December 29, 2007

More UNESCO World Heritage Sites

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UNESCO has added to their list of World Heritage Sites in 2007, and as a consequence two locations I have previously visited are now part of the list. They are Sydney Opera House and South China Karst (which I saw in Kunming, China).

December 23, 2007

An "Extravagant" Dinner

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Last night I met up with my friend Kevin and some friends for dinner. He had wanted to open up some nice wines, and I decided to bring along a couple of very good bottles to match. Dinner was at Amber, which has now clearly become one of Kevin's favorite restaurants.

We picked one of the set menus for simplicity's sake, and the 10-course degustation menu just seemed a little too much. We started with the Boston lobster salad, which was nice and fresh, and moved onto a demitasse of creamy soup and a Chupa Chups-style lollipop made of foie gras.

This was followed by a nice pan-fried foie gras, done just the way I like - juicy and soft. There was grapefruit sorbet to cleanse our palate. Main course was Challans turkey, which really wasn't my favorite. We had a sampler of cheese, then finished off with dessert and coffee.

The extravagance was all in the form of the wines for the evening. We started with the 1983 Dom Perignon - one of my favorite champagne vintages and the Dom is particularly good.

For white wine, Kevin brought a bottle of 1985 JL Chave Hermitage Blanc. This wine normally can last 20+ years in good vintages, but it was clear that the wine is over the hill. The color is copper gold, almost a bit reddish. The nose was still pretty nice, with a bit of pear and tropical fruit. However the wine was completely flat on the palate. We pass it up for the red wines.

The reds were the main event tonight. Kevin had brought a bottle of 1955 Cheval Blanc. We had high expectations of the wine. It was very, very smooth but the age is starting to show in the nose as well as the palate. We had another bottle at an MNSC dinner earlier this year, but this bottle is in much better condition.

Next up was the 1961 Ducru Beaucaillou I brought. I was a bit apprehensive, as the last two bottles I had opened never measured up to my first experience with this wine. This bottle was drinking very nicely and showing classic traits of a Saint Julien - a bit green, grassy and "farmy". However, it was a bit muted and the sweet fruit never showed. This is the frustration that you get with Ducru. For the record, we drank this wine blind and Kevin actually guessed correctly - even hitting the vintage.

To pair with dessert, I brought a bottle of 1959 Huet Vouvray Clos du Bourg Moelleux. I had hoped that this would be a sweeter wine than its cousin I opened a few years ago, but then again I have very little experience with Vouvray, especially old ones. The wine had a very nice nose of apricot, but there was a lot of acidity on the palate and not the sweet sticky I was expecting. It's a bit of a shame since 1959 was a superb vintage in the Loire Valley. I'm still looking for a bottle of aged Loire that is nice and sweet.

As usual, the cost of the wines far outweighed that of the food. Although we acquired the wines years ago when prices were much lower, the 2 bottles of red alone would cost around USD 2,000 in bond from London traders. I have to admit that it's pretty extravagant by most people's standards.

December 21, 2007

Hundred Year Old Champagne

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Last night was the final gathering for MNSC this year, hosted by Paulo at the China Club. There was a bit of tension going into the dinner, as there were two of us at the bottom of the rankings, and tonight's results would determine the loser for the year.

Paulo starts us off with some champagne. Not just ANY champagne. We were drinking the 1907 Heidsieck Monopole Gout Americain. This was one of the fabled bottles salvaged from a shipwreck off the Finnish coast, part of the cargo of the Jongpoking en route to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia when the ship was sunk by German U-boat in 1916. The wine had stayed at the bottom of the ocean for 81 years under constant temperature and pressure. I'm not sure how much Paulo paid for the bottle at auction, but recent reported prices were around USD 4,000 per bottle...

We were all curious to see if there was still life in the bottle. Paulo carefully removed the wiring around the cork, and pulled gently. We could hear a faint fizz as the cork was popped. We watched in anticipation as the waiter poured the champagne into flutes and served them to us.

The champagne was lovely. Being gout Americain, it has a higher dosage of sugar than the brut champagnes we normally drink. The result, after years of aging, is a wonderful caramelized nose. There were still some bubbles in the champagne flute, and there was still life left in the wine. The taste was very much that of aged champagne, but more advanced. Very smooth and mellow, it was just delicious. We each poured ourselves a little more and savored this treasure from the sea.

We then proceeded to enjoy the best meal I've ever had at the China Club. The menu was actually full of courses which clashed with red wine and messed up our palates, but everything was just so delicious.

pan-fried tofu skin (香煎腐皮卷)

sauteed giant "glass prawns"(玻璃大蝦球)- this was really delicious and about the size of a hockey puck. With the pungent prawn sauce on the side, this did a lot to kill our palate for wine

supreme pork belly stir-fried with soy sauce(極品醬油泡豬肚片)- delicious and tender

shark's fin stir-fried with crab meat and eggs(蟹肉炒桂花翅)- normally I don't eat sharks fin, but this was just awesome. All the ingredients worked well together

poached pomelo rind with abalone juice and shrimp roe(鮑汁蝦子扣柚皮)- nicely done, but the shrimp roe again detracts from wine

fried eastern star garoupa(生炸原條東星斑)

mutton claypot(枝竹羊腩煲)- very yummy and tender

fried sticky rice(生炒糯米飯)- excellent stuff, I could have eaten two more bowls of this

Now the wines. Turned out the theme was a horizontal of 1976's - Paulo's birth year - arranged in 4 pairs.

1976 Ausone - we all thought this was classically Left Bank...

1976 Rayas - the nose was a bit "funky" and we took it for a Bordeaux...

1976 Comte de Vogue Musigny Vielle Vignes - half of us made the classic mistake of confusing between an old Rhone and an old Burgundy...

1976 Lafite-Rothschild - half of us actually did well and thought it was a Pauillac, although no one guessed Lafite

1976 Paul Jaboulet Hermitage La Chappelle - we all identified the wine as an Hermitage, although only one of us nailed it on the head

1976 DRC Grands Echezeaux - we all knew this was a Burgundy, and most people guessed Echezeaux. This was a classically delicious Burgundy

1976 Petrus - we all got it wrong and thought it was a Left Bank

1976 Guigal Cote-Rotie La Mouline - this was clearly the wine of the evening. It was very, very yummy and the syrah clearly showed. But at least half of us knew it was a syrah, despite guessing it was an Hermitage...

At the end of the evening, the scores were tallied and I came out a bit worse than Alex, which meant that I came last in the rankings once again this year...I couldn't believe that I lost by 0.002 on a 10-point scale!!! Aaargggghhhh!!!!

December 15, 2007

Arabian Excursion Day 8: Dubai Desert

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This was my last full day in Dubai, and I was going to be out pretty much all day. Hans came to pick me up at 10am (instead of 8am as originally scheduled) for the drive to Hatta. Today he was slightly better at conversation, so that there wasn't total silence in the car like the other day.

As we leave the Grand Hyatt, we drive past the vast wetland reserve that is Al Khor, a WWF-administered reserve full of migratory birds. I had wanted to visit the reserve, but couldn't because of scheduing conflicts. As we drive past, I see hundreds of flamingos on the water of the creek. Would have been nice to have been inside with my telephoto.

We drive on the highway past the sand dunes that we would visit in the afternoon. After about an hour or so, we come to the small town of Hatta. Our first stop is the Hatta Heritage Village -you know it's a stupid tourist trap just looking at the name... Anyway, we walk around the compound, which showcases traditional housing elements such as a mini fort, majlis, barasti...etc. There are displays inside some of the rooms showing traditional way of life. They even have a small date plantation and you can climb up one of the two watchtowers. In general it's a bit of a waste, and we leave to continue to the mountains.

We drive out out to the mountains, but unfortunately the landscape is very similar to that of Oman. I guess I shouldn't be surprised at this, since this is just the western end of the Hajar Mountains. Maybe I had OD'd on this landscape, but I found myself completely uninterested to take any pictures of this area.

