Wednesday, October 29, 2008

An Administrative Note...

So, this whole thing with posting recipes was making things look a bit cluttered around here, and I really really really hate clutter... Thus, I've moved the recipes formerly posted here to a new location, and that's where I'll put additional recipes in the future. (I'll link to those recipes if they're for a dish I mention in a blog post here...)

So, yay! No more clutter! I don't know about you, but I certainly feel better...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Pashmina Fest 2008 and Other Adventures

This weekend once again featured a fair bit of shopping coupled with some delicious food. On Friday we set out for the secret liquor store located about 30 minutes outside of Dubai, where you can stock up at reasonable prices without even having a liquor-purchasing license. On the way home we stopped at a really beautiful beach. The water is so gorgeous here, and is about body temperature. Note the women swimming in their abayas on the right of the picture…
After an epic grocery trip, we headed over to Wafi for lunch and a bit of window-shopping. This is one of the most beautiful malls I’ve ever seen, with stained glass everywhere. One large area of the mall called the Khan Murjan is located underground, but with stained glass ceilings giving you the feel of being in a really cool old-world shopping center.
We stopped at the restaurant in the Khan Murjan for lunch. This was a covered restaurant last time Stanley and Alicia visited, but the roof had been rolled back on Friday because it was such a lovely day. Don’t worry, though: They kept the A/C cranked so we didn’t have to be burdened by the 90-degree (Fahrenheit) heat while enjoying our unobstructed view of the clear blue skies. We ordered a ridiculously tasty hummus with lamb and pinenuts, as well as a Turkish spicy lamb sausage and some tabbouleh. The meal also featured seriously awesome flatbread. The puffed pita-looking bread in the picture had a flavor and texture almost like a ciabatta and was super-delicious. (By the way, I am SO building a wood-fired oven in my back yard when I buy a house. You just can’t cook amazing flatbreads like this with lame indoor ovens that only go up to 550 degrees Fahrenheit… )

Saturday brought a trip to the Blue Souk in Sharjah, a massive shopping center in yet another beautiful building.
On the lower level were jewelry shops to rival the Gold Souk in terms of the massive piles of gold on display, but on the second level was what we were looking for: pashminas! Stanley and Alicia had considerable experience with rug- and pashmina-shopping from their time in India, but this style of shopping was new to me. Basically at any pashmina or rug shop you enter you will be warmly greeted and often offered coffee, tea, and cookies to make you more comfortable. You are then presented with piles and piles of whatever it is you are shopping for. As I explained what I didn’t want (no pink, nothing sparkly, no flowers…) they would delve deeper and deeper into the collection until they found things more to my taste (although they never seemed to register the “no pink” thing very well…). One such item, pictured on the far left below, wasn’t right for me (too shiny) but was exactly the pashmina that Alicia (who not 5 minutes before had said she would not be purchasing any pashminas on this day) had been looking for. There were some absolutely gorgeous ones that were far too nice (read: “expensive”) for a kid like me, but there were some good bargains to be had as well.
The second pashmina from the left in the picture was the first one I bought (it has sparkly things on it, but they’re not too garish…). Stanley was in charge of bargaining on prices for me, and he did a bang-up job. The middle pashmina in the picture is actually the totally awesome one that Stanley and Alicia bought for me in India (not entirely part of Pashmina Fest, but I thought it looked nice in the picture…), and the two on the left came at our final stop. The guy helping us there was adorably enthusiastic and helpful. We stayed for a long time looking through pashminas, and as we were getting ready to go he asked if we were interested in bed covers. I actually was, now that he mentioned it, so we waited as he went through his stash of bedspreads (No big flowers! Too sparkly! Ew, pink!) and I ended up getting a fantastic deal on my new awesome bedspread (which isn't acutally as bright/shiny as it looks in the picture below) along with the pashminas. We totally made his day, apparently, because he then proceeded to give Stanley a free wool scarf (which he’d tried unsuccessfully to sell him earlier, and which is apparently what the kids in Dubai are wearing these days…) and to give Alicia and I free hideously tacky clear plastic models of the Burj Al Arab. Awesome.
After 90 minutes in traffic trying to get back to Dubai, we stopped at Nalukettu, a South Indian restaurant in the Grand Dubai Hotel near Stanley and Alicia’s apartment. This was a lot of fun, since I’d heard great things about this type of food from Stanley and Alicia after their trip and now had a chance to try it myself. (We forgot to take pictures before digging in, so pardon the messiness of the food pictures below…). We first ordered Appam with Vegetable Stew (one of the dishes they’d been craving pretty much since the moment they left India). This wasn’t at all what I expected, but was really delicious. The stew has accents of cinnamon in the spice profile that are quite nice. Next up was a Kerala-style duck and a beef dish, both of which were flavored with beautifully complex spice mixtures and had a nice amount of heat. Our final dish was a Chicken Korma (which is North Indian, but sounded too tasty not to order). This was so different from any versions I’ve had in the US, and I really loved it. Again it was nice and spicy, and was made with cashews (yay!) instead of the almonds I’m used to seeing in kormas. All in all it was a delicious meal, and I think Stanley and Alicia may have found a new favorite neighborhood restaurant…
After Stanley and I went on one last grocery quest (bok choy, star anise, sesame oil, boneless skinless chicken thighs, and chicken stock all turned out to be fairly elusive this weekend) we finally returned home for a laid-back evening. Dinner was a Chicken Meatball and Bok Choy Soup with Noodles (pictured below prior to the broth being ladled over the top) which was a refreshingly light and healthy dinner after gorging ourselves on delicious Indian food at lunch. The meatballs (which I usually make with turkey) turned out better than ever for reasons that are not entirely clear, and the bok choy (which we did finally track down) adds a nice fresh crunch. This is one of those recipes that I think of as “simple” and make for myself for lunches all the time, but which actually takes a little over an hour to throw together and leads my brother to say things like “This is why I would never cook lunches for myself…”
Pashmina Fest may continue next weekend when we head over to the Old Souk for a look around. In the meantime, I’m reading another fantastic book (Vacation by Deb Olin Unferth), still enjoying taking it easy, and looking forward to watching the Bucs beat up on the Cowboys tonight.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Pretty Darned Content...

