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

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  • 06/17/18--07:54: The first dragon
  • Mr. QLI is in town for a few days, and we were overdue for a catch-up.  After going through a bunch of options, we realized that he has never been to any of the RyuGin restaurants, so I made a booking for a relatively early seating at Tenku RyuGin (天空龍吟).

    This was the first time that I've been here as a 2-top, and we were seated by the window along the corridor.  The sun had not yet completely set, and it seemed a little unfamiliar for me to be here without the skies being pitch black outside.

    The menu still consists of 12 courses - some of which are small bites - including two desserts.

    Cold somen with sea urchin and hamaguri clam stock (蛤と雲丹のそうめん) - I always love the fact that they serve up a chilled somen (そうめん) as the first course during the warmer months.  This time the noodles came in a milky clam stock, topped with Hokkaido sea urchin, scallion sprouts (芽ネギ), and sudachi (酢橘) zest shavings.  So refreshing, with creamy richness.  We were told that there was also something called hananome on top, but I don't know what that is, and I couldn't see it...

    Amadai in agedashi style (甘鯛の揚げ出し  蕪と黒くわいの擦り流し) - the tilefish (甘鯛) was battered and deep-fried for a crispy exterior, then placed in a bowl of turnip (蕪) purée with small chunks of water chestnuts.  Served with a deep-fried togarashi (唐辛子) pepper from Hokkaido.

    Mango and foie gras with tofu paste (マンゴー白和え  フォアグラ削り節) - now we get some modern touches... On the spoon was mango from Miyazaki Prefecture (宮崎県) - although I forgot to ask which cultivar - along with some tofu and shavings of frozen foie gras.  Very cold, and a totally different sensation from the last dish.

    Kuruma shrimp dumpling in ichibandashi soup (車海老の進上のお椀) - the ichibandashi (一番出汁) made with kombu (昆布) from Rishiri (利尻) has always been light and delicate, but sometimes one wonders whether it could be too delicate...  The dumpling was made with chunks of tiger prawns, which were quite a little bit more chewy than the mousse which bound the chunks together... and the dumpling kinda disintegrated.  Garnished with some shredded myoga (茗荷) on top and cloud ear (雲耳) fungus.

    Sashimi (お造り):
    Aori squid (アオリイカ) - nice and thick cut, and nicely scored.  Perfect with a few drops of sudachi juice.

    Abalone (鮑) - very tender, and also nicely scored for great texture.  Served with abalone liver sauce.

    Kinmedai (金目鯛) - the splendid alfonsino came lightly torched, and served with baby perilla leaves and grated radish marinated in ponzu (ポン酢).

    Bonito (鰹) - this was aged very, very nicely... and delivered beautifully soft texture.  With finely diced chives and sesame seeds.  Very yum.

    Charcoal grilled unagi large eel (鰻の炭火焼き) - the eel is no longer sourced from Taiwan, and they now come from Guangdong Province (廣東省) - although our waiter told us this was Japanese eel...  In any case it was still nice and fatty, with a crispy underside.  Actually worked quite well with the Châteauneuf-du-Pape... 

    Tomato consommé with jyunsai (トマトとジュンサイ) - a simple shot of chilled tomato consommé, with all the umami, along with some slippery water shield (蓴菜).

    Charcoal grilled smoked pigeon breast (小鳩の炭火焼き) - now THIS was seriously good... The Racan pigeon was cooked PERFECTLY. 

    The skin was crispy after grilling, but the breast itself was amazingly rosé and tender.  Delicious on its own, but kinda interesting with the accompanying soy sauce and wasabi.  Needless to say this worked very well with the Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and made Mr. QLI very happy.

    Kegani crab porridge with yuba (毛ガニと湯葉の雑炊) - the porridge with Japanese horsehair crab from Hokkaido was very delicious, and very comforting towards the end of the meal.

    We also had pickled cucumber and eggplant on the side, along with finely-shredded dried bonito (鰹節).

    Hoji tea konatsu sorbet with coconut espuma and Tosa konatsu (土佐小夏とほうじ茶) - this was a really interesting dessert, which paired refreshing citrus flavors from Tosa konatsu (another name for hyuganatsu 日向夏) and houjicha (ほうじ茶).  The konatsu compote and gelée delivered fruity notes as well as acidity, while the coconut espuma got completely overpowered by the strong flavors of houjicha.  Delicious and interesting.

    Figs with fig flavored ice cream (無花果とその香りのアイス) - the figs from Kochi Prefecture (高知県) were nice and ripe, while the ice cream made with fig leaves and without eggs had a lovely fragrance.

    I brought along two bottles which I figured Mr. QLI would enjoy, and thankfully both bottles drank well.

    2007 Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne - crisp acidity, nice toasty notes, lemon citrus, grilled corn.  After 2½ hours definitely showed some vanilla notes.

    1988 Henri Bonneau Réserve des Célestins - decanted for 1 hour prior to serving,  Beautiful nose with floral notes, eucalyptus, bacon fat, leather.  Not as big as I had hoped for, but pretty decent.

    A pretty happy dinner, and a good opportunity to catch up.  Many thanks for Seki-san and the team for taking very good care of us.  He's got some stuff competition for this, but the Racan pigeon we got tonight definitely ranks among the very best in town.

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  • 06/18/18--01:10: Writing a new chapter
  • It's been a long time coming.  Maxime Gilbert left the kitchen at Amber to open up a place where he could call all the shots, and Écriture was nearly 2 years in the making - undoubtedly an excruciatingly long process for him.  Funnily enough, I had been watching the brand-new building take shape over the last few years, and I can see the restaurant - located on the top floor - from the comfort of my office chair. 

    Maxime knew very well my aversion to brand new restaurants, so he played it cool and did not invite me for a tasting immediately when the place opened - choosing instead to wait until I was ready.  Well, a joint birthday celebration seemed like an appropriate opportunity for my first visit.  So I pinged Maxime to let him know that I was finally ready.

    There's normally a short prix fixe lunch as well as a longer prix fixe dinner menu.  However, there was never any doubt that Maxime would try to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at me... hence the presentation of the carte blanche menu.

    Our first bite was this... dare I call it... tater tots?  Topped with some caviar, of course.

    Japanese pumpkin - a mix of pumpkin purée and cream is sandwiched between two discs of pumpkin crisps.

    Steamed bun - stuffed with dried seafood... and also topped with some.  It was kinda like having X.O sauce buns, but I didn't really care for it.

    Fish cracker - made of tiny baby sardines (ちりめんじゃこ).  Always good.

    As the time for finger food was over, the staff brought a box of their custom-made knives for us to choose from. Everyone got to choose a knife they preferred, except me...

    This was the knife that I would be using today.  Maxime had decided to engrave it with my nom de plume (or is it actually nom de guerre?). It was an unexpected gesture, and I was certainly flabbergasted... and very flattered.

    Last year, my friends who are the owners of Brass Spoon had told me about their idea of engraving the names of regular customers on the restaurant's signature brass spoons, and asked me how I felt about having one.  At the time I told my friends that I didn't think it was necessary to have my own personalized spoon while slurping down a bowl of pho, and that it wouldn't make me feel any special.

    Well... I was wrong.  I definitely felt very special today.

    Amaebi - the raw Japanese shrimps were beautiful and sweet, served on a bed of white bonito gelée, with citrus and pickled red pearl onions providing the acidic counterbalance.  The staff apparently did not realize that I, like Hello Kitty, also did not wish to have any beetroot... so I got the beautifully crafted beetroot "flower" on top.  It wasn't bad, but those red amaranth leaves were just too damn earthy for me... 

    This had been sitting next to our table since the start of the meal, so we knew that caviar would be served at some point.

    The "royal schrenki caviar" - whatever that means - was farmed in China and cured between two large sheets of ham made of Galician beef.  This was quenelled and placed on top of what seemed like a pile of greens.

    Underneath the collection of morning glory, cabbage, sorrel, and spinach was, in fact, bone marrow soufflé.  The creamy and foamy sauce that was spooned on top was made of clams, seafood and parsley oil.  Pretty interesting, but slightly on the salty side.

    The second part of the dish was when the "leftover" caviar was served to us on sourdough bread - along with the cured Galician beef. As the others mentioned, this was very, very evil... and took up a good amount of valuable real estate in my stomach.

    Beignet with Hokkaido scallop, black truffle, and seaweed - cutting open the crunchy beignets revealed the gigantic Hokkaido scallops stuffed inside.  These had been scored and encased with slices of black truffle from France, then wrapped with nori (海苔) seaweed before being battered and deep-fried.

    The scallops were beautiful, as was the crunchy shell.  The seaweed brought its own umami to the dish.  Served with celeriac purée and some scallop foam.  There were four happy campers here after this.

    Artichoke millefeuille - the artichoke was lightly poached, then very thin slices were pressed into a block like a millefeuille... then deep-fried and garnished with a very thin strand of pickled ginger.  Hidden in the beurre noisette emulsion were a mix of sautéed sugar peas, truffle, ginger, jamón ibérico, and chives.  Very nice.

    We were shown a pretty damn big abalone before our next dish...

    The abalone was simmered with daikon (大根) radish, kombu (昆布), and sake for 4 hours.  Sliced (our server made sure we knew that the serrated pattern on the slices were deliberate and not a result of poor knife skills) and served atop eggplant purée and grapefruit, garnished with slices of cured Galician beef and sorrel.

    The ubiquitous abalone liver sauce came on the side.  This version was made with mustard and soy sauce - and was slightly too salty and surprisingly not sour.  We also had dashi (出汁) made of eggplant, which showed sweetness and good balance.  Overall, a pretty good dish.

    Turbot from Brittany - served with Japanese turnip (蕪) leaves, turnip purée, soy sauce jus with diced tofu and bigorneaux.  Even with the citrus zest on top, the turbot needed the heavier flavors from the condiments.

    Broadbanded thornyhead - the kinki (喜知次) was brought to our table in a pan, before being divided up for service.

    It was, of course, very delicious.  The fish itself is fatty and succulent.  The fillet was served with a compote of vegetables, yuzu (柚子), and seafood such as conpoy (瑤柱).  The accompany sauce was made with Dolcetto d'Alba.  The collar, with pectoral fin attached, came separately with some lime.

    There was also a bowl with ravioli stuffed with Gorgonzola, along with kinki liver and cheek in a pretty sharp and acidic tomato sauce.

    The 3-month-old milk-fed Pyrénées lamb was nice and fatty... and gamey - which was exactly how I like my lamb. It came with cabbage, with a cross-section burnt and then sautéed with butter and ginger.  There were also some chanterelles on the side.   Served with a white miso and seaweed purée, topped with lamb floss.

    I was beyond full at this point, and went over to the open kitchen to chat with Maxime and Noël.  It was then that I saw a big pile of chicken wings... which turned out to be today's staff meal.  Maxime asked whether I wanted some, and in a split second I was running back to our table to tell the others.  The next minute saw each of us being presented with a wing on a plate.

    Yes... I'm having lunch at a fine dining restaurant... and after being stuffed with tons of good food, I decided that I would steal the staff's lunch...  That's the kind of jackass I am.

    This apple pie was certainly very different...

    I guess it doesn't get more deconstructed than this... when the apple and the pastry are completely separate.  The pastry was certainly very flaky, and it's clear that the very thin ribbons came from a number of different kinds of apples. 

    Finally we have some chili chocolate custard, Alphonso mango with five spice, hazelnut cookie crumble, peanut ice cream, and chocolate chips.  Pretty interesting mix.

    A cup of coconut milk on the side.

    Kouign amann - with some crème fraîche in the middle

    We were too full to have the chocolate tart...

