Sunday, 29 May 2016

Maafushi, Maldives

My interest for the Maldives dwindled as more luxurious resorts popped up and more photos of people standing in front of a water bungalow appear on Facebook. But then I picked up diving again and suddenly a weekend in the Maldives was quite appealing. So with Mama and Papa Chan, I booked to fly out on Friday night, then back super early on Monday.

At first glance the immaculate 5-star resorts didn’t seem inaccessibly expensive – I mean £300 a night isn’t impossible – it’s dear, but not impossible. Then I realised this price excludes the transfer fee to the resort island, which usually hovers around the $200 USD person per way. For the honeymooners splashing out coz they see it as a once-in-a-lifetime thing, I get it. For me, however, it’s to dive and snorkel… in one weekend… ain’t got time for resorts. This is where the local islands are the real gems.

Since the opening of the first guesthouse in 2010, Maafushi continues to develop and now it has a good range of accommodation from $50 - $150 a night. Only 40mins by speedboat from Male Airport, there is also a public ferry ($1) that runs once or twice daily during day time, it could take 1hr45mins. The hotel arranged the speedboat for $150  for the 3 of us, but it would only be $20pp if we were joined by other guests. Well, seeing I was on Tigerair, I had a very strong feeling not all 150 people were booked on a seaplane to a resort island; I was pretty confident there would be others going to Maafushi, even in low season. If you arrive with no transport arrangements, I suggest keeping a list of hotel names of the local island you are visiting, then rock up to their pick-up reps to negotiate tagging along.

The night boat journey was eerily beautiful as we sped through the dark abyss of the ocean, only lit by the perfect full moon with faint linings of fluffy clouds.

We arrived at Maafushi just after 9pm. Kaani Village and Spa is a 3min walk from the jetty. The staff in the hotel arranged a day trip for Mama and Papa Chan the following day, and I was recommended Maldives Passion for my dives. The dive centre was a minute walk away, close to the tourist bikini beach. Marc swiftly went through the basics and sorted me with the gear. Boom - All ready to go in the morning.

Restaurant options are limited, and by limited I mean you have a choice of eating or not eating. Most hotels and hostels have some kind of restaurant, I read online that Kaani Village does atrocious food at snail speed (judging by the breakfast, must be true). So we settled for Rehendhi along the main road, where we saw a few tables occupied by foreigners. The menu tried to cater for all nationalities; I felt local dishes would be less risky than western dishes.

My chicken kottu roti was quite good, perhaps slightly mushy but very flavoursome; Mama Chan‘s mixed fried rice was a safe bet; Papa Chan was feeling brave with a beef burger (seriously?!), and regretted it the moment it arrived – the patty looked like a coaster that had survived a bonfire, served with cold buns and stale vegetables. Oh, and there is no alcohol on the island, only non-alcoholic beers.

Things are slow here; waiting 45mins for food to come out of the kitchen is not uncommon. As Maldives import just about everything, food is comparatively expensive; it averaged around $15 per person with a drink on a local island, and considerably more on island resorts.

We set off at 8:30am sharp in the morning with our divemasters Marc and Jinah. One of the best things about travelling low season is small group excursions; I was only joined by 2 other ladies who were much more advanced. Our first dive site was about 20mins away in Kandooma Thila. 




After our first dive, we checked out another local island called Guraidhoo, probably what Maafushi looked like 5 years ago, much less developed with an increasing number of small guesthouses and shops; the colour of the house was said to represent the political party the owner supports. Marc explained corals used to be the main building material, but these have now been banned.  We also saw a small group of people fishing in the sea, apparently one person holds the net at one end, then the group would scare the fish from the other side… I guess they had a good run as they sounded quite triumphant. Marc pointed out that waste management is a pressing issue, as the islands are developing at a higher rate than education. It was not uncommon to see piles of plastic and construction waste accumulated at one end of the island. He is doing a lot of good work with the students to clear the mess up, but it definitely needs more resources and focus.

Our second dive was at Guraidhoo Corner. I saw a baby white tip shark, just not quick enough to get a good shot…

I only signed up for 2 dives, so I had the afternoon free while Mama and Papa Chan were both on a full-day sandbank picnic trip. Marc and Jinah took me to lunch at Hot Bites, which was a good lunch / snack bar. I figured they must know the best things on the menu by now, so followed their order of a chicken submarine with fries – and hey, this was the best thing I ate in Maldives. The other dish recommended was fish curry & rice… he said tuna is the main fish here, but most Maafushi restaurant only offer tinned tuna. Male, however, offer some very decent dishes.

