French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte once said a picture is worth a thousand words. But not even a thousand pictures could give you the feeling of spending time in Jackson Hole, WY at the Four Seasons. The views, the clean air, the incredible hospitality. Pictures will never do it justice– but until they invent virtual reality glasses for blogs, they will have to do. Here we go!
This past New Years I had the absolute pleasure of staying for a few days in this resort-paradise– skiing the hills, taking in the vistas and relaxing around the hotel lounges, pools, and restaurants.
The resort is nestled up against the Jackson Hole Resort mountain, inside the challenging and famed Grand Teton Mountains. The best way to describe skiing or riding Jackson Hole is simple: Not for beginners. It’s exhilaratingly steep, boasting some of the most insane terrain I’ve seen on piste anywhere, let alone heli-skiing in British Columbia.
Pools and hot tubs galore, with great service for hot chocolate or other drinks while you’re relaxing in the hot tub. And my favorite touch was easy– they kept your towel and robe in a heated closet so it was warm when you stepped out. It’s always the simple things that complete the luxury experience.
We spent most of our downtime in the Lobby Lounge seen here playing chess and enjoying Sushi. They actually had a great selection of sashimi, nigiri and some only in Wyoming rolls! A great way to unwind with a glass of wine from the day before you checked in for the night. I will definitely be back. Highly recommended if you’re considering a getaway in summer or winter.
I never thought I’d like living in a 16th Century monastery until I visited Florence. In fact, if I had it my way, I would have moved into Hotel Villa San Michele for the whole summer.
I pulled up in our rented Fiat 500 in style, slipping in beside a handful of Ferarri’s. Besides feeling inadequate about my rental car for a brief second, I was ready to not drive again until we left what looked like the gateway to a palace.
The hotel (or castle, depending on your vantage point) is set in one of the most memorable locations in Italy– tucked right up against the hillside with long views over the city of Florence. There are 45 rooms located in both the main building (the original monastery) and a few small buildings (including a 16th century chapel) scattered on the hill were all lovely, classic Italian luxury.
I guess that Michaelango guy was a pretty decent designer after all. Yes, I’m not joking. The façade is attributed to Michelangelo himself. Most of the original artwork from the monastery is now housed in the various museums of Florence, but a number of pieces can still be seen inside the rooms of the building including the 17th century fresco of the Last Supper by Nicodemo Ferrucci in the halls once used as the Monks’ refectory.
Upon arrival we did what made most sense on a hot Italian day and slipped on our suits and went straight into the incredible pool, set up on the hillside above the hotel.
A beautiful voyeuristic view of the courtyard behind the hotel. Open day and night. We were able to see fireworks here our first night, serendipitously Saint Fiesole was being celebrated. Really, just a good excuse for more prosecco.
Many suites are hidden behind walls over greenery, like these shown above. The privacy coupled with the long views is certainly unmatched in Florence.
Let there be wine. To say we indulged on the local grapes would be an understatement. But when in Florence, I did as I was told.
The exterior of the hotel (Michelangelo’s touch) houses The Loggia Restaurant where we had one of the more decadent lunches of the trip. If you like truffles and ravioli, you’re waistline is in big trouble here.
Our new friends at the hotel took us in and ordered for the table– and we were entertained and blown away by the knowledge of Giulio Gentile (a gentle man, indeed), the marketing director for the Orient Express hotels, which of course include this property. Giulio was even kind enough to drive us nearly half way to our next destination in the hills of Tuscany. Without his wise navigation we probably would still be lost today.
Inside the restaurant. At night the piano was playing and Italian charm turned on high.
The view from the pool over Florence. Gorgeous greenery, flowers, sunbathing. I could have stayed here all day had I not wanted to explore downtown Florence just as badly.
Finally, we were able to visit The Limonaia Suite, which was easily one of the most dramatic and special places on the grounds. It can be reserved as a one, two or three bedroom villa. It’s actually the 17th century Limonaia, or former orangery of the convent. With a private plunge pool, it is truly a private villa inside the Villa San Michele.
If you’re planning a trip to Florence and have the money, stay here. If you’re trying to impress someone you love, see above. If you can’t stay here, swing in for lunch or dinner, or even just a drink. You will not regret seeing it. Chalk it up as a history lesson, it’s not every day you get to visit– let alone stay at a place with history, style and luxury as rich as this.