    ...but I did find room for these seedless Kyoho (巨峰) grapes.

    Even though this was lunch, it WAS a birthday celebration on a public holiday, so we indulged in some wine...

    The restaurant very kindly offered us complimentary Champagne to start. Even though the other option was clearly more "luxe" and a very well-made wine in its own right, the wine snob in me found Dom Pérignon Rosé somewhat "pedestrian" and opted for the more interesting choice...

    Fleury Sonate n°9 - very yeasty, lots of depth of character, plenty of sharp acidity, and marmalade notes.

    2002 Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon - decanted for more than 45 minutes prior to serving.  Nose of vanilla, coconut butter, pencil lead, ripe fruit, and smoke.  Fragrant and beautiful.  Tannins are still here, with a long finish. 

    1997 Chapoutier Hermitage Vin de Paille, en demi-bouteille  - fragrant nose of honey and medjool dates.  Rich and unctuous on the palate.  Surprising level of sweetness.

    1989 Dr. Pauly-Bergweiler Wehlener Sonnenuhr Beerenauslese, from half-bottle - classic nose of polyurethane with fragrant notes of pollen and orange blossom.  Good acidity here to balance the sweetness.

    This was a ton of food, and we did have a decent amount of alcohol, so when we left the restaurant after our 4-hour lunch, I got home and collapsed for the next 2 hours. I almost died from the amount of food we were given, and now I have found myself a second chef in town who tries to kill me this way... It would, of course, be a pretty nice way to go for sure! Many thanks to Maxime and the team for spoiling us.

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  • 06/22/18--08:23: Sushi for birthday
  • I try to spend my birthday with the parental units, and this year I'm flying in on the day to have dinner in Taipei.  Unfortunately the powers that be had other plans, and my short flight between Hong Kong to Taoyuan was first delayed by late aircraft arrival, then by thunderstorms at Hong Kong International Airport.  We landed 2½ hours later than scheduled - or half an hour prior the original time for our dinner reservation - only to be told that Taoyuan International Airport didn't have a gate for us.  When we finally disembarked, Hello Kitty got stuck in a huge line at immigration behind people who didn't know to line up for immigration counters.

    Which was why I rolled my big ass suitcase through the doors at Ye Sushi (野壽司) an hour late.  The restaurant was nearly empty, and the parental units were already seated.  I apologized to the chef and the staff, and we started dinner in pretty quick fashion.  We chose the "full menu", starting with otsumami (おつまみ) and sashimi (刺身), and ending with nigiri sushi (握り寿司).

    First we have a starter consisting of watershield (蓴菜), cherry tomatoes, and what looked like fish skin.  Good acidity here, and refreshingly cool.

    Red seabream (真鯛)

    Chicken grunt (伊佐木)

    Cockle skirt (鳥貝ヒモ) - wrapped around a stick and lightly grilled.  

    Cockle (鳥貝)

    Oyster (牡蠣) - from Mie Prefecture (三重県).  With spicy grated radish (辛子おろし).

    Horse mackerel roll (鯵巻き) - horse mackerel is wrapped in a layer of perilla leaves, then rolled up in thin ribbons of cucumber... with some sesame seeds.  Pretty nice.

    Pike conger (鱧) - lightly grilled and served in a broth with sea grapes (海ぶどう).  Seasoned with some yuzukosho (柚子胡椒) on top, and the spicy kick was pretty nice.  Unfortunately the conger came with quite a few pieces of long bones which Sato-san didn't manage to cut.

    Bonito (鰹) - very nicely aged until it's buttery soft.  First piece was served with ground ginger and diced spring onions.

    Second piece of bonito came with diced raw onions as well as spring onions.

    Next came a bowl with Japanese horsehair crab (毛蟹), purple sea urchin (紫雲丹), and salmon roe (イクラ).  It's too bad I found large pieces of crab shell.

    North Pacific giant octopus (水蛸) - always love the texture... with so much bite.  Dipped into seaweed salt.

    Grilled splendid alfonsino (金目鯛) - nice and juicy after yuanyaki (幽庵焼き), although I didn't detect any yuzu (柚子) flavor...

    Then came the sushi portion of dinner. I think the rice was slightly on the firm side, and the vinegar wasn't particularly strong.

    Rosy seabass (赤睦) - very soft and fatty, melted a little with torching.  A little smoky.

    Sweetfish (鮎) - also very soft.

    Marinated lean tuna (赤身漬け) - I don't remember being asked about dietary restrictions, so when this came I didn't say anything...

    Grilled sweetfish skin (鮎皮) - this was first marinated in vinegar.

    Sillago marinated in kombu (鱚昆布締め) - thick cut and slightly crunchy texture.  Surprising how much wasabi was used here.

    Japanese green sea urchin (馬糞雲丹) - the shari (シャリ) was much warmer for this, and more densely packed.

    Gizzard shad (小肌) - thicker cut than what I'm used to.

    Fatty tuna belly (大トロ) - shimofuri (霜降り) part of the belly, and it was very, very, very soft... and melted with the temperature inside my mouth.

    Conger eel (穴子)

    Grilled egg (卵焼き) - this was interesting... we've got a quail egg encased inside.

    I was very thankful that Sato-san made the rice balls smaller for the parental units, and as previously agreed mom could tell him to stop when she's had enough - and she wasn't charged full price for her meal. 

    As we had arrived late, the wine I had brought for dinner was still in my suitcase... at the wrong temperature. So I chose not to bring it out and drink with the parental units. Instead, I chilled it when I got home and popped the cork later.

    1970 Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Riesling Spätlese - a little hint of stink, mustiness.  Otherwise flinty, polyurethane, lemon citrus, white flowers.  Good maturity roundness with acidity on the palate.

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  • 06/23/18--00:19: Beef noodle run
  • Hello Kitty likes her beef noodles, and not long before our trip, she saw pictures posted by Scubagolfer about a place neither of us had heard of.  So we made sure to plan a stop at Noodle Cuisine (天下三絕麵食館).  We arrived for our 1:30 p.m. booking, and the place was still fairly busy... and it was obvious that they were pretty short-staffed.

    Bean curd strips salad (涼拌乾絲) - this was... disappointing.  Flavor-wise there was nothing special, and this was a pretty small portion.

    Beff heel muscle noodles soup (極品牛B腱麵) - yes... the menu did read "beff"... There was a choice of three different types of noodles, and I picked the thicker, flat noodles for the added chewy texture.  The broth was relatively clear, but still has good flavors as well as some spices.  It was kinda halfway between the really intense style which packs lots of beefy flavors and the ones with more herbal notes.

    There were three large chunks of shank from the hind legs, and these came in pretty thick cuts.  The meat was very tender, but the chunks still maintained their structure, so they weren't flabby or falling apart.  Biting into these large chunks turned out to be really satisfying, and considering the amount of beef in the bowl, the higher price tag certainly did not feel unjustified.  I was pretty happy with my bowl.

    Plum vinegar (梅子醋)

    I thought this was a pretty good place for beef noodle soup. It may not be my favorite, but it certainly delivers plenty of pleasure.  Certainly coming back for more.

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  • 06/28/18--08:57: Refreshing summer
  • Ta Vie 旅 has been one of my favorite restaurants in town ever since my first visit, and over the years I have watched Sato-san further refine his cuisine.  When he posted about his new dishes for the summer, I knew it was time to visit them again... so I rounded up a few people - including Chef DaRC (I have been requested to remove the world "chef" when referring to him, although the request didn't come from him...) - and took the opportunity to introduce this place to a friend.

    Sato-san has always been exceeding kind to me, and once again my menu is slightly different and special...

    But first we got some of the homemade butter which I love so much.  Yes, boys and girls... the restaurant makes its own butter in-house.  And it's damn good.

    The butter was made to go with their homemade nukazuke (糠漬け) bread.  Yup, the bread is made in-house, too... thanks to Sato-san's training.  I could never resist just having one of these...

    Takano-san also showed us their homemade ricotta... which was made with the whey from butter production.  Served with a drizzle of olive oil.

    Sweet corn puffed mousse with aburi botan shrimp - YASSSSS!!!!  I was so happy that this came back on the menu!  This was arguably Sato-san's first classic dish after launching the restaurant, and I have never failed to love it.  It looks like some gelée surrounded by a ring of corn mousse.

    Hidden within the light and ethereal mousse were kernels of crunchy, mostly-raw corn (from Hokkaido, perhaps?) which had been lightly charred.  Together with the barely-torched botan shrimp (牡丹海老) from Hokkaido and the finely diced capsicum, these provided the sweet elements of the dish.  Then we have the shrimp gelée on top for the umami, along with really fragrant olive oil for some savory notes.

    I did notice something new in the dish - some crunchy chips which didn't use to be among the mix.  As it turns out this was deep-fried sheets made with tapioca and corn, and the result of a suggestion from a chef in Copenhagen who thought the dish could use a little more crunch.

    I actually thought the dish was perfect as it was before - since it already had a mix of crunch from the corn, additional texture from the capsicum, then raw shrimps with a little bite, followed by the soft and fluffy textures of the gelée and the mousse.  But I didn't mind the additional crunch.

    Green asparagus with Burrata and Longjing tea leaves serves with avocado and green apple purée - this was something I had on my last visit a few months ago, and I still love it.  The Burrata was very, very good, and what's not to like about the asparagus from Hokkaido?  While I'm not a big fan of plain avocado, the fact that it was puréed with green apples made it so much better with the added acidity and sweetness.

    As for the new element of Longjing tea (龍井茶) leaves... well, I've never been able to "get" why chefs put them in dishes - as the fragrance is so light that one needs to put a shit ton of it to make a real difference.  Or maybe I just suck because I'm not a "supertaster"... and can barely detect the subtle flavors until I'm chewing on a bunch of them leaves...

    Housemade pasta with "aonori" seaweed sauce topped with "bafun" uni - thank you, Sato-san, for always including this dish when I come...  I don't think it's possible for me to ever get tired of this.  This combination with pasta dressed in aonori (青海苔) - which provides for plenty of satisfying umami - and the sweet and creamy sea urchin is just killer.  Tonight Sato-san dispensed with his usual and served it with purple sea urchin (紫雲丹).  Very grateful for the treat.

    Cold sweet onion potage with foie gras glazed with vintage balsamic - hidden underneath the cold potage made with Japanese onions and snow goose (雪雁) consommé was a piece of foie gras that had been seared, and for some reason it seemed particularly delicious tonight with the charring... or perhaps it was the 20-year-old balsamico with which it was seasoned.  Oh and that little quenelle of chantilly made from Australian black truffles didn't hurt, either...  SLURP!

    Deep fried Taiwanese bamboo shoot with crispy skin stuffed with Hokkaido scallop - we Taiwanese know that we've got some damn delicious bamboo shoots, and I'm glad that Sato-san agrees.

    Once the sheaths are removed, we see a "dumpling" of feuille de brick wrapped around a piece of Hokkaido scallop, which is then deep-fried.  It was piping hot, but a really interesting and delicious version of Cantonese deep-fried wonton...

    "Aori-ika" squid and caviar on black egg custard - the chilled squid ink custard with packing tons of acidity, with some bigfin reef squid (アオリイカ) on top, garnished with some Imperial caviar from Sologne by La Maison Nordique, capers, julienned cucumber, and red onions. 

    White asparagus with topped with black truffle - the poached white asparagus from Hokkaido came with a beurre blanc sauce and a generous amount of shaved Australian black truffle.  Nice acidity there in the sauce.  Very classic flavors. 

    Charcoal grilled pigeon (medium rare) flavored with seasame oil, pigeon liver tapenade - the pigeon came with shishito peppers (獅子唐辛子) along with Inca potatoes alongside the delicious confit pigeon leg.  There was also a quenelle of tapenade made with the pigeon's liver.  Slurp.

