Bhutan Afterthoughts

(This is not a travel itinerary, just my personal musings you are welcome to read)

Dear friends,

I had always seen Bhutan as a dreamy, fairytale destination I would be unlikely to experience first hand. Whenever I hear of someone holidaying in Bhutan, I would gush with envy. After all, it is widely known to be the happiest place on earth. And that carina Lau and tony Leung chose to wed there must mean it is exclusive, sophisticated, romantic and beautiful. Right?

Seven years after that high profile wedding, Bhutan remains an uncommon choice for holiday goers. I wonder why? Could the daily tariff (USD 250) and troublesome visa procedure imposed on tourists be barriers of entry? While that certainly filters out some types of holiday goers, I don’t think it is that unreasonable.

When I chanced upon the opportunity to visit Bhutan, I jumped at it. Having spent the past week or so there, here’s what I now think:

1) As a huge country (it takes about a week to travel from one end to the other end), it is surprising that population is below 700,000. What’s even more amazing is that 90% of the country is forested. Nature is truly untouched here, and the natural beauty is evident everywhere you turn, in the most magnificent scale. There could be miles of forestry and mountains, and one lone house. How do people live like that? How did they build the house? How do they get electricity? What about food and shopping?

2) It is easy to see how this place is seen as spiritual. The natural beauty is so grand and overwhelming that you can’t help but feel serene and tranquil in its midst. I kept a slow pace throughout my holiday, stopping intermittently to admire my surroundings, and letting the calmness wash over me. Bhutanese are fiercely devoted to their religion. More than 99% of them are Buddhist and it is common for boys/girls to choose the monastic route, even a life of meditation. Almost all attractions in Bhutan are centuries-old temples, deeply entrenched in the history of Buddhism.

3) Yet, it constantly amazed me how such isolated people in seemingly basic conditions could have access to iPhones and Samsung Notes. For a place where most roads are unpaved, it’s ridiculous how I would be in the middle of a forest and hear the silly sound effects of Facebook messenger. Even monks in the temples would be typing away on their phones. I am at the same time confused and amused!

4) It isn’t easy to get around Bhutan. With population numbers so low, a transportation network wouldn’t make sense. Cars drive on unpaved roads, and when you hit a mountain, you have to climb over it. Even for tourists, we had to hike for hours everyday to see the attractions. I think this is part of the charm of Bhutan. Most tourists are game for it. Curious Caucasians and spiritual Asians brought out their best hiking gear and challenged the slippery slopes, rocky terrain, occasional rain showers, to emerge happier, accomplished and it’s all part of the experience.

5) the beauty of Bhutan is unforgettable. It still moves me when I recall it. I hope it continues to protect and sustain its environment – and may it prosper to greater heights under the new king and his beautiful bride.

I know bhutan will start fading from my memory, when I start getting caught up in work and city life. So I will post a few pictures here soon.

Chew doma and bye bys

Shin Gi Tai @ Waterloo Street

You won’t find much about Shin Gi Tai online. This four month old bar has a relatively low profile, because they realized that over-marketing draws in the wrong kind of crowd. In its early days, its marketing efforts attracted guys looking for happy hour beers. Shin Gi Tai is a classic cocktail bar. So lesson learnt – Shin Gi Tai now depends on word of mouth for footfall.

Shin Gi Tai is basically a one man show. This is also one reason why Anthony (owner/bartender) has had to turn away large groups before. Besides part time help from time to time, Anthony has to run all operations single-handedly. This includes bartending, cooking, cleaning, entertaining and even book keeping I guess. So if you order 10 drinks and 10 bar bites at the same time, you might have to wait.

I must say, he pulls off this one man show with aplomb. Being the only Singaporean bartender ever trained in Japan (hence the name Shin Gi Tai), you can see Anthony is quite the talent. One of my favourite drinks on the menu is the Truffle Whiskey Sour. The smokiness of the whiskey closed off with subtle truffle. Definitely magic on my tastebuds.

If you are feeling adventurous, do also ask Anthony for something omakase. He has a daily fruit basket, from which he can whip up some creative fresh fruit cocktails for you. I chose a cognac base with apple and cinammon – it was thick and frothy, and felt like an apple pie.

I think Shin Gi Tai is a no frills, simple bar with serious cocktails. Patrons are mostly friends of the bar, and there is a casual air about the place, as if you are at a friend’s home. Great for a lazy night out.

PS. If you were/are a patron of Jigger & Pony you might recognize Anthony.

Seoul Afterthoughts

Throw a stone in the air and it will probably land on a Singaporean blogger’s 5d4n Seoul itinerary. So I won’t dwell much, just noting some afterthoughts for future reference.

Best place to stay: Myeongdong hotels are where all the action is. More interesting boutique hotels can be found further away, but I would not trade in my convenience. Skypark, Ninetree and Pacific hotel are safe bets.

Things to buy: Korean cosmetics are *arguably* the country’s biggest draw. Do note that Laneige there is about the same price as Singapore though. MUST BUY: IOPE Air Cushion XP. You can’t get it in Singapore and it is definitely the best cushion make up around. Perfectly natural looking dewy finish!

Definitely buy a pair of sunglasses from homegrown brand Gentle Monster. They are the one big thing in Korea and the next big thing worldwide. Their mind blowing flagship store at Garosugil is a MUST VISIT.

Where to shop: Underground shopping at almost every metro station is kinda already shopping heaven. For cheap street shopping, people enjoy going to Ewha and Hongdae. If you prefer something more modern contemporary (like urban outfitters concept), do check out Korea’s pride and glory – Stylenanda and A Land. For high end Korean designs and international designers, Lotte Department store. There is also a Lotte Young Plaza beside it that’s more affordable.

