Our Last Couple of Days in Hanoi

Up early to hit the road to Trang An! Our guide showed up in a super-deluxe luxury van, since we’d originally scheduled a tour for three people – but Mom was still battling her stomach ailment, so it was just Ak and me.

The ride out was fine – I think we both dozed – and a couple of hours later we arrived at Trang An. The pictures I’d seen were lovely and it was quite a pretty spot, with lush green hills surrounding the lakes and grottoes. Our guide led us down to the small paddle boats and I made a major error. He asked if we minded sharing our boat – and I responded “Sure, that’s fine!” But it really wasn’t – not least because we’d already shelled out a good chunk of change for this excursion, which to me means we shouldn’t have even been asked to share a boat frankly. Of course, I should’ve just said no, but it was too late for that.

So, Ak and I squeezed into the second row behind an older Vietnamese couple, who were there with their adult children, son-in-law and little toddler grandbaby who were all on the boat in front of us. There was a lot of shouting back and forth between the boats, presumably encouraging granddaughter to do something adorable – but it wore thin.

The other thing that wore thing was the boat ride itself. Sure, the scenery is lovely and paddling through the low-ceilinged caves was pretty cool – the first couple of times. But the boat ride goes on for a solid two hours. It was really hot out, the views all start to look the same, the bench we were sitting on was really uncomfortable, especially since we had to sit far forward so the lady paddling our boat wouldn’t yell at us again. I’d read some of the write-ups on Trang An and many of them mentioned that the boat ladies were a pretty surly bunch – and this proved to be pretty accurate. Granted, I’d be hard-pressed to object to their surliness – I’d be the same way if I were paddling a bunch of fat-assed tourists everyday – but I will say that it didn’t really enhance the experience.

After the ride was finally over, it was time for lunch nearby. It was a buffet-style deal catering to busloads of tourists. The food was mediocre at best. It was a real disappointment, especially given how delicious Vietnamese food is. Afterwards, though, while we were waiting to get going again, Ak and I happened upon a local fellow shepherding his herd of goats down the hill and across the road. They were noisy and hilarious.

Back into the van to visit Bái Đính Temple. It was fine. The grounds were pretty and there were some impressive statues and carvings. Overall though? This was not my favorite day trip. It was a long way to go to visit sights I didn’t find all that interesting. Ak and I agreed we’d’ve been happier spending the day exploring more of Hanoi. Oh, well, guess we’ll have to go back then!

At the hotel, Mom was much improved but decided to stay in while Ak and I had dinner at a place called Home. He’d been the one to find it before our trip and it looked nice – and it was! Located in a charming old house behind a large iron gate, it’s a lovely little oasis in the midst of the intensity of Hanoi.

We were seated in the cozy back room. It was an intimate setting and nice view of the patio outside. Refreshing cocktails started things off and our apps were really tasty – bún chả and fresh rolls – while our main course was OK. Honestly, I probably should’ve ordered something different.

The service was a bit unpolished, though it was so genuinely friendly and accommodating, it’s hard to really find fault with it. I’d say this if our meal had just wrapped up ordinarily – but it didn’t. When I’d reserved our table before my trip, I mentioned that the dinner was to celebrate Ak’s birthday (which was actually a couple of weeks prior), hoping they’d put a candle in his dessert or something.

Anyway, as we were waiting for dessert menus, several of the staff members came into the room with a birthday cake, singing “Happy Birthday.” I wasn’t actually sure what was happening and assumed one of the other patrons had ordered a cake. WELL. This was for Ak! I think he was a little embarrassed by the attention (though I think he liked it a bit too!), but it was such a wonderful and unexpected treat. The other diners all joined in singing and there was a great round of applause when Ak blew out the candle. It was really just delightful and an extraordinary surprise for both of us – not least because Ak had mentioned when we chatted on his birthday that he’d never had an actual cake on his birthday! A great big thank you to everyone at Home for making this night so special.

We adjourned to the terrace for a couple of after dinner drinks (and maybe a bit more cake) to enjoy the warm evening, then headed off in search of Unicorn Pub, recommended by Tu, our guide from Sunday’s food tour. Found the place with no problem. Didn’t seem particularly fancy or anything – but the cocktail menu was pretty interesting.

Ak got a pho cocktail – IKR? – while I ordered one that included chili and fish sauce – IKR? Honestly, this could’ve gone either way – I was a little worried that the drinks would be gimmicky and weird. Instead, they were amazing! Ak’s even got set on fire and poured through some kind of triple-decker contraption on the bar. And it tasted like boozy pho – in a totally yummy way, with hints of star anise, cinnamon, coriander and other spices. Mine was tart and citrusy with a kick from the chilis and a nice roundness, thanks to the umami from the fish sauce.

Someone (I think a staff member or their significant other) came in with a baby, who was adorable. Ak and I were waving and making faces – but I think being faced with two tipsy bearded tourists was a bit much, since his initial expression of concern slowly morphed into terror and tears. Sorry, kid! Just trying to be nice – but I know we’re kinda crazy looking.

Woke up Tuesday morning and Mom had recovered from her bout with some type of food-borne illness. It was good to see her back up and about. She was still taking things easy, so she stayed behind while Ak and I headed out in search of the chicken wings our food tour guide had told us about. We actually found the place, but it was closed. Curses!

We wandered the streets for a bit – Hanoi is an amazing place to do exactly that, with gorgeous old buildings, shops and stalls selling everything from banh mi to stuffed animals, some teeming and noisy while little alleys are quiet and shadowy. It’s an amazing city.

