March 28, 2008

Belated 65th

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I travelled to Taipei for business yesterday, and took the opportunity to treat mom for a belated birthday dinner. We had been going to Paris 1930 at the Ritz Landis for these occasions since 2000, and this birthday was no exception.

On my last trip to Taipei, I had dropped off a special bottle of wine with my parents, to be drunk on this special occasion. It's a bottle of 1943 Chateau Canon, which I bought a few years ago when prices were more reasonable. Mom's 65th birthday (even though it passed 2 weeks ago) would be an occasion to pop the cork.

The first pour into the glass showed the youthfulness of the wine. Unlike the 1940 Chateau Haut Brion we drank 6 months ago, this wine isn't on its last legs. Mom's first comment was that the wine was very "young" (compared to the 1940), and that she would expect a lot less sediment at the bottom. She would be proven right.

Of course the wine isn't "young", not in the way you would describe a wine being drunk within 10 years of its vintage. But it's neither vinegar nor water, and showed a lot more body than I had expected. After an hour or so, one can even extract a certain amount of sweet fruit in the nose after swirling. While the palate is still a little acidic, it is to be expected from a wine like this. Overall we were quite happy with the wine, especially mom of course.

I chose the Chef's Menu for the evening (1930 has no a la carte dining). This would consist of the following (apologies for the poor pictures - I only had my small point/shoot):

Amuse bouche - deep fried oyster

Green asparagus, feta cheese and sweet pepper fondant, mango "yolk" with vincotta vinegar syrup. This is quite interesting as the sweet red pepper, along with the mango sauce, toned down the sharp taste of feta cheese.

Lobster with almond choux dumplings, blood orange yogurt, and zarzuela emulsion. I was initially disappointed in the dish, despite the tasty bit of lobster and the yummy yogurt and emulsion. The reason is that the dumplings were initially introduced by the waiter as spaetzle, which is totally different. The texture of the dumplings are very similar to potato gnocci, and hence different from the chewy texture of spaetzle.

Truffle lasagna, parsnip puree and young artichokes, reduced Port and truffle jus with Pecorino cheese emulsion. This was yummy, as the full flavor of the truffles hit the tongue. I could have seconds and thirds of this.

Next up on my menu would be seared fried foie gras with crispy ham. As this is mom's favorite dish, I swapped with her and had Abalone and black linguine, leek cream, crispy almonds and shallots with chorizo froth. This was very, very yummy. The abalone is seared and had the consistency of seared scallops. The linguine was done to perfection. The crispy shallots and the foam made me also want to have seconds for this course.

Main course - Lamb loin and Shimeji Mushroom, confit garlic with minted cumin au jus and potato "tagine". The lamb was very tender, done medium rare with pink centers. There is just enough fat to add a healthy dose of the gamey taste, letting the diner know that this is lamb and not any other meat. Very yummy.

We were treated to a small selection of cheese to finish off the wine, and wrapped up with a selection of bite-size desserts and petit fours. The highlight was the walnut ice cream, which was so nutty and delicious.

I think mom was happy with her birthday meal, despite having it 2 weeks late. Now I have to look for more bottles of 1943...

March 25, 2008

Easter in Thailand Day 6: Homeward Bound

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Another early start to the day, going around to the temples I marked for exploration in the morning instead of yesterday afternoon.

I start at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon south-east of the island, whose main attraction is an outdoor reclining Buddha. As I take my camera out of the bag for pictures, I hit upon a snag. Apparently the air con in my hotel room was very cold, and now my camera and lenses are fogging up in the same way that people's eyeglasses fog up going from a cold to a hot environment. This was very frustrating, as I could do nothing but watch mangoes fall from the tree above while waiting for my equipment to defrost. Eventually it took more than 20 minutes, and I give up after a few quick snaps of the Buddha and the large chedi structures. On my way out I encounter a number of cats running around the temple, and spend a bit of time following them around.