At one point Hans stopped the Hummer, and we got out to look at the "rock pools" which I read about in guide books. I was utterly disappointed. I was expecting large, deep pools of water similar to the Bimmah Sinkhole in Oman. Instead it was just a mini canyon carved into the rocks, and there was very little water. I don't even know why it's considered an attraction.

I wanted to go deeper into the mountains to look for better wadis, since I was told by a group of French tourists that they had seen some beautiful sights coming from the other direction. I ask Hans to drive on, and he grudgingly obliges. Unfortunately we drive only a little further and I finally give up on trying to see something prettier. I suspect that the wadis here are nowhere near as pretty as the ones I saw in Oman. The only good thing that came out of this detour is that I saw a beautiful bird with bright multi-hued blue feathers. Should have stopped to take pictures with my 300mm.

We turn around and Hans drops me off at the Hatta Fort Hotel - the only place to stay in town - for a quick lunch at Cafe Gazebo overlooking the pool. Absolutely nothing to write home about, but this is where the expats come for a weekend getaway.

We drive back towards Big Red, the area where people go for dune buggy and dune bashing. We park and wait for another Hummer from the same tour operator to join us. A mother from South Africa joins us along with her son and camera-toting daughter. After Hans releases some air from the tires, we set off on my first dune bashing.

We drive over numerous large and small dunes, zigzagging our way through the red sand. After a while, we stop on top of a large dune and take in the vista. A few other 4x4s are parked close to us, and some of the tourists try their hand at driving up the dunes. One particular driver in a small vehicle kept failing to get up to the top, and the lot of us sit around watching him gun the engine time and again...

We move to the top of another dune, and get out and try our hand at sandboarding. I get onto a snowboard, and down I go, pretending to know what I'm doing while desperately trying to balance myself. I'm doing pretty well as I start, getting about halfway down the slope. All of a sudden, something happened and the next thing I knew, I flipped over, landed on my head, and tumble down the dune. As I overcame my shock and got up, I realized that there was sand everywhere - all over my face, in my hair (down to the scalp and roots), in my ear, nose and mouth! I try to climb up the slope with the board, but it's a hard climb as I don't have a firm footing. I am absolutely winded by the time I'm back up to the top.

I sit out while the mom and kids from the other car try it a few more times. It was time to go to the tourist camp for our dinner. Along the way we stop and watch the sunset, but the surrounding isn't great so my camera stays in the bag.

The camp is very touristy, giving people an opportunity to ride camels, have henna painted, take pictures with a falcon, get photographed in native dress...etc. I wasn't interested in any of these, so I get a taste of an Arabic dessert and sample the aromatic Arabic coffee. Since it was still some time until dinner was served, I sit down to smoke some apple-flavored shisha. Not sure why, but I needed a lot of effort to draw the smoke out of the pipe. But it was very enjoyable.

We were seated around a stage area for our dinner, which consisted of BBQ as well as cold mezzes and curries. When we were almost done, the bellydancing show started. I wasn't sure if our dancer really was from the Middle East - she could be Russian for all I know - but I gave her the benefit of the doubt. The reality was that she wasn't very good, but lots of people (including me) still took out our cameras to snap pictures.

Dinner is over at 8pm, and we begin our drive back to the city. While it's very touristy, an open-air dinner under the stars in the desert was a fitting end to my tour to Arabia.

December 14, 2007

Three Meals in Dubai

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Had 3 reasonably good meals over 2 days in Dubai. They were all inside 5-star hotels on Jumeirah Beach, so naturally were not going to be on the cheap side. But contrary to reports I have read on the net, the food actually was not terrible. If anything, they were of reasonable quality, but unfortunately the prices charged usually warrant higher quality elsewhere. Therefore I think it's not that the absolute quality level of the food is poor; people are just disappointed that they didn't get what they paid for.

Al Muntaha, Burj Al Arab Hotel - Lunch on December 13

Was not seated at a table by the window, but still had a reasonable view of the Palm Jumeirah. This was fine as I'd just gotten off the seaplane and already had a spectacular view that morning.

Did not choose the set lunch and went a la carte instead. For starter I chose pan seared diver scallops, expecting them to be very fresh and sweet. I was not disappointed. I was served two large scallops, halved, along with the red roes in the plate. The scallops were sweet, seared to perfection, and the flavors came together well. The only shocker is that the plate was put in front of me much too quickly after I had ordered...which meant that it was already partially prepared when I ordered it.

My main course was steamed barramundi with a veloute of green peas. The large piece of flesh was very tender and juicy, completely covered in the green veloute and served over a bed of green asparagus and lumpfish caviar. Here again the flavors blended well together, and I was very happy by this point.

For dessert I chose the passion fruit souffle, which came in a rather large ramekin (for one person at least). It was pretty good, although I was reminded of the better passion fruit souffle at Plantane in Shanghai.

I did order a glass of Chablis to go with the scallops and the barramundi. Can't remember the producer but it was a village wine.

The decor was modern but a bit Disney-esque. I am reminded of Le Cirque 2000 in NY years ago, where the decor was a bit wacky and colorful. Of course the raison d'etre for the restaurant is the spectacular view, of Jumeirah Beach/Palm Jumeirah on one side, and of the new city skyscrapers and the World on the other (with the Jumeirah Beach Hotel just adjacent to the Burj on this side).

I take my coffee and petits fours at the bar, and enjoy the view of the city. Meanwhile I continue to snap away with my camera.

Overall, I think the food s fairly good. However, the pricing for this restaurant is comparable to some of the top restaurants in London and New York, while an appreciable gap remains in terms of quality, as well as service.

Tagine, One & Only Royal Mirage - Dinner on December 13
Looking at the name, it is immediately apparent that you are entering a Moroccan establishment. A bowl of dates, a traditional gesture of hospitality, rest on a small stand just inside the entrance, along with an empty plate for the pits as well as a stack of napkins. I grab a date and munch.

The decor is classically Moroccan. All the staff inside the restaurant are of Moroccan origin (a welcome change to the multinational staff we meet at other restaurants), and dressed in national garb with red tarbouches on their heads as well as babouches on their feet. The restaurant was pretty busy with only a couple of empty tables. However, the staff was extremely friendly and helpful (and knowledgeable), which is again a nice change.

I started with the Salade Marrakechia, a collection of small bowls each containin cauliflower; red beet root; a paste made from tomato, orange blossom water, honey and saffron; mashed chickpeas; and salad of tomatoes and cucumbers. The paste is especially interesting as it is sweet and is eaten with bread. By the time I run through these, I am already half full.

Next I ordered two main courses - way too much I had to have some variety. The tagine soussi, a lamb stew with onion, ginger and saffron, was delicious. I try to finish this as much as possible. The other main - the couscous bismak - is topped with prawns (both large and medium) and fish. It is among the best cousous I have ever had, but I had no hope of finishing it. I ask for it in a doggy bag.

I am already full, but am I going to walk out without having dessert? No way! The nice waiter suggests the kenaffa, overruling my original choice. Basically a mille-feuille made with vanilla cream, almonds and cinnamon, it is absolutely amazing. It is the perfect ending to a good meal.

I leave with a bloated tummy, a doggy bag in hand and my wallet intact.

Pierchic, Al Qasr - Dinner on December 14

This meal was always going to be about the setting and not the food. Built on top of a pier extending out from the beach, this was touted by Time Out as "one of the most romantic restaurants" since it has a view of the Burj at night.

The waiter makes a few suggestions, and since they match my tastes, I decide to take them. For starter I had the langoustines, served on a bed of salmon an scallop tartare with langoustine foam. This was well-executed and I find myself licking my lips for the foam.

For main course I had the halibut, which was pan-fried to perfection. I wash it all down with a glass of German kabinett riesling.
I'm pretty full at this point, so I pass on dessert and make my way back to the hotel.