We eventually made our way to Phở10, an apparently rather famous place for (what else?) phở. Yes, there was a line, but it moved quickly. And the phở? It was pretty darn good.

Back to the hotel, gathered our belongings – and Mom! – and headed to the airport for the short flight to Bangkok. Happily, I’d had a few thousand old British Airways points lying about (as one does) and booked all three of us in business class on Qatar Airways – and it was pretty deluxe! The flight attendants were especially nice – a short flight like this doesn’t usually include the fancy amenity kit, but when I asked for one for Ak, they were happy to provide it. Honestly, the one disappointing thing about the flight was how short it was – but I still managed to quaff my share of champagne.

Soon enough, Mom and I were ensconced in Le Meridien Patpong. I’ve gotten to stay at a handful of really nice hotels in my visits to Bangkok. Le Meridien is not the fanciest – though it’s extraordinarily comfortable and well-located. What makes this my first choice for hotels in Bangkok is the service – not just top-notch, but delivered with with both authenticity and discretion, along with a genuine focus on making their guest feel at home.

And so, the next chapter begins! I was very excited to show my mom around this city that I fell in love with so quickly on my first visit just a year ago.

Last Days in BKK

A quick taxi ride from DMK airport and I arrived at my home for my last few days in Bangkok, the Hansar. WELL. This place is pretty deluxe! A spacious and lovely suite and a huge bathroom and dressing area. I could get used to this…

Anyway, had a low-key evening and then was up at a reasonable hour on Sunday and headed out for lunch at May Kaidee, reputed to be one of BKK’s best vegetarian restaurants. Now, I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “Why on earth would you go to a vegetarian place when there are hundreds of places serving up delicious meat, fish and seafood mere steps from your hotel?” Well, in one of those “small world” type deals, my friend and former colleague Amanda and her b.f. just happened to be in BKK at the same as I was. They are in the middle of a rather long trip that started in South America and then brought them to Australia and parts of Asia. Oh, and she and her b.f. are both vegetarian, hence my magnanimous gesture in foregoing meat for a single meal during my visit to Thailand.

And the food was quite tasty! Plus it was really fun to catch up and hear about their adventures thus far. Ak and I gave them the 4-1-1 on our trip to Siem Reap, which was their next stop (our recommendation of Chanrey Tree was a big success, according to Amanda’s email a few days later). I had such an enjoyable time that I neglected to get out my phone for even one group selfie. Christ, what an asshole!

Back to the Hansar for some r&r by the pool, then out to dinner at what was listed on my itinerary as “Ak’s secret” – meaning Ak had chosen where we were eating and it was a surprise. It was a place called Hot Rod and they specialized in “Asian tapas” – which sounds a little suspect, but we were sitting at the bar and got to see all of our food (and cocktails, obv) prepared to order. Everything was pretty delicious, especially the grilled beef – not to mention my “Panda & Buffalo” cocktail. We had a great time here.

Next stop was J.boroski Mixology. Yeah, I know, it already sounds kind of insufferable – and I’ll cop to it being a bit precious. It’s located at the end of a non-descript alley in Thonglor. There’s no sign out front, though there is a discreet door guy who’ll let you know you’re in the right place. Inside it’s small and very dark (TBH, a bit too dark – but what’re you gonna do?). Ak and I were shown to a couple of seats in back and the fellow taking orders explained how things work: we tell him what kind of spirit we like, along with some ingredients or flavor profiles and he’ll tell the bartender who’ll create something for us. I mentioned gin and watermelon… Like I said, a bit presh – but you know what? The cocktails were fantastic and delicious. And the speakeasy vibe was pretty cool too – we def felt like we were someplace special, only open to those in the know. I really loved this place!

Then on to Sing Sing, voted one of BKK’s best bars. It’s done up in 1930s Shanghai-style glam and the photos I’d seen looked amazing. The reality was a bit different. It was pretty cool looking inside, but the music was lousy and painfully loud. And the few patrons there during my visit were all kinda bro types – I found the atmosphere rather uninviting. With that being said, our cocktail waitress was very nice – though the cocktails themselves were disappointing. All in all, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that I much preferred the low-key vibe of J.boroski to the OTT atmosphere of Sing Sing.

Back in Silom, we stopped in Soi 4  for another couple of drinks (because why not?) and then found ourselves feeling a bit peckish ‘round about midnight, as one does. Luckily, there was a Japanese place around the corner where we had ramen and gyoza before calling it a night.

Monday we planned to visit one of the residences of the royal family, the Queen Savang Vadhana Museum. It is only open for visits by the public during certain times of the year and I was lucky enough to be in Bangkok during that time. Conveniently located right next to Siam Paragon, we showed up there before lunch and we’re promptly told we needed to call to book an appointment in order to visit. Once again, I was very fortunate to have Ak with me – he got on the phone and was able to make arrangements for us to visit that afternoon.

So,  Ak and I headed off in search of a shop that sold home fragrance, only to discover that its location had been demolished. Happily, though, we were just a short walk from Terminal 21, one of BKK’s many cool malls, this one with each floor representing a different city. My favorite was “London,” filled with small shops selling mostly local designs. I was even able to find a couple of t-shirts that I was able to squeeze my lumpy farang body into!

Back to the Sra Prathum Palace at the appointed hour and had a very enjoyable visit. It’s a lovely place, a large and lovely house on 17 acres in the heart of Bangkok. It’s quite astonishing to walk through the beautiful and quiet grounds and realize you’re barely a stone’s throw from the teeming throngs at Siam Paragon and its surroundings.

