Saturday, April 28, 2007

The best lookin' meal ever. Oishikatta desu ne!

Dinner was included in the accommodation cost, and our our hostess had it all lined up on a trolley outside the room.

We were ushered into the main room with the large low table, and asked to sit crosslegged as she laid out in perfect mirror image, two whopping meals.

I love the Japanese obsession with presentation and layout. What I really would have liked at the time was someone who could explain in detail, what each dish was and what it meant. I have read about the Japanese philosophy of fives - that is, five flavours and colours. The meal laid out before us certainly seemed to meet that criteria.

There was the obligatory rice, and a large range of unidentifiable pickled root vegetables, fish, miso soup, sushi and sashimi, candied bits and pieces, jellied stuff, steam boats and carefully styled fruit pieces.

Tea and beer accompanied the meal (beer was our choice!), and we sat wide-mouthed through most of the meal, contemplating the tastes and the meaning of it all.

Everything tasted extremely fresh, and it had obviously been prepared with love and dedication - soppy, but you know what I mean.

Then came the absolute best part of the meal - the phone call to reception to clear up the remnants of dinner.

The clearing was quick and efficient, and within a few minutes our clean-up lady was out of the room, leaving nothing but chocolates.

Another knock followed, and the futon-making man appeared, ready to make our beds for the evening.

Two layers of foam on the floor formed the bed, then the thickest duvet/doona ever was placed over the top. It's somehow comforting being low to the ground when you sleep...something about not having too far to fall out of bed :-).

In any case, it was the most inspiring meal. And breakfast was pretty much the same thing all over.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Inside a traditional Japanese guesthouse

The ryokan was simple but intensely Japanese. Tatami matting lined the floor, and a series of sliding doors sectioned off the two main rooms from the long narrow hallway.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a full bathroom with a deep bath. The loo had a heated toilet seat - a really popular contraption in Japan.

The main room was sparse in terms of furniture and lounges for that matter. The only seats that existed in this ryokan were the two arm chairs in the little indoor balcony that overlooked the temple, and two ground-level chairs that we gathered formed part of the dinner ritual.

We knocked back a few beers and pondered life in Japan, when a knock at the door signalled dinner.

It was indeed a spectacle that deserves a post of its own.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

O'genki desu ka? Two nights in Tokyo

The Oz trip flew, and in what seemed like no time, we were saying another difficult goodbye to my folks, and heading off for a two-night stopover in Tokyo.

I love Tokyo. I'm a huge fan of Japan, having studied Japanese at highschool, and visiting the country a couple of times in the early 90's with Mum.

I wanted to experience as much of Japanese culture as we could in two days, and booked us into a ryokan near Narita.

I found Wakamatsuhonten on Google, and it looked fine. I had the feeling that it would be a bit out of town, which was fine.

When we arrived by cab from the airport, I was pleasantly delighted to find that our ryokan overlooked Narita was literally across the road, and in the most fab little street in what I gathered was Narita's "Old Town".

We weren't able to check in until mid-afternoon, so spent the day pottering around the shops from the top of the hill at the Keisei Narita Train Station back down to Narita Temple.

I am SUCH a fan of Japanese crockery - the little tea sets...the matching saki sets with saki warmer and matching cups...the beautiful packaging of everything, the weird gelatinous sweets....

Although I could only understand about 0.0001% of what was being said, my attempts at retrieving highscool Japanese from the depths of my sozzled brain seemed to be appreciated. The Japanese seem to be surprised and curious when Westerners start speaking their language.

Unlike Australia, the weather in Japan in mid-April was chilly, and the rain wasn't helping matters.

At about 2.30pm, we decided to head back to the ryokan, and ask to check in an hour early. Thank god they were ready to let us in!

Dad turns 60 - but not without a gear box failure...

I can't believe my luck. Or my bad luck, as the case seems to be.

Everything fell into place timewise for me to be able to be in Queensland for Dad's 60th birthday.

I planned for a Harley Trike to pick Mum adn Dad up, take them on a one hour drive throught the bendy hills of Mt Tambourine, and up to what looked to be a fab restaurant in a rainforest. In the spirit of the Big 60th Surprise Birthday Stuff Up, I wouldn't have thought universal forces would have conspired once again to stuff up a perfectly good surprise!

