Sunday, September 27, 2015

Discovering Asakusa in Tokyo, Japan

When I first went to Tokyo in 2010, I did plenty of research on where to stay, and, consistently, Shinjuku came out on top, with Ginza a close second for its proximity to Tsukiji Market and to high-end shops. I loved the energy of Shinjuku but we didn’t get to do our hotel booking early enough this time. We ran out of rooms in the places we were considering.

A store selling those popular rice crackers
I started looking for options in AirBNB. I opted out of Shinjuku because I was afraid we would end up at the red light district. I saw some promising apartments in Roponggi, Asakusa and Ginza. Mon, who lived in Tokyo for some time and was conversant in Japanese, said we were better off staying at either of the latter two neighborhoods.

We opted for the apartment in Asakusa because it looked really promising in pictures. The posting indicated that it could accommodate 10 people so there should be more than sufficient space for four. The first time I came to Tokyo, I stayed in a highly recommended hotel in Shinjuku where the room can hardly accommodate two people with luggage.

What a fantastic choice it ended up to be. We had a hard time getting our bearings from the Asakusa train station but once we figured out where we were supposed to go, transportation became less of a concern.

There's plenty of small, quaint restaurants but they fill up fast so come early and be prepared to wait
The historic district of Asakusa has a more traditionally Japanese atmosphere than other Tokyo neighborhoods. It has plenty of small, family-run restaurants and shops in narrow streets that are a pleasure to get lost in. It also has the oldest geisha district in Tokyo, although we didn’t see one during our stay.

Yuka’s Apartment turned out to be a great find because it’s right on the fifth floor of Rox 3G, which is one of three annex buildings of Rox, the only shopping mall you’ll find in the area.

The building and unit were both spotless. It must be obsessively cleaned because there’s not a spot of dirt even in the hard-to-scrub grout. The apartment was a great model of Japanese aesthetics—clean, well-structured, understated. I loved how storage is built into the walls, and how the different areas are partitioned with sliding doors so that you can enjoy the open structure and still have privacy when it’s called for. The entire place was equipped with necessities for cooking, bathing and cleaning, and stocked up with supplies including rolls of toilet paper, towels, beddings, etc.

Tokyo SkyTree

Senso-ji Temple
 From the balcony or through the glass doors of the living room, you can enjoy a view of the Tokyo SkyTree and Senso-ji temple. After an entire day of walking, we loved sitting together in front of the television with our munchies to relax. To get all that at half the price of a tourist hotel in Tokyo was a big stroke of luck.

One of the best things about it is its proximity to Nakamise and Shin-Nakamise Shopping Streets. Nakamise is lined with small vendor stalls selling items and local snacks. Shin-Nakamise or new Nakamise is a shopping arcade with interesting shops and restaurants. It runs perpendicular to the old shopping street. You can spend and entire day there because there’s plenty of interesting things to see.

Local snacks
I could spend all day sampling bites at Nakamise
A cluster of street-side bars where you can drink all night


Asakusa is small enough to discover on foot but if you don’t have enough time or want to discover the neighborhood comfortably seated on a high perch, book a rickshaw tour. Asakusa is the only place in Tokyo rickshaws are allowed to operate. Tours are offered in different languages.

One of the unexpected benefits of riding a rickshaw was getting an insider recommendation to a fantastic yakiniku place, which I will feature in the next post.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Ultimate Taste Test 2015: A Verdict

I’ve been a reader of Anton’s blog for years. I love that he has almost every restaurant in Manila covered, and then some.

So when he announced that he was holding an Ultimate Taste Test 2015 (UTT15) event in September, I immediately informed the foodie family and friends. Our group of 13 trooped to Glorietta mall on September 12 to sample the offerings of over 40 food purveyors.

After getting our names verified at the registration counter, we were provided a map to the venue as well as a “Passport”, a score sheet with the names of all the concessionaires whose food we were supposed to rate and comment on. The vendors signed the sheet after handing out their dishes. Most booths offered two items for the participants to sample.