The hotel is an adventurous 15 minute drive from the Florence airport. Get a GPS, you’ll need it.
Villa San Michele
Via Doccia 4
Most photo credits here belong to Greta Eagan.
On one of my trips to Africa last year I had the distinct opportunity to visit and stay at one of the most remote and incredible places: The Ngorongoro Crater Lodge. Perched into the side of the craters wall, it’s a treat of wilderness and luxury in one of the more remote parts of the world. It takes a hop skip and a jump in two bush planes and a bumpy drive in an AWD vehicle to reach, but it’s worth the trip. I recommend starting the trip as early in the daytime as possible so you can see the crater as you drive upon it, and sights like Mt. Kilomanjaro on your flight in through nearby Arusha.
The crater makes up a large part of what’s known as the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which was originally formed from an exploded and then collapsed volcano. The eruption and subsequent settling of the ground left a completely perfect wilderness refuge. The walls and steep hills that lead to the floor are some 2,000 feet tall and the crater floor itself covers more than 100 square miles. It’s no wonder it’s home to more than 25,000 animals today. It’s natures perfect sanctuary and a good place to see the Big Five. Safari heaven by any measure.
Based on fossil evidence, most scientists say around this area was where man first came from some 3 million years ago. Mind blowing to think about, but when you see it, it all kind of makes sense.
After a bumpy but pleasant ride in, the grounds of the lodge come into view. Setup like a postcard, every window looks out upon the wildlife playground below.
After driving up, one of the first things you’re told are the ground rules. Some basics: The lodge is not fenced off, so lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo are found all around the buildings. Venomous snakes and scorpions are found everywhere, so keep an eye out for those. The lodge accepts no responsibility whatsoever for injury, death, loss or damage. Under no circumstances should a guest walk in or around the lodge at night unless accompanied by a staff member. Oh, and you’re in a malaria area. Welcome to Ngorongoro!
An ominous welcome to what is basically a luxury lodge, but I forgot it almost immediately after I saw where I would be staying.
The walkway to the main lodge. Everything was perched up on stilts, and many animals were hanging out under at any given time. Even in the middle of the night guests could hear and feel buffalo running below.
We managed to see the sun set over the crater as we were checking in.
I wondered what I would see first when we set out for the crater base first thing in the AM.
Postcard like. Just stunning.
Inside the main lodge where we met the staff and checked in. This would also be where we would socialize the next couple of nights. It proved to be the perfect living room.
The living room was packed with all kinds of old world items that made me feel like I was diving into a vast history of safari and game hunting. Books, globes, trinkets. It was a truly opulent interior– hidden behind a handful of bland huts that from a distance simply blended right in to the crater walls.
After checking in I was led to my own personal hut, situated only a 2 minute walk from the main lodge. A king size bed, a view to die for. I felt like royalty. It was flawlessly comfortable.
I knew this bath would come in handy after a long day tracking animals.
And the view I could see out the window from the bedroom wasn’t so bad!
Dinner was served under chandeliers each night. I was surprised to see that they could easily substitute and create almost anything to our liking. My then wheat sensitivities were not a problem– a rice based bread was made especially for me at each meal without hesitation. I knew they had seen it all when the next morning they were ready with options for lunch out at the crater base (which was exceptional).
The first night we met our guide who discussed our game plan for the next morning. We were up and out early looking for the big five. When she asked me what I wanted to see most, I said a zebra and giraffe. Hey, I’m easy to please. I didn’t realize that was like spotting a subway rat in NYC. We were joined by a second spotter– a spotter in training. He saw things from such a distance I still think he was cheating. Hundreds of feet away he would call STOP, whip out the binoculars and show me the ears of a lion, or the tusks of a rhino camouflaged far out in the distance.
A common sighting the next day, baboons in the road!
I called them African roadblocks. What fun (and nuisance) they could be.
Jurassic park clearly inspired by the real thing.
The sun started to come up as we made our way to our first stop. A visit to a local Massai village.
Guest Post by David Vo
Having finished an amazing morning at the National Gallery of Victoria, my companion and I made our way to Federation Square, the long way. With a few kilometers under our belt and a hunger that demanded some sustenance, we found ourselves in one of Melbourne’s infamous laneways, standing in front of Movida Bar De Tapas. We put our names down on the list and explored the ever-changing graffiti art on the brick walls just outside the doors. Within twenty minutes we were seated at a high table.