I spent the afternoon on the bikini beach after sorting out the postcard, then picked up Mama and Papa Chan. Their day trip was quite disappointing I heard. The first snorkelling point was sparse with little corals or fish to see, then the second site was deep with fairly strong currents. I think they struggled because Mama Chan isn’t a strong swimmer and wasn’t confident enough to venture far even with a life jacket, and Papa Chan was worried about her. Despite that, the guides were fantastic; the team offered to lead Mama Chan as she floats with her jacket further out, closer to the reefs. But I guess she was too panicky, so they didn’t see much.

The next day we signed up to a half-day snorkelling trip. I took the queen seat at the front of the boat and spotted lots of dolphins swimming with around, even a huge turtle surfacing for air. 

Our first stop was the Turtle reef. We were to follow one of the guides as the other 4 scouted out for turtles, which were very well camouflaged by the corals. Mama Chan was more relaxed, because one of the guides was dedicated to looking after her, held her hand throughout her time in the water, and led her to all the beautiful things under the sea. This freed up Papa Chan to explore too. Most people were wearing life-jackets, but I’d say it just gets in the way if you are a good swimmer.

The guides encouraged me to do a bit of free-diving too, the key was not to panic and control the release of air. They make it look so easy…


We spotted about 5 turtles, a couple even came up for air.


Our second spot was the Banana Reef, where there were abundance of colourful corals. Dive a little deeper and I found a moray and a couple of puffa fish hiding beneath the table coral…





For lunch we stopped at a deserted island that was once an island resort before the tsunami wiped it out back in 2004. We could walk around the derelict remnants, covered by overgrown vegetation. It’s quite a popular spot for people to stop by for picnics too.



Our last stop was Biyadhoo reef, where there were more variety of bigger fish.



I have a lot of respect for our guides, they made every effort to help us see the most of what the ocean has to offer, yet they were ever so careful and delicate with marine life; strictly no touching of anything in the sea, gentle guiding of the turtles to swim closer to the surface (where 10 people were floating), and making sure people stayed at the edge of the reef where the corals were quite shallow.

One of my pet hates  is when people feed bread to the fish – it’s not good for them! And the people here don’t allow it. Kudos.

The hotel offered us a room to shower before we head off to catch our flight, the hospitality of the people here has no boundaries. I arranged speedboat transfer with iCom Tours for $20pp at 5pm. I think all hotels offer transfers too, with prices dependent on the number of people travelling – check the notice boards in the hotel lobbies for times and availability.

May is the start of the rainy season in the Maldives. That said I understand from the locals that it rarely rains for a full day, only heavy showers or sometimes thunderstorms for a couple hours. We were lucky in the sense that our mornings started with grey skies and a couple of heavy showers for 10 minutes, then the skies gradually cleared over the course of the morning to leave a very thin veil of clouds over the blazing sun. I definitely prefer this kind of weather to 10 hours of sizzling sun, much more gentle on the skin and more comfortable with the cooling winds. Low season also meant the island was not overcrowded; I had a one-on-one dive with my dive master, while the other pair shared another; the snorkelling excursion had 15 people, looked after by 5 snorkelling guides, not to mention ample space on the boat; the streets and the bikini beach on Maasfushi was mostly quiet, leaving the laid back vibe of the island undisturbed.

My trip to the Maldives was short but wonderful; the majestic ocean and vibrant sealife were as extraordinary as one imagines. I’m grateful that I had a chance to experience the country beyond its luxurious reputation and chat with the incredibly friendly locals.

Till next time!


Sunday, 15 May 2016

Sky on 57 - High Dining

Finding a restaurant to treat Mama Chan on Mother’s Day was more challenging than anticipated - a lot of restaurants on my list aren’t open on Sundays. So I decided to pick a venue with an impressive view, something to fall back on in case the food isn’t up to scratch. Sky on 57 at Marina Bay Sands seemed like a good bet. 

Justin Quek is known for combining traditional Singaporean dishes with French touches; fusion cuisine is a risky territory. Interestingly the menu didn’t seem too whacky, most dishes appeared more Western with gentle Asian influence. 

Organic Egg slow-cooked, sautéed Iberico Pork Belly, braised leek, potato espuma, truffle butter
The glowing yolk spurted onto the blanket of dense potato foam when we pierced through the soft-boiled egg; everything tastes better with a bit of runny yolk. The pork belly was beautifully cooked to utmost tenderness as the thin band of lard melted in mouth; the smokiness and the soft, succulent leeks was excellent with the smooth potato cream. Delicious start.

