Thursday, 29 July 2010

The One-O-One and Only

One-O-One has been sitting on my list, quietly waiting for my wallet to gain enough cushioning to withstand the blow. Located in the prestigious Knightsbridge, I was constantly sidetracked by the two department stores. But on the day, I said I deliberately saved this special restaurant for the 25th birthday of a very special someone.

The main dining room was divided by a curved wall, which I later read the interior was inspired by the symmetry of a shucked oyster. Walls were decorated with subtle details and a massive wine showcase in the middle. It shouts class and elegance. 

The menu was seafood dominated, and quite rightly so, complemented by a never-ending wine list. The sommelier had to restrict his recommendations to half-bottles, since the birthday boy only drinks 10% of what we order (tried and tested). Considering I hopped off the plane at midnight, I needed to go easy.

Amuse Bouche – Jelly with Shredded Crab
I saw a bit of crayfish in the jelly too. It was a block of seafood delight, a small taster of the scrumptious seafood ahead. It surely worked up my appetite.

Rock Oysters from Marennes D’Oleron – L’Experience Shallot Vinegar, Yuzu Sorbet & Vodka, Tempura with Soya Pipettes
Okay the dish may look mutagenic, I understand the line between ugly and quirky is thin, but hear me out. The server gently injected soya sauce into the tempura and removed the pipettes as he presented the dish.  The batter was thin and light; the creamy oyster was infused with a sweet soy sauce; I could taste the sea. The shallot vinegar lost the usual pungent sting; instead it was mellow with a hint of sweetness. Yuku (lime) sorbet replaced the traditional acidity, the zesty zing worked.

Norwegian Red King Crab Legs from the Barents Sea - Warm with Sweet Chilli-Ginger Sauce
Our server recommended the sweet chilli-ginger sauce, which was probably the worst choice of the list. The sauce overpowered the natural sweetness of the crabmeat, and so despite the fleshy crab legs, we could only taste the chilli-ginger.

Roasted Norwegian Halibut and Prawn dumplings, Coco Beans and Truffle Bisque
I could smell the truffle from 2 tables away. It was a moist piece, its juice blended into the truffle bisque. The dumplings were slightly hard on the skin, but the prawns inside were plump and crunchy.

Slow Cooked Arctic Cod from The Barents Sea Chorizo Risotto, Squid and Prawns A La Plancha
Chaotic fiesta? It was a palette of mix & match flavours and textures. I found it overly complicated, but mister thought it was a pleasant surprise with every mouthful.

Meli Melo Panna Cotta with Granny Smith apple Sorbet
Stunning summery dessert. Sorbet was refreshing, the thin strips of apple and jelly harmonised with the silken panna cotta. Perfect finish.

White Chocolate Mousse Juniper Berries Lemon Sorbet and Soft Gin Tonic Jelly
I stole one spoonful. Loved it. Can’t go wrong with ripe berries in a thick mousse.

Espresso was good, the petit fours were forgettable.

It’s not a daily diner. The bill came to just over £220 with half a bottle of Chenin blanc 2001, excluding service. The meal was worth every penny given the astounding quality of food and service. Snobby? Maybe. A bit of posh every now and then doesn’t hurt. Too much.

101 Knightsbridge

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Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Il Dolce far Niente - Italy III

Among the major Italian cities, Firenze has the least to offer in terms of sights but best for wanderers like myself.
I won’t bore you with the itineraries of my last 3 visits. Obviously the great David statue is a must-see, and the 2-hour queues are worthwhile, but with all the people crowding around him and stress of endless waiting, I was satisfied with the replica in London’s V&A museum, where David’s broken toe was also captured. I, too, love Michelangelo.

Rome, Venezia, Milano, Napoli… It’s always the same coffee drinking, food binging, mindless wandering, people watching and gallery camping, but different. It’s the attitude of being laidback that keeps drawing me back to Italy. Except for Venezia, which I ponder how much the government pays travel book publishers to keep singing praises about the flies/mosquitoes infected place, that bears almost no characteristic of the country. Explore further, extend into the Barolo region to taste great wines, bag a few boxes to take home and taste the sunshine in the never-sunny London.