No cameras allowed, which is always a nice respite and a chance to really take in one’s surroundings. The tour guide was Thai (duh, obviously) and her discussion of the grounds and palace were in Thai (again, duh). But in typically gracious fashion, a separate guide was assigned to me, the lone farang, to provide me a tour in English.

The museum portion was very interesting. I spent quite a great deal of time in front of the royal family tree, trying to figure out how successions had worked. I was relieved to be advised that even Thai people find it very confusing.

The palace itself is a grand old place. It’s large of course, but not overwhelmingly so. It feels quite homey – and I can understand why Queen Savang Vadhana spent such a large portion of her life living in this lovely place.

After a quick visit to Siam Paragon (because of course), we headed back to the Hansar – but with a stop first at the St. Regis for an afternoon cocktail. They have a great bar/lounge up on the 7th floor and I was dying to try the Siam Mary, a Bloody Mary re-interpreted with Thai flavorings like lemongrass. It did it’s job and revived me sufficiently to decide on where to have dinner.

After a bit of downtime, we returned to Suppaniga Eating Room – and since we were in the neighborhood, we also popped back in for a round of drinks at the bar at The House on Sathorn. This time we sat at the bar and got to chat up the bartenders while they made our drinks. I tried some kind of fancy margarita, which was very good – though not nearly as good as The Garden I’d had last time. Luckily, we had time for a second round, so….

Dinner at Suppaniga was great. Food was again excellent (esp sai oua and grilled pork!) and I think we had a better table. Mango sticky rice for dessert…

Tuesday was my last full day in Bangkok! Needless to say, this meant starting the day off with my favorite bhang mee moo dang hang – bbq pork with noodles (with extra pork, DUH). I miss all of the food in Thailand, but this really was my favorite breakfast and I can’t wait to have it again.

Next stop: the National Museum! Sadly, we did not check the hours and discovered they are closed both Mondays and Tuesdays. UGH. Well, what’re you gonna do? In our case, we decided to have a snack and then cross the river to visit Wat Arun.

I’d been through here once before while on a bike tour, but it was in the evening. I was happy to see it again in daylight. We had a nice wander around and then decided to explore one of the little alleys adjacent to the temple. WELL. This was a wise decision, since the alley was filled with friendly cats and both Ak and I got our fill of “aww-ing” and petting all these adorable little felines

Headed back to Wat Pho so we could have the extreme stress of finding the museum closed worked out by their fine massage therapists. Then a tasty lunch across the street at Inn A Day, a place I’d eaten at on my last visit. I was quite pleased and relieved when Ak pronounced the food delicious and sufficiently authentic.

Now, my sense of direction is still rather challenged in Bangkok – I definitely don’t have a good feel for where things are in relationship to one another. But I had a sense that we were not too terribly far from Nuttaporn ice cream. OK, it wasn’t exactly right around the corner but we walked off our lunch to revisit this amazing little shop. I’d wanted to try the Thai tea flavor and we also wanted to taste the coconut cream (a slightly different version of the regular coconut ice cream we had last time). They were both pretty tasty! But neither of them compared to the mango and coffee flavors we’d had last visit – so, this being my last day and all, time for a second dessert. Ak had the extremely smart idea to get sticky rice on our mango ice cream. SO GOOD!

Later that evening, we headed up to the rooftop of the Centara Grand Hotel. We’d wanted to get here for sunset, but after such an exhausting day, that proved to be a little ambitious to fit in after a nap. But it was a great view from up there – and Ak is always a font of information, pointing out buildings and sights, as well as making recommendations about what part of town I should live in, just in case I decide to abandon the US.

Dinner that night at Bo.lan, one of the many places I’d wanted to try on my previous visit but ran out of time. I must confess, I was slightly hesitant – only because the other two restaurants we’d tried from the “Best in Asia” list were both among the more disappointing meals of the trip. But what the hell? We gave it a try.

And it was great! The place itself is absolutely charming. Located at the end of a little alley, it feels like one is entering an old style Thai home, though with modern furnishings. Service was lovely and friendly. Even before the first bite, I was loving this place.

The dinner options are two tasting menus – one large and one small. We chose the smaller, because we are fucking dainty. And we loved it. Now, I must confess, I’m writing this update more than two months after the fact, so the specifics of what we had escape me. Plus  Ak and I enjoyed our evening so much, I wasn’t exactly in reporter mode. But it was great fun and a fine way to wind up my visit to Bangkok.

On the way out we chatted briefly with Chef Bo. She’s something of a celebrity in Thailand, so Ak was a bit starstruck. But she very kind and we both told her what an excellent meal we’d had.

Back to the Hansar to finish packing. Then to sleep – though only for a bit. I left for Suvarnabhumi Airport at 5:30AM for an 8:00AM flight home. As always, sad to be leaving Bangkok and saying goodbye to my friend Ak. Happily, though, I’ll be back in again in October!

Eating in Tel Aviv

My main impression of eating in Tel Aviv was that it reminded me a bit of SF – young chefs using fresh, local ingredients to drive what’s on their menus.  Frankly, though, what was on the menus in TA seemed more interesting and varied than what I see in SF – and I think there was less focus on interpreting a specific type of cuisine than there was on coming up with the tastiest dishes with the ingredients that were in-season. I ate remarkably well in Tel Aviv and at very reasonable prices – though again, coming from SF means “reasonable” can be in the eye of the beholder. I typically paid US$60-80 for dinner that included several glasses of wine (and usually made up about half the total bill).