Maybe it’s the coffee talking, but I’m having one of those mornings where life just seems good… really good… I still have 12 weeks of being a woman of leisure before the start date at my new (awesome) job... I’m reading a fantastic book (Arkansas by John Brandon)… I have delicious coffee… I’m still basking in fond memories of last night’s dinner (grilled marinated leg of lamb with homemade pitas and tzatziki)… The airlines found the two boxes that I’d shipped to Portland containing all of my favorite stuff (which they’d previously lost and couldn’t find for a month)… The weekend starts tonight, which means fun adventures with Stanley and Alicia await… I’ve decided that if something goes horribly wrong with the election then I’m just going to move back to Melbourne, thus relieving any election-related stress that was starting to accumulate… It has become apparent that the Bucs are going to go 14-2 this season and win the Super Bowl in a romp… I may get to see a Ranchero Brothers show in LA with Steph in November… I just found out I get to go to my favorite place at the Oregon coast in December… The sun is shining… If there were birds, I’m sure they would be singing… Life, basically, is good.

Just wanted to share the happiness... In case anyone reading this is in a mental place where life isn’t seeming quite so totally and completely awesome at the moment, here are some pictures that make me smile on less contented days and which should put a smile on the face of anyone who isn't dead inside:

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Out and About in Dubai

This weekend while Alicia was slaving away at work, Stanley took me out to see a bit more of the city. We started by driving out to check out a few souks, but ended up just hanging out for a bit in the gold souk. It’s pretty cool seeming so much gorgeous and/or hideously garish jewelry in one relatively small area. Being a bit poor, we mostly just window-shopped, although I did find a totally cute watch of high enough quality that I don’t seem to be allergic to it (as I am to the $20 watches I used to try to wear). I haven’t worn a watch in over 10 years, so I’d forgotten how awesome it is to be able to find out what time it is just by glancing at your wrist. Amazing!
After our time at the gold souk we decided the weather was more appropriate for hanging out in air-conditioned places, so we headed over to Souk Madinat Jumeirah, which is a gorgeous building housing a mall, residence, hotel, and restraurants. We wandered around a bit, took some pictures (including the obligatory touristy Burj Al Arab shot, and then stopped for lunch.
I thought it would be fun to try some “local” food, so we went to a restaurant in the building called Al Makan. This was definitely a mixed experience, with 3 really tasty dishes and one dish that led Stanley to comment “This is by far the worst thing I have ever ordered in a restaurant,” and me to wholeheartedly agree with him. First, the good… We started with an absolutely spectacular Greek salad (which I forgot to take a picture of). I’ve had many Greek salads in my day, and this was definitely one of the best. (I know, I know… Greek salad isn’t exactly “local” to the UAE, but we more than made up for that with the final item we ordered…) Next up was Manakeesh Lahm, a Lebanese pastry filled with “enhanced lamb” (we think “enhanced” just means “seasoned with delicious herbs and spices” rather than referring to any genetic enhancements, but you never know…). This was awesome, with the crispy toasty pastry wrapped around juicy flavorful ground lamb…
Next up was Shish Taouk Irani, which is chicken Tikka marinated in yogurt and saffron then grilled over charcoal to yummy charred perfection. The flatbread on top of the chicken in the picture is topped with a garlicky yogurt sauce that was great with the chicken. So far so good, right? We’re 3-for-3 with only one dish to go…