One last word on the wine list: the Jumeirah group of hotels obviously spent some effort to stock the cellars of the hotels that they operate, so there are a number of trophy wines on the list. As one would expect in a fine-dining restaurant (if these could quality), and especially one located in Dubai, prices would not be on the cheap side. A bottle of '82 La Mission Haut Brion lists for AED 18,000, which is roughly 3.5-4x the current bonded price in London (and therefore not too unreasonable compared to what other restaurants would charge). The most expensive bottle is the '85 Petrus, which at AED 45,000 is about 10x the price in bond in London. Now THAT is excessive!

Arabian Excursion Day 7: Sunrise, Sunset

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5am makes a very early start to the day. I have sacrificed sleep to ride a hot air balloon in the Arabian desert to catch the sunrise. It would be a unique experience as I’d never been in a hot air balloon before, nor had an aerial view of the desert except from high in a commercial jet.

The ride out to the desert take about an hour, and I try to catch some more z’s in the bus. When we arrive at before 6:30 it was just beginning to get light. The balloon was about half made, still lying on its side filled with cold air. Our captain – an Englishman named Dee – turns on all 4 of the blasters and huge flames shoot out, filling the balloon with hot air. We jump into the ballon inside one of 4 compartments, and I convince Dee to let me take my full set of gear inside.

It takes a while for the balloon to lift off, as the basket was full of some heavyweights (I was probably around the median weight of the group). The slow ascent was an interesting experience. The uninitiated don’t realize that flying the balloon is a continuous cycle of adding hot air to maintain one’s altitude – since the air inside the balloon cools after a while, and the weight of the basket drags the balloon downward. Part way through our ascent, we catch the sun peeking over the Hajar Mountains and get our first sunrise. Dee then releases some hot air and turns the basket around while we lose some altitude. We ascend again as more hot air is added, catching our “second sunrise” for people on the opposite side of the basket to take some pictures.

The sand in this part of Dubai is similar to what I saw in the Wahiba Sands in Oman - reddish/copper tones on top of the more common yellow grains. The warm light of the morning sun gives the dunes a beautiful golden hue, looking like wavy highlights on the hair. I find the view breathtaking, but keep my finger on the shutter button as I take picture after picture of the scenery.

Dee takes us to about 2,500 ft above sea level, which is 2,000 ft above the desert. This is reportedly where the top floors of the Burj Dubai would reach, so it gave some perspective on the height of the building.

From here we gradually descend, with the wind taking us in different directions at different times. We spot Bedouin settlements with camel and goat farms. As we get close to ground level, we find camel tracks over the dunes and eventually spot a camel family with two calves. Eventually we make landfall a few km from our original spot, little more than an hour after take-off.

I am really sleepy when I reach the Grand Hyatt around 11am, and collapse on the bed for a 3-hour nap. Lunch today was the doggy bag from last night - seafood couscous. Still tasted fine even if I ate it cold. The early part of the afternoon is spent by the hotel pool, lounging around while I start the blog drafts on my notebook.

Evening comes and I take my camera bag and hop into a taxi for the Mina A' Salam, one of the hotels in the Madinat Jumeirah development next to the Burj Al Arab. I wanted to take pictures of the Burj at sunset, and thought this would be the ideal location as it's on the western side. Unfortunately, I am stopped from going to the private beach as I am not a hotel resident. I settle for a few shots of the hotel and canal within the Madinat.

As I explore the hotel, I walk into the Bahri Bar and find a table on the balcony. Here is a great view of the Burj, and at an elevated level. I sit down and order a few drinks, enjoying the multi-colored light show that the Burj puts on starting at 7pm. It seems to change colors every half hour, and we go through all colors of the rainbow. It's kind of kitsch yet pretty in a way. I happily snap away with my camera, ticking off yet another item on my to-do list.

A couple of pink mojitos and watermelon caipiroskas later, I am feeling a little lightheaded as I walk to Pierchic for my dinner. The Madinat Souk has some interesting-looking shops, but I have no time to browse. I continue walking through the large and pretty pool area at Al Qasr, and reach the restaurant just in time for my reservation. The view from the pier back to the hotel is very pretty.

As I arrived at Madinat Jumeirah, one thing that was immediately apprent was the difference in the guest profile. A lot more young, pretty girls hanging out in groups of friends. Many seem to be British or Australian. It's clearly a younger party crowd here, compared to either the Meridien or the Hyatt. Maybe this should be the place to stay on the next visit.

December 13, 2007

Arabian Excursion Day 6: The Burj Experience

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I am picked up in the morning by Hans, my Syrian tour guide/driver, in a nice little H3. Our destination is Jebel Ali, the new port city that is being developed. We arrive at the Jebel Ali Resort Hotel and its adjoining golf course, and wait for the departure time of the seaplane to take me over the Dubai coastline.

Along the way to Jebel Ali, I finally have a chance to drive past the usual area frequented by tourists, and see a whole new city being built in the Marina area. EMAAR and Nakheel, the two most prominent developers and responsible for Burj Dubai and the Palms respectively, have massive projects everywhere in the city.

11am comes and I am led to the 8-seater Cessna Caravan 208, operated by Seawings. Our New Zealander pilot Travis goes through a few simple safety instructions, and we are off. The plane slowly gathers speed and we lift off the water. The new Palm Jebel Ali, still under construction, is immediately to our left and I see the palm fronds being formed. The port terminal is to our right. We soon fly past the Marina development by EMAAR, and suddenly the Palm Jumeirah is below us. Construction looks finished on most of the palm fronds for private houses, with lots of work still need to be done on the hotels/offices/malls located on the breakwater and the trunk. It’s nice to finally get an aerial view of the project.

Now we are next to the Burj Al Arab on our right. It’s an unusual view to see it from the sea, as most photographs are taken of the side with the sail. I see the platform where I was to have lunch later. Now we fly over the World, where a lot of work remains to be done as many islands have not even been formed. There is a single house that has been constructed on one of the islands - zoom in on the picture to see it but not sure which country it’s supposed to represent - and apparently it belongs to the Sheikh Mohammed’s daughter. Maybe the World would actually look like a map of the world when its finally done, but for now it’s just a collection of sandy atolls.

Unfortunately we don’t make it over the Palm Deira – not sure if construction has started – and we double back for a second look. I am shutter happy as I’ve missed some shots on the first pass. I zoom in on the Burj Dubai under construction, and the skyscrapers along Sheikh Zayed Road. Another pass over the Palm Jumeirah, and we make our final approach over the sandy fronds of the Palm Jebel Ali and touch down on the water. I’m overjoyed at having the chance to take this aerial look of Dubai.

Hans drives me to the Burj Al Arab for my lunch at Al Munhata, the restaurant at the top overlooking the Gulf. We stop at the “Welcome Center” – more like a security checkpoint to keep out the riff-raff – and I give the guard my reservation number. We are given passage, and drive over the bridge to reach the island on which the hotel sits. I thank Hans for the journey, get off the Hummer and enter through the front door.

Yes, the lobby shouts bling and kitsch at the top of its lungs. With lots of gold and all colors of the rainbow – from the reception desks and gigantic columns to the fountains and the balconies – it’s hard not to open one’s eyes in wonder. The two fountains – both in the lower and upper lobbies – are particularly nice as the technology and programming that went into making it happen was surely cutting edge when it was first installed.

I also look at the two aquariums on each side of the lower lobby, admiring the hundreds of tropical fish swimming inside each one. Overkill? For sure. But it does look nice. I snap a few more pictures before going up the glass express elevator to the top floor.

Lunch is surprisingly good and will be covered in its own review. As I return to the elevator lobby, I see a large sign on the other side of the lobby displaying “Taiwan Investment Forum”. This is interesting, as lately there has been a lot of attention given to Dubai within Taiwan. I think the Taiwanese finally realized that the UAE is now a rising economic power, with its oil dollars and its ability to attract foreign investments.

A few more snaps with the camera, and I enter the hotel boutique to look at what’s on offer. I promised my friend Chris to get him a crystal model of the hotel, since he didn’t get one when he actually stayed here on his visit. He quickly changed his mind, however, after I tell him the price over the phone. Of course one would expect that everything with the name Burj or its logo would demand a hefty premium. I settle for a couple of nice hand-drawn cards of the Burj (at around USD 10 each, and made in Ireland no less!) as well as a cute ceramic camel from a series designed by artists around the world.