Suzanna

This place was recommended by my gay, Jewish podiatrist. I had a lovely walk from my place at the northern end of Rothschild Blvd and was lucky enough to get the last two top out on the large patio in front of the place. Started off with labane and bread, followed up by some serviceable chicken skewers and rice. The food was good – perhaps not spectacular, but good – though it hardly mattered. Sitting out under the trees and stars on my first night in Tel Aviv, the weather balmy (a welcome change from the cold nights in Istanbul), the waiters so easy on the eyes – it was a marvelous way to spend my first evening in Israel.

Tzfon Abraxas

This was not my destination for the evening – I actually had a reservation at Mizlala, but Google Maps gave the wrong address. And I got lost on the way to the wrong address – so when I did finally find the place and it was an abandoned storefront, I was not enjoying myself to say the least.

But as I found my way back, I checked my list of restos I’d researched and realized I’d be passing right by Tzfon Abraxas. And lucky for me, they were able to squeeze me into the cozy (okay, maybe cramped) u-shaped counter. The menu was a bit hard to navigate for a single diner – most dishes are meant to be shared, so the server helped me figure out what to order that wouldn’t be a ridiculous amount of food for dainty me.

I didn’t take copious notes (I was still a little rattled from not showing up for my reservation at the other place). I started off with some simply sautéed beans – they were like tender skinned snap peas. With that, I also ordered onion bread – which was literally that: a piece of bread grilled with half an onion. This was followed up by a burger – came with pickles, cheese and juice-soaked bun. It was messy and darn good.

Oh, and they eschew plates here. Butcher paper is in front of every diner and food is served out of large bowls or on cardboard. Yeah, it sounds weird, but they make it work.  That atmosphere is super-lively. The counter is adjacent to the large, open kitchen so there’s plenty to watch. And there were lots of extras. At one point, everyone at the bar was served a shot of whiskey or vodka and we all “L’chaim”-d. Then one of the servers did something involving the setting on fire of sage and alcohol at the counter – it smelled great. Plus, I think the best thing I ate was the tomato bread. One of the chef’s came out from the kitchen with a giant, shallow plan filled with bread, tomatoes and herbs that had been crusted up under the fire. Everyone was invited to grab a handful as he went around the counter. Simple and delicious.

By the time I left, the bad start to the evening was long-forgotten, as I was happily full and satisfied – and maybe just a bit tipsy (it was that shot of vodka!).

On my way home, I actually stumbled across my original destination, Mizlala – I had been within 50 meters of the place earlier! Anyway, I stopped in and apologized for not showing up. The hostess was as nice as could be and booked me a seat for the following evening.

Mizlala

This was probably my “fanciest” meal in Tel Aviv – though don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t hoity-toity or anything. In fact, I quite liked the set up. A large counter on one side, the kitchen at the back and a smaller room of tables on the left. But the menu was a bit more sophisticated in its offerings than some other places.

When I arrived at 830, the place was very quiet – there were maybe four or five other folks at the counter which I think seats 25-30. So, I was just a tad irked that I was specifically shown to the very last seat on the end in front, i.e. the Mary Ann Singleton seat. Well, at least there wasn’t a spotlight trained on me…

Started off with a really good rosé and a calamari dish served with cauliflower, chickpeas, onion, okra and a tangy-yet-sweet sheep’s milk labane. It was great (though I did make a note that I thought the amount of squid in the dish seemed just a tad stingy – my other note was “Every male member of the staff is hot. Per usual”).

For my main, I had veal loin, which was grilled with onions and served in a date sauce with cilantro and tortellini filled with I-don’t-what – though my notes say they were filled with magic. It reminded me of butternut squash texturally, but was a bit sweeter I thought. And the veal was sublime – tender and a marvelous foil for the date sauce. Really, really good. I think my only quibble was the candied walnuts in the dish – it may have been gilding the lily.

For dessert: Indian fig panna cotta, fresh fig, pistachio, Indian halva, tapioca, chai ice cream and date cookie. It was definitely trying too hard. The tapioca was good, but there were just too many ingredients fighting for attention – and the spiral date cookies were too doughy.

Kimmel

Had a simple and tasty meal out on their patio – which may not have been the best choice, given it’s on a busy intersection. Salad to start, followed by a surprisingly simple and beefy sirloin steak.

Ha’Basta

A tiny place next to the Shuk Carmel with a small counter inside and some more tables out front. I inadvertently chose the best seat in the house, since I had a great view into the kitchen and watched the chef cooking things up on a stove that appeared to be about as small as the one in my tiny kitchen at home.

Started off with a traditional bread salad – tangy, savory, fresh and perfect on a warm Tel Aviv night.

Had a difficult time choosing a main – was tempted by the pasta with meatballs – but went with the crab served with cheese in puff pastry per the server’s recommendation. Oh boy – it was good. Very rich, but the serving size wasn’t too much and the crab was excellent. I made fast work of it.

Besides keeping my wine glass filled, shots were proffered (this is a custom in Tel Aviv restaurants that I both heartily endorse and am very leery of…) and consumed. I chatted up the other couple at the counter, NYers who spend a lot of time in Israel. They got the meatballs and sang their praises – they also insisted I try some of the excellent red wine they were drinking. So, in other words, I had rather a lot to drink. So, when it came time for dessert, I think the couple offered to share their warm chocolate budino with me – though it’s certainly possible that I was like, “OH, HEY! I’ll take some of that!” I guess we’ll never know…  But it was a simple and well-executed chocolate dessert – which I appreciate, since there’s really no need to get fancy with chocolate.