    The breast of the pigeon certainly looked rosé, and came with smoked garlic.  Tender and delicious as expected.

    Jasmine flower and white tea blanc-manger with melon soup - I've always loved this for the Shizuoka musk melon (マスクメロン), which are so incredibly ripe and sweet.  The blanc-manger had the lovely fragrance from jasmine along with some White Hair Silver Needle tea (白毫銀針). 

    Peach compote, resin crystal, mangosteen, coconuts - underneath the very thin candy dome sat some delicious peach compote, along with some cloves of fresh mangosteen, springy peach resin (桃膠), and a quenelle of coconut sorbet.  Delicious and refreshing.

    Normally I would be getting the delicious herbal tea, but as DaRC had just invited me to join him in watching the England - Belgium match showing live at 2 am, I figured I needed the caffeine.  This Tano Batak Mandheling was actually roasted by a former world barista champion from Taiwan.

    Chocolate mousse with kaffir lime leaves - the benefit of ordering coffee is that I get to have this delicious chocolate mousse.  I always love this for the kaffir lime fragrance.

    We brought along a few bottles of wine, as usual...

    Drappier Quattor - nice body and good depth with acidity a little on the high side.  Lovely floral nose.

    1998 Remoissenet Montrachet - lovely nose, with toasty notes which did not seem overpowering.  Nice and aged marmalade notes, almost floral, caramelized and kind of sweet on the nose.

    1995 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Barrel Reserve - minty, earthy, smoky.  Nice and ripe fruit, with a hint of acidity on the finish, although tannins were still here.

    Another very happy dinner here... and glad to have tasted the new creations along with some classics!

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    We’re on a long, 18-day trip as we eat our way through Belgium and France. After landing in Brussels in early morning, we took the train from the airport to Gare de Bruxelles-Midi so that we can store our luggage in lockers and explore the city for a few hours.

    Our first stop today was the Atomium. As a kid growing up in the 70s, the image of what was back then a futuristic structure had always been synonymous with Brussels, so it made sense to be our first stop.

    The first part of the visit was an elevator ride to the top sphere to get a panoramic view of the city. After coming back down to the ground, we went through a few of the spheres while checking out the exhibition on the history of the Atomium as well as René Magritte’s work.

    Our first meal of the trip – where we started the Michelin star count - was at Comme Chez Soi. Located at Place Rouppe, the restaurant was opened 92 years ago and has remained in the same family throughout this time.

    We decided to forgo the various set menus and went à la carte. But first we were treated to a series of amuses bouches.

    Krupuk with shrimp

    Halibut millefeuille– with diced herbs.

    Herring– with red peppercorns, diced red onions, something crunchy like kohlrabi maybe, and served with citrus gel on the side.

    Octopus– with lobster and mayonnaise of lobster, diced green apples, and something else that provided crunch.

    White cream of eel– creamy and acidic, with what I thought was parsley. The little chunks of eel inside were pretty bouncy and springy.

    Filet of red mullet, lime butter with green sansho, cardamom, crispy vegetables with kalamansi– the mullet was marinated and had a rather firm texture, garnished with crispy fish scales on top. The medley of vegetables included courgettes, baby corn, micro tomatoes, salicornia, capsicum in different colors, and seasoned with curry/turmeric powder. Pretty interesting.

    Marinated beef with juniper berries and tarragon, emulsion of tuna with caper berries– Hello Kitty's choice.  The slices of beef were very tender and still raw in the middle, and came on a bed of relish which included hazelnuts as well as flying fish roe in wasabi.  The emulsion on the side - curiously made with tuna and caper berries - was nice and acidic yet also savory.  As for those red dots in the middle... they tasted curiously like those Thai sweet chili sauce.

    Presa Duroc from Batallé roasted with nuts oil, peas, ramonache, roquette, young Parmesan - this was some damn tasty pork!  Served with peas, zucchini, fava beans, asparagus, red onions, and deep-fried sticks of celeriac.

    The pork was very tender, just seared on the outside.  The striations of the muscles looked very pretty, while the pork was incredibly tasty... with very strong flavors of the meat itself.

    Royal quails from Dombes with Leffe Caractère beer and marjoram, stuffed celery root with snails from Namur and garlic - no surprise that this was Hello Kitty's choice.  The plating of this dish was also very beautiful.

    The quail breast was fantastic!  While at first glance it seemed pretty fully-cooked, the center was actually still somewhat pink and raw.

    The menu did say that both the pork and quail dishes included a second service, so our server came over to drop more pieces of pork and quail on our plates... as if we had more stomach space for them! Wasn't expecting to eat a lot for lunch but I just had to power through...

    Mousse of strawberry and passion fruit with peppermint, tartare of litchi and lemon balm - this was our server's recommendation, and it was both pretty and tasty.  The gélée was made with strawberries, passion fruit, and peppermint.

    Hidden in the block of mousse was finely chopped strawberries and lychee, with verbena.

    The petits fours were nicely presented.

    Canelé with orange

    Macaron with basil

    Chocolate with rhubarb - acidic jam in the middle.

    Cassis mousse

    Violet and lemon marshmallows

    I hadn't planned on drinking wine at lunch, but figured we could do a half bottle...

    2004 Georges Mugneret Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru Les Chaignots, en demi-bouteille - nice notes of leather, seemed a little stemmy.  Definitely typical NSG, with black fruits and some sweetness on the nose.

    This was a very good meal, and we were happy that our first meal of the trip went so well.  The wine list had quite a lot of treasures, and I only regret was that we did not come for dinner...

    We found out at the end that the reason we did not get to sit in the Art Nouveau dining room at the front of the restaurant was that it had been booked out by a group of Harley-Davidson owners... and there was a group of bikes parked in front of the restaurant!

    Even though it was long past the time for Hello Kitty to get her caffeine fix, she still wanted to make a stop at Kaffabar - on the other side of Place Rouppe.  The reason?  Marcel, the house bulldog who spends most of the day sleeping in his bed.

    Even though I just had an espresso at the end of lunch, I ordered myself a cold drip coffee.  Curiously this came with slices of orange, which lent the citrus fragrance to my coffee.

    We strolled over to the luxury shopping area on Boulevard de Waterloo, then went back to the station to pick up our luggage for our long taxi ride out of town to our bed and breakfast.

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    One of the highlights of our trip through Belgium was undoubtedly gonna be dinner at L'Air du Temps.  The restaurant is in Éghezée, and they have a few rooms on the premises for guests who wish to stay over.  Unfortunately for me, even though I was booking nearly 4 months in advance, the website told me that there were no rooms available (curiously, I got an email from the restaurant later asking if I wanted a room)...  Which was why we decided to book a room at La Chambre d'à Côté, a bed-and-breakfast within walking distance (or so I thought) of the restaurant.

    Anne-Catherine and Kervyn run a charming little place with two guest rooms, and we took the suite on the ground floor, with a beautiful view outside the bedroom window.

    Anne-Catherine offered to drive us to the restaurant, but I figured we could do a little walking around the country.  What I hadn't thought of was the fact that Hello Kitty would be in (admittedly low and chunky) heels, which would make the 1.3km walk seem an eternity...

    Upon arrival, we were seated in a small waiting room - without any air conditioning - while we took in some aperitifs and our starters.  I had previously chosen the Plant Supremacy Menu.

    Water and bread - I was kinda surprised at how little "water" we were poured, especially given such a hot day, but I guess it's meant to be just a shot... infused with angelica and juniper berries.  The thin wafer of "bread" was clipped to a wire dangling from the ceiling, and was made from cereals and grilled onions.

    Viola: wild viola, tapioca - these were fermented pansies from last year along with fresh pansies, with dried yeast powder, on top of a puffed tapioca cracker.  Savory with strong fermented flavors, along with acidity.

    Korea: dashi, anchovy, sour cream, iodized herbs - tiny dried Korean anchovies stuck together into a ball, with soy sauce, mirin (味醂), and oyster leaves.  Here the anchovies totally overwhelmed the other flavors.  Soy sauce lent saltiness while mirin added some sweetness.  There was liquid in the glass tube, which tasted curiously like sesame oil.

    River: trout, potato, mint emulsion - on top of the potato tart was diced trout, diced turnip, horseradish powder, and trout roe.  I definitely tasted the horseradish and a hint of peppermint.

    Indian cress: Parmigiano crispy with condiment of Indian cress - the Parmigiano tart base was pretty damn savory, and definitely needed the nasturtium sauce as well as the nasturtium leaves and flowers on top to help balance it.

    I also had a house cocktail which was made with sparkling wine, bitters, and strawberries.  Pretty fragrant.

    We were then moved to the main dining room, where we were seated at a table by the window, overlooking the beautiful garden.

    Back from Thailand: like a tom yum soup - spherification FAIL.  The 'skin' was waaaay too thick and took some effort to burst.  Warm broth inside with lots of lemon grass and some   from shrimp.  Not too salty and just a little bit spicy.

    Yukhoe: fresh and fermented daylilies in croquette - even though this was not filled with meat, the flavors absolutely reminded me of a baked barbecue pork bun (叉燒餐包) with char siu inside.  With just a hint of spiciness here.

    We were presented with some unsalted butter, Normandy fleur de sel on the side, as well as a ponzu (ポン酢) butter.  The latter was interesting...

    We were also presented with some water which had been infused with coriander, lemongrass, and juniper.

    Peas and Love: little pie, emulsion of shizo, peas, lemongrass - very, very good.  I love peas when they're so fresh and sweet, and in addition to the peas being from the restaurant's own gardens, we've got pea shoots and lemongrass here, too.

    With shiso/perilla emulsion inside, and a lemongrass jam on the side.

    Ikijime: pollock, courgette, bottarga - the fish was wrapped in courgette flowers before steaming, and the texture was just perfect. The bottarga cream underneath was pretty strong and a little on the bitter side, and we've also got a sauce made from sage. 

    Liernu: seasonal vegetables and oil of the time - the perennial favorite dish as it uses ingredients from the garden, and the ingredients rotate constantly depending on what's available.  In the winter the selection becomes pickles and fermented vegetables as there is no fresh produce.  The sauce is the only constant as it is made with butter along with the fermentation water, and the vegetables are sprinkled with powder made from the fermentation water.

    Tonight we've got yellow courgettes, green courgettes, kohlrabi, radish, yellow beets (even though we told them we don't like beets), cauliflower, arugula, dill flower, and a type of leaf with anise flavor - all on some herbed mash potato.  There's definitely acidity in the sauce.

    Cloud: Breton lobster, rice cream with meadowsweet, saté juice - the lobster was, of course, very delicious.  It came with a rice mousseline flavored with reine-des-prés as well as a shellfish sauce with a hint of spice and plenty of acidity.  We've also got confit lemon zest, macadamia nuts, and some verbena.

    Confit - this was originally supposed to be beetroot, but Chef Sang-hoon very kindly substituted something else for us - cooked with some binchotan (備長炭).

    The carrots came, of course, from the restaurant's own garden.  This way they could be served at the size the chef wanted.  They came with a hint of smoke and were extremely delicious.  The crème fraîche was also kinda smoky.  Garnished with pickled red onions, herbs, and edible flowers.

    Classic: sweetbreads, langoustine in ceviche, butter with herbs and lime - this is a dish that has been on the menu for 15 years, but each year the chef tweaks the recipe and presentation.  Langoustine and sweetbreads is a combination I've had before, and they do work well together.

    The langoustine was simply marinated like a ceviche, and dressed in a lemon sauce with red peppercorns, tomato salsa, fresh herbs from the garden, and lemon.  This was so, so good!