So, yeah… The menu had a section entitled “From the Heart of the UAE” and I thought it would be good to order one of those dishes to get a bit of local flavor. We ordered Al Harees Meat, which even the waitress seemed to think was a bad idea. She looked at us quizzically and then asked if we’d had it before (no) and if we understood that it was “puréed” (no, but that should be fine… thinking she just meant the meat was ground rather than being in steak form…). I have since learned on the interweb that Al Harees is “one of the most savoured dishes in the UAE kitchen and it involves a lengthy preparation,” and “is quite prominent during special occasions such as Ramadan, Eid and weddings,” so it seems like an OK thing to try, right? Right? So, here is a picture of the dish:
If you’re saying to yourself “Wait. That just looks like sticky puréed oatmeal with oil on top!” then you’re not far off on the final flavor profile... The first words to come to mind when tasting this were “glue” and “oatmeal”… After some discussion, we agreed it’s sort of like puréed oatmeal combined with paper maché paste and some meat juices. Apparently that’s not too far off, as I have since learned a bit more about this very special dish: “Al harees is made by cooking ground wheat in a pot with a pinch of salt, to which the meat is then added. The mixture is then left for long hours until it is fully cooked and the meat is completely dissolved into the wheat.” This is followed by several more long hours until the mixture reaches the “desired” consistency. Fantastic.

Restaurant learning experiences (e.g. If the waitress is horrified/concerned when you order something, maybe you should consider ordering a different menu item…) aside, it was a really nice day and I enjoyed seeing a bit more of Dubai. Stanley and Alicia are back at work today (thus leaving me with ample time for excessively long blog posts) and I should probably go get their dinner marinating so they can have a nice meal waiting for them when they come home… I’m still enjoying this time to myself during the work-week when I have nothing more pressing to do than to prepare some yummy food and mainline coffee…

Verre: Course by Course

As I’ve excitedly been telling many of you, we had a dinner reservation at Verre (Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant at the Dubai Creek Hilton) on Thursday. Before I get into the details of the food, I want to start by saying that this place was totally awesome. The only bad reviews I’d read about Verre claimed that the attitude of the place was too stuffy and the food was pretentious. I was happy to discover that the exact opposite was true. The vibe in the dining room was relaxed (unlike in some other “fancy” restaurants where you feel like you should be whispering) and the staff were friendly and charming across the board, especially the sommelier. The food was delicious and far from pretentious, focusing on high-quality ingredients prepared well. We went with the 7-course “prestige” tasting menu, and here’s how it went down:

Vine Tomato Minestrone with Basil Pesto:
This was a fantastic way to start the meal. It’s really easy to make a soup laden with cream taste impressive, but it takes a bit more skill to make something this delicate and simple turn out this delicious. The soup was an intensely flavored tomato consommé with perfectly diced zucchini, carrot, and tomato and a few small white beans. This was finished off tableside with a spoonful of basil pesto. The individual flavors were simple, but they combined to make a really lovely, complex dish. A great way to get our palates excited for what was to follow.