As I was about to go through the front door on my way out, I catch a hotel staff walking around with a tray of dates. My eyes open wide as I see how huge the dates were – they were the largest I have ever seen. I quickly bite into one – absolutely delicious. As I had been looking all around Oman for dates to bring back to mom, I was definitely in luck. The staff obligingly provides me with details of the supplier – a shop in Sharjah – and tells me that they deliver to Dubai. This seems like a godsend as I had no plans to visit Sharjah. I leave the Burj feeling on top of the world.

Next stop is the Mall of the Emirates, famed for being the largest shopping mall in the Middle East as well as having its indoor ski slop – Ski Dubai. I had no real need to shop in Dubai, other than picking up a bottle of local perfume for a friend. I stroll around briefly until dinner time, then leave for the One & Only Royal Mirage for dinner at Tagine.

December 12, 2007

Arabian Excursion Day 5: Beach and the City

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Took things very easy this morning, and laid out on the beach. The water was a bit warmer in the morning so I finally went in and swam a little. Very happy to have finally dipped in the Gulf. Water was very calm and clean.

Around lunchtime I checked out and moved into the Grand Hyatt in Bur Dubai. The hotel is indeed grand, with an attached convention center and residences. It has a massive lobby, with a man made garden inside and 4 dhows hanging from the ceiling, in addition to a gigantic chandelier. Outside there is a large waterfall coming down over the main entrance. The pool and garden area is also very large, making it a nice place to stroll around. They have a number of peacocks on the grounds as well as plenty of birds flying around the garden. It’s very nice for a business hotel.

Quick lunch at Awtar, the Arabic restaurant in the Grand Hyatt. Sampled a few mezzes only without mains. The fattoush was a bit on the acidic side for my liking, but the spinach and onion pockets were nice, while the scrambled eggs with mutton and pine nuts were interesting. I ordered Turkish coffee, and I am poured two cups of concentrated stuff with all the coffee grinds inside, filling ¼ of the small cup. Rings form around the inside of the cup as I drink slowly, but alas no one is here to tell my fortune.

The rest of the day is spent exploring the city. I spent a little time at Dubai Museum, built out of the historic Al Fahidi Fort where Dubai’s rulers used to live. It’s a bit Disney-esque with figurines showing various aspects of life in traditional society. The textile souk is uninteresting as it’s just a collection of textile traders selling cloth in bulk. I make my way to the jetty to take an abra across Dubai Creek to the Deira side. Not realizing that there are several routes, I end up at the Sabhka Station, a little farther from the old souk.

I make my way through the maze of streets that is the Deira Covered Souk, and eventually find my way to the gold souk. Some of the stuff is just amazing…no one in our society would ever dream of wearing this much gold, but these items are prominently displayed in the shop windows. I think these days the Chinese’s love of gold is far surpassed by those of the Indians and the Arabs.

I find the spice souk just a block away from the Deira Old Souk Station, and walk through some of the shops selling all types of spice. As I was snapping away, one of the shop keepers asks for me to take pictures of him. I ended up taking a picture with Abdolla, and I guess I’ll try to send him a couple of prints when I am back in HK.

I grab a quick bite of falafel and chicken shwarma with cheese for dinner.

December 11, 2007

A Very Entertaining Dinner

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Tonight I had a very entertaining meal at Tang, the French/Japanese/creative restaurant at Le Meridien Mina Seyahi in Dubai. It was entertaining because I had a lot of fun watching how badly a chef can fail to come up with something cohesive.

The Indian head waiter started by telling us how great the chefs are - one used to run a 2-Michelin star restaurant in Alsace, and the other had trained in a Michelin 3-star restaurant in the US. I was tempted to ask the guy to name the restaurant, knowing that there are only a handful of 3-star restaurants in the US, and all in NY up until Michelin released other US guides a few months ago. But I decided to pass. This guy was already getting on my nerves.

I started with Champagne and Strawberries as the cocktail, where strawberry caviar would be dropped into the Champagne flute. It all looks good and I was looking forward to the desired effect, but when I took my first sip I realized just how different my expectations were. The caviars I was looking for would be liquid inside a thin membrane made of the same liquid, a la the mango caviar at El Bulli or the carrot caviar at Tapas Molecular. Nope. The caviar here has a solid core and is just a bunch of gelatin.

I asked for the chef to put together a tasting menu. Started with the Raw Experience, where he put together blue fin tuna slices; "new style sashimi" with hamachi (actually nothing more than thin slices seared with a torch); blue fin toro; and beef sashimi wrapped in shiso and kimchi sauce. He failed miserably - I didn't get a sense at all that I was having nice and expensive blue fin, the tastes were too heavy (too sour, too salty), and the flavors clashed with each other.

Next came a pair of carpaccio - cod and beet root. I don't think cod is a suitable fish to make a carpaccio since the texture is all wrong. The beet root had sprinkles of goat cheese and was mildly interesting.

Another pairing came next - of tartares. The blue fin tuna came with kimchi sauce, and would have failed completely were it not for the thin wafer with sesame seeds. The wagyu beef tartare was topped with spicy tomato sauce, with a deconstructed Bloody Mary on the side and sprinkles of macadamia nut powder. Again, not very exciting.

The next two dishes were pretty much the only highlights of the evening. The seared diver scallops were very fresh and sweet, laying on top of pear salsa. Unfortunately it was served with slices of red beet on the side and this marred the overall experience. The spring roll of Chinese spider crabs was also a hit, with hints of lemongrass complementing the flavors.

The langoustine came on a plastic stick filled with pisco sour, and one is to inject the liquid into the meat in the process of savoring it. Unfortunately I never liked pisco sour, and the ginger marshmellows on the side again did not really work well with the rest.

The palate cleanser was a tube of apple and yuzu foam.

The grade 7 wagyu beef was introduced with much fanfare by the waiter, with all the usual clichés about how the cows drank beer and got massages while listening to classical music. Yeah, yeah, yeah... The bloody thing was obviously overcooked, looking very dry and hard on one side while desperately trying to retain some fatty flavors on the other. It was topped with red wine sauce made into caviars (this time like the El Bulli caviar) which tasted like Chinese five spice, and therefore reminded me of braised beef (五香牛肉)we find in Chinese cuisine. It came with a hard shiitake biscuit, no doubt made from the leftover juice after you soaked the dried shiitakes in hot water. It's been a while since I saw someone mess up wagyu so badly.

Pork belly was the last main course, and it was a poor version of what I can get at Bo Innovation in HK. It came with suan cai (酸菜) but basically it was sauerkraut. It also mysteriously came with a small piece of fried skate. Even more puzzling was the presence of half a cha siu bao (叉燒包)where the filling was replaced by blood pudding. Given that the majority of the population don't take a liking to blood sausage, I wonder what the chef is thinking here.

I gave in to dessert, and was served a spoonful of powdered "bread" and goat cheese, as well as a tube of honey and violet caviar as my pre-dessert. This was OK.

With dessert, the chef sort of redeemed himself a little. Whatever chocolate concoction I was served was delicious, with what I believe to be a rum sauce. Unfortuately, here again he decided to mess around with silly bits of biscuits on the side. I sampled a red piece and initially got the taste of carrots in my mouth. As time went on, I felt I was eating a piece of cardboard. Yuck...

Some words about the staff. The head waiter was annoying as he tried to recite the twenty different ingredients that the chef had used in each dish, and spoke so fast in his Indian accent that I couldn't catch half of it. He also tried to show us how great everything was, about how creative the chefs were. Well, I would have liked to let him know that his chef is one of the worst chefs I have run into, and I couldn't imagine how he ever was associated with a Michelin 2-star restaurant, let alone to have run it.

The rest of the wait staff are all cheap labor - each one is a trainee imported from a developing nation. We had girls from China and the Philippines, some of whom had only arrived in Dubai 2 weeks ago and had absolutely no experience with fine dining. They were friendly but basically useless. But then again, this fits with the overall theme of Dubai importing thousands of cheap labor from Asian countries...

