Our Dinner at Ajikitcho – a Michelin-Starred Traditional Kaiseki Dinner

It was a very special experience for me, and I count myself very lucky to have the opportunity to dine here with my sweet wife Svyen and friend Linying, under a media invite arranged by Justin Onishi of My Concierge Japan, which is a free service that helps visitors to Japan make reservations for Michelin starred and other premium Japanese restaurants.

A beautiful blend of greenery into the Japanese teahouse architecture

The moment I stepped into the restaurant, I was transported into a Japanese garden, away from the busyness of the Osaka streets into this Japanese teahouse with lots of natural greenery integrated within. There was harmony, both in the interior architecture, as well as within me.

Our private room is beyond this shoji door

Beyond this Shoji doors is our private room large enough to seat 10 of us, complete with Japanese paintings and flowers that reflect the current season – the onset of Autumn.

We took the Wakana menu at 9504JPY/pax (approximately S$120) including tax and service charge. I’ll now show you what are each of the 8 courses included in our meal.

First Course: the Japanese waitress pouring warm sake to go with our fish

A traditional kaiseki course typically begins with this “sakizuke”, which is an appetizer served with sake. Pictured is our waitress pouring warm sake to go along with kamasu (barracuda).

A closer look at the kamasu

The kamasu had a heavenly smokiness to it. It was only lightly seasoned with some zest, so the emphasis is on the natural taste of the fish.

Second course: Soup appetizer

The second course is a light refreshing soup that has a delicate sweetness to it. What I loved most was that white irregular ball, which is a prawn and fish paste cake, served with egg and spaghetti squash vegetable. I finished every drop because it’s such a delicate soup.

Course 3: Sashimi

Our third course is sashimi, which had tai (sea bream), ika (squid) and two types of tuna – chutoro and otoro. It met my expectations when it comes to the texture and taste.

Course 4: Seasonal plate of September

The next course got us all excited. The waitress walked in with a plate with 4 bunnies, 4 cages, and 4 tall standing plants, one for each of us there.

Course 4: Uni in the bunny!

And I found uni in that bunny. This was their seasonal plate for September, which contained the freshest ingredients they could get according to the seasons. This had a combination of both raw and grilled fish with green ginko nuts.

Course 5: Grilled dish

Our fifth course was grilled Japanese Spanish mackerel. It was fully cooked with a light miso glaze, and we were fighting over that tempura corn. Somehow Japanese produce have that natural sweetness to it and needed little additional seasoning.

Course 6: Boiled dish

Our sixth course was a boiled dish consisting of pumpkin, spinach, and fried tofu that has an interesting texture and taste on its exterior. It’s already near to the end of our meal, yet we felt clean and there was no signs of guilt.

Course 7: Rice with seasonal vegetables

The last course just before dessert was rice that was served in a large pot that had been sealed while it was served. The waitress opened the pot and the fragrance due to the combination of vegetables used here filled the air. Taste wise, it’s reminiscent of the Singapore Hokkien “giam peng” due to the vegetables used, except with a strong taste of ginger. Definitely tasty, yet healthy.

Course 8: Sorbet and fresh fruits

Our meal ended with a ume sorbet with fresh fruits consisting of pear and grapes. We were supposed to have pear jelly as our dessert that evening, but it was out of stock. Nevertheless, we still enjoyed these fruits as they had that characteristic Japanese/Hokkaido quality to it.

The public dining area

Overall, the meal was simple and traditional. There wasn’t any course that was particularly mind blowing, and nothing that I’ve not tried before in Singapore or in other parts of Japan. The ingredients used in our courses wasn’t exactly very premium or rare, but they excel in its freshness and presentation.

I could be expecting more since this is a Michelin star restaurant, or I believe that the more ultimate gastronomic experience are available in the more expensive menus here.

Nevertheless, the meal we had could best be described as “simple things done right”.

The walkway outside our private room

As a kaiseki restaurant, the complete experience is as important as the food. Indeed, everything else – including cutlery, presentation, ambience, interior deco, and most importantly service – is designed to make the guest feel special and at ease. And a one-Michelin-starred restaurant like this means that everything has to be tuned up a notch higher.

We hope to be back to try the other branch of Ajikitcho – Horie – which is awarded 2 michelin stars. And we’ll see what’s the difference between these two branches. And we thank Justin Onishi of My Concierge Japan and Bunichiro Nakatani-san of Ajikitcho for hosting us that evening.

Valentine’s Day Omakase Dinner at Izy

Who posts about Valentine’s Day more than 3 months after it’s over? Opps… It’s been so long since I wrote on my blog, while on the other hand I’ve been faithfully posting a photo a day, together with lengthy captions (which some said were essays) on my Instagram account @i_post_for_love.
 
Well back to this. I get this many times – “Why celebrate Valentine’s Day? Everyday should be Valentine’s Day. Why be a carrot and subject yourself to be fleeced by all those greedy merchants on 14 Feb?”  I’m aware… But as I said last year, and during Valentine’s Day this year, and I’ll say it again and again – Everyday, I love my wife. But on Valentine’s Day, I celebrate my love for her.
 

 
And some said, couldn’t you have celebrated without overspending? Agree.. We could do a simple celebration by cooking together at home, then do a little candlelight at the comfort of our home. But that’s also the reason we chose Izy, because on typical days, omakase costs $120++ per person. But on Valentine’s Day, for a reason I do not know, it is $200++ for  two person, and it includes 4 cocktails and wine per person. Same number of courses, and menu seems to be on par. These are the courses:
 

First course of the omakase – pumpkin tofu, ajitama egg with caviar, ikura gunkan, crab croquette.


 

Second course – sashimi


 
Second course of the omakase is botan ebi, hokkaido scallops and uni in kome su dressing. This trio of sashimi is fresh and the prawns are big. It goes well with the dressing for a little bit of added zest 🙂
 
 

3rd course – Tako


 
This 3rd course of the omakase looks like a splatter of black mess but it’s actually charcoal grilled octopus in creamy squid ink miso bechamel, topped with some Iberico ham. I was surprised by the smokiness of the tako.
 
 

4th course – barramundi that was josper grilled, with celeriac mousse and monte teriyaki sauce.