Since Judd, my nieces Joanna and Jenna, and I were the last to arrive in our group, we went straight to eating. Our bigger group claimed the peripheral area of the stage as our own so after sampling and/or collecting our food items, we would take a break, go to our spot, and write down the scores on our individual sheets.

Truth be told, we didn’t really use the map. We sort of intuitively agreed to cover the outer circle first and then the inner cluster. But we didn’t strictly follow that rule either. Mostly, we were following our nose.

One of the first things we tried was the beignet of Kapeng Mainit. I am a beignet fiend but it is so hard to find a good one here in Manila. We made quite a scene while having a taste of these doughnuts because we were making unintelligible sounds of appreciation.

 Kapeng Mainit’s beignets have a light crunch, with a puffy, chewy interior that oozed green tea cream with every bite. I didn’t mind that I was covered with powdered sugar after finishing my piece. I wanted another one.

I cannot quite forget the tiny bite of fat-rimmed, beautifully crusted roasted Angus U.S. beef at The Beef Barn’s station. Dipped in the wild mushroom sauce, it was quite fantastic. They are set to open in Eastwood Citywalk in October so that’s something to watch out for.


Some of my friends regard Hainanese chicken as nothing more than just tinolang manok. Maybe they have a point but, in good Hainanese chicken, you get a bird that is perfectly moist and silky, something I’ve never quite experienced with tinola. Being a fan of this dish, I was thrilled to find Chivy & Co.’s Sous Vide Hainanese Chicken Rice. It was difficult to truly appreciate the subtle flavors of Hainanese chicken rice in a single mouthful, and it was hard to tell if the sous vide process made a marked difference, but the taste was sensational. I look forward to having this as a meal and comparing it with my favorite Stevie’s Hainanese chicken.

For me, callos is always a reason to break bread. It’s a family favorite and I am happy to report that the one purveyor who offered it at UTT15 did so exceedingly well. Tarlaquena’s callos was melting with tripe and tendon that seem to have been braised forever.

Other noteworthy bites included the following:

The flavor-packed Al Pastor taco of Su Casa Grill

The salted coco caramel of First Harvest, a social enterprise under the Gawad Kalinga Farm

Actress Maricar Reyes’s uber-moist choco-liquor cakes
Poco Deli's juicy kielbasa classic

Of the more than 40 food stations, I was able to cover only 15. Next time we join the UTT, we’ll make a day of it. It’s a fun activity for the family and a group of friends because you get to discover new things together, play food critic for a day, and interact with food entrepreneurs whose passion for their products are inspiring and infectious. On top of that, it was a well-organized event. It helped that Anton published a Survival Guide days before so we knew exactly what to expect.

‘Looking forward to the next one.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Kettle Restaurant: Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Mac & Four Cheese

I am a big fan of Ina Garten, otherwise known as “The Barefoot Contessa.” I’ve wanted to make her oven-fried chicken since I first read the recipe in one of her cookbooks, but I couldn’t find buttermilk anywhere. Marinating chicken in buttermilk keeps the meat tender and juicy even as it goes through the frying process.

When I read about Kettle and its buttermilk fried chicken last year through Anton’s blog, I immediately set a date with my brother for lunch so we could try out the place. The buttermilk-brined crisply crusted chicken had an ethereal crunch that is, indeed, crave-worthy, especially drizzled with gravy and honey. Just a tad more seasoning and it will be perfect.

On my recent visit with my foodie family, I discovered items that rival the chicken in terms of comfort food points.

Take this Mac & Four Cheese. This simple, back-to-basics food is turned into a gooey masterpiece by the combination of Cheddar, Gruyere, Fontina and Parmesan. Topped with bacon bits, it is at once creamy, nutty and tangy. Genius.

We also enjoyed the clam chowder soup. In fact, we liked it so much that we ordered two more after the first bowl. I usually prefer mine chunkier but no one can argue that this is good clam chowder, creamy and full of flavor. The best part is when the sourdough bread bowl has absorbed enough of the soup that you can scrape just the right amount of soup and bread with your spoon. Perfect cold weather food.

Even my youngest niece Julia is a truffle pasta lover. Much as I’d like to like Kettle’s Truffle Gorgonzola pasta, however, I found the two main flavors at odds with each other.