Regrettably I have yet to set foot in the colourful island of Sicily. It won’t be long.
The Vatican and the grandeur of St Peter’s Cathedral is a different story. I am no catholic; I hold no religious beliefs. Yet the cathedral is the most awe-inspiring establishment. Be it the spine-chilling size, the age-bearing paintings; the masterly-sculpted statues or the surreal echoes inside, I was dumbfounded to say the least. Having said that, it was the Sistine Chapel that I stayed the longest, gazing at the ceiling, cursing the idiots that made the Last Judgement looked as bright as American Apparel.
For those who find Italy a bit dated, a bit dirty and a lot chaotic. Sorry. The Italians are too busy enjoying their lives to clean it up for you, why not join them?

Monday, 26 July 2010

Gelati Bolognese - Italy II

Bologna was beautiful. It was bursting with individuality. It was the poor student that worked extra hard to earn her place in the upper circle. It was educated, well-mannered and humane.
EuroCity trains from Firenze to Bologna took 40 minutes. These require online reservation and costs an aching 70 Euros as it was trans-regional. Alternatively one could go by local trains, which were less frequent, much slower but wallet-friendly. There was a third option, one which we accidentally chose. We bought a local train ticket and boarded a EuroCity train. When asked by the ticket inspector to pay the supplements, we helpless shook our heads and explained we didn’t know the difference. I genuinely didn’t know the difference; everything on the ticket machine was in Italian.  He inspected our wallets (thank god I have a habit of keeping my notes and coins separate) and sighed he would let us off with 8 Euros supplement each. Don’t do it, not everyone has puppy dog eyes like I do. (Ahem…)
Though Bologna was a mid-size city, it was still best explored on foot. We wandered down the busy main street and were tempted by some extraordinary-looking gelato. Instead of the usual ice cream counters, these gelati were stored in circular tubs, not unlike the ones for soup. Absolutely god-send. Silky soft texture, yet the air saturation was perfected to give the dense consistency.
We sat in the City Hall for a bit to cool in the shades.

Behind Fontana di Nettuno, which I love the jets of water oozing from 8 pairs of nipples, Piazza Maggiore was filled with chairs and a huge projection screen. It was a movie festival set in the open-air with San Petronio in the background; the could-have-been largest basilica was under heavy re-construction work. Not that it mattered since the interior was equally appealing with a miniature display of scientific discoveries. The audacity to cover the floor with marbled astrological signs and complex display of momentum, I felt like the next Dan Brown.

Under the porticos and graffiti-ed walkways, we accidentally turned into what seemed like a community centre. A group of worn down (or junkie) looking locals, mostly in their mid-40s, were queuing up for their free lunch. Since they didn’t seem too disturbed by our presence, we sat around.
Before stopping for late lunch, we saw the oldest university and boy did it look old.
I had a Focaccia con Procuitto, Mozzarella e pomodoro, drenched in olive oil, each bite was heavenly Italian. I couldn’t resist the temptation of ordering a cappuccino after 10:30am, and couldn’t help but notice the upside curl of the server’s lips. Ah well, I was a foreigner afterall.

Two coffees later, we returned to Via Rizzoli and climbed the 498 steps of Torre degli Asinelli, to mock the shorter brother Garisenda. I get to be the taller one for once. La Rossa.

As we walked further from the city centre, we came across this gelateria. The one this afternoon was awesome, this one was the most awesome, with more variety of flavours and an even silkier touch. I had another café while lazing around the parlour, was trying to wash down the food before dinner.

Dinner was well hidden in a side walk, about 15-minute walk from the Torres. Down the stairs from the modest entrance leads to dimly lit atrium, where it was decorated with rows of wines and nostalgic photographs on dark mahogany shelves. One wall was lined with extruding barrels, and the other was plastered with small photographs and sketches. We were served fried meatballs and breads as we studied the menu.