 
Barramundi isn’t one of my favorite fish, but we are surprised we still like this. The charcoal is evident from the smokiness of the skin. I’ve heard about Josper grill as an expensive chef’s instrument, which is an oven and a grill in a single machine. I think it costs S$30,000?
 
 

5th course – truffle wagyu don


 
The 5th course of the omakase – wagyu don with shaved truffles. This is a full portion that would cost S$40++ to S$45++ if ordered ala carte.
 
Aromatic truffles! Despite all the fanciful dishes before this, when I asked my wife which is her favourite course, she said this is it, even though it’s not her first time having it here. And even though there seems to be much less truffles that evening.
 
Pictured in the background is a bowl of miso soup. We think it’s aged red miso, so we both like the complexity of what could have been a common miso soup.
 
Having tried a few wagyu don, we were discussing which is our favourite. We can’t decide whether it’s this or Fat Cow’s. This is better for its truffles, while Fat Cow is better for its beef. Tough choice, so I get to rotate between these two places regularly whenever I need my wagyu don fix.
 
 

And for the dessert of this omakase, it’s raspberry parfait with wakayama umeshu jelly.


 

 
These glasses of champagne and cocktails came with our omakase dinner that evening. The champagne for pre-dinner; a clear sweet cocktail to be paired with the 3rd course, squid ink miso tako; the red cocktail came with the truffle wagyu don, and the minty dessert cocktail came after our raspberry parfait.
 
I had to drink 8 glasses since my wife was the assigned driver for that evening 🙂
 
Overall, service was superb. Waiters were attentive but not intrusive, and manager was personable. Quiet ambience with a romantic candlelight, classy yet cosy environment. $200++ for the meal above for two person during Valentine’s Day, I think it’s a steal. Looking forward to exploring more yummy meals together!

Three things I love about the new 9.7″ iPad Pro. In Rose Gold.

Today’s the day – the first day that the 9.7″ iPad Pro will ship to those who ordered early. I bought one and received it today, and I absolutely love it.

I’ve used the iPad 2, iPad Mini, Samsung Note 10.1 (2014 Edition), Samsung Note Pro 12.2″, iPad Air 1, iPad Air 2, and now iPad Pro 9.7″. I like Apple’s clean interface, but missed the S Pen from Samsung. So this iPad Pro was the deal for me.

I’ve been waiting for a smaller iPad Pro since they first announced the iPad Pro 12.9″. I followed rumours for the possibility of a smaller iPad Pro, counted down to the Apple 21 March 2016 event, waited for the day to order one on 24 March 2016, and finally for its arrival on 31 March 16. Today’s the day at last, and I took half day leave to spend some time with it.
 

the new iPad Pro 9.7″ in Rose Gold

 

These are my three main reasons why I like the iPad Pro 9.7″ over the other tablets that I’ve used.

1. Apple Pencil – I can practise my calligraphy, at last 

I first picked up calligraphy at a Carousell event. I totally love it, but I am not gifted nor talented in it. I need practice. Unfortunately, I’ve never brought myself to seriously write and I’m on the verge of forgetting how to. The Apple Pencil allows me to do so on the iPad Pro. To buy an iPad for calligraphy would be frivolous. But I love the Apple Pencil in ways more than calligraphy.

If you think you don’t need an Apple Pencil, then you can seriously consider the iPad Air 2 especially since there is a price drop. It now starts from S$568 (WiFi 16GB), and you save nearly half the price of, or nearly $500 from, the lowest spec iPad Pro 9.7″ S$1046 (S$898 for iPad Pro 9.7″ 32GB WiFi + S$148 for Apple Pencil). I had considered, is writing on a iPad really worth the S$500? But being a techie, I decided to give it a try, and I’m glad I did.

2. The Quad Speakers – even conversations in YouTube sound great

I invest in earphones and headphones. I’m not an audiophile but I appreciate good sound quality. During my first hour with the iPad Pro, I was searching YouTube for reviews on iPad Pro cases, and gosh I was impressed by the deep bass in those speakers. There’s depth in the sounds. You don’t need HD audio files for it to be perceptible, because even YouTube videos sounded great.

The next thing I did was to sync all my 6000 high quality audio files (converted from my own CDs, or bought on Apple iTunes Store) into my 128GB iPad Pro. I hope I have enough storage for everything else I might do on my iPad!

3. It’s available in Rose Gold – and the men can have it 

I’ve wanted to get the iPhone 6S Plus in Rose Gold. My first choice would have been the sleek space grey, but I wanted a refreshment since my iPhone 6 Plus was already space grey. My second choice is actually the Rose Gold.. I won’t say it’s my favourite colour amongst the line up, but it’s a colour I wanted to explore, to see if I could carry it off. However, under the advice of my wife, eventually I didn’t get the Rose Gold iPhone. Nevertheless, I got her the iPhone 6S in Rose Gold, while I went for yellow gold 6S Plus.

Now, this iPad is available in Rose Gold, and exclusively on the iPad Pro 9.7″. Since I won’t be carrying this iPad out, and never for work, surely I can keep it this dainty Pink Gold at home for our own admiration?

And looking at the photo above, it’s gorgeous isn’t it? The other iPads don’t get it, but the men (and women, too) certainly can.

Cloud Dome in the Evening

It’s Christmas season. I visited Gardens by the Bay solely for the Christmas theme at the Flower Dome.

I didn’t think I would be going to the Cloud Forest again, but when I peered through the entrance and saw the gorgeous waterfall under evening lighting, I went in!

I wished I’ve a tripod but I don’t. Nevertheless, I tried shooting this using a shutter speed of 1/2.5 by free hand, as though I was shooting a rifle. I pulled the camera close to my body, held my breath, pressed the shutter button as gently as I could, held the button there till the shot is completed, and breathed again.. I could say this shot literally my breath away.

I think this waterfall is even more beautiful at night. Breathtaking.

  

Gardens by the Bay – Christmas 2015

What could be a better time than this month to visit Gardens by the Bay? It’s Christmas, and the whole Gardens is lighted up by the joy and spirit of celebration.

As Singapore celebrates our 50th birthday, all seniors receive free entry to the Gardens. So I find that it’s a good opportunity to bring our elderly parents and grandparents and enjoy some family time together.

