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

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    I'm going back to Astana today, and took a morning flight from Kyzylorda Korkyt Ata Airport.  As I waited at the gate to board my flight, I was kinda surprised to see two propeller biplanes parked on the tarmac.  Not something you see everyday...

    There's a simple in-flight meal, with a sandwich, delicious passion fruit and nectarine yogurt, along with some knock-off goldfish cookies.

    But I was much happier munching on my Lay's Shashlik (Шашлык) potato chips...

    After checking back into the Hilton Garden Inn Astana and catching up on a little work, I walked over to have late lunch at Satti (Səttj).  It was recommended by a friend of a foodie friend as having the best besbarmak in town, so of course I had to check it out!  I loved the fact that the restaurant is open air and afforded diners fantastic views of the water fountain below and nearby buildings.

    But this was lunch, and I thought perhaps besbarmak would be a little too heavy.  So I chose to order two "lighter" dishes instead.  But first, the hot weather demanded a cold and refreshing girlie drink...

    Pilaf wiht lamb meat (Плов из баранины) - yes, there was a typo on the menu... Anyway, the portion was smaller than what I had expected, but I guess this place was supposed to be more refined...  And it did taste very refined.  The flavors were more restrained even with cumin, and there wasn't an over-abundance of lamb fat coating the rice.  Speaking of the rice, it wasn't overcooked at all.  In fact, dare I say that it was almost al dente?!  No, this wasn't the most delicious satisfying plov I've had in my life, but it sure felt like the most "fine dining" version I've ever had.

    Manty with lamb (Манты с бараниной) - given I'm a greedy piggy and the portion of plov was on the light side, I decided to order some manty.  These were really delicious.  The minced lamb was great, and the tomato purée in the middle was a surprise.

    I headed east down Nurzhol Boulevard (бульвар «Нұржол») after lunch, passing by many of the city's modern buildings.

    In conjunction with Expo 2017, we've also got Astana Art Fest 2017 : Nomad Energy - where artists display their work in the pedestrian area.

    The Bayterek Tower (Бәйтерек) is arguably Astana's most famous landmark, and there was a line of tourists waiting to ride the elevator up.

    Next I would come upon the twin golden "beer cans", which lead on to the buildings for the country's parliament.

    At the end of the boulevard, at the edge of the eastern bank of Ishim River, is the Ak Orda Presidential Palace.

    Nearby is the stunning Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall.  Here I spend a good amount of time photographing the building from various angles.

    I take the long walk back to my hotel, showered and changed into a fresh set of clothes before going back to Satti for dinner.

    Besbarmak (бешбармак) - I would finally get to try the dish here, as recommended.  I do have to say... just like the plov at lunch today, this certainly felt more refined.  The flat noodles were pretty thin, and there was just enough broth here to make it moist.  The kazy (қазы) was reasonably fatty and tasty, the onions soft and delicious.

    I was most surprised by how much fat there was in the slices of horse meat.  Here the meat was tender, not dry like what I had at Alasha (Алаша) last week.  Pretty satisfying.

    I went back to my room to grab my tripod, and walked briskly towards Bayterek Tower for the second time today.  I wanted to take some night shots with longer exposures.  Another long walk carrying heavy photo equipment, but at least I got the shots I wanted.

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    It's my last day in Kazakhstan, and I'm a little weary from all the traveling while carrying my heavy camera bag.  I decided to lounge around in my hotel room a little longer than I had planned to, then took a taxi to visit Expo 2017.  As usual the hotel reception called for a "city taxi" (read: regular car willing to pick up passengers for money).

    Fortunately it was still relatively early - just after 10 a.m. - and I didn't have to wait in line long for a ticket.

    Not that I have covered most of Astana on foot over the last few days, but the Expo is pretty much the only place in the city where I have seen recycling bins.

    I haven't been to an Expo since Tsukuba '85 when I was still in high school, but I figured that at any expo, it's imperative to go and visit the host country's pavilion.  So I dutifully went inside the giant ball that is the Kazakhstan Pavilion.

    There were lots of different displays about energy products - since that's the theme of this expo.  One of the video/multimedia displays is housed inside a yurt-like structure...

    The theme for the top floor of the pavilion is "Space Energy", and there are displays about the International Space Station and more - given that Baikonur now is the currently only spaceport that still launches manned missions. We see a display of astronaut food from the Italians, as well as a Lavazza coffee machine made for the ISS.

    I was running out of time and could only spend less than 2 hours at the Expo, so I hurriedly exited and went back to the Hilton Garden Inn Astana to take one last shower (my fourth in 24 hours) before checking out.

    I was meeting my fellow traveler Kevin for lunch, and Fine Food Dude had mentioned that the national cuisine at Arnau (Арнау) was pretty good when he visited earlier this year.  It was a short distance from my hotel, across Lover's Park, so I slung my big, heavy camera bag across my shoulder and decided to walk.  I was sweating and cursing a little under my breath after the 18 minutes...

    With just the two of us instead of the original three, the number of dishes we could try was limited.

    "Asyp" national lamb sausages (Асып национальная колбаса из баранины) - this was OK.  Probably made with some offal, and the texture was a little dry and hard.  Served with some yogurt on the side and the stereotypical tomato/cucumber salad.

    Besbarmak sturgeon (Бесбармак из осетрины) - Kevin was curious to try a besbarmak dish that does not feature horse, so we decided to go with this.  This was alright.  The slices of sturgeon have some collagen, so texture-wise it seemed similar to eating slices of pork collar.

    Finally, a proper besbarmak with a bowl of soup on the side!  This was, of course, sturgeon broth and not lamb broth.  There was also a small pile of cheese made from cow's milk, which was soft and lightly acidic.  One is meant to add the cheese to the broth.

    Lamb kuyrdak (Куырдак из баранины) - not a fan.  The stir-fried cubes of lamb were a little on the tough and dry side, although there was the occasional piece of liver besides the potato that made it a little more interesting.

    Kazakh sweets (Казаxские сладости) - I think these are just different variations of jent (жент).  The cookies on the left have a powdery and grainy texture, almost like a Tibetan tsampa (རྩམ་པ་).   The ones in the middle were made with raisins and have a sticky and wet texture.  The ones on the right were more dry, like the ones on the left, but with cinnamon.  Kinda an acquired taste, I guess.

    I was a little ambivalent about drinking local wines, but I knew that Kevin really wanted to try more bottles, so we ended up order something off the wine list that cost more than our food...

    2013 Sary Arba Rkatsiteli - some fragrance in the nose here, floral, a little pine.  A little alcoholic, pretty ripe and hot on the palate, with good acidity on the finish.

    I bid Kevin farewell, hung out in the lobby of my hotel for a little longer, and headed to Astana Airport to start my journey home.  This would be a long, 3-legged journey with two layovers...

    Upon arrival at Almaty Airport with two hours to kill, I headed back up to the departure level and found myself a table at Сат Сапар. This time around I decided not to have the besbarmak, and ordered myself something different.

    Frying mutton (баранина на сковороде) - not as tasty as I had hoped.  The mutton chunks were a little tough, and in fact the flavors weren't all that great, either.  Not enough mutton fat...

    Check-in time came around, and the process was pretty straightforward.  I stood in front of the immigration counter, and it all seemed to go smoothly as I saw the officer stamp my boarding pass, stamp my immigration card...

    ...then she stopped just before stamping my passport.

    She started counter with her fingers, seemingly immersed in thought.  Then she picked up the phone and called someone.  She re-scanned my passport.  Multiple times.  Got on the phone again.  I was stuck in front of her counter, and holding up the line of people waiting to get through.  I was a little anxious, as something was clearly wrong.  While I knew that I hadn't committed any crimes worthy of being detained, deep down a sense of uneasiness began to emerge.

    After what seemed like an eternity, another officer came over and took my passport.  He motioned for me and another man from Mainland China to follow him to his office, and we dutifully complied.  This looked like the proverbial "let's-go-to-a-room-so-I-can-do-a-strip/cavity-search" experience, and the anxiety level started to build up...

    Once seated in front of the officer's desk, I confessed that I had no idea why the two of us had not cleared immigration.  Well, Kazakhstan law states that foreign visitors (apparently with some exceptions depending on which passport you carry) are required to register with local police within 5 working days after arriving in the country.  This was printed on the back of the immigration cards that we had to fill out, but it had escaped my mind.  I had assumed that this was something that a major hotel like Hilton would have done on my behalf, but they didn't have my full itinerary.  Saying that I had spent 3 days in Baikonur - technically a concession administered by Russia and not Kazakhstan - didn't seem to help.  Today was the 6th working day since I entered Kazakhstan, and I had clearly contravened the local law.

    Thankfully the officer was in a good mood.  This was our first offence, and I was helping him translate the discussion with the other passenger.  He proceeded to input our personal information into his computer, printed out a multi-page document in Kazakh - which neither of us could read - and asked us to sign the "warning letter" and apologize for our transgression.  Not having much choice in the matter - and keeping our boarding time in mind - we complied with the officer's demand.  We were then handed back our passports and allowed to board our flight.

    That was an experience worthy of a bucket list... and literally my last memories from Kazakhstan on this trip.  These 8 days I spent back here have certainly been very memorable!

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  • 08/03/17--07:48: Krug x Mushroom
  • Last year I had the privilege of being invited to the Hong Kong launch of Krug x Egg - the 2016 edition of Champagne Krug's annual ingredient pairing.  This year the chosen ingredient is mushroom, and I was happy to have been invited to go on a walking tour of Krug x Mushroom, visiting three different restaurants in the course of one evening.

    Our tour started at Arcane, a restaurant I have visited once - where I enjoyed my dinner very much.  For some reason, though, I never found myself back there for more of Shane Osborn's well-regarded cuisine.

    We would, of course, start with a flute of Krug Grande Cuvée. We are now on the 163ème édition, with the base coming from 2007 and the oldest in the blend from 1990.  Good ripeness on the palate, with some marmalade.

    Sautéed potato gnocchi with maitake, pine nut cream, and black truffle - the texture of the gnocchi was very good... very fluffy.  The cream sauce with spinach and pine nut was very, very good - especially since the crunchy, toasted pine nuts left a wonderful fragrance in the mouth.  And it doesn't take a genius to see that the amount of shaved black truffle from South Australia - which Shane felt delivers better quality than its French counterpart - would elevate the dish to a whole other level.  Oh and in terms of pairing, the sweetness from the gnocchi actually brought out the acidity of the Krug.

    We move on to our second stop at the top of the same building.  ON Dining Kitchen and Lounge had arranged a table for us in their private room, so we had the opportunity to sit down for a little.

    Egg raviolo, sautéed girolles mushroom, summer truffle, and bellota ham - given this was Philippe Orrico's signature dish, needless to say the egg was cooked at 63°C.  We've got mushroom purée underneath the pasta sheets, then sautéed girolles on top along with slices of jamón.

    This is a dish that's always on the menu here, and was delicious as always.

    But I did joke with Krug's brand manager Vincent Mafaity that Philippe didn't seem to have gotten the menu that this year's theme is mushrooms, not his beloved egg...

    Our last stop of the evening was Beef and Liberty, and I got to catch up with my old friend Uwe Opocensky.

