menus proposed by the restaurant - and I probably wouldn't have, either - so he went through the restaurant's menu to order à la carte.
Smoked fish (無錫脆鱔) - LOL... "smoked fish"?! Well, these deep-fried freshwater eel were crunchy as expected, with piercing acidity in the midst of sweetness. Delicious.
Chilled marinated chicken with Shao-Xing wine (紹興醉雞) and crystal pork jelly in Zhenjiang style (鎮江肴肉) - one of my American cousins refused to eat the pork jelly, even though I told him that it wasn't fat but gelatin...
Stir-fried asparagus with king oyster mushrooms (蘆筍杏鮑菇)
Crispy bamboo shoots (干炸鮮筍) - I like the way these bamboo shoots are fried, but I love the crispy, deep-fried leafy mustard (雪裡紅) even more.
Stir-fried beef with shredded bean curd (干絲牛肉絲) - not bad.
Fried shrimps (清炒蝦仁) - no surprise that these weren't as good as the ones I can get in Hong Kong...
Deep-fried soft shell crab typhoon shelter style (避風塘軟殼蟹) - surprisingly with lots of string beans.
Braised Dong Po pork with sea cucumber (烤方烏參) - always a crowd favorite, especially with my little nephew. These were cut into slices and came with those steamed buns which allows us to make them into those guabao (刈包) - otherwise known as the ubiquitous "bao" or "Chinese burgers" copied around the world. I myself have never cared for the sea cucumber which also comes part of the dish, since they're of poor quality.
Steamed sea bass (清蒸石斑) - this was OK.
Amaranth vegetable (銀魚莧菜)
Stir-fried Japanese yam and ginkgo nuts with broccoli (碧綠百果山藥)
Chicken casserole (砂鍋土雞) - pretty good. Thankfully we pre-ordered this.
BBQ bun (香蔥酥) - very, very tasty. Nice kick from white pepper.
Steamed lotus root with brown sugar (桂花糖藕) - my childhood favorite. Too bad I only got two thin slices...
Food was OK tonight, and service was kinda shit. The point of tonight, though, was getting everyone together - especially those in my generation who don't get to see each other much since we're scattered all over the place. It was unfortunate that My Favorite Cousin didn't get the memo about tonight... but this was not my fault...
In spite of her moniker, Hello Kitty's favorite Sanrio character is, in fact, NOT Hello Kitty (ハロー・キティ) but Gudetama (ぐでたま). I have, for better or for worse, been infected with her affinity to the lazy egg with an orange ass. When I found out there was a Gudetama Chef (蛋黃哥五星主廚餐廳) in Taipei, we put it on our list of places to visit. We couldn't get ourselves a table back in March, but thankfully the restaurant was no longer crazily busy these days, and I managed to book myself a table online a couple of days ago.
We arrived a few minutes after our appointed time of 11:20 a.m. to find the restaurant about half full. Being a theme restaurant, it's no surprise that Gudetama is EVERYWHERE. It's a case of 小巫見大巫 comparing Hello Kitty Chinese Cuisine (Hello Kitty中菜軒) to this place...
We decided to order 3 dishes, which turned out to be one too many... Then we proceeded to go around the place snapping pictures of the decorations - the same thing that everyone else was doing when they arrived.
Japanese yakiniku with rice (日式燒肉飯) - instead of bacon, Gudetama now uses yakiniku as his/her blanket. Still very cute. The flavors here were OK, and it's more about the look than the taste. The yakiniku sauce in the egg shell-shaped bowl has a little garlicky kick.
Too lazy to think deep-fried platter (懶得想炸物拼盤) - this was a pretty damn big platter. The two halves of the boiled egg were wrapped in ham and deep-fried - almost like Scotch eggs. The French fries were sprinkled with dried herbs, and the deep-fried chicken tenders were, in fact, tender. The fried chicken was drizzled with a herb mayo, and were succulent and delicious.
Then there were the sausages. Not quite Taiwanese in style, they nevertheless veered slightly towards the sweet side. The most interesting part was that they were form around pieces of pork rib bones. There was also a squid ink sausage, which was pretty nice.
Korean kimchi and rice cake pizza (韓式泡菜年糕 pizza) - thinking we needed a third dish, I deliberated over the choice of pizza before settling on this one. Interesting with the acidity and the spiciness of kimchi, along with the chewy texture of Korean tteok (떡) rice cake.
A little cheezy... The only problem was that the texture of the rice cakes wasn't consistent - some were soft and chewy, while others were a little dry and tough.
Iced latte with marshmallow (棉花糖拿鐵) - I needed an excuse to get my "morning" coffee, so I got myself an iced latte... with a Gudetama marshallow on top.
We only sampled a small number of dishes today, but honestly the food wasn't bad. Zero fails out of three dishes, and some of the items on that platter were pretty damn delicious. For a theme restaurant where food isn't really the focus, what's there to complain about?
Rolf Meng and I go back quite a few years. For a number of years starting in the year 2000, our family celebrated our birthdays and anniversaries at Paris 1930 (巴黎廳) in The Landis Taipei (亞都麗緻) whenever we could. Along the way, Rolf came to be the sommelier and manager of the restaurant and took very good care of us. He worked well with the chefs to come up with menus that matched the wines I brought.
I was shocked, therefore, when I found out a few years ago that he left The Landis Taipei. He clearly loved his job, and it must have taken a lot for him to quit. I did send him a text message at the time, but lost track of him subsequently. So I was really happy when I found him again by accident, tagged in some photos on Facebook. He - like me - had put on some weight since we last saw each other, but it was unmistakably him.
After reaching out to him and confirming that he was now the chef and proprietor of Brasserie Bonne Récolte (豐舍), there was no question that this was the place I wanted to go for my birthday dinner. The Parental Units were surprised - and happy - that I had managed to track Rolf down.
The restaurant is in a new development in an old part of town, fronted on the street by old shophouses that have been refurbished, while doorways lead to a courtyard inside and brand new apartment blocks - with restaurants on the ground level. I love the location, especially since it's not far from my apartment...
The menu's written in chalk on a giant blackboard, but Rolf had a few special things in store for us... especially given mom's preferences for lighter, more natural seasoning.
African eggplant - this bitter eggplant is commonly known as 車輪茄 for its shape, or "tayaling" in the Amis (阿美族) language. Served with a red capsicum and red lees (紅麴) sauce.
Bitter gourd and tomato ratatouille with green olives and capers - definitely bitter. Strangely refreshing when served chilled.
Summer truffle with chilled angel hair - another refreshing dish to whet the appetite on a hot day. Simply dressed in a mix of Sherry vinegar and vinegar from 恆泰豐行, and served with cherry tomatoes, cucumber from Yilan (宜蘭), and shaved summer truffle. Pretty light on the seasoning, and not much acidity from the vinegar.
Taiwanese vichyssoise (青蒜米濃湯) - I wanted to see what this was like, but unfortunately this was served hot instead of chilled - which would have been perfect for this weather. Instead of potato, this was made with rice porridge to make things lighter. The kick from garlic was very noticeable. Topped with a couple of thin slices of chorizo and a few drips of capsicum oil. Pretty decent.
Red snapper - smeared with a mix of belladonna, garlic, and parsley. Served with baby corn and beetroot leaves. Pretty tasty. Mom felt that the salt rub on the grilled fish itself was a little uneven.
Coq au vin - the free-range, wheatgrass-eating chicken was pretty skinny and about 9 months in age. Mom and I both thought we smelled Chinese medicinal herbs like Chinese angelica (當歸), but Rolf insisted that he didn't use any. Instead, there was rosemary, thyme, mushrooms, red wine, and Huadiao (花雕) wine. Pretty interesting dish. The fresh tofu skin was very, very good.
Loofah - this is a particular type called "milk loofah (牛奶絲瓜)", and as someone who loooooves loofah, I was very happy with this "palate cleanser".
Striploin - with a sauce made from a type of local ginseng plant called 巴蔘菜. Pretty under-seasoned and not very interesting.
Venison with yeast sauce - with red lees sauce, as well as as a red lees and fermented tofu (豆腐乳) sauce. Now THIS was much more up my alley.
Pretty decent doneness.
Knowing it's my birthday, Rolf got me a vegetarian cheesecake (素乳酪蛋糕) from Ten Cake (十字軒糕餅舖) - an 80-some year old shop in the area.
While the cake itself was nothing to write home about, Rolf made the experience extra memorable by having me cut the cake not with a regular knife, but with a Germanic zweihänder sword. Now THAT was definitely a first for me!
I brought along a bottle of wine from my birth vintage, but knowing Rolf, I figured I needed to look at the restaurant's wine list. And sure enough, I found two entries that I didn't expect to see in Taipei... so I ordered up a bottle.
I think our waitress was a little shy... or inexperienced in pouring txakoli. I encouraged her to lift the bottle higher as she poured.
2015 Txomin Etxaniz Getariako Txakolina Txakoli - high acidity with a flinty, almost mineral nose.
1970 La Lagune, ex-château - 1 hour in bottle, not decanted. Very smooth, some fruit, a little earthiness, smoked meats.
This was a really fun evening. We had a good time catching up with Rolf, who came and spent a lot of time with us to explain about his cuisine and philosophy - making sure that none of the sauces or seasoning would leave mom suffering from any nasty surprises afterwards. I definitely look forward to revisiting soon!
This weekend was about spending time with family, so I really didn't plan ahead for any high-end dining. I was therefore surprised to see from Gert de Mangeleer's Instagram posts that he was doing a pop-up at MUME. I left a comment on his post, saying that I would be in Taipei this week - not expecting them to have any openings for their 3-day event. But since I kinda know both Gert and Richie Lin, they managed to squeeze in a late seating for me tonight.
I'm a big fan of Gert's cuisine, and I was especially happy that I was able to introduce mom to it tonight. While Taipei does get its share of guest chefs from overseas, I felt that this would be one chance to let mom see what a world-class chef from a Michelin 3-star could deliver.
Shortly after we were seated, I reaffirmed my belief that MUME isn't a place to take elderly guests. The place is very lively and noisy - between the music, the conversations from neighboring tables, and the lack of any insulation that could absorb the sound waves. We were having a tough time talking across the table without raising the decibel level, but c'est la vie...
The menu started with some of Gert's classic dishes from Hertog Jan, and quickly evolves to new forms using local ingredients. Richie has spent some time showing Gert the bountiful produce of Taiwan, and apparently the menu was only finalized last night. We weren't given a written menu until the meal was finished, so each course was introduced by the waitstaff.