I did that, not that I only bring my parents and parents in laws out only when I didn’t have to pay for them. It’s also much easier to convince them to visit a place they would have wanted to go if they knew it would cost us money. You know how frugal they can get.

Turns out, it seems to be them accompanying me instead, while I made several stops taking pictures of stuffs, many of which appear insignificant.. Like this red ball on a Christmas tree:

 

Who comes to the Gardens to take pictures of a ball that could be seen on just any other Christmas tree?


  
  
The entire Gardens is beautifully lighted up at night, but it’s also rather crowded on a Saturday evening, as you can see here:

  
It would be a lovely place for kids, there’s many life size toys on display.

  

And I spotted this lovely flower, which looks Christmassy.. In our national colour of red & white!

  

These bears reminds me of the Forever Friends..

  
  

And there’s still the resident exhibit from Bruno Catalano, “finding the missing pieces”. He created a series of bronze sculptures with bodies missing, signifying the emotional loss when migrants leave their country. If only I could take this photo from afar to show the missing pieces. It’s a a creative and meaningful piece of art!

  
 
And the signature display here.. You won’t miss this tower taking centre stage at the Gardens.

 

I always enjoy visiting the Gardens, maybe cos it’s air-conditioned place? I thought it’s also a good time to take advantage of the SG50 benefit for elders. But you may need to strategise your visiting hours so as not to clash with the peak hours crowd, it took me 45 mins waiting in line to get into the carpark.

Dinner at Taian, 太庵, Three Michelin Star restaurant in Osaka

It was a homely gastronomic experience at this 3-Michelin star restaurant, Taian, helmed by Chef Hitoshi Takahata.

  

What struck me was how humble this place this. There is no need for posh and overstated luxury – what welcomes you in instead the homeliness of this place and the humility of the chef and his wife.

 

We took the 8 course kaiseki dinner without a written menu, so each course was a surprise. 

We can only anticipate the next course by peering over to watch the chef creates his next dish. It was exciting.. 

  

To say the truth, i didn’t know what I was eating.. because the waitress was explaining each dish to me in Japanese, which I didn’t understand.

    

But I remember how I ate them. I took the cue from a gentlemen next to me who was hosted by two other gentlemen flanking him on his left and right. In this casual jacket, he would first smell the food, put it into his mouth, close his eyes and chew….and after he swallows, he opens his eyes again.

I did exactly that. I guess you could be forgiven since you’re dining at a restaurant known for its culinary standards.
 

For the main course, you have a choice. I was told that the spare ribs was their specialty. And there are rave reviews for their chicken. But I also see wagyu beef on the menu.. So how do I decide on two main courses for me and my wife? 

I took the spare ribs..

  
  

… And we actually chose this chicken over the wagyu beef!

Now the grill is where Taian truly earns its stars. I don’t know how he did it, but the smokiness of the meat, but how tender it is.. is amazing. I wished I had taken notes when I had this meal 5 months ago so I could describe to you how it was, and as a reminder to myself this perfection of grill..

Now most of what i recall from the taste was that the chicken was light, the skin was crisp and smoky, but it was so tender and juicy.

Did I regret choosing this simple chicken over the wagyu beef? Not at all.. It was an eye (or rather, palate) opener on how the chef could perfect a simple dish..

  
  
  
 
  

At the end of the meal, we were so comfortable and satisfied. It was such a cosy place that we felt like we were dining at the home of the chef and his wife. It was 30,888 JPY for two of us.

  

Posing with the cute Michelin! We asked to see it and the wife kindly brought it out for us.
  

What struck me was what happened after I paid the bill. Chef Hitoshi Takahata came out from his counter and walked me to the door, and thanked me for my visit.

At the door, I asked for a photo, which they happily obliged too.

As we walked away, he and his wife stood there by the door and watched us walked away until we were out of sight! We turned around many times to see if they were still there, and each time we see them still looking at us as we walked away. We then decided to allow them to return to the restaurant earlier, by making an early turn at an alley so that we could be out of their sight.

What a humble three star chef!

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

I first saw this bamboo grove in pictures, and I was in sublime awe. It looks like one of those “places I have to visit before I die”. I had seen pics of alps, and I’ve been up there on a few of those alps, so I know that the feeling of being in it can be totally out of this world. So.. we navigated our way to this Arashimaya bamboo forest.

We didn’t have our GPS, so it’s was a step of faith to try to get there using only physical maps. But it’s actually very easy. We alighted at Saga Arashimaya station along JR Sagano Line, and simply follow the signs that points you to the bamboo forest. Nothing else is necessary. 
 
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 It’s a quaint town, as we followed the signs for the bamboo grove.


Houses are cute and small, and together with these bonsai looking trees, you feel right within the set of a traditional Japanese movie.

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We reached the bamboo grove within 15 minutes. Despite it being summer, it was a very pleasant walk.

 

Close your eyes.. Listen to the rustling of the bamboo leaves. But, you’ll also hear the sounds of tourists.

Look up, and see the lights filtering through the leaves. Dancing lights as the trees sway in the gentle wind.

But not for long, you may block other tourists, and even cars drive through so you should be on the lookout.

  
  
This is one of my favourite sights. Maple shaped leaves in the sun, though these has nothing to do with bamboo.   

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After a walk to the end of the bamboo trail, we turned back and headed to where we began.

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And there are several souvenir shops near the forest.

Like everywhere in Japan, they sell dainty, exquisite little things. But like every tourist gift shops, they sell expensive little things.

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Does the Arashimaya Bamboo Forest look as good as the pictures I saw? Yes, maybe even better with my own eyes. I see dancing lights, swaying trees.

Does it feel out of this world like when I was on the alps? It would have been, if there were less people. If the wind and rustling leaves is all I hear. If I could take the time to feel the place without having to keep a look out for cars and people.

It’s a beautiful place, but only if I knew of this place earlier.

Five course menu @ Elemen

It’s my third visit to Elemen, 元素. I love it but I am having a really hard time recommending anyone here since most of my friends are meat lovers and heavy eaters. They could not believe that a vegetarian meal could taste this good.
 

Elemen at Thomson Plaza

I first tasted Elemen at Millennia Walk, which serves the 5 course menu at $23.80++ and 8 course menu at $32.80++. The additional 3 courses in the 8 course menu are rosemary breadsticks, apple cider choice of both soup and salad instead of soup or salad.