    Mushroom and truffle burger - Uwe used three different types of mushrooms: porcini, maitake, and truffle.  Served with French duck, pan-fried duck egg, and hollandaise sauce.  I loved the duck and of course loved the mushrooms... how could I not love black truffle?!

    But the best part of this was the duck egg!  Here's another chef who didn't get the memo that Krug x Egg was last year...  But the rich, viscous duck egg yolk drizzled onto the other ingredients and made everything so much better.

    We also had some French fries and sweet potato fries, both of which were delicious.

    What's even more amazing is the pricing on this.  During the promotional period at Beef and Liberty - which starts on September 4th for a month - a bottle of Krug Grande Cuvée plus two of these burgers will only set you back HKD 1,388.  Now that is a serious bargain!  I'm soooo gonna be there!

    This was a fun evening filled with delicious food and one of my favorite Champagnes.  Many thanks to Champagne Krug for their kind invitation. I look forward to trying more of the pairings around town.

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  • 08/05/17--07:27: A touch of silver oak
  • Mrs. Tigger is back in town, and we haven't had a chance to enjoy a nice meal together for some time now.  She wanted to have some Japanese, and Hello Kitty and I thought we should check out Kashiwaya (柏屋) together.  This Hong Kong outpost of the venerable Osaka original picked up two Michelin stars in the first year they opened, so we figured there's gotta be something there...

    Given this was our first time, we decided to take the cheapest of the three tasting menus on offer.  We thought this would be sufficient in terms of food, although we did add an extra dish to be shared.


    Sakizuke : kuruma prawn, avocado, shiitake mushroom, caviar, winged bean, spagetti squash, walnuts paste, prawn broth jelly (先つけ : 車海老  アボカド  椎茸揚げ焼き  キャビア  四角豆  糸瓜  胡桃あん  エビゼリー) - the chilled prawns, prawn jelly, and crunchy winged beans and loofah made for pretty clean and refreshing flavors.  Unfortunately the rich walnut paste went in the other direction and detracted from what otherwise was a perfectly good start.

    Kae : light fried pike conger, wasabi, plum soy sauce, ginko nuts (変え : 淡路産鱧生揚げ  山葵  赤梅肉醤油  銀杏素揚げ) - it's August, so pike conger (鱧) is in season and features prominently on kaiseki menus.  Here the pieces were surprisingly chewy.  Rather surprised about the wasabi (山葵), and the classic plum sauce seemed to have been infused with alcohol.

    Herring fish wrapped with kelp, grilled shishito pepper (にしん昆布巻き  焼きししとう) - the herring was beautifully marinated, delivering tons of umami and good depth of flavors along with the marinated kelp. 

    Babu became very enamored with the silver oak leaves on which this course was served on, and asked the staff about them.  Apparently these were custom-made for the restaurant, and not commercially available for purchase.  I joked that the staff would probably scan us with metal detectors on the way out, in case Babu decided to snag a couple of them...

    Nimonowan : grilled eel, winter melon, water shield, lablab bean, grated ginger (煮物椀 : 静岡産うなぎ白焼き  冬瓜  蓴菜  三度豆  すり生姜) - rather surprised to see a piece of eel shirayaki (白焼き) in my bowl.  In this case the eel was first steamed, then grilled without the heavy sauce - delivering flavors which were more natural and pure.  A tiny dab of grated ginger helps give it a little kick in place of the usual sansho (山椒) pepper.  There was a piece of winter melon below, whose soft and clean flavors worked perfectly well with the delicate dashi (出汁).  The slippery watershield (蓴菜) always adds an interesting texture, while the yuzu rind provides the familiar fragrance.  Very nice.

    Tsukuri : 3 kinds of selected sashimi (造り : 本日のお造り3種) -

    Squid (烏賊) - finely scored to change the texture.
    Filefish (皮剥)
    Fan shell (平貝) - lightly grilled over an iron grid.

    Hassun (八寸) : 
    Sea eel in nikogori jelly, jade cucumber, pickled myoga ginger, plum soy sauce (淡路産穴子煮こごり  翡翠胡瓜  茗荷醋漬け  赤梅肉醤油) - the conger eel tasted nice with the jelly, and I liked the pickled myoga (茗荷).
    Pepper leaf, Daitokuji wheat mochi, salmon wrapped with lotus root, ginko nuts, edamame, baby egg plant tempura in sweet sauce (葉唐辛子  大徳寺麩煮浸し  サーモン蓮根巻き  新銀杏素揚げ  枝豆  小切茄子シロップ煮衣揚げ) - I could swear that they sprinkled a little cinnamon on the eggplant tempura, so that I almost tasted like donuts or churros laced with cinnamon.  The salmon wrapped in pickled lotus root was OK, and I liked the small pieces of gluten (麩).  But I definitely avoided the peppers like a plague, having been told by the others that they were very spicy.

    Sweet fish (滋賀県琵琶湖産鮎) - the sweetfish was delicious as expected, but the sauce was slightly on the acidic side.

    Abalone steak (煮鮑ステーキ) - this was an extra dish we added.  The abalone was pretty tender, and the accompanying liver sauce was nice and tasty.  A little charred and crunchy on the edges.

    Hachimono : sweet red skin pumpkin, Kaga cucumber, mini okura, small yam, black carrot, grated yuzu (鉢物 : 赤皮甘栗南瓜  加賀太胡瓜  ミニオクラ  小芋  黒人参  擦りゆず) - an interesting dish of vegetables.  The pumpkin was very sweet, and while I had seen carrots in different colors before, this was my first time having it in black.  The shaved yuzu rind added the expected fragrance here.

    Shokuji : Grilled pick conger with sweet soy sauce in tea rice, oba leaf, crispy rice ball (ご飯 : 淡路産鱧タレ焼き茶漬け  大葉  ぶぶあられ) - one of the weaker dishes tonight.  Just didn't like the way this pike conger was grilled which left it tasting somewhat "ordinary"... inspite of the sansho pepper corns on top.  I'm normally a buyer of ochazuke (お茶漬け), but didn't care for the rice ball tonight where the rice felt a little mushy - having been squished together before being dunked in the bowl.

    Pickles (漬物) on the side, with cucumber, eggplant, and kelp.

    Okashi : mint flavor kuzu mochi, maccha (菓子 : ミント葛焼き 抹茶) - I don't think any of us liked this.  Yes, I could taste the mint, but the mildly sweet flavors were neither here nor there.  And the texture here was all wrong... I know kuzu mochi are meant to be sticky, but this had little, grainy, starchy clumps inside.  Just not pleasant.

    Mizumono : fig paste, milk mousse, Pione grape, melon, Japanese prune (水物 : 無花果羹  ミルクあん  ピオーネ  メロン  すもも) - thankfully our meal ended with this dessert, which was wonderful.  The creamy milk mousse at the bottom worked very well with the sweet honey sauce that was covering the different fruits - and reminded me of the times I had yogurt with honey.  Needless to say the Japanese fruits were ripe and delicious.

    Overall this was a pretty good meal, with just two of the dishes falling short of expectations.  Besides the food, there were a couple of things which detracted from our experience tonight.

    The first was the interference from other tables.  We had chosen the most basic menu, so it was natural that other diners were getting dishes that we were not presented with.  One such dish filled the surroundings with smoke, and it was pretty distracting - especially when you're having dessert and started to smell heavy smoke.

    But the real disappointment came in the form of the restaurant's wine list.  I very, very seldom order off a restaurant's wine list, but tonight I had mistakenly assumed that Babu and Mrs. Tigger weren't in the mood to drink, so I didn't bother bringing a bottle.  When I tried to pick a bottle from the restaurant's wine list, I found they only had around 8 selections for sake... and their selection of wine wasn't much better.  When my first choice wasn't available and I turned down their suggestion from the list, they offered me something that was "off menu"... and then I was offered a third choice by the manager - also off menu.  After I had settled on one of the substitutes, I was told that even that alternative was only available as a half-bottle serving, at which point I became somewhat exasperated.  Here's a restaurant with two Michelin stars with a crappy wine list... and they don't even have stock.

    On any other night I might have been willing to take the Kokuryu Ryu (黒龍  龍) the staff suggested, but tonight it just felt a little "ordinary"... and I wasn't in the mood for ordinary.  I offered to go back to my office to pick up a really good bottle of sake from the office fridge - all of which would have been better than any of the offerings on the restaurant's list - but the ladies declined.  So I guess it just wasn't meant to be tonight.

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  • 08/08/17--23:03: The obligatory first lunch
  • The Hungry Tourist is back in town, and as usual, he made lunch at Yat Lok (一樂燒鵝) his first stop after landing.  Since the place is literally one minute's walk from my office, I agreed to join him for a late lunch.

    With just the two of us, I proceeded to order us a lower quarter of roast goose (燒鵝下庄).  This would guarantee us one of the coveted drumsticks.  I still love the paper-thin, crispy skin... which is full of flavor from the spices they use to marinate the bird.  Just delicious.

    But even with the Hungry Tourist getting a bowl of dumplings and me with my plate of steamed rice, this just wasn't enough food.  So we ended up getting another roast goose drumstick (燒鵝脾)...  NOW we were satisfied!

    I bid my friend farewell, and look forward to our next meeting - in two days.

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  • 08/10/17--23:43: One pig(let) is not enough
  • Two days after our last meeting, The Hungry Tourist and I met up for a proper meal.  He had missed out on having the roast suckling pig at Fook Lam Moon (福臨門) last year, and on this trip he wanted to have it at Seventh Son (家全七福).  So we both called in reinforcements and ended up with a table of six for lunch.  That should be just enough to try and take down a piggy...

    Deep-fried chicken kidney mixed with egg custard (雞子戈渣) - always love this dish, both for the texture as well as the rich flavors.  I think our visitors were pleasantly surprised by this, and enjoyed these little wobbly chunks very much.

    Barbecued whole suckling pig (大紅片皮乳豬全體) - this was the main event today.  A whole suckling pig, just for the 6 of us.  We had originally considered trying to split one with another table, but decided to go it alone at the end. 

    And it turned out to be the right decision.  There was barely enough crackling to ensure that the six of us were satisfied...

    I love the legs of these babies, but today I encouraged the others at the table to nibble on them.  Instead, I nibbled on those "baby back" ribs and other pieces of meat - which had been hand-shredded by our waitress.

    Honey glazed barbecued chicken liver (蜜汁燒鳳肝) - the Great One always seems to want this dish whenever she comes... and they are delicious.

    Steamed chicken feet with black bean sauce (豉汁蒸鳳爪)

    Pan-fried radish pudding (香煎蘿蔔糕) - tasty, but these were a little too wet so that they fell apart easily when picked up by chopsticks.

    Roasted crispy goose (脆皮燒鵝) - I couldn't believe it when I was told that we had pre-ordered a whole goose... when we already had a whole suckling pig coming.  Well... we soldiered on and did what we could with this.  It was pretty good, but far fell short of my favorite goose from Yat Lok (一樂燒鵝) in terms of flavor.

    This was a very good lunch, and I'm amazed at how much food the six of us were able to put away - especially when the Great One left before the goose arrived.  Then again, the food here rarely disappoints...