Seriously, there was a lot of food. Every dish was made with so much love, that I savoured every bite with equal amounts of love. I remember the lamb chops being pink and juicy with moderate amount of fat lining, heavily dosed in fresh herbs. I remember the house special pasta with chunks of mince beef was al-dente and wholesome. I remember the pastry box being fluffy and crispy and buttery but don’t remember what was in the box... Conversations flowed with the wine, laughter echoed as the piano was played, times flies when you are having a good time.

It was almost 10pm when we left the restaurant, we made way back to the open-air cinema in Piazza Maggiore. A sea of people sat in the dark as melodic Italian dialogues filled the air. Romance was lingering above the square. I started making up subtitles for the film, and thought it was a very good theme with a convincing plot.
It was well past eleven by the time we got to the train station. We sat there in the nightly breeze for at least a good hour before the regional trains took us to Firenze.

Living la viva Lucca - Italy I

Surprisingly, a lot of people don’t appreciate Italy. I can see why but cannot concur.
If you are one of those who mark all the sights on the map with a cross, and draw a route that covers all of them in a couple of days, then you wouldn’t like Italy.
I, on the other hand, love this country. So much so that I pop into random cities every now and then for no obvious purpose, but to be kissed by the sun, seduced by the wines and fattened up by the foods.
This year I was invited to join a long-lost friend from primary school (back then when I had long hair, silver-rimmed glasses and funny teeth) who happened to be in Firenze for an exchange course. Gladly accepted. He was one of my closest friends in my prep school years. I don’t believe there was a plan drawn up. We picked Lucca to meet, and took it from there really.
Since the plane landed in Pisa, I stole some time peeking into the centre. Without a map at hand, I found my way to the Piazza dei Miracoli purely from the google map I remembered before setting off. Deserve a little pat on the back. It was 37 degrees. Uno gelato pistachio por favor. The square was swarmed with tourists, all posing to support the leaning tower. I slipped into the street on side of the square and enjoyed a good old Italian café (served by a jaw-droppingly beautiful waiter), and watched the morning go by.

Lucca was only 30 minutes away from Pisa by train. The station takes you back 30 years (not that I am old enough to know). As I waited for Lawson, the empty station swirled into slow-motion.
The city was never attacked and hence boasts a completely intact City Wall. This place was pure serenity. Didn’t have much infrastructure to speak of, and so motor vehicles were hardly seen except for the stereotypical pastel-coloured mopeds. Even if you come across a car on the streets, it is more likely to be parked bang in the middle, blocking the entire road.
We sat in a half-finished church. Lawson pointed out the green marble that was unique to Tuscany. And if he hadn’t told me, I would have missed the greenness. The interior wasn’t glamorous with sculptured pillars and low hanging chandeliers. Instead the walls were mostly bare with modest patterns on the ceiling. As if this church was forgotten half way through the construction. And this was probably why Lucca was never attacked. It was simply forgotten. I like it. We are in a world where being ugly is just bad news. How I wish I can lose the masks because nobody is looking. And there I was with an old friend in a tranquil city, I didn’t have to make enormous efforts to be loved.
Walking past St.Martin’s Cathedral, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in a modest square. The proscuitto con melone wasn’t very good, and neither was my pasta. The cured meat didn’t have enough flavours, so the sweetness of the melon simply overpowered the meat. Carbonara is basic enough, while spaghetti was al dente, too much cream and not enough eggs in the sauce. Given the chef fell at the first hurdle, I decided not to order a secondo. Should have done my research to find a more local joint, but hey I didn’t even bring my straighteners.
A gelateria never fails to impress, though. Laughed my heart out to see melted ice cream dripping all over Lawson; laugh like no one can hear me.
Next we climbed Torre delle Ore, where we sat under the tree, overlooking the entire city for the best part of the afternoon, catching up on what we have missed in the last 15 years.

This is what Lucca is about. 

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Further Along the Algarve Coast - Portugal II

We left Albufeira for Quarteira after breakfast. I must admit I never saw the buses that could take me back to the central bus terminal (on the hill), nor could I work out the direction and their routes, so we walked. And this time, uphill.