Pressed Foie Gras des Landes with Air-dried Duck Breast, Fine French Beans, Shimeji Mushrooms, and Toasted Brioche:
I think we all agreed that this was the star of the show. It’s hard to even find words for how amazing this was. I’ve said this before, but sometimes with food the first bite or two has you saying “Wow! This is SO good!!!” but you sort of stop noticing after a few more bites… For me the sign of a great dish is that every single bite makes you stop and search for new way to communicate how truly fantastic the dish is (just in case it wasn’t clear from your excitement about it after each of the previous 5 bites). The balance of flavors in this dish was remarkable and, when the time inevitably came to take the final bite of this dish, we were all sad to see an empty plate in front of us. (By the way, if you think foie is cruel, feel free to let me know and I can send you my personal treatise on why only vegans have solid footing from which to make such claims.)

Roasted Sea Scallops Served with Caper and Raisin Dressing, Cauliflower Purée, and a Reduction of Port and Red Wine:
I think a perfectly cooked fresh scallop may be one of the greatest foods on earth. I remember a few months in Santa Barbara where the mussel lady at the farmers’ market brought in fresh diver scallops. Steph and I brought those home pretty much every Saturday they were there. One of life’s great tragedies (notwithstanding the big-ticket items like genocide and famine) is that frozen scallops are so very much less delicious than fresh, leaving fans of scallops who don’t live near a great fish market to enjoy them only in restaurant settings. That being said, these were damn good scallops, and perfectly cooked. The dish was a bit of a puzzle, I felt. For my palate, the cauliflower purée complimented the scallops beautifully, while the caper-raisin dressing overpowered the scallops yet worked well to reset your palate between bites (thus making each new bite of scallop just as amazing as the last). Once I figured that part out, this dish was totally awesome.

Pan-fried Monkfish Tail with Lobster and Herb Risotto with a Shellfish Reduction, Wild Asparagus, and Sauce Vierge:
We diverged a bit on choices with this course, with me and Alicia opting for seafood while Stanley went with the duck (below). The monkfish was good, but the risotto really stole the show in this one. I’ve never had a risotto so ridiculously creamy, and the big hunks of lobster meat in it certainly didn’t hurt. The monkfish was essentially just a nice compliment to this beautiful risotto. My one small gripe on this dish is that I didn’t particularly agree with the wine pairing (we were having wines paired with each course, but this is going to be overly long without going into that for every course, so I’m just pointing out this one). The sommelier went with an unoaked chardonnay with lots of acidity and minerality to balance the creaminess of the risotto (which it paired with quite well), but these qualities made it a bad match (for my palate) with the monkfish. As long as sips of wine only followed risotto bites and not monkfish bites, though, it was all good.

Castaing Duck Breast and Confit Duck Leg with Pearl Barley Risotto, Baby Carrots, Cepe Mushrooms, and Port Jus:

Stanley ordered this dish, so I only have two bites from which to judge and will just say that that was some seriously delicious duck cooked to perfection. Another great dish, as far as I could tell…

Selection of Fine Cheeses with Walnut Bread:

This is the course that always kicks Stanley's ass in tasting menus. You’re just starting to get full, and then they bring you three (delicious) hunks of fat to eat. I, however, love the cheese course. I don’t know the names of the cheeses, so I’ll just vaguely describe them. The first (on the left in the picture) I could smell as soon as the plates neared the table (which is my favorite kind of cheese). This cheese was ridiculously creamy and possessed that amazing flavor that only the stinkiest cheeses can deliver. The middle cheese was firmer and tasted a bit like a strong high-quality parmesan (though a bit softer in texture than that). Tasty, but the only one that none of us finished. The third cheese was a beautiful strong blue. The flavor reminded me a lot of Saint Agur (my favorite blue cheese on the planet) although the texture was somewhat firmer. So very very delicious…

"Pre-Dessert" – Strawberry-Basil Granita served over Panna Cotta:

This was a perfectly refreshing course after the heavy cheeses. I love the strawberry-basil combination, and the panna cotta was light enough to compliment it beautifully without detracting from the refreshing, palate-cleansing purpose of the dish.

Mint Crème Brûlée with Strawberry Sorbet:
This is another dish that was a bit of a puzzle for me. On its own with the strawberry sauce, I didn’t particularly care for this crème brûlée… Immediately follow a bite of the mint crème brûlée with a taste of the accompanying strawberry sorbet, however, and you’re in business. I’m not a huge fan of desserts, but I liked how light and fresh this was at the close of a heavy meal.