March 24, 2008

Easter in Thailand Day 5: Train ride to Ayutthaya

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Today I would be leaving Bangkok and going up to Ayutthaya, the other ancient capital of Thailand. After having a quick breakfast of stir-fried kway tiaw in the hotel, I packed up and left for Hualamphong station.

I paid the 315 Baht fare for the 2nd class, air-con train. I think it was definitely a wise decision not to take the 3rd class commuter train for 15 Baht - it just looks crowded, dirty and hot. The train was actually reasonably comfortable and clean, and the air-con is a must in this climate.

My 1 1/2-hour train ride was reasonably uneventful, except for the 2-yr old boy on her mommy's lap next to me. She obviously spoils him and he gets whatever he wants, throwing food around and kicking me in the next seat. Eventually she ran out of tricks to calm him down, and I think she let him suck on her tit to keep him quiet. Anyway I think that's what happened, since I didn't exactly feel comfortable to take a good look... 

Getting off the train at Ayutthaya station, I found myself a tuk-tuk to take me to the hotel. The ride to the River View Place Hotel on the island is short and I am there in no time. The tuk-tuk driver offered to take me around the sights for charter hire, and showed me a laminated card printed with English and Japanese. He wants 300 Baht an hour! I am insulted and told him to take a hike.

March 23, 2008

Easter in Thailand Day 4: Leaving Sukhothai

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Had breakfast early in the morning, and bid farewell to Debbie before her flight back to Bangkok. I really enjoyed her company yesterday.

Set off to Si Satchanalai-Chaliang Historical Park, another part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was about an hour by car, and we arrived a bit after 8:30am. My guide Tong tells me that the name Chaliang is actually a foreign word, having been translated from the Chinese name "Choeng Lieng", as the area was called during the time of Xuanzang (玄奘) and the Journey to the West (西遊記).

The first stop was Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat in Chaliang, with a central Khmer-style prang dominating the grounds. The wihan in front has a large, seated Buddha under a canopy to protect it from the elements. I also witness graceful examples of the walking Buddha, while I found that the Buddha here actually had an "Indian" nose - curve downward and back in.

As we pulled up in the car, my guide Tong remarked that it "snowed" the day before. In reality, there was a night market outside the temple and the crowd left behind an incredible amount of garbage, especially in the form of white plastic bags. Cleaning crew was in the middle of taking care of this when we arrived. It's actually quite sad and shows how people's lack of consideration can easily damage a valuable part of our history.

March 22, 2008

Easter in Thailand Day 3: A traveling companion

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This morning’s program consisted of revisiting some of the main sights from yesterday to try to get better shots in the morning light. I started with Wat Mahatat to capture of the faces of the Buddha statues. The light was prefect so I was very happy.

Wat Si Sawai was my second stop, and as the tuk-tuk pulled up to the entrance, I heard the deafening roar of countless cicadas singing in the trees above me. No one was at the temple at this point in time, and the cicadas gave me a sense of being alone in the woods. Found some new angles for great shots that I missed yesterday.

Next I passed by Wat Traphang Ngoen, which has two separate parts. The ubosot sits on an island in the middle of a large pond. There is no chedi or Buddha statue here, only the laterite remains of the columns. The ubosot is surrounded by a ring of large, old trees whose canopy cover the island completely. Here, too, the cicadas sing. I find myself listening to the sounds of the tropical rainforest, relaxed and taking it easy. I relish the moment. From here I can see the rest of the wat across the pond, with its pretty lotus bud chedi, a seated Buddha and broken columns of the wihan. It’s a pretty sight, especially the reflection in the water.

I go back to Wat Si Chum, definitely my favorite location in Sukhothai. More pictures of the long fingers, and in storms a Spanish family talking loudly. They ignore my presence and begin taking touristy pictures, jumping onto the cement pedestal and touching the Buddha despite large signs in front asking tourists not to climb up. So what’s their excuse? That they are Spaniards but sign was written in Thai, English and French – three languages that they don’t read? And why did their Thai guide not stop them? I am annoyed by stupid tourists.