Needless to say I would never EVER go near this restaurant or its chefs again. And I would strongly advise anyone else against going.

Arabian Excursion Day 4: Farewell to Oman and Hello Again, Dubai!

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Leaving Oman

I am leaving Oman today, but before doing so I would make one last stop at the Grand Mosque of Sultan Qaboos, his gift to the nation marking his 30th year on the throne. It is beautiful from the outside – simple, clean lines in the uniform color of sand. Inside, however, is quite a different story.

After snapping pictures of the courtyard and the traditional Islamic archways, I make my way inside the main prayer hall. Can you say “bling”? Firstly, it houses the largest carpet in the world, a Persian rug made specifically for the hall measuring 70m x 60m. It even extends to cover every nook and cranny on the sides. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit in the morning between prayers, and we step on the blue visitor’s carpet.

Then there’s the chandelier. Hanging from the central dome is a humongous crystal chandelier, flanked by numerous smaller ones around the hall. The inside of the dome is gilded in intricate Islamic designs, shown off further by the light eminating from the chandelier. The words wow, bling, and kitsch come to mind. But it IS grand. I leave Muscat satisfied that I have finally entered a Mosque in an Islamic country, especially one as grand as this.

Arriving in Dubai

This time around the arrival in Dubai was smoother than the last. We actually got a gate so we could step off the plane directly without having to wait for the bus. The immigration procedure was simple and I was out of the airport in no time.

I wanted to stay on the beach for one night, so I booked for a night at Le Meridien Mina Seyahi in the Marina area. While there were some issues about my room reservations, I was upgraded to a club room with a magnificent view. The Palm Jumeirah is right in front of me, and the Marina Club right next to the hotel. I set up my tripod and the big Canon cannon, and start taking pictures of the construction sites on the Palm. The beautiful blue of the water works well with the green of the hotel garden area, and I’m happy to have chosen the hotel based on Time Out’s Dubai guide.

Around 4pm I decide to go down to the beach and test out the water. It is very, very clean but very, very cold. I stop when I am knee deep and go back up the beach.

Dinner was at Tang inside the hotel, but that is the subject of another blog posted previously…

December 10, 2007

Arabian Excursion Day 3: Omani Coast and Wahiba Sands

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8am early start today as I will be out for a full 12 hours, combining 2 excursions into one. Saif has returned to be my guide again. Must be the tip I left him yesterday…

As we leave Muscat, we encounter detours as there is lots of road construction going on. Saif explained that a few months ago the flash floods coming through the wadi had been severe, and washed away lots of road sections throughout the country. We would be seeing a lot more of this throughout the day.

First stop if Quryiat, a small fishing village not far from Muscat. It’s quiet, with a couple of dozen small fishing boats on the shore inside the small half moon bay. As one would expect, there is an old watchtower on one end of the bay. The atmosphere is so laid back and serene as I sit underneath the gazebo…listening to the waves washing up on the beach, and the seagulls looking for a meal…I really didn’t want to leave this place.

We continue along the coast, but Saif decides to take a “short cut” as he wanted to take advantage of the new highway that is being built. We end up going through more than an hour’s worth of very rough terrain, including being in a dried wadi where we really had to fully utilize the capacility of the Toyota Landcruiser. It was quite some time before we found ourselves back on paved roads again.

The obligatory next stop is the so-called Bimmah Sinkhole, a natural hole carved into the rocky ground that has a mixed flow of salt and freshwater year round. With the terrain and the turquoise water, I am reminded of the volcanic lakes of Kelimutu on Flores in Indonesia. Unlike Kelimutu, the water here is fresh and clear to the bottom, and I can see schools of little fish swimming among the seaweed and moss. It’s a wonderful sight. Unfortunately we are in the dry season, so there isn’t enough water for me to go for a dip.

We continue along the coast on a rough, unpaved road. Interestingly, we are running parallel to the new highway that is partially completed. The half of the project from Muscat to Tiwi has been given to a Turkish company, while the section from Tiwi to Sur is being done by a Chinese company. We try to drive on the completed sections, but most of the road remain closed despite having been completed.

This section of the coast is really beautiful, with rocky cliffs and white, sandy beaches along the way in little alcoves. The water is shows many graduated shades of blue. The contrast is striking.

The first highlight of the day is Wadi Shab, a green riverbed close to the village of Tiwi. After driving for hours in the barren canyons, the welcome sight of the mountains opening up into a green valley, with palm trees on both sides and lush, green riverbed is a godsend. One gets a hint of how people in the desert must feel when they catch sight of an oasis. I quickly take in my picnic lunch here while Saif goes off for his lunchtime prayers. Numerous other visitors pass by on the way into the depth of the canyon, and by the time I am done with lunch, none had returned. I make my way inside the canyon, but can see no end to the meandering wadi. Where did all the other people go? There must be something deep inside that captivated them, something so nice that makes people unwilling to leave the place. Unfortunately I am running out of time, so I double back to the car and move on.

Incidentally, the Chinese are constructing a bridge to cross the gap at the opening of Wadi Shab. As I started my trek inward, I see a lone Chinese construction worker taking a break. He looked longingly in my direction, clearly homesick and overjoyed at the sight of a fellow countryman. He has been here for 20 months, a long time to be away from home. I promise to chat upon my return, but did not see him as I returned to the car.

Further along the coast we make a brief stop at Bibi Miriam’s tomb near Qalhat, a simple structure that has stood here for several hundred years. Details are sketchy and even Saif does not know much, but it appears that Bibi was a rich daughter who, centuries ago, broke with tradition and received a proper education.

We finally reach Sur at around 2:30pm. This is one of the largest cities in Oman, yet it remains a quiet coastal fishing town. We park along the Corniche and I walk to the beach, admiring the clear water. How nice it is to have such a clean beach right in the city. I think of San Sebastien and the clear water inside that beautiful half-moon bay. The water is cold and I decide not to jump in completely, wading only knee-deep with camera in hand to snap a few shots of the beach front.

With only a couple of hours to sun down, we quickly make way to the Wahiba Sands. Other than the Empty Quarter, this is the largest area of sand dunes in the country, stretching more than 100km at its widest point. The area is famed for its golden sands with the reddish tint. We arrive at the entry point around 4:30pm, an hour before sunset.

Saif first takes me to the dwelling of a Bedouin family he knows. We are invited into the reception area for guests, and offered a small cup of coffee and some dates. Saif pours coffee from an old thermos (and not a traditional Arabic coffee pot) and there are dozens of flies buzzing around the dates, but I accept the offering out of courtesy. I hear the mention of money in the exchange between Saif and the hostess, and know that I should purchase a token handicraft for the privilege of the visit. After about 20 minutes (which unfortunately is precious time wasted today) I pay 2 Rials for a simple woven bookmark without bargaining.
Now I have a little less than 1 hour before sunset. I tell Saif to drive to a spot for me to take pictures, making sure that we face the right direction away from the sun. We don’t have much time to go far, and settle for something close.

The sand here really is golden, with an orange/reddish layer on top and a paler base. The reddish top layer makes for excellent photographs as it contrasts with the rest of the area, appearing as a highlight on top of the dunes. I relax and enjoy sunset over the dunes. It’s been 8 years since I last watched the sun set over the Mingsha Dunes(鳴沙山)in Dunhuang (敦煌), China.

Just before leaving, I catch sight of a camel calf suckling on its mother.

Saif takes me back to Muscat, flying at between 120-140km/h on the highway. Before he drops me back at the hotel we visit a traditional shop selling halwa, the national dessert which is basically a jello of dates, saffron, cardamom, nutmeg and other spices. I try 3 different varieties and settle on buying both the cheapest (which is the most common and my favorite) as well as the most expensive (yellowish in color from the saffron). I am happy.