The big day arrived, and we all sat round the kitchen table, waiting - on my instruction - to leave at 11.30am. This was when a big biker bloke was to come humming through the gates of my parent's complex, install them in the Harley Trike, and whisk them up the mountain. I was planning to take their car and meet them there.

11.20am rolled by....11.30 rolled by...I sms'd the driver to let him know the pass code for the front gate....

Nothing. from driver. "Hi Melanie...bad news".

My heart sank. "Yes...where are you Paul?"

"Er...we just blew the gear box in the trike. We're stuck in the middle of the road and won't be moving till the tow truck picks us up. In three hours."

"I see."

"I'm really, REALLY sorry. But this bike is going nowhere. We can send two motorbikes...they could be there in an hour or so."

" thanks. I don't think that will work. Not quite the same effect."

"Can we arrange alternate transport? A limousine perhaps?"

"Er, thanks but, we not quite what I had in mind, and we need to be at the restaurant in 45 mins. Can we please postpone the trikes for another time...we need to leave now to make our booking."


Anyway...Plan B moved into action, and we drove up the long and scenic hill to Songbird's Retreat - a fabulous restaurant and accommodation provider tucked away in the Gold Coast Hinterland.

Everything about Songbird's is perfect - the setting, the staff, the service, the food, and the resident ducks who run around the entrance to the outdoor loos.

It was one of the best meals I've ever had, in one of the most beautiful settings imaginable.

For a starter I had the Tempura Coated Soft Shell Crab, and for the main, I had a MOUTH-WATERING Pan-Seared Sirloin of Wagyu Beef. I wanted to see if it was as good as the square inch I had at 41. It was. Oh GOD it was yummy.

Dad seemed to enjoy himself and the meal too, and the plate of desserts was equally stunning.

It was a lunch to remember! Happy 60th birthday Dad!

The tallest residential block in the world

It was Ant's first time to Queensland, and Mum and dad suggested we potter round Surfers and go up to Q1.

Q1 is a new residential building - the highest residential block in the world, they claim.

The obsservation decks on Level 77 of 78 of this building provide some astonishing views up and down the Gold Coast.

Chasing the sun - hello Queensland!

Time seemed to start moving quickly, and already three weeks of our Big Fat Aussie Adventure had flown by.

We drove north via Coffs Harbour and Byron Bay, up to sunny Queensland, where it seems to be permamently 5C warmer than on the NSW side of the border.

After two weddings and a long weekend in the Hunter Valley, the stay at Mum and Dad's place was intended to be quiet...

Exploring Australia's wine country!

For a short period during our Big Fat Aussie Adventure, we focussed almost exclusively on wine instead of food.

A long weekend at the Hunter Valley was on the cards, with some of my fab friends from the big outback roadtrip in 2004, reuniting for the Easter long weekend.

Hanging Tree Wines was one of the most scenic vineyards - and had some fab wines too! I just love the dramatic contrasts of the Australian landscape!

One of the funniest moments of this weekend was when a particularly nasally sommelier at Robyn Drayton Wines was showcasing this vineyard's best reserve wine. She was geographically challenged too...suggesting very strongly to us that sangria was Mexican, cos you could get it at any good Mexican restaurant. Ahem....

Anyway, she was raving about how fabulous a particular wine was, and after a few swills, Pete, who was pizzed and in fine form, pointed out that it was oxidised. How he could even recognised it was oxidised, let alone call it, was beyond all of us, but he said it so convincingly that our dear new friend had to sample the wine. Sure was at less than stellar form, and she had to admit defeat. I think we collectively purchased enough of Robyn Drayton's sparkling shiraz for her not to care...

In any case, it was a fab weekend. Lizzie, Caroline, Al, Ian and Pete - it was great to catch up. When are we gonna do another road trip? :-).

Adam and Lauren tie the knot!

It's still hard to believe my little brother is married! But Adam and his beautiful wife Lauren turned a quiet nature reserve into the scene of a fantastic and stylish celebration of their love. Their bridal waltz was brave and sexy, and the speeches were heartfelt.

