Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Suraon, Seoul

Part of my pre-travel rituals is doing some research on the place I am about to visit. I look up attractions, shopping and, of course, food. When I was preparing for a trip to Korea, which I took with my family some months back, I spent a lot of time watching Jean-Georges and Marja Vongerichten's Kimchi Chronicles. In one of the episodes, they featured a royal meal. I was intrigued by the service, table setting and food, so I made a mental note to try and find a restaurant that offers royal Korean cuisine during our visit to Seoul.

Korean royal cuisine is traditionally served on three tables.
Photo from the Seoul Garden NYC website.

Royal cuisine is actually considered a cultural treasure in Korea, and has been dubbed an "Intangible Cultural Asset" by their government. It is most associated with the Joseon Dynasty, during which official positions were created to oversee the sourcing and preparation of food for the royal court. The traditional meal is said to have twelve dishes served with rice and soup. [Read more about Korean royal cuisine on Wikipedia and the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine website.]

When I searched online for restaurants that serve royal cuisine, I found several posts, videos and photos about Suraon - everything I read featured the restaurant positively, so this seemed to be a good place to give this traditional meal service a try.

Street Eats: Seoul

One of the things on my to do list when I visited Seoul was to try Korean street food. CNN Travel listed Seoul among Asia's 10 greatest street food cities, and there was also a whole episode devoted to street eats in Kimchi Chronicles. That said, while we didn't spend much time walking around, I grabbed every opportunity to sample little bites off street-side stalls and carts.

Photo from ifood.tv

Street food vendors are referred to as pojangmacha, a term that covers carts or stalls, street-side restaurants and food tents. They serve daytime snacks, then, in the evening, are known to serve snacks that are good to eat while drinking. The larger tents, which have makeshift seating inside, may also serve soju and other alcoholic drinks. Interestingly, snacks are also seasonal, so there are items that are sold in the summer but not during cooler months and vice versa. [Read more about pojangmacha on Wikipedia and About.com]

My first opportunity to try some treats on the street came in Insa-dong, where we made a quick shopping stop. We swung by shortly before dinner, so I just grabbed some snacks and sweets to take home.

One of the first carts I spotted, right as I hopped off our bus, was one selling ice cream sticks: soft ice cream in long, cylindrical cones. There was a good crowd gathered around, so I had to try one. This turned out to be just novelty food - the soft ice cream wasn't particularly good, and the corn-based cone was a bland version of a fast food cake cone. Interestingly, I saw at least two other shops (yes, shops, not carts) selling this along the same street. Why it's so popular escapes me.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Hill Station, Baguio City

A few weeks ago, my Facebook feed was abuzz with news on the impending takeover of the property that holds Casa Vallejo – the oldest hotel in Baguio and home to Hill Station, one of the city’s top restaurants. I was so saddened by the prospect of losing a historical structure and a high-quality dining place that I even signed an online petition.

Fast forward to the Chinese New Year weekend. After enduring a 9-hour drive from Manila to Baguio, my aunt booked us for a late dinner at Hill Station. I was happy to find both the restaurant and the hotel just as they were when I was last in Baguio a few months ago.

Seated next to the structure’s impressive staircase, my family and I enjoyed a comforting dinner – the perfect way to end a long day spent on the road.

Malagos Farms, Davao City

Some months back, work brought me to Davao – my first ever trip to the city. As with all my business trips, I wanted to make sure to take something local back for family and friends. Everyone suggested the usual pomelo, mangosteen and durian (which I actually enjoy eating, but would not dare take on a plane). I, however, was on a mission to get only one thing: cheese from Malagos Farms.

I first encountered Malagos Farms cheese at the Makati Shangri-La’s Circles buffet a few years back. Their cheese board included maybe two or three varieties of Malagos Farms cheese – I only recall the Blue Peppato, but I’m quite certain there were others. I was quite surprised to find out that there was a local cheesemaker in the Philippines, as cheese is not a food that is indigenous to our cuisine. As a cheese lover who enjoys nothing more than a platter of fromage with some dried fruits, nuts and a glass of good wine, however, I was thrilled to discover Philippine-made cheese.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Tim Ho Wan, Hong Kong

On my last night in Hong Kong, my guide extrordinaire took me to Tim Ho Wan, which is known to be the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in Hong Kong. This dim sum spot allows patrons to enjoy an award-winning meal for as little as HK$50.

Tim Ho Wan has three locations in Hong Kong - Mong Kok, Sham Shui Po and, most recently, the Hong Kong Station in IFC Mall. We visited the IFC location, where there was a queue of diners patiently waiting for tables. One eats in tight quarters here - it's almost like you are sharing your table with the next set of diners.

While waiting, we were handed an order slip and a pencil. This, I suppose, makes their throughput more efficient - we were more than ready with our orders as soon as we sat at our table. The wait, incidentally, was not that long. We were seated within ten minutes. 