    The sweetbreads were quickly grilled, glazed, then cooked in a ceramic low-temperature oven.  Served on a bed of shallots and sarriettes.

    This has to be the best fucking sweetbreads I have ever had.  The texture was so incredible... You've got the slight crunch from the thin layer of glaze, but the inside was totally soft and springy.  Flavor-wise I thought it was somewhere between Japanese chicken karaage (唐揚げ) and a Korean fried chicken without too much sauce.  Even Hello Kitty, who usually avoids offal like the plague, was completely amazed at how good this was.

    On the side we've got crunchyconfit shallots stuffed with Koshihikari (コシヒカリ) rice topped with gremolata and puffed grains.

    And we got a little bit of shellfish sauce which wasn't made with cream.  This was sooooo rich in flavor, but not heavy at all.

    Strawberry: cone with red pepper cream and sorbet - the first of multiple variations using strawberries. The red capsicum cream was at the bottom and the strawberry sorbet was at the top of the strawberry "paper" cone.

    Tagada Strawberries with nigella - I guess this was similar to Haribo's Fraises Tagada, and definitely stuck to one's teeth.  And came with caster sugar that was really sour, and nigelle de Damas seeds.

    Granita with herbs from the garden - strawberry carpaccio with granita made with herbs from the garden, as well as balls made of strawberries, along with arugula and mint.  Really refreshing and beautiful.

    Entremet with asperula - the bavarois was made with the asperula herb from the garden, with strawberry cream and verbena inside.

    They rolled out the mignardises tray, but I was soooo stuffed... I still managed to pick out three of them.

    Chocolate and calamansi lollipop

    Raspberry tart


    The wine list here isn't as good as the one at Comme Chez Soi, but I still managed to pick out a bottle at a reasonable price that I wanted to drink.

    2013 Roses de Jeanne Creux d'Enfer, dégorgée en Avril 2017 - lovely nose of red fruits, with a hint of yeast.  Good acidity with good depth on the palate.

    This was a really, really impressive dinner. This place came very highly recommended by the destination dining community, and I can totally see why.  Not that I know anything, but I would certainly put this place as one of the prime candidates for upgrade to a third Michelin star...  Before dinner started, Hello Kitty had been scratching her head and wondering why I had dragged her some 50km out of Brussels to the countryside.  At the end of dinner, she thought the trip was totally worth it.

    P.S. We ended up walking back to La Chambre d'à Côté after dinner, while looking at the very large moon coming up on the horizon after 11pm...

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    Woke up in the morning to views of the hydrangeas in the garden right outside our windows at La Chambre d'à Côté.  Not something I'm used to, but how could I not love it?!

    At the appointed time Anne-Catherine brought us the breakfast spread, and what a spread it was!

    There were giant croissants bigger than my palm...

    ... and croque monsieur...

    After resting for a little after breakfast, Anne-Catherine's son-in-law drove us back to Brussels - shaving a chunk off the normally hefty taxi fare. We dropped our luggage off at Hilton Brussels Grand Place, and went about exploring - where else? - Le Grand-Place

    And it WAS grand - especially in the sunlight when the gold glitters.  This was also a great opportunity for Hello Kitty to use her 360 camera.

    There was, of course, the obligatory stop at Manneken Pis.  Unfortunately this wasn't a special day, so he was naked today...

    We were getting a little hungry, so we went around looking for some lunch.  It's Sunday and pretty much most of the decent places to eat shut down, so we made do with some tourist trap food at Brussels Grill near the Grand Place.

    Kroketten van grijze garnalen - the grey shrimps are meant to be a local specialty, but I honestly couldn't make it out from the gooey filling...

    Salad Niçoise - Hello Kitty wanted to have salad, although I wasn't really sure why she ordered this one when the objective was to have veggies...

    Moules frites - well... I guess we're in Belgium... so we ordered it even know we knew that 1) it's a tourist trap and 2) it's a fucking Sunday so the mussels have probably been soaking in their own piss for a while (something I learned from Tony Bourdain years ago).

    We both had Leffe Blonde, but naturally hers was twice the size of mine...

    With our stomachs full, we moved over to the Magritte Museum for a little bit of culture.  That was a rare opportunity to see some works from an amazing artist.  We also spent a little time in the Oldmasters Museum, but it wasn't as interesting as I thought it would be.

    Brussels is home to a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites besides Le Grand-Place, most of which are architectural masterpieces.  So I spent the afternoon (after having watched Russia beat Spain from our hotel room) criss-crossing the city in search of them.

    Stoclet House was my first stop.  The house is still occupied by the family which commissioned it, so I stood outside the fence and snapped a few shots.

    The next few stops were all old apartment buildings done in Art Nouveau style by Victor Horta, and I wasn't able to get into any of them.  First up was Hôtel van Eetvelde.  Not being able to see the supposedly beautiful interior, the exterior seemed a little disappointing.

    Hotel Tassel was next, and it was very beautiful.  If only I had planned my visit better so I could take a tour...

    Our final stop of the day was Hotel Solvay a few blocks away.

    Hello Kitty was tired and hungry, so we went back to the area near our hotel to grab a bite.  We had passed by BrewDog and it looked interesting thanks to the craft beers, so we sat on the deck and hung out to watch the sun go down.

    The sharing super pack that Hello Kitty ordered wasn't all that great.  The southern fried chicken strips were unsurprisingly dry and meh.  The Cajun corn on the cob was greasy.  The french fries and sweet potato fries were fine.  But the chicken wings were from left field... coated with tomato salsa that had chili sauce added.  Oh and the beers weren't that great, either... according to Hello Kitty.

    A sad end to a day when we played tourist.  Hopefully tomorrow will be better...

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    We got up early in the morning to take the train to Antwerp.  Today we would be visiting Hello Kitty's uncles and aunts, and we got picked up after a 30-minute train ride.  We took breakfast at Den Artist so Hello Kitty could get her caffeine fix and sat on the sidewalk overlooking the Royal Museum of Fine Arts.  Unfortunately the Museum was being renovated and seemed closed.

    I wanted to hit a few more UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the city, so big uncle drove us around.  Our first stop was Maison Guiette, a house designed by Le Corbusier.

    Next was the Plantin-Moretus Museum, which used to be a printing house dating back to the Renaissance.  Unfortunately, this was also under major renovations... so I didn't get to go inside.

    Within walking distance was Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal, one of the inscribed properties of Belfries of Belgium and France.  This, too, was having work done on it... but at least the cathedral remained open.

    The cathedral was certainly grand, with big panels of stained-glass windows on both sides.  They also had an exhibit of religious works by old masters, including Pieter Paul Rubens.

    I thought we were a little short on time, so I didn't climb to the top of the towers...  Instead we walked over to the Stadhuis for a quick look.  Guess what?  It was also covered in scaffolding...

    Thanks to some miscommunication, we ended up grabbing a late lunch at 'T Zilted - a creative fine dining restaurant at the top of Museum aan de Stroom.

    We took a simple, 3-course lunch, but they plied us with a bunch of nibbles to start:

    Taco with kohlrabi, young vegetables, and sudachi - the sudachi (酢橘) came in the form of a jelly cube, and we've got beans, bean sprouts, and creamy miso.

    Japanese kyuri foam with sea buckthorn, cracker with bonito flakes - certainly some fermented flavors here, and the cracker had lots of toasty grains on top.

    Tart with horseradish, sheep's milk, and fennel - very refreshing with nice creaminess.  Seemingly with crunchy roots and black crunchy bits.

    Fougasse - very tasty with salt and olive oil. So crispy.

    White asparagus, arugula, crevettes grises - the bottom is a layer of white asparagus custard, with a layer of arugula purée and olive oil on top.  The small and totally delicious Belgian crevettes grises from the North Sea packed a ton of umami, and we also had some ribbons of white asparagus.  I wish I had a bigger portion of this.  The cool, refreshing, and slightly sweet white asparagus worked so well with the green flavors of the arugula and the strong flavors of the ocean. 

    Takoyaki - a little spicy, and almost tasted of dried bonito (鰹節).

    Eggplant custard - this supposedly came with an Indonesian sauce that sounded like 'baingan'... which would make it Indian.  This was very salty at first, then turned somewhat acidic and came with kaffir lime in the nose.  It was simply too heavy in terms of flavor for me, and I needed to reach for my water.

    Cheesecake: eel, langoustine, cucumber, dill - the green strips on top of the layer of cream cheese were actually very thin ribbons of cucumbers... which was amazing.  With bonito flakes and langoustine, and black quinoa-like grains in the tart base.  Sour cream and dill-based sauce, with frozen powder of horseradish.  Very good.

    The grilled eel was fine, but the pea custard with peas inside was a touch too salty.

    Veal: Cevenne onion, cepes, anchovies - with girolles which were very salty.  The Cevennes onions were pickled and crunchy, and this came with very thin wafers of white button mushrooms.

    Honestly this was too 'well done' for my taste.  I prefer my meat not to be so cooked.  It was still tender but no longer moist.  The herb crust on top had some parsley.

    Rhubarb: estragon, yoghurt, almond - the sorbet was made with yoghurt and almonds, while there were rhubarb ribbons, jam, and sauce... along with a few raspberries thrown in.  Pretty nice.

    The wine list was rather poor, so I wanted to drink a bottle of German pinot noir, and

    2009 Hansjorg Rebholz Im Sonnenschein Spätburgunder GG - lovely nose once it cooled down, with leather, a little floral, eucalyptus, spices, and nice red fruits.  A hint of tannins on the finish here.

    We took our coffee out on the terrace along with the mignardises.

    The base was half vanilla and half lime, topped with a pistachio parfait and a sugar tuile with ginger.

    The nougat was very sweet, while the canelé had a wonderful prominent fragrance from the Grand Marnier, although the center was too wet for my liking,

    It was a pretty long and late lunch, and we got back to big uncle's place to meet up with small uncle - while trying to catch some World Cup action.  I had left the choice of dinner venue up to the uncles, and when we saw how badly traffic was backed up with the tunnel crossing the Scheldt River, big uncle suddenly made a U-turn, and not longer after we found ourselves across the border in Hulst, Netherlands...

    We took a table inside at De Korenbeurs overlooking Grote Markt.  It was meant to be a simple dinner, so I only ordered one dish...

    Meanwhile we were treated to some pickled herring on toast.

    Vispannetje met garnalenbisque, gegratineerd met Zwitserse kaas - I wanted to try something a little more "local", so I got this fish stew in shrimp bisque.  Well, unfortunately a couple of pieces of fish didn't seem fresh and showed some ammonia notes.  I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be that way, but I kinda doubt it.

    This came with sides of salad and frites.

    Not a great dinner for me, but I wasn't gonna complain. We went back to Antwerp to catch the second half of the Belgium-Japan match...

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    We got up bright an early to take the train from Antwerp to Bruges.  Like other days in our itinerary in Belgium, we are only staying one night here.  And for this one night, we chose Hotel Van Cleef and got ourselves a canal view room.  As we browsed through TripAdvisor, Hello Kitty and I were amazed to find that out of more than 500 reviews for this hotel, not a single person gave it a "one star", and only one person gave it "two stars".  For that reason alone, we were curious to check it out.

    It was immediately apparent to us after we arrived at the hotel.  While it was too early to check in, the receptionist gave us a tour of the hotel premises, offered us a voucher for a free tour of the historic center of the town - which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety - and offered us coffee and breakfast on the hotel's patio facing the canal.

    After The Dining Austrian arrived, hotel owner Frederik called us a taxi to take us to lunch at Hertog Jan.  Similar to my trip to Spain and Portugal back in 2006, this entire trip was structured around a meal at one restaurant... because I wanted to come before they closed at the end of this year.