We went though the entire tapas menu, sharing just a bite of each. The Gazpacho Andaluz really stood out for the flavor profile and creativity. The croqueta with the saltiness from the jamon and the silkiness from the egg really hit home for me. We also ordered a main course of the pork jowl. Extremely unctuous with the right amount of counter-balance from the Borlotti beans. We wrapped up with the churros and drinking chocolate plus a chocolate ganache with vanilla bean ice cream.
Next time you are in Melbourne, be sure to check out this gem of a restaurant. Make sure you bring a few friends so you can try each of the dishes. Just watch your wallet as things add up quick!
Movida Bar De Tapas
1 Hosier Lane
Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia
(03) 9663 3038
I’ve spent literally months of my life in London, shacked up at every hotel known to man, but I’m rarely truly satisfied. The nicest five star places in town are usually full of fanfare and an explosion of luxury cars in front– a scene that’s fun from time to time but hard to live with for more than a couple of nights before you can’t stand the glitz.
The boutique size hotels are usually missing something when it comes to service and hospitality, unable to clench a true five star experience. They’re small and quiet, but lack a certain kind of service you’d expect in a city with some of the best hotels in the world.
Well, my whole thought process changed after I stayed at The Halkin for a week.
The Halkin Hotel is part of the Como Group the team responsible for The Metropolitan in London and Bangkok, Parrot Cay in Turks and Caicos, the COMO Shambhala Estate in Bali, and few other incredible luxury destinations. Usually known for their Spa experiences– an associate of Como once told me the Shambhala Estate is a spa that just happens to have a hotel.
The Halkin is a short distance from Hyde Park, in the otherwise residential neighborhood of Belgravia. Boutique in size (just 41 guest rooms and suites) but huge in service, this place was truly special.
Simple design themes throughout the hotel, obviously influenced by the elements of Feng Shui. While most hotels spend a fortune on their public spaces, The Halkin decided to spend the money (and the space) on the guest rooms themselves.
I stayed in a couple of different room types during my stay, from a King Double (shown) all the way through to a Studio Suite (which was just perfect). Rooms are modern, simple, closet space ample and most importantly the beds were perfect for me (firmer rather than softer). Everything electronic in the room is controlled by a Crestron like system including a butler call (which I never used, but in retrospect should have, just to say hello).
Wifi is plentiful and free (if you are using an Apple be sure to tell them so they can give you an Airport for your room.)
I also managed to dine at Nahm– the first Michelin-starred Thai restaurant in Europe. And if you like Thai food like I do, it’s a must try during your stay. Having it on call for room service was divine– and Chef David Thompson knows his food. I preferred lunch much more than dinner, as Lunch included all the good street food options and some of the staple Thai classics, as well as more seafood options (as someone who doesn’t eat pork, chicken or beef that was crucial).
If you’re considering hotels in London and want five star treatment in a boutique enviorment, this is the place. When I check out of a hotel and the front desk asks me ‘how was your stay’, I usually have some comment. An issue with something during my stay, a noisy night in the hallway, a broken some-thing-or-other. This time when the front desk of The Halkin asked me, I could honestly tell them with no question– my stay was totally great.
A few weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure visit to Ksar Char-Bagh in Marrakech courtesy of my friends at Mr and Mrs Smith. Truthfully, calling it a hotel would be like calling your best friends palace a hotel. Your best friend has a palace, right?
Well, a palace it is indeed. Ksar was one of the finer experiences I’ve had in quite some time, a welcome oasis of calm from the busy, noisy and sometimes crowded Riad scene down the road in the Medina.
The hotel, or, guest palace as they call it is 14 distinct suites located in the calmer Palmeraie Gardens district about a fifteen minute ride from the center of town. A ride that you take in an original London Taxi that is– the moment that piece of work showed up I knew I was in for a treat.
Aside from the incredibly beautiful pool, which I spent plenty of time by, one of the true highlights was the full organic farm on property where the staff thoughtfully grow herbs, vegetables, wheat for fresh bread– and even make their own olive oil. Not to mention the orchard for fresh fruit that was simply exquisite.