March 21, 2008

Easter in Thailand Day 2: The heat in Sukhothai

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Got up real early today to catch my 7:45am flight from Bangkok to Sukhothai. I flew in an ATR 72 operated by Bangkok Airways, and the destination was Sukhothai Airport, which is actually a private airport owned by the airline. There are only 2 flights a day to and from Bangkok. Conveniently Bangkok Airways provides transfer from the airport into both New Sukhothai as well as the old city, so I took the shuttle and was dropped off at my hotel.

I chose to stay at Tharaburi Resort, which is just outside Sukhothai Historical Park. This is a very small hotel but it seemed like the only choice for me, since it offered both convenience in terms of proximity, as well as a reasonably high standard in terms of accomodations. I checked into my Grand Deluxe Room around 10am. The door to the room actually faced the street, so I was a bit worried about it being noisy. The other side of the room opened up to my own private terrace, which faces the interior decorative pond. Looks like the perfect place to sit and have a cigar at some point!

March 20, 2008

Easter in Thailand Day 1: Starting at the bottom

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Today was the start of my Easter break. I would be spending 6 days in Thailand, mainly visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. But first I have to get in via Bangkok and spend a little bit of time in the capital.

I was pretty excited about getting into Bangkok, since this would be my first experience with the new airport. In December I transited through on the Emirates flights to and from Dubai, but wasn’t allowed to get off the plane. The funny thing is that the new terminal actually bears a lot of resemblance to the new terminal at Dubai International, although Dubai has a slightly sleeker look.

Upon landing, we were parked at Gate B5 (which I learned the next day was for domestic flights). As I got off the plane and walked onto the sky bridge, I realized that my fellow passengers were walking down flights of stairs and boarding a bus on the ground level. I was a bit puzzled and annoyed. Isn’t the point of having a gate (and a sky bridge) to have direct access to the terminal itself? Why bother parking at a gate if you still need to board a bus?

Well, I guess I didn’t have a choice. I boarded the bus like everyone else, and soon we were weaving through the traffic on the tarmac.  Eventually we stopped next to Gate D6, and finally entered the terminal itself to line up at Immigration.

At this point I decided that the new airport had been poorly designed. There are multiple areas for people to line up for Immigration counters. Many airports (and indeed much of Asia) have the same setup. The difference is that in Bangkok, the separate areas are segregated by greenery, and hence one does not have a full view of the whole place at a glance. I was in one area with 5 open counters and I eventually counted 9 officers. The lines were incredibly long, with probably 40-50 people in each line. It was excruciatingly slow. But I had no way of ascertaining whether there were more counters open at the other area, or how quickly the officers were processing people in that area. I stuck to my line, and about an hour after we landed, I finally got through Immigration and picked up my luggage.

I checked into the Conrad after a pretty uneventful cab ride. I’d never stayed here before, but heard a lot of good things about the hotel. The room was indeed very nice, with a nice, big bathtub in addition to the shower. I nibble on the tiny bananas the hotel had laid out for me.

After resting a little and having checked out the adjoining mall at All Seasons Place, I left the room to try to catch sunset at Wat Arun. The plan was to get to the riverbank opposite of Wat Arun, snap some pictures of the temple’s silhouette against the setting sun, and then take pictures of the Grand Palace area when buildings are lit at night. 

Unfortunately, this was not meant to be. I waited for a taxi at the hotel around 5:30pm, but no taxi would take me. Bangkok’s infamous traffic jams haven’t gotten any better, and every time the doorman asked, the taxi driver would shake his head. One asked for THB 300 but couldn’t tell me how long the trip would take (and whether I would get there before sun down). I was fed up.

In other cities in Asia, taxi drivers would have no choice but to take the passenger to whether he or she wanted to go. In Bangkok, apparently the cabbies call the shots. I went back to my room in disgust and waited for the traffic to ease up.