Café 48

I’d spied this place across from Mizlala and liked the looks of it – plus I’d highjacked onto their wifi whilst at Mizlala and I love me some free wifi.

Well, this turned out to be a great choice. I took a seat at the bar and the lady at the bar, after pouring me some wine and giving me the menu, described the entire specials board to me (it was written in Hebrew, obv) and made several recommendations.

Started off with a Thai salad with pork. Wow – so good. Fresh mint and other herbs and greens, along with some shrimp chips piled atop a tender serving of mildly spicy pulled pork. Delicious.

I’d noticed several of their specialty cocktails on the menu, including one with gin and cucumber, which sounded great. But I’d already had some wine and didn’t want to tempt fate… But someone ordered one and I watched as my waitress prepared it, muddling the ingredients and then lining a crystal tumbler with cucumber slices before pouring the drink in. There was more cocktail than could fit in the glass – so out came the shot glasses and me and the two fellows next to me were treated to a sample. And yes, it was great – I mean, c’mon, it’s cucumber and gin!

For my main course, sea bream (a semi-firm white fish) served simply atop broccoli and green beans. Perfectly cooked and just the right amount.

And for dessert? Panna cotta topped with diced celery and pineapple. It was surprising and really tasty combination – the celery adding texture and it’s mild flavor to the creamy panna and the sweet pineapple. A big success.

This was one of my favorites of the trip – not only because the food was so good, but because the service was so genuinely friendly and helpful. Highly recommended.

The Bun

Stopped here for lunch. Their specialty is sandwiches served on Asian-style steamed buns. I started with a carrot and radish salad, followed by a couple of buns stuffed with pulled shortrib. Pretty yummy – though I might’ve liked squirt of Sriracha to zip them up a bit.

The pide place around the corner

My Airbnb host told me about this place and I was glad I took his advice. On the northwest corner of Dizengoff and Ibn Gabriol is Frank’s Hot Dogs (which, judging from this write-up, I should’ve visited too) – right next door on Ibn Gabriol is the pide place. The chalkboard menu is all in Hebrew, but if you ask for an English menu, they’ll give you one. On both my visits, the fellows taking orders were very friendly. One visit, I tried the kofte – and it was great. But rather amazingly, the pide that knocked my socks off was the cauliflower one – big chunks of grilled cauliflower, mixed up with tomato, cucumber and tahini. It was pretty great.

UPDATE: I’ve been advised the pide place is Miznon, from chef Eyal Shani of Tzfon Abraxas.

Gedera 26

Another small place near the Carmel Market. It was pretty quiet and I grabbed a seat at the small bar – which was great since the kitchen is right there and I literally watched my meal prepared about a meter in front of me.

I must say, I was a little skeptical when I saw the bread being prepped for me. The lovely brown oval was popped into the microwave, then put onto the grill to crisp up the outside. WELL. It was so good – crispy and doughy and hot. Served with some labane (yum) and a cilantro pesto that I advised the chef he should sell by the gallon. I could have made an entire meal of just that bread and pesto. But obviously didn’t…

First up, a simple dish of sautéed calamari. Tender and a heaping helping.

I actually had a bit of a hard time choosing a main, since so much of it sounded good. But I decided on bratwurst – not really sure why, just sounded good. They are made in-house, seasoned with sage and ginger and they were fantastic. When the chef was serving them up, I was going to ask for mustard, but he was already preparing a little bowl to go alongside – though as it turned out, these brats needed nothing else. They were so wonderfully flavored on their own, I wouldn’t add a drop of mustard. Served with a great potato salad and a kind of sweet-and-sour kraut/slaw.  I think this was my favorite dish of the whole trip.

The chef (I think his name was Lee? I didn’t write it down… Oops! I am the worst) was really personable and was happy to chat with me about food and travel – and he encouraged me to take photos while he was working. Oh, and at some point, shots were served… I didn’t even bat an eye this time.

Café 48 (again!)

For my last night in Tel Aviv, it was a toss-up between Gedera 26 and Café 48. I’d really enjoyed both of them – and since Gedera 26 closes on Shabbat, back I went to Café 48.

I had the same lovely server, whose name I learned is Darya. She was as gracious and helpful as on my first visit.

This time I started with a Vietnamese-style shrimp and vermicelli salad. Fantastic – and frankly better than any I’ve had in SF. Not to mention that I think there were a dozen plump shrimp in here – along with a very spicy chili-infused sauce. It was the best starter of any place I’d been.

For dinner: steak and potatoes. That is literally all it was. A perfectly medium-rare steak served with wedges of oven broiled potato. Hearty, delicious, a great cut of beef. And a really nice part? I asked for salt and was provided a small bowl of sea salt flakes rather than a shaker full of Morton’s. It’s a small thing, but speaks volumes about the care with which the food is served.

For dessert – an oat-and-butter cake-pie hybrid. Sticky and sweet, a crispy-buttery crust, a dollop of cream on top. Wonderful. And really nice way to say farewell to Tel Aviv.

Istanbul – Day 1

I arrived in Istanbul before dawn on a cold and rainy Friday. There was a bit of confusion with my driver from the airport as to where exactly he was supposed to take me – though luckily I recognized the building I was staying in just around the corner from where he originally stopped and started ringing some poor soul’s doorbell at 6AM.

Unpacked, showered, had a lie-down (i.e. was unconscious for several hours) then decided to take a look around my ‘hood. I actually set off in search of couple of places I’d read about, one of which makes lahmacan, the other dürüm. I checked Google maps before I set out, thinking I had a reasonable idea of where I was – which was, of course, completely incorrect.