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  • 08/16/17--06:43: Slip and slide
  • Ninja's making her move out of town, and Hello Kitty and I met up with her tonight to catch up.  Not surprisingly, she wanted some "real Cantonese" food... and preferred to go to Fook Lam Moon (福臨門) even though I suggested several alternatives.  I did understand her rationale, though, as she associates most of the other places I suggested with work-related meals.

    Since there were only three of us, I didn't think we needed to pre-order anything special.  So we picked out a few simple dishes we thought would be representative of the place.

    But our evening started with a surprising disappointment.  At 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night, when the 2nd floor of the restaurant (read: the floor where stragglers and nobodies get seated) is only half full, we were told that the kitchen had run out of barbecued pork (叉燒)SERIOUSLY?!  A top Cantonese restaurant, with no char siu?!  AT PEAK DINNER HOUR?!  And all they have is roast pork belly...

    I am instantly reminded of my disastrous dinner at Lei Garden (利苑) in the International Finance Centre all those years ago, when nothing I wanted was available.  And I never spent another dime of my money at that restaurant ever again...

    Deep-fried frogs' legs (椒鹽田雞腿) - these were crispy and delicious as always, with that nice sprinkling of deep-fried minced garlic and chopped chili.

    Crispy pork belly (脆皮燒腩仔) - at least they have this. But wait, this tasted like it's been re-heated.  The fat had seeped out and soaked through the crispy crackling, making it feel greasy.  This was disappointing.

    Baked stuffed crab shell with onions and fresh crab meat (釀焗鮮蟹蓋) - still one of my favorite versions in town, even though the price has gone from HKD 90 a few years ago to HKD 180 now.  At least they gave us more crab for jacking up the price.  Still like the creamy filling with those slightly crunchy shredded onions.

    Steamed pork patty with salted fish (鹹魚蒸肉餅) - I was glad that Ninja also wanted to have something simple and comforting like this.  Perfect with some steamed rice.

    Lettuce with bean sauce in sizzling clay pot (麵醬唐生菜) - we had wanted to have lettuce with shrimp paste in clay pot, but our waiter must have misunderstood us.  Or maybe they don't do it with shrimp paste (蝦醬) here, the way many other places do around town.  In any case, we ended up with fermented soy bean paste (麵豉醬) on our veg...

    It was good to have caught up with my friend, but honestly the food was below par.  It only reinforces my conviction that as a nobody, these days it's better to dine at Seventh Son (家全七福) and not here...

    P.S. We weren't planning on drinking wine so I didn't bring any, but I was curious to see the restaurant's wine list - because I've never read through it.  While they have a good selection of very fine wines befitting their tycoon clientele (who probably have their own collections anyway...), I was surprised to see a written policy where they will refuse to accept any return of wines which cost HKD 1,000 or more.  So... if I order a nice bottle of 1982 Petrus and it turns out to be corked, am I fucked??

    This is just all kinds of FUCK NO.  And there's no fucking way I'm ever ordering anything off their wine list.

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  • 08/19/17--08:29: Four bottles at Seventh
  • It's been a while since the few of us winos met up for a few bottles, so plans were made for us to catch up tonight.  When the time came to pick a venue, it wasn't a complete surprise that Seventh Son (家全七福) was chosen.  It is, after all, one of the best Cantonese restaurants in town.  So... just a week after my lunch there, I found myself back at a different table - this time with a few bottles.

    For some reason the task of ordering fell on my shoulders, so I picked out a few simple dishes for us.

    While we were waiting for some friends to arrive, three of us decided that we were too hungry and needed some food first.  Given our dismal experience at Fook Lam Moon (福臨門) a few days ago, Hello Kitty decided that she needed to satisfy her craving for pork...

    Crispy pork belly (脆皮燒腩仔) - this was MUCH better than what we had three nights ago.  Definitely not reheated in a microwave.  Crackling remained crispy and delicious.

    Honey glazed barbecued pork (蜜汁叉燒) - beautiful, with the right amount of fat, and very tender and flavorful.

    Pan-fried minced pork and lotus root patties (香煎蓮藕餅) - a little more brown than I had expected.  These were surprisingly fragrant thanks to the finely diced Cantonese preserved sausage, seasoned with Mei Kuei Lu (玫瑰露).

    Scrambled egg with 'kei wai' shrimps, centurion egg and spring onions (蔥花皮蛋圍蝦炒滑蛋) - haven't had this in a while... and I must admit that I really missed it.  The portion tonight, though, was shockingly small.  Gotta remember to ask for a bigger plate next time.  And one doesn't see 'kei wai (基圍)' shrimps much around town these days!

    The Engrish translation, though, was doubly poor for this dish.  Maybe the dish was so small because it came with only one egg (and not eggs)... And it's "century egg", not "centurion egg" - unless these were eaten in Roman times.

    Da Liang sautéed egg white with milk and crabmeat (欖仁大良炒鮮奶) - this was miles better than what I had a few months ago at another new, high-end restaurant serving Shun Tak (順德) specialties.  The fried milk and egg whites was very fluffy, and the Indian almonds were incredibly fragrant after been fried at high heat.  Here you've got a variety of textures in every bite, from the fluffy milk and egg whites, then slightly springy crab meat, then to the crispy deep-fried rice vermicelli, and finally the crunchy Indian almonds.

    Baby pigeon marinated in sweet and spiced soya sauce (豉油皇浸妙齡乳鴿) - I couldn't believe that they had run out of crispy pigeons for the night, so we had to settle for the marinated version.  These were still very delicious, thanks to the spiced soya marinade.  Each of us devoured half a bird, and I got to suck on one of the brains...

    Salt and pepper squid (椒鹽鮮魷) - I had expected the batter to be thicker and the color to be more brown, but it appears that they choose to do a 'healthier' version here with minimal batter, so that we mostly taste the natural flavors of the squid.  Yum.

    Crispy pork fillet with pineapple in sweet and sour sauce (菠蘿咕嚕肉) - oh yes, one of the best versions of this dish is served here.  The pork was very, very tender, and the batter was crispy in spite of the sauce.

    Leafy amaranth with garlic clove in soup (上湯蒜子浸莧菜) - very, very young shoots of leafy amaranth.

    Egg noodle with shrimp egg, ginger and spring onions in abalone sauce (鮑汁蝦籽薑蔥撈麵) - not a fan.  The pungent alkali smell from the egg noodle(s) - was there only one noodle? on the plate? - totally clashed with the strong fragrance from the shrimp eggs.  The flavors would have been fine otherwise.

    Walnut cookies (合桃酥餅) - always one of my favorite desserts here.  I just love the toasty flavors from the cookies, and of course the walnuts.  But I wish they would make them a little more brown and caramelize the sugars more.  I think I had 3 of these...

    Black sesame roll (懷舊芝麻卷) - another favorite.  I think the Candidate had 3 of these...

    Naturally we brought along a few bottles tonight, but our consumption was definitely pretty weak...

    2013 Kusuda Riesling - a little petrol and polyurethane on the nose, fairly light.  Rather dry and lean on the palate.

    2009 Dame de Montrose - decanted for about 30 minutes.  A little smoky, with some fruit.  Still a little tight on the palate.  Some tannins here but not too heavy.  Later on more smoke showed up in the nose, and the tannins were smoother and silkier.

    Daishichi Myoukarangyoku Junmai Daiginjo Shizuku Genshu (大七 妙花蘭曲 純米大吟醸 雫原酒), 24BY - very rich rice aromas on the nose, with lots of banana.  Kinda sweet on the palate as long as it's served cold.

    1995 Gaja Barbaresco Sori San Lorenzo - decanted for about 45 minutes.  Smoky with leather notes.  Still tannic.

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  • 08/21/17--08:49: Another feast in the 'hood
  • We have a friend who's back in town after a long break, and to no one's surprise, she requested that we get together at Neighborhood.  The Great One put in a call to The Man in White T-shirt, and as usual gave him carte blanche.  The 6 of us - minus an unfortunate a casualty of heat stroke - sat down and waited for our feast to start.

    200-day dry-aged Mayura Station M9+ wagyu rump - I had seen this posted by others recently, and was pretty happy to have the opportunity to try it.  Yes, it's Aussie wagyu, marinated in classic Chiuchow 'lo shui (滷水)' marinade, and rubbed with black truffle on the outside.

    Just look at that marbling... Like a 'tataki (タタキ)', the edges were cooked but the center was still raw.  Yum.

    30 mo. culatello "Massimo Spigaroli" - who can say 'no' to this... made from black pigs and aged for 30 months?  The flavors are so deep and amazing...

    Kyushu tomatoes - drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt and dried ume (梅) powder.  So simple yet so delicious.

    Pigeon eggs / escargot butter - again, what's not to like about these?!  My egg was ever so slightly more cooked than what I preferred, but the soft egg was still delicious - especially with the herb gratin on top.

    Black truffle chicken wings - these have become our perennial favorite... and there doesn't seem to be a meal here without this dish being featured.  Just chicken wings - which are delicious enough on their own - but turbo-charged with a few thin shavings of black truffle on top.

    Bouillabaisse terrine / caviar - now THIS was something we'd never seen before.  The Man in White T-shirt had asked me for my Caviar Supplier's contacts, and I had assumed he was getting a small supply to do a special dish for someone last week.  Now I'm staring right at it.

    So the terrine was made with different ingredients that would otherwise have been inside a pot of bouillabaisse - but now it comes as a solid block of delicious seafood.  On top we had a quenelle of Russian osetra caviar from my Caviar Supplier.

    When it came time for The Great One to divide this into 6 portions, she began by spreading the caviar evenly on top - and indignantly brushing off my accusation that she was crushing the eggs.  This gave The Man in White T-shirt the idea for a better presentation in the future - serving a thin layer of caviar on top like we have seen countless times at Joël Robuchon's restaurants and elsewhere.

    Oh yes, it was delicious.  If only I could have more than just a small bite...

    Senhouse's mussels - The Great One had just tasted these last week, but was clearly ecstatic at the sight of them again.  They're commonly referred to as 'thin shells' or 'bok hok (薄殼)' in this part of the world, and these were soooo tiny.

    Served simply with some basil and piment d'espelette powder.   Incredibly tender and delicate.

    Salt baked mud crabs - these were pretty good, and even without any roe, I still enjoyed sipping on the tomalley.

    Broadbanded thornyhead paella -YES!  We've got kinki (喜知次) on our paella again tonight!  I looooove this fish for its fatty and succulent flesh, and it's always so tender.  The paella itself was tasty, too... especially since The Man in White T-shirt had actually dropped a whole bunch of those bok hok mussels into the rice!  My only comment is that I wish the rice was a little more dry... as I found the rice grains a little too plump from soaking up all the juices.  And while I got some crust on the top layer, I did miss having socarrat at the bottom...

    Beef tripe / cod tripe gratin - I guess The Man in White T-shirt got bored just serving us beef tripe, and decided to add some cod tripe into the mix for kicks.  Very, very tender... and of course perfectly satisfying.  Love the spicy kick of this dish.

    Chianina rump / matsutake - now THIS was truly something special... The beef came from famed Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini, and was something that The Man in White T-shirt carried around as he traveled around Italy and Spain for 2 weeks.  I took an end cut so it was a little more cooked, but also had some chewy sinew.  Looking at the other pieces, I could see that the execution was right on...  Of course, who could say 'no' to all those big, fragrant chunks of matsutake (松茸) mushrooms?