    I had arranged to be here on a day chef-owner Gert de Mangeleer would be in town, and he very kindly set us up at a corner table by the window.  I am finally here at the farmhouse, overlooking the garden!

    We had traveled a long way to be here, and there was never any doubt that we would be doing "the full monty" when it came to choosing the menu.

    We started with an aperitif, and I chose this very special Champagne...

    André Clouet Un Jour de 1911 - beautiful, yeasty nose.  Love the balance and the depth of flavors here.  Only 1,911 bottles are made each year, from a blend of different vintages.

    Avocado, tomato powder, and Hertog Jan olive oil - a dish I know well from Gert's visit to Hong Kong 2 years ago.  The presentation was slightly different today, but the dish was still an illustration of simplicity and purity.  The thin slice of avocado was coated with a powder made from more than 100 different cultivars of tomatoes - all grown on the premises.  A sprinkle of salt, and a drizzle of olive oil from olives harvested right here.

    Our bread came with two types of butter - a "plain" version as well as one made with cumin.  Guess which little jar got emptied out pretty quickly?

    Salmon roe, marinated cucumber, Champagne sauce with dill oil - salmon roe is, of course, something I'm always happy to have.  To pair it with long strips of marinated cucumber was wonderful, as the latter's texture provided some crunch despite having gotten a little flaccid from the marinade.  The chilled cucumber was really refreshing, and you've got the acidity in the sauce to balance out its own richness.

    Seigneur de Vidaigne : crispy bacon - the pork from the region was made into a fatty and salty rillettes, with slices of pork fat and pickles inside, topped with crumble.

    Foam of potato topped with coffee, vanilla oil, and Mimolette cheese - another amazing dish I remembered from 2 years ago.  The fluffy potato foam was rich and creamy, yet the sweet fragrances of vanilla and coffee pulled the dish in a different direction.  The shavings of Mimolette were a little more savory than I remembered, but the combination and the simultaneous stimulation of different parts of the palate continued to be so interesting.

    Meringue of passion fruit filled with goose liver, bergamot, and Coca-Cola - my third time having this, and still fun to eat.  Disappeared in a 'poof!'

    Royal Belgian caviar: crispy potato with seaweed powder plankton - what's not to like when there's caviar on the menu?

    With crispy waffle chips on the side, seasoned with plankton powder, perhaps?

    We were told it was imperative to combine all the elements together in one bite.  Slurp.

    I was excited to see a bottle of wine listed at a seemingly impossible price, and as it turned out, it was indeed impossible. The list had described at a Meursault Perrières from Coche-Dury, but in the end it was just the regular village wine. However, it was still a very reasonable price.

    2008 Coche-Dury Meursault - nice and toasty as expected, a little grassy, almost a bit coffee.  Good acidity here with a bit of ripeness.  After 1 hour, finally turned beautiful without a hint of grass.

    Tomato, African marigold - as there are more than 100 different cultivars of tomatoes grown here, they get to pick and choose the ones which have ripened for service on the day.  This came with sour cream, chives, cucumber flowers, and gooseberries - as well as a tomato broth.

    If I had to pick a dish that defines summer, this would be it.  The produce is simply amazing, and the flavors are so concentrated.

    Mackerel: lightly smoked mackerel tartare, fermented red cabbage and goat cheese cream  - wrapped inside what I assumed to be a ring of kohlrabi was a layer of fermented red cabbage, raw mackerel and diced chives, and topped with smoked goat cheese garnished with flowers.  Finished with red cabbage vinegar.

    I loved the combination of goat cheese and raw mackerel.  The fermented red cabbage brought some more acidity to the mix.

    North sea bass, herbs from the garden, radish, kaffir lime - the strip of seabass was wrapped around the collection of young radishes and herbs, with some pickled onion and a surprising dose of heat from chili powder... which actually stayed on the palate for a while.  Interesting acidity from the vinegar made with kaffir lime.

    Vegetables, herbs and flowers: walk through our garden inspired by Michel Bras - the house gargouillou with orange carrot, yellow carrot, breakfast radish, purple radish, fennel, yellow sugar snap peas, pickled red radish, buttered chard, deep-fried onion ring, cucumber with flower, cauliflower, pickled artichoke, pickled daylily, turnip, pickled baby radish, yellow beetroot, baby leeks, zucchini flower, romanesco, fennel fronds, oyster leaf, red capsicum, and red capsicum purée.

    Beautiful.  Delicious.

    Guinea fowl, herbs from the garden, morels - with ramson oil and green herb sauce.  The guinea fowl was wrapped in fennel and sage, on a bed of peas, and garnished with fresh as well as blistered dill.  Pretty decent.

    The sommelier suggested we take a glass of red with our next course:

    2015 Braida Barbera d'Asti Montebruna - very minty, exotic spices, potpourri, very sweet and ripe.

    We decided to try out a few of their cheese selectionSternschnuppe from Germany was pretty mild, with a hint of bitterness in the rind.  Keiems Bloempje was salty, tasting almost like Comté but with ammonia near the rind, and turned incredibly bitter after drinking some mineral water.  Trami d'Alsace has its rind washed in Marc de Gewurztraminer, and was really strong and pungent, salty with some ammonia.  And (Beenstrich?) was in between Comté and Mimolette.

    Passion fruit, chocolate, spices - the sheet of passion fruit kinda stuck to my teeth, and came with chocolate crunch, milky caramel, chocolate, and gooseberries.

    Flowers from the garden, lemon cream, roses - on top of the biscuit base were lemon cream, blueberries, rose petals, flowers, some pretty strong herbs, and mint.  Very, very pretty.

    This pie from Dendermonde was similar to spiced pumpkin pie.


    Spiced stick



    Cuberdon - this violet, cone-shaped candy comes from Ghent and has a hard shell with viscous center.

    Can't remember what flavored water this was at the end...

    This was a beautiful meal, and every bit of my expectation was met. Although Gert was busy in meetings all day, he did come to chat with us for a little after our meal, and discussed his plans for future projects such as turning the current location to an ultra-exclusive chef's table which only opens for one table per week.

    He also gave me permission to fly my drone over the restaurant and the surrounding garden, so we walked around the garden and had my DJI Mavic Pro follow Hello Kitty around in tracking mode. I'm so glad I finally got to come and film around here. Many thanks to Gert, Joachim, and the team for making this visit truly special.

    P.S.: the rendering of videos by Instagram is ABSOLUTELY SHIT.  A better version of the video can be found here on YouTube.

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  • 07/03/18--07:14: Europe 2018 day 4: In Bruges
  • After our very long lunch at Hertog Jan, we returned to Bruges to try to do a little bit of sightseeing.  The UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Historical Center of Bruges is not large, and everything is within walking distance from our hotel.

    Hello Kitty had wanted to visit a few of the historic windmills, so we walked towards the canal at the eastern end. Sint-Janshuismolen and Koeleweimolen are among the ones still standing and are actually open to visitors, but unfortunately we only got back to town after visitor hours had finished.

    We pass by Hotel Van Cleef again on our way to the main town square, and find a pair of swans swimming past.

    Back at the Markt, tourists were all around the square trying to snap pictures of the historic buildings, including the famous Belfry of Bruges.  We hung out for a little bit but it wasn't long before we met up with The Dining Austrian for dinner.

    Due to some communication issues, neither of us had booked a table at a particular Michelin 2-star restaurant in town... which was just as well since our lunch was very filling.  But it did leave us in a predicament about where to go for dinner on short notice.  Our friend relied on his hotel concierge, and we eventually ended up at Brasserie Raymond just a few steps away from the Markt.

    Croquettes de crevettes grises maison - I've been loving these grey shrimps from the North Sea, and I thought I'd get myself some more.  The croquettes were a little more brown than I would normally prefer, but the flavors inside were pretty good.

    Vol au vent royal, ris de veau et crevettes grises - I love vol au vent, and it's not something I see often.  So I went for this "royal" version with a ton of stuff on top, including chicken, chicken meatballs, sweet breads, mushrooms, and more grey shrimps.

    2015 Samuel Billaud Chablis 1er Cru Les Fourchaumes - crisp acidity.

    Dinner didn't turn out to be as light and easy-going as I had wanted to be, but at least it wasn't a 3-hour affair.  I was getting a little tired and we wanted to catch up on the England-Colombia match for the World Cup, so we retired early back to the hotel...

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    After a good night's sleep, we got up and took a leisurely breakfast on the terrace by the canal at Hotel Van Cleef.  This was relaxing and delightful, as it was still early and the tourists haven't come out to cruise around on boats yet.

    We decided to go back to the Markt, which had transformed into - what else? - a farmer's market selling fruits, vegetables, and other goodies.  With our plans for more 360° photos and videos of the square thwarted, we proceeded to enter and climb up the Belfry of Bruges.

    The climb is a total of 366 stairs, broken down into several sections, and the stairwell gets narrower towards the top.  Because of this, the number of people permitted to enter the tower at any given time is strictly limited.

    Along the way we got to take a look at the famous carillon with its 47 bells, and the 8-ton cylinder which sets out which bells to strike.  There were a few workers up there tuning the system while we were taking a look.

    The view from up top was indeed breathtaking.  It was a shame that we didn't have enough time to enjoy it more.

    We returned to the hotel to find The Dining Austrian sipping coffee on the terrace while waiting for us.  We were reluctant to leave the Hotel Van Cleef, but we did have a lunch date 50km away.

    Hof van Cleve is the other restaurant holding 3 Michelin stars in Belgium.  Like Hertog Jan, it is also located in a countryside location - seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  We're having some scorching weather this week, but it seems like every restaurant wants you to take an aperitif and serve you the snacks in a more casual setting before seating you for the main event.  So it was that we spent some time on the outdoor terrace while I tried very hard not to sweat...

    So I tried their specialty aperitif, which curiously came with an ice cube.

    This little cup came with a foamy purée of watermelon, ginger, and rhubarb.

    Young herring, slumber peas, miso (Maatjes, miso, geitenkaas) - young herring cubes came with a bit of cream, in a miso soup, cold noodles, and sake sorbet.  Nice and refreshing.

    Green lentils 'du puy', goatcheese, chorizo (Groene linzen 'du puy', chorizo, geitenkaas) - the green lentils came with creamy goat cheese, chicken broth, broad beans, anchovies, tomato salsa, and chorizo.  This was kinda salty.

    Langoustine, chicken liver, mango (Langoustine, kippenlever, mango) - langoustinetartare came with smooth chicken liver mousse, mango chutney, cubes of melon, and crushed popcorn.

    Photo courtesy of gi2lui
    Tomato, rocket salad, shrimp (Tomaat, rucola, garnaal) - tomato mousse with shrimps at the bottom, topped with coulis of arugula.  The umami from the tomato works very well with the arugula, with just a little bit of spice.

    Shrimp, kamut, horseradish (Garnaal, kamut, mierikswortel) - shrimp mousse topped with a crevette grise and cream of horseradish.

    Bread and butter.  This was rye made with Liefmans beer, and it was a little moist inside.  The Dining Austrian remarked that it reminded him of the kind of bread he used to have in Austria.

    Then came the "full monty" of 7 courses of "Freshness of nature":

    Line-caught sea bass, grapefruit, sorrel, quinoa (Zeebaars 'met de lijn gevangen', pompelmoes, zuring, quinoa) - the thin slices of sea bass were wrapped around a pile of quinoa and little discs of marinated turnip, with a layer of Japanese nori (海苔) seaweed in between, and puffed amaranth seeds on top.  There were also distinctive notes of sesame oil.  The little balls of sorbet were made of green apple and sorrel, and were a little bitter and minty.  A tube of quinoa wrapped with turnip (or kohlrabi?) and topped with seaweed like hijiki (ヒジキ).  Dressed with sorrel ponzu (ポン酢) vinaigrette.