For dinner I am too tired to venture out. I polish off the huge chunks of baklawa as well as other Arabic desserts purchased from Lulu the night before, and decided to stay away from baklawa for a long time going forward as I’ve just OD’d on it…

December 9, 2007

Arabian Excursion Day 2: Omani Forts

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Left the hotel before 8am today for my tour of Omani forts. Oman is a country dotted with watchtowers and known for its classical forts, so I wanted to get a cultural perspective on the country. My tourguide Saif speaks excellent English, and seems very knowledgeable about the world economy and clearly has done some homework on Hong Kong and Asia.

First stop was Nizwa, the fourth-largest city in the country. I walked through the Nizwa souq but it wasn't very interesting. The Nizwa Fort sits next to the souq, dominated by its large round tower. Like most other forts in the country, this one continues to be under restoration. Climbing to the top of the tower gives a commanding view of the historic town settlements with its date palms. We see trap doors in the stairwells and openings through which hot honey would have been poured on the enemy. Pretty interesting.

Before moving on, we passed by a food shop selling a local delicacy whose name escapes me. It is a variation of shwarma, but here the meat is mutton kebab instead of sliced. It is delicious and help push back lunch time by about an hour or so.

We make a quick stop at Al-Harma, one of the oldest villages in Oman. Here the houses are built Yemeni style although certainly not as elaborate as the ones in Sana'a. There is a large date palm planation giving a good contrast in colors.

Next stop is Jabrin Castle, where we go through the maze and look for every hidden nook and cranny. Of particular interest is the date store, where grooves are made in the floor to enable the date juice to flow through an opening in the floor to the storage vats. We pass by rooms still decorated with handcuffs, some with iron bars on the windows.

On the way back, we pass by Bahla Fort - a UNESCO World Heritage site currently under major restoration for the next couple of years. It was built in 1500 B.C. and was protected by surrounding walls which look like a mini version of the Great Wall of China. Unfortunately I was not able to go inside and can only snap a few pictures from outside.

A word about modern Omani architecture: there are no skyscrapers, even in the capital. Most houses today are still built in the traditional Omani style, with maybe 3 stories and niched tops bearing resemblence to the country's forts. Most are whitewashe or colored like the sand. The most interesting feature is the water tower on the roof. As you trvel across the country, you realize that most are shaped like the round tower of a fort, and come either in white or sand to match the house. It's actually very cute.

Lunch was a disaster. I was dropped off at the Falaj Daris Hotel in Nizwa and led to the buffet. While there were local appetizers such as hummus and fatoosh, all the hot dishes were Western. The saving grace was the desert - ummali - a pudding with milk, raisins and nuts.

I had dinner at a very local eatery in Qurm. The fare was decided Lebanese and I had a very thin mutton shwarma along with fatoosh and vine leaves.

Shopping here is not as big of a fasttime as neighboring Dubai, so it's not surprising to discover that the malls are rather small. However, it has been quite a while since I have seen shopping centers so tiny and poorly stocked. I had to get myself to the Lulu Hypermarket near the hotel to finally see some scale, and real shopping buzz.

December 8, 2007

Arabian Excursion Day 1: Muscat City

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After checking into the Grand Hyatt Muscat, I napped for a little since I didn’t sleep well on the plane. For lunch I asked the hotel concierge for a recommendation, and was directed to Bin Ateeq, a chain of restaurants serving local Omani food. Apparently it serves Omani traders and in typical fashion, I am directed to a private room where I sat on the floor to eat. It's an interesting experience since the big room was only for me, whereas the other customers all came with family or people from work, judging by the amount of shoes left at the doors.

To get a quick sampling of the food, I ordered the yogurt salad (similar to other Middle Eastern cuisines), cuttlefish with coconut curry (sounds very Asian), and a mutton stew with rukhal - a local bread variety. Mixed fruit juices seem to be the thing to do in Oman, so I ordered one up. The coconut curry wasn't as Thai as I initial thought, and was more Indian in flavor. The stew was very interesting, as the rukhal has been boiled in the stew is now soft but not yet mushy. I leave feeling satisfied. There is a McDonald's right in front of the restaurant, but I decide to wait for another opportunity to try the local specialties.

The afternoon's itinerary includes Mutrah, the old port of Muscat, as well as the old Muscat city itself. I start with the Sultan's Place in Muscat, which is a fanciful and colorful creation, probably done in the 70's (which seems to fit the time that Sultan Qaboos started his reign). It is situated inside a bay and is flanked by the Al-Mirani and Al-Jalali Forts, making its defense fairly easy. A series of 20mm guns, painted red and black, face the bay as a warning to intruders.

The gardens surrounding the palace have immaculate lawns and are strewn with colorful morning glory in various shades. The Sultan sure loves his flowers. In fact, Muscat's highways are lined with these colorful flowers and watered during the blooming season.

A short cab ride and I'm in Mutrah, where I was dropped off at the Corniche and admired the view of the beautiful harbor. The sun is going down now and the warm light on the rocks looks wonderful. A flock of seagulls hang around the water's edge in search of food. The Sultan's private yacht is docked here, behind a beautiful dhow moored in the middle of the harbor. I take an easy stroll along the Corniche and soak in the atmosphere.

After a while I duck into the Mutrah Souk - the traditional market. I am instantly confronted with shops selling all types of goods - perfumeries selling traditional, intense scents in expensive crystal bottles; spice traders with their frankincense wrapped in small plastic bags and large sacks of green henna; clothing stores which either sell the traditional white robes and hats worn by the men, or the black chadors worn by women. None appeal to me, not even the frankincense that I was determined to buy here. Time to return to the hotel.

Dinner was a non-event, as I took in the buffet dinner at the Grand Hyatt cafe. I'm still beat from the previous night and sleep early, in preparation for the expeditions of the next two days.

Flying with Emirates

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Last night I flew with Emirates for the first time, on my way to Dubai and Muscat. I must say that I was very much looking for the experience, as I had high expectations given Emirates placed second in Zagat's survey on international airlines for economy class. Well, I have a lot to write about now, after the experience, although I kinda got more than I bargained for. Here is a very long account of what happened...

I was running a little late before my departure, as I spent some time cleaning my camera equipment. I decided to take a cab from home to the airport, since I was worried about my pre-booked left-hand-side window seat being cancelled if I checked in a little too late. My cab driver had never dropped anyone off at Terminal 2 (and I had never checked in there myself), so he got a little lost. I finally had him drop me off in front of the escalators from the parking lot to the building, and rushed up to the counter.

I probably arrived around 55 minutes before the flight, just a couple of minutes after airlines would normally release any pre-booked seats. Emirates farmed out their ground handling to Jardines, and I was obviously facing someone very inexperienced (maybe even a trainee), since it took her 3-4 minutes just to find my reservation, even though I handed her a print out of my reservation. There was a senior ground staff from Emirates kinda looking over her shoulder.

After finally finding my reservation, she proceeded to tell me that I was getting one of the last seats on the plane. I pointed out to her the fact that I had already had a window seat reserved, and for her to please check. Apparently the seat has been released and is now occupied by someone else. What's more, she informed me that it is the airline's policy to release reserved seats 1 hour before check-in counter close. Since check-in counters officially close 50 minutes before flight departure, she is effectively telling me that I have to check-in almost 2 hours before flight time to keep my seat.

I made it clear to her that I thought this was ridiculous. Most airlines will keep your reserved seats and only release them one hour before flight time. I mentioned this to her, and her reply was "But this is how we do it here." Wonderful. I looooove that line. A customer is giving you feedback to let you know that your competitor is doing something better, and you are not performing up to his/her expectations/standards. And what do you do? Tell them that you don't give a damn coz things ain't gonna change around here. Everytime someone says that to me, I have to urge to reply: "...and this is how you just lost a customer!"

After seeing me throw a hissy fit, she manages to find a window seat for me that was originally taken by the crew. Unfortunately it is on the wrong side of the plane. I had wanted to be on the left side to get a view of the Dubai coastline as we approached for landing. Now I'm going to miss that view. Nevermind. At least I have a window seat with a view.