Journey to Quarteira was only 40 mins. Hotel Dom Jose was across the road from the bus terminal, again facing the beach. It was much less crowded in Quarteira, and so less developed and more windy. The layout of the town was simple, just one road along the beach, where restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops were lined. The further away from the beach, the more residential it became. We enjoyed a couple of milkshakes before strolling along the beach.

The sand is coarser than Albufeira, and the waves higher. I have been misled.

Towards the end of the road, there was a market selling fresh fish in the morning and fruits throughout the day. The grapes were juicy and sugar sweet, we paid 3 Euros and got a huge bag of them, at least 1kg. The peaches were the size of melons; soft and honey-like. Perfect as we further cooked ourselves under the sun.

We also arranged a boat trip from Vilamoura from a newsagent to see the caves and smaller islands nearby. Since there were no tours on the next day, we booked for the day after. Instead we bought tickets for Aquashow, with a 25% discount.

Restaurant prices varied; even the price range within the menu was huge. The seaside Rosa was asking 55 Euros per kilo of lobster, while some fish dishes were as little as 8 Euros. My grilled squid was hearty and tender, though I couldn’t taste the freshness of the squid. James was baffled by the red, gold, silver and black sea breams, then decided sea breams are not his type of fish.

After the sunset, stall was put up along the road selling handmade jewellery and candles. We finished the evening with some ice cream and a coffee. It is worth mentioning that coffees in Portugal were almost as good as Italy.

Following day, we rose to catch the bus for Aquashow, the water theme park. The wait at the bus terminal was a torture. Midday sun searing; the mildly air-conditioned waiting room stank of the toilets within. The entrance for the park was enormous, and there was little else in the neighbourhood, you can’t miss it from the bus.

Maybe it was only early July, the park wasn’t too crowded. Yes we had to queue but no more than 15 minutes for the major rides. I would describe some of the thriller rides and slides, but…no, no one would understand anyway. It was simply fun. Super fun.

We splashed out on a seafood boat for dinner. Well, comparatively.
The boat was selling for 55 Euros, for 1 dressed crab, lots of large prawns, clams in herbs and butter, medium sized prawns cooked in lemon and herb, a few mussels dotted around and 3 oysters. It was a ridiculous amount of food. Quality wasn’t bad either. The herb butter dishes were well-seasoned, but was slightly salty towards the end. The crabs and prawns were very fleshy with a hint of sweetness. With great efforts, and a few hours, we managed to mop up the boat!

 One side note, these restaurants in Quarteira served up sardine pates, butters and cheese with the breadbasket. However these are all charged on the bill as per item. They do not charge untouched items. I thought the sardine pate tasted like cat food. On a plus side, no fish bones.

The famous pastel de nata looked great at the local infested Beira Mar pastelaria – bought a couple as breakfast.

The boat departed from Vilamoura, a marina lined with 5-star resorts. We were told the walk from Quarteira to Vilamoura would take 20 minutes. Not true. It took at least 40 minutes. Once we arrived at the C-shaped marina, we realized our port was on the other side of the ‘C’. After a panic mad sprint to the boat, we were sitting on the deck under the blazing sun for a good 15 minutes before everyone was on board. Urgh.

The marina was lined with more posh restaurants and refined hotels. No wonder Christiano Ronaldo chooses his holiday here too. I was secretly choosing my cruiser, they looked so sexy. I want one. I want one so I can have my luxurious holiday in the middle of the sea.

The boat was quite full, and we were introduced to the rock formations along the coast in 4 languages. The dingy boats took us into the caves and a tiny rocky island. It was a short 3-hour tour. I am still not sure if it was worthwhile, but it introduced me to Vilamoura. This is where I will book next in Portugal.

Since these restaurants look much more decent, we went for a late lunch. Sadly after the seafood boat, we wanted meat. I tried piri-piri chicken, which was very spicy; the skin on the chicken thigh was crispy. Good. James had pork chop with pineapple; the pork was thick and tender, and the zingy sweetness in the pineapple complimented the meat.