The architecture was unusual, but really special. They spared no detail in the construction of this palace. A mix of Moroccan and modern design blending into one solid, thoughtfully laid out property. The stairs on the left wind up to the library with thousands of books, spiral staircase framed like a picture on the wall. The doors on the right lead to the billiards table.
We spent a lot of time at night lounging in this room– for drinks, for dinner, for fun, meeting other guests and laying around with the Hookah (when in Rome, right?).
Bedrooms were clean, simple, and comfortable. Not much to say about them except everything you would expect at a five star palace. Ours had it’s own roof terrace, while others have their own pools. One thing to note was even the toiletries were hand mixed, in hand blown glass bottles, with customized labels. Nothing mass produced here.
And last, but not least, we had a visit to the Hammam for a good scrub. If you haven’t had a traditional Moroccan Hammam experience before, get to it. A singing therapist literally removed a layer of skin through thoughtful movements with her hand scrubber as I lay engulfed in steam. Afterwards, I felt like the dirt and grime from the trip was a thing of the past– and I (or my skin) was at least a few years younger. Thanks Mr and Mrs Smith!
By now you’re probably inundated by news of the Nexus One, an HTC built phone that many dubbed the Google Phone. The Mountain View company stayed true to their word and while they did not manufacture the phone, it is clear they had a heavy hand in its design. The phone is the only one current running the latest and greatest (2.1) Android build and boasts an impressive hardware suite: 1Ghz Snapdragon processor, 11.5mm thick, 5MP camera with LED flash, 3.7-inch WVGA AMOLED display, 802.11 a/b/g/n, Bluetooth, 512MB RAM, 512MB ROM, 4GB microSD in-box expandable to 32GB.
Many people were looking at this phone as being a game changer, an iPhone destroyer, even after they looked at the specs and saw the leaked videos and images. In the past 10 or so years there have only been two really important phones – the Motorola RAZR and the iPhone became king (2007). I feel like Google never set out to destroy the iPhone overnight. After all, in order to do so, a phone would have to be as revolutionary as the iPhone was three years ago. Clearly this is not the case. With the Nexus One, Google is trying to disrupt the market by giving users more options.
Note: My review will be of the phone as a standalone unit. For clarification, my last phone was an iPhone 3G and I don’t have experience with the Droid. I may make some comparisons but, for example, when I say the phone has good call quality, I am not saying the iPhone does not.
The phone is both thinner and lighter than the iPhone but not by any meaningful amount. The corners are curved and smooth, unlike the sharp corners of the Droid and the back has a type of smooth plastic that is matte instead of shiny and slick like the iPhone. It is slightly grippy and resists fingerprints quite well. The front has four “buttons” which are actually just touch sensitive areas of the display linked to back, menu, home, and search. Each of these buttons also have alternative commands if you press-hold them. There’s also a trackball/button on the center bottom. There is absolutely no application or part of the OS that requires the use of the trackball though it is fully supported. One really good use of the trackball is to place the cursor on a specific location in the middle of a long string (think URL with an argument), something I found impossible to do with the iPhone’s press-hold zoom cursor. Also, the trackball glows in slow, spaced-out intervals as a visual notification. The bottom has 3 contacts (for docks and possibly future accessories) and a micro USB for mounting the device as a data drive. Remember, the point of Android is to avoid desktop sync tools. Everything is done over the cloud. The only reason you’d connect up to a computer is to transfer files. I am glad they are using a micro USB rather than a proprietary connector. The phone feels good in the hand and comfortable against your face when talking.
The 5MP camera has both autofocus and an LED flash. I have never been impressed by a cell phone’s picture quality and this is no different. It’s an OK camera and the flash often blows out the center with a gradual reduction in brightness as you move away from the center of the frame. This is not unlike other cameras with flash but still an annoyance. I found the picture quality to be good but not great. I still carry a real digital camera if I want to get good shots.
The noise cancellation is particularly helpful but it’s really a subjective measurement. I found my call quality to be better than the iPhone but maybe my phone calls have recently been in different environments. I have tested it in some noisy situations and it fared well but I didn’t have an iPhone with me to do an A/B test.
Battery life for me started out pretty bad. I was getting about 12 hours of usage before it got dangerously low. However, by disabling live wallpapers and perhaps as a result of a few weeks of charge cycles, I am getting about 15 hours now before the battery reaches 20%.