So, there you have it. Our dinner reservation was for 10pm (Stanley works late and we didn’t want to have to rush too much to get there on time) and we were at the restaurant until 2am. Verre is no French Laundry (where the three of us dined along with Steph a couple years ago), but that’s not entirely a negative statement. The food can’t compare (I’m not sure the food anywhere really can), but you also don’t have to make such a hard-core effort to acquire a reservation and the (rightfully) reverential vibe at the French Laundry is replaced at Verre by a more casual and welcoming feel. We had a wonderful time, and I’m sure I’ll remember this meal (especially that foie course…) for a long long time…

Sunday, October 12, 2008

One more thing...

Forgot to mention it in my Dubai post yesterday, but the other thing I've learned about Dubai is that they have really fantastic chicken in grocery stores here. I found the chicken that I got from my butcher in Melbourne to be far superior to the chicken I cooked with in the US, but the chicken here in Dubai blows Melbourne chicken out of the water. It's ridiculously moist and tender, even in preparations that have a tendency to potentially dry the chicken out. Given that I go through about 6 pounds of chicken every week in my daily non-traveling life (which I have been told is crazy and/or strange), awesome chicken is sort of exciting to a kid like me...

I'm getting a kick out of the grocery stores here, too. They have really fabulous bulk spice sections, and one called Spinney's even has a special Pork Room for us non-Muslims who might want to throw together some Carnitas for our friends who've been away from Mexican food for too long... Am I the only person who thinks grocery-shopping (particularly in new cities/countries) is super-fun? (I suspect I'm one of the only people who finds washing dishes super-fun... but it totally is...)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Morning Ramblings from Dubai

I've been in Dubai for almost a week now, having one of those really pleasant times that's hard to make sound interesting in any way... For the most part I've just been relaxing... reading a bit... watching some downloaded TV shows (most of them crappy, but entertainingly so)... wasting time on the interweb... Basically just taking time to enjoy all the stuff that there never seems to be enough time for when you have pesky distractions like a "job"... During the work week (Sunday-Thursday), I have the giant fabulous apartment all to myself while Stanley and Alicia are at work. I can't even explain how awesome it was to be able to unpack my backpack (into an actual dresser!) and put it away, knowing I won't need to re-pack for over a month... After traveling to a new city every 3-5 days for almost a month, it's a great feeling to just be able to settle in.
Salazmeyer has done a thorough job talking about what it's like to actually live in Dubai, but here are my first impressions as a short-time visitor (even though I pretty much didn't leave the apartment until the weekend): This is definitely a city under construction. I don't think we've been anywhere where you couldn't see a crane or some form of construction going on (view from one of the apartment's balconies shown below). Some of the projects in the works are pretty epic, some more practical, but there are things in the works pretty much everywhere you go.Summer has passed, which means it's fairly hot here but not in the humid way I was struggling to get used to in southeast Asia, so it's actually quite pleasant outside for the most part.
As far as culinary things go, we mostly stuck to delivery food during the first work-week since Stanley gets home from work pretty late and heading out for groceries at that point in the evening never seemed like a good idea. Plus, there's a place that delivers pretty fantastic gyros (which, honestly, I could probably eat every day for a few weeks before I began to get tired of them), so that makes delivery always seem like a good option. Checking out the local delivery places also allowed me to experience the Mexican Shawarma, a very odd yet delicious item. I have no idea why it is called Mexican (since the flavors seem Indian to me), and I can't even guess most of what's in it, but I highly recommend giving it a try if you ever stumble across it on a menu in your travels... especially if that menu is from a cheap delivery place with an absurdly eclectic menu...
On Friday morning we checked out a cafe called More for their famous Friday brunch. You start out with fresh-squeezed fruit juice, unlimited coffee, and your choice of breakfast stuff from the menu (I went with a very good Eggs Benedict (shown artistically half-eaten below), because I am incapable of ordering anything else if that's on the menu). From there they send you over to a table of interesting fresh salads and a hot foods "floating buffet" with lamb, beef, chicken, and veggie options. You finish with desserts and/or a delicious thin pancake with a sprinkle of fresh citrus juice and syrup. We spent about 2 hours at More, and it was a lovely way to kick off the weekend.
We got home a bit late from grocery shopping on Friday, so decided to order in (again) and kick back with a cocktail to watch a bit of DDR (known as So You Think You Can Dance to other people) Season 4 (which Stanley and Alicia tragically missed out on when it first aired). On Saturday we finally had time to do some cooking. I made up a batch of Scorching Chili Chicken for lunch. This is probably my very favorite lunch item that I cook (I make it about once a month in my regular non-traveling life), and it was nice to have a bit of homemade Emily-style comfort food. For dinner we went with another of my comfort foods, which is a Cauliflower, Chicken, Pea, and Potato Curry (shown below, served with a bit of yogurt, fresh cilantro, and extra chili flakes). We went fairly simple with the cooking this time around because I'm still working out what items are available in grocery stores over here. I think we'll get a bit more crazy next weekend, especially since we'll have a gas grill (or BBQ as you Aussies out there call it) to play with by then (god willing, as they say)...
Now that the length of this post has achieved the requisite ridiculously-long status, I will sign off to go drink some coffee and carry on with the serious business of enjoying my time as a woman of leisure...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