Yardbird, Hong Kong

During my last trip to Hong Kong, one of my HK-based friends was bent on taking me to the city's 'hip and happening' dining spots. Night No. 2's destination was Yardbird - a restaurant in Sheung Wan that CNN dubbed "Hong Kong's 'it' restaurant" in 2011.

It's been over a year since this restaurant began generating a buzz in Hong Kong, but it still gets pretty packed. We arrived at around 6:30pm - early for dinner by our usual standards - but we already had to wait for a table. We stood close to the bar and started ordering food and drinks, hoping that we would be seated by the time our food was served.
Guests waiting for a table get this little numbered sticker
One of the things Yardbird is apparently known for is the good looking staff (Google it and read the reviews - almost all of them mention the servers), so standing at the bar is not necessarily a bad thing. Being that we were there on a Saturday evening, we actually ended up standing through most of our meal - almost all the dishes we ordered came before we were seated. Dining tip: one must be a bit chill when eating here - just enjoy the food, the atmosphere and the view.

All that said, I must say that the food was pretty good. We were armed with recommendations from others who had been there before, so we had some "must haves" on our list.

The Mandarin Spa, Hong Kong

My last trip to Hong Kong was just a few days before I was set to start a new job, so I threw in a pre-emptive reward for myself. There was some shopping and a bit of luxe spa time at The Mandarin Spa to get me pampered and ready for the end of my all-too-brief sabbatical.
The Mandarin Spa, which in some online articles and blogs is listed as The Oriental Spa, occupies two floors at The Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong. It is a mainstay in various lists of the best spas in Hong Kong.

At the spa's reception area, I was welcomed with a hot towel and a cup of tea, while a member of the staff took my shoes, replacing them with a pair of spa slippers.

Brick House, Hong Kong

One of my closest friends from my former workplace took a year-long assignment in Hong Kong shortly before I decided to surrender my office-issued laptop and go on sabbatical. That said, one of the items on my sabbatical to-do list was to fly out to see her and a couple of other Hong Kong based friends. She promised to introduce me to places that are popular among locals - she did not disappoint.

On our first night out, she led me into a nondescript alley in the Lang Kwai Fong area. At the end of an alley was Brickhouse, a bar and restaurant that serves Mexican food with a modern twist.

The place was packed with a Friday night crowd, so we first had to wait at the bar before eventually being seated at one of their long shared tables.

I started off with the Brickhouse Margarita (HK$105). This had a unique pineapple base, unlike other margaritas I've had before. It was thus not as acidic and could be sipped on its own, without the need for the salt on my glass' rim to balance out the flavor.

City Hall Maxim's Palace, Hong Kong

Before I left for my last trip to Hong Kong, a friend was telling about a place where she'd had the best dim sum - Maxim's Palace, which she said was across the City Hall in Central. This is not a part of town I'm familiar with, so I had  no idea where this might be. Fortunately, my host L, thrilled at the through of having a dim sum eating buddy, took me there for lunch.

The place is a bit tricky to find, as it is actually inside one of the buildings in the City Hall complex. If you're taking a cab, just say City Hall, then walk toward the building facing the Harbour, where all the exhibits are. There are two Maxim's restaurants in the building - make sure to go to the one on the 3rd floor.

L met me at the restaurant during her lunch hour, giving me strict instructions to come early and grab a number, as the place fills up pretty quickly. She wasn't kidding - there was a queue of people waiting by the restaurant's entrance. The crowd was a mix of locals and guidebook-toting tourists, as Maxim's Palace is one of the restaurants frequently featured in travel books and websites.

A Hong Kong Tour for Foodies

Back in February, on the cusp of ending my radical sabbatical, I took a trip to Hong Kong to visit some friends whose jobs have brought them to the city. Since I was flying on miles, booking my flights were a bit tricky, and I ended up booking a six-day stay - the longest trip to Hong Kong I'd ever taken.

Photo from Wikipedia

My family actually frequents this city. In one of my earliest memories, I was sitting with my mom and grandmother at the lobby of Holiday Inn Golden Mile on Nathan Road - I must have been about three or four years old. In more recent years, we usually fly out between Christmas and New Year, joining the rest of Manila in one of the Harbour City hotels. That said, I wanted to make sure this trip would be different from my other visits to Hong Kong, so I sought out activities that I wouldn't normally do when visiting the city with my family.

Being quite familiar with the city, my family has long since stopped doing "touristy" activities, which doesn't mean we know everything there is to know about the city. We just know enough to be able to do what we  enjoy while we're there - a lot of shopping, followed by large meals at our favorite restaurants. Given some time alone on this most recent visit, I decided to be a tourist and find at least one unique tour to join.

Photo from AFPHongKong website

Cue Hong Kong Foodie Tours - a walking tour the Central and Sheung Wan neighborhoods that combines a bit of history and culture with a lot of local food. I am not overly familiar with the food landscape in those parts of Hong Kong, so I thought I might pick up a few good tips. I've also found that joining small walking tours allows me to soak in so much more history and culture, as they tend to be more interactive and less "canned" than big bus tours.