Mario Batali’s Lupa in Hong Kong

With the many great dining places in Hong Kong and only 2 days to spend, we had a hard time shortlisting our picks. Mario Batali’s Lupa, however, was a no-brainer. With fantastic anecdotes about their New York branch, we were excited to try famous Mario’s trattoria food.

Lupa boasts of a long, open kitchen, where chefs send out their creations to frenetic servers. It looked orderly, clean, and organized…..a credit to the kitchen brigade working in it.

The in-door dining area was spacious, cozily lit, and done elegantly with starched, white tablecloths and fine cutlery. But the ambiance remained casual and relaxed, which I appreciated. Lupa also had outdoor seating for the smokers and their wood-fired pizza (apparently, not available indoors). I didn’t bother checking it out so can’t comment.

I loved the tall pepper mills! Definitely a showpiece!

The name Lupa comes from the Italian word for she-wolf, and as per the menu, the restaurant is named after the she-wolf that nursed Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. So the picture of a gigantic wolf with 2 babes nursing at her teats was emblazoned on the menu. Not your average cover, and well, rather strange for me.

The menu was very extensive! So large that we all had a hard time choosing, since there were just too many choices that sounded good. Though we pride ourselves in our appetites, I don’t think any of us could tackle both a primi and secondi course, with an appetizer and dessert to boot.

While choosing our dishes, we started off with this excellent wine.

Since we were a large table (10 hungry women!), we were able to order a lot of different dishes, much like our experience in Bistronomique (see my entry about Bistronomique here). Of course we all made each other promise to share.

For starters: sardines, golden raisins, and pine nuts on a bed of bulgher wheat. The sardines were cured in citrus (as per the menu). This was quite interesting, because the flavors were delicately balanced: the sweetness of the raisins, the tartness of the sardines, and then the crunch and nuttiness of the pine nuts. The portion was small enough to just whet my appetite (and I had to share it with the others!).

Truffled Crema Fritta: fried, breaded cream laced with truffle “essence”. I think this lacked truffles. I know its supposed to be just a whisper, but this wasn’t even audible. And as fried cream is already quite bland, this was more just texture for me: crunch.

Arugula and shaved Parmesan (Parmigiano Reggiano) was a light salad. The peppery arugula was tossed in a light vinaigrette. Not much play with the flavors, since the arugula was the dominant taste.

This was the winner of appetizers: creamy cow’s cheese with smoked prosciutto.

For mains, my order was the black spaghetti with spicy pork sausage. I was attracted to the squid ink pasta, and what’s not to love about spicy pork sausage? The server warned me repeatedly that it was VERY spicy, but I waved her away, confident in my tolerance for spice.

Unfortunately, the server was right. This dish just had ONE taste: heat. I couldn’t taste anything else, so the squid ink pasta, mint and anything else  was just wasted. Such a shame. And yes, I LOVE spicy food, but this was just a one-note dish.

The saltimbocca was the winner of the evening, though unfortunately, terribly unphotogenic. But trust me, it tastes much better than it looks. Underneath this pink, unappetizing mass is a bed of wilted spinach, which paired beautifully with the saltimbocca.

The crispy duck looked impressive and mouth-watering, and we loved the idea of HALF A DUCK! Skin was crispy (as advertised), and we enjoyed this dish.

I forgot what this dish was. Maybe squid? Well, whatever it was, it didn’t make much of an impression.

The dessert menu:

The Espresso Bonet. Not memorable. It doesn’t even look familiar.

The Flourless Chocolate Cake: again, not memorable.

The Date Torta: again, not memorable.

Our feedback card.

So, in short: Lupa fell short from my expectations, but perhaps my expectations were because of the superstar celebrity chef Mario Batali. Some dishes were good, the ambiance was cozy, and the service competent. Personally, this wasn’t worth the price, but it’s a nice date place, including with bragging rights.

3/F, LHT Tower, 31 Queen’s Road, Central
2796 6500

Bistronomique in Hong Kong

Chef David Lai, who trained in Alain Ducasse’s restaurants in Monaco and Hong Kong, has opened his second restaurant, Bistronomique. A casual French bistro, Bistronomique offers classic French bistro fare such as Salade Lyonnaise and Creme Brulee, but with a little edge.

The restaurant itself is a little out of the way. We had to take a cab, and walk a bit, and the street was a bit deserted….not the usual hustle and bustle in the busy streets of Hong Kong.