    A side dish of eel, fennel, dashi (だし) broth, and bonito flakes (鰹節).  The eel was very tender, and came with slices of fennel.  Lots of umami from the dashi and bonito flakes, and the broth was pretty salty.  Garnished with nori.

    Lobster 'Oosterschelde', bear's garlic, cauliflower, 'old Bruges cheese' (Oosterschelde kreeft, daslook, bloemkool, 'oud Brugge' kaas) - the texture of the lobster claw was lovely.  Came with young cauliflower, bear's garlic coulis, a delicious chip made of old Bruges cheese, and of course lobster bisque.

    Codfish 'North Sea', fennel, bouchot mussels, lovage (Kabeljauw 'Noordzee', venkel, bouchot mossel, lavas) - cod was, of course, delicious.  Served with fennel, lightly grilled leeks, lovage, broad beans, bouchot mussels, Cevennes onion purée, and two kinds of broth: asparagus and mussels - which had a hint of spice.  Hidden below the cod were finely diced winkle, which was a nice touch.  The best part of the dish?  The thin slices and shavings of bottarga.  Yum!

    King crab, Parmesan, curry, bouillabaisse (Koningskrab, parmezaan, kerrie, bouillabaisse) - the King crab capellini with tomato, bell pepper, and mushrooms was wrapped with thin ribbons of zucchini and sprinkled with puffed amaranth seeds.  Served with bouillabaisse perfumed with red curry.  Very delish.

    Before the meat course is served, we were asked to choose our knives from a box.  Among them was one whose handle was made with fossilized walrus penis bone.  Yes, you read that correctly.  FOSSILIZED WALRUS PENIS BONE.  Needless to say, that was the one I chose.  And a rather juvenile post went up on my social media accounts...

    Milk-fed veal 'Lozère', green pea, pointed cabbage, girolle (Melkkalf 'Lozère', doperwt, spitskool, dooierzwam) - the veal was fine, and came with veal jus perfumed with kaffir lime leaves.  On the side was a big roll of pointed cabbage stuffed with finely chopped cabbage, Stracchino, and grilled white asparagus.  Garnished with green peas and girolles, and served with a second sauce made of peas.

    A second serving with veal meatball with shredded pointed cabbage, yogurt, black garlic cream, and teff seeds.  The meatball was flavored with cumin and had the fragrances of curry, while the yogurt brought some acidity to the combination.

    Belgian restaurants seem to have Coche-Dury at very reasonable prices. In fact, this bottle was even cheaper than the one we had at Hertog Jan yesterday...

    2001 Coche-Dury Meursault Les Rougeots - big, toast nose.  Absolutely beautiful.

    Strawberry 'Mariguette', rhubarb, Mascarpone, salty lemon (Aardbei 'Mariguette', rabarber, mascarpone, gezouten citroen) - underneath the white chocolate tuile were halves of local Mariguette strawberries served with Mascarpone and vanilla mousse, salted lemon sorbet with chunks of salted lemon, slices of black olives and rhubarb, basil oil, and a strawberry sauce perfumed with vodka.  An unexpected combination, to be sure, but very refreshing.

    Chocolate Van Dender 'Mexico' 70%, sea buckthorn, bergamot, apple (Chocolade Van Dender 'Mexico' 70%, duindoornbes, bergamot, appel) - inside the chocolate ball with the chocolate mousse was a center made of acidic kumquat cream, while the ball sat atop of disc of sea buckthorn sorbet in a pool of sauce made of apples and Earl Grey tea.  Such an interesting combination of sweetness, creaminess, and acidity.

    We once again went back out to the terrace to take our coffee and mignardises, although I told the staff that I was too full to eat anything else.  However, they still brought us a little something...

    Chocolate madeleine

    Oliebollen - they were kinda like beignets or donut holes, and came with little bits of diced apple, dusted with powdered sugar.

    I was soooo stuffed.  I had about 3 hours till my dinner appointment with 20 courses, and unable to move it to a later time.  Thankfully The Dining Austrian very kindly offered to drive us to our hotel in Ghent, where we bid farewell to him and thanked him for the company over the last two days.  I will miss my 3-star companion, and hope to see him again very soon.

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    After checking into Hotel Harmony, we decided to spend what little time we had before dinner strolling around the center of Ghent.  There were several historic churches and belfries that definitely deserved a look.

    We started around the square in front of the Stadhuis and took a look at Sint-Niklaaskerk, which was a fairly big church.

    Then we passed by the Belfort which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Belfries of Belgium and France.  Like many other historical sites we have visited in Belgium over the last few days, there seemed to be restoration work being done.

    A few steps away was Sint-Baafskathedraal, which is also quite large and impressive with its tall tower.

    Before long, it was time for our dinner appointment at Chambre Séparée.  I had received several recommendations from friends to visit this restaurant, and it seemed that this place from Chef Kobe Desramaults is a rising star.

    As impossible as it would seem, THIS was the place where I ran into my old friend Little Meg.  What are the chances of running into one of your friends - who is also coming from the other side of the world - at the same restaurant with a booking at the same time?  Simply surreal.

    Although I wasn't very hungry - and Hello Kitty was still full from lunch - we braced ourselves for the onslaught of 20 courses coming our way.  But first we had to take a seat outdoors as the restaurant wasn't ready for us yet.

    Cucumber water - with verbena and asparagus.  It was scorching outside and this was what they served us.  I was thirsty as hell, and wondered why it was that restaurants in Belgium only give you just 2 sips of these herb-infused water when it was obvious that you could have downed 2 bottles of liquids to re-hydrate yourself from the heat.  I felt the same way at L'Air du Temps a few days ago...

    When we were finally asked to move inside, we found ourselves seated at a C-shaped counter facing the open kitchen.

    What caught my eye immediately was the presence of the open charcoal grills - plus a wood-fired oven.  Throughout the evening we would watch the fires burn as various ingredients were cooked over the flames.

    Grey shrimp, peas - this was pretty nice.  Apparently almost all of the crevettes grises that are caught are cooked immediately on the fishing boats once caught, but these have been kept alive via a special arrangement.

    Given I had already enjoyed a nice bottle of wine at lunch, and as I was getting a little tired, I chose not to drink any more alcohol during dinner.  Instead I asked for a juice pairing.

    Sloe berry, cherry blossom, and lemon - this almost tasted like hawthorn.

    Kohlrabi, rose petals - I was a little freaked out when this was put in front of me, because they actually looked like human fingers that had been cut off with coagulated blood on them... The cylinders of kohlrabi had been wrapped with rose petals, then the ends dipped in cherry powder.  Well, these basically tasted like pickles...

    Mackerel, rhubarb, nasturtium - diced cubes of mackerel with rhubarb sauce wrapped in nasturtium.  Nothing special.

    Vichyssoise young leek, lavender - I love vichyssoise when the weather is warm, and this was very nice with the leek oil.  The lavender added a whole new dimension to it.

    Brioche for the vichyssoise.

    White tea, parsnip, and fennel - nose was a little pungent, with weird fermentation notes and smelled like acidic pickles, but on the palate it was actually OK.  Not too acidic, a little fizzy, but it does taste like pickled radish...

    Cauliflower, fish roe, caviar - the cauliflower had been roasted over the open flame, dressed in sour cream with turbot roe, goat cheese, and Belgian oscietra caviar.  Pretty fermented flavors here, almost like bottarga.

    Yellow courgette, tagète, langoustine - inside the courgette custard made with white bean miso was raw langoustine, finished with marigold dressing.  The custard was rich and creamy, but got the bitterness of citrus zest somehow.  Not a great dish.

    The next juice was made with figs, matcha, and sap of some African tree whose name I couldn't catch.  A little acidity here with matcha flavors, almost a little savory.  Thankfully no real licorice flavor from the tree sap.

    Broad bean, coriander, quail egg - the smoked quail egg turned out not to be very smoky.  The cucumber and celery broth was interesting as it had some sweetness on top of savory notes.

    Swimmercrabs - the crabs didn't have much meat on them, but they've been roasted at high temperature to concentrate their flavors.  Then they were crushed in a press to squeeze out the juices.

    Once in a cup, the juice was whisked with aged whipped cream and finished with pine oil.  Such intensity and purity of crab flavors.  Awesome.

    We were shown a sea bass line-caught off the Belgian coast of the North Sea.

    Sea bass, clams - the sea bass was served together with some clams, which were sweet and packed a lot of flavors without being overpowering.  Unfortunately the last clam I ate had some sand inside.

    Water kefir, pineapple sage, peppermint - like juice from pickled radish.

    Turbot, ramson capers - the turbot was grilled, then dressed with a sauce made with snapper heads, ramson capers, herbs, and leek flowers.  The leek flowers seemed to have been pickled and definitely delivered some kick, and I wondered whether there was mustard in the sauce... which was very rich and creamy, but not too heavy thanks to some acidity.  Very nice.

    Lobster from Oosterschelde, sorrel mash - served with some butter sauce mixed with the goodies from the lobster heads.  Served with mashed potatoes flavored with sorrel.  Pretty decent.

    Carrots, yellow beets, pumpkin seeds - kinda OK.

    Sweetbread, gooseberry, tahini - Kobe was just hanging out with my friend The Hungry Tourist in Israel last week, and was apparently inspired to create this dish as he brought back some tahini.  This was alright, but probably a little more substantial in portion than I would have preferred.

    Lamb, aubergine, shiso, mint - the leg of lamb came with the skin on, which turned out to be a little chewy and a little smoky.  I could certainly taste the mint on top.  The eggplant caviar on the side was OK.

    Holstein tartare, miso, rapeseed - the tart combined rapeseeds, beef tartare, egg yolk, beet miso, and garnished with mustard seeds that definitely showed their kick.  This was the only course I disliked as it was bitter on the palate.  Unbelievable as it may sound, I actually had to rinse my palate with some beetroot juice, and anyone who knows me well enough would know how much it takes for me to do something like that.

    Elderflower, camomile, pine - very refreshing.  The pine wasn't overpowering, and we've got some acidity and fizziness.

    Sourdough, "Bernister" - with rhubarb compote.  Rich and heavy, powerful flavors, very ripe.  Great pairing with the juice.

    Gooseberry, tarragon - some green gooseberry granité on top of tarragon crème, garnished with a red gooseberry.  Plenty of acidity from the granité, and it worked better with the crème.

    Fermented cherries, blackberries, and nasturtium roots - definitely got that fermented taste.

    Raspberry, ricotta - the raspberries were marinated in woodruff sugar, and came with savory ricottasorbet along with some chiffonade of herbs inside.

    Cherry pit crème brûlée, cherry sorbet - this was definitely my favorite dessert.  Great crunchy brûlée along with acidity to balance.

    Thyme ice cream, Belgian biscuit - the thyme flavors were really strong.

    Mignardises - millefeuille made with meadowsweet and coffee glaze.

    This was a very, very long meal... and with the exception of the tourist trap food we had on Sunday, probably my least favorite meal in Belgium.  Certainly the most disappointing.  Now why was that?

    First of all, the environment was unbearable.  The temperature was about 30°C outside when we started, and the restaurant had no air conditioning.  The front door was left open to regulate the temperature, and that was necessary because we were facing an open kitchen with multiple open flames that could have been bonfires.  I was sweating throughout the entire dinner, and ever so thankful that I wasn't seated nearest to the grill.  This factor alone made for a very unpleasant dining experience.