JQ’s Signature Foie Gras Xiao Long Bao

One of the best things about xiao long bao is bursting the sac of flavoursome broth in mouth; this satisfying explosion was missing from these fusion creations. Instead there was a gush of distinctive liver richness from the foie gras cream, followed by ripples of truffle aroma as the black truffle consommé leaked from the little pouch of goodness. They reminded me of ravioli but replaced the eggy pasta with a more fragile shell. The flavours were structured and balanced, I really enjoyed them.

Maori Lakes Lamb Rack pan roasted, five spices marinated, chickpea stew, tamarind jus
The lamb was simply excellent. The meat was perfectly roasted to marshmallow softness, paired with a sweet, fragrant tamarind sauce for some Asian flare. I wasn’t a fan of the chickpea stew though, the tumeric and cumin were too bold and overpowering. 

Australian 120 Day Grain Fed Striploin pan roasted, glazed with yuzu pepper mustard, sautéed seasonal greens, sauce Americaine
The beef was less impressive in contrast to the flawlessly executed lamb. Slightly overcooked for the medium-rare requested, the striploin was 
quite coarse and it had lost its softness. The bovine flavour tasted diluted; perhaps once you have gone dry-aged, you can’t go back. The toasted rice was also an unnecessary distraction that had drowned out the subtle glaze. The shellfish essence in sauce Americaine made up much of the flavours; Chef was heavy handed with the cayenne pepper though, giving it a sharp bite. 

Paris-Brest Hazelnut cream, chocolate disc, lulo sorbet
This Paris Brest has nothing on the one from Patisseries des Reves. The choux pastry was quite hard and dry, it resembled stale puff pastry. But the generous hazelnut cream made up for the shortcomings, it was thick, buttery rich and packed with nutty aroma. Not bad.

Reconstructed Black Forest fluffy chocolate sponge, griottines, dark chocolate mousse, vanilla mascarpone cream, kirsch jelly, cherry sorbet
The description on the menu was very comprehensive, and so Papa Chan was expecting lots of things on his plate. Well.
I only stole the kirsch jelly and it was strong.

Homemade Patisseries Selection: Green tea and red bean swiss roll, peanut butter bomb and triple chocolate opera slice
The peanut butter bomb was particularly delicious, like a posh Reese.

Sky on 57 was a pleasant surprise; the food measured up. I enjoyed the fusion elements to the recipes, and despite some dishes could do with minor tweaking, I felt the eastern touches blended in well with western ingredients. Most importantly, Mama Chan enjoyed it. 

Level 57, Sands SkyPark, Tower 1
Marina Bay Sands
10 Bayfront Avenue
Singapore 018956
Tel: +65 6688 8857

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Sunday, 8 May 2016

Have A Zeed by Steak Lao, Bangkok

We spent a few hours in Terminal 21 in Asok before flying home. The shopping mall houses an array of boutiques as well as local brands, spread across multiple levels, each themed with an iconic city.

Among the 3 other Thai eateries on 4th floor in Terminal 21 shopping mall, Have a Zeed looked the fanciest and was most strategically placed next to the escalators, hence the only restaurant with a small queue. Drawn to the fake chandeliers and sheep effect, Papa Chan picked this one, despite the warning signs of too many tourists frantically scrolling their phones to max out on free wifi.

Mama and Papa Chan had a banana smoothie and coconut smoothie, which were both excellent with small bits of fruits for chew. The iced thai milk tea was served in a carafe with ice made out of thai milk tea, so that the ice doesn’t dilute the flavours as it melts. It’s very thoughtful, except I would have liked some normal ice to water down the sweetness...

Papaya Salad with Grilled Pork Neck
We couldn’t get enough of papaya salad. This time we mixed it up a bit and had grilled pork neck served on the side. The salad itself can’t go wrong with the trusted combination of fish sauce, lime juice, and a restrained sprinkle of chillies, all pounded together with crushed peanuts and dried shrimp. The pork was passable; springy with a tiny bit of juices from melted lard, but the exterior was dry, especially the pieces at the end. It could do with more seasonal too.

Spicy Glass Noodle Salad with Shrimp and Minced Pork
This was a warm vermicelli salad. Again, the spiciness was very toned down, the sauce was refreshingly zesty and meaty.