Cannelloni / Flemish beef / anchovy - I recognized this instantly, as I've had something like this from Gert twice before. Inside the crispy tube was a combination of cured Flemish beef and anchovies, and the anchovies definitely packed enough salt and almost overpowered the beef. As usual, the exterior had been sprinkled with dried tomato powder - delivering a nice bit of acidity along with some umami. I was inclined to assume that this was the same type of tomato powder that Gert usually uses, which comprises of 107 different types of tomatoes. But maybe that message didn't get passed down from Gert to the people at MUME...
Crispy BBQ pork - a gorgeous-looking piece of deep-fried pork rind served as a carrier for some pork rillettes, slices of pickled cucumber, and topped with sliced of cured pork. Our waiter told us there was "meat sauce" but couldn't explain what it was... but thankfully I can recognize rillettes with my eyes closed. It's something I have loved for decades! The pickled cucumber helped cut some fat with its acidity, and there was some dark sauce that I suspected was balsamic vinegar. The fatty cured pork on top was, of course, delish. But the most satisfying part has gotta be bitting down on a big ol' piece of pork rind! This was pretty much just mouthfuls of (almost) nothing but pork!
Potato / vanilla / coffee / Mimolette - another dish I had last year, which kinda blew us away the first time. Our waiter told us there was 24-month aged "Makala" cheese on top, and he spent about 30 seconds looking through his notes and still couldn't come up with the right name... because the poor guy has never seen it before. Thankfully I knew it was shaved Mimolette. Our waiter also didn't mention the presence of coffee, which I was able to taste despite the flavors not being as strong and fragrant as last year. Overall the flavors here were on the strong and rich side, but falling a little short of last year's amazement level.
"La Vie en Rose" buri - we marvelled at the beauty of this dish even before the finishing touches were added.
The thin slices of raw yellowtail (鰤) were shaped into a beautiful rose, with thin slices of radish (or was it Gert's preferred kohlrabi?) in between for added crunch. The "rose" sat on top of a bed of smoked ricotta, with thin slices of cucumber wrapped all around. The sauce was made with Manila clams, Champagne, salmon roe, and dill oil. The rose was clean and pure, while the surrounding sauce packed a real punch of richness. Beautiful and delicious. My favorite dish of the evening.
Lacquered eel with green herbs - the short-finned eel (黑鰻) was pretty firm in texture, with crunchy skin and just a hint of muddy flavors. Came with chervil purée and black garlic purée, sugar snap peas, dill, pickled kohlrabi (?), red perilla leaves, green soy beans, and drizzled with herb oil that tasted of basil. Very, very pretty... which I fully expect from Gert's dishes.
Amadai / pork trotter / spiced tomato broth - underneath the tilefish () with the typical crispy scales, we had onions, chorizo and red capsicum. The stock that was poured into the bowl was made with tomato soup spiced with garam masala and a little lovage oil.
At the very bottom, there was a terrine made with pork trotter - with diced pork skin and meat. I guess the gelée melted away after the warm stock was poured into the bowl... An inspiration he took from going for local Taiwanese food over the last few days.
Walk through the garden of Taipei - Gert has always impressed me with his "salad", and tonight his take on gargouillou featured not the vegetables and flowers he shipped in from his garden, but local Taiwanese produce.
Looking at the list showing 37 ingredients - there were supposedly 43 in all - we tried to pick up the ingredients one by one. I gotta say that there was still a bunch of them that I didn't recognize... but what a special dish!
Wagyu beef / fungus / rose / ume-boshi - the Australian wagyu was served with black wood ear fungus (黑木耳) - which Gert had at Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) - with candied cherry tomatoes, cream of rose and salted plums (梅干し), thin wafers of white mushrooms, and sprinkled with a combination of Gert's tomato powder and spices used to marinate the black fungus... which actually looked a little like Japanese shichimi (七味).
I thought it was interesting that the beef came with some diced garlic and spring onion oil. The tomato powder naturally provided some acidity, and the other spices added some kick.
Our pre-dessert was a quenelle of almond ice cream with papaya granité. Slurp.
Pina colada - the frozen coconut milk "snow" was sprinkled on top of the pineapple confit, spiced with chili and kumquat.
The cigares were also coconut flavored. Sweet and crunchy.
I wasn't the least bit surprised to see a couple of familiar faces in the dining room tonight - especially Richie's sister Little Meg. I last saw her in Bangkok back in February, and it was good to catch up in Taipei.
This was a VERY good dinner. I was very grateful that Richie and and Gert could squeeze us in on such short notice. As I commented on the Gaggan x DEN dinner a few months ago, it takes some serious SKILLZ for a chef to create dishes from new, local ingredients with just a couple of days' exposure. Of course, I never had any doubt that Gert possessed skills like that, so I was very happy to have tasted dishes that he created especially for this event. But most of all, I was incredibly happy that I could take mom here tonight. I think she was happy, and in the end that's all that matters to me.
I've been wanting to take my drone to Yehliu Geopark (野柳地質公園) for a few months now, but haven't had much success. I first tried in early March, when I dragged my ass (and Hello Kitty's, too) out of bed early in the morning for this. But I had a change of heart after we got into a taxi, as the sky was gray and wouldn't produce good-looking footage. So I asked the taxi driver to take us to Yongkang Street (永康街) and we ended up having soup dumplings (湯包) for breakfast at Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) instead...
When I came back to Taipei last month, I woke up early one morning to find blue skies. So I hopped onto a bus and headed to my destination. Unfortunately, it started to rain while I was halfway there, and all I could do was to stand in front of the park's sign and snap a picture...
I set my alarm to wake myself up, but not as early as I should have. After putzing around for a little at the Parental Units', I grabbed a taxi to get myself to the bus stop at Taipei Main Station, and once again hopped on to the bus headed for Yehliu. Thankfully, the skies remained blue today.
I chose not to enter the park today, and just launched my DJI Mavic Pro from the waterfront right outside the park's exit. The sun was beating down on us, and I figured most of the female tourists - from Mainland China and Korea - were carrying umbrellas. This made for some interesting footage...
The park's main attraction, of course, was the iconic Queen's Head (女王頭). As usual there was a long line of tourists waiting to snap a picture at the designated spot, while some people also try to snap selfies with it from the other side. These days they've laid a ring of rocks around the area to tell people not to step in and get too close, but as you can see from the video above, there are still clueless people who think they can do whatever they want...
I made sure I covered different areas of the park to show the variety of rock formations - from the ubiquitous mushroom rocks (蕈狀岩) and ginger rocks (薑石), to candle rocks (燭台石), Fairie's shoes (仙女鞋), and bean curd rocks (豆腐岩). For a small geopark, there was certainly an interesting and diverse range of formations.
I stuck around for an hour and a half under the blazing sun, getting myself burnt to a crisp - Hello Kitty called me a lobster when she saw me later - and my spare iPhone so hot that it overheated and had to be cooled down with a wet towel before it would operate...
I'm glad I finally made it here and got some footage. I think maybe I'll go back next time very early in the morning - possibly before the park opens so that there aren't any tourists inside.
So it's my turn to host an MNSC dinner, and once again the decision rested on which restaurant with a professional sommelier would accommodate my request to bring a large selection of my own wines. Amber was out of the question, and while I wanted to host the dinner at Lung King Heen (龍景軒) because I wanted to rely on the service from my sommelier friends there, the kind restaurant manager had made clear that it was impossible to fully accommodate my request. That means Caprice was out, too, as the Four Seasons Hong Kong has the same corkage policy in its restaurants.
So I next approached both Petrus and Mandarin Grill + Bar, and when both of them agreed to my request I had a dilemma on my hands. In the end I chose Petrus for this dinner and made sure I visited the Mandarin Grill on an earlier occasion. After an earlier visit where I got a little taste of Chef Ricardo Chaneton's cuisine, I wanted a chance to see what else he can deliver.
I dropped my wines off before lunch today, leaving the decisions on opening/decanting fully up to the sommelier. Ricardo showed me the menu he had designed for us, and it looked impossibly long. We had the Burgundy Room to ourselves, and I knew we were in for a good night.
A couple of us were running late tonight, so we sat around on the coffee table and sipped on a little bubbly while we waited. Thankfully we only delayed starting dinner by about a half hour.
Tomato, basil and mozzarella in a light meringue - classic caprese flavors, but in a totally different form. Delicious and light.
Emulsion of lime - with milk, lime juice and lime zest. Love the lightness of it all.
Brandade de Morue - classic flavors, done as croquetas with soft centers.
Daniel Sorlut oyster, cucumber, Granny Smith and kaffir lime - absolutely beautiful. The oyster was perfectly tempered by the cool and refreshing cucumber and the sweetness and acidity of the apple. The kaffir lime zest delivered very strong fragrance, which I liked very much.
Red crab, almond and Burlat cherry - the almond foam was very sweet, with beautiful and delicious fresh almonds. Didn't taste much curry in the crab meat, but that didn't bother me.
Frog leg fricassee with Madras curry, potato textures and Oscietra from Uraguy - very delish. You've got potato foam as well as potato soufflé/puffs, which went very well with the caviar. Of course, the frog leg fricassée worked seamlessly with the other ingredients, too.
"Calamari ramen - Japan meets France" Brittany encornet, organic grilled French vegetables bouillon and Piment d'Espelette, white sesame, nori, shoyu and egg - an interesting dish! We've seen calamari cut into thin "noodles" which curl up in reaction to hot broth before, but this was the first time I've seen it served in a bowl just like ramen. This even came with some nori (海苔) seaweed, half a poached egg with a soft yolk, and some "fish cake". Very nice and comforting.
Duck foie gras, white peach and verbena - the foie was very soft and fine, while the white peach provided a nice touch of sweetness and acidity.
Grilled monkfish on its bone, Cevennes onion and spring coriander - Ricardo showed us the whole monkfish. The fish was dry-aged for 5 days after removing the skin, then grilled after removing the second layer of skin. Two quick trips to the oven, then a trip to the salamander after removing the bone.
The Cevennes onions in the pile of green on the side were beautiful - delivering delicious, sweet flavors. Aside from a couple of really fragrant flowers, Ricardo played a little joke on me by adding a few grains of buckwheat...
Veal tendon, abalone and yuzu - what a beautiful dish! Such an interesting combination of ingredients here, with the veal tendons delivering sticky collagen while the abalone gave us some springy texture. Lily bulb and radish on the side gave us a little crunch. The rich and viscous sauce had a surprising touch of acidity thanks to yuzu (柚子). Garnished with a little yarrow.
Roasted lamb saddle, green spiced sauce and grilled leeks - Ricardo also brought out the whole lamb saddle before serving. This was seared on the sides before putting in the oven for two hours at 85°C in order to achieve core temperature of 49°C.
Perfect doneness, and once again the meat was plated with some charred leeks. The sauce was surprisingly acidic with lime, and tasted almost a little Thai.