At around 8pm, it was time to go out for a bite. In all my internet searches, Chote Chitr has consistently come up as a place frequented by foodies from out of town. There has been much discussion about this on boards such as Chowhound. So I hop into a taxi and head in the general direction.

While I do have the exact address, the restaurant is on a lane that is too small to appear on any tourist map or the Lonely Planet maps. I have some descriptive directions, and was sure I could find my way. We drive on Thanon Tanao, and headed north past Thanon Khaosan. At this point I realize that I could never find it sitting inside a speeding taxi, so I got off and started to double back. Khaosan Road is a touristy circus at night, and I walk past without going in.

Slowly, I make my way south on Thanon Tanao, checking the name of every lane on both sides of the street. Finally, I reach a dark lane whose name is not translated into English. I had the feeling that this was the right place, and decide to wander in. Sure enough, the name Chote Chitr appears on a sign above one of the doors.

But the place was CLOSED! Didn’t Lonely Planet say that the restaurant opens until 10pm? A piece of paper taped onto the front gate informs me, in English, that the restaurant is closed from March 14th and will reopen on the 24th. So I have trekked over to this side of town but failed to find out for myself what the fuss is all about. My only chance to return would be on the last day, after I arrive from Ayutthaya by train and before my evening flight back to Hong Kong.

It’s 8:50pm and I am still starving. I flag down a cab and ask to be taken to Wireless Road (Thanon Wittayu), and to Soi Polo. 2 cab drivers claimed that they didn’t know this road. This is utterly bullshit. Wireless Road is a very central road, with landmarks such as All Seasons Place and the American Embassy located on it. And everyone knows Soi Polo, since it is named for the Polo Club, part of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club. I was hanging out at the Polo Club 20 years ago when my parents lived in Bangkok. Anyway, I digress.  I am utterly fed up with Bangkok cab drivers who simply don’t take passengers when direction doesn’t suit them. A third cab finally takes me, and we make our way to Soi Polo.

My initial plan for the evening (before heading for Chote Chitr) was to have the famous Soi Polo Fried Chicken for dinner, since the location is within short walking distance from the Conrad. Now, as I reach my destination around 9:15pm, I am told by the staff at the restaurant that they are done for the day. That’s the third set-back of the day. A restaurant next door with newer décor claims to be “Polo Fried Chicken”, but I had heard that there are imposters out there, so I choose not to go in.

Dejected, I make my way back to the Conrad on foot. Fortunately I had bought some glutinous rice with mango from the supermarket next door, and this became my dinner on my first night in Thailand. I am exhausted and decide to call it a night.

March 19, 2008

Run-down Farm House

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We had a visitor from London at work, and it was decided that we would treat him to an authentic Chinese meal last night. After much debate, I chose to take him to Farm House (農圃) in Causeway Bay, since I haven't been in a while and missed the food there.

We arrived at the AIA Plaza onlyto find the space vacated. Shock! Horror! What happened?! Fortunately the restaurant had simply moved around the block to Ming An Plaza. The space seemed a lot smaller, but then again, the two floors of space they used to have always seemed a little big anyway.

I decided not to order all the usual suspects, but started with the obligatory chicken wings stuffed with glutinous rice (糯米釀雞翼). Good to know that nothing has changed, and I still enjoyed having these. In fact no one else at the table has ever been to Farm House, but everyone is aware that one must order this dish at this establishment.

We were soon presented with the next dish - crab meat au gratin (釀蟹蓋). This was extremely disappointing. Not only was the amount of crab meat short of my expectations, but the taste of it all was overwhelmed by curry powder! Not just any curry, but the taste of Portuguese chicken (葡國雞)found in Macau. I immediately drew the comparison with the same dish I had at Fook Lam Moon - an unfair comparison, perhaps. But the gap was just so wide...

It was obvious that the restaurant was just trying to shove us out the door as quickly as they can, so the rest of the dishes came in quick succession. The steamed eastern star garoupa (蒸東星斑)was not bad, but the soy sauce was a little on the salty side as one of my colleagues remarked. Another complained that the fish wasn't fresh enough.