After my first visit there, I knew I wanted to bring Svyen there. Millennia only serves the 5 course menu during weekdays lunch, and you need to pay for the $32.80++ menu on weekday evenings and weekends. Thomson Plaza has the 5 course menu on weekends too so there we went 🙂

The elemen appetiser


 
 
The first course is a trio of appetiser. There’s no description of this in the menu, so let me try my best to describe them accurately. From the left to the right: mashed green beans wrapped with cucumber in teriyaki sauce, seaweed tofu in sesame dressing, and lastly cherry tomato in sweet plum juice.

During each of my three visits at both outlets, Elemen has never failed to properly introduce us their recommended way of eating this, that is, from left to right. That to me is important, I’m not someone who could take a warm dish, skip to a cold dish, take desserts, then bounce back to the main course. I try start my meals light.

Indeed, the taste gets progressively stronger as you move from the mashed green beans, to the sesame tofu, and finally to the sweet cherry tomatoes.

Mushroom salad

For the soup/salad, Svyen opted for the mushroom salad. These mushrooms aren’t uncommon, but they’re very juicy and refreshing. My favourite mushroom here would be the oyster mushrooms, the one with the large stems. It is the juiciest amongst the three types of mushrooms, and does well as a vessel for the light sauces.

Main course : avocado rolls

For the main course, Svyen opted for the avocado rolls. Did I mention that she’s a Japanese food lover, and Japan is her favourite destination?

Besides the avocado rolls, they also offer 11 other main courses, from wholesome Chinese suitable for old folks, to Japanese rolls, and Italian pizza and risotto. See their full menu here.

Special mention to the mushroom risotto with black truffle, which I had the previous round (not pictured). If you’re not expecting traditional Italian risotto which is made from medium or short grain (typically starchy) rice coated in creamy stock, you may like Elemen’s variation. I love it. It uses various variety of brown rice in relatively clearer stock. However, being clearer doesn’t mean it is necessarily lighter in flavor compared to its Italian counterpart, as it is full of truffle aroma.

 

Chocolate lava cake

This is her dessert, which sparked a discussion on how chocolate lava cake are to be baked. They aren’t undercooked chocolate, although it is a shortcut to baking it. A chocolate ganache has to be prepared separately, put into the fridge, and to be pushed into the center the chocolate cake batter before baking the entire cake.

Notice the drink, which is part of the 5 course menu. You could select between the slightly sweetened ice lychee green tea, passion fruit tea, lemongrass tea, grapefruit mojito, or hot floral teas and sea salt coffee.

Chilled coconut puree


 
 
This is my dessert, when I could finally have the full portion. I once went with a colleague who doesn’t like sweet stuffs and said would pass me his dessert. I helped him order what I wanted, which is the coconut puree. When it was served, I asked that he gave it try it before passing it to me. And he finished 3/4 of the bowl..

The puree with strands of real coconut, balanced by those jellies, icy cold.. A sweet ending indeed 🙂

So would we visit again? I would, if I can convince the meat lovers that vegetarian food can be really tasty too. And I’m also struggling to convince another group that thinks vegetarian food is unhealthy due to the use of mock meat and gluten. If I could convince anyone, there would be a 4th visit and I’m definitely looking forward to it.

Elemen is one of those few places that serve healthy food, tasty food, at reasonable prices, with nice ambience. It is a guilt-free experience on many dimensions.

[Caveats: I’m not a food blogger. I’m not paid to write. I pay for my meals, and this meal. I can cook some dishes but I am not a Michelin star chef. I have strong opinions on what’s a good meal and what’s not, but I appreciate any meal as long as the chef puts his/her heart into it.]

Exploring the Swiss Alps: Matterhorn

You would have seen the iconic Swiss alps on some chocolates: Toblerone and Lindt. I’ve not given much thought about these until I was working at Basel, Switzerland, during one of my business trip in 2013.

If you know me you would know I totally hate to be posted to Basel for a work trip. I love the place, but since my work spans from Monday to Friday, it means that I’ll have to spend the weekend prior on the plane, and the weekend after on the plane, and be separated from my wife for a full week, who would spend two weekends without me. And after a torturous 12 hour flight back to Singapore, I would arrive at Sunday 6am severely jet lagged and worned out, sleep in for the whole day, suffer from insomnia, and face the imminent dreadful Monday and a full work week ahead of me.

But to make the best out of a bleak business trip, I would go a day earlier and do something either tourists or locals would do. One precious day that would hopefully make up for all the inconveniences of an overseas business trip.

There’ll be some trips where I would be completely knocked out in the hotel room, but this day in Nov 2013 happened to a fruitful day. I spoke with a local who recommended that I drop by a town called Zermatt to see the Matterhorn. And that’s when I received the revelation that the Toberone and Lindt alps exist somewhere on the globe, 12 hours away by plane from Singapore.

The helpful local helped me find the shortest route to Zermatt. And help me calculate the cost: S$400 for the return journey, 3.5 hours by train from Basel, and another 3.5 hours back. Gosh! I hesitated but was assured that it would be worth the journey.

 And so off I went. Just myself, on the train, indulging in my own thoughts in serenity.

A scenic train ride to Zermatt

It was a beautiful train from Basel to Zermatt. I was in a dilemma, should I unplug from my devices and immerse myself in the view outside the window, or give my wife a live update of what I was seeing? You would know what I did eventually.

I reached Zermatt, and discovered that it’s a quiet and peaceful town where no cars are allowed.

The serene town of Zermatt

The easy way up the mountain is by cable car, scenic ride up definitely!

The icon standing on the left

Wow. The skies are clear, and Matterhorn is clearly visible on a cloudless day. Now I must caveat that what the local told me “It’s definitely worth the journey” is not necessarily true. You need to ensure that you’re there on a cloudless day. A Singaporean tour guide specialising in Europe tours told me I was really lucky. He had brought groups to Zermatt for a whole week, waited daily for beautiful skies to see Matterhorn but still ccouldn’t catch such a view.

A few ways to ensure the best view of the Swiss alps: you can check online for webcams showing the view from the alps.. If it’s all covered in fog, do not visit! If no such webcams are available, you may check the weather forecast to see if it’ll be cloudy or clear. Clouds in the skies are fog on the alps.