Interiors are quite bright and well-lit, with no frills. The restaurant is simple: a long narrow room, with banquette seating. This was on a Saturday, lunchtime, and it was full. Good thing we had reservations for our table for 10 ladies.

Bistronomique is not cheap, but they do offer a very affordable Set Lunch Menu. Several of us had this, and were quite satisfied with portions and quality.

For those of you who are curious about their ala carte menu, here are some snapshots. As you can see, their menu is quite extensive.

Always a nice way to start a lunch: chilled white wine!

For starters, I had the herb-crusted bone marrow, on a bed of salt. This, of course, came with some thinly sliced toasted bread. Grab a toast, spread some marrow, and sprinkle just a teeny bit of salt. Swig white wine. Deeelicious!!!! The herb crust was the  WOW factor with this dish. It added a whole different layer of flavor.

Since we were a lot, we got to order a lot of different things, and we were not shy to share with each other. This is the foie gras ‘torchon’, which is a tower made of chunks of foie gras, accompanied with a side of mushrooms (which paired excellently with the foie gras). Note the sprinkle of (probably sea) salt on top.

This was the daily soup. If I remember correctly, it was a creamy leek soup. Quite frothy and light, though full of leek flavor.  A great starter, since it didn’t fill you up too much.

Loved the lardons in their Salad Lyonnaise, but then, who doesn’t like bacon?

Their Caesar Salad came a little deconstructed, but tasted good as well.

Pan-fried pork chop. I love eating pork, but this just tasted all right. Impressive size though!

Duck breast. How French can you get?

This looked beautiful and tasted wonderful. Lobster cassoulet!

This was the “daily fish” on the Set Lunch Menu, and to me, this was the best tasting dish all around. The play of flavors between the roasted red peppers and the grilled fish (I forgot exactly what it was, but it was a firm white-fleshed fish) was perfect!

This was my order. Black pork belly. The famed uber-tender black pork, belly cut. What’s not to like? Unfortunately, this was a little under-seasoned for me. Or maybe I just expect my pork to taste more than just fatty (don’t get me wrong…I have no problem with fatty cuts!).

Mushroom Risotto. Always unphotogenic, but such comfort food.

Desserts in French restaurants are always anticipated. A very, VERY, dense chocolate pot de creme…..

A mille feuille (though to me, the wafers were a little burnt….)….

…and the best thing EVER…..creme brulee with truffle oil. SO good.

So, as I said, expect simple French bistro food in Bistronomique. Nothing fancy really, but wonderful, high-quality ingredients, with just enough of a chic twist to elevate it to fancy fare.

Shop B, G/F, 1 Davis Street, Kennedy Town, Western District
Tel: 2818 8266

The Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong

Think of the words “Four Seasons Hotel” and immediately images of luxury, pampering, plush, and posh come to mind. At least to my mind they do. So you can imagine my excitement when I heard that our girls’ indulgent weekend in HK was going to be spent at the Four Seasons. Indulgent indeed.

We checked in around 8am in the morning (rather groggily after a 5am flight), and the hotel lobby was rather quiet. The front desk was also free from any other guests checking-in or out, so getting our rooms was a breeze. The front desk clerks efficiently checked us in, gave us our keys, and took care of our bags, all with a smile.

The rooms looked like your average deluxe hotel room. I was a tad let-down, since, as I said, I was really expecting a lot from the Four Season. But well, you can’t REALLY complain when your room comes with fully loaded with these goodies:

But as I said, I’ve seen these amenities before in other hotels, so they weren’t such WOW factors. We DID abuse the Nespresso though.

Forgive the mess: I forgot to take pictures before we made ourselves at home.

So, all in all, so far my impression of the legendary Four Seasons Hotel is….well, it didn’t stand out. It was a nice hotel, yes. But as nice as the Four Seasons of my imagination? Far from it. Maybe I should have managed my expections.

On our last day, we discovered the spa of the Four Seasons.

It was a hidden sanctuary, tucked away behind a forbidding door, that opened into a shangrila (oops, sorry, wrong hotel!).

Well-stocked with (more) amenities, we made ourselves at home while waiting for our ride to the airport. I couldn’t take any pictures of the jacuzzi or massage rooms, as there were several women there pampering themselves.

As a bonus, there was a cute boutique that had swimming suits and other pool-lounging wear, just in case you forgot yours.

Lest I forget to mention, the service at the Four Seasons Hotel was superb: immediate, unobtrusive, courteous, and always with a smile. But then again, you’d expect that from a Four Seasons.