We had the spicy stirred fried pork, chicken with spring onions and conpoy (蔥花瑤柱雞), and vegetables with century eggs. Only the chicken was decent, the rest uninteresting. Finally, we had the clay pot rice with preserved meats (臘味煲飯). This is a dish I always enjoyed, but tonight they didn't give me enough of the crispy, burnt bits.

For dessert, I shared a poached papaya with almond milk (杏奶燉木瓜). Not bad, but big enough to push my stomach over the edge...I ended up walking home.

Overall, quite a disappointing meal at Farm House. Would I go back again? Perhaps, but not in the near future.

March 11, 2008

Ducru-Beaucaillou Vertical

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Last night I hosted the first of my MNSC dinners at Petrus in the Island Shangri-La Hotel. It's been quite some time since we held an MNSC dinner there, so I felt it was time to give it another try.

We started with the 1996 Philipponnat Clos des Goisses on the recommendation of the maitre de restaurant, since I asked for something other than the usual suspects of Krug and Dom Perignon. Despite being from a young vintage, this was much more mature than we expected. The palate was very yeasty, with nose of pain grille. It went very well with the caviar oscietre sur glace, blinis. This was the first time that we had caviar at an MNSC dinner, and with the skyrocketing prices, this may well be the last!

After the Chamapgne and caviar, we moved to the dining table at started the dinner. First came the bouillon de chataignes et de potiro, chorizo espagnol. The creamy soup was yummy, and the chorizo was very enjoyable.

Next came ceviche de noix de St Jacques et de truffe noire vinaigrette au citron du mentonnais. Here I am getting flak about serving scallops during a blind tasting, but the scallops were very nice and fresh. They also worked well with the black truffles, and I found myself wanting more.

Vol au vent de grenouilles et de langoustines followed, and I love both vol au vent and langoustines. This was a very small vol au vent, topped with 2 small pieces of pan-fried frog legs, and the lone langoustine was nicely presented on the plate.

Paulo decided to skip the next course as he felt there would be too much food. The foie gras de canard pane au pain d'epices, reduction d'un vin de Banyuls was quite interesting. The foie gras was rather thick, and it did resemble a giant piece of ginger bread in terms of looks, and the crust gave it an interesting taste as well.

The seafood course of bar de Bretagne vapeur, creme de chou-fleur et legumes d'hiver was ok. I am normally a big fan of sea bass and this wasn't anything I got excited about.

The last main course was grenadin et ris de veau, pates cheveux d'anges la truffe noire. I love veal sweet bread, and this was pretty delicious. The angel air paste was paired with a lemon cream sauce, and we couldn't quite understand why...

The last thing we had for the evening were the cheese selections from Bernard Antony. Wonderful stuff. We were so full that we never made it to dessert and it was cancelled.

Now the wines...the theme of the evening was a vertical of Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou - 6 wines served in 2 flights of 3. I asked the wines to be mixed up a little so that the order would not be so obvious.

1988 Ducru-Beaucaillou - This was a classic left bank Bordeaux, with a very smooth palate. Thoroughly enjoyable, and the wine of the evening going by the scores given around the table.

1986 Ducru-Beaucaillou - This was even better than the '88, and certainly one of the best wines of the evening for me.

1995 Ducru-Beaucallou - This was obviously put with the first two to mix things up. It was much younger and the tannins were all there. In fact, if I didn't know the identities of the wines, I would have guessed this to be a new world wine due to the ripeness of the fruit. The least favorite wine of the evening.

1996 Ducru-Beaucaillou - Like the 1995, this was much younger than the others and the tannins showed. The wine clearly could use more years in the bottle.

1989 Ducru-Beaucaillou - Another classic left bank Bordeaux, and the guys still had no idea what this was.

1982 Ducru-Beaucaillou - This should have been a blow-out...but it wasn't. It was good, and I did love it, but incredibly it was overshadowed by the '88.

I really enjoyed hosting my first vertical tasting for MNSC!