    Strawberry tart à la mode - made with Mara des Bois strawberries. 


    I was panicking a little when I arrived at the restaurant, as I realized that we were down to just 5 people drinking wine tonight.  Fortunately I could always count on The Man in White T-shirt to help us out on this front...

    2009 Doisy-Daëne Sec - lots of green apple in the nose, thanks to being 100% Sauvignon Blanc.  Also flinty, and kinda ripe on the palate.  I brought 2 bottles of this, and it became one of those rare occasions when the cost of the wine was cheaper than the corkage being charged.  In fact, my original en primeur cost was about half of the corkage... but the wine is drinking perfectly now and I didn't mind at all.

    2007 Mugnier Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru Clos de la Maréchale, en magnum - decanted for almost an hour before serving.  A little eucalyptus and some fruit in the nose.  Not too bad.

    Yes, yet another incredible feast at our favorite restaurant.  But that's no surprise to any of us.  Many thanks to The Man in White T-shirt for feeding us so well... and what a treat to have tasted the Chianina!

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    Around a month ago, we were casually picking up groceries in a supermarket when Hello Kitty spotted packs of pre-cooked clams from New Zealand.  She was pretty excited to see them, and we ended up picking up a pack.  I also made a detour to a different supermarket to pick up a specific bottle of wine, so that we could have a "Cloudy Bay x Cloudy Bay" pairing...

    The surf clams from Cloudy Bay Clams came blanched and chilled, and were ready to eat right out of the package.  We were pretty happy munching on them.

    2016 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc - nose of green apple, flinty, and a little pungent.  Surprising ripe on the palate.

    Fast forward to today.  I was casually dropping by a supermarket to pick up some coffee when something caught my eye.  It was another bag of clams from Cloudy Bay Clams, but they were HUGE.  These were storm clams, and they came about 7 clams per pack of 1kg.  Of course, I felt the need to pair it with another bottle of wine from Cloudy Bay... I was too lazy to go to my wine cellar to dig out a bottle of Te Koko, so I just picked up a bottle from the supermarket.  This would be the "premium edition".

    It turns out that 2 packs of clams totaling 2kg, with a "meat-to-shell ratio" of more than 30%, was a lot for the two of us.

    And there really was a decent amount of meat inside the shell!

    2013 Cloudy Bay Te Koko - nose of green apple, muscat grapes, steely and flinty.  Surprisingly ripe on the palate but still fresh and lively.

    Another happy evening at home with Cloudy Bay...

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  • 08/24/17--07:30: Jack of all trades
  • Sometime during the first month when I started to hang out with Hello Kitty in Jordan, we walked past a curious pair of restaurants in her hood.  Both advertised themselves as 'fusion' but the cuisines listed ranged from Indian to Mexican to Italian... and more.  We were curious, but didn't have the cojones to walk through the door.

    Months later, over a meal with Rickachu - who happens to live mere steps away from the restaurants - we learned that they had previously tried to eat at V. Dimpal Fusion and Pizza House... but had not succeeded without booking a table in advance.  They had to settle for dining next door at Mala's Fusion Cuisine, but clearly V. Dimpal was the more popular (and presumably serves more delicious food) of the two.  So we made a pact to dine there together.  Somehow we never found the opportunity to make good on our promise.  Until tonight.

    The restaurant was crowded tonight, as expected, although there wasn't a line outside.  Many of the tables were squished together into long, communal tables, so be expected to dine next to complete strangers - much like we do at local cha chaan tengs (茶餐廳).

    We get some papadums to nibble on while we pondered over the menu.

    Got myself a mango lassi.  Not bad at all.  

    Since the restaurant's menu offers a diverse range of cuisines, I figured that the only way to do it justice was to spread our order among them.  So here goes...

    Four seasons pizza - apparently one of the house specialties.  The eclectic range of toppings included diced Cajun spiced barbecued chicken, roasted potatoes, button mushrooms, and spinach.  As for sauce, there was a mix of Thai sweet chili sauce - yes, the ones that come with fried prawn cakes and Thai roast chicken - and sour cream.  Strange?  Yes.  But I didn't mind at all.  In fact, I had half the pie by myself.

    Nachos - we had originally opted for Tibetan momos, but they weren't available, so we went Mexican.  These seemed to have been made with Doritos chips, or something similar.  Guacamole, salsa, sour cream, and cheese on top.  No meat here.  Not great.

    Barbecued baby back ribs - actually pretty good.  Meat fell off the bone.  Hello Kitty's guess, though, was that they boiled the ribs before barbecue to ensure that the meat was tender... but the process deprived the frozen ribs of any remaining flavor.  That doesn't matter to many, though, as smothering it with barbecue sauce would work for most.

    Chicken tikka masala - very tasty.  In fact, our favorite dish of the evening.  Very tender chicken.

    Garlic naan - crispy and damn tasty.  Garlic makes a huge difference... duh!

    We saw another table getting a plate of Thai-style fried prawn cakes, each of which was the size of my fist.  I was really, really tempted, but we simply didn't have room...

    This place seemed to be a popular place for birthday celebrations, as there were no less than three parties who had birthday cakes brought out - and the restaurant played some happy birthday music.  The bar also kept sending out trays of nothing to those tables, and eventually they offered to everybody - including us.  Cheers!

    P.S. I think out of the four of us, I actually enjoyed our meal the most...

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    We're off to Korea for a long-overdue eating trip, studded with Michelin stars thanks to planning being left up to yours truly.  Thanks to the backlog at Hong Kong International Airport created by Typhoon Hato, our flight to Seoul was delayed by more than 2 hours... which meant we ended up checking into The Shilla Seoul just minutes before midnight.

    Without a decent dinner in our bellies, we set out to look for some food after midnight on a Friday evening.  My memories of Seoul date back more than a decade ago, when I spent a lot of time walking around Myeong-dong near my hotel.  There was a lot of street food as well as restaurants and shops, and I figured that the place would still be hopping into the wee hours on a Friday.

    I couldn't have been more wrong...

    When we got off our taxi next to one of the entrances to the Myeong-dong MRT station, the scene wasn't at all what I had expected. The area was dark, and the streets were pretty empty.  We ended up walking around most of Myeong-dong and only found 2 stalls on the street.  There were some restaurants still open, and eventually we settled on Oppadak (오빠닭) in a row of restaurants, based on the number of patrons...  We figured some chicken at this hour wouldn't be a bad idea, even if it's baked and not Korean fried chicken.

    Garlic chicken thighs - very tender and tasty thanks to the soy glaze.  There wasn't as much of the garlic chips as I had expected, but I was still happy with it.

    Sweet chili chicken wings - the seasoning here is better, and as Hello Kitty says, the skin to meat ratio is better.

    We finished around 2 a.m. and found ourselves having a tough time getting a taxi around Myeong-dong.  At this hour many taxis don't take short fares, and eventually we decided to just get into a taxi first before telling the driver our destination.

    Not a very successful start to our trip, but hey, things can only get better from here!

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    After a few hours' of sleep, we dragged our tired bodies out of bed for the primary purpose of this trip.  In addition to dining at a number of restaurants which have received Michelin stars, the whole impetus for coming to Korea is our overnight temple stay at Baekyangsa Temple (白羊寺), and the cooking lesson with Jeong Kwan (正寬) sunim - whose name spread far and wide recently thanks to her being featured in an episode of the Netflix series Chef's Table.

    We checked out of The Shilla Seoul and grabbed a couple of taxis to Seoul Station.  We were running a little short on time, and we wasted a few minutes running around the big complex trying to find a place for a quick lunch.  Eventually we settled on Bulgogi Brothers (불고기브라더스) inside the main terminal building, since they could seat us immediately and, in any case, could provide us with lunch boxes for takeout.

    I took this set of beef with egg on rice because it's one of the quickest things the kitchen could deliver.  No complaints here.

    Hello Kitty wanted cold and spicy buckwheat noodles with beef (냉면과 불고기).  These were definitely refreshing, and tasted better than my neighborhood Korean joint.

    We caught up with the City Foodsters here, and now our group was finally at full strength.  The seven of us hurriedly descending to the train platform our KTX train ride... but J was clearly not full from the bulgogi (불고기) lunch box he inhaled in about 3 minutes, so he stopped by a Bulgogi Brothers (불고기브라더스) kiosk for some spam and egg musubi.  Hello Kitty pointed out that they were also selling deep-fried spam, so I got myself some... which were freshly fried just for me.  Yum.

    Our hour-and-a-half KTX train ride was smooth and over in a jiffy, and I realized that we boarded and disembarked the train without having gone through any turnstiles or had our tickets checked.

    A half-hour taxi ride later, we got off at the entrance to Baekyangsa Temple.

    We made our way to the office for temple stay, registered and picked up our uniforms, and were led to our dorms.  These buildings seemed pretty new, and the smell of the cypress still seemed fresh.  We dropped off our bags and changed into the uniforms... which made me look like a cross between MC Hammer in Can't Touch This and Goku from Dragon Ball.

    Our first order of business was to "learn Buddhist manners".  This was the first time we saw the whole group together, and there were about 30 of us.  We were given a brief introduction to the legend and history of the temple, and a quick tour of the main structures.

    At 5 p.m. we gathered in the cafeteria for our first temple meal, and lined up for the buffet.  Our guide had told us that while we were free to eat as much as we wanted, we should take a small portion to start, and to make sure to eat and chew slowly.  So I took a little bit of everything for my first plate.

    This turned out to be a load of crap... By the time everyone has taken their food, there was very little left for seconds.  Panicking that I would be left hungry for the rest of the evening, I went back to get myself some soup... and managed to scrounge up the very last bits of vegetables in the big pot...

    I also tried to stuff myself with a piece of this cake, which seemed similar in texture to Shanghainese sponge cake called songgao (鬆糕).  Not the most appetizing cake, and I gave up halfway...

    Oh and the part about eating slowly?  Well, I guess you're supposed to eat slowly but not casually chat with your friends the way you would at a restaurant.  At 5:40 pm. we were promptly kicked out of the cafeteria, and of course we had to wash our own dishes before leaving.  Many thanks to The Great One for volunteering to wash mine...

    We gathered in front of the Drum and Bell Tower just before 6 p.m. for the ceremony.  One of the monks banged on the giant drum, made with cowhide, while another ranged the bell a couple of times.

    We were then given the opportunity to ring the giant bell ourselves.  This was unexpected, and a pretty nice experience.  It's amazing that the bell continues to vibrate and the sound reverberates for easily 25-30 seconds after each ring.

    Afterwards we gathered in the education hall, and was served some green tea while being made to watch videos of a Korean violinist playing classical tunes.  Not sure how a Buddhist temple, green tea, and violins all come together...  This was also the time when one of the senior monks taught us how to bow properly and lectured us on philosophy.  For a few of us who were suffering from lack of sleep, the two hours we spent became excruciating towards the end...

    Just before 9 p.m., we returned to our dorms and retired for the night.  Each of us was given a thin cotton blanket as our sleeping mat, a pillow, and a bigger cotton blanket to cover ourselves.  Very basic accommodations, and it's been a while since I've slept on a hard floor.  At least we had air conditioning and hot running water for showers.  I turned off our lights around 9:30 p.m.  It's gonna be a real early morning tomorrow!