    The way I felt about this meal was similar to how I felt about my dinner at Saison a few years ago.  Out of the 20 courses tonight there was only 1 that I disliked, but at the same time there were so few of them where I felt any sort of satisfaction, magic, or happiness.  In that sense perhaps it is correctly placed as a 1-star, but I had been led to believe that this place had a lot more potential.

    So I guess when my expectations had been (perhaps unjustifiably) lifted to a high level, the disappointment in not having them met was inevitably magnified.  For what it's worth, my friend shared my opinion.  Just not enough magic here.

    Perhaps we're just too fucking jaded.

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    It's our 6th day in Europe, and not only will we be sleeping in the 6th different bed tonight, we're also leaving Belgium and finally getting to France.  We started by taking a local train from Gent Sint-Pieters station to Gare de Bruxelles Midi.  Like Bruges, it's a shame that we hardly got a chance to see Ghent - which some people feel is just as pretty, if not prettier, than Bruges.

    We have a few hours to spend in Brussels, so of course I scheduled lunch at a restaurant we wanted to hit.  I had heard about Restaurant Bozar from friends a couple of years ago, and it's inside the beautiful Art Deco-style Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles by Victor Horta.

    The reason for visiting here?  Chef Karen Torosyan was declared the "world champion" at the pâtè-encroûte competition in 2015, and I loooooove pâtè-encroûte!

    Tart with tapenade of aubergine and cumin

    Choux with Parmesan cream - this was so good... as the filling was so rich and satisfying.

    Croquette with crevettes grises - with a dab of parsley coulis on top.  This was very, very tasty.

    Noble pâté-croûte: Bigorre's black pork, duck and goose foie gras from the south west of France - BABY, THIS IS WHAT YOU CAME FOR...  The pâté en croûte which won the "world championship"... that takes 20 hours to prepare and only two of which are available per week.

    I gotta admit... when my plate arrived, my first reaction as I stared at the not-so-thick slice in front of me was: "WOW... THIS cost me 46 Euros?! Couldn't they have given me a thicker slice??"

    But once I started cutting into it and took the first bite, my happiness level went up immediately.  Yes, this was a very beautiful piece to behold, and it was damn tasty, too!  Given that this was pretty much one solid bloc of meat (and fat, and dense pastry...) it turned out to be more filling than expected.

    This was a very pretty "hockey puck" made from ribbons of pickled carrots and other roots.  It packed plenty of nice and refreshing acidity which helped balance out the richness of the meat.

    Just in case I needed more acidity, the staff also fished out this schlong pickle from a big jar for me.
    Holstein beef tartare: with a knife chopped - mmmm yes, that was exactly the way it was written on the English menu...  Hello Kitty decided to go for tartare, and she couldn't have been happier with her choice.

    These potato chips were just about paper-thin.  Soooo delicious.

    And the beef was indeed chopped with a knife, with pickles for crunch and acidity.  Very, very nice.

    Brussels waffle - Hello Kitty could not believe that, after 5 days in Belgium, we still had not had a single bite of Belgium waffles.  But as luck would have it, they had the Brussels-style waffle on the menu here... so of course we asked for one since it was made to order.  Very light, without much sugar.  Perfect for Hello Kitty.

    We were very full, and decided to bring these with us...

    ...but with madeleines like this one still warm to the touch, I couldn't resist devouring one.

    This was such a happy meal for both of us.  It was too bad that we couldn't have the pithivier today, but we'll be sure to pre-order it before we come back next time.

    We made our way back to Gare de Bruxelles-Midi and boarded our Thalys train for the 1½-hour journey to Paris.  After 5½ days in Belgium, we are now very much looking forward to spending time in France!

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    After getting off our train at Gare du Nord, we took a taxi to the apartment we had booked through AirBnB.  This was our first time trying AirBnB, and we took an apartment that is literally next to the Place de la Bastille.

    Our hostess Françoise isn't a full-time landlord.  She actually lives in the apartment, but rents it out whenever she is on holiday.  We found ourselves inside a beautiful and spacious one-bedroom, and our hostess definitely has an artistic eye and great taste.

    I figured we'd probably be a little knackered from the travel, so I booked ourselves a table at a place just a couple of blocks away.  Bofinger is one of Paris' classic brasseries as it has been around for over 150 years.  It's famous for its decor and the Alsatian specialties, which was why everyone around us were tourists...

    But first I needed a drink.  It's been such a long time since I last had a kir in France, so I got myself a kir royale with Crémant d’Alsace.

    I was getting hungry, so I was pretty happy to munch on these pretzels.

    Choucroute royale Bofinger arrosée au Crémant d’Alsace - BUT OF COURSE I'm going to order choucroute at an Alsatian brasserie!  It's not something that I see often in Asia...

    Yes, I LOVE pork knuckle, whether it's deep-fried, boiled, braised, or steamed.  The salted pork loin was nice, too... but both were simply too big.  The smoked pork belly was tasty but the skin was extremely difficult to chew.  The white sausage was nice and tender, while the sausage with cumin and the saucisse de Strasbourg were also tasty.  This was a ton of pork, but thankfully the sauerkraut provided plenty of acidity.

    Hello Kitty wanted something light, so she ordered Le Bofinger.  Among all the oysters on her platter was a bowl bearing a bunch of the crevettes grises we had tasted in Belgium.  These were very, very tasty.

    This was a lot of food for both of us, and it was good enough for our first night in France.  We strolled back to the apartment and called it a night.  We've got plenty of exploring to do starting tomorrow.

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    Our first morning in Paris, and I'm dragging Hello Kitty out for breakfast at a popular boulangerie. I've been seeing friends post about Du Pain et des Idées for a few years now, and it's on the same side of town that we're staying in, so it wasn't too bad of a trek in the morning.

    La chocolatine - the layers were certainly pretty, but I didn't think flavor-wise this was necessarily better than many others.

    L'escargot chocolat-pistache - one of the signatures here.  Definitely unique.

    Flan - a quarter of the whole piece, yet already so substantial and rich.  I wish I could have eaten more of this...

    Lardon Mimolette mini-pavé - it's also nice to have something savory, and this was a good choice.

    After our second dose of coffee, we decided to head to our lunch appointment a little early.  We got there before Septime opened, and the staff were still busy mopping the floor and getting the download from the kitchen.

    Lunch was a 4-course affair with a choice of main dish.  As per SOP Hello Kitty and I chose different dishes.

    First came these very thin breadsticks with Gouda cream.  There was a very light hint of cumin in the cream.

    Raw tuna with cherries, sheep yogurt, sorrel, and tarragon - the tuna was pretty nice, with plenty of salicornia along with black cherries.  The fleur de sel on top made things a tad salty at times.

    Roasted aubergine, egg yolk, spiced granola - the yolk was marinated in mushroom jus.  This was OK.

    Poulpe de Saint-Guénolé, beurre au vin jaune - the texture of the octopus tentacle was lovely.  Soft enough but a little springy.  With cherry tomatoes and nasturtium.  This showed a little bit of magic from the kitchen, even though it turned out a little salty for my taste.

    Selle d'agneau de lait, jus aux épices douces - the lamb came with spruce in the lamb jus, which brought a nice fragrance to it.  The lamb itself was nicely cooked and pretty fatty, and there was apricot cream on the side.  However, there wasn't much magic here...

    ...even with bottarga and cheese in the salad with shredded lamb.

    Poached nectarine peaches, fresh almonds, fig leaf ice cream - nice and refreshing, but I think the French tend to say "peach" in English when it's actually nectarine.  They only clarify when I ask them specifically what time of peaches they serve.

    This was slightly disappointing.  For a restaurant that has been part of the World's 50 Best Restaurants in the last 3 years, I was hoping for something a little more exciting or magical.  Oh well.  At least it was cheap, and given the pricing what we got was fair in terms of quality.

    But this was also the start of my #bongwater fest.  When I started booking restaurants for Paris, I knew I'd be hitting a few of these hip/casual places where they love their bongwater natural wines.  This was certainly one of them, and I picked a nice bottle from a producer whose name I recognized.

    2013 Recrue des Sens BT - pretty fruity, a bit of bacon fat, leather, dried herbs.  Toasty notes came out after 1½ hours.

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    After lunch we hit our first tourist spot - Musée National Picasso.  There was an exhibit about Guernica - one of Picasso's most famous works - so it was pretty interesting.  I've never been a big fan of this artist as I don't care for the Cubist movement, but Hello Kitty was very happy to have come.  I was kinda glad that I finally paid this place a visit after all these years.

    We got back to the apartment just in time to watch the France vs. Argentina match for the World Cup, and it was a treat to watch it on a big screen in the comfort of air conditioning.  And it's a good thing that the French won, because we were worried that the cooks wouldn't be in the mood to make any sort of effort to cook for us tonight...

    Dinner time rolled around, and we went back out on the Metro to get ourselves to Clown Bar - yet another one of the hipster hangouts that serves casual dishes with a bongwater-filled wine list.  I knew that Chef Sota Atsumi had left and will be opening up his own joint, but I figured this place was  probably still worthy of a visit in the meantime...

    The menu was compact, and we sat at a tiny table outside where we were (almost literally) rubbing shoulders with our neighbors, but this is par for the course for Paris...  We picked out a few dishes that sounded good, and as a matter of fact, they were good.

    Mackerel fritter / piquillos - what's not to like about deep-fried food?  Especially when the filling is mackerel, and you've got a nice, tempura-like batter made with squid ink.  The piquillos sauce was pretty nice, too.

    Veal tongue / baby lettuce - the tongue came in very thin slices and were pretty tender, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper.  The lettuce was drenched in a nice acidic dressing with a touch of mint.

    Raw croacker fish / raspberry / Tropea onion - the croaker was raw and the texture was rather crunchy in the middle.  Served with bits of red Tropea onions from northern Italy along with perilla leaves, and raspberries for a little sweetness and acidity.

    Duck and foie gras pie / date - pithivier is always a good idea, and I'm really glad we ordered it. 

    It's always satisfying to bite into something like this... so hearty and rich, with a chunk of duck breast surrounded by minced duck as well as fatty foie. The date purée brought a little bit of sweetness to balance out the heavier jus.  I may have missed out on having the pithivier at Bozar Restaurant in Brussels yesterday, but at this very moment, this would do just fine.
    Pigeon from Mesquer / smoked potato / Gernika pepper - another delicious plate.  Pretty interesting coincidence to be tasting some Gernika peppers which, naturally, are named after the town of Guernica made famous by Picasso.

    Just look at the doneness on the pigeon breast.  Very, very tasty.  So simple.  So satisfying.

    Tart / peach / ricotta / orange sorbet - I do wonder whether these were actually nectarines, as there was no fuzz on the outside.  The ricotta was, interestingly, hard and a little chewy.  A good mix of sweet and savory, with basil to perk things up a little.

    Clown Bar is, of course, yet another #bongwater bar. So it's only fitting that I order some...

    Jacques Lassaigne Les Vignes de Montgueux - a blanc de blancs extra brut that showed crisp acidity.

    2013 La Grande Colline Le Canon Rouge - a little fizzy, still fruity, some leather notes.  Pretty flat on the palate, especially when it's served at ambient temperature on a hot summer day.

    I took the bottle from La Grande Colline because I wanted to try something made by Ooka Hirotake, and this was all they had. But, man... this was so uninteresting that even Hello Kitty complained about my choice of wine.  Needless to say we didn't bother to finish the bottle.

    In spite of this, we had a very good dinner tonight.  Certainly more satisfying than our lunch today.  Now I'm curious about the new place that Chef Sota Atsumi will be opening up...