   

I spent two hours on top of the alps. In those two hours, I sat, watched, thought, breathed, listened and felt. I wanted to believe that there’s so many wonderful negative ions high up this mountain that would be so beneficial to my health and well-being.

  

I walked around a little, in my business leather shoes that’s totally not suited for the snow as it was so slippery. It was an impromptu trip after all. I slipped a few times actually. But I slipped happily. Snow got into my lens. Snow turned to water and seeped into my camera. But I was happy.
 

On the way down, I saw this sight. I love this view but my camera was not in a good condition to take a nice picture of this. At this moment, I simultaneously saw the Matterhorn, the little Swiss huts, the autumn trees, and the sun flares that reminded me that Hope in this world.

I told this story to a few friends. I was at a restaurant after I came down from the alps. I asked about something on the menu, the waiter said something, I ordered something and the waiter did something. I smiled. When the food was served, I smiled to the waiter too. Halfway through my meal, it dawned upon me that the waiter was so rude. But there was not a strand of anger in me. Even after I realised that, I was still totally at peace and was soaked with happy thoughts.

This must be due to all the negative ions 🙂

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

We were supposed to fly back from Osaka to Singapore on a Sunday. So on Friday evening, we were in a dilemma.. should we revisit the Nara Park which we  really love, or go to Universal Studios Japan, but just for the Harry Potter Land because Svyen is a fan of Harry Potter?

And here we were 🙂
 
 

The entrance walkway to Hogsmeade

 
 

Indeed the Harry Potter World feels like a whole new world separate from the rest of the Universal Studios. Before you reach Hogsmeade with its cobblestone roads and snow capped houses, you first walk through a long path lined by trees on both sides. 

It’s pretty exhilarating walking along this path, as you’re immersed in the world of Harry Potter with the theme song playing in the background. You’ll no longer recall you had visited the other worlds in Universal Studios.
 
 

Snow capped houses in the World of Harry Potter

 

I need to describe the timed entry system to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. You need to scan your Universal Studios ticket at this particular booth for a ticket that tells you the time window you may enter the Harry Potter World. Meanwhile you’ll have to visit the other attractions in Universal Studios first. Each ticket may only redeem the timed ticket once, so do not forget to enter when the time comes! I was amazed by the popularity resulting in the need for this system to even enter the Harry Potter World. But the good news is, once you enter you may stay for as long as you wish.

  

Where will this lead to?

  
 
 

Performances by the students of Hogwarts

 

And of course.. You’ll be excited to head straight to Hogwarts which is seen towering above all other buildings.
 

You can definitely see Hogwarts castle, but in case you can’t recognize it..

  
 
 

 

So that’s where all the magic begins!

 
 
Ran over to the Hogwarts, but was greeted by this sign that says..
 

We are tall enough to enter, but….

  
 

The major mistake we made: not buying the express pass. We knew we needed it, but it was already sold out a week before when we arrived at our hotel. The helpful concierge at Marriott Miyako navigated through the website in Japanese (apparently you can’t buy the express pass if you chose to view the website in English), made several calls to Universal Studios throughout the week, but were still unable to get us a ticket.

So do we queue for 4 hours or give this a miss? I heard the ride is amazing. Maybe next time if I visit again!

Fortunately, as a consolation to the rest of us, we could do a castle walk within Hogwarts without queuing. So you still get to see the beautiful interior, complete with holographic projections of Harry Potter and his friends.
 
 

Meet Harry Potter and his friends

 
 

It’s a cool castle, do go in!

  

This would be the place to go when you’re hungry. But there’s also a long queue to get in!
 
 

When you’re hungry..


 
 
And oh wow, we saw a real owl! How realistic is the experience.

  

Spotted a real owl!

  
 
 
We’ve also been to the Disney Sea in Tokyo, and we’ve seen how the Japanese immerse themselves into the fantasy world. You’ll see many dressed up in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. They sell the costumes at the shops here too so you could decide to dress up at the spur of the moment. 
 

Cool!

 
 

We could stay as long as we wish in this world. But there’ll still be a time to come back to the world where mortals take the subway and go to work.

 

Till next time

 
 
If you wish to visit, remember to get your timed ticket, remember to enter during the time stated on the ticket, and book the express pass in advance if you wish to take the ride.

I can imagine the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to be even more immersive during winter, where the temperature feels right in place with the snow caps. Enjoy!

Matsusaka Beef – Better than Kobe Beef?

If you ask me what I love most about travelling, it has to be getting in touch with nature, and exploring the food culture in the place I visit.
 
Svyen knows I would be happy if we could have some great meals during our trip to Osaka, so she did some research before we came. One of which is M Yakiniku, which is known for their Matsusaka Beef.
 
 

Hidden amongst the alleys

 
 
It’s definitely not easy finding the restaurant, even with a Google map plus a physical map with arrows and circles painstakingly drawn by a helpful staff from the hotel concierge.
 
And, there is another M restaurant nearby, so we actually navigated to the other one before trekking through to M Yakiniku successfully.
 
 

So here it is!


 
 
I did my own research on Matsusaka beef before the meal as well, to better appreciate the dinner. From what I read, Matsusaka is the top three beef in Japan, along with Kobe beef and Konezawa beef. And of the three, Matsusaka commands the highest premium. So it’s more expensive than Kobe! And I thought Kobe is the best?

So I got to know that Kobe is well known internationally but Matsusaka is preferred by gourmets within Japan. In fact they do not export much (or at all?) Matsusaka outside Japan.

How about the stories about Japanese cows drinking beer and being massaged? Turns out Matsusaka cows indeed do undergo such treatment. They are fed beer to stimulate their appetites, massaged to increase blood circulation, and played soft music to calm them.

Ok, Matsusaka isn’t local to Osaka, it’s imported from within Japan but I might not get a chance to go to wherever this Matsusaka place is, so it could be now or never.
 
 

Matsusaka beef sushi


 
  

We opted for a S$200 menu, which comprises of some light appetisers, grilled marbled beef sushi, grilled Matsusaka medium Toro kalbi short rib and Matsusaka kalbi don with wasabi sauce. And of course, the star of the menu which is Matsusaka beef from 4 “scarcity” (I suppose it means rare) parts. There are two cheaper set, the key difference is the parts of the Matsusaka beef. The medium priced (about 25% cheaper) one consists of mainly “marbled”, the lower priced one (about 50% cheaper) consists of “lean” parts, while I ordered the one with mainly “scarcity” parts.