Where the Nexus One really shines is the operating system and user experience. It has complete integration with the Google cloud, and in fact can support multiple Google accounts, giving you the ability to sync your contacts, mail, and calendar or some combination of the three. It also integrates with Facebook and Google Voice. What I really like is the single point of contact feature. On the iPhone if I wanted to send someone a Facebook message, there’s an app for that. Then if I wanted to look up their address, I’d have to find them in contacts. With the Nexus One, John Doe has a single contact and from it I can call him (via phone or GV), text (again, phone or GV), launch his Faceobok profile, navigate to his address, etc. If you don’t have photos for your contacts, it’ll automatically grab it from their Facebook profile and if your friends entered, for example, a work address in Facebook that they never gave you, it’ll show up too.
I spoke about the Google Voice integration but it bears repeating. You can setup your phone to make all outgoing calls using Voice or if you wanted it could use it only on international calls or prompt you each time. GV gives you free text messaging, voicemail transcription and archiving and the application works beautifully. Unfortunately, at this time, there is no push for GV so there may be up to a 5 minute delay for SMS though there’s an easy workaround for that – simply have GV email you.
My email experience on the Nexus One is substantially better than the iPhone. First off, there is no native Gmail push on the iPhone. You can setup a sync scenario using Exchange but the iPhone only supports one Exchange server so those of us with jobs will have to decide between syncing work or play. On the Nexus One, you can have multiple Gmail accounts and Exchange and they are all push. The Gmail application mimics the website quite well, offering all major functionality. One thing I did not like is there is no calendar syncing for Exchange. Hopefully this gets added at a later date.
Applications on the Nexus One are not limited by 1×1 icons and if installed, they are not required to be displayed on one of the home screens. On the iPhone if you have an app, it must take up real estate on a screen. The Nexus One has an applications icon which loads up all your apps and allows you to quickly scroll through them vertically, in a 3D cube like system. Of course, if there’s anything you use frequently, you can place it on one of the five home screens. In addition, there are modules, folders, and shortcuts that can be placed on the screens and they can be any shape. You can have a weather module that is 2 rows by 2 columns or one that shows you Facebook updates that’s 4×2. The shortcuts and folders are really interesting. For example, you can set a navigation shortcut (icon) that automatically routes your current location to your house. Or you can setup a folder that shows your Pandora stations.
Android supports background applications, which when coming from an iPhone, is such a godsend. I don’t think I realized what I was missing or how annoyed I was until I experienced multitasking on the Nexus One. Apps also have access to the notification area on the top which keeps track of events for you. Notifications are not a focus grabbing pop-up and are quite unobtrusive. For example, when I get new mail, there’s a tiny Gmail icon that appears on top. Each application has settings which allow you to tweak or completely disable notifications, if you please.
In addition to Google Voice, both search and text fields support voice as well. You can use speech-to-text in any text field including SMS and email, and you can use voice commands such as “Call Josh.” I’ve had problems with these features, however, since it has to send your data to the Google servers. If you happen to be using a slow data connection or there’s an issue with you route, you’ll get an error. Also, since no training is involved, the results are not always 100% correct, but they have always been pretty spot on. As a phone, the Nexus One works well. In the last few months, I’ve dropped half of my calls on the iPhone. I also was experiencing a phenomenon where the OS would actually crash if I received a call while using an application, thus preventing me from ever answering. I have had no such issues with the Nexus One and in case you are curious, I am using EDGE on AT&T right now.
The Nexus One is a wonderful phone but not without flaws. Some programs force quit (crash) on startup and I have had the phone freeze twice and it was quite frustrating (and scary) to get it to restart. There is never lag from the processor when starting applications but flipping quickly between home screens sometimes showed some hesitation. Some web pages were slow to load (but not anything like what Engadget’s “demo” showed). And before I forget, there is no multitouch. The hardware and software support it but I guess Google doesn’t feel like violating patents. Personally, as a former iPhone user, I found myself missing multitouch for about 3 days then I got over it. It’s really not a big deal. You can still double tap to fit to screen when reading articles and I have not had any issues with the keyboard. In fact, I am typing quite fast now using a beta version of Swype (which further points to the open nature of Android). My last concern is Android has about one-fifth the apps as the iPhone and even when there are two versions for the same application, the iPhone one is usually better. In my Google News feed today, I came across at least three new apps announced that would be exclusive to iPhone. That kind of stings. But so far, I have not found myself really missing any functionality due to a lack of apps. I do wish the Facebook app would improve and Mint would deliver an app soon, though.
