Monday, February 27, 2012

Clipper Lounge @ The Mandarin Oriental

(Don't worry, I haven't abandoned the Japan posts. Just interrupting that broadcast for a moment).

I'm not going to fluff around with the history and tradition of afternoon tea in Hong Kong - there are enough posts on the web and in printed media about that. And most of them would have mentioned tea at the Mandarin Oriental's Clipper Lounge as a Hong Kong institution (the other being The Peninsula).

Year after year I promised myself that I will go to the MO for afternoon tea. One year I came close - then chose to grab a cake set from the MO's cake shop instead. It was foolish, yes - but I was only 17 and relatively penniless.

So, driven by the fear of missing out yet again on going to the MO for another year, I went ahead and made a booking.
Then changed it.
Three times.

My MO afternoon tea experience somehow ended up starting 2 weeks before actually tasting anything. It was a good start. Unfortunately it didn't last.

Service was brisk, but only attentive at times. We were shown our seats and given menus; but no water. When it did come after 2 requests, the glasses were, to put it bluntly, filthy; marred by water stains, and sticky patches of what I hope was detergent and not something else. Being a cold day they did thoughtfully provide warm water rather than cold - something which deserves a little credit.

For our table of three we were recommended the Mandarin Afternoon Tea set for two (which comes with 2 drinks - tea, coffee or hot chocolate), and order an additional drink; that an additional tea set for one could always be ordered should the set for two be insufficient. It was good advice to heed - sharing the set for two amongst three was quite enough.

Tier 1: Sandwiches (L to R)
Smoked Chicken, Waldorf; smoked salmon, sour cream, chive; egg salad, chive; York ham, mustard; cucumber, cream cheese, herb.
The sandwiches were dainty and looked promising, until one of the party picked up the smoked chicken, waldorf only to discover a long piece of hair attached to the bottom. Despite the offending sandwich being taken away and replaced, it left the rest of us slightly concerned about the hygiene of the remaining sandwiches...
Taste-wise, it was as dainty and delicate as it looks. Nothing much can go wrong with quality ingredients and fresh bread.

Tier 2: Warm (L to R)
Bacon, onion quiche; spinach, feta puff; sausage roll; madeline.
Having only tasted the spinach, feta puff and the sausage roll I can only comment on half of what was on that plate. The sausage was nice, but nothing too amazing; unfortunately I found the puff pastry a bit damp and therefore not the crisp and buttery and flaky sort with which I'm accustomed. Maybe that was intentional; I don't know. The spinach and feta puff was better; pastry had more crispness, but again lackluster. Nothing wrong with the taste, but it wasn't anything that made one's eyes bright up. Actually, I'd be much happier with a Shanghai radish puff (蘿蔔絲酥餅)...

Tier 3: Pastries (L to R)
Opera cake; cupcake; blueberry tart; mandarin cheesecake
The pastries, like pretty much everything else presented on plates, were so dainty (read: small) they were pretty much impossible to divide and share. I ended up tasting the cheesecake and the cupcake. The cupcake was moist, but slightly sticky - it may have been the ultra humid weather (over 95% relative humidity) at play. Nothing too amazing though, I've produced similar tasting cupcakes from my own kitchen. The cheesecake was much better, and closer to the standard I had anticipated. Creamy, flavoursome, rich but not overly heavy, I savoured every bite. I'm told the blueberry tart was quite good too, nice tart pastry, fresh cream and fresher blueberries. The opera cake apparently was a bit heavy on the rum and branded "WTH" by the taster.

Scones: classic and raisin. Served with clotted cream and MO's house rose petal jam.
To be honest, none of the party are big fans of rose-flavoured food. We weren't asked anything about the jam when we ordered, and it was only later that we found out that a blueberry option was available. It left another blot on the experience.
But the scones were good. Understatedly buttery, they were light and perfectly crumbly. Whether they're the city's best, I'm not sure. What I do know is that I will return just for the scones. And the tea.

It wasn't the perfect afternoon tea I had hoped for, but one can only have so much.