 

Matsusaka medium Toro kalbi short rib


 
 
This is the kalbi short ribs, but it’s covered with scallions so you can’t see it. 

 

Grilling the kalbi

 
 
 

The Matsusaka don in wasabi sauce


 
 
This don tastes great! The rice was plump and moist, and goes very well with the wasabi sauce. The beef in this bowl is tougher than what we’ll be getting as part of the 4 premium beef for Yakiniku, but still very tasty. The waiter actually walked over to remind us not to eat too much otherwise we would be too full for the main course, which is Yakiniku beef later. Lol. 

  

The 4 scarcity parts of Matsusaka beef


 

And so, here it is. The four parts – Haneshita rosu, Kyukyoku no sankakubara, Maboroshi no misuji, and “big sirloin steak”.
  
 

Melting beef oil into the fire


  

They don’t use butter to coat the pan, they use lard from the beef.

And, you won’t see any pictures of the main Yakiniku meal cos we were just focused on savoring the beef. I was so focused on getting it cooked to just nicely sear the outside without over cooking the meat, which would have been a grave injustice to the cow farmers who took so much pride in rearing the best cows.

We like the exterior to be grilled slightly charred for that smoky flavour. It’s slightly tricky as you may risk over cooking the inside. I find the magic number to be 30 to 40 seconds per slice of meat (which means 15 – 20 seconds on each side) under high fire (using the beef lard to fire it up) so that the exterior gets smoky fast without cooking the inside. But most importantly, it should be medium rare inside. 
  

yuzu ice cream


 
 
The meal ended with yuzu ice cream.
 
 

Happy man. Thanks wifey for recommending this!


 
 
Matsusaka beef is wagyu beef. Kobe beef is also wagyu beef. What about all the wagyu beef I had in Singapore? I realised I do not actually know what I had been eating, they could have been more specific.

Between Kobe beef and Matsusaka beef, Matsusaka has that advantage of a deep taste of beef despite being fatty and well marbled. I prefer the taste of Matsusaka, but still love grilled Kobe very much. Give me either and I’ll still be really happy.

S$200 is not  cheap, but if I’m in Japan again, I would still seek this out for another meal of Matsusaka, perhaps shabu shabu the next time.

Day trip to Nara Park from Osaka

We were at Osaka for 8 days. We are animal lovers so Nara Park is definitely a place we need to go 🙂

It’s easy to get to Nara from Osaka, we took a train and arrived in less than an hour?

When we were reached Nara Park which is said to be home to more than a thousand Nara deers, it was indeed a sight to behold! These deers roam freely. We felt that we are one with nature, and these deers are one of us.

 

At Nara, deers get active when you have food

 
Most of them are tame, but they become very active if you’re holding deer food! Strangely, they will never bug the deer food sellers (some kind of biscuits).

This one’s handsome

This is Svyen’s favourite deer. He’s very tame, gentle and handsome. She used this deer as her profile pic and she’s still using it even though I’ve nicer photos of her 🙂

Some are lovely.

And we saw them lovingly taking care of each other.

Young, gentle deer with a sense of majestic calm

This deer is young and gentle. But yet he feels majestic and calm at the same time. 

I would like to think of him as the village chief

Some deers are sleepy, as such this older deer here. I can imagine him to be one of the seniors here.

Jumana @ Banyan Tree Ungasan, Bali

I planned for her birthday dinner at Merah Putih, a modern restaurant serving local Indonesian food. But for our anniversary dinner two days after, we opted for French, at Jumana which was located at where we were staying at.
 
At the entrance, a sign that declares Jumana to be one of Indonesians best restaurant. Looks promising.
 

 
Jumana is not the cheapest place to eat in Bali, but the ambience is great. It’s located within Banyan Tree, and is perched on a cliff overlooking the endless Indian Ocean. I came early to enjoy the sunset, alfresco, before moving indoors when it was dark.
 

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High ceilings with a view of the Indian Ocean


 
 
A service provided by the restaurant before we start our meals.
 

 
 
We opted for the 6 course degustation menu, which was around S$125 per person.
 

 
 

amuse bouche – breaded escargot


 
 
Appetiser was light and refreshing. Tasty with a tinge of subtle floral scent.
 

Scallop cannelloni, with squid in apple sauce


 
 
One of my favourite dishes of a degustation would be the various forms of soup reduced to a tiny intense shooter glass. Same for this lobster capuccino, caffeine free intense lobster bisque to awaken your senses.
 

Lobster capuccino with milk froth and rouille crouton


 
 
For my main, I opted for the angus beef while Svyen opted for cod fish.
 

Angus beef tenderloin with potato mousseline, teppanyaki vegetables, truffle cream and citrus reduction


 
 
Miso cod, just as she likes her dishes to incorporate Japanese elements. It’s her favourite holiday destination after all.
 

Miso cod and grilled prawn with succotash, spinach pocket, eringi mushroom and nasturtium.


 
 
It was rather fun when the server came with pepper for our main courses!
 

Pepper?


 
 
Cheeses before dessert.
 

tomme de savie with fig chutney, blueberry compote and almond nougat


 
 
The dinner ended with a valrhona chocolate cake for dessert.
 

Valrhona grand cru soft chocolate cake with almond croustillant, fleur de sel and raspberry sorbet


 
 
And petite fours that came with our coffee.
 

Petite fours


 
 
It’s a pretty place for dinner, definitely. It’s rather romantic to sit by the ocean during sunset, but as it gets dark, it might be a good idea to shift indoors. As much as I like to go for local food when I’m overseas, this is a quiet and romantic place for a special occasion.

Triple Celebration: Banyan Tree Ungasan @ Bali

Svyen and I are connected by something rather special – our birthdays are on consecutive days. Feels almost like we are born for each other? 🙂
So, our birthdays are on 4 & 5 September.

Complimentary birthday cake from Banyan Tree

All these years we had tried to celebrate our birthdays together on one trip, but we have never been successful because one of us would have work or reservist commitments.
We didn’t get to celebrate our birthdays last year too, but for a happy reason – we were so busy preparing for our wedding on 6 September.