Deep Fried Shrimp Cake
These were delicious. The shrimps were beaten to a springy paste, each bite was full of bounce with a brittle breadcrumb shell. The honey dip on the side had a touch of citrus, and clung well onto the crispy balls without making them soggy.

Beef Massaman Curry with Sticky Rice
This was a very sweet curry, unlike all other curry dishes we’d had. It could do with more spice and herbs since these were masked by sweetness. The hunk of beef was probably chuck; it was slow-cooked to tenderness as it was reduced to shreds when pressed with the spoon. The shreds held the thick curry sauce well, but it lacked the melt-in-mouth texture because it was very lean. It was okay, but I have had better.

Traditional Shrimp Paste Fried Rice
This was uninteresting; I was hoping for strong punches of fermented shrimp aroma, but the pungency was very mild, I barely detected a faint trace. More importantly, I’m not sure if it still qualifies to be a fried rice when each ingredient is served separately on a plate; say when egg fried rice is served with eggs on the side, isn’t it just rice and egg…  I’d go as far as calling this mixed rice - leaving this open for discussion.

In short, it’s not the most authentic or exciting meal, but none of the dishes were offensive. Given the choice again, I would definitely head one level up to the mini Fisherman Wharf food court, where the som tum was twice the size, double the flavour and half the price; fried rice and noodles were freshly prepared with everything cooked and mixed together, served piping hot; plus perhaps another 20 stalls that serve straight forward and authentic Thai dishes.

Terminal 21
4/F, Sukhumvit 19
Sukhumvit Road

Bangkok

Monday, 2 May 2016

Blackbox Cafe & Bar, Bangkok

The variety of food on offer in Bangkok is mind-blowing. To mix things up a bit, we went to Blackbox Cafe for some western style breakfast. There is an abundance of cafes and restaurants along Soi Sukhumvit 55 that boasts great reviews, but I quite liked Blackbox when I came here a few months back.

Mama Chan had an invigorating Lychee Mojito and I went for a Lady Lychee that combined the syrupy lychee with lemongrass essence. Papa Chan enjoyed his Singha beer served in a chilled glass, too. The menu has changed slightly since my last visit; there is more flexibility on the Thai menu while the western cafe grub was more or less the same.

Duck & Waffle
Mama Chan was hoping something similar to what she had at the 40th floor of Heron Tower in London. Sadly not. The waffle was weak - soggy, pale and undercooked with a doughy centre; duck leg confit was bland and its deep-fried skin had lost its crispiness; the custardy goodness of the egg was lost from overcooking; the odd salad leaves scattered around the waffle was purposeless. The only redemption was the wholegrain mustard syrup that had the right balance of sweet and savoury – we asked for a refill.

There was no chemistry on the plate. It’s not duck & waffle as we know it.

Benedict with Smoked Salmon and Grilled Tomato
The eggs benedict wasn’t served on toasted muffins, or even on the toast, instead they sat on the smoked salmon parcels. So the toasts served on the side were left dry as opposed to soaking up the hollandaise sauce and the runny egg yolk. It was still delicious, just somewhat fiddly to eat.

Grandmom’s Phad Thai
Papa Chan was more keen on the Thai items on the menu. The stir-fried rice noodle was good, flavoursome with plenty of tamarind aroma and fresh, bouncy prawns. That said, it was a very ‘clean’ phad thai, nothing like hot and dirty ones  on the streets, which were so much better. Papa Chan was also slightly baffled by the sprigs of spring onions sticking out of the noodles.

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Last November, I thought the food was good and the ambience was chilled, not to mention reliable wifi. We chose a couple of dishes from the Thai menu, washed down with an iced milk tea and a mango smoothie.

Pad Tom Yum Haeng 

The tom yum broth had a pleasing tartness from the lime juice, and I was happy with the mild spiciness. They have definitely toned it down for foreigners. The prawns were plump and bouncy, as were the noodles, which had a good bite to them.

Pad Krapow seafood
There was a lot of seafood on the plate, deep-fried then stir-fried with plenty of Thai basils and garlic. I genuinely can’t remember what this was like, must have been good though.

There are plenty of cafés serving western brunches that are incredibly good value. Considering an eggs royale would set me back S$20 in Singapore, or at least a tenner in London, these are coming in at half price. The same goes to all the waffles and cakes and desserts… I suppose the only catch is that I’m forgoing an authentic Thai meal for something I could get back home...

888 / 8-9 Ploenchit Road
Pathumwan District 10330
Bangkok
Tel: +66 2 651 5188