The terrain here Beyoglu is a bit like SF, insofar as it is quite hilly. However, the streets are also very narrow and not laid out on a grid, so navigation is not so easy. Oh, and the cobblestones plus the drizzle make for a high likelihood of me breaking a hip at some point during my visit…

Anyway, at the top of the hill was Istiklal Street, a wide avenue thronged with locals and tourists shopping and eating. So, I wasn’t completely lost and took a left, then a right looking for Dürümzade. I walked down to the next main street, turned right and thought I’d wind up sort of back where I started..? But no, that would be too easy. Given that I didn’t want to get lost before my late-afternoon appointment at the hamami, I decided to retrace my steps.

And just as I started walking back up the narrow street I’d come down, I spied Dürümzade – it’s an Istanbul miracle! The place is on a corner and is about the size of my bedroom. Ordered my adana wrap and had a seat. The best thing about this place? While the cook is grilling up your meat, he wipes the juicy/greasy cooking tool on the bread that he’ll use to make the durum. Meat, onions, tomatoes on a juice-soaked pide – yep, as good as it sounds. And, thanks to an effective rolling method, surprisingly tidy to eat. Delicious!

Back to my apartment, which I found with no problem despite (intentionally) taking a roundabout route. Had a bit of a nap (look, it’s a ten hour time change!) before the short walk to Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı, where I had an appointment for a bath and a massage.

Found the place with no problem and the interior is just as lovely as the photograph on their site. The place was pretty quiet. I was shown to a seat and served a glass of şerbet before being led upstairs to undress and put on my peshtemal. Back downstairs the fellow who’d shown me in handed me off to my bather Orhan. As for the rest? I’m actually going to put that behind the “Keep reading” link below. Not because I’m shy or there’s anything untoward – but because if you’ve never been to a hamami, I think it’s worth it to keep some mystery about what goes on. The short version? It was sublime and I will be booking at least one more visit before I return home.

I arrived home to still no heat (yeah, there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle there, though my host seems to be doing his best to resolve), hung out for a bit and then went to dinner down the street a Furreyya. Tiny fish place that turned out to be mostly tourists. Had some tasty dolmas and a fresh whole sea bream. It was pretty good – very fresh, simply prepared. Perhaps too simple? Could’ve used a bit more seasoning in my view.

Took a walk up the hill and back home again, looking forward to a warm apartment and good night’s sleep. As I struggled with key to the front door, I hear someone on the other side say, “Hello? Eric?” Turns out Volkan, the fixer, was there – along with a buddy and his girlfriend all hard at work on the water tank and radiators. All very friendly – though sadly to no avail. More work to come…

Anyway, it was fine. I actually prefer a cold bedroom with plenty of blankets which is what I climbed into after downing an Ambien to ensure a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s walking tour.

Then, a bit later, I had a strange dream – I was hearing the melody from “If I Were a Rich Man.” Oh, wait, this is no dream – the doorbell here plays that tune. And it was accompanied by knocking and “Hello, Eric?” from the other side of the front door. It was Safak, my host, here to try his hand at fixing the heat! Granted, I might not have chosen to receive visitors at 1145PM, but I appreciated the effort. He, too, had no luck – but did show me how to use the AC as a heater – and it worked beautifully for me the next morning! So, that was great.

Didn’t sleep as late as I might’ve hoped (probably got five or so hours of sleep) but I’ve prepared my breakfast and am headed to the Spice Market in Sultanahmet to meet up with my tour guide. It’ll be a bit of a challenge to leave my toasty apartment – it’s another chilly day, though at the moment no rain, so that’s a plus.

Continue reading “Istanbul – Day 1”

L’Office

I wasn’t quite sure if l’Office should get a whole post, what with there only being three courses (hahaha – “only”) – but it seems to get a lot of press and came highly-recommended, so why not add my two cents?

I must say, things did not start auspiciously. When I called for my reservation a week prior, the fellow I spoke with was a bit gruff. My request for 830 was met with, “No, we only have 730 and you will sit a the counter.” OK, fine by me.

When I arrived, there were only two other tables occupied. I was greeted by one of the two very friendly waiters and shown to my seat. The tiny counter is L-shaped and seats two on one side, three on the other – and, there at the corner of the bar in front of wooden post, they’d squeezed in a sixth bar stool – not one of the sleek wooden ones that occupied the other five seats, but a tiny metal one with a particle board seat. Sigh – the Mary Ann Singleton special. Well, at least they didn’t have a spotlight trained on me so the other diners could point and laugh…

But what’re you gonna do, right? Seeing as I was the only diner at the counter, I wasn’t cramped for space, so it was fine.

I was quite pleased to find that both waiters were kind and accommodating and described the menu in English – with the one bearded fellow complimenting me on my French (as I’m sure I murdered the language…) – I’m sure he was just being kind, but it sure makes me feel like a non-rube.