But wait...after issuing me my boarding pass, she suddenly wasn't sure she could release that seat to me. So I'm left standing at the counter while she figures this out. By that time she handed me back my boarding pass, it had taken more than 20 minutes to check me in, and the time now was only 35 minutes before departure. I will now have to haul ass to get to my gate on time.

I am now on board in my seat. The cattle class seats on Emirates look a bit skinny at first, fitting 10 in a row on a 777-300ER. But as had been advertised for the last 10 years, they do have the best entertainment system of any airline, even in cattle class. They boast 500 channels, and based on a quick glance I would say that they are not lying. And all AVOD, too!

But minutes after I sit down, I start drawing comparisons with my cliche about China - that it's all about the hardware. Yes, the AVOD system is nice, but can't they do something about the flight attendants?! Most of them (especially the women) have very poor attitudes and are frowning most of the time. Emirates hire their crew from all over the world and I counted Brits, Thai, Korean, Indonesian, Filipino, Arabic, Hongkie among the ones walking around on my flight. But they are very poorly trained, and inefficient.

Meal service. At one point I counted 4 carts being pushed by flight attendants on one aisle in the back half of Economy. This sort of traffic jam wouldn't happen on other top airlines like CX or SQ. And they serve their bakery items cold! I had a cold (as in just came from the fridge) dinner roll, and cold croissants (again fresh from the fridge) for my breakfast!

The only good thing about the in-flight experience (other than the AVOD system) was the starry sky within the cabin. When the lights are dimmed at night, the ceiling of the cabin appears like the milky way with pinpoints of light shining through. I supposed that it, along wit the wavy desert motif on the sides of the cabin, is supposed to evoke of sense of being in the desert under starry skies at night. Very romantic.

OK, there's more. We finally landed in Dubai, on time. I now have 2 hours before my connecting flight to Muscat. No problem!

Dubai Int'l Airport is constructing an extension terminal where they will park all Emirates flights. For now they don't have enough gates to accomodate all the flights coming in, so we park on the tarmac and wait to be offloaded. After everyone has gotten up and waited for a few minutes, we are informed by the captain that they don't seem to have one of those mobile staircase thingies to enable us to get off. So we wait. And wait. Finally, people in front seem to start moving. But the process grinds to a halt time and again, as there also seems to be a shortage of buses to transport offloaded passengers.

By the time I get off the plane, 35 minutes or so have passed since landing. Finally I am on the bus heading to the terminal building. But there seems to be a huge traffic jam on the tarmac. The bus makes its way around the airport slowly, but gets stuck. Somewhere along the route, the bus driver decides to start playing an explanation/apology from Emirates about having to bus us in due to a lack of gates. Fine, at least I now understand. But the message keeps playing in a loop since Mr. Bus Driver forgets (or did he?) to turn it off. I probably ended up hearing the darn thing more than 10 times by the time I got off the bus.

And what time did I get off the bus? More than 1 hour after I land. Can you believe this?! It takes me more than 1 hour just to get inside the terminal! This is unheard of anywhere else in the world! And what's more, I have to go through security check immediately again, which takes up more time. By the time I am through and having quickly grabbed a bottle of Evian to quench my thirst, I am 35 minutes away from my connecting flight departure time and have to run for the gate again!

But I'm still not home free. I go through the boarding gate for my Emirates flight to Muscat (which, incidentally, happens to be the farthest gate from where I entered the terminal) only to find that I have to board another bus to get to the plane. Wonderful news. Thankfully this time it took only a few minutes to get to the plane, and I board quickly.

Unfortunately, some of my fellow passengers got stuck (either traffic jam or they couldn't find a bus to ship them in). So I sit in the plane and wait. What's more, even after all of the passengers have boarded, we still couldn't leave because we were waiting for some baggage to arrive so that they can be loaded on the plane. I find out a few minutes later (since I have a window seat directly above the cargo bay) that my suitcase is among this last batch of bags. Imagine that it has now been 2 1/2 hours since I landed, and my bag finally made it onto my connecting flight...

I'm glad that I finally had a chance to fly Emirates, and that I finally had a chance to transit through Dubai Airport. But after this experience, it will probably be a long time before I would think about doing either again...

December 7, 2007

Can't sit still...

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I just can't sit still at work today. Flying tonight for my trip to UAE and Oman. Very much looking forward to seeing Dubai and being in the Middle East for the first time. If time permits, will be blogging and posting pictures at night.

December 3, 2007

Another Wonderful Dinner at Caprice

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Last night my friend Julian hosted his "birthday MNSC" dinner at Caprice. It was, needless to say, a wonderful experience at one of the top restaurants in Hong Kong. In fact, this dinner almost made me change the #10 position of my top 10 restaurants!

We started with the amuse bouche, some sort of beef terrine topped with a light mash.
Then moved onto the lobster carpaccio florid with Aquitaine caviar, yuzu mousse and nori seaweed. This was certainly delicious as the lobster was very fresh, and the combination of the caviar, yuzu and nori teased our tastebuds. However this was a course that was designed to screw up our palate for wine...

Next we had the black truffle ravioli with Jerusalem artichoke salad in merlot vinegar. We had a discussion about the curious fact that many French restaurants insist on serving ravioli, which isn't actually French in origin. In any case, the ravioli was delicious and the black truffle stuffing was yummy.

The third course was line-caught sea bass with oxtail ravioles in braised jus, bamboo leeks and tropical coconut infusion. Ravioli again! This time it was actually a bit crunchy and interesting. The sea bass had perfectly crunchy skin and the flesh was just the right balance between being too dry or too juicy.

Our main course was Challans duck fillet with buttered Savoy cabbage and Parmentier in braised sauce. This was one of the best duck courses I have had in Hong Kong. The flesh was tender, a good balance with the fatty skin of the duck. The skin was seasoned with finely ground black pepper and Chinese five spice, not dissimilar to the recipe I have for duck breast at home actually...wonderful! I couldn't finish the buttered cabbage fast enough! It was sooo good.

The ladies did not wish to have duck so they ordered up a roasted Bresse chicken. It looked very, very good and should rival San San Trois. Being very full by this point, I only took 2 tiny slivers of breast meat when offered and did not taste the skin. 

Interestingly, the ladies felt unsatiated and ordered up a couple of orders of Hainan chicken rice from the cafe. We joked about doing a chicken pairing between the Bresse and the Hainan chickens...Needless to say I did not partake in this.

We were served a sample of 5 types of cheese. The aged Comté was particularly salty today so it was difficult to finish even one small piece, since I didn't want to consume any more bread.

Now onto the first of the desserts - Valencia floating island with chestnut Mont-Blanc and blood orange granite. Interesting time of year to serve granité...since it's normally done in the summer. However the chestnut was delicious, and the blood orange granité was a welcome refreshment.

I did not seem to have difficulty lapping up the other dessert - chocolate liegeois with iced tonka bean and hazelnut in warm coca coulis. This was chocolate all the way with a dab of gold foil on top.

Now onto the wines...this turned out to be a very high-scoring evening for the MNSC as a couple of people identified one of the wines relatively easily. The wines were served in 3 flights, with a bottle of Chateau Rayas and Chateau Mouton Rothschild from the same vintage in each flight.

1983 Mouton Rothschild - classic left bank Bordeaux from the get go. I actually guessed it was Lynch Bages, another Pauillac. 95 points.

1983 Rayas - I detected the perfumed nose, and given my very limited experience with Rayas, decided it was a muted bottle of Guigal La Mouline. 96 points.

1989 Rayas - I was the only one who did not like the "funky" nose of this wine, and gave it a relatively low score. But I did think it was a Rayas. 92 points.

1989 La Conseillante - again a classic Bordeaux from a seemingly ripe vintage, and definitely my wine of the evening. I was led astray by someone else's guess earlier and thought this could be a Margaux, even though the host gave me a very big hint by initially refusing to accept my guess. 98 points.

1996 Mouton Rothschild - I initially guessed it was Margaux (to be consistent with the last flight) but finally changed to Pichon Lalande due to the smoky tobacco in the nose (should have been a tell tale sign that it was Mouton!) But at least I thought it was a Pauillac, which was better than most people...95 points.