Époisses, acacia honey and bee pollen - don't quite remember when it was that I last had Époisses as "dessert", but this was pretty ripe and stinky, tempered with cumin seeds on top. Very delicious, actually!
White coffee, hazelnuts and white chocolate - this was very delicious, and in fact everyone liked it so much that Pineapple reversed his original decision to skip this dessert - and he was glad he did.
Vanilla guimauve, almond chocolate
Raspberry granite and liquid sphere - very refreshing.
Ricardo knew I just had my birthday a couple of days ago, so he very kindly prepared a little birthday "log" for me.
I prepared three flights of reds tonight, but unfortunately a couple of wines weren't in perfect condition. I should remember to bring a few backup bottles next year...
We started with two bottles of nice bubbly purchased off the restaurant's wine list:
Henri Giraud Fût de Chêne MV09 - savory minerals on the nose, really big on the palate. Good balance between savory and acidic notes, and surprising in its maturity. Almost a little bitter on the finish. Definitely preserved citrus like marmalade on the palate, with a very fragrant nose.
Flight one: opened just before serving, without decanting. Unfortunately served too warm by the sommelier.
1971 Maison Leroy Echezeaux - nice sweet fruit, savory on the palate. Toasty with a little green and a bit of coffee. Definitely acidity on the palate here. 91 points.
1971 DRC Echezeaux - Madeira-like, very savory, nutty, with some desiccated coconut. 87 points. Too bad this bottle seemed over the hill.
Flight two: opened two hours prior to serving, not decanted.
1982 Latour à Pomerol - very smoky, tobacco, a little savory, a little stinky, a hint of green peppers, less sweet fruit than expected. More cigar, smoky, and toasty. 97 points. This was definitely the wine-of-the-evening for everyone. The average rating given by the 6 MNSC members blind-tasting tonight was a whopping 99 points! Fifteen years ago at a semi-blind tasting of 1982 Right Bank wines, this wine beat out Petrus and Lafleur and was our favorite. Well, tonight it also beat out a Left Bank heavyweight...
1982 Lafite-Rothschild - a little dusty, really metallic, rusty. Fine on the palate, savory later on after opening up a little, but still a little tight. The sommelier should have decanted this bottle. Quel dommage! 93 points.
Flight three: double-decanted 3 hours prior to serving.
1997 Dominus - Sweet fruit, minty, a little smoky. Tannins still there but sweet on the palate. 95 points.
1997 Etude Cabernet Sauvignon - very sweet and ripe, caramelized, almost honey. Slightly alcoholic. 95 points.
In spite of some disappointment on the wine side, I really enjoyed dinner tonight. I liked every single dish tonight and there were certainly no fails. I think everyone else was surprised with the food being served tonight since, except for Dr. Poon who had been here recently, this was a place largely forgotten by the gang. Now that I've dined here twice without Hello Kitty - and drank 1982 Lafite both times! - I think it's time that she got introduced to Ricardo's cuisine...
Many thanks to Ricardo for accommodating me and the corkage arrangement.
Our friend from Seoul is back in town, so The Great One and I arranged for another dinner at a Cantonese restaurant at her request - this time at Seventh Son (家全七福). One can never go wrong coming here, and there's no pressure to order expensive dishes here - unlike a few other places around town.
Crispy pork belly (脆皮燒腩仔) - our Korean friend's colleague had this at lunch and apparently wanted more - because he only got to eat one piece. Have to say that this was pretty good - with a good amount of fat underneath the crunchy crackling.
Deep-fried chicken kidney mixed with egg custard (雞子戈渣) - The Great One always loves ordering this.
Love the fluffy texture of the custard. And no, it ain't no chicken "kidney" they used... I should have asked Brother Seven for confirmation.
Honey glazed barbecued chicken liver (蜜汁燒鳳肝) - always delicious, with the right amount of charring at the edges and a generous amount of honey sauce.
Crispy chicken (當紅炸子雞) - while we were figuring out what to order, we didn't want the Kat to feel left out, and asked him what he wanted to eat. No sooner had he uttered the words "crispy chicken" than both The Great One and I shot down his suggestion. I even took the extra step of insulting his choice of dish as "mundane" - half-jokingly. The Kat expressed his frustration at being shot down, and protested the futility of him offering any suggestions on the menu.
I took a step back and offered an olive branch. While both The Great One and I find crispy chicken a little on the boring side, if one were to order the dish, there is no place more appropriate than Seventh Son or Fook Lam Moon (福臨門). Why, you ask? That's because the dish was made famous by Chui Fook Chuen (徐福全), the patriarch founder of Fook Lam Moon. The chicken is rubbed with salt and air-dried for 8 hours before being hung and drizzled with hot oil continuously for half an hour.
Surprisingly, there were more people at the table who fell into the "white meat" camp...
Stir-fried kailan with crab meat and bamboo pith (竹笙蟹肉扒芥蘭度) - we needed some green veg, and I took this at our waiter's suggestion. Pretty good.
Deep-fried prawn balls (椒鹽炸蝦丸) - another order that the Kat sneaked in later. Nothing wrong that deep-fried balls... ever.
Braised pomelo skin with shrimp roe and leafy amaranth (莧菜蝦子柚皮) - our Korean friends had never had this, and it's just come into season. Definitely very tasty with the shrimp roe, and our waiter suggested that we add some leafy amaranth (莧菜) since I didn't want to just have two lonely lumps of pomelo skin on a plate...
Fried rice with precious mushroom and vegetables (油雞㙡菌欖仁翡翠黃金炒飯) - The Great One really liked this the last time we were here together, so she asked for it again. Gotta say that for a vegetarian flied lice dish, this was damn good. Stir-frying at high heat produces rice grains that are slightly dry and on the chewy side, which is delicious. The Indian almonds (欖仁) were incredibly tasty after frying.
I brought a couple of bottles to dinner, but unfortunately the Kat didn't like the first bottle. And our Korean friends probably didn't either... since they didn't drink like Koreans tonight...
2011 Ram's Hill Sauvignon Blanc - mature and most of its fresh fruit. Now more caramelized with straw and honey notes, with a little green apple left.
2007 Joh.Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett - lots of polyurethane and classic petrol, with a little flint. A little fizzy on the palate and a little sweet.
A few weeks ago I received a very kind invitation from the PR team at the City of Dreams, inviting me to lunch at The Tasting Room at the Crown Towers. There has been a change of chefs recently, and Fabrice Vullin - formerly of Caprice in Hong Kong - has now taken residence there. The PR team was very accommodating and agreed to arrange lunch on a weekend on account of my day job. This time around, though, it was poor Carmen who had to sit and keep me company throughout our long lunch...
The sommelier wheeled over his Champagne trolley to start us with a flute of bubbly. Can't complain about that!
Henriot Brut Souverain, en magnum - yeasty and mineral, at first a little sharp on the nose. Softened up in the glass.
First came a plate bearing two little nibbles:
I was told that the sandwiched between two layers of focaccia was "white pata negra" - which I had never heard of - along with Tasmanian black truffle, cream, fennel, and artichoke. It always amazes me that, when you've got good sourcing of ingredients, how little black truffle you actually need to deliver just the most amazing fragrance in the mouth. The perfume of the truffle hit me before I even opened my mouth to receive this delicious morsel.
On top of the herb crust are very thin slices of radish with salted butter and a sprinkle of sea salt. Classic simplicity - breakfast radish, butter, and salt.
The next trolley to come our way was the bread trolley - something I don't remember from previous visits. Our server decided to present us with 6 different types of bread - which was way, way too much for just the two of us. I felt pretty bad about wasting all that bread, and unfortunately forgot to ask to pack the leftovers.
Provence "Les Cailloux Market" tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, focaccia - four different types of tomatoes from Provence - pineapple, green zebra, Cœur de bœuf, and Noire de Crimée. Served on a bed of heirloom tomato gelée with a little citrus acidity and decorated with little dots of balsamico - as well as balls of burrata that were so creamy and soft that the texture was almost like foam. Garnished with basil and dill. So clean and pure. So refreshing and perfect for the summer.
On the side, we also have focaccia with dried tomato from Italy, garnished with basil.
For the upcoming seafood courses, the sommelier very kindly poured me a glass of delicious white Burg, compliments of Chef Vullin.
2012 Vincent Girardin Meursault 1er Cru Les Perrières - more mature than expected at just 5 years old. Sweet and buttery, with some citrus and acidity for balance.
Poached Brittany lobster, watermelon and yuzu vinaigrette - now THIS was a familiar sight. A simpler variant was my favorite course on our disastrous evening at Caprice two years ago. The wedge-shaped "pie" has a thin layer of watermelon at the bottom, topped with homard bleu mousseline made with lobster meat, lobster bisque, avocado and green apple. Then a thin layer of lobster gelée sits on top, followed by a layer of lobster carpaccio seasoned with yuzu vinaigrette as well as lemon caviar. Finally, we've got little piles of Kaviari Kristal caviar - from sturgeon farmed in Lake Qiandao (千岛湖) in China - accompanied by dollops of cream as well as little bits of avocado, green apple, watermelon, and dill.
OK, so this was even better than what I had two years ago. OF COURSE homard breton is incredibly delicious, and the lobster bisque as well as gelée delivered lots of umami. The sturgeon caviar is understandably savory and packs a punch in terms of salt, which was then nicely tempered by the sweet watermelon. A very, very nicely balanced dish. Like the last dish, this was perfect for summer.
Stew "garbure", capers, cardamom, Blue Mountain coffee - I'm not familiar with the gasconne dish of garbure, but this was apparently a pretty different - and vegetarian - interpretation. I took a couple of minutes to take in the scent coming from my bowl, which smelled strangely familiar - and Chinese! After racking my brain for a while, it finally dawned on me that what I was smelling was akin to what emanates from a plate of sweet and sour pork ribs (糖醋排骨)! I definitely smelled the acidity, which seemed like it came from black vinegar, while there was certainly a little sweetness that came along. But then again... maybe my sensory powers were just all out of whack today...
Sitting on top of the spelt were little chunks of turnip as well as rolls of thinly-sliced carrots, zucchini, and asparagus. Sitting at the top was a tuile made with Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, which I unfortunately was unable to distinguish as the tuile in my bowl ended up being soaked in the broth. Sitting on top of the tuile were some celery leaves, caper berry slices, and wild mushrooms that looked like girolles. The vegetable broth was seasoned with cardamom, and delivered some mild acidity on the palate.
Slow cooked Mediterranean seabass, cauliflower and romanesco, oyster tartare, Champagne sauce - a very tender chunk of seabass. The "toppings" were very interesting because at once you have the creaminess and sweetness of the sea urchin tongues, which contrasted with the briny flavors of teh oysters, then the tongue gets hit with the saltiness and fatty richness of the Kaviari Kristal caviar. Texture-wise we've also got chopped up cauliflower and romanesco. I was a little surprised at how much I enjoyed this dish.