I cried.

Numerous times throughout the day.

It was beautiful.

It's hard to beat an Australian beach

Guerilla Bay was to be the setting for Adam and Lauren's wedding. What a beautiful setting it was...

Prawns and oysters on the jetty

Australia's south coast is delightful. Far less commercialised and developed than the north coast, quiet little towns like Bateman's Bay dot the coast line.

Adam and Lauren's wedding was being held on the Saturday afternoon at Guerilla Bay, about 20kms south of Bateman's Bay, and we were all making our way down on the Thursday for an extended wedding weekend.

Following a big night out for the Hen's and Buck's nights in Canberra, we arrived at Bateman's Bay around lunch time, our minds turning to the most important of issues....FOOD!

We sat with our legs dangling off this pier - it was far sunnier than the picture indicates, althought the skies were ominous - scoffing a couple of kilos of prawns and a dozen oysters each. The ideal lunch on the run, I reckon!

Australian marketing at its best

It was a big week! My brother was getting married, and large volumes of relatives were descending on the lovely seaside town of Guerilla Bay to attend the wedding.

We saw this stunning example of integrated marketing (matching web address, number plate and signage!) on the drive down South...

If I'd have been driving, I'd have crashed the car for laughing. This just tickled my fancy.

A peaceful garden in the centre of Sydney

It has been so long since I've wandered through the sites of Sydney, and it also made me reflect on how I took them for granted the entire time I lived in Sydney.

The Chinese Garden of Friendship is located right in the centre of Sydney, just near China Town and Tumblong Park, Darling Harbour.

It's hard to believe that somewhere so peacful can co-exist so happily with the hustle and bustle of the city that encompasses it.

Every twist and turn, every plant and statue seems to have a purpose, and to have been put there to create a particular type of energy.

According to the official site, "the Chinese garden also embodies the principles of the Taoist philosophy of yin (calmness) and yang (activity). When opposites work together, they create a balanced whole. Contemplate the harmonious scene created by a cascading waterfall tumbling into a serenely still pond, or the elegant contrast of tall dark bamboo planted alongside rounded, flat stones."

The attention to detail is exquisite...right down to the very cute little water dragons that scamper through the leaves.

Yet more seafood..a lunch at Doyles

Another perfect sunny day in Sydney, and the food and booze wagon rolled on.

After we picked Mum and dad up from the airport and poked around some of Sydney's eastern beaches, we had lunch at Doyles at Watson's Bay.

Possibly one of the most iconic restaurants in Sydney, the view from Doyles back over my favourite city is awesome. This is one of their promotional pics.

We used to sail into this sheltered cove years ago, and the beer garden just off the beach has also been a favourite haunt on the occasional quiet Sunday arv.

Yet more yummy seafood was enjoyed by all.

While I'm on wagyu beef....

Weeks later, I still salivate at the memory of wagyu beef. Ant came across a UK site called Discerning Food, which is flogging 3kg wagyu Sunday roasts for £250.50. Oh. MY. GOD.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The best meal ever?

The Oz trip also promised a big dose of Australian food, which I reckon is amongst the freshest and best in the world. Yes yes, I'm biased :-).

We had dinner one evening at Forty One, which ironically is on Level 42 of the Chiefly Tower in Sydney.

Once the lift doors open, we walked through a mini oriental garden, and then the full panoramic view of Sydney Harbour hit us.

We arrived just on dusk, as a beautiful sunset filled the sky. The view spans from the Harbour Bridge, out to North and South Head, and around to the Eastern suburbs. It's a unique view of Sydney Harbour, and the lights below us continued to twinkle throughout the meal.

Out came the bubbly, which went down as easily as the view.

I had originally planned to have the Menu Degustation, but when I saw the menu, I felt that the five course menu actually offered more choice.