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    Another morning, another visit to the boulangerie for viennoiserie.  Today we're going back to Blé Sucré, an old favorite of mine.  Imma getting me some kouign amann today!  The place is kinda within walking distance from the apartment, so we took a stroll over in order to work up an appetite...

    Croissant - this was just OK.  Not particularly impressive.  The one I had here 8 years ago was much, much better.

    Chocolatine - pretty sizable and decent, but certainly not as fine as the one at Du Pain et des Idées yesterday.

    Kouign amann - the reason why I'm here today.  Must have this wonderful and delicious collection of folds with plenty of sugar added.  Yum.

    Brioche ronde avec sucre - no, it wasn't enough that I had the kouign amann... I needed more flaky folds and more sugar.  This was pretty good, too.

    We walked back to the apartment and stopped by Gare de Lyon on the way to admire the beautiful architecture.  I also wondered out loud with Hello Kitty whether we should come for a meal at Le Train Bleu, since it's such a beautiful restaurant and close to where we were staying.

    We needed a light lunch today and I hadn't booked anything, so Hello Kitty requested that we break the "no Asian food in Europe" policy so that she could try out phở in Paris.  This was on pretty short notice, and I certainly did not plan for it or did any research, so I sent out an S.O.S. to my friends who run Brass Spoon in Hong Kong asking for a recommendation.

    We took the Metro to the 13th only to find Ngoc Xuyen Saigon closed for the entire July. I was stunned for a minute before trying desperately to see which other restaurants are nearby. Phở 18 is on the next street, and I vaguely remember (or thought I did) that some of my friends have mentioned the place in years past.  So we parked ourselves here.

    Not sure why this sign was necessary, but OK.

    I ordered myself an iced coffee of some kind, and this was what came... Très hipster...

    The plate of herbs looked pretty legit...

    Phở nh - so the lady looked at me funny when I placed my order, and I had to explain to her in Mandarin that we'd been eating a lot over the last few days, which was the reason why I asked for a small bowl...  Anyway, the Charolais beef was pretty tender, and the broth had the distinctive fragrance of cloves - which was new and interesting to me.  I'm not an expert when it comes to phở, but I was pretty happy with this.

    What I wasn't so happy about was the fact that I was in a restaurant without air conditioning and eating a hot bowl of soup noodles.  Needless to say my shirt was pretty drenched.

    Having satisfied her curiosity about phở in Paris, Hello Kitty and I returned to the apartment to shower and change.  We were about to hit one of the highlights on our trip, and dressing up seemed the right thing to do...

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    Like many others, I have been following Cedric Grolet on Instagram for a while.  During this time I have been deeply fascinated by his creations, which have ranged from fruity desserts made to look like fruit, to his beautiful apple pie, to that most Instagrammable creation of all - the Rubik's Cube.

    I knew that he's the pastry chef at Le Meurice, and that his desserts are being served during tea at Le Dalí.  But neither restaurant lists the Rubik's Cube on their menus, and I couldn't figure out where to go and try it.  And there wasn't a whole lot of information available on the Internet...

    Out of pure desperation, I decided to contact someone working with Alain Ducasse - with whom I had the pleasure of dining last year - and inquired about the possibility of trying this special creation.  Thankfully this person came to my rescue, and put me in touch with the right people who secured a table for me at Le Dalí today.

    I found out in May that the Ho's would also be in Paris today, and we had discussed the possibility of doing tea together.  I figured that the kiddies would be interested in having some sweets, and the creations seemed pretty fun.  So the four adults and two kids came dressed (well, some of us, anyway...) for the occasion.

    The desserts we ordered came in quick succession, and soon the entire table was occupied with various plates, pots of tea, and cups.  Mrs. Ho was ever so helpful by keeping the kiddies in check while I tried as quickly as possible to take pictures and record a few videos.

    Tomate - one of the seasonal items on offer as part of tea service.  Like the others in the same series, the shell was created the look like the fruit (yes, tomato is a fruit) while the inside was filled with pieces of the same fruit.  This was surprisingly tasty, but some people - including the kiddies at our table - were probably not used to having savory flavors as dessert.

    Fraise - another seasonal item.  Nice chunks of strawberries inside.

    Rubik's cake - BABY, THIS IS WHAT YOU CAME FOR. Zee pièce de résistance. The special item which required advanced order.  There are many different versions with varying flavor combinations, and so I wasn't sure what it was going to look like... until now.

    There are a total of 25 cubes in the 3 levels, and today there were a total of seven different flavors.  These were:

    - green: pistachio, with crunchy sugar crystals.  Definitely a little savory.
    - gold: lemon, with confit lemon zest.
    - varnished red: strawberry jam.
    - velvet red: strawberry chunks.
    - white: coconut, with crunchy biscuit.  Least favorite flavor.
    - yellow: grapefruit.  Very nice.
    - orange: apricot, with confit lemon zest.

    La tarte au pomme - the other item we pre-ordered... and what a thing of beauty!  I had seen pictures of this in different sizes, and wasn't sure what we were getting... but in the end we got the full-size tarte which serves six.

    Hello Kitty tried cutting it so that I could take a video, but it turned out to be more difficult than expected... so we had to ask the staff to take it back to the kitchen.  They managed to salvage it and cut it into six slices.

    The tarte is actually made with very thin slices of apples, and the apple is actually fresh instead of cooked like a tarte tatin.  Beautiful AND delicious.

    The kiddies were, surprisingly, not big consumers of desserts.  So we ended up ordering waaaay too much, and asked to take the leftovers home.

    I was so, so, so happy that we managed to do this, and ever so grateful that the Ho's indulged me.  We did get a little bit of sticker shock at the end, though... Earlier research had shown that the Rubik's Cube cost around EUR 170, but it was for EUR 250 today... which worked out to be EUR 10 per little cube.  I knew that the apple tart cost EUR 25 per serving, and for some reason thought we would be getting ones which serves two.  Well, the big one we had serves six, so that came to EUR 150 for the whole tart.  Adding the separate fruits we ordered plus all of our pots of tea, and Mr. Ho and I ended up splitting a bill of over 500 Euros for tea.

    With our bellies stuffed full of goodies, we needed to work some of it off... so we crossed the road and went into the Jardin des Tuileries so that the kiddies could hit the playground for a bit.  From then on it was a short stroll to check out the boutiques on Rue Cambon and Rue Boissy d'Anglas.

    We returned to our apartment for some rest and digestion.  I knew we would probably be full from tea, so I hadn't made any plans for dinner.  When we finally started feeling a little peckish, Hello Kitty decided to look to Anthony Bourdain for ideas on where to eat - browsing through locations from his Paris episode of The Layover.  I whittled the list down further by proximity, and booked us a table at Au Passage - which turned out to be pretty close to Clown Bar.

    This was yet another casual dining spot - also without any air con - and the menu appeared even more succinct, but it seems the items change by the day. Given how heavy our meals have been, Hello Kitty thought we should order a few veggie dishes.

    Terrine de cochon aux noisettes - pretty old school, dense and solid.  Good to have the cornichons provide acidity for balance.

    St Pierre ponzu charbon sésame - the John Dory was nice with a little bit of chewy texture, or what the Chinese would describe as 韌.  Got the acidity from ponzu (ポン酢) and a hint of sesame, and seems to have some charcoal powder on top, too...

    Petit-pois haricot vert camomille - these petit-pois weren't the tiny and tender ones I'm used to having at fine dining establishments, but they were still tasty despite their harder and grainy texture - although they were certainly less sweet.  I found it interesting that the kitchen added chamomile to the dish.

    Courgette echalote nouvelle crème fermentée laitue de mer - this was very nice.  The courgettes came with fermented cream which delivered some acidity, and there was plenty of sea lettuce on top to deliver some umami.  They also managed to sprinkle bee pollen on top, although I wasn't sure if I liked the powdery texture.

    Pigeon fumé girolle myrtille sauvage - of course we had to order pigeon in France whenever we see it... This was a little too smoky, with red shiso leaves and also wild blueberries delivering some acidity to balance out the butter and girolles. 

    The pigeon was very tender and perfectly rosé

    Cochon rhubarbe préservée tomate datterino aneth - this was a little bit beyond what I normally prefer in terms of acidity, with both datterino tomatoes and rhubarb. 

    This place, too, has a wine list which was long on #bongwater.  I saw a very rare magnum from a producer I know, but I knew that the two of us wouldn't have a chance to finish it.  So I took something else from the same producer instead...

    2013 Ganevat Cuvée Florine - a little oaky, good acidity, good depth of flavors, and long finish.

    This was a surprisingly good dinner.  The place was totally casual and unpretentious.  The servers were inked up, bilingual, friendly, and knowledgeable.  The kitchen certainly seemed to know what they're doing, and we were happy that we ended up here at the last minute.  The cooking may not be at the same level as Septime or Clown Bar, but for the price we paid we felt they more than delivered.

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    We dragged ourselves up before sunrise, cleaned up the lovely AirBnB apartment we were staying in, and headed for Orly Airport.  We're spending a few days in the south of France with some old friends of mine, and Nice would be our first stop today.

    After landing at Nice Airport, we made our way to Gare de Nice Ville and dropped off our luggage.  There were two museums I wanted to hit while we were here, and the first one seemed just a relatively short walk from the station.

    Marc Chagall is one of my favorite artists, and I was very happy to have the chance to visit Musée National Marc Chagall.

    The museum is currently doing an exhibit of Chagall's series Biblical Messages, originally intended for display in a chapel.  These works were mostly in large format, and absolutely stunning to behold with the naked eye.  This piece depicted Adam and Eve being driven out of the Garden of Eden.

    I also loved this piece about the creation of man.

    I've always loved Chagall's stained glass work, ever since I first laid eyes upon the panels he did for the Notre Dame in Reims depicting the life of Jesus.  There's also a set here at the museum.

    After getting ourselves the very last set of dessert plates made by Bernardaud, it was time to get some lunch.  Rather than trek back towards the station for restaurants, we decided it was easier to just eat at La Buvette du Musée right here in the garden of the museum.

    Since we are in Nice, Hello Kitty decided to order herself a salad niçoise...

    As for me... I regressed back to being a kid an ordered a steak haché.  It was strangely satisfying.

    It was here that we met the west highland white terrier roaming the grounds, who turned out to be the restaurant manager's dog. This little fella was friendly and went to practically every table looking for food.  Not only that, he was picky about what he wanted to eat, too!  He wasn't the least bit interested in greens, bread, or eggs.  But if you offered him any kind of meat - like a slice of cold cut or a bit of steak haché - he would happily lap it up.

    Having refuelled ourselves, we were ready for our next museum.  Once again Google Maps told me that it was within my definition of "walking distance", and since there were no taxis nearby, I convinced Hello Kitty to walk to Musée Matisse.  What Google Map didn't show me, of course, was that it was an entirely uphill climb... so of course it was painful and I was completely drenched in sweat by the time we arrived...

    The museum is part of the Jardin des Arène de Cimiez, and depending on which way one approaches the sloping terrain, can be see as underground.   Besides the museum's permanent collection - which also include Henri Matisse's collection of works from other artists - there was an exhibition entitled Matisse et Picasso: la comédie du modèle.

    One of the rooms near the entrance was dedicated to the piece called La Piscine. Hello Kitty decided it would be a great use of her Insta360 camera, and she was absolutely right.

    We decided not to walk back downhill to the station, and waited for a bus instead.  We ended up waiting a long time due to a breakdown, but at least we didn't have to sweat it...  So we retrieved our luggage from the storage service, tried to wipe the sweat off our bodies, changed into fresh clothes, and got picked up by my friends on the way to one of the best meals of our trip...

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