The next time I saw the sommelier, he was wheeling another trolley towards me in preparation for the meat course. Sitting on top was a bottle of Lafite with the Coravin needle piercing through the cork. I was totally taken aback. It's always flattering when the chef or the manager comps you a couple of glasses of wine, but THIS... this was rolling out the red carpet in a big way. As Fabrice later told me, he doesn't offer glasses of Lafite to just anybody...
1990 Lafite-Rothschild - classic pencil lead, smoke, tobacco, very cool, sweet fruit. Nice and woody notes. Very smooth on the palate, and still a little tannic on the back.
Aveyron lamb, pan fried rack and saddle, humus and vinaigrette of chickpea from Hautes Alpes by Noëlle Taxil - this was apparently lamb that's been labeled Triple-A, which stands for Agneau Allaiton de l'Aveyron. The saddle was tender but relatively bland. The rack is where it's at, with that delicious, lamby fattiness that I love so much.
The most interesting parts of the dish, though, were the accompanying chickpeas. Besides the fennel, we've got some hummus that was very, very smoky. But there's more to it than just chickpeas from famed grower Noëlle Taxil. Fabrice has also added some red finger lime caviar from Australia - like the ones Dan Hunter from Brae used - along with some coriander chiffonade. So there was a little acidity as well as some added fragrance. The same finger lime caviar and coriander were also found in the chick pea vinaigrette.
With the savory part of our lunch over, we were invited into the brand-spanking-new kitchen to take dessert at the chef's table - a cozy corner with a loveseat facing the chefs. And this was where I was plied with more alcohol... as the cork was popped on a new bottle of Krug.
2000 Krug - yeasty, toasty, with good acidity and some ripeness.
Strawberry vacherin - so this was the "pre-dessert", made with meringue, strawberry meringue, strawberry sorbet, and fraises de bois. I love strawberries, and this was very delicious.
Lemon meringue tart - I love a good tarte au citron meringuée, and I mentioned that the last good one I had was at Odette in Singapore last year. I was told that there were seven different textures here, but I don't think I managed to figure out all of them... There was the sablé at the bottom, with some mint chiffonade mixed into the lemon "jam" on top, plus a layer of lemon "mousse" (is it still a mousse when you've got lots of air holes inside?). Then we've got soft meringue and lemon meringue, which were topped with mint leaves, lemon zest confit, and lemon gel. On the side there's a quenelle of lemon sorbet. So... I think I got all 7 of them.
But the most important part was that this was delicious. I'm normally not a big fan of lots of acidity in my food, but somehow I've grown very fond of tarte au citron. At the end of a very big meal, that acidity was very, very welcome.
David asked me if I liked coffee, and I figured "why not?" since it always helps with digestion. As a complete philistine as far as gourmet coffee is concerned, I was bowled over when he rolled out a trolley in front of me and proceeded to brew us cups of siphon coffee - with Geisha beans from Panama!
Finca Santa Teresa Geisha - I was expecting plenty of fruitiness and acidity, and was surprised when the coffee turned out to be very intense and more on the smoky and chocolate side.
Yuzu chocolate - delicious with a yuzu jam filling.
Well! This was quite a treat for lunch! I'm glad to see that Fabrice has settled into his new digs, although understandably he still needs a little time to get his brigade up to 100%. They've got quite a few things planned, and I look forward to seeing what the team can do.
Many, many thanks to the PR team at City of Dreams for this kind invitation, and a deep, 90-degree bow to Chef Fabrice for getting me drunk on such fine wines!
A friend was coming to town from France and wanted to meet up for a meal. We were looking for more unique experiences for her when I suggested that we try booking my favorite private kitchen. She also suggested the possibility of having Chef Alain Ducasse join us, and this made for a very interesting proposition. Having been unable to secure the chef of my favorite private kitchen for this evening, the Great One suggested that we take our guests to Tasting Court (天一閣) instead. At this point we roped in The Man in White T-Shirt to help with the arrangements - which seemed perfectly fitting since he had once worked for the legendary French chef.
So as it turns out, out of our party of 8 only Hello Kitty and myself were strangers to Monsieur Ducasse. I cracked a joke about the two of us being the nobodies who were just tagging along, but it was pretty much the truth. And Hello Kitty finally got her chance to go to Tasting Court after their relocation.
It's been some time since my first and only visit to the restaurant, and I was glad to have the opportunity to try a few of my favorites from last time, and get an introduction to new favorites.
Abalone and eburna areolata Sichuan style (蜀香鮑魚拌東風螺) - pretty nice. The textures of both abalone and babylonia were nice, and there was just enough spice to get the tongue tingling.
Spicy stir-fried clam with peppercorn and chili (椒香炒蜆) - this looked beautiful, except that when the waitstaff divided up the portions, they decided not to give me any... In the end they had to send up an extra serving from the kitchen. The chili was definitely spicy, but otherwise this was really tasty.
Chinese grilled pork chop with soybean (西班牙黑毛豬叉燒) - this was marinated with a combination including Chinese black olives (欖角), black beans (豆豉), and aged mandarin peel (陳皮) instead of the honey glaze that one sees around town. This delivered much deeper and savory flavors while the Iberico pork itself was very, very tender. What a great dish! The slices of pickled radish on the side were once again arranged in the shape of a rose.
Dried sliced beef marinated with house-made soy bean sauce (三日熟成牛肉) - this was very, very good. Marinated and then air-dried. It came with a 10-spice salt in a shaker on the side, which I thought was unnecessary because the beef was beautiful enough on its own.
Baby pigeon smoked with osmanthus and Longjing tea (茶燻雛鴿) - very heavy smoky flavors, and very, very tasty. The pickled ginger on the side was good, too.
Steamed orange stuffed with crab meat and scallop (白玉紅蟳釀金盞) - we were advised to spoon some of the Huadiao and minced ginger sauce at the bottom of the bowl onto the contents inside the orange. The stuffing came with kaffir lime leaves, water chestnut, and Chinese celery. Wonderful combination and contrasts of flavors and textures. Very fragrant. Very delicious.
Slow-cooked whole melon stuffed with wild duck and dried peel (陳皮水鴨冬瓜盅) - this was a totally different type of winter melon soup from what I'm used to. We've got a whole duck inside, along with aged tangerine peel and coriander which delivered delicate and beautiful fragrance.
Winter melon is great for cooling down the body in the summer, and someone smiled sheepishly while confessing that he had three bowls of the soup...
Steamed fresh flowery crab with aged Shaoxing wine served with rice noodle (香醉紅蟳) - this was always going to be one of the highlights of the meal, and it certainly impressed all the guests. Steamed with 25-year Huadiao wine along with chicken fat, the sauce was so delicious that we couldn't help but drink it by the spoonful. The flat rice noodles (陳村粉) did a pretty good job soaking up the sauce so they were pretty popular. Needless to say the flower crabs themselves were delicious and sweet.
When we were done with the dish, the waitstaff took the plate away and brought back the two leftover pieces of crab in a small bowl. A one point later in the meal, I caught Monsieur Ducasse grabbing one of the pieces and chomping on it. It was obvious that he enjoyed the crab so much - and had probably been eyeing the leftovers... until finally he could resist no longer!
Steamed fish (蒸海魚) - this was certainly an interesting preparation for the leopard coral trout (東星斑). The Man in White T-shirt called the sauce on top "Cantonese tapenade" for the benefit of our French guests, and he wasn't far from the truth. It was made with a combination of preserved olives, black beans, and soy bean miso (味噌). Very rich flavors here.
Slow-cooked meat ball in chicken soup (葵花斬肉) - this was one of the highlights of my last meal here. Made from a mixture of meat around the ribs and brisket, then hand-chopped until all the fibers are broken down in order to deliver that amazingly soft texture. Cooked at a low temperature for 6 hours. A much more refined version of the Shanghainese "lion's head (獅子頭)". Delicate. Delicious.
Vegetable scalded in fish soup (魚湯浸時蔬) - I don't think I've ever had the leaves of chili peppers before, and these were a little earthy. Came with soft tofu skin, ginkgo, and garlic. Another dish with delicate flavors.
Prawn roe stirred noodle with prawn and shallot essence oil (蝦子蝦油蔥油撈麵) - I loved these noodles last time, and they were once again amazing tonight. The noodles themselves were soooo tender without being mushy, made by kneading the dough with a bamboo pole (and therefore referred to as 竹昇麵). Thankfully they're devoid of any of that alkali flavor that I dislike. Instead they're packed with flavors from the dried prawn roe, prawn oil, scallion oil, raw scallions, caramelized onions, and ginger. Something I could have eaten more than a small bowl of. In fact, I don't even need anything else. Just give me the whole plate of this!
Blended jujube coconut juice pudding (椰汁棗茸糕) - a simple dessert that wasn't too sweet, and came with a small cup of Huadiao with dried jujube dessert drink (花雕紅棗飲).
We were treated to some of the restaurant's 25-year-old Huadiao wine (花雕酒) throughout the meal, which was very, very smooth and delicious.
But I also brought wine. Lots of it, so it seemed. Given the number of people we had, I figured magnums were the only way to go, but wasn't sure what Monsieur Ducasse wanted to drink... so I brought FOUR magnums for him to choose from, along with a half-bottle of dessert wine. In the end we finished all the wines, which was a pretty good amount for the 8 of us. But hey, I always assumed that the French could drink... especially when it comes to French wines.
Krug Grande Cuvée, en magnum - nice and toasty nose. Good acidity balance. Can never go wrong with Krug.
2000 La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion, en magnum, ex-château 2013 - very prominent pencil lead, smoke, a hint of savory minerals and soy sauce. Fairly smooth on the palate, along with some fruit. Classic claret. Served slightly chilled, which Monsieur Alain Ducasse felt was perfect.
2004 Didier Dagueneau Silex, en magnum - nice and mineral, flinty. A little light on the palate but more than and rounded than expected. Later on showed good acidity and turned leaner.
2000 Laville Haut-Brion, en magnum, ex-château 2013 - a little acetone in the nose at first, pretty ripe, flinty, with lovely lemon citrus notes.
1997 Chapoutier Hermitage Vin de Paille, en demi-bouteille - surprisingly dark brown in color with a lot of sediment. Plenty of sugarcane in the nose. Very rich and sweet on the palate.
This was a really, really excellent dinner. Every single dish was à point tonight, and our French guests - including Monsieur Ducasse - were admiring the complex yet subtle plays among the flavors. It was also a unique opportunity for us - and The Man in White T-shirt in particular - to show what high-end Cantonese cuisine outside five star hotels - made by people who care deeply about their craft - could deliver. I was simply honored to have been able to sit at the table on this occasion.