Our Wedding at Maldives, Angsana Velavaru.

So that would mean, every year on 456 September, it’s our triple celebration! We weren’t consciously planning to have our wedding on 6 September. We picked a month that was near enough, so that we get married sooner than later, and far enough to have sufficient time planning for it. Turns out it’s either September or October. And when we were at this hotel picking a Saturday (like most wedding banquets are held on), we were given the option of either 6 September or 20 September. Yes, turns out 6 September that year happens to be a Saturday! We jumped in to book that date naturally. 

This year, for the first time, we are able to celebrate our birthdays together, and our first year anniversary as well.

We booked an Ocean View Villa at Banyan Tree Ungasan at Bali. Simply gorgeous.

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Entering the 403sqm villa.

 

The living and dining area


  

The bathroom is huge

   

The oversized bathtub

  

  
  

This sets the mood right – different scent on different days

  

And this private pool is definitely the highlight of the Ocean View Villa. Banyan Tree Ungasan is perched on the southern tip of Bali, so what you get is the view of the endless Indian Ocean.

There was also a jacuzzi at the other end of the pool (not pictured), and that’s where we like to soak ourselves in, especially cos it’s heated.

Awesome infinity pool

  

The infinity pool that overlooks the Indian Ocean

  

 

We went for a 90 min spa. We have tried the spa at Angsana Velavaru @ Maldives last year, and just like how the Banyan Tree group is consistent in their standards, the massage here was just so relaxing. Service was top notch.

   
   

We went for a devastation dinner at  Jumana, which is perched by the cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean (will probably blog about the dinner separately).

  

High ceiling, and commands a view of the ocean

 

And when we return to our rooms.. There was a surprise waiting for us. Just in case anyone other than Svyen is reading this and intend to book Banyan Tree Ungasan, I shall not spoil it for you, or set your expectations too high. Let it be our secret 🙂

On the last  morning, I caught the sunrise over the Indian Ocean. I didn’t had to set the alarm, I was gently woken by the sound of the waves as I didn’t close my doors properly. Thankful for thus awesome view of sunrise, before I tucked back to bed. And when I showed Svyen the photos when she woke up, naturally she wished she saw it too (I was in a dilemma whether to wake her up for it).

Sunrise over the Indian Ocean at Banyan Tree Ungasan

We don’t always have the chance to celebrate our birthdays and anniversary 3 nights in a row. But we certainly hope we can do so every year 🙂

Our love for Prawn Mee – Hoe Nam, Wah Kee, Whitley Road

We’ve always been a fan of prawn noodles. In fact it was always the top few local food we missed the most whenever we were overseas. It wasn’t my top few favourites, until I knew her and we started exploring the island to search for our favourite prawn noodles. It all began with Ah Hwee at Mackenzie Road.. at a time when I haven’t bought a car, when I would take public transport on a 1.5 hour journey from my home in the Northe ast to her home in the West, followed by a $20 cab to Mackenzie for their prawn mee. All that trouble, though we enjoyed it. But one day, it closed down…

By now, we’ve been to many of the well-known and little-known prawn noodles around the island. One day by chance, we saw the same Ah Hwee prawn noodles by the same gentleman. We were estatic! Sadly, there used to be three of them, now there’s only one. I’ve no idea what happened to the other two gentlemen though. We ordered our favourite combo of their noodles with 粉肠, and we think it tasted the same as before. But having tried many other great prawn noodles around the island,  it was no longer magical… but I’ll always cherish those times when we braved the distance and hot sun just for prawn noodles.. those were our shared memories.

Fast forward to today, we went to Hoe Nam (River South) Prawn Noodles at 31 Tai Thong Crescent. This isn’t our first visit here, we were here on Labour Day last Thursday in the afternoon at 12pm. You can’t miss this place when you turn into Tai Thong Crescent, since they occupy the entire coffee shop prominently at this corner… but parking was horrendous. Even all the illegal parking spots along double yellow lines were taken. I quietly decided that I should come at an off peak hour if I were to come again. Thankfully, it was easy to find a table to share with other patrons, strategically in front of the stall where I could conveniently take a photo of the stall from my seat.

There were 5 ingredients you can have with your noodles: prawns, pork ribs, pig intestines, razor clams, pigs tail. Prices also vary according to the size of the prawns you choose. I ordered the $10 bowl with large prawns and pork ribs, while she ordered the $8 bowl with prawns only. We opted for “river prawns” which were available that day. As usual, I had the soupy version with yellow noodles with bee hoon, while she chose to have bee hoon dry, with soup on the side.

I like the sweetness of the soup, derived from both the prawns and pork ribs. It wasn’t umani enough for my taste buds, but I could appreciate the authenticity of the soup. In fact it’s good enough for me to want to come again despite the terrible parking here. The ‘river prawns’ were slightly too tough, but reasonably large. I thought they could do with less boiling, so that the prawns could be more tender. For large, tender, fresh prawns, my benchmark is Wah Kee at Cambridge Food Centre. For the dry version, Svyen prefers Whitley Prawn Noodles at Old Airport Road. I took a spoonful and personally think the dry version is exciting for its vinegar and oil, but I can’t gauge based on bee hoon dry.. since it can’t absorb the chilli and vinegar and everything nice about dry noodles, and for this especially more so because it uses thicker bee hoon.

Good, but not great enough. I could forgive the prawns but I felt that the soup could have been more robust. I decided to go again on an evening.. thinking that if the prawns and pork have been simmered since the morning, the soup must been really intense? And that’s what I did this evening, at 8pm. I ordered a $12 version which included the intestines.

I was half right. The soup was really more intense in the evening.. but it wasn’t because of longer hours of boiling the soup. The stall was operated by a different team in the evening, this time by a duo of gentlemen. And it wasn’t at the same location.. they’re now operating at the stall next to the one in the morning, although it’s still under Hoe Nam within the same coffee shop. I guess this is for operational reasons.

You could probably guess from the dark red soup you see from the photo above, that the soup is indeed more shiok this evening! I showed the photo to my mum, to seek her opinion on how could it be that dark and red? She thinks the darkness of the soup is due to soy sauce, and the redness is due to long hours of boiling prawn heads. However, the prawns were disappointing.. they were tiny, overcooked, tough. I had expected it from my first visit here, but it was worse tonight, probably because it wasn’t “river prawns”?