March 4, 2008

Taking Time to Smell the Roses

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The few people who have read my blog since I started may remember this entry.  Well...I took the same pair of shoes and got them shined again by the same man. He hasn't been around much lately, since he doesn't come out when the weather turns cold. I'm glad to have another chance to get my shoes shined by him.

Once again he takes his time to shine the shoes with care, talking to me again about the clients who come back despite his higher price (he's now raised it to $30 instead of $25). As I sat there during the 10 minutes or so while he was working on them, I started to take out my Blackberry to check my email, and checked my phone for messages. After a while, I realized I was fidgeting, and that I couldn't just sit still for the few minutes that this took.

I was surprised at myself. Have I got so accustomed to this fast-paced environment, that I am just running on autopilot? I used to be able to sit at a sidewalk cafe for hours and watch the people passing by. Now I can't even do this for a few minutes? I think I need to take things a little easier...slow things down a bit.

March 3, 2008

The Perfect Sunset

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I was alone and strolling along the Tsim Sha Tsui harbor front this afternoon, after watching the performance of Vollmond. As I came out of Harbour City, the brightness in the west caught my attention, and I turned to take a look.

I was awestruck. The waters of the harbor reflected brightly the pale blue sky, with a touch of pink. As I turned my gaze upward, I see that the sun is about to set, so I stopped in my tracks and decided to lean on a railing to watch this particular sunset.

Earlier in the day a cruise ship had been docked at Harbor City, but she has since departed - leaving the space wide open with nothing but water in front of me. The vast body of water was reflecting a color of baby blue (a la Tiffany?) highlighted by the orange red of the setting sun. This all felt very alien to me...when did the water of Victoria Harbour turn so beautiful? I have lived in Hong Kong for many years, and have walked past this area countless times. But I have never been struck by the beauty of this place until today. This must have been the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen.

The sun hung low in the sky, a giant red dot like the one on the flag of Japan. During the short span of a few minutes, the color darkened from the bright fiery red to a deeper crimson, and then faded as the sun hid behind low level clouds. It was but a few minutes, yet it touched me profoundly.

If I had not been strolling alone, and if I did not have free time before dinner, then I would most certainly have missed the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. How long would it have taken for me to have another chance to see something so beautiful again?

In life, sometimes you just have to take a deep breath, slow down a bit in order to notice the beauty that is all around you...


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Today I finally attended the highly anticipated performance of Vollmond, the production from Tanztheater Wuppertal choreographed by Pina Bausch. The production is part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival and tickets were extremely hard to come by (I have a few very jealous colleagues...), so I am especially glad that Quintessentially came through for me.

I am a novice when it comes to dance or dance theater - I can count with one hand the performances I've seen. But I really liked what I saw today.

The running theme (no pun intended) throughout the performance was water. It was everywhere - raining down from the ceiling, being poured from bottles, spat from the dancers' mouths, gathered in the stream on stage, and being splashed about by the bucketful... It was like no other performance I have ever seen.

The whole piece talks about the relationship between the sexes. The title says "full moon", so what exactly happens during a full moon? A bit of madness perhaps? Things get out of control? There was certainly a bit of that on stage.

Something struck me about the different moves of the male and female dancers. For a large number of the male solos, the accompanying music was edgy, quick-paced, with lots of distortions. Corresponding to the music, the male dancers' movements seemed to consist of lots of frantic twitches (as if in epileptic fits), self-scratching, neurotic repetition...etc. Not exactly beautiful and elegant, or even dignified. The mood was one of confusion, frustration, angst...

For the women, most work through the production in beautiful evening dresses. Quite a few have long, flowing hair which add a lot to the movements. Naturally their movements are less frantic but much more elegant in their fluidity. The smooth, flowing movement of the hands of some of the dancers were quite pleasing. And the long hair...ah! the hair! How the hair swings through the air with a sharp flick of the neck! And in the latter part of the production, when one of the dancers purposely dips her long, flowing locks into the stream, and flips them about, what beautiful splashes are made when the water droplets sped away from her hair...