They've slightly changed the meal since we went, but between us, and over the five courses we had the following dishes:
- Western Australian Yabbies Poached In A Saffron Bouillion With Tomatoes, Chorizo & Calasparra Rice
- Grilled Sea Scallop, Steamed Korobuto Pork With Hand Picked Crab Meat And Thai Spices.
- Tandoori Marinated Quail Breast, Fried Aubergine “Ravioli” Cucumber Raita, Chilli And Cardamom Oil
- Slow Cooked Ocean Trout, Crushed English Peas With Prosciutto, Peccorino, Basil, Mint & Lemon
- Western Australian Yabbies Poached In A Saffron Bouillion With Tomatoes, Chorizo & Calasparra Rice
- Blackmore Wagyu Beef Onglet Slow Braised With Fermented Black Beans & Stir Fried Fresh Coriander
- Cervena Vension Medallion Sauteed With A Chorizo Stuffed Date Wrapped In Pancetta, Cauliflower Puree

It was all awesome...truly mouth watering and exquisitely presented. Canapes came between each course, and we tried a great West Australian wine from Margaret River called Virtues and Vices...loved it!

The standout part of the entire experience was the wagyu beef. I'd seen a documentary on the plane about famous Australian Japanese chef, Tetsuya Wakuda, and his use of wagyu beef. It showed him visiting his wagyu beef suppliers in Tasmania, and described how they raised their wagyu cows.

Wagyu cows are a special breed of Japanese cow, and the Tasmanian wagyu cows are kept on a farm which spans three islands off the Tasmanian coast. The farmers muster the cows from island to island at low tide. Apparently they keep the cows content and relaxed in order to produce the best meat.

I can't rave enough about how delicious wagyu beef is. Marbled fat runs through the meat when it's raw, which makes it creamy and rich when braised, as ours was. We only had small portions, but it was an unforgettable.

Antony also raved about the trout and mushy peas, which are apparently coming back into vogue - ironic, as we could actually see Harry's Cafe de Wheels from where we were sitting.

We couldn't quite fit dessert, athough the lovely people at Forty One gave us some nicely packed chocolates.

It will take a lot to beat this meal - anywhere. Hats off to chef Dietmar Sawyere.

Lizzie gets married

Lizzie, one of my best and oldest friends got married on the 24th March - we've known each other since we were four, and I wouldn't have missed her big day for the world.

She married Mike, a great bloke who she met at The Oaks, one of Sydney's iconic pubs.

The wedding took place on a scorching hot day over at Bundeena, a beautiful little beach-side town in Sydney's Royal National Park.

The ceremony was simple and lovely - their vows were heartfelt, and brought a tear to the eyes of many of us there. And we then partied till late.

Aww...don't you just love a great wedding.

Lizzie and Mike - congratulations to you once again!

A welcome dose of Aussie seafood

After a solid night's sleep following the torturous 20-hour flight, we pottered around Sydney's Eastern beaches before heading into town for dinner.

The bar at the forecourt of the Opera House was heaving - I couldn't believe how warm it was for late March! It felt more like a summer evening than an Autumn one! Ant was surprised to see how much flesh Sydney chics were flashing. Good to see nothing's changed...

We stuck our head in at Doyle's at Circular Quay, which was packed, and then wandered past the Waterfront. I'd never actually eaten there, and I was hanging for decent seafood after a 9 month drought, so we grabbed a seat.

Ant too was looking forward to sampling Aussie seafood, so we ordered the cold seafood platter. It's been SOOOO long since I've had one of those.

It was great - not too much fried food, and a fantastic selection of shellfish, including bugs, crabs and prawns. The oysters were oyster drought probably made them taste even better.

The restaurant was packed, and loud with animated conversations. I'd never realised how big the place is.

Anyway, as we sat there, up to our eyeballs in seafood, knocking back some great Australian wine and with the Harbour Bridge and Opera House in full view, I pondered that there really is no place like home.

My Big Fat Aussie Adventure

I've just come back from a HUGE month in Australia - very conveniently, my brother and childhood friend, Lizzie, decided to get married on two consecutive weekends, and Dad was turning 60! Easter fell in the middle of all of that, and a long weekend of wine-tasting in the Hunter Valley was on the agenda.

All in all, it was shaping up to be a huge month of celebrations. It was Ant's second visit to Australia, having first visited about 17 years ago. I was interested to see if he'd noticed any changes.

One thing that never changes though, is the thrill that seeing Sydney Harbour on a sunny day gives me. Seeing the Harbour Bridge automatically makes me smile - particularly cos I don't get to see it too often in person these days.