What do I think of the Nexus One? I clearly like it and find it to be a better phone than the iPhone (which I sold a few days after receiving the Google phone). However, I don’t think it’s significantly better or the type of game-changer that many critics were unfairly claiming it should be. If you were ready to sign a new contract and were deciding on a phone, it’d be between the iPhone and Nexus One (or Droid). Before this quarter, there was only one choice. In a year’s time the Android OS has come from the abysmal G1 to I consider a worthy adversary to the iPhone and it’s exciting to know it can only get better.
Blockhead has only gotten better and better, and that’s saying a whole lot when you look at his contemporaries. Deeply intricate instrumental hip hop is a genre that gained numerous contributors after Endtroducing… told unspoken stories without the need for a lyricist. Subsequent albums made the style appear limited, as RJD2 managed only to put out one killer record (Deadringer), and DJ Shadow proved that being the founder doesn’t make you the king with The Outsider. After providing the maudlin soundtrack to Aesop Rock’s audible internal monologues, the New York based beatsmith dropped Music by Cavelight on Ninja Tune in the spring of ’04. While the record had depth and staying power, it wasn’t a demonstration of Blockhead’s full potential. The following year’s Downtown Science was a similar story. Two years later, and after a couple of solid mixtapes, Uncle Tony’s Coloring Book came out, and the path of this producer’s skill had hit a brand new checkpoint, and it happened to come at a slightly higher average BPM rate. Blockhead has been playing with Ableton Live, so we can expect something a bit more loop based with The Music Scene. If you’ve used the software or seen it it used, you can probably guess that a guy like Blockhead will run with it. The Music Scene is out tomorrow on Ninja Tune records.
On my flight out to Hong Kong from New York earlier this week, I had the pleasure of trying out Cathay Pacific’s new business class seat for the first time (at my own expense). Spending 16 hours on a plane is never fun, but I have to say, it went by in an absolute flash this trip and it was all because of the seat.
I’ve written about all kinds of aircrafts, seats, classes and long-haul international flying options and I’ve got to say these new fully-flat seats on the 777-300ER Cathay planes are some of the best I’ve ever experienced.
As background, it’s important to know the difference between “fully-flat” and “lie-flat” seats. There are plenty of airlines that will give you a lie-flat seat, but they angle it at the ground to fit more in the cabin. These slanted seats constantly feel like you’re sliding down them and you’re always thinking you’re going to fall right off. Fully-flat seats are, well, completely flat. Horizontal to the ground and most like your bed at home (or, they certainly try to be).
Layout wise, the business class on Cathay Pacific is most like Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class. The herringbone style lineup gives extra privacy when you recline it into a flat bed and although it feels a little sardine-like at times, it feels good to have walls up on both sides of you while you sleep. Design wise, there’s not much to say. It isn’t much to look at (that’s not the point), but it’s soft and comfortable in all the right places and allowed more than enough room for me to stretch out fully with room to spare.
The entertainment system is also worth mentioning as I think it’s the first setup I’ve ever seen which easily rivals (if not beats) Virgin America’s highly technical and impressive system in the USA. Entertainment was shown on a massive moveable HD wide screen. One gripe of most planes is immovable screens but not here. A complimentary noise canceling headsets was also included. I was able to watch Star Trek in all it’s glory, create a good playlist for the trip, and choose from what seemed to be easily more than 100 on-demand movies and TV shows to make my selection.
For me, the true test of any airplane seat like this is simple. Did I sleep? Like a baby. 11 hours worth (with no pharmaceuticals). A highly recommended seat, and amazing treat!
Asking a seasoned traveler for the name of a good Chinese restaurant is like searching online for a custom made shirt. With no chance to feel the hand of the fabric or compare that particular shade of blue you like with your skin tone, the search for right tastes and a healthy blend of ingredients is elusive at best and can often lead to a major disappointment if not a sour stomach. So, it was a rare and welcome discovery to sit down to the five-course near perfection offered up by Chef Chan Yan Tak at Lung King Heen in Hong Kong. Situated in the spectacular Four Seasons Hotel (the largest Four on the planet), this three star Michelin master holds court daily for diners whose adoration for dim sum bring them to the ongoing power lunch scene around the peaceful, spacious and beautifully arranged tables of this stellar restaurant. We passed up the initial invite for lunch so as to be able instead to savor a delicious dinner we will lovingly remember.