HK Art Fair 2012

A trip to Hong Kong’s much anticipated Art Fair was a convenient excuse for 7 women to get away for an indulgent weekend. Indulgent because not only did we stay in the Four Seasons, but we also lined up a series of serious eats. While the Art Fair was (supposedly) the primary reason why we were going, it was looking more and more like a foodie trip.

My confession: I am an art imbecile. Unfortunately I am one of those that cannot appreciate anything I can’t recognize, and my knowledge of art borders on nothing. I even took a summer class in art appreciation in Fordham many, MANY years ago just to  improve my (lack of) knowledge, but it didn’t do much good. But I do have an open mind, and a love for learning, so I was looking forward to my weekend of art and culture. And food. Yes, mustn’t forget that.

We were lucky enough to snag a couple of VIP passes, which essentially let us in a few days before the general public, as well as allow us access to the VIP lounge. So registering and getting in wasn’t a bother at all.

So here are a few pictures I snapped of random pieces and installations. There were huge halls of art works, so don’t think that these pictures are even remotely representative of what was shown.

This was one of my favorite pieces.

Up close, you can see that the faces were actually made from puzzle pieces. Cool, huh?

This ship is from the same artist (my apologies….I didn’t get the name).

Being a Beatles fan, this one of course caught my eye.

And up close……the lyrics of certain songs!

Same method for Darth Vader.

Now I had to take a picture of this……

I don’t want to sound flippant, but I have a lot of these in my apartment building. 🙂

This piece, made of pink sweaters, caught a lot of attention. I won’t get too detailed in the description though. But if you’re curious what these are supposed to represent, feel free to make a comment, with your email, and I can elaborate. 🙂

And there were a lot of them too!!

There were pieces from the great masters, such as Picasso. I wonder how much they were going for.

Definitely this Art Fair is for the serious collectors and not duffers like me. But I would definitely go again next year!

For those who want to read more about the Art Fair, click here.

Beijing: Summer Palace

Our guide Emmet insisted that we see the Summer Palace, even though we were all a little tired from our day of sightseeing. It is a beautiful royal park, set beside a scenic lake, and many people, locals included, visit this tranquil place to enjoy boating activities, or just to stroll around.

Emmet starts our tour, as all good guides should, with a map of the area, so that we could get our bearings, and see exactly where we were going (and not going). Since we didn’t have enough time to go around the entire lake, Emmet had to give us the abridged tour.

The lake is the centerpiece of the Summer Palace, and is encircled by a well-paved road. This is a beautiful walk for the visitors, and leads to the palace proper.

On the lake are pedal boats for rent, so that families can enjoy paddling out on the lake.

Adding to the beauty of the lake were the many lilies and lotuses that framed the shore.

For the ones who prefer something less strenuous than paddling, one can take this boat.

There were also Beijing’s version of “street performers” along the path. One of them demonstrated his skill in calligraphy by writing complicated chinese characters with his “water brush”.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what these characters mean, so my apologies if they’re inappropriate in any way. 🙂

At the palace proper, we could view the various rooms from the outside only.

Here are my folks peering into one of the bedrooms.

Undoubtedly one of the biggest attractions of the Summer Palace is the Long Gallery, a 728m long corridor decorated with paintings of historical events and beautiful places. Source

For more history and details about the Summer Palace, you can try this website.

“Required” Shopping in Beijing

I call it “required” because our tour guide said that we had to go to 3 shopping places as part of the tour, despite our declarations that we DIDN’T want to go shopping. At least these 3 shopping sites were not just shops, but also included some sort of educational tour/lecture about the products. I’ve experienced this in other countries (most memorably Turkey and Nepal), and knew what to expect… interesting lecture, then a push to buy. Rather annoying, I thought, but at least we weren’t required to buy anything, and it’s always good to learn something new.

Our tour was 5 days, so we spread out these shopping sites over this time period.

Our first stop was the jade store. Here we saw gorgeous pieces of jade of all colors, and carved in many intricate forms. It was breathtaking!

Green apparently is the most valuable color of jade, but the other colors are quite attractive as well.

While the large sculptures were compelling, they were really just too huge and not practical to even consider purchasing. We were actually more attracted to the jewelry pieces, such as pendants and earrings.

As in all stores in China, haggling is expected and encouraged, and be ready to low-ball them with your initial offer (I would say, 25% of the asking price). Of course you’ll get their requisite aghast look, but don’t worry…. this is all a ploy, and part of the ritual.