First course was a cauliflower soup with a single scallop in the center, seared on the outside, barely warm inside (it was excellent), along with a few bits of crispy pancetta and some cilantro. I think cauliflower is under-appreciated and this soup showed of how delightful it can be – sweet, creamy, just a bit earthy. The pancetta was a great addition with it’s salty crunch. I might’ve even liked a bit more, since I did salt my soup – of course, I’m also considering having an in-home salt-lick installed, so I’m not always the best judge of saltiness or lack thereof…

For my plat, I chose the rumsteak. And I’m going to go out on a limb and declare this the best steak dinner I had in Paris. The meat was perfectly cooked, tender but still chewy (dare I say “toothsome”? No, I daren’t use that most hackneyed of food adjectives – though I suppose it’s still better than “unctuous.” But I digress…) The accompanying assortment of potatoes was delicious – with the notable exception of the steamed purple potato which was disappointingly mealy. And, let me just say, I don’t really “get” purple potatoes – they’ve always seemed gimmicky to me. I’d’ve been a whole lot happier with a couple more wedges of the waxy and delicious white potatoes that came with this plate. The beets and carrots were fresh and vibrant and the presentation was simply gorgeous.

For dessert, I initially went with my waiter’s recommendation of the chocolate pie – a tarte of dark and white chocolates that was not listed on l’ardoise – but then changed my mind, opting for “chocolat/gingembre/orange.” Who could resist that combination? Well, it was fine – a small, warm chocolate cake flavored with ginger, a bit of ice cream with a wonderful tuile and some orange sauce. Very nice, though not spectacular. I should probably have listened to the waiter – when will I learn?

I really liked l’Office and enjoyed my dinner. Of course, it was difficult not to be a wee bit irked that the three counter seats next to me remained empty for my entire meal. But friendly and competent service and a fantastic steak put me into a forgiving mood – because, you know, I’m generous like that…

Le dernier jour à Paris

The last day in any city is always a challenge for me. Even though my train to Amsterdam wasn’t until Sunday morning, I was already worried about packing and making my way to Gare du Nord in a timely manner.

I didn’t get an especially early start to the day and was in a bit of a tizzy after I’d called several restaurants on Friday night trying to book for Saturday – “Non, complet” I heard again and again… Would my last night in Paris be spent at Pizza Hut..?

At around noon, I was going to take the metro to the northern part of Canal St. Martin and stroll back toward home. However, the weather was cold and very rainy – a walk along a canal just didn’t sound appealing… So, I stopped in at Jacques Genin again (did I already mention I had their caramels the other day? I quite liked them – but Hooker’s Sweet Treats in SF remain my favorite. Though I suppose it’s a bit of an apples-and-oranges comparison. But I digress…) and picked up a pastry to go… Oh boy, it was delicious.

Once home, I decided to start packing. Everything fit, despite my purchase of several unwieldy books. And I was able to reserve for dinner at Café des Muséesdieu merci!

The restaurant is a bustling little place in the center of the Marais. I was seated next to the door and watched as the maitre d’ repeatedly advised hungry patrons that yes, he could seat them – but they must leave in one hour to make way for those who’d had the foresight to reserve. Most accepted his ultimatum, realizing they had little choice at 8PM on a Saturday.

I could also see into the tiny kitchen as the chef worked carefully and calmly, turning out plate after plate while barely breaking a sweat. Meanwhile the waiters were piling empty plates and glasses into the dumbwaiter (I know, right?) and sending them off to somewhere…

For starters, I had a plate of luscious house-smoked salmon, along with some slabs of toast and crème fraîche. Simple and satisfying. My plat was an echine de porc with scalloped potatoes. Oh man – really, really good. The pork was ribboned with delicious fat. Honestly, I don’t know what it is about French pork – ordinarily, I don’t care for fatty meat unless it’s been cooked for hours and rendered into submission. But the fat on the meat here is never gristly or chewy or rubbery – just tender and yummy. I ate every bite…

For dessert, a baba au rhum. And I finally discovered – I think I just don’t care for baba au rhum in general. It’s like stale bread soaked in rum – which seems like it should be great, but I am never wowed by it. This particular version seemed perfectly well-prepared, but I think I’m not a good judge.

Stopped off at one of the gay bars in the Marais on my way home for a last beer. Ran into Sam, a Turkish-German fellow (yes, he’s beautiful, obviously) I’d met earlier in the week. Hung out for a bit with him and his friends, then bade them farewell and headed back to Rue de la Corderie.

Up early, made breakfast, met my taxi downstairs for a quick ride to Gare du Nord. Next stop: Amsterdam.

Restaurant Pierre Sang

Pierre Sang Boyer was high on my list of places to try in Paris. I was actually both happy and a bit trepidatious that the restaurant doesn’t accept reservations – this can be either handy (especially if one dines earlyish by Paris standards) or have the makings of a catastrophe.

It was a Thursday night and it was raining rather heavily. I ventured forth into the soggy streets, armed with raincoat, umbrella, map and a list of alternative restaurants in case RPS was mobbed. I frankly wasn’t sure whether the downpour would make things better or worse – that is, would people simply stay home on such a crappy night? As I walked along Bd Voltaire, toward Rue Oberkampf, I became concerned. Cafés and restaurants appeared just as full as always – maybe even more so. “OK, Eric, be prepared to switch to Plan B,” I said to myself.

Well, imagine my delight when I showed up a bit after 8 and found the counter wide-open, save for the 4-top on one end. I greeted the waiter and was invited to belly on up to the bar. Quelle chance! And, being a non-asshole, I attempted to choose a seat at the empty counter that would allow any couples who showed up to have room on either side of me (oh, and to the the party of three who came later and got the last seats at the bar? Say a little thank you to us Mary Ann Singletons next time you’re out…)

Now, I should add here that Pierre Sang Boyer is a “celebrity” chef insofar as he was one of the finalists on the 2011 French version of “Top Chef” (Romain Tischenko, the chef at Le Galopin was apparently – and judging from his cooking the other night, deservedly – the winner in 2010). I tend to be quite leery of “celebrity” chefs – at least the American ones. They seem to be focused primarily on TV appearances and book deals rather than actually cooking.