Afternoon tea service starts Monday to Saturday at 3pm (3:30pm on Sundays) and is available at the Clipper Lounge and Cafe Causette. The Mandarin Afternoon Tea set for two is $448 including 2 drinks. A 10% service charge is applicable.

The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Hong Kong

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

2012 New Year in Japan Part 1: Kyoto

I don't deny it: I love going to Japan.
Really, it's hard not to like the place. Great food, awesome service, beautiful scenery, reliable transport system. Ticks all my boxes as a perfect travel destination. Needless to say, spending a week in the Kansai region with onsen chucked in it was hard to resist. Even if it meant completely altering my original plans (solo, Osaka only) and not seeing my favourite Japanese boy band in live concert action.  Was it worth the sacrifice? Well...
But on with the trip.
Kyoto. Once the capital of Japan, home of the Gion geishas, loaded with temples. I won't go into the rich history and culture - plenty of experts out there on that. It's also one of the few places where I'm happy to do all the touristy things. Like going to Kinkakuji (aka The Golden Pavillion) as soon as we're off the train from Osaka.
Kinkakuji 金閤寺

We really couldn't have picked a worse (or better?) time to visit Kyoto. It was 3rd January, and Kinkakuji was packed compared with our last trip 3 years ago. Despite the crowds, it was still unbelievably orderly. Typical Japan.

Still managed some photos sans crowds.

By the time we got out of Kinkakuji it was just before lunch time, and the group was hungry. We walked into the first restaurant within sight, Itadaki, and thankfully they had room for all 7 of us. Unfortunately for the people who arrived right after us, they had to wait a good 20 minutes for a table.

Pork Ginger set, 1470 yen

Daily Special: Kobe beef steak donburi set, 1050 yen

House specialty hamburger with demiglace sauce set, 1260 yen
Previous trips were somewhat marred by the steep prices for, well, everything. 1000 yen for ramen had, in my mind, become the norm. So when I saw the prices for a teishoku set lunch at Itadaki, it came as a nice surprise. My pork ginger came as a juicy cutlet of pork pan-fried with onions and ginger sauce, almost gravy-like in consistency, balanced by mizuna on top. I'm told the beef steak donburi was just as good, and great value too. Unfortunately the hamburger turned out to be a slight disappointment, lacking sweetness and slightly overdone.

Second stop: Gion. We went intending to do a bit of geisha-spotting, but the place was packed with not the slightest trace of geishas or maiko in sight. Still, great spot for a bit of traditional architecture.

Last stop was Kiyomizutera, which turned out to be a mistake. The place was packed! We got in around 4pm, and couldn't get out until well past 5, despite taking the shortest route possible. Okay, we did make a detour and had a snack of yudofu (blanched tofu), udon and zenzai...

The yudofu (湯豆腐) was well worth it. Vegan, flavoured by konbu tsuyu, blanched in konbu dashi, it's vegan, without sacrificing taste. It lives up to all expectations of Kyoto tofu, renowned for its silky but firm texture and slight nutty flavour.

Next stop: Arima Onsen.


Friday, February 17, 2012

So much for sticking to promises

Clearly, when it comes to meeting my own expectations, I fail. A million times over.

Ah well, better late than never.

So, holidays. After over a year of no flying (can you believe that?!) it was nice to be back at the airport again. Even nicer is getting into lounges despite having my membership downgraded just a month earlier (thanks anyway, Cathay!). Until it dawned on me that these visits to airports will become a near weekly event...

Enough complaints about airports and air travel. On with the main event.

It's funny how a solo trip can turn into a group tour almost overnight. Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe had been on my itinerary for years (mainly non-food related reasons, actually). Not complaining, because traveling with this particular group meant that my wallet would bleed a lot less than doing it solo. Not to mention, added bonus of going to Arima Onsen for a very relaxing 2 nights...

I'm still living in the memories. There are photos everywhere, and sorting them out on the Mac is proving to be more of a nightmare than first thought.

So here's a photo preview of the Kyoto post, which will be Part 1 of Series Japan, 2012.