    P.S.  RC and I both snore, and the next morning I heard that our Korean roommate - who got stuck with us at the last minute - got no sleep...

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    I didn't sleep well last night.  I guess my body's not really used to being on hardwood floors for an extended period of time, and there was that snoring from a certain friend of mine a couple of meters from me.  Thankfully when my alarm went off at 4:30 a.m., I had slept enough that I felt refreshed.  I quickly cleaned up and reported for duty at the Daeungjun Hall (大雄殿) promptly at 5 a.m.  Thus begins my day at Baekyangsa Temple (白羊寺).

    We seat ourselves on cushions inside the hall, and the morning chant began.  Not able to speak or read Korean, I was reduced to trying to clear my mind and meditate a little... except I couldn't keep my eyes closed, as I needed to know when to repeat the rituals of standing up, bowing, kneeling prostrate for more bows, and sitting back down.  This went on for 45 minutes or so.  Then the lights went out and it was time to meditate.  The next 15 minutes felt much, much longer than it actually was.

    The senior monk led us on a clockwise walk around the pagoda, and after a short talk we were dismissed.

    At 6:20 a.m. we reported to the cafeteria, where we took in breakfast.  It was explained to us that originally only porridge (cooked with red jujube water) and pickles were offered, but based on popular demand they gradually added toast (with margarine and not butter, of course!), yogurt, and even coffee to the list of offerings.

    So I took some porridge with pickles, added a couple of pieces of toast with peanut butter, and nibbled on some seaweed.

    After breakfast, we reported to the bodhi tree in the middle of the temple, where each of us picked up a broom and started to sweep the temple grounds according to the senior monk's instructions.  To be honest, I don't think we were the most capable of sweepers... and with a minimal amount of organization, some of us were simply sweeping areas others had just swept minutes ago.  In any case, we tried our best to help, and at least made ourselves feel like we contributed...

    We finally had some time to ourselves - for the first time since we got here - so I took the opportunity to get some droning time in.  I did ask for permission, and received it - kind of...

    After yet another tea session, we finally split into two groups, and our not-so-little band headed up the hill to the Chunjinam Hermitage (天真庵) for the main event of our trip - a cooking class with Jeong Kwan (正寬) sunim

    For those unfamiliar with her, Jeong Kwan sunim is regarded as one of the masters of Korean temple cuisine.  One of her biggest fans happens to be Eric Ripert from Le Bernardin, and Season 3 of David Gelb's Chef's Table includes an episode on her life and her cooking.  I, like many others, only became aware of Jeong Kwan sunim from the Netflix series, and our whole trip came about because of the opportunity to meet her.

    I was one of the last ones to enter the cooking studio, so naturally I didn't get myself a front-row seat...

    From the beginning, it was easy to see that Jeong Kwan sunim was very affable, and she practically radiates with positive energy which was simply infectious. 

    She explained to us about her philosophy, and showed us the preparation of two dishes - acorn squash stuffed with minced tofu, and the shiitake mushroom dish which became the very last dish she cooked for her father days before his passing.  Along the way she showed us a few of her special ingredients - including her aged soy sauce, her molasses made from rice, and the salt she aged herself for 5 years.  All of these ingredients help her deliver incredibly deep flavors.

    We were plenty hungry by the time lunch was served, and couldn't wait to dive into the feast she and her helpers have laid out for us.

    First there were the pickled vegetables, including 8-year-old nolmul? radish.

    Doenjang jigae (된장찌개) 

    Japchae (잡채) - with snow fungus mushrooms.

    Pepper with flour and squash - it was spicy, as we were warned.

    Spicy mushrooms - seasoned with mint?

    Sliced ginseng root with Korean "pasta" - seasoned with with yuja sauce.  The pasta was chewy, with consistency like gluten.

    (Oyster?) Mushrooms

    Dried and pickled daikon

    Cucumber and daikon salad - flavored with 15-year-old omija sauce.

    Pickled cucumber and mushrooms - much more acidity here.

    Acorn squash stuffed with minced tofu and diced peppers - as you can see from the video, she (along with a few others in the audience) mashed the tofu with her hands.

    Shiitake mushrooms - picked in the morning and dried for a few hours, then cooked in water flavored with acorn squash seeds - she tries not to waste anything - and seasoned with homemade molasses made from rice.  Very, very tasty.  I would have had two of these, except Hello Kitty just casually snatched one from my plate.

    The full spread... I ended up taking more food than I thought I did.  I seemed to have been the only one who took a whole acorn squash... but that was because I was sharing it with Hello Kitty...

    Sweet potatoes

    This was eye-opening. All the dishes were tasty and interesting, with many of them delivering complex layers of flavors.  None of the one-note stuff one expects from "just veggies".

    We were all amazed by this tiny lady.  She was incredibly humble, all smiles, and despite our lack of ability to understand any Korean, incredibly fun to be around.  When she found out that a few of us came from Hong Kong, she told us that she would be coming for an event, and left us her phone number and email address and invited us to join her.  How nice is that?!

    We were told that Jeong Kwan sunim would be a guest at a pop-up dinner we were attending in a few days' time, which was surprising since we knew it would be full of seafood and meat.  Through the translator, we asked her whether she was coming to dinner, and indeed she was!  Apparently she will travel to Seoul and the chefs will cook vegetarian dishes that she can eat.  So it looks like we may get to see her again.

    With our bellies full - well, I knew mine was... but not sure about that guy from City Foodsters whom Hello Kitty and I shamed into getting a smaller plate of food - we had a train to catch.  So we rushed back to our dorm to pick up our bags and got into our pre-booked taxis, and bid farewell to this serene hideaway.

    Our friend Mikacina greeted us at Seoul Station, and we checked back into The Shilla Seoul.  Service was incredibly efficient, and soon we found ourselves back downstairs at The Library.  It was a little more than 2 hours to dinner, and we needed to check something off our list.

    Apple mango bingsu (애플망고빙수) - this, apparently, is the best version of mango bingsu (빙수) in town.  This big bowl of shaved ice made with milky water came with a thin layer of mango syrup in the middle, along with a very, very generous serving of Jeju Island apple mangoes, then topped with a little more shaved ice.  Served with a small bowl of azuki beans and a scoop of mango sorbet on the side.

    With a little help from Hello Kitty, DaRC and I managed to finish the bowl we were sharing.  We then started to pick off the mango chunks from the bowl that The Great One and Mikacina were sharing - and promptly realized our bowl came with riper, sweeter mangoes.  SLURP!

    After stuffing our faces, we thought it best to retire to our rooms and clean up before our highly-anticipated dinner...

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    Now that we're back in Seoul, the "Michelin tour" part of our trip can begin.  And we're starting at the very top with La Yeon (羅宴) - the traditional Korean fine dining restaurant at The Shilla Seoul which received the prestigious award of 3 stars in the 2017 Michelin Red Guide for Seoul.

    We were always going to get the VIP treatment here.  A few of us were staying at The Shilla, and Mikacina was on hand to make sure not a hair was out of place.  Our group was big enough and we took the larger of the private rooms.  Sunday is normally his day off, but Chef Kim Sung-il came in to work specifically to cook for The Great One.  What an honor it is to be at this table!

    And speaking of Chef Kim... apparently he has been working at The Shilla since 1988, and the hotel has been his first and only employer since he first stepped foot in a kitchen.  Nowadays his mission is to revive traditional dishes, and apparently he is all too willing to pass on his recipes so that others can carry the torch - which is something many, many Asian chefs don't do.

    We took Shilla (新羅), the longer of the two menus, for the full experience.  I also took the Korean liquor pairing to get more exposure to them.

    Appetizing nibbles (주전부리) - the crisps with sesame seeds tasted like the egg waffles sold as street snacks in Hong Kong.  The slices of jujube were dried for a very long time, so they were really crunchy, and incredibly flavorful.  We couldn't stop munching on them.  Appetizing nibbles, indeed!

    Welcome dish (환영 음식) - this was mountain yam (山芋) and ginseng juice, which was unfiltered and therefore had a grainy texture.  The earthy flavors of ginseng were very strong.  The cubes of plum jelly on the spoon were taken after the juice - presumably to neutralize the bitter flavors of ginseng.

    OmyNara OmyRose (오미로제) - a sparkling wine made with omija (오미자), or magnolia berries.  Definitely very fruity with lots of deep, berry flavors.  The nose was a little strong and slightly pungent.

    Platter of nine delicacies (구절판) - gujeolpan (九折坂) is a dish consisting of 8 different ingredients - originally representing the 8 provinces of Korea - meant to be wrapped together in a jeon (전).  It represents harmony.

    Clockwise from top: saesongi (새송이 버섯), or king oyster mushrooms; pumpkin; cucumber, neutari (느타리 버섯), or oyster mushrooms; Korean beef; sweet potato; zucchini; doraji (도라지), or balloon flower root.

    All the ingredients carried delicate flavors of their own, so they did work very well together.  The sauce on the side tasted of horseradish.  A beautiful way to start.

    Steamed abalone with cold soybean paste (전복 된장 물회) - the abalone was, of course, very tender.  So were the scored pieces of cuttlefish.  Nicely flavored with a mix of gochujang and  soybean paste, and plenty of fermented flavors.  This was an upgraded version with abalone, as opposed to leftover seafood found on fishing boats.  Wakame seaweed adds a little different layer of flavors.

    Malgeun Badang 맑은바당 - nose was a little sweet, a little grassy, similar to oxidized yellow wines like Shaoxing.

    Croaker porridge with seaweed (민어 어죽) - croakers are one of my favorite fish, and I'm ever so happy to taste some.  Naturally this was served with some pickles on the side.

    A very flavorful yet delicate porridge.  Consistency is on the thick side, with good umami from the seaweed.

    Baedokga Ugok-ju (裴都家 又麴酒 우곡주) - this was unlike any of the cheap makgeolli (막걸리) I've ever had.  The wine tasted more fermented, much more savory, with fermented bean flavors - even though the only ingredients were rice, water, and yeast.  Thick texture and definitely like drinking yogurt.

    Char-grilled eel with soy sauce and red pepper paste (장어 양념구이) - very nice.  With finely diced braised ginger and sansho leaves (木の芽) on top.  Again, flavorful without being heavy... and a little dab of the gochujang sauce and a nibble of ginger was enough.

    Seonunsan Bokbunjaju (선운산 覆盆子酒) - very sweet on the nose. Very nice to drink.

    Royal hot pot (신선로) - this is a traditional Korean hot pot with different ingredients, all prepared separately, pan-frying with flour.

    So we have seasonal fish, beef sandwiched between layers of egg, abalone, meat balls, squash, pan-fried egg which had a bouncy texture, onion, egg white, a millefeuille of water dropwort (미나리) and egg white, pumpkin, ginkgo nuts, pine nuts, jujubes...etc. all in Korean beef broth.  The flavors are on point but at the same time light and elegant.  Nothing is over-seasoned.  An incredibly beautiful dish.  I wish we could have had more.

    We had a choice of our Korean hanwoo beef (국내산 한우) dishes, so Hello Kitty and I chose different ones.