I guess things are different in France – not only was the man himself right behind the counter cooking alongside his sous-chef, he greeted me and chatted a bit. Pretty cool, no?

Pierre Sang Boyer, at work in the kitchen

After I was seated and advised my waiter (I believe it was Max, charming, handsome and extraordinarily good at his job) that “mon français n’est pas bon,” he responded with a smile and “Well, then we speak English.” He proceeded to explain the menu to me – it’s 6-course set menu, though he inquired as to any food issues or allergies I might have (I confessed my aversion to offal and this was not part of the menu, so not a problem). There was also a supplemental 7th course of something like wild duck (he didn’t actually know the specific term in English, so he said it was a duck caught in the forest – while also making a lock-and-load shotgun motion – I told you he was charming) – foolishly, I refused the supplement. Zut alors…  I did however say yes to the wine pairing. Max would choose a wine for each course (at only €5 per glass!) – though he advised I could quit at anytime if it became too much (I did my best to stifle a guffaw at this idea of “too much” being used in reference to me and wine…)

First course, a bright orange soup. “What is it?” I asked Max. “Oh, I’ll tell you after. Yes, it’s a bit weird but that’s how we do things here.” Fine by me! It was a pumpkin soup, subtle and fresh. A bit of crème fraîche in the middle. And something else? Turned out to be a bit of Pastis (I did not figure this out on my own, but only when the dish was described after I finished it). A lovely start.

As for the wine, Max described each one after each course. I nodded sagely each time and then proceeded to immediately forget everything he’d said. So, for the most part, my comments will be limited to “the wine was really good!” I do recall that this one was 95% Chardonnay. But I did take photos – presumably the oenophiles among you will be able to make more sense of wine than can I.

I never did figure out what this slab of something was – though one of my favorite parts of the evening was when the sous-chef started slicing and plating it and M. Boyer scolded, “Check, check, check!” since the fellow slicing it hadn’t tasted it first…

Next course was a purée of celeriac, topped with a shrimp chip and some cured salmon and some fresh chicory. My notes say simply “it is sublime.” The celeriac was intense and creamy, the chip and the chicory adding some crunch, the salmon meltingly tender.

And this wine I actually remember as my favorite – spicy, though with a bit of floral.

Third course was pickled herring with a vinegary beet purée, topped with quinoa (which I initially mistook for mustard seeds). I don’t think of myself as a herring-lover (though this may just be due to it not being served to me with any frequency) but this may have been my favorite dish. The acidity and sweetness of the beet preparation went marvelously with the oily herring.

Another great wine – I wrote “flower bomb” and also detected a bit of honey.

The 4th course was clearly pork belly (even I knew that!). I’m not always crazy about pork belly – I tend to like my fatty meats cooked and rendered for hours. But, judging not just from this meal, but one I had another evening, I think the quality of fat in French pork must somehow be different – maybe it’s richer or less gristly or something? Whatever the case, this was great – had a hint of old-school “pupu” platter spareribs. Served with sushi rich and wilted spinach in a tangy Korean-seasoned vinaigrette. My only complaint was that some of the pork skin was too cartilage-like for my tastes.

And the wine. It was red! And I liked it! That’s about all I can tell you…

Oh, it was also at this point that I realized the huge slab of what I took to be cheese sitting just in front of me was, in fact, butter. You do know about French butter, right? As my friend Ralph (le Genevois) says, it makes American butter seem like wax. I’d had no idea before tonight how right he was – it was like butter meets crème fraîche meets runny cheese – plus salt! Oh man – it’s probably just as well I hadn’t dug into this right away or I’d’ve  needed an angioplasty with my dessert.

Cheese course next, served with what with a bit of what tasted like strawberry yogurt. Max explained that it was actually a sauce made from a Korean fruit that is actually rather bitter – but that it was meant to stand up to the strongish 24-month-old cheese.

And wine…

And, all too soon, dessert. Some sort of oat concoction with lemon curd and cream. I thought the oats were a simply too oat-y… by which I mean they had an uncooked quality to them and it felt heavy – not as in a rich, creamy dessert, but as is a bit leaden. This was the weakest dish of the evening.

A generous pour of bubbles rounded out the evening….

Yes, it’s blurry. This is wine #6, after all…

It was also during dessert that the lady on my right inquired as to how it was – and I was honest, saying it was not my favorite of the six courses. I got to chatting with her and her husband (she French, he British, they live in Paris) – OK, I may have been prattling a bit, but I WAS on my sixth glass of wine, so…  Anyway, they could not have been nicer – fellow foodies, so we compared notes on Le Galopin (one of their favorites too)  and other restaurants. We exchanged email addresses, me assuring them that if they rent an apartment in SF for a vacation, to let me know the location and I’d let them know the frequency of gun play in said neighborhood…

I think my evening at Pierre Sang was probably my favorite of my visit to Paris. Obviously for the food – but also for the hopping atmosphere; watching the show behind the counter as the chefs and the waiters put out plate after plate after plate; for the conversation, both with my fellow diners and the super-talented waiter Max. I left with a great big grin on my face and a full belly in a hail of mercis and au revoirs for a leisurely stroll home in the rain…

Oh, one more thing – the bill, including wine with each course, was €65. I actually exclaimed, “C’est incroyable!” – the quality of the food and of the dining experience was almost shocking at this extraordinarily reasonable price.