TBA Day 24: Pancakes, Laziness, a View, and Hustlers…

Our last day in Bangkok was relatively eventful, considering how little we actually did. I woke up at 3am to watch the Bucs lose. Stanley joined me at 4pm but then went back to bed after the game (at 6am) for a few more hours of sleep. When he (finally) woke up we headed out to find some breakfast. We’d seen a lot of really good-looking crepe-like pancakes around in several restaurants, so when Stanley saw a restaurant with banana pancakes on the menu we decided to stop there. Stanley ordered his banana pancakes with Nutella and I went with the ham and cheese variety (more into savory than sweet most mornings…). The pancakes came. Stanley’s were as ordered (though not crepe-style) while mine were… just plain half-raw pancakes. Originally I thought they’d just left out the ham and stuffed it with cheese, but the “cheese” I thought I saw was actually just raw pancake batter. The whisked the plate away to fix things (I tried to explain about having ordered the ham and cheese version), but then just returned the plain pancakes, now less raw.
Afterwards we went over to a place that’s more my style of breakfast, with US$1 bowls of spicy delicious noodle soups. We both got the Spicy Rice Noodle Soup with Pork, Fish Balls, and Bean Sprouts, and it really hit the spot. As Stanley can attest to, I get disproportionately disheartened by crappy food, so I really needed something like delicious cheap spicy goodness to lift my spirits, and this did the job.
Feeling a bit lazy after our early morning and a busy day the day before, we spent the early afternoon just sitting around with a cocktail watching atrociously bad movies on the Stars movie channel before getting dressed up to head down to Moon Bar.

Rain ended up delaying things a bit (Moon Bar, on the 59th floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel, is an open-air bar, so they couldn’t set up chairs until the rain subsided) but we sipped Manhattans in the posh lobby while waiting and, when we finally made it up there, it was definitely a view worth the wait. Most times I go to really tall buildings for views of a city the observation area is glassed in, but it was cool (especially for picture-taking) to be outdoors getting the panoramic view. There were fireworks off to the west, lightning in the sky to the north, and gorgeous views of the city lit up at night all around.
Leaving Moon Bar to head over to Lek Seafood for dinner was when the fun started. As I mentioned yesterday, there are apparently many impostor branches of Somboon Seafood that taxi drivers try to take you to rather than going to the real thing. I was a little disappointed to have had our trip to Somboon go so smoothly, and was starting to wonder if all of that was a bit exaggerated. It isn’t. Stanley has a (good) theory that since our hotel is so far away from Somboon the cabs near our hotel aren’t in cahoots with the restaurants in Somboon’s area. Lek, on the other hand, is just down the street (about a block) from the Somboon branch we’d eaten at the night before, and was also near (~8 blocks) Moon Bar, so the taxi drivers in the area were up to no good.

Stanley asked our first taxi if he knew where Lek Seafood was. The guy says yes and starts to take us there on the meter. Once we get going he says he’s never heard of Lek, but can take us to a very nice seafood restaurant somewhere else. “No,” we say, “We are meeting people at Lek. It is the only place we can go. If you don’t know where it is, take us to Somboon Seafood and we’ll find our own way to Lek.” He seems OK with that and starts driving again, but again doesn’t seem to be heading in the right direction. Finally he stops in front of a hole-in-the-wall seafood counter and tells us we have arrived at the branch of Somboon we’d asked to be taken to. Now, Somboon is a 3-story building with a giant red sign with a crab on it I had assumed that the imposter restaurants would at least have the sign, but in fact they’re just random seafood places with no sign (so you can’t be sure you’re in the wrong place). I was rather irritated (Stanley much less so), particularly since he was leading us on a wild goose chase on the meter. When he insisted that we were in the right place we got out to find a new cab.