Here was my purchase from the shop: a pair of T’ang Horses which is supposed to encourage prosperity.

I was just attracted to the design of the horses, being somewhat unusual. I was told their short tails are typical of T’ang Horses.

Next shop was the cloisonné factory. Unlike the jade store, here we actually got to see HOW cloisonné was made.

First step is to solder metal strips onto the metal object, to form little compartments, called cloisons.

Here you can see the cloisons up close. Imagine that the whole metal object is covered like this.

The next step is the EACH compartment is filled with little bits of enamel, each a different color depending on the design. Sharp eyesight is needed for such fine detail.

After each compartment is filled, the object is then fired in kiln, where the enamel is baked and takes on its characteristic shine. The result is a beautiful piece of stunning colors.

Here’s a table that I saw in the showroom. Beautiful!

Again, practicality (and budget!) won over, and I contented myself with a pair of tea containers as my souvenir.

Our last “required” shop was the silk factory.

We started at the factory, where we were shown mulberry leaves that the silkworm were fed, and the whole cycle of the silkworm’s life.

The cocoon is actually made up of only 1 long silk thread, so after the silkworm is finished spinning its cocoon, the end of the silk thread is found and is tied to a spool, and the cocoon is unwound. You can see the many spools in the picture below.

Everything is highly automated, so the process is quite fast. I suppose the slowest part is waiting for the silkworm to finish spinning.

BTW, the cocoon (and the silkworm) are placed in boiling water while the cocoon is being unwound, so at the end, the factory ends up with a lot of boiled worms.

Silk is a very versatile fabric. Being a natural fabric, it is very cool to wear during the summer, yet warm during cooler weather. After the factory we were brought to the showroom (of course!), and shown their many products.

Here we demonstrate how strong and flexible the silk fibers are, as we stretch a single cocoon across a queen sized bed.

The finished products came in a variety of vibrant colors, and the most popular ones were the bed linens. No purchases for me here, since they were rather bulky, and I don’t relish the thought of dry-cleaning often.

Of course I couldn’t leave this post with saying something about the REAL tourist shopping: Wangfujing Street, which is their famous shopping street. Similar to New York’s 5th Avenue or Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, Wangfujing is energetic and vibrant, even, or maybe especially, at night.

It is lined with many stores, some the big department stores filled with designer goods, but the ones I liked were the smaller ones that sold native goods.

My favorite was this quaint shop that just sold chopsticks.

I saw chopsticks for all occasions: plain wood ones for everyday, lacquered ones for fancier fare, and precious silver ones for heirloom pieces. Really beautiful items! I now regret not buying a couple of sets. You never know when you want to serve a fancy Chinese dinner.

Beijing Olympic Sites: The Water Cube

Our Olympic tour didn’t end at the Bird’s Nest. Right beside it (as in walking distance) was the Water Cube, or the Beijing National Aquatics Center. Again, Chinese design rises to another level. We’re not talking about a boring cube, but something that was able to convey the sense of water and its fluidity.

According to Wikipedia, the Water Cube is covered with Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), which not only causes the bubble-like facade, but also allows light and heat penetration.

Too bad we weren’t able to see it at night, as it looks incredible in the evening, based on the pictures I’ve seen.

Similar to the Bird’s Nest, the theme of the building (in this case, bubbles or water), is echoed in many of the details, such as walls…..

……and the ceiling.

There are 2 main pools in the center (I didn’t notice if there were smaller pools hidden behind the main arena, for warming up): the diving pool….

……and the main pool. There was actually a local competition going on when we were there, so the seats were semi-filled with spectators (probably proud relatives).

An interesting fact from Wikipedia (and of course, please double check this): this swimming pool is reputed to be the “fastest” Olympic pool because it is deeper by 1.314 meters. Apparently the deeper the pool (up to a certain limit), the faster a swimmer can swim because deeper pools have less water disturbance (the extra depth dissipates the waves). This, and because of Speedo’s LZR Racer swim suit, could be a reason why so many world records were broken in the 2008 games.

Flags of the different participating countries in the Olympics were displayed all around the arena, so of course I looked for the Philippine flag.

Currently, the Water Cube not only hosts aquatic sporting events, but was also the site for a production of Swan Lake!

Beijing Olympic Sites: Bird’s Nest

Having been to Beijing before, I was most interested to see the new structures that China built for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. I’m sure most of us watched the Opening Ceremonies (and what an amazing production that was!), and because of that, I was very eager to see the Bird’s Nest (or, its more formal name, the Beijing National Stadium).