P.S. Here's an interview that took place a couple of months ago between the mentor and protégé.
During dinner last night, the Foodalist asked us where she should go for dim sum while in Hong Kong. While the usual suspects such as Lung King Heen (龍景軒), Fook Lam Moon (福臨門), Spring Moon (嘉麟樓) and the like were discussed, some of us felt that a trip to Lin Heung Tea House (蓮香樓) would make for a more interesting story for her - even though the food wouldn't be comparable to the other places.
As it turns out, my old friend Sheets - whose family owns Lin Heung - meets with his family for dim sum on Mondays. So while still at dinner, I asked him whether it would be alright for me to barge in on his family lunch and bring along a friend. Sheets didn't mind, as he's invited me for lunch in the past. So that was good news for the Foodalist.
But a few seconds later, I realized that I wasn't bringing just one guest. There were 6 people at the table who wanted to come to lunch - including Chef Alain Ducasse! This was a little tricky... as it would definitely be a huge imposition on the Yiens. After a little bit of back and forth with Sheets, I finally got clearance to bring the 4 visitors to lunch. We would be a little cozy but Sheets assured me that they'll manage.
I was a little apprehensive about lunch. Lin Heung Tea House is an old school establishment for the masses. Its attraction lies not in the food - which was ordinary and certainly nowhere near the level of places with Michelin stars - but in the ambience and the experience. People go there and have to literally fight for a table as well as fight for their food. It's a quintessentially Hong Kong experience, but Sheets had asked me to tone down the visitors' expectations - especially for Monsieur Ducasse.
We arrived at the appointed time and I led our visitors to the table at the back of the restaurant. Sheets was already there with a few members of his family - including Auntie and Uncle Five. We were also having lunch with an elderly gentleman who is technically not family - not related by blood, at least. Turns out he's an electrician who has worked for the family-run restaurant for some 60 years!
The next hour was a little nerve-wracking for me. While the Foodalist happily walked around the restaurant snapping pictures and filming everything from the dining room to the ladies with push carts bearing the food, I sat nervously while praying that Monsieur Ducasse wouldn't be wondering why he weren't dining somewhere else like Lung King Heen...
Sheets gave a little background on the place. His grandfather had come over to Hong Kong in 1922 and started the business on Queen's Road Central, before moving to its present location on Wellington Street some 20 years ago. They still lease their current premises, which is surprising and may become an issue. They open for breakfast at 6 a.m., although usually it doesn't get really busy until 7:30 a.m. or so. From that point on they're generally packed throughout the rest of the day until after 10 p.m., just before closing at 11 p.m. Daily number of covers range from 1,200 - 1,500 or so.
For dim sum the menu shows a selection numbering in the mid-20s (although I suspect many old school items aren't actually listed), and the menu has a large number of cooked dishes, rice, as well as noodles. We ended up getting what I thought was a lot of food. We mostly waited for the family to decide what to put on the table, and there was quite a variety.
The meal started well enough. The family passed around a roll of toilet paper in lieu of napkins - which is quite common in this part of Asia - and that drew a few chuckles from our visitors. Definitely a new experience for them!
We had steamed rice flour rolls with minced beef (牛肉腸粉), fish cake rolls (魚崧扎), steamed glutinous rice with chicken (古法糯米雞), siu mai with quail eggs (鵪鶉蛋燒賣), steamed prawn dumplings (蝦餃), deep-fried tofu skin with prawns (鮮蝦腐皮夾), as well as steamed buns with chicken and pork fillings.
There were also dishes such as stir-fried beef noodles (乾炒牛河), deep-fried crispy noodles with shredded pork (肉絲炒麵), choy sum (菜心), steamed minced beef patty and fried egg over rice (煎蛋牛肉飯), and steamed brown sugar sponge cake (馬拉糕). Our visitors were curious about the deep-fried egg crullers (蛋散), but upon hearing the description their immediate reaction is "Ah, beignets!"... and promptly lost interest.
Oh, and if anyone is wondering whether Monsieur Ducasse partook in that most classic of dim sum dishes - the sight of which sends many non-Asians into convulsions of horror... the answer is YES. He ate chicken feet. Out of respect for the master, I didn't snap any pictures of him sucking on it and spitting out the bones - or any pictures of him at all, for that matter. But I didn't need to, because that image has been burned into my memory for all eternity.
We left after about an hour, as Monsieur Ducasse needed to get back for appointments on his schedule. In any case I don't think he could take in any more of the ambience... Having arrived less than 24 hours earlier, they were no doubt suffering from a combination of jet-lag, sleep deficiency, and perhaps excessive alcohol consumption (thanks to moi). Under those circumstances, their tolerance for the noise level and the amount of activity buzzing around us was perhaps a little on the low side. We thanked Uncle Five and the family for their hospitality, and bid farewell to our hosts.
The King made another visit to Hong Kong, and the old gang was once again rounded up to catch up with him. With BM being put on a special diet and unable to join us, the task of picking a restaurant was kinda thrust back on my shoulders.
We asked the King what he preferred, and when the response came back as "casual Western", I casually suggested my go-to place for something like this - The Man in White T-Shirt's Neighborhood. As a result of having booked this dinner sometime last week, I decided to pass up the opportunity to come here on Wednesday on the rare oppotunity when The Man in White T-Shirt had occasion to cook for Chef Alain Ducasse... Quel dommage!
Since we decided to take the second seating on this busy Friday night, we needed to meet somewhere else for drinks before dinner. Out of the few suggestions I threw out, La Cabane Wine Bistro was chosen. So I knew I would start the evening with some bong water...
2015 Tony Bornard Le Chardo Gai - pretty ripe on palate, with some acidity at the same time. Flinty, slightly pungent from sulfur.
I picked a selection of charcuterie and cheese to go along with our bong water - rillettes, lomo, chorizo, Brillat-Savarin, Tête de Moine, and Saint-Marcellin.
It was getting a little hot at La Cabane Wine Bistro, what with this being Bastille Day, the bar having an open front, and the bunch of us downing two bottles of bong water... so we couldn't wait to move to the air-conditioned comfort of Neighborhood when the time came.
As usual, I left it up to The Man in White T-Shirt to decide on the menu for us - the only thing I reserved in advance was my favorite Spanish beef. There were seven of us tonight, so we definitely needed something like that to finish.
30 mo. culatello "Massimo Spigaroli" - made from black pigs, these were particularly tasty... with deep, cheesy and fermented flavors.
Padron peppers / cheddar - amazingly, I think there were two spicy ones in this batch.
Papillon oysters / Acquitaine beef tartare - very pure flavors here - clean flavors from the raw beef, seasoned with black pepper - in combination of briny oysters. Pretty refreshing for the summer.
Pigeon eggs / escargot butter - pretty interesting to find these soft, jiggly pigeon eggs served in ceramic dishes typically used for escargot - with the traditional garlic and herb butter literally overflowing on top. Very tasty and satisfying. The guys asked for more bread so they could soak up the herb butter.
Salt cod / tomato / olives - the shredded salt cod was, in reality, very salty even for someone like me who loves bacalhau. But I loved the texture of it as it was slightly crunchy.
Bouchot mussels "Mont St Michel" - these were moules de bouchot de la Baie du Mont Saint-Michel, which has its very own AOP. Served up with plenty of dill, garlic, and shallots.
Black truffle chicken wings - the fragrance of black truffle was alluring and unmistakable. One of the most simple yet satisfying dishes tonight.
Beef tripe gratin - The Man in White T-Shirt knows how much I love tripe, and this was very, very good.
I just love the thin crust of shredded cheese on top... and of course love all the chili powder and herbs he added. Hearty and deliciouis.
White baits "pil pil" baby eel style - I LOOOOOVE this! I have always loved whitebait (白飯魚), and I also love anything made "al pil-pil". Here's a combination of both... with a liberal sprinkle of piment d'Espelette powder and diced chilis giving the whole thing a pretty strong kick. I'm normally a guy who has limited tolerance for spicy food, but this dish was totally up my alley. I also love the soft, smooth and almost slippery texture of the whitebait, which in this case was a substitute for those famed (and much more expensive) angulas.
Boudin Basque / foie gras / summer fruit - The Man in White T-Shirt also knows I love the boudin basque from Christian Parra, and he's changed things up a little by halving the portion and putting a chunk of pan-fried foie gras with it. For acidity he's added a piece of caramelized white peach. Gotta say it worked pretty well.
Kinki paella - I've seen a bunch of pictures over the last few days from several friends who had this dish on Wednesday, and I'm very happy to see it on our table tonight. The boss reminded us to squeeze some lemon juice over the dish as it really made the flavors perk up. There was also plenty of kaffir lime in there somewhere to deliver the distinctive fragrance.
The kinki (喜知次) was, expected, very very succulent. The rice was delicious and flavorful, but unfortunately what my friend spooned onto my plate didn't have enough socarrat. While some may prefer their rice soft and juicy, I actually want enough socarrat to impart that crunchy, chewy texture. Regardless, though, it was still I dish I loved and enjoyed very much.
Local free range chicken / ganbajun rice pilaf - the beautiful fragrance of the ganbajun (乾巴菌) fungus from Yunnan Province hit our noses as soon as the pan arrived. This has always been one of my favorite dishes here, and it didn't matter that tonight local free-range chicken was used instead of poulet de Bresse. The tender chicken, the creamy sauce that was covering everything including the rice - with dill, piment d'Espelette and all... Best of all the offal was served together with the chicken - from the crown, heart, liver, gizzard... I think The Man in White T-Shirt remembers my disdain for 'les amourettes' and decided to save the testicles for another table...
100 day dry aged Spanish Rubia Gallega chuleta steak - I will never get tired of eating this beef... Just look at the color - pretty much perfect doneness for me, although I could also take it a little more raw. The meat comes from Galician cattle that are at least 10 years old, which means the texture will be tougher than the young cattle we usually consume. This is why extended dry-aging is done - to tenderize the meat. I think it achieves a perfect balance between having meat that is tender enough yet still offer some character. It also offers an incredible amount of flavor beyond that of normal beef fat. There's a certain level of fermented, cheezy flavors in the meat... which is especially noticeable in tendons, sinews, and areas near the bone - not to mention the fat.
Raspberry tartà la mode - I told them that we were too full to have dessert, but agreed to share a slice of this among the 5 of us who stayed till the end. Very good.
As usual I brought along a few bottles of wine, but not too many given we were drinking at a wine bar before dinner.