    Char-grilled Korean beef sirloin with pickled onion and seasonal vegetables (등심구이) - very, very delicious.

    Perfect execution.  And check out the marbling!

    With a side of salad.

    Braised Korean beef short ribs in sweet soy sauce with chestnut and date (갈비찜 중 선택) - Hello Kitty took the galbijjim (갈비찜), and this was incredibly tender and tasty.  Melt-in-your-mouth.  In fact, someone said that this was among the top 50 dishes they have eaten...

    Geumsan Insamju Susam23 (금산인삼주 수삼23) - this is the 23% version of the ginseng soju, made with a 5-year-old susam (수삼) ginseng.  The flavors were definitely strong here but clean.  Kinda dry on the palate, but pretty smooth.

    We had a choice again for our carb course, and I really wanted to have all of them!  In the end I decided to go for an upgraded version of bibimbap (비빔밥).

    Hot pot rice with vegetables and abalone (전복 비빔 솥밥) - naturally, this came with a variety of kimchi and pickles.

    The rice bowl itself was beautifully presented.

    And meant to be taken with the octopus marinated in sesame oil.  This was delicious on its own.

    So I promptly mixed it up.  No gochujang needed here.  Delicate flavors only.  And the abalone was beautiful.

    Love the "water kimchi".  So cool and refreshing.

    Chilled buckwheat noodles with Korean beef broth (냉면) - this was Hello Kitty's choice.  She wanted something light at the end of a big meal, so naengmyeon was perfect.

    The noodles were beautifully done.  I know I sound like a broken record here, but the flavors were just so elegant.  Not bland.  Just delicate.

    Mixed rice with vegetables and Korean beef tartare (육회 비빔밥) - Mikacina gave me a little bowl of her bibimbap with raw beef.  This was pretty damn good, too...

    Ginseng chicken soup with abalone (전복 삼계탕) - DaRC was also kind enough to share a piece of chicken from his ginseng samgyetang.  Very tender and tasty.

    Corn ice cream with pudding and red ginseng flavored brown sugar syrup (옥수수 얼음과자) - nice corn flavors in the ice cream, and a little crunch from the corn kernels in the crème brûlée

    OmyNara Full Moon Omija Brandy (고운달) - this came in at 52% which was pretty damn strong.  Tasted a little berry.

    Korean Tea and Refreshments (차와 다과) - omija tea, and custard.

    This was simply a perfect meal - the finest Korean meal I have ever had.  The purpose of our trip was to open our eyes to Korean fine dining, so see what else was possible other than the barbecue, spicy kimchi jjigae (김치 찌개) and other stuff where all you see is red.  And tonight our eyes were certainly opened.  This was the polar opposite of what we know as Korean food, and I was so happy to have gotten this education.

    Many thanks to Chef Kim Sung-il for cooking for us on his day off, and of course thanks to Mikacina for making sure we were pampered.  Now... since tonight was our only meal at a 3-star restaurant, will it all go downhill the rest of this trip?

    P.S. We all got some of the dried jujube we loved so much to take home.  I can't tell you how happy that makes me... as it would make a great present for mom.

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    Our eating tour continues with our first foray across the Hangang to Gangnam.  I thought it would be easier for us to take the MRT and walk to the restaurant, but failed to measure how long the walk would be...  So we arrived at Jungsik Dang (정식당) for our lunch a little late, and a little sweaty.

    I know I can be a pain-in-the-ass customer, and have been known to have been pissed off by restaurants for one reason or another.  But it's still quite a rare feat for a restaurant to piss me off before I even took a single bite.

    We were shown the menus available for lunch.  When I was looking at scheduling our meals, it was suggested to me that we come to Jungsik for lunch because we could still have the Signature menu, so naturally some of us wanted to choose that today.  They were also doing a special Krug x Mushroom menu, which normally I would have loved to try, but given this was my first time at Jungsik, I figured I should probably stick to the Signature menu.

    A couple of the ladies didn't want to have a big lunch, and wanted to choose the smaller, 4- or 5-course menu.  We were then told that the whole table must choose the same menu.  Now, I've been visiting fine dining restaurants for a couple of decades and know that some restaurants would insist on the whole table taking the dégustation menu instead of serving up a combination of dishes from tasting menu and à la carte.  However, I thought that dining culture had evolved a little since then, and nowadays many restaurants have become more flexible in this regard.

    I thought about asking the restaurant to split us up into two separate tables so that the ladies wouldn't be forced into eating more than they wanted to, but by this time the ladies were upset enough and had resigned to the fact that they had to bend to will of the majority.  So we let it go.  Signature menus for six it is.

    One of us doesn't eat beef, so she was looking for a substitute.  She was asked to choose from the list of dishes from the smaller, pick-and-choose menu the ladies wanted to take.  Ssam looked good, but it's a dish that needs to be shared between two people.  So I raised my hand and asked if I could be her partner and share the pork belly.  Guess what?  The answer was "NO".  Apparently, substitutions are only allowed when you have an allergy, and since I hadn't announced my allergy to beef, I was most certainly not allowed to not have beef.  WHAT.THE.FUCK?

    In the end, our friend had to choose a substitute dish that was not her first choice.  These guys may have one star from Michelin on food, but I'd give them a negative one star for customer service.

    With the ordering drama over, we were poured a glass of cava.  As if that was enough to smooth our ruffled feathers...

    Chef Jeong Ho Kim came to our table to greet us.  I'll come outright and say that all our meals this week were booked by our friend Mikacina who knows all the restaurants and their chefs, so VIP treatment was expected.  Now... if you knew that we were a table that warranted special attention from the chef, why the hell would you not bend the rules a little when it came to ordering?

    We started with a welcome drink and some snacks...

    Pumpkin, grapefruit jelly, fried rice, and basil

    Roast snapper with pickled plum, red chili, cilantro

    Apple kimchi with salmon mousse - this was substituted for our friend who is allergic to salmon.  The diced apple cubes provided some crunch in contrast to the mousse.

    Beef croquette - very cute, and tasty, too.  Even the stick was edible.  Substituted for our friend who doesn't eat beef.

    Rice ball with kimchi and dried seaweed - the seaweed was very, very yum, and we've got the spicy kick from kimchi.

    Candied burdock with almonds - a very tasty lollipop, with some nice crunch provided by the almonds. 

    Gujeolpan (맛있는구절판) - it's the same dish we had at La Yeon (羅宴)last night, just with different and more modern ingredients.  So we've got salsa, kelp jelly, smoked sour cream, radish sprouts, namul (나물), radish, wasabi, kimchi, and marinated tuna belly.

    We were meant to place them on the seaweed cracker.  This was pretty good, but the flavors were clearly stronger than those last night.

    Abalone (전복) - grilled and served on a bed of kimchi that wasn't spicy.  The grilled maitake (舞茸) on the side was pretty nice.  As for the abalone, it was very tender and bouncy in terms of texture.  The housemade wild sesame oil we poured on top of everything was very, very fragrant and delicious.

    Octopus (문어) - OMFG.  This was so, soooooo delicious.  Our favorite dish of the meal, by unanimous decision.  The octopus and grilled and then fried for a texture that was crispy and crunchy on the outside, while maintaining a soft and tender center.  The gochujang (고추장) aioli was made with octopus head, and was very, very good.  I think all of us could have done with another tentacle or two...

    Sea urchin (로얄비빔밥) - oh yes, the famous sea urchin bibimbap (비빔밥).  The rice was cooked with seaweed purée and sprinkled with crispy millet on the side.  Very, very tasty... with the umami from seaweed working well with the creamy sweetness from the sea urchin... then there's a little toastiness from the millet.  Texture-wise you've got the millet adding a little crunch.

    Ok dom (‘주옥’같은 옥돔) - red tilefish is essentially amadai (甘鯛), so they've cooked with fillet with the familiar treatment for the scales.  The veggies on the side were pretty spicy, with a few long, thin strips of tender cuttlefish.

    Red big eye (눈볼대) - Chef Jeong Ho was nice enough to provide us with a little variety, so each couple received one serving of tilefish and one serving of the red big eye.  This was tasty, too, but the seasoning was a little stronger here.

    Tenderloin (투뿔안심) - undeniably the weakest dish of the menu, and such a shame!  Served with a root vegetable done three ways: grilled; marinated as salsa; and dehydrated then pulverized.  The Korean sancho (산초) pepper on top interestingly tastes of anise.

    I guess this was 'medium rare'... but just tasted a little on the dry side.  As Chef DaRC speculated, they probably pan-fried it on one side only in a puddle of oil, which was why one can see a browned layer on the cooked side.  That part of the beef was clearly over-cooked while the middle was 'mediam rare' and the opposite side almost rare.  Did they cook the piece on both sides and then simply sliced it in half?

    Honestly, I don't think these thin slices of beef at fine dining establishments work well... They are often overcooked.

    Sujeonggwa (수정과) - the classic Korean cinnamon drink, served cold, often as dessert, now deconstructed into a dessert of cinnamon soup, ginger panna cotta, and pear sorbet.  Refreshingly delicious at the end of a meal.

    Dolhareu-bang (돌하르방) - the kitchen sent us a couple of complimentary portions of this signature dessert, which is shaped like stone statues found on Jeju Island.  Made with ingredients from Jeju Island into green tea mousse, peanut ganache, and covered in black sesame.  A ball of milk ice cream on the side.

    Hot corn (마약옥수수) - inspired from Mexican grilled corn with cheese and cayenne pepper.  This was a corn-shaped corn and white chocolate crema, with caramelized pecan and corn, sprinkled with cayenne and paprika.  Pretty interesting.

    Angelica crème brûlée

    Earl Grey choux and chocolate

    In spite of the inflexible service we received at the beginning, service during the rest of the meal was quite friendly.  I was glad we took the Signature menu, because this turned out to be a very delicious lunch.  Other than the tenderloin - which was not quite a FAIL - I really enjoyed most of the other dishes.  That octopus tentacle is probably one of the best dishes I have had all year.

    I'm glad I finally made it here, as I've been wanting to get a taste of 'contemporary Korean' cuisine and Chef Jungsik Yim has been at the forefront of that movement.

    We were pretty full from our long lunch, so we figured we would walk around the neighborhood a little.  The Figure Museum W (피규어뮤지엄W) happened to be on the same street, and we were curious enough to pay the entrance fee to check it out. This turned out to be 5 floors of figurines, from bigger-than-lifesize robots to life-size figures of the Terminator and Heath Leger's version of the Joker... to an amazing variety of collectible figurines of anime and movie characters.

    After checking out a few boutiques along Seolleung-ro, we also ended up at Galleria West and picked up a few things at the Food Court.  And the girls checked out the more ghetto section of Goto Mall before we had to rush to our dinner appointment... 

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    After a good introduction to contemporary Korean cuisine at lunch today, we move on to another restaurant in the same vein in Gangnam.  Chef owner Mingoo Kang's proposition at Mingles is to present a mingling of traditional Korean cuisine with European and other Asian cuisines and modern techniques.  I had very, very briefly met Chef Mingoo last year at the party for Asia's 50 Best Restaurants in Bangkok, but of course he would not have remembered me.