The Bridge is celebrating it's 75th anniversary this year. When I was a kid, and we used to stop to pay the toll, I thought that I was actually paying for the Bridge and that it was mine. My mother reminds me often of "my bridge".

Anyway, it was fabulous to see it in person once again! Happy 75th Birthday to my Sydney Harbour Bridge!

Exploring Dublin

We set off early the next morning, after the obligatory "full Irish" - a huge cooked breaky up in the older part of the hotel.

First stop was Trinity College and the Book of Kells, which is housed in the Old Library Building. The exhibition is fascinating - it explains how books written in 800AD were constructed. It was all very manual, detailed work!

It also outlined the symbology behind what is considered to be "one of the most beautifully illustrated manuscripts in the world".

We then checked out the Long Room, the main chamber of the Old Library. Rows of dusty old books lined the two tall levels of the library. We wondered what sort of books this library housed.

Finally, booked out, we jumped on the Dublin city bus tour and did a lap round all the main sights.

While we passed the iconic Guiness Brewery, we decided not to throw down a pint at 11am, even though as Dad would say, it's midday somewhere in the world.

The bus tour finished back down on the River Liffey, just opposite the Temple Bar - a snazzy pub-filled area where we hung out for the rest of the afternoon, listening to Irish bands. The Irish are a fab bunch - cheerful and friendly, and full of life.

Several tow-tapping hours later, we headed back out to the hotel and had a quiet drink in the bar. In keeping with the rest of the style of Clontarf Castle, the Indigo Lounge was stylishly decorated. The huge red chandeliers really set it off.

We had planned to head back into town for dinner, but our colds had taken over and we both felt pretty grim. We attempted to book into the castle's Farenheit Grill, but it was booked solidly until 10pm.

So, we chomped into a room service meal and got to spend even more time in the comfyest (is that a word!) bed on the planet.

A winter weekend in Dublin - a Celtic castle

For Ant's Christmas present, I planned a winter weekend in Dublin - his first time to Ireland.

On a freezing Friday night in February, we two cold-stricken vegemites flew over to the Emerald Isle.

My big surprise was a stay in Clontarf Castle - the pics on the website looked fab, and I couldn't resist staying in an authentic Irish castle! Here are a few of their promotional pics...

After a 10 million Euro makeover, the castle has basically retained the fascade of the original 19th Century version, and built an annex onto the back of.

The foyer has an amazing fire place and is really nicely set up - you feel like you're walking back into history.

We were shown to the room, and were presented the most ginormous bed I've ever seen. I've seen king size beds before, but not one so tall...we practically needed a ladder to climb into it.

The room was also really nicely appointed, with a thick fluffy doona (ok, duvet...), and a particularly nice touch were the red and orange light boxes built into the wall behind the bed.

The bed was definitely the highlight of the room. It had a layer of that body memory foam over the mattress, and was pretty much the most comfy bed either of us had ever slept in.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The flying cake is finally cut

After its epic journey from Oxford, conveyor belt ride through security, 11-hour rest in a crew storage area, turbulence, and despite the humidity in Singapore, the little pink cake made its way to the table, and our expanding tummies.

We had a fab few days in Singapore. Happy 60th birthday Mum!

Show me the crab (and gimme a satay while you're at it)

My all-time FAVOURITE experience in Singapore is chilli crab. Even if I only have a 3-hour stopover in Singapore, I'll hurtle out to the East Coast Parkway to get a dose of this mouth-watering dish.

Anyway, we had longer than three hours for the evening of Mum's birthday, and attempted to over-dose on chilli crab at the Long Beach Seafood Restaurant. Consumed with a Singha beer or ten, this is truly one of best food experiences on the planet. I said to Mum that I intended to be gutsing out on chilli crab for my 60th birthday.

Other fab restaurant precincts in the ever-expanding Singapore, include the newly refubished Clarke Quay and CHIJMES.

And of course there's always the trusty hawker centres, which we visited another night. Newton's Circus, now known as the Newton Food Centre is one of my favourite haunts - Mum and Dad first bought me here about 20 years ago and to me it's always been synonymous with Singapore.