Of course, the women aren't without their neurotic moments: the girl who keeps planting kisses in quick succession on the lips of her male counterpart, driving him backwards across the stage; the woman bathing her arms and neck in lemon juice, holding a knife in her hand while recounting her agony in waiting for, and later crying about, her man...

And then there was the part when the dancers "swam" along the stream on stage. A female dancer is doing her solo, and out of the corner of our eyes, we notice that a male dancer, dressed in his dark costume, appears face down in the stream. We barely make out his silhouette in the dim rear portion of the stage. He slowly makes his move to the right end of the stage. Another male dancer appears, swimming behind the first one. And another, until we have four swimmers in the stream. Later it would be the female dancers' turn. But interestingly, the stage is well-lit by now, hence the women in the stream are clearly visible to the audience. Why the different treatment?

Clearly there are many elements in the production that are used to represent the agony and suffering we experience in a romantic relationship. At one point, a female dancer races quickly across the stage, only to be repeatedly dragged back by her male counterpart. She cannot seem to escape from him. Each time, just as she seems to have broken free and reached the edge of the stage, he gets the better of her. The process is repeated and ends in tragedy - eventually she is dragged into the water and pushed down, kickin and screaming as she splashes water about, helpless about the fact that she is going nowhere. Finally she gives up - all movements cease, and she lies, face down, silently in the stream. 

Am I painting too grim a picture of the production? There are light-hearted moments, for sure, and happy music to lift up the mood. But over all the tone is dark. And the finale is an orgy of frantic, erratic deterioration into a giant confusion - all 12 dancers are on stage, running around and splashing water about like a school of mental patients - while the music enhances the mood. Quite a scene to behold.

I must say that this production is very thought-provoking. I can see why Pina Bausch is seen as such a pioneer and visionary, and why people clamor for tickets whenever one of her production is staged. Time for me to do a bit more homework, and reflect on this performance...

March 1, 2008

Newton Vineyards Tasting - An Evening with Dr. Su Hua Newton

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Last night I was invited by a wine merchant to attend a tasting of the wines from California's Newton Vineyard, hosted by the local supplier in a function room at the Conrad Hotel. I was honored to have been seated next to Dr. Su Hua Newton, co-founder and winemaker, and it turned out to be a real interesting evening.

I had been aware of the reputation of Newton Vineyard, although I had never actually tasted any of the wines prior to this evening. I remember driving past Sterling Vineyard in Calistoga - also founded by co-founder Peter Newton but was sold to a major corporation - with its trademark Greek architecture and the aerial trams leading up to the hilltop. And I did remember reading about Peter Newton's passing earlier this month on the Wine Spectator website. So I was quite eager to see what the wines were like.

We were served the 2004 Newton Red Label Chardonnay before dinner. This was easy to drink and nothing to write home about, but who's complaining given the price tag?

We were then seated at our tables, and Dr. Newton began to tell us about her wines as well as her winemaking philosophy.

The first wine served during dinner was the 2005 Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay. This wine was much more complex than the Red Label.

It was at this point that Dr. Newton explained that the winery is bio-dynamic, meaning that there is no use of chemicals and only natural ingredients. They clean the winery with more frequency and without the use of chemicals, use only wild yeasts, and no SO2 is used in bottling. I asked her whether she practices bio-dynamic farming the way some others - such as Mme Leroy in Burgundy - where harvests are done according to the lunar cycle. Her reply was "no" and again made a comment about this notion of bio-dynamic farming being another one of "I think, you think, I think, you think, I think"... more about this later.

To combat diseases such as phylloxera and Pierce's, young wines are planted between rows of old vines so that the young vines can lend a hand. Again, no sulfur is used in the vineyards to combat mildew. The solution is to blow-dry the clusters - an expensive and laborious process.