We love it.. the 粉肠 is reminiscent of Ah Hwee, but the soup is more flavourful, more authentic. Some prawn noodles rely on copious amount of msg to compensate for the robustness of the soup, but not this.. they still add msg, and more so in the evening version, but it didn’t define the taste. It’s definitely one of our favourites when it comes to the soup. 

The prawns is nowhere in the league of Wah Kee, but the soup is closer to the typical prawn noodles soup that we are all used to. In fact it felt like the one I had at Naked Finn, except with more daring application of seasonings.
And the bonus? The sign says, “No outside food”. But they never stopped anyone from packing ngoh hiang guan qiang from the Lao Zhong Zhong opposite and eating it there. Lao Zhong Zhong used to be at MacPherson hawker, which was torn down, and it is still my favourite ngoh hiang guan qiang. The drinks stall also serves iced milk tea which is rather milky, it’s like my de facto “teh ping kay c”, except that I didn’t have to tell them to “kay c”.

We now have our three favourite prawn noodles, and this is one of them.

Sushi Omakase @ Hakumai

  

Last night i had a conversation with my wife on how great cuisines from different cultures tasted like. For some, there’ll be an instant excitement on the very first bite that gratified your taste buds – those that relies on intense flavours. For the Japanese, it’s quite the opposite. Texture is important so the flavours tend to be more subtle. I would describe a great Japanese meal as “quietly mindblowing”.

 

We had one of these quietly mindblowing sushi at the Tsukiji Market at Tokyo. We concluded then that there’s no way we can have sushi of this standard in Singapore, since it relied on serving the freshest fish possible from the market right next door. But it was pretty sad cos how often can you fly to Japan for the sushi at the Tsukiji Market?

  

One day, I was introduced to Hakumai by a colleague I hit off with during a bank inspection. For the sushi Omakase here, you eat the sushi successively made by the chef until you asked him to stop. At the end of the meal, how much you eat determines how much you’ll pay.

  
  

The first sushi to start the Omakase course was fatty tuna.. Yes, perfect texture! Love the oil, and creaminess that was brought out since the chef torched the tuna slightly.

    

  

   

  

This is the flounder fin sushi. I had no idea this existed until today. Slightly charred on the surface by a flaming torch, but still full of the fatty goodness.

  
  

You would have recognised this as the salmon belly.

  

Hotate with mentaiko.

  

  Creamy uni!

  

  Wagyu beef sushi.

    Goose liver on ebi.

  
  Chef Gary knew that I loved the aburi flounder fin, and he made one more, this time fresh without the torch.

  A large clam.

  

I like aburi sushi. Not that I prefer that over the fresh ones, but I think the torch does help to bring out the smokiness out of fish, and i think it works exceptionally well for the fatty ones.

It’s not cheap, but great value for such top quality sushi. Now I know where to get our Tsukiji market fix in Singapore.

   

In many of my travels, I tell the locals that Singapore serves a huge range of Singaporean/Malaysian specific food, but we also excel in diverse International cuisine. The sushi Omakase at Hakumai is another of such example.

 
Quietly mindblowing.

Maria Sharapova’s Last Match @ WTA Finals Singapore

Thanks to a friend for giving us a pair of tickets to the WTA Finals @ Singapore Indoor Stadium!

I’ve heard a lot about Maria Sharapova, and when we found out that she’s playing on the evening that we’ll be watching, we got excited.

 

Those determination in her grunts.

  
and her beautiful poise.

  
And it turns out, this is her last match in Singapore as she lost to Petra Kvitova from Czechoslovakia.

  
 
Till next year!

Thanks to my friend for the tickets, and for those Moët and Chandon champagne during the game.

Joe & Dough @ Kallang Leisure Park

Svyen and I was just looking for a place to lounge around while waiting for the Women’s Tennis to start, and here we are.

  

I was first introduced to Joe & Dough when I was attending a course at Bloomberg. Heard that it was started by a Singaporean who made waves in Australia for their coffee. He then returned to Singapore to start Joe & Dough (True? Correct me if I’m wrong).

Their signature coffee is d.r. Joe 1914, it’s a very, very smooth version of cappuccino.

gula melaka pandan cake

This is the Gula Melaka Pandan Cake. It’s soft and warm (they heated it before serving it to you), with shreds of coconut for added texture! It can be a little more moist. Otherwise you’ll like the crisp of the top later.

I support local business and flavours. Will drop by an outlet again if I pass by.

Why I’ll write about what I love

More than a year ago, I held a small bouquet of flowers, stood outside the door, and waited for approval to enter the house. It was the gate crashing ceremony on my wedding day.

  

She asked me to write 10 promises. One of which I said, “I’ll blog because you’re my biggest fan”.

I can tell her stories of my day, my past, or what I think about the future. But when my stories were done for the day while she still desire for more, she would visit my dormant blog to read about my life and thoughts in the past.

Since 5 years ago, she has urged me to start writing again, but I didn’t.

A year passed since I made that promise on our wedding day. And I didn’t.

Today isn’t any special date. But I hope it’ll be the day I’ll start writing for her.

Because she’s my biggest fan.

Views from My Room…

… During different times.

2nd September, Sunset

Sunset on 2nd September7th September, Day

View on a Sunday afternoon25th September, Night

25th September, Night18th October, Night, Moon.

18 October, Night
29 October, Fall
29 October, Fall

29th October, Fall
29 October, Fall

31st October, Fall

31st October 200831st October 20085th November 2008, Cloudy

5th November 20089th November 2008, Sun about to set at 4pm

See the moon?It is 3:35pm when I took this photo. The length of the shadows of the building shows how low is the sun.. and look at the moon at the upper right corner.. Yu Qian wrote: “下午四点,月亮与太阳同在”.

Burning building?Is building looks like it’s burning. Or is the window’s reflection of the sunset?

11pm. Dark.It’s 5:11pm. It’s already dark.

12th November 2008, Clear

12th November 200812th November 2008Very nice weather.. clear blue sky, makes the river blue too.

Night scene. Beautiful.Very beautiful night scene taken at 8:48pm.

I’ll constantly update this to see how it looks like during Winter, Spring and Summer.