Here's a pic of Dad working his way through a couple dozen mixed satays and the obligatory Singha.

A day at Sentosa

Another part of Mum's birthday surprise was a pampering session at the fabulous Spa Botanica at the Sentosa Resort. Sentosa is an island just off the Singaporean mainland, easily reachable by bus, cab or car.

I'd been here before and had one of their yummy Singapore Flower Ritual packages. This is how they describe the package:

"Surrender to the peace and tranquility of a private garden pavilion where fragrant flowers sweetly scent the air. The treatment begins with a deep pressure dry massage in an outdoor massage pavilion to soothe weary muscles, after which a special preparation of local herbs and flowers is gently rubbed into the skin. Then enjoy an aroma massage to moisturise the skin and induce further relaxation. A revitalising soak in a sweet smelling frangipani filled tub and an elixir of calming tea completes the cycle of blissful reawakening."
I can say without hesitation that this was one of the best spa treatments I've ever had. I think Mum agreed!

With Mum safely tucked up in her floral wonderland, Dad and I headed up to Fort Siloso - Singapore's only preserved coastal fort.

I didn't really know much about Singapore's history and the Japanese occupation of it during WWII. It was a really interesting (and eerie) site, where you could explore the actual tunnel system below the fort.

We were in one of the old bunkers, when this peacock decided to put on a show.

Several hours later, we picked up a refreshed Mum, and wandered down to the beach, where a flock of restaurants and bars provide a great view out over what signs claim is the southernmost point of the asian continent.

Lunch down on the beach was great - we found an eatery that served a dizzying range of seafood and noodles, and opted for a noodle dish, with chilli crab being on the agenda for dinner.

The iconic Singapore Sling

One of the absolutely mandatory things to do in Singapore is to have a Singapore Sling at the iconic Long Bar at Raffles.

It seems odd to be sitting at one of the most expensive hotels in the country, scoffing peanuts and dumping the shells on the floor, but, needless to say, with such massive humidity, one has to keep the fluids up...

Here are Mum and I, doing what the locals do...

Taking the cake to Singapore

The day before I flew out to Singapore, Ant and I were mosying around Oxford with my friends from Oz - Al and Ian, and stumbled across the Cake Shop in the market place. They make the most wonderful tailored cakes - mainly fruit cakes with spectacular icing designs. They also do a series of comical characters made from marzipan. Absolutely fabulous!

I decided to get a small cake made up for Mum's birthday - it was really sweet: pink flowers and icing.

The next challenge was to get it through security at Heathrow! I was really worried they'd make me stick to the one piece of hand luggage rule that they're now enforcing pretty much without exception. Jamming the fruit cake into my already heaving backpack was not going to assist its longevity.

Fortunately, a very kind security inspector let me take the cake through - it had to be scanned of course, which was fine. I got some weird looks from fellow travellers as my little pink cake emerged from the xray machine on the conveyor belt.

It made the 11-hour flight safely too, ready for the big day!

MariMari sicks their lawyers onto me

Discussions between myself and MariMari came to a head when they sicked someone purporting to be their lawyer onto me.

This woman told me to stop bullying her client and making threats to defame their company....hardly defamation when I'm merely talking about their complete incompetence in handling my booking and securing my privacy.

She said that Malaysia doesn't have the same sort of data protection laws as other countries, and that any claim I made against them would not stand...curious though that they felt substantially threatened enough to get the lawyers onto me.

If that's their idea of customer service, that's fine. A company that has practices as crude as that won't last in the real world. I'm making it a mission to tell everyone about these muppets.

As for the reunion with my folks, it was fab, and we gutsed solidly on chilli crab and satays as planned.

I'm a baaaad blogger

They say time flies when you're having fun, and it's now been four months between posts. Who's a naughty blogger then!

Anyway...I shall attempt to resume some sense of regularity in my postings. Having just spent a month in good old Oz, I am more obsessed than ever with my home country and all the places I've not yet visited.

And, with London in full spring bloom, it's not so bad here either.

I'm going to loop back to my experience with that nasty little company in Malaysia, then start on the adventures of the last four months...