Well prepared to feast on a variety of Chef Chan's Cantonese signature dishes, we passed over the objectionable but requisite opening page of twelve shark's fin this and that to make our selection from the not-so-obvious fish and seafood, tofu, vegetable, rice and noodle offerings many diners consider side dishes. Carnivorous reviewers of Lung King Heen have already waxed eloquent about the numerous beef and pork entrees which are a standard in Hong Kong; however, our intention was to ascertain whether or not a globe-trotting vegetarian, vegan or macrobiotic diner could leave feeling healthy and sated without exceeding the credit card limit. Following the complimentary opener "“ a nibble of bean curd floating atop three straight, bright string beans cleverly arranged to reflect the I Ching hexagram for Heaven, a platter of eight small servings of "Crispy Scallops with Fresh Pear" (pictured below) started the meal with sweet slices of fruit bonded to the tender seafood by a thin layer of rich shrimp pÃ¢tÃ©. Numbers play a big role in all of Hong Kong, the land of feng shui and good fortune, where three and eight carry promising significance. The scallop-pair combination was like a fine French pastry and made us giddy with anticipation.
"Fried Rice with Lobster and Seafood" was equally divine; the rich taste of the rice combined well with sweet peas, tiny slivers of carrot delicately mixed with small bites of succulent lobster, prawn and crab. The result was tasty without being too filling, as much a light vegetable dish as one with seafood. From the page entitled "Organic, Vegetarian" we selected the "Five Grain Noodles and Assorted Vegetables", abandoning our gluten-free preference for this special occasion. Both full of flavor and rich, this was as fine a noodle dish as any we'd ever had, the accent on the organic solidly noticeable with each bite. Since most noodle dishes in lesser establishments are often buoyed by water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and Chinese cabbage, the absence of these staple fillers has to be acknowledged.
More familiar with tofu than most other patrons (my family has made our own for four decades), we were eager to try the "Crispy Tofu Sheet Rolls with Vegetables." We'd happily devour this dish, with a bowl of brown rice (not served here) and steamed greens, on a daily basis "“ that is if we could prepare it as well as Chef Chan did. It was exceptionally appetizing and totally enjoyable.
Despite our sense that we'd ordered the right amount to share, we soon realized our dinner would pack well for a four-hour plane ride the next day. Our wish would be graciously granted as the remaining food was taken to the kitchen and boxed for travel. This gave us a chance to sample one of the eight dessert bean or fruit puddings and one of the eight innovative pastries offered on the menu. Accompanied by Fuding Silver Needle Tea, a surprising twist awaited us as we sampled the "Chilled Coconut Pudding with Hasma and Longan." While the "Red Bean Cream with Lotus Seed" was pleasant enough, the Coconut Pudding was truly unusual. It was a wholly unrecognizable taste: a sweet, light custardy soufflÃ© layered between cool agar, somewhere between sparkling aspic and Japanese kanten.
Vegans, vegetarians and macros take note: don't settle for ordinary rice and bean curd just to save money in the great city of Hong Kong. Assuming they sample the beef, pork and shark's fin items on the menu, most people pay $150 – $200 each at Lung King Heen. Calculating that our meal served three people generously, the tab was $50 US per person, and we dined at the only three star Michelin Chinese restaurant in Asia. If that's not great value for money, then my tai chi is full of hungry ghosts.
The surprise ending? Hasma, known for its health-giving properties, are moist, chewy morsels with almost no taste. Hasma is said to be very good for the kidneys, lungs and women's skin as it contains many hormones and has a high lipid content. This is because it is a combination of fat and part of the reproductive area of a white-bellied frog from the north of China. Thus, as the meal ended, we conceded that when searching for healthy food, it just might not be essential to avoid all four-legged creatures that evolution moved out of the water. Astonished that we'd ingested our first amphibious body part, we both left of the same mind, feeling blessed that dinner at Lung King Heen was the best Chinese meal we'd ever had.