Being the marketer for the winery (she was a professor of marketing at USF), she naturally wastes no time at putting up credentials for her wines. The 2004 Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay was served by George Dubya at a White House state dinner in honor of the Queen last year. And supposedly it was the first time that the Queen has been seen (or caught on camera at least) to be toasting with a glass of wine instead of a glass of water.

Dr. Newton eagerly passed her Blackberry around the table, showing us the picture of the toast - along with the Queen's signature attached a the bottom. She is understandably proud of this distinction, and cracked one of her many jokes of the evening.

The Chardonnay was served to accompany the first course - warm tiger prawn salad on avocado mousse. The prawns were reasonably yummy, and the avocado was very well received.

We were next poured the 2005 Newton Red Label Claret, made in classic claret style from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The Red Label wines are the only wines which are filtered. I found this wine easy to drink, but uninteresting as filtration essentially rids the wine of character, a fact Dr. Newton readily acknowledges.

The claret accompanied the second course - porcini mushroom risotto. There was a tad more cheese in the risotto than I would have liked, and the risotto was not al dente enough for my taste. But this was probably done to better suit the Chinese palate, in all honestly.

With the third course - roasted venison loin with red currant sauce and quark spaetzli - we were poured both the 1999 and 2002 Newton Unfiltered Merlot. The venison was interestingly tasty, but not as gamey as I preferred. The spaetzle was so-so, not the best that I've had.

Now the wines...the 1999 was clearly drinking very well this evening, having 3 more years of bottle age than the 2002. Tannins were softer. The 2002 comes from a stellar vintage in California, and it has a lot more aging potential. However, it is still too young and at 15% alcohol, packs a big wallop. Too bad the 1999 isn't on sale here...

The last wine of the evening was the winery's top effort - 2002 Newton The Puzzle. This is a wine made in only great vintages, and as such it wasn't made in 2003 but re-appeared in 2004. This is made from the winery's top parcels, and the blend changes each time to create the optimal wine - hence the name. While I thought this was a good effort - big nose of sweet, wild strawberries emerged after rigorous swirling of the glass - it was still a bit too young. Needs another few years of bottle age.

The wine was accompanied by oven roasted stuffed lamb saddle "Pauillac" served with Provencale vegetables. Normally I am a big fan of lamb, and although the lamb was pink and juicy, saddle is just a bit too chewy for my taste. Dr. Newton commented on the "saturated fat" around the outside.

We ended the dinner with warm chocolate pudding with seasonal mixed berries. Boring...

My observations about Dr. Newton... She is definitely an interesting woman with a bit of a checkered background. Apparently born in pre-communist China (some references to Manchuria and no, she is no spring chicken) but fled to the UK where she was educated and earned a doctorate. She divides her time between winemaking and her charity work with medicine (she keeps saying that she is a pediatrician...)

She is clearly a very outspoken woman, not afraid to offer her opinion and knocking down anything she believes to be BS. She recounted lots of stories the whole night: telling Hugh Johnson he's full of crap when talking about the wine's "legs"; how she used to work for the house of Chanel (as a model?); how naive Coca Cola was when they bought Sterling and only made Peter Newton sign a non-compete agreement, even though she - a woman - was actually the winemaker...

One can't help but notice the chip on her shoulder. Here was a Chinese woman making wine in the US, who had to put up with racism growing up in England and dealt with snobbery in the world of wine. She was proud of what she had achieved, and wasn't afraid to stick her thumb at the world. She kept referring to certain things about the wine world as being "I think, you think, I think, you think, I think" - meaning it was all nonsense. And she is here to tell it like it is.

Something I found interesting: she kept talking about herself being a pediatrician and therefore certain things were against her principles. She also scoffed at the "saturated fat" in the lamb saddle. But a quick search on the internet showed that she spent some time on the board of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. What the *&^$?! KKD sells doughnuts deep-fried in oil. You wanna talk about fat? A bit hypocritical, non?

Well, it certainly was an entertaining evening, to say the least. I did enjoy the wines, and it was interesting to meet Dr. Newton.


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