Our next taxi (an auto-rickshaw) started driving and, again, hadn’t heard of Lek but said he could take us to the branch of Somboon we’d requested. He kept insisting that Somboon is too expensive and we should go somewhere else, but we gave him our “meeting people at Lek” story and insisted that he take us there. A bit later he acts like he has this epiphany “Oh! Lek Seafood. Near Somboon. I will take you there,” then heads off in what is clearly the wrong direction and stops in front of a busy seafood restaurant. “Lek” he says. We tell him no (there’s no sign, and this is not the right road), and tell him to take us to Somboon as we’d asked… The difference with this guy is that he’s agreed on a fixed price of 50 baht, so instead of making more and more money (as a metered cab would) the longer he drives us around, he’s actually costing himself time and thus money. He did indeed take us to Somboon next, and we headed down the street and found Lek Seafood right where it was supposed to be.
As I mentioned yesterday, some people feel Lek is superior to Somboon, and I can end the suspense right now by telling you that really is not the case. It is, however, a really great restaurant, probably tied with Sabinglae for second best on the trip. The food was great, just not as spectacular as Somboon. For about half the price, though, and being much better than half as good, I could see why a lot of locals choose to come to Lek more often than Somboon.

First up we ordered the Tom Yum Goong. The lime leaves and lemongrass in the broth weren’t as intense as in the others we’ve loved, but there was a nice spiciness and an interesting smokiness to it that made it really unique. Good stuff.
We also tried the Spicy Triple Crispy salad (Stanley is my official salad-selector, and he hasn’t let me down yet), with three types of seafood, some veggies, and a really nice (quite spicy) sauce.
This was followed by Sizzling Prawns, which were tossed with beans and Thai basil. After the disappointing basil at Hemlock it was nice to taste really fresh Thai basil (which, in case you haven’t tried it, has strong anise accents in the flavor profile) and the shrimp were fresh, delicious, and perfectly cooked.
Finally, we had to order the Crab Meat Curry to compare with Somboon. It was quite good (miles better than the disappointing dish at Bangpo) but it just couldn’t compare to the heavenly curry at Somboon. There were nice big chunks of crab, though, and again the crab was not overpowered by the other ingredients. In conclusion, Lek Seafood certainly rocks, but Somboon Seafood rocks much more.
All in all, a nice last day for this adventure. (I’ll stop bogging this down with daily posts when I make it to Dubai.) his trip has been an amazing experience, and it’s been fun to document it for friends and for my own future reference. Up next: hanging out in Dubai.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

TBA Day 23: A Palace, an Election, and Crab Curry

Apologies in advance for the excessive (even for me) length of this post… It was a good day.

Day 23 featured both completing our obligation to do touristy stuff out of the way and eating the best meal of the trip thus far. The day opened with wandering around the neighborhood a while, stopping for a bit of deep-fried street food and a couple iced coffees for brekky. The food was decent, especially once dipped in sweet chili sauce (the picture is of the lady's entire inventory, by the way, not our breakfast). A nice (albeit somewhat random) breakfast.
From there we hopped in an auto-rickshaw and headed down to the Grand Palace, which Stanley had heard was definitely worth checking out. Turned out that rumor was true and this place was pretty sweet. I’ve never seen so many very very shiny buildings. It doesn’t really come through in the pictures, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that it was seriously impressive.
After the Palace visit we spent the rest of the morning wandering around checking out the wares of street vendors (and accidentally ending up in the Amulet Market where, not being connoisseurs, it appeared that about 200 stalls were all selling the exact same little hunks of stone and/or metal…). If I haven’t mentioned it yet, I really dig this city. Again, the people I’ve met who were distressed by how “dirty” it is here must have been from really clean cities. We did a good bit of exploring today and I never found any “Wow, this is dirty!” thoughts crossing my mind… I’m sure it’s out there, but I’m not seeing it yet... Both Stanley and I found ourselves feeling like this is a city where we could definitely live quite happily.