2012 Dujac Morey Saint-Denis Blanc - beautiful and toasty nose, sweet and buttery. Light and crispy on the palate when served very cold. Later on some green bell pepper on the nose.
1989 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve - nice and fruity but not too ripe, with a hint of smoke. Nice acidity here and slightly lean on the palate.
1990 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve - more Bordeaux-like, with some sweet fruit and a little smoke. More tannic than the 1989.
We seemed to have run out of wine, so we ended up ordering a bottle off the restaurant's wine list.
2002 Chateau Musar Red - much smoother than expected on the palate. Nice and minty, with good fruit.
A really, really good meal tonight. And really good to catch up with the gang. Happy Bastille Day!
When I embarked on my trip to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in Central Asia back in 2008, I was able to spend only 4 days in Kazakhstan. As a result there were a couple of destinations that I had to pass up - including the new capital Astana. I had managed to hit both of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites listed at the time - my priority on that trip - so I left the country with a small dose of regret about not reaching the sites in the western end of the vast country.
Two months ago my caviar supplier connected me with his friend in Moscow, offering a unique opportunity to travel to Baikonur and watch the Russians launch a Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The mission would carry 3 astronauts to the International Space Station. This was one of the places I didn't get to visit 9 years ago, and it turns out to be an itch I really had to scratch. Despite being turned down by every single friend I asked to join me - pretty much all because of scheduling conflicts - I decided to bite the bullet and make the trek on my own. I would be joined by other visitors for the tour.
Initially I had found a very cheap ticket to Astana, routing myself through Beijing and flying Air China the whole way. The Beijing - Astana route is new for Air China, which may explain the low cost of the airfare. A few days ago, I began to get worried about potential delays at Beijing Capital International Airport. Aside from the usual air traffic control, summer is the season for thunderstorms, and I was hearing horror stories about massive delays. The 5½-hour layover I had scheduled began to look insufficient. After struggling with the decision for a few days, I decided to cancel my original flights and booked myself on Air Astana - flying direct to Kazakhstan and bypassing Beijing (or any other city in China) altogether. The ticket was much more expensive - more than double the cost of my original ticket - but I could not afford to miss my connecting flight in Beijing for any reason.
My 6-hour flight from Hong Kong to Almaty was uneventful. Hong Kong was sunny with blue skies, and there were no weather or air traffic delays coming out of Almaty. I was unfortunately seated right over the wing, so I wasn't able to take any decent pictures. Nine years on, the inflight entertainment system on Air Astana was pretty good - high-res touch screens showing a good mix of international as well as local/Russian programs. I listened to two albums by Dilnaz Akhmadieva - who is apparently still a figure on the Kazakh pop scene after all these years. I also watched The Diamond Sword - a movie about the first Kazakh khans who were descended from Genghis Khan. There was also the option of watching re-runs of House M.D. dubbed in Russian, but I chose to stick with the original English dialog...
After landing at Almaty Airport and going through immigration, I moved to the departure level upstairs for my 3-hour layover. This is a modest-sized airport and there weren't many shops and restaurants, so I wasn't able to buy new shoes to replace the ones falling apart around my feet. I guess I would have to wait till Astana...
I'm not sure whether Сат Сапар was the cafe where we had our last meal in Kazakhstan back in 2008, but it was certainly the same location in the terminal building. I wasn't really hungry, but once I decided to sit down, there was no reason not to order my favorite Kazakh dish and relive those memories...
Besbarmak (бешбармак) - I've been dreaming about having this ever since I decided to come back to Kazakhstan. While the version here would never be considered one of the best, it was more about scratching that itch. And it was still delicious. Slices of horse meat and horse sausage were accompanied by a bed of flat noodles not unlike papardelle. The noodles were soaked in butter, which delivered this awesome richness that was so familiar and comforting. Then you've got the pan-fried onions which hadn't quite gotten caramelized, but nevertheless delivered some sweetness and crunch. I loved the chunks of fat in the sausage, and there was even a little bit of fat in the sliced meat - which were extra tasty once the slices had been heated in a pan.
The staff of the cafe were really nice to me, and obviously surprised that I enjoyed my besbarmak so much. They offered me a бауырсақ - a deep-fried dough apparently commonly taken as a side dish. Actually, tasted rather Chinese and familiar...
As I was in Almaty, it was only appropriate that I washed my food down with a glass of fresh squeezed apple juice. Yum.
The service here was definitely very friendly, even though the staff didn't speak much English. They even asked me to sign one of those old-fashioned guest logs.
My next flight took us from the lush, green fields and rolling hills around Almaty to the green fields surrounding Astana - with vast expanse of emptiness in between. Thankfully it was short, and this time I got a better view.
By virtue of being the country's capital airport - and thanks to Expo 2017 currently in Astana - the terminal at Astana Airport looks much more modern compared to Almaty International Airport. There were two conveyer belts on the domestic arrival side... and of course our luggage was delivered on the wrong belt...
Taxi fare within Astana seems pretty reasonable, but the trip to/from the airport is kinda negotiated at a greatly-inflated rate of around KZT 3,000 (roughly USD 10). As the airport isn't too far from the left bank of the city, I found myself at Hilton Garden Inn Astana shortly after landing. A few minutes later, I was out the door on a mission to buy myself a pair of new sneakers.
The Khan Shatyr (Хан Шатыр) entertainment was a short walk away from my hotel. It was designed by Foster + Partners and meant to resemble a Kazakh tent. I did a brisk walk through Lovers Park (Ғашықтар саябағы) in the drizzle to get to the mall, and the first shop inside the entrance was Adidas. Mission accomplished.
After a quick shower, it was past 9 p.m. and the sky finally went dark. So I did a quick stroll near the hotel and snapped a few pics of the Astana Opera.
It was 10pm and I figured that I would have my 5th meal of the meal, so I walked a few blocks to Alasha (Алаша) - a restaurant shaped like a fort from Central Asia and serving regional cuisine. There was a lounge singer in the "indoors area" whose tunes I couldn't appreciate, so I asked to be seated in the outdoor courtyard.
I'm determined to have my fill of besbarmak (бешбармак) on this trip, so of course I ordered a plate of it for dinner. This is similar to the one I had in Almaty during my last trip, as the papardelle-like flat noodles were soaked in mutton broth. The problem with this particular plate, though, was that the slices of boiled horse meat were a little on the dry side... as they lacked any fat. Not a great texture.
I loooved the fatty karta (Қарта) - horse meat sausage.
I was damn full but determined to try some dessert. Wasn't interested in trying baklava, so I asked for some chak-chak (чак-чак). Little did I know this was basically the Manchurian sachima (薩其馬)... just with some raisins and walnuts.
Dinner tonight was washed down with a bottle of Kazakhstan Cola.
I was completely stuffed, and walked around a little before heading back to the hotel. I made a detour to the 24-hour McDonald's just a block from the hotel, as I have a habit of checking out the chain for unique offerings around the world - I have seen spring rolls in Oman, and of course there was the Chicken Maharaja Mac in India. Unfortunately they didn't have anything interesting or local on the menu, so I guess I won't be patronizing them while in Kazakhstan...
My morning was not spent walking around the city as planned, but in my hotel room at the Hilton Garden Inn Astana. I had some work to do, and despite being surprisingly hungry after a whole day of eating yesterday, I wasn’t interested in eating much this morning. Lunch at a decent restaurant wasn’t an option today since most don’t open till 12pm, and I was on my way to Astana Airport by then.
Dining options at the domestic terminal of Astana Airport were pretty damn limited. I didn’t have a lot of time, and wasn’t gonna bother checking out the Creperie de Paris. There didn’t seem to be a local option, so I found myself at Burger and Pasta, ordering two croissants and a juice. Gotta be honest and say that the croissants exceeded my expectations.
The flight to Kyzylorda took 1½ hours, and after 3 flights on Air Astana in 2 days, I’ve gotten used to passengers clapping upon successful landing by the pilot. Kyzylorda Airport reminds me of the dinky airports in remote parts of Asia – with a simple building, only one gate, and no luggage conveyer belt. We had to wait outside the room until the staff unloaded the luggage, then everyone rushed to grab their bags. I didn’t see my luggage in the pile, and was about to try to report missing/stolen luggage until my guide spotted it near the entrance. My guess is that one of the locals tried to steal it but couldn’t get pass the staff at the door checking luggage tags.
After meeting up with fellow traveler Stuart and our guide, we set off on a tour of Kyzylorda while we wait for the rest of the group to arrive about 4 hours later. I had pretty low expectations for what we would see, despite the fact that this place had a population of over 200,000 and was in fact the very first capital of Kazakhstan upon the creation of the SSR. And I was right...
Our first stop was the Independence Square, not far from the airport by the Syr Darya River. The first thing I noticed was the large number of crows on the grass... Anyway, not surprisingly the square was dominated by a huge flag of Kazakhstan...
Next stop was the President's Park (Президентский Парк). This time it would be the pigeons perched on top of those columns...
Then it's on to the Korkyt-Ata Monument (памятник коркыт ата), dedicated to the famous composer.
The Temple of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God is the only Russian Orthodox church in the city, and was consecrated in 1855. It was small but beautiful, and seemed to be an oasis of calm and tranquility in the city. We didn't stay long in order not to disturb the faithful.
We also go and see a park dedicated to the dead heros of Kyzylorda, with headstones announcing the names of the heroes and an 'eternal flame' which seemed to be taking a daily break. At the far end of the park, we see a monument dedicated to all the wars that Kazakh people have fought and died in, as well as Chernobyl and the former nuclear testing site of Semipalatinsk near Semey.
Our next stop was my request. I wanted to see the Kyzylorda Train Station, which turned out to have been built in 1905.
Finally we went to the city's central square (центральная площадь), which houses the main theater, the university, and a fountain where we found kids playing with the cool water on a scorching day.
We had some time to kill before heading back to the airport to pick up the other members of our group, so we ended up at Nomad Palace Hotel and headed to the lounge for a beer. I was a little hungry, so I got myself a bowl of solyanka (Солянка сборная мясная). The broth is a little sour thanks to the pickled cucumber and lemon slices, and there were small cubes of pork sausage, beef, smoked meats, and black olives.
We picked up the rest of the group at the airport, switched to a Mercedes van that seats just under 20, and started the long drive towards Baikonur. We managed to catch a beautiful sunset along the way.
After a ride of more than 3 hours, we finally arrived at the entrance to crossroad separating the town of Baikonur and the Baikonur Cosmodrome. We were issued with our "tourist pass" and put them on immediately.
Another 20 minutes or so on the bumpy roads past the official checkpoint, we finally arrived at Hotel No.1 at Site 2. Our guide Anya, who works for Tsenki (ЦЭНКИ) and therefore Roscosmos (Роскосмос), warned us not to wander too far from the hotel by ourselves. "There are snipers around, and I'm not kidding, guys!" were her words.