1996 Rayas - the nose was incredibly perfumed, which strengthened my conviction that this was the Guigal La Mouline. Oops...I think I should drink more Rayas. 97 points. 

We also had the 1983 Salon pre-dinner, and even though many others had pooh-poohed it as being "acidic, mushroom piss", I actually thought that was just classic old Champagne, though it was a bit on the acidic side for my taste.

December 2, 2007

My two cents on the new Miss World

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I was bored last night and happened to turn on Star World when they were doing the live coverage of the Miss World 2007 pageant in Sanya. Miss China ended up winning the pageant, as I predicted while watching the darned thing. How predictable!

For the last few years, Sanya on Hainan Island has been the venue of the Miss World pageant. No doubt the Chinese paid beaucoup dinero to the Miss World Organization for the right to host this, and to bring tourist dollars and attention to the island. While it is customary to include the representative from the host nation into the semi-finals or even the finals, this time they really went too far to kiss up to China.

Was Miss China pretty? She was kinda cute but not gorgeous. Talent? I must admit I didn't watch the pageant from the beginning so I can't judge. What I did see was how badly she failed the questionaire during the final round.

Let's be honest. During the final round, everyone gets the same question. And I am sure that everyone would have had a chance to prepare for the question, especially since Miss China was not the first one picked to answer it. She failed miserably. She stuttered and was tongue-tied, on camera. I have never seen anyone flunk so badly during a Q&A at a pageant. She was obviously flustered and got worse and worse as time went on. 

Granted, one can argue that English is not her first language. But of the 5 finalists, only one (Trinidad & Tobago) came from a nation whose official language is English. So why did the other beauties not stumble? And why was China allowed to be crowned Miss World when the whole world saw her screw up so badly?

I'm disgusted with the desire of the world to kiss up to China.


My Top 10 Restaurants in the World

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I was browsing the web and was looking through ChubbyHubby's website, when I decided to read his review of per se. I'm not sure why, but I was suddenly struck by an urge to list out the top restaurants that I have had the pleasure, no priviledge, of dining at.

Since many of my friends know of my reputation (or is it infamy) as a foodie, I am often asked about my favorite restaurants. So here goes:

1. El Bulli (Roses, Spain)
This restaurant deserves every bit of the attention it has been getting. It is the single hardest reservation to make in the world. I was fortunate to have secured a table for June 2006, on my birthday no less! My experience here surpasses any other meal I have ever had, so it will probably remain #1 for quite some time.

2. per se (New York, USA)
Many people would be amazed that I would rank this ahead of the French Laundry, since Thomas Keller is usually found in Yountville, not New York. However, I think the atmosphere of per se just makes the dining experience so much better, although the courses in the tasting menus are almost identical to that of the French Laundry. Last visited in March 2006.

3. The French Laundry (Yountville, USA)
This is Thomas Keller's flagship restaurant and justly deserves its place among my top experiences. It lost out to sister restaurant per se simply because we were seated upstairs and space was very cramped. One can't help but listen in on the conversation at the next table, which is very annoying to me when dining at fine establishments. Last visited in March 2006, a few days after the per se visit.

4. La Tour d'Argent (Paris, France) Given my penchant for creative and nouvelle cuisine, many people may be surprised at the ranking given to this grande dame of a restaurant, the symbol of haute cuisine for many. I am awed by the history of the place, the gigantic wine cellar (the collection was around 500,000 bottles during my last visit), and the amazing courses I had. It was here that I first had milky smooth foie gras d'oie scooped out to me using large dinner spoons. I have also had the caneton on both occasions, and received the little cards with their serial numbers. It's all about tradition here. Last visited in August 2002.

5. Kyubey 久兵衛 (Tokyo, Japan) Despite receiving only one Michelin star in the recently published guide, this is still my favorite sushi restaurant in the world. It is the one restaurant which I must go to during every visit to Tokyo (and only to the Ginza restaurant). I may try other sushi restaurants in the future, but for now Kyubey remains tops on my list. Last visited August 2007.

6. Guy Savoy (Paris, France) My only visit to this restaurant comes months after Guy finally receiving the third Michelin star that he rightfully deserves. I had ordered a bottle of nice white Burgundy, and I was offered different types of bread to pair with my choice of wine! That was a first for me. Last visited in August 2002.

7. Akelarre (San Sebastian, Spain) Maybe it was the drive out past Monte Igueldo on a nice day, but I really enjoyed the dining experience at this restaurant with views of the sea. The food is decidedly creative, like many establishments in Spain. Being able to order in half portions is definitely a plus. Last visited in June 2006.

8. Martin Berasategui (Lasarte, Spain) This Michelin 3-star restaurant is almost on par with Akelarre in my book. The food is wonderfully delicious, creative, and you can order everything in half portions. We sat out on the terrace for lunch on a beautiful day. The only thing marring the experience slightly was the periodic smell of manure floating in with the wind (which was fertilizing the beautifully green hill in front of us. This was also the first experience with how casual the Spaniards are when it comes to dressing to eat - some guy was wearing denim shorts and flip flops while dining at a 3-star restaurant! Last visited in June 2006.

9. Le Bernardin (New York, USA) Eric Ripert is a creative master, and I love dining at Le Bernardin when I'm in New York. This guy can do magic with all kinds of seafood, and the way they pack the large dining room every night is a testament to his skills. Last visited in March 2006.

10. Pierre (Hong Kong) It was tough deciding the 10th place on this list. Admittedly I have had many meals at great restaurants, and some with Michelin 3-stars have not made it into my Top 10. Why do I think Pierre deserves to be here? Well, the food IS extremely good and consistent. And the ambience is also wonderful, befitting a dining establishment of this stature. The biggest downside is the poor and expensive wine list, and the fact that they don't normally allow BYO. Last visited In March 2007.

Excursion to Mai Po Reserve

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Yesterday DB Asia Foundation organized a volunteer day at the WWF Mai Po Reserve. I had always wanted to visit this nature reserve (I missed the opportunity last year), since access was fairly restricted, so I signed up for this event.

We arrived by coach and was given a quick briefling by the staff. Our mission today is to uproot and remove one of the species of plant invaders, the Mikania micrantha. This is a climber vine originating in South America and probably brought in by migratory birds. Its growth rate is extremely fast, and it latches onto native flora and climbs on top, eventually blocking out sunlight and killing the plants underneath.

A staff from the reserve demonstrated how to uproot the vines by hand or use the scythe to cut it. We had to identify the plant by its distinctive heart-shaped leaves and the its small, pretty flowers. We then split into groups and set off to work along one of the gei wai, the traditional shrimp farming pools that comprise a large part of the reserve.

Removing climbing plants and weeds may sound easy at first, but this thing was growing everywhere...and the difficult thing is that the climber winds itself around the native plant, so often you can't remove it by just simply pulling on it or cutting it with one swing of the scythe - doing so would remove the native plant at the same time. So I had to carefully unwind the Mikania before the removal can be done.

One of the DB staff brought along her three daughters, and it was just a field trip for them. They were happy to be out in nature and out of their home, and pretty much sang the whole time in the fields. We were treated to traditional Chinese children's songs and even to Phantom of the was pretty entertaining (and funny). These kids just had boundless energy!

Even though we only worked in the fields for less than 1 1/2 hours, I thought we did pretty well in terms of cleaning up the Mikania. We had 5 large plastic buckets in which to dump them, and I think each had to be emptied quite a few times during the course of the afternoon.

We went back to take a bit of break for snacks and drinks, and proceeded to do a bit of bird-watching with our guide. I had brought along by camera and zoom lens but unfortunately forgot my 2x extender. As a result, 200mm just wasn't going to reach close enough - and I already knew that. I don't think I got any photos which were stunning enough. But we did see a lot of birds - tons of them perched on top of trees (and depositing tons of droppings on the leaves and grass below). In the late afternoon we saw flights of birds returning from feeding at sea.

I was very happy to have finally visited Mai Po, and to have done some work for the benefit of this reserve. I look forward to going back again.


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