    We were running late tonight because of traffic, and the ones coming from across the river were very late, so we were very apologetic to the staff... and of course apologized to Chef Mingoo when he came out to greet us after our party was finally assembled.  Meanwhile DaRC and I browsed through the wine list looking for a reasonably priced bottle of bong water.

    Chef Mingoo had heard about our weekend excursion to Baekyangsa, and mentioned that for almost a year and a half, he made weekend trips almost weekly to spend time with Jeong Kwan sunim.  Now that is some serious dedication!  I guess that is sure to have an impact on the cuisine here...

    There's only one seasonal menu here, which saves us from the frustrations we encountered at lunch today.

    The sommelier poured us some complimentary Champagne...

    William de Montez Brut - dominated by pinot meunier, with makes it more complex and gives it more body.

    We were presented with a welcome drink of housemade Oriental watermelon vinegar mixed with 'Korean traditional sake'.  This was a little savory and definitely tasted some watermelon.

    Summer: cold summer bean soup - with fig, strands of cucumber, and lemon zest.  Sesame flavors were prominent in addition to fermented beans.  Very refreshing and surprisingly not heavy at all.

    Seasonality: seasonal amuse bouche - squid with seaweed oil.  The strands of radish on top were very, very fine, and seemed to deliver a little acidity from pickling. 

    Omiza kombucha - the seasonal plum inside delivered a little bitterness, perhaps from tannins in the skin. 

    Korean beef striploin tartare - seasoned with gochujang, topped with finely chopped seasonal plum, smoked eel, and sancho (산초) pepper pickled in 2007 which retains the fragrance but is no longer numbing nor tastes like anise.  The deep-fried seaweed on the side had a sticky rice batter.  Compliments of the chef.

    Summer veg and shrimp: eggplant, tomato 'namul', 'banga' pesto, poached shrimp - 'half-dried' eggplant and tomato on the bottom, with some crunchiness from another vegetable.  The shrimp is sprinkled with powdered sungeo-al-jeot (숭어알젓) - mullet bottarga.  Garnished with baby coriander leaves.  Cool and delicious.

    These little tarts came with summer vegetables such as dried cherry tomatoes and sliced green beans along with ricotta.

    Abalone salad - another complimentary dish from the chef.  Slices of blanched abalone with summer peach and Oriental watermelon dressing with cold pine nut juice.  Topped with cured cucumber and herbs, then sprinkled with mango powder.

    Another nice and cool dish for the summer, with tender abalone along with peach providing some sweetness.  The creamy dressing was a little powdery and grainy thanks to pine nuts.

    Summer zucchini 1: green and yellow zucchini, basil infused zucchini consomme, pumkin rice cake -

    A beautiful dish, both in terms of presentation as well as flavors.  The thin slices of zucchini, carrots, and squash came with zucchini oil.  The basil, cucumber, and vegetable consommé was just beautiful... and actually tasted a lot like tomato water à la Raymond Blanc, with plenty of umami.  If I had to pick one dish from tonight which elicited emotion, this would be it.  Simplicity is not simple.

    The spongy rice cakes came with a filling of pumpkin (not pumkin) mash that had a hint of citrus, with cinnamon on top.

    Summer zucchini 2: zucchini flower stuffed with dubu and crab, zucchini and tomato 'bugak' - the deep-fried zucchini flower stuffed with tofu and crab was very, very good.  The seawater eel (穴子) has had its bones broken, then deep-fried in rice wine batter.  Served on a bed of crab and mussel broth porridge cooked with zucchini, courgette, and squash, with some radish kimchi and corn on top.  We also have crab meat and deep-fried pumpkin, and a sprinkling of seaweed powder on top.  Lots going on here on the plate.

    Egg and roll: summer veg egg custard, 'namul' quiche - the steamed organic egg custard came with diced chorizo that delivered some acidity and spiciness, along with green peas and summer vegetables.  This came with two layers of foam: cauliflower, egg white, and truffle oil.  At the very top was summer vegetable foam and herb powder.

    Rice roll wrapped with summer seaweed and stuffed with myeongnan-jeot (명란젓) - or salted pollock roe - and pickled asparagus and green peas.  Pretty good.

    Deep-fried summer vegetable seasoned with gochujang, stuffed with paprika jam and ricotta.  Very nice.

    Fish: Mingles style seasonal fish - the steamed butterfish (샛돔) was very soft and succulent, served on a bed of pan-seared potato 'steaks' with summer sweet corn foam, and a ring of spiced paprika sauce.

    Cucumber and watermelon sorbet - more like granité...

    Lamb: charred lamb, 'doen-jang' vegetable ash, seasonable vegetables - the lamb was marinated in doenjang (된장) for 24 hours, which served to tenderize the meat while softening and neutralizing the gamey flavors of the lamb - now, why would anyone want that??!!  Served with charcoal-grilled asparagus, and smoked aubergine purée.

    The lamb nicely done, with a sauce made with lamb jus and seasoned with rosemary - my least favorite herb.  These pieces certainly weren't lammy enough for me... BUT, that little piece next to the asparagus, with all that extra lamb fat just under the skin... now THAT was incredibly tasty.  Why couldn't they have given me 5 or 6 more pieces like that?!

    Korean beef: high quality striploin, 'jang' consomme sauce, seasonable vegetables - naturally Hello Kitty took the beef, which came with a sauce made with beef brisket broth and soy sauce.  Served with charcoal-grilled onion, onion purée, and cherry.

    The 1++ striploin was VERY good.  Chef Mingoo used to source his beef from Born and Bred - where we'll be having dinner tomorrow - but has recently switched suppliers.  This was soooo much better than the beef at Jungsik today.

    A little porridge with beef...

    Chef Mingoo seemed determined that we should taste EVERYTHING on the current menu - even those we didn't order or supposedly have stomach space for... so he sent us two extra noodle dishes to share...

    Jang noodle - the noodles took inspiration from the Korean jajangmyeon (炸醬麵) - which I jokingly refer to as 'fake Chinese food' - and so the capellini was seasoned with squid ink, seaweed, soy sauce, doenjang, anchovy stock, and dashi (出汁).  This gives the noodles an incredible depth of flavor - almost a little pungent.  It's then topped with char-grilled prawns and fresh sea urchin.  VERY delish from all the flavors of the sea.

    Guksu (잔치국수) - the roasted anchovy broth for the buckwheat noodles also tasted of kelp.  Very clean and precise flavors.  Again, elegant simplicity that is actually not so simple.

    Peachimi - a layer of white meringue topped with peach sorbet infused with kimchi juice, topped with thin slices of radish carrying kimchi juice oil and extra virgin olive oil.  A complex combination of flavors... with sweetness, acidity, savory, and spiciness - while also delivering a whole range of textures in the mouth.

    Jang trio - made with three jang (장) or fermented pastes: doenjang, gochujang, and ganjang (soy sauce).   A savory crème brûlée flavored with doenjang, with vanilla ice cream and cappuccino and whisky foam, with a sprinkle of toasted rice and grains sprinkled with gochujang powder, as well as pecans caramelized with ganjang.  A very interesting mix of sweet, savory, and spicy flavors.  Chef sent out extra portions of this so that we could all have a taste.

    We thought the dude from City Foodsters was fading from jetlag... until he suddenly sprang to life upon smelling and tasting this dessert.  I think this thing alone recharged his battery back up to 100%... or maybe it simply tapped into his backup battery.

    Petits fours - rice cake, passion fruit jelly, and seaweed cracker.

    DaRC picked out a bottle of bong water for us. And it really was bong water and not wine...

    2014 Léon Barral Blanc - nose of honey, apple cider, slightly pungent with a little minerality.  Is this really wine?

    This was an excellent dinner.  I felt that while both lunch and dinner today centered on Korean flavors, the approaches were completely different.  For me, Mingles delivered dishes which were more nuanced, with more complexity.  Chef Mingoo really did try to 'mingle' different influences and flavors together and delivered quite a few surprises which were thought-provoking.  And that makes this meal much more interesting.  Many thanks to Chef Mingoo and his team for pampering us with all the extra goodies.

    P.S. If I have to gripe about something, I'd have the say that the lighting in the restaurant (and our private room) was a complete disaster for those of us trying to take pictures.  The combination of incandescent light with blue light meant setting white balance was impossible... so we all resorted to having our partners illuminate dishes with their smartphone screens...

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    Scanning through the list of restaurants which received Michelin stars in the 2017 Red Guide for Seoul, one of the places I had put on my hit list for this trip was 24Seasons (이십사절기).  The place looked like they served Korean food with a contemporary presentation, which would be right up my alley.

    But Mikacina told me that Chef Tony Yoo, who was responsible for creating the cuisine that got the restaurant its star, had already left.  He had taken over an old restaurant in a traditional Korean hanok (한옥) in Bukchon Hanok Village (북촌한옥마을) north of Insa-dong (인사동) formerly known as Doore (두레), and renamed it Dooreyoo (두레유).  If I wanted to get a taste of his food, this was where I'd have to go.

    We arrived to find ourselves seated inside a historic hanok, with wooden beams and columns all around us.  We had a big group of 8, so they put us in the back of the restaurant, right in front of the air conditioning unit.  Thankfully they agreed to turn it off.

    A choice of set menus was offered and, in fact, the restaurant was chasing us to choose our menu yesterday, even before we arrived at the restaurant.  Given that the restaurant's website is only available in Korean - which we can't read - I wanted to know how we're supposed to make our choice without trying to copy/paste into Google Translate...

    And just like Jungsik yesterday, the restaurant insisted that the entire group take the same menu.  This was annoying, but we have begun to see this as the Korean way.  Once again the ladies had to step up and take the longest menu with the rest of us.

    The menu was composed of different sections: earth, sea, fermented, land, and sweet. But first, a little something to drink...

    Boksoondoga Makgeolli (福順都家 손막걸리) - naturally sparkling.  Nice acidity here, like drinking Calpis Soda.

    Chef Tony Yoo came out to greet us, and introduced a few of the dishes over the course of our lunch.

    First up was a few drops of Chef's soy sauce, which has been aged for 7 years.  I wasn't paying attention and thought we were supposed to sip it - especially since it was poured into a cup - so I drank all of mine... But I think we were just supposed to use it as a dipping sauce...  In any case, this was more like a fermented bean sauce in terms of flavor, with a fairly complex nose that is almost meaty.

    Vegetable porridge - the porridge is made with the leaves of a 'pine tree' (more like a succulent) that is meant to be good for health. Surprisingly acidic and definitely whets the appetite.  The mul kimchi (물김치) which came frozen was naturally cold and delivered clean flavors, not too spicy.

    Kimchi salad - most of the vegetables were presented as wafer-thin slices, with a sauce was made from yuja (柚子), and topped with pomegranate sauce that came as tiny, hard gelatin balls... perhaps an unsuccessful attempt at spherification.  Overall, though, this was a delicious salad.
    Seasonal warm vegetable - yam with black sesame and doenjang (된장) Definitely showed some fermented flavors.  Oh and slices of black truffle never hurt nobody...

    Yam that was used for our dish.

    Seasonal raw fish with caviar - thin slices of crunchy sturgeon served with some black beans and fermented beans like Japanese natto (納豆), as well as very finely diced spring onions which was almost like millet or quinoa.
    Sturgeon used in our dish.