We got our room keys, and I carried my heavy suitcase up 2 flights of stairs to the third floor. At around 11 p.m., I finally got the chance to dig into the takeaway dinner our local guides had provided for us.
We had the usual tomato, cucumber, and onion salad found everywhere in Central Asia, along with plenty of dill and other herbs.
We also got plov, which was totally awesome. Even though it wasn't piping hot, there was still some warmth, and at this time of night, it tasted fucking delicious!
It was late, and my internet connection wasn't working, so I showered and hit the small single bed in my room. The 2-day program begins tomorrow!
Got up early today to see the sight of camels wandering around our hotel. That was unexpected. Still no internet connection, and I'm getting little bits of messages coming in. Very frustrating to be out of touch on a weekday.
Breakfast was at the canteen nearby. We lined up cafeteria-style, and for the first time I truly experienced the "Russian department store" service I had always joked about... There were very few items of food and drink on offer, and you took what came out of the kitchen... or left it. My fellow traveler Kevin proffered: "You do have a choice, and the choice is not to eat."
Zrazy potatoes with meat and sour cream (зразы картофельные с мясом со сметаной) - kinda like stuffed croquetas. Not bad.
Porridge (каша) - this was made with barley. They seem to light to spoon some melted butter on top, so it's somewhere between a little sweet and a little savory.
I also had this very dry bread with a very small and thin layer of cheese inside (плюшка сыром). Not a fan. I washed it down with some mixed berry juice drink.
After breakfast we boarded our minibus and started our tour of Baikonur town. Baikonur complex covers an area of around 6,700 sq. km., and includes both the town as well as the Cosmodrome. This is land that technically belongs to Kazakhstan, but has been rented by the Russian Federation until the year 2050. So it's a Russian concession where even normal Kazakhs will need to apply for permission to enter. About 40% of the population is Russian, and Russian Rubles are used here. Military checkpoints guard the roads leading into the areas.
Our first stop was the Palace of Culture (дворец культуры). Essentially this is a museum of the history of Baikonur - starting from the time when the Soviets were fighting WWII and started testing ballistic missiles after the end of the war.
Lots of photographs and models are here, with a comparison of the different rockets launched here, as well as an explanation of the different stages of the Soyuz rocket. We spent a couple of hours here.
Next stop was the Gagarin Monument. He is positioned so that at a certain time of the day, his would seem to be holding the sun between his hands.
Soyuz Monument was next, and here we came face to face with an actual Soyuz rocket.
We moved on to the Mikhail Yangel Memorial Park (Памятник М.К. Янгелю). He was a leading designer of ballistic missiles in Soviet times, which explains why there's an SS-17 - hopefully without any warheads - parked here.
Another memorial park commemorates those who died in two separate accidents which both happened on October 24th but in different years. The Nedelin disaster on October 24th, 1960 resulted in the death of 74 people, while 8 people were killed three years later in another accident. This park acts as the final resting place for many of the men - most of whom could not be buried whole. There have not been any launches scheduled for October 24th since then.
We break for lunch at Звездное небо, and run into other tourists for the first time. According to Anya, there are more than 400 tourists like ourselves who came for this launch - the biggest group ever, with about 150 foreigners. Normally they get about 200 or so. Anyway, a set lunch has been arranged for us.
As is typical for this part of the world, we have a "Vegetable with cheese" salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and some cheese has been added.
A chop from chicken with mushrooms and cheese - this piece of deep-fried chicken steak was covered with a layer of cheese on top, with slices of mushrooms in between. Not bad.
We walked around Korolev Avenue towards the big central square in town. On one side of the square a statue of Lenin still stands. After all, the city was first name Leninsky (Ленинский) and then Leninsk (Ле́нинск) in Soviet days.
The big Hotel Tsentralnaya (Центральная гостиница) is, apparently, not a great place to stay. But its main advantage is its central location.
Directly opposite the hotel is the Roscosmos (Rockocmoc) building. Doesn't take a genius to figure out who's the big daddy here...
Our main program for the afternoon is a visit to the International Space School (Международная космическая школа). This is a secondary school for children who live in Baikonur, and it's clear that the curriculum is geared towards the space program. Interestingly, the male/female ratio is roughly 50/50 here.
Children have competitions to design and build rockets, and the top student from each graduating class has a choice to go to any technical university in Russia. Many who graduate end up coming back to work at Baikonur. At the end of our tour, a couple of us even got to launch a rocket.
Our last stop of the day was the Central Market (Центральный рынок). We were meant to explore and go shopping, but some of us decided to find a spot for a beer and some mutton shashlik.
We head back to the Cosmodrome and head to the canteen for dinner. More Russian department store-style service...
I started with the tomato, cucumber, and onion salad, which also came with corn and spring onions.
For main course, I was left without much choice as the other option was no longer available... so I took this minced beef patty on rice with pan-fried egg. The beef patty was OK and came with a thin layer of mashed potato on top. The rice, however, was a disaster. It was completely mushy and there seemed to be no seasoning.
Not happy with the lack of choice, I spotted bags of frozen dumplings next to ice cream cones in a freezer. Our tour leader Aleksander checked and amazingly, the kitchen agreed to cook them for us, so I asked for the dumplings in soup.
Beef and pork dumplings (Пельмени из говядины и свинины) - actually, I was much happier eating these dumplings than the mushy rice I had just eaten. Love the liberal use of dill.
My fellow travelers from Hong Kong bought some wine a few days ago and generously shared a bottle with us tonight:
2009 Chateau Karakemer Alatau - warm was too warm and likely has been cooked by the hot weather. Very soft on the palate but not too thin, although not much body or finish. Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Braucol vines planted in 2003.
It's been a pretty long day but it was still early after dinner, so I walked around a little with my camera in hand, being careful not to go too far away from the hotel. I still managed to get yelled at by another tour guide dropping other tourists off...
Just before turning myself in, we were visiting by a pack of camels on their way home.
Today's the day! Scratching an itch and ticking an item off the non-existent bucket list by watching a live rocket launch at Baikonur! It's gonna be an exciting day! But first, some breakfast back at the canteen...
Fruit cake with raisins (кекс творожный с изюмом) - these were pretty dry and hard, but flavor-wise they were OK.
New day, new porridge. Today it seemed to be semolina porridge (каша из манной крупы), and the texture reminds me of liquefied polenta or grits, with a grainy texture on the tongue.
I also grabbed a plate of these blinis with berries, served with sour cream. Soggy and mushy.
Our first stop of the day was the museum, which was literally steps from our hotel. They’ve got a Soyuz spacecraft right outside.
We got a good idea of the layout of Baikonur with a 3D model of the area. It turns out that our hotel in Site 2 is pretty close to Site 1 - the platform for today's launch.
In terms of the history of Baikonur, there’s a decent amount of overlap with the Palace of Culture we visited yesterday. There are a lot more actual historical artifacts here, though... including a capsule similar to the one that sent Laika (Лайка) up to become the first dog in orbit, as well as a bigger capsule which later housed other dogs who survived their orbital missions, like Ugolyok (Уголёк) and Veterok (Ветерок) who hold the record for longest space flight by dogs.
There was a display of the different types of food cosmonauts eat in space. There are apparently 16 different menus to choose from, and the recommended daily intake is 3,300 kcal for men and 2,800 kcal for women. I asked, and was told that all the food was produced in Russia. Now this was interesting, because I was told by Alain Ducasseduring our dinner earlier this month that he had designed menus for the astronauts on the International Space Station. And indeed he has, but perhaps the Russians aren't ordering their food from him... So I guess my hopes of buying some of Monsieur Ducasse's space food while I'm here has just been dashed...
Having finished with the tour at the museum, we went outside to check out the restored frame of the Buran (Бура́н) space shuttle. This wasn't the actual Buran as the real deal that flew and recovered was destroyed in an accident in 2002.
I took a little time to do some more shopping at the museum souvenir shop, picking up more T-shirts, trinkets, as well as 2 tins of Russian space food for about USD 20 each. Damn...
Next stop was Gagarin's House, which is the place he slept in before the launch.
Our final stop before lunch was Site 31, which is the other launch pad currently being used to launch the Soyuz rocket.
We got up close and personal with the launch pad, supervised by two members of staff, of course. Funnily enough, the staff only decided to tell me and the others to stop taking photos after we've spent about 15 minutes walking around the pad, taking videos and selfies...
One can see the massive yellow counter-weights which tilt the supporting arms backwards just prior to launch via mechanical controls.
We head out to Baikonur town for lunch, and end up eating in a place called Norgul (sp?). The place seemed to be decorated for a wedding...
Borscht (борщ) - I was pretty happy to have finally been able to eat this dish.
There was a nice basket of nan, which I used to dip into the borscht.
We also got the usual salad...
Plov (Плов) - this was pretty good. Always happy to have plov!
We had some time to kill before our next scheduled stop, so we went to the local post office to mail ourselves a letter with a Baikonur stamp. I also bought myself a first day cover of the commemorative stamp issued for the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historical space flight.
The cosmonauts were scheduled to depart from their rooms at the Cosmonaut Hotel at 4:00 p.m., so we got to the site at least an hour early and I lined up outside the iron gate. At first I thought we would only be able to take pictures from outside the gate, but they actually let all of us inside the parking lot, not too far away from the buses. After an hour of being under the scorching sun - during which time I was almost sure that the Continental rubber on the sale of my Adidas sneakers actually started to melt due to the high temperature of the asphalt beneath my feet - the three cosmonauts finally emerged to the crowd's cheers.
After the cosmonauts left, we strolled around the Avenue of the Cosmonauts behind the Cosmonaut Hotel. Yuri Gagarin began the tradition of planting a tree here before his mission, and every cosmonaut has followed in his footsteps ever since - planting either elm or poplar. Naturally, most of the tourists want to snap a picture or two in front of Gagarin's tree... which is the oldest and tallest.
Our next stop would be Site 254, which is the facility in which the cosmonauts are given a final health check and eat their last meal before launch.
Here they don their suits, then walk out to deliver their report to the State Commission in view of the public, before boarding the bus which would take them to Site 1 - Gagarin's Start.
There was now nothing for us to do until the scheduled launch, so we parked ourselves in the parking lot just outside the viewing area, where we quickly devoured our dinner from takeout boxes containing "bangers and mash" along with fresh and pickled vegetables.
When we finally got the go-ahead, we simply walked down a road towards a tent that has been set up for the occasion. The tent usually accommodates around 150 guests or so, but even though there were more than 400 tourists here tonight, most people would be outdoors on the sandy patch to watch the launch...