Jenna ordered this Angues Roastbeef Hash because she loves potatoes. The beef was tender and the chewy potatoes were addictive. I've had better versions of roast beef, however, so I can't say I'm a fan.

Joy ordered the Shimp Po'Boy, which she shared with Che. Che liked the crunch but thought it needed a little more remoulade. I didn't get to try this but I am happy to discover that the Po'Boy (a contraction of "poor boy") has an interesting history.

5th floor East Wing
Shangri-La Plaza
Phone (632) 654-7077

Monday, September 14, 2015

My Love Affair With The Red Crab

My foodie family loves crabs. They are our favorite crustaceans, hands down. We would always consider serving them when we have guests coming over, or on any ordinary day that we could get our hands on good-sized ones, preferably bursting with aligue, the crab’s cholesterol-laden digestive system also called hepatopancreas. We love aligue so much we would buy bottled taba ng talangka to mix with our rice or pasta. My sister-in-law Joy used to buy them from a source in Pampanga.

Home-cooked curacha
At home, we would usually have our crabs steamed, sometimes with just ginger and lemongrass. Other times, we would have them fried with garlic or covered with aligue for more decadence.

Anywhere in the world, crabs are always a great idea (even in Vietnam where I once saw them listed on the menu as crap). Whenever I’m in San Francisco, my friends would drive me to Judah Street to dine at a Vietnamese restaurant called Thanh Long. Their roasted crab and garlic noodles are a pairing like no other.

White Pepper Crab at No Reservations

When my friend Badette and I went to Singapore last May, we enjoyed white pepper crabs at No Reservations and chili crabs at Lau Pa Sat Market. We actually ordered the black pepper crab at Lau Pa Sat but the waiter misunderstood and served us the chili crab instead.

When I couldn’t have crabs at home, I go get my fix at The Red Crab Alimango House. I equally love Casa Armas’s Thanh-Long-style king crab but it has ceased being an option since the restaurant closed its Podium branch.

Almost always, I go for Red Crab’s Crab Maritess. The crab is buried in a pile of toasted garlic that I love mixing with my steamed rice. When I used to have an annual catch-up lunch with my former boss, Boss Mike, this is what we’d order, along with his favorite, adobong pusit.

On this recent visit with Judd, however, I went for the Fidel’s Black Pepper Crab because I’ve been craving for the peppered version since that botched opportunity in Singapore.

We chose an 800-gram crab, classified as big, which is a good size for two people. They certainly didn’t hold back on the black pepper; the condiment enfolded the entire crab.

I went for the carapace first, and got as much as I could of the “crab butter.” I loved peeling the pepper-drenched cornflour-coating and mixing it with my rice. Then I went for the body while Judd had the claws. I pried the meat out of every chamber. The cartilage was tough, but the flesh was sweet and spectacularly delicious laced with the moderate heat of the black pepper and ginger. Thank God I was wearing a bib because, midway through the meal, I had butter dribbling down my chin and black pepper splattered all over me. I was licking my fingers until the end, perfectly content at what I consider to be a truly happy meal.

The Red Crab Alimango House
Tomas Morato Ave, Diliman, Quezon City
Phone (632) 374-8406

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Foodie’s Guide to the Best Music Venues in Metro Manila (A Series)

When I was in my 20s, I’d go to every Cynthia Alexander and Session Road gig I could find, in the constant company of my BFFs Badette, Doyts, Leda, Io and Cristie. We were then publishing a multicultural lifestyle magazine called Tribu. It was a time of intellectual and spiritual awakening for me. I loved being in the company of artists and thinkers. We would spend hours chatting at Inca, attend events at Big Sky Mind, street party on Nakpil or just hang out at Penguin Café in Malate. Those were the days.

I used to dress this way and teach mask-making in EarthLite at the former COD Building in Cubao
These days, I still go out to listen to bands, mostly with Judd, who is a big music lover. We have superb local musicians so the music is mostly good, but glutton that I am, I am often there for the food. Here’s my review of different music venues where the food is as good as the music.