It was nicknamed the Bird’s Nest because of the random pattern the steel beams formed in its exterior.

According to Wikipedia, these beams were used in the design to primarily hide the retractable roof, which was a requirement to host the Games. If you want to read more about the Bird’s Nest, click here.

What I noticed about the Bird’s Nest was that a lot of the elements of the building were in theme. For example, the small lights that lit the path going to the Bird’s Nest proper.

Inside, we saw a lot of tourists, mostly, from the looks of it, from provincial China. I didn’t see too many foreigners there. Visitors are allowed to enter the stadium seats, and go up to the track oval.

However, no one was allowed to go ON the track oval. I can just imagine how many visitors will be trampling on the oval for photo ops! To enforce this, security guards were posted at various intervals. Mercifully, they were given an umbrella for a bit of shade, since the sun could be quite brutal.

Here’s my attempt at a panoramic shot.

Currently, the stadium continues to host several sporting events, and even an opera (again, according to Wikipedia).

Last Day In Kota Kinabalu

Rested, refreshed, and rejuvenated after a great night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, we set out to explore the rest of Kota Kinabalu before flying back to Manila.

Joel took us to the little market for some souvenirs. Native goods such as woven bags, carvings, and of course, Tshirts were available for cheap prices. Bargaining is encouraged!

We also saw trinkets and costume jewelry.

Speaking of jewelry, Joel took us to a nearby store where there was some serious jewelry for sale. South Sea pearls, in all colors! The girls looked around avidly (didn’t buy anything though!) while the guys patiently sat in the middle of the store.

Next stop: clothes! Colorful and light summery dresses and shirts.

All this shopping of course made us hungry, and we have a quick lunch at a nearby local restaurant.

Stopping by a mosque before reaching the airport.

Kota Kinabalu is a pretty small island, so getting around took no time at all. It was handy to have Joel and his van, so that we knew exactly where to go, but I don’t think it’ll be too hard to get around on your own. Of course the highlight of our trip was our climb, but am sure the resorts like the Shangri-La would be worth a visit next time we come over.

Day 2 Climbing Kota Kinabalu: Going To The Top!

We woke up at 1:30AM to get ready to start off at 2AM. None of us slept very well. We were all to excited and it was strangely difficult to sleep in high altitude. Laban Rata had very decent and clean beds and baths, so it wasn’t as if it was uncomfortable. But it didn’t take long for adrenaline (and coffee) to kick in, and we were all ready and energized to climb.

The weather was quite cold, and we were warned that the temperature would further drop the higher we got.

The first part of the trek was more like what we went through getting to Laban Rata: foliage, mud, some stairs. It felt quite surreal trekking in the dead of night, with only our headlamp as illumination.

Eventually the landscape changed to bare rock, as we crossed the tree line. We also reached a point where we needed ropes to scale the side of the mountain. The air was also quite thin, and we would be out of breath every 10 steps. It was quite difficult.

I remember thinking at this point, “What the hell am I doing at 3am scaling a steep side of a mountain, possibly putting my husband and myself in danger?!?!”.

When the sun rose, we finally had enough light to appreciate the stark beauty of Mt. Kinabalu.

We could also see the clouds below….waaay below!! It was a heady feeling (also maybe because again, the air was so thin!).

Vincent and Maget reached the top and took out their Philippine Flag!

We actually couldn’t stay very long (nor did we want to, as we were really so cold and tired!), so we took our pictures and prepared to descend.

Going down was much easier, and since there was light already, we could take more pictures.

We went down the same way: via ropes. But this time, we could see how high we were.

Coco actually is hyping his fear here. As you can see, Joel is smiling below.

Finally reached foliage again! That meant we were near Laban Rata, and near…..BREAKFAST!!

Back in Laban Rata, we hunker down for a huge carbo-loaded breakfast, before setting off to descend back down to the base of Mt. Kinabalu.

We also regroup with the other climbers, and hear their war stories.

The trek back down was again much easier than going up, but we could all feel the stress on our knees. We were also very lucky with the weather, since it only rained the last 10 minutes of our trek.

We reach the same gate we began (deciding NOT to go to the alternative route, and just go the same way, and back to the same hotel). We were wet (heavy rainshower the last 10 minutes), hungry, and tired, and were so happy to see a store selling hot, noodle soup at the gate! Perfect!

Our group picture ending our trek. You can see the happy faces…..happy at the thought of going back to the Meridien for a hot bath and a soft bed.