Fellow traveler Kevin took the advice from our guide Anya and BYO'd a bottle of Russian sparkling wine purchased earlier in the day at the museum, and it's been chilling in the hotel fridge for a few hours. Anya had told us that since Tsenki's director doesn't drink alcohol, she has banned the sale of alcohol at the observation site. So BYO was definitely a good idea!
Abrau-Durso Semi-Sweet - definitely tasted the higher sugar levels. Very pleasant to drink.
There was still a couple of hours until launch, but I decided to set my tripod up in a good position outside, with my beat up Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L mounted, and the 1.4x and 2x extenders at the ready.
Much to my surprise, Tsenki had provided free Wifi in the tent - after blocking everyone's mobile internet connection for the last few days before launch. Unfortunately there were simply too many people tonight, and I was also a little too far from the tent. So while I had good connections and was able to do a short test when I first arrived, my plans to stream the launch via Facebook Live ultimately did not succeed.
9:40 p.m. Almaty time finally arrived, and the Soyuz rocket successfully lifted off - to the delight of the crowd. Even at a distance of 1.4km - supposedly the closet of any launch site - the noise and the tremors in the ground were awesome.
The sun had finally set by this point, and twilight provided us with some beautiful colors tonight. What a way to end such a great day! I'm so glad I made the trip for this launch. It's an experience I will always remember.
On my last trip to Kazakhstan back in 2008, there were two places I did not get to visit due to time constraints... and they later became itches that needed scratching. One was Baikonur Cosmodrome, and the other was the Aral Sea. I would manage to scratch both of them on this trip.
The Aral Sea is one of the biggest man-made environmental disasters in the world, thanks to the Soviets who decided to divert rivers feeding the lake to irrigate crops such as cotton - one of the most water-hungry crops that require between 8,000 - 20,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg. So, after decades of being starved of water, the Aral Sea began shrinking in a vicious cycle. As the remaining water evaporated, the salinity of the lake increased, and life in the lake began to disappear. The Aral Sea is now a mere fraction of its former self.
When I made the decision to come to Baikonur, I realized that Aral is really not that far away. So I made arrangements to extend my trip and spend an extra day touring the Aral Sea. I wasn't gonna come to Kazakhstan a second time and leave without visiting the Aral Sea when I was gonna be within 250 km of it.
We left Hotel No. 1 at Site 2 in Baikonur Cosmodrome before 5 a.m., so that Stuart and I could be dropped off at Turyatam Station while some of the others were driven back to Kyzylorda. We were booked on the 6:07 a.m. train from Tyuratam (Тюратам) to Aral Sea (АРАЛ МОРЕ). While I couldn't read the electronic ticket I received as it was written in Cyrillic, I did manage to catch that the 4-hour train ride cost the staggering sum of 969 Tenge - roughly USD 3. In the back of my mind, I had a suspicion that this wasn't gonna be a train ride I was gonna enjoy...
The train rolled in to the station on time, and as Stuart and I headed to find our carriage, I started to get a whiff of the smell coming from the train. This was not gonna be good!
It got worse once we got on the train. This was a sleeper train with 3 levels of bunks stacked vertically, and pretty packed in. I don't know how long the Kazakhs who were asleep at this hour have been on the train, but the poor ventilation wasn't helping. The conductor led us to the bunks that had been booked for us, and I wasn't surprised to find other people sleeping in them. Our conductor shook and slapped the squatters to wake them up, and they reluctantly got off to find somewhere else to sleep...
This was not at all what I had signed up for. When I went to India back in 2007, there was no way in hell that I would ride on an Indian train. So I paid a few hundred U.S. Dollars to hire a hotel car from the Oberoi in New Delhi to drive me to the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra. Now I'm on a smelly Kazakh train. In economy.
I left my big luggage on the floor and lifted my big camera bag up to the middle bunk, then proceeded to climb up there myself. I pushed the mattress that was still warm with someone else's body heat to one end, used my camera bag as my pillow, and tried to find a comfortable position for the next four hours.
The windows were tied with strips of cloth so that they were partially open and allow for some ventilation, but the smell was still overwhelming. I decided to pop mints into my mouth at periodic intervals for the duration of the ride.
Some four hours and many mints later, we arrived at Aral Sea Station. Our guide Serik Dyussenbayev picked us up and we started our long drive to the Aral Sea right away.
Serik decided to take the "short cut", which meant driving on the dried out lake bed. This was, of course, exactly the experience we were looking for.
Our first stop was the ruins of an old processing plant for fish. The local fishermen used to bring in their catch on their boats, but nowadays this place has become a salt bed.
I guess it hasn't completely dried out here, since we were able to leave footprints in the wet top layer. And then there's this tire that has been partially buried... We also see tiny shells from bivalves scattered around.
We continue our drive on the vast lake bed, seeing cliffs in the distance which once represented the shoreline. We run into the occasional group of camels, horses, and cattle on the way.
Eventually we reach Zhalanash (Жаланаш), a fishing village. The fishermen here used to have their own boats nearby and when the water dried up, they were stranded in what was known as the 'ship cemetary'. Up until a couple of years ago there were still three ships on the lake bed near the village for visitors to see. They are all gone now, taken apart by scavengers after scrap metal. The only sign that the ships ever existed was just a small chunk of scrap near the road when we passed by.
We continued driving for a while until we reached the Karasandyk Canyons. The terrain here looks like a mix of Monument Valley in the US and Wadi Rum in Jordan.
The scenery was so stunning that I finally took my drone out for a spin, flying it up above the top of the rocks and also getting a view of the Aral Sea from up high.
It was time to find ourselves some ships, so we drove to an area near Aqespe. For the first time today, we come face to face with a grounded ship, just meters from the water. Stuart and I were so excited, and we walked over to the ship right away.
There was plenty of vegetation by the water, and as I bent down to snap pictures, I suddenly realized that I recognized a particular species... It was salicornia! I had first tasted it on a plate at Amber. And it made perfect sense that I found it here, because it grows on the shores of salt lakes. I immediately posted my finding on Twitter and informed Chef Richard Ekkebus - who jokingly suggested that I bring back a supply for him.
It's obvious that scavengers have been here, but the ship's hull was largely intact. I walked around the ship, occasionally sticking my head inside for a peek. All the while enjoying the breeze coming in along with calm, lapping waves. There was no one here but us, and I was loving the feeling of solitude, the realization that I was in the middle of nowhere. 46°45'23" N, 60°44'11" E to be exact.
There are more ships for us to look at, so we move along the coastline until we reach an even more spectacular sight. This time we found one with a twisted hull, sitting in shallow water.
I send the drone up in the air once again, and the images I see on my screen are nothing short of stunning.
There was one final ship we had to see, and this turned out to be the largest of the three.
We found a group of locals having a picnic here, and they very kindly invited us to share in their food. We graciously accepted their offerings, and they all wanted a picture with Stuart.
We had been out for a long time, so we figured that we should probably head back to town. Taking the "short cut" on the way back turned out to be more challenging than coming in, so Serik decided to turn towards the main road - which, while not completely smooth from a layer of asphalt, was at least paved with gravel. I'm sure Serik was happy that he didn't have to wrestle with the steering wheel of the 4WD once we got onto this section of the road...
Serik had arranged for a homestay for me overnight, and I was hosted by Gulmira. After Stuart and I cleaned up, she served us our dinner - our first proper meal of the day. Not surprisingly, we started with a salad of tomato, cucumber, green peppers, and carrots. The vinegar delivered some good acidity to whet our appetites.
Gulmira had also prepared some deep-fried fish with potatoes for us. Here we have carp and bream, served with shredded carrots and onions on top. I could see Stuart having a little trouble with the bones, but even I - who grew up eating very bony freshwater fish - had to slow down and take time to remove all the bones.
When he's not busy guiding tourists around the area in the summer, Serik works part-time for Aral Tenizi - an NGO helping to revive the local fishing industry. He told us that in the past the water of the Aral Sea was so salty that only flounders were able to survive. After the Kok-Aral Dam was built in 2005, the surface area of the Aral Sea expanded significantly and water salinity reduced over time. Nowadays some 15 different types of freshwater fish can be found in the water, while flounders are finding it difficult to survive in the freshwater environment.
Stuart needed to catch an overnight train back to Kyzylorda, so I bid him farewell and retired for the night. It's been a very long day...
After a long day at the North Aral Sea yesterday (the roundtrip took 8 hours), it was time to head back to "civilization" in Kyzylorda. Thankfully I wasn't taking another train ride today, but had arranged for Serik to drive me the whole distance of 470 km (double that if you include his drive back). Today I would be riding in comfort in a Mercedes C-Class - not that the Nissan 4WD yesterday wasn't comfortable.
Gulmira made sure I was well fed this morning, cooking me some pan-fried eggs with tomatoes. I took it with bread and tea.
We set off after breakfast, and the road we were driving on was brand new and smooth. Apparently this is part of the new highway connecting Kazakhstan to Europe (E38), and it was only completed a couple of years ago. Besides being brand new, the signs along the way now also display names in Roman alphabet in addition to Russian Cyrillic.
My first and main stop today was Lake Kamyslybas (Қамыстыбас), where people from the surrounding area come and enjoy swimming. It was around 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and people were already in the water and enjoying themselves.
The water was crystal clear, and I took out my drone to do a couple of passes over the water.
We get back on the road as there was a long drive ahead. After a couple of hours I am once again at Baikonur, this time just passing through on the highway. I couldn't help notice the amount of power lines that are running from the power plant in town to the Cosmodrome.
A little further down the road we make a stop at the Korkyt Ata Memorial Complex. The renovated memorial is dedicated to the Turkic poet and composer.
The most unique aspect of this memorial are the pipes at the top of the kobyz-shaped structure. When the winds blow, the air comes down the pipes and one hears music from the wind.
From there it's another couple of hours, and I found myself back in Kyzylorda. Serik dropped me off at the Nomad Palace Hotel, and I bid him farewell and wished him a safe journey back.
Dinner time rolled around, and I walk out to the Terrace Nomad for some food. The dishes here aren't too different from what's on offer in the lounge, but this is a more casual setting - like a sports bar.
Salad "Royal" (Салат "Королевский") - strips of beef tongue, smoked horse meat, marinated mushrooms, pickled cucumber... drenched in mayo and sprinkled with spices. Pretty good, actually... but seriously huge salad.
"Royal" ukha (Уха "Царская") - a Russian fish soup with "fresh frozen salmon" (whatever the fuck that is...), sea bass, dorado, onion, bell peppers... etc. This was OK.
I retired to my room and drank the bottle of Baltika (Балтика) No. 9 I bought earlier in the afternoon. Although every single Russian I met on this trip would prefer foreign beer to Baltika, I just had to relive some of the memories from 2008...