Historia Bar & Restaurant
5 Sgt. Esguerra Ave, Diliman, Quezon City
(632) 376-6520

Before we discovered this place, we would drive all the way to Makati to listen to bands. Sometime in July, a friend’s despedida was held here and one of Judd’s favorite bands, MusiClimax, was onstage.

Side A
I decided to hold Judd’s birthday salubong here in August because Side A (minus Joey G. and Joey B.) was scheduled to play. We reserved the air-conditioned function room, which can accommodate up to 100 people. The bigger area where the stage is has no air-conditioning although it is well-ventilated. When the band started playing at 10 p.m., we opened the sliding door that linked the two sections and we were able to enjoy the music while staying cool.

While arranging for the salubong, I discovered that the person in charge of the kitchen was my friend Jaemark’s dad who used to own Joseph and Jaemark’s. Jae suggested which items to order. They were all seriously good but the one standout was the binusog na pechay, which is local bokchoy stuffed with ground pork and smoked fish. The coconut-based sauce was genius. This is one of the things I dream about while fully awake.

Nuvo Restaurant and Bar
Greenbelt 2, Greenbelt Drive, Makati City
Phone (632) 757-3699

Nuvo is our default choice when we want to listen to a band. The band plays at the open area from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. after which they move to the main dining hall for their last set. One of our favorite  bands these days is Crib.

The very talented musicians behind Crib Band

Peppered Chicken
The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is always good. The meatballs spaghetti is one of the best, according to meatballs addict Judd, while I always order the peppered chicken.

Meatballs Spaghetti

It’s always fun when someone orders the linguini dans la meule because Anthony Btesh, the chef, finishes the cooking tableside by flaming a half-wheel of cheese. When the cheese melts, he puts in the pasta. It leaves the room perfumed with truffle oil.

And because every meal should end on a sweet note, you must order their frozen brazo de Mercedes, which has a chewy, nutty dulce de leche bottom crust that I can't resist. 

Salon De Ning Lounge Bar
Ground Floor Manila Peninsula
Ayala Avenue, Makati City
Phone (632) 887-2888
7:00 pm - 2:00 am (Tuesday to Saturday)

I always give myself an outfit check before I decide to go to Salon de Ning. I don’t want to look shabby amid its well-polished Art Deco objects d’art.

The bar is impeccably furnished in sophisticated 1930s Shanghai style, with four semi-private sitting room alcoves. In terms of interiors, this venue is a cut above the rest.

Their bands are also consistently good. At one time, we dropped by with Binky after a cheese event and were surprised to see Juan Miguel Salvador performing! We didn’t know he was still active in the scene. He played all our New Wave favorites and we were simply ecstatic. His band is called The Authority.

I can't say much about the food because all I've tried is the cold cuts platter (which, to my bewilderment, was served with croissants). I usually either dine at the Manila Pen lobby (for the smoked salmon with capers and bagel) or order something from the lobby to be served at the bar. Or munch on the wasabi potato chips and mixed nuts, which are served with my drink. 

110 Jupiter Street
Bel-air, Makati City

I didn’t know why we went to Strumm’s that night in May while Badette was in town and how we ended up watching Route 70 and The Authority. The stars must simply have aligned to take us to the music of our generation, albeit the ‘70s sound is a little early for me and Eyron.

I’m afraid I can’t write much about the food here because Badette and I came from dinner with my family. But if you’re an ‘80s baby like me, come on a Thursday and you’ll have a night to remember.

Sage Tapas Bar
Ground Floor Shangri-La Makati
Ayala Ave. cor. Makati Ave, Makati City
5 p.m. to 2 a.m. (Sunday to Thursday)
5 p.m. to 3 a.m. (Friday and Saturday)

The entrance from the lobby of Shangri-La Hotel Makati

The bar

Two words: Cubano sandwich. It was sweet, smoky, and cheesy, with the proper ratio of filling and bread. So good. So were the chicken lollipops.

Like Salon de Ning, they have a fantastic band lineup for those who are looking to unwind after work, even on a weekday. The bands are always obliging to guests. The best table is at a corner near the stage where you can sit comfortably in club chairs with a full view of the band.


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