I am definitely coming back for a more extravagant experience, and James is already excited about game fishing.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Along the Algarve Coast - Portugal I

What summer would be complete without a week on the beach?
My wallet was looking unhealthily skinny; Sharm El Sheik and Maldives are off the list.
Algarve, in southern Portugal boasts a long stretch of beach, affordable standard of living and fresh seafood. Flight booked.
The flight landed in Faro. From the airport we took a bus to the city centre, where we changed for another (air-conditioned, thank god) bus that goes along the coast.  I didn’t see much of Faro, but I could hear my parents say it looked identical to Macau.  As the bus left the compact city, we passed other resort hotspots, such as Quarteira and Vilamoura. And Albufeira was the last stop after the 90-min journey, which could have taken longer as there were a fair number of stops along the way. The bus terminal was on a hill, and instead of waiting for the local bus, I persuaded James to walk down to the town centre. I was so convinced Albufeira was tiny. 
Yes it was small, but not quite as small.
It wasn’t just sunny. It was skin-grilling.
We followed the signs along the main road for 20 minutes, and saw a complex with McDonald’s and KFC’s and a main road with heavy traffic. We could also see a tiny bit of the sea between two hotels. Since our hotel was supposed to be a doorstep from the beach, we knew we were heading the right direction. Before trotting on, I needed a fat cola. Who would have thought the first restaurant I use is McD’s in the seafood-rich Portugal.
Another 20 minutes later, we were standing at a viewpoint overlooking the vast blue sea. Ah….

Down the escalator, we walked into the street behind the first row of hotels. No sign of “Sol e Mar” but we came to a square lined with bars and restaurants. After buying some ice lollies, we went up one of the alleyways at one of the corners, all lined with more souvenir shops, and came to a tunnel that led to the beach. On the side of the tunnel were stairs to “Sol e Mar”. Yes it was a doorstep from the beach.
When it comes to star ratings in European hotels, I have gotten used to knocking 2 off for more realistic expectations. So the 4-star hotel wasn’t too bad. The room was clean, spacious and air-conditioned, with a balcony and a massive sea view. We got into our beachwear, picked up some sunscreen, and were sleeping under the sun in no time. 3 hours. I browned.

We chose one of the sea-facing restaurants and took a table outside. I tried the local speciality “Cataplana”, which was a shellfish and monkfish stew cooked in a special container, served with rice.  It was a very rich stew, so I couldn’t taste the freshness of the seafood. James opted for turbot with new potatoes. The fish was moist and flaky as it should be, skin slightly crisp on top of a thin layer of fish oil. Delicious.

As the sun was beginning to set, it got breezier and cooler. We walked along the beach back to the hotel for some extra layers. The streets were still lively after dark; performers in the square and bars with live music. James had a passion fruit smoothie and I had a hot chocolate in a frutti bar before calling it a day.
Beautiful day started with breakfast by the sea. We bought 2 float beds; one yellow long bed for 5 Euros, and the other was a single seat sofa for 12 Euros. We then spent the entire day floating on the sea. Actually, I did. James spent half the day getting on the float bed, the other second half either paddling himself towards the shore, or trying to stay on it.

Lunch was at one of the restaurants in the square, where sardines and piri-piri chicken dishes were sold for as little as 6 Euros. I was never a fan of sardines, and this didn’t change my mind. Even though I could remove the majority of the fish bones in one pull, there were still the occasional few that pierced my tongue. James had calamari, which wasn’t special either.

Back to the sea.

For dinner we popped into a more discreet alleyway lined with more restaurants, hoping to find a more authentic meal. I wish I could say I found it. The Portuguese version of paella was pretty bad, no aroma of saffron, nor did the flavors from the shellfish infuse into the rice. James’s arroz de la mer was the same as the Cataplana, but without the copper container. Hmm.

A puppet performer was dancing an alien to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and Thriller, we sat in a café for a Belgian waffle with ice cream afterwards.