We came back to the hotel and made use of the rooftop swimming pool to cool off after all that wandering around in the sun, then it was off to lunch. Mostly out of laziness and apathy (but also due to the fact that we enjoyed our meals yesterday) we went back next door for lunch. We ordered a cheesy fried wonton appetizer, which was obviously good since deep-fried wontons dipped in sweet chili sauce are always a good thing…
Stanley ordered Pad Thai while I ordered Massaman Chicken Curry (yesterday was the same dish but with pork, so I’m not being completely redundant). Stanley requested some chili flakes for his Pad Thai which was great because then I got to spice up my curry a bit (which is why you see all those little red flecks floating in it in the picture below) which was a definite improvement.
So, at dinner the night before there had been a sign at the restaurant informing us that there would be no alcohol served due to election day, but apparently that was just in preparation and this was the actual election day. We tried to order beer with lunch, but were denied for election-related reasons. Our waitress, however, told us we could order off the hard liquor menu. That wasn’t a problem for me and Stanley, so we each ordered a Black Label on the rocks. After asking if we wanted coke in it (no), the waitress returned with a coffee mug and asked if it was OK to serve us drinks in this vessel instead of the regular glass. At this point we figured out that it was to hide the fact that they were serving us (which the coke would have hidden in a clear glass if we’d let her add it…). Good times.
The lock-down on alcohol put an end to our plan to hit Moon Bar (on the 59th floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel) that night, so we decided instead to focus our efforts on tracking down a great dinner. There are two restaurants in Bangkok (Lek Seafood and Somboon Seafood) that the folks in the know over at tend to say are two of the best in the city. There has been quite a bit of discussion about which is best, with Lek often coming out ahead. Given Lek’s proximity to Moon Bar, however, we decided to save that for Day 24 and check out Somboon today.

Somboon is apparently so good/popular that there are many impostors in the city and cab drivers get paid off to take you to an impostor rather than the real thing. We found a picture online of the location we wanted to try, wrote down the address, and noted nearby landmarks. The auto-rickshaw driver at one point seemed like he might be trying to take us somewhere we didn’t want to go (after we’d handed him a piece of paper with the name and address of the restaurant he started to say “you know, there’s actually other locations I could take you to…”) but Stanley was politely firm and we ended up in the right spot in the end. I’m so glad we did, because I would say this was by far the best restaurant on the trip so far (sign viewed from inside below).
We started off with a simple dish of garlic-marinated grilled calamari with sweet chili sauce. The calamari was perfectly cooked and so tender. A great way to start the meal.
Next up was the dish this place is most famous for: Crab Meat Curry. We had read that Somboon may have the best Crab Meat Curry in Bangkok, and after trying it I would have to say “Believe the hype.” Wow. This dish was totally and completely outstanding. Sometimes a thing will be delicious on your first bite, but then you stop noticing by the end. Every bite of this from the first to the last made me pause to say “Holy crap, that is insanely delicious!” (or some variation thereof).
This dish also made us realize how horrible the dish by the same name at Bangpo Seafood in Samui was. In that dish the curry overpowered the crab meat completely, so you could see big hunks of crab but could only taste sauce (which led us to believe, erroneously, at the time that Crab Meat Curry was just intrinsically not a very good dish rather than understanding that we were just being served a bad version). At Somboon, the crab is clearly the star of the dish. This is by far the best thing I’ve eaten on this trip.

Next up was Tom Yum soup, which was also rumored to be exceptional. Initially I thought the broth was on par with that at Sabinglae (which I loved) although the shrimp here were much more tender and succulent here and practically melted in your mouth. As the broth simmered in the pot at the table, though, the flavors became more and more intense and by the end I had to admit that this was a far superior soup.
This is where the order probably should have stopped, but we added two more things: a crab meat salad (referred to as “Crap Meat Salad” on the menu) and steamed fresh water prawns with garlic. Both dishes were very tasty (the salad was a refreshingly light accompaniment to the other heavier dishes, and the prawns were fresh, tender, and delicious), but by the time they came we were pretty much mesmerized by the amazingness of the Crab Meat Curry and becoming aware of the finite capacity of our stomachs…
Oh, and this was an "expensive" meal for this trip, which is to say that all of this amazingly fresh and delicious seafood cost us a total of around US$20 each. Not too shabby, eh?

All in all, a great day in a great city. When I was in Malaysia I wondered a couple times why I was even coming to Thailand (rather than just spending more time in Malaysia and Singapore), but I’m so very glad I came. My whole time in Thailand thus far (with one day to go) has been a great experience. Some of that may be due to having great company , but I think the location deserves a good portion of the credit as well.