    Cold crab meat salad - the disc had an exterior made of cucumber slices, and came with gochujang coulis.

    The center was made of prawn meat surrounded by shredded crab meat.  Very sweet and tasty, and since it was served cold, it was also pretty clean and refreshing.

    Seasonal seafood and seaweed - the pan-seared scallop came with a nice cauliflower purée, a gelée made from (octopus?), a slice of chewy octopus, squid ink foam, kelp which has been finely diced into the size of quinoa, and a spear of salicornia.  Lots of flavors of the sea in the bowl.  Very nice.

    Seasonal fly - OK... so there was a translation error and it should have said "seasonal fried seafood"...  What we got were whole deep-fried rockfish with the seeds of mountain yam.

    What I did not expect was a parade of FOUR rockfish - meaning that two people would share an entire fish...  Given that Hello Kitty "eats fish like a white girl" by her own confession, guess who ended up eating most of the fish?

    There were also a couple of deep-fried river crabs, along with some deep-fried leaves.  I gotta say that although the fish was a little on the dry side, it was still pretty tasty.  And I ate pretty much all of it, including all the fins and the tail.  Yes, the cheeks, too.

    Fermented steamed abalone - the abalone slices came with slices of very young bamboo shoots, accompanied by fermented abalone liver sauce and seasoned with black sesame.  The one complaint is that the deep-fried garlic slices had been fried for too long, and had turned bitter.

    Pork - the steamed pork belly was wrapped in zucchini leaf.

    And meant to be taken with either a fermented fish sauce or a fermented shrimp sauce.

    We get some greens to make us feel a little healthy...

    We get a beautiful banchan (반찬) - in this case 9 cheop (구첩) - with our rice and main dish.

    Beef (雪夜覓) - this was BEAUTIFUL.  What looked like a piece of beef short rib was, in fact, tteok-galbi (떡갈비) - minced short rib re-molded around the bone. So, soooo tasty.  And the mushrooms on the side were damn good, too!

    Doenjang jigae (된장찌개)

    A very long (3½ hours!) and filling lunch.  The flavors and presentation were a little more traditional than I had expected, but the food was certainly delicious.  So glad we made the effort to come check this out.

    As we were pretty full from lunch, a few of us decided to stick around and check out Bukchon Hanok Village.  We walked up the hill along the different winding alleys to look at traditional hanoks, some of which have now been converted from private residence to shops and tea houses.

    On top of the hill, it is possible to get a glimpse of traditional architecture together with some of Seoul's modern skyscrapers in the distance.  I have to say it's quite an interesting view!

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    My first taste of Hanwoo beef came a little more than a decade ago, during the years when I used to fly to Seoul to visit clients.  My sales colleague used to take me to a restaurant in Apgujeong-dong called MANA - which has since closed.  I was amazed at the quality of the barbecued beef we were having, and my eyes were popping out at the bill we got at the end of the evening.  That was when I first heard about Korean restaurants having their own cattle farm, where they slaughter cattle and serve the meat on the same day - without the meat ever having been frozen or chilled.

    One of the things we wanted to check off on this trip was a good meal with plenty of Hanwoo.  We knew that after a day of eating vegetarian meals at Baekyangsa, Ro Ro would be needing some, you know, ro ro (肉肉).  Hello Kitty would most certainly be in Ro Ro's camp in terms of wanting beef, and as for the rest of us... what better opportunity to see what Hanwoo beef can taste like, and how well it stacks up against Japanese wagyu (和牛)?

    Once again, our friend Mikacina came up with the perfect suggestion.  Born and Bred is a butchery shop inside the Majang Meat Market (마장 축산물시장).  It's a butcher shop by day - where one can purchase different cuts of Hanwoo beef - and 3 nights a week it turns into a speakeasy serving beef omakase (お任せ).  Booking needs to be done for the entire 7-seat counter, and with thanks to Mikacina's connections, owner Jung Sang-won agreed to let us come in on a Tuesday night.  And since Sang was a little shy about his English abilities - which inevitably improved over the course of the evening with more alcohol - he roped in his buddy Steven to help translate for us.

    DaRC and I got dropped off by our taxi driver at the crowded end of Majang Meat Market, and as we were running late, we kinda half-ran through the place on our way to dinner.  The smell of meat - especially beef - was incredible.  I think my stomach started getting ready for dinner even before I sat down...

    The rest of the gang had already arrived and started talking to Sang and Steven.  Since we didn't have time to buy ourselves a bottle or two, Sang very kindly agreed to let us raid his cellar.  DaRC went to take a look before respectfully leaving the decision up to the boss.

    2013 Bruno Rocca Barbaresco Rabaja - pretty sweet nose.  Smoother on the palate than expected.

    Before we started, Sang told us that each of us would be served 5-600g of beef.  Somehow I think we had quite a bit more than that...

    I noticed that each of us had a plate of salad in front of us.  Sang promised that these were the only veggies he would be serving us tonight - and the rest of dinner would be nothing but meat.

    Chateaubriand - you know it's gonna be a kickass evening when you start with chateaubriand...

    Served with marinated slices of black truffle.  The cut is on the leaner side, but it was soooo tender... and tasty.

    Striploin - can't go wrong with striploin.

    Beautiful crust with charring, served with pickled mustard seeds.

    Deep fried scallop - kinda curious about why this was part of the menu.  Clearly done mi-cuit but it was a little cold by the time we got to it.

    Actually, Sang lied about not serving us more veggies.  We got some pickled napa cabbage to go with our beef...

    Thin flank - I think this was called something like 'chaebajisal (sp?)' in Korean.  Apparently a head of cattle only yields 300g of this cut.

    This was sooooo tender.  Nice and fatty, with lots of flavors here.  The flavors are deeper due to the proximity to the organs.

    This cut of beef was meant to be wrapped in these marinated leaves, which were kinda sweet.

    This is a small portion from tenderloin (안심추리살 ).

    Served with baby spring onions on top.

    Flat iron (부채살) - pretty much like Japanese ミスジ.  This was marinated just before grilling.

    Served with garlic scapes.  Really succulent, with a springy texture that reminded me of ox tongue.  The Japanese yakiniku (焼肉) places tend to serve them as very thin slices, so it's interesting to have a thicker cut deliver a completely different texture.

    Thick skirt - I think this might be 'kambajisal (?)' in Korean.  It's near the liver.

    Very delicious when done.

    Marinated vegetable

    Galbi (갈비) - not marinated.

    Delicious even without marinade.

    Sang took a look at my size and assumed that I have a big appetite, so he gave me one of the bones.  This was delicious, but the amount of fat on the other side of the bone was unbelievable... probably close to 50%.  This would come back to bite me later on in the evening...

    3-year-old kimchi - taken with the galbi.

    Galbi (갈비) - 'uncut', off the bone.

    Marinated with Japanese tare (たれ).

    Served with fresh grated wasabi (山葵).  Light charring around the edges, which delivered lovely, smoky flavors.

    Uncut steak galbi - this was not marinated.

    Served with a little bit of marinated black truffle and wasabi.  OMG, there was so much marbling, and that charring on the outside was sooooo beautiful!

    According to Sang, a head of cattle will yield 40kg of galbi, out of which 30kg is actually fat.  Of the remaining 10kg, only 2kg is considered of top quality, and for Koreans that means ribs 4 to 6.

    Katsu sando with chateaubriand - my eyes nearly popped out of their sockets when I saw this.  We were already pretty full - and the fat from that galbi bone didn't help - so how was I supposed to pack this into my stomach?!

    This was just like the beef katsu sando (カツサンド) that's popular at Japanese yakiniku places now.  We've got a nice crust on the outside, and of course you can never complain about a nice piece of chateaubriand... This was soooo good, and came with chopped onions in a tart cream sauce.  It was way, waaaaay too much food, and I managed to put away maybe 80%.

    We had run out of wine some time ago, and by now Sang was in a very, very good mood... so he went back to his cellar and grabbed a second bottle, and told us that it was 'on the house'.  That turned out to be a very generous gesture...

    2010 Carruades de Lafite - sweet on the nose, with forest notes and a little cedar fragrance.  Actually not too sweet on the palate.  Full-bodied with some tannins on the finish.  Just popped and poured and already drinking beautifully.

    Traditional Korean sauce marinated galbi - this is the cut that we're most familiar with, which is ubiquitous at Korean restaurants worldwide.

    Of course, this was taken with a bowl of rice.  Not that I needed more carbs to take up space...  But the beef was just so beautiful!

    Dongchimi (동치미) soup - nice and chilled radish water kimchi.

    Outside skirt (안창살) - as shown in the video above, this was dipped briefly in the Korean galbi sauce before cooking.

    More chewy, and more flavorful here.

    Beef Phở - Sang insisted on serving his "hangover cure", which turned out to be a bowl of phở with broth cooked with bones with tendon for 3 days.  I took the trouble of removing almost every single little piece of chili pepper from my bowl, but there was still sriracha that had been squeezed into the broth to make it spicy.

    There were pieces of tendon from the knees, along with pieces of tenderloin.  Also came with a slice of lemon, which I found interesting.  This was undoubtedly the best bowl of phở I have ever had.  I think I might have managed to put away a quarter of it...

    Melon - this looked like a nice slice of ripe melon, but Sang decided to take it up a notch by pouring a little brandy on top...

    Our glasses were empty, and our stomachs full. Now the attention turned to the bottles of liquor behind Sang. He first poured us shots of Laphroaig 30 Year Old, which showed telltale nose of hospital disinfectant as well as some beautiful floral notes.  Having reached my saturation point, I politely declined the offer of an Armagnac from 1983.

    This was a fantastic evening.  I could not have imagined how much beef we would be consuming when I signed us up for this, and we were certainly very happy with the quality of the beef, too.  If only I had about double my stomach capacity...

    The evening was also a lot more fun because, as time went on, Sang realized that DaRC really knew his shit when it came to meat and butchery.  Of course all of us have been around the block and possess some basic knowledge when it came to food and wine, but DaRC probably had more passion than any of us - and Sang could see that.  When things began to look lost in translation, Sang even grabbed his buddy Steven and used him as a 'model' in order to show us where the cut of meat came from on a 'cattle'...  That was pretty hilarious...

    When we finally left, we insisted on paying for the bottle of Carruades, but Sang would only charge us a nominal amount for the bottle.  As it turns out he has relatives in Hong Kong, so we hope to see him and Steven in Hong Kong soon, and try to reciprocate their hospitality.

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

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

    Total count: 64 sites in 20 countries

    Greater Blue Mountains Area - 1976
    Sydney Opera House - 1976

    Angkor - 2001

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

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

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

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

    Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration - 1983, 1985, 2002, 2004,
    Himeji-jo - 1998
    Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) - 1998, 2006
    Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara - 2006
    Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range - 2003
    Shrines and Temples of Nikko - 2007
    The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement - 2016

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

    Changdeokgung Palace Complex - 2008
    Jongmyo Shrine - 2017

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

    Bahla Fort - 2007
    Falaj System of Irrigation - 2007

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

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

    South Africa
    Cape Floral Region Protected Areas - 1995

    Works of Antonio Gaudi - 2006

    Lavaux, Vineyard Terraces - 2008, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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