Word of caution; shopping in korea isn’t cheap… BUT if you like cheap, I discovered the gem that is Star 101, a shop at Myeongdong that has nice stuff at nice prices. It is near A Land Myeongdong branch and Spicy Color.

Things to do: Korean perms originated from Korea, duh! Get one here @ Juno Hair Salon.

Spend a day doing the JSA (Panmunjom) tour to see the mysterious North Korea. Highly informative, and now I want to know more! Remember to book the tour through a tour agent online, and provide your passport information a week before. This is very important.

Things to skip: Nami Island, Gangchon Rail Park and Petite France. Trust me on this please.

Time to go: Anytime but summer. There have been Korean dramas like “Winter Sonata”, “Autumn In My Heart”. I’m sure there’s one about spring too. But I bet there aren’t any about Korea’s hot hot summer.

What to eat: Uh where do I start?? I love Korean food so much! My fave was Maple Tree BBQ (MUST VISIT) for a more posh and modern take on Korean bbq. I had fried chicken at Two Two. Andong chicken at Yeolbong Jjimbak. Ginseng chicken at Toksokchon. Seafood at Noryangjin Wholesale market. Dumplings at Myeongdong gyoja. Korean porridge at bonjuk. Chicken galbi. Army stew. Cold noodles. And all the street food!! Never not eating.

Transport: Just take a cab. It’s cheap.

All about the bars

Things have changed a lot since I last wrote about a cocktail bar. I have changed as well. Through new friends made and new places frequented, I have learnt many new things that changed my perspective on cocktails totally.

It all started on 31 December 2014, I was ushering in the new year with a staycation at marina bay sands. While looking for dinner options, we were very lucky to have gotten seats at Cut for the night. If you follow me on Instagram (@stephsiau), you would already know of my Cut obsession.
I fell in love in an instant. Before I knew it, I was back at Cut the next day. Then I was going once to twice a week. And then I guess you can say the rest is history.

My experiences at Cut have taught me a lot about food service and standards. And this rings true for their bar as well.

The things I look for are no longer limited to a strong kick or gimmicky ingredients. I find joy in picking out all the ingredients in the drink (is it laphroaig whiskey?) and understanding the balance in a drink (that jalapeño goes really well with the tequila!) and the reason for each ingredient (egg white adds a texture that allows flavours to shine). Of course all this is impossible without a good bartender to help.

I have come to learn that a good cocktail and bar experience is heavily dependent on a good bartender. Good bartenders offer a wealth of knowledge and experience. The way they carve that ice block (Manhattan @ Regent Hotel even stamps each individual ice cube with their logo), stir your glasses with ice till they are chilled, and even the way their hands are gripping their tools, or where they place their measurements. Everything counts towards being a good bartender. Under a good bartender, nothing goes unnoticed.

Bartenders, when you engage them, can teach you a lot. I have tasted so many whiskeys and learnt my favourite gins thanks to bartenders who like to share their knowledge. I’m deeply grateful for the lessons!

Nowadays, I value being a regular at my favourite bar over checking out hip new bars. I’m never disappointed and I enjoy having my favourite bartenders as a part of my night. I find that many new bars are heavy on concept but fail to deliver on quality. It’s disappointing and a waste of time and money. But I’m always happy to find a good surprise. My next destination is Operation Dagger on bukit pasoh; I have heard that their drinks are simple but their techniques and knowledge are remarkable.
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A few notes on Cut:

Cut Singapore has among the longest cocktail lists in all Cut restaurants worldwide. The head bartender is invited to Bahrain, Dubai, to train the new bartenders in the new Cut establishments. Trust me you are in good hands. They would bend over backwards for all their patrons, and they only put out their best.

They only open for dinner, but everyone’s clocked in as early as 10am to get the ball rolling. I have not met a more cohesive and dedicated team. Everyone I have spoken to absolutely love their jobs at Cut. This says a lot.

It also says a lot when the restaurant/bar is filled with regulars. Everyone pretty much knows each other. It’s love all around!

I am very happy that another Wolfgang puck restaurant, Spago, is opening at marina bay sands hotel this year!

Steph’s Notes on Paris Part 2: The New Favourites

This recent trip to Paris has introduced me to new spots in the city, the following which are my favourites.

Bars

Mary Celeste – Blown away by this two-storey cornershop bar/resto. It is a grossly popular cocktail bar, but to me the star of the night was definitely their devilled eggs. I know you’re thinking, you can make devilled eggs at home. Trust me these are like no devilled eggs you have ever tasted. If I had to guess, the eggs were cooked in a broth, and they seasoned it with sesame. Place gets very crowded.

Artisan – While Mary Celeste was grungy, Artisan was arty farty. The space was open and well lit, looked more like a perfume lab than a cocktail bar. Chic!

Sherry Butt – Surprisingly it isn’t all sherry at Sherry Butt. But in a similar vein because the focus is on old man drinks, aka all my fave brown coloured liquids. The decor is very plush and manly like a cigar den but it’s actually a very friendly place and good for groups, cuz there are sofa seats.

Restaurants

Heimat – I cannot tell you how many “neo French”, “modern French”, “contemporary French” restaurants I have been to. But I just can’t find any bad with the cuisine, as pretentious as it sounds. I always manage to find a better one every time. Heimat is a blend of Italian and French cuisines. I thoroughly enjoyed every dish. Example: a strip of mackerel with ricotta and citrus cream and some sprouts. Linguine with a light cream and fish bits that tastes like udon.

David Toutain – I waited 9 months to try this restaurant! He loves to play on seasonable vegetables, and there were plenty of roots I couldn’t recognize during the meal sadly. But it’s not vegetarian! One dish had squid cut up like kway teow and served as a carb. You will find twigs and rocks on your plates. Service was stellar, they even let me choose my own knife from their collection of very quirky knives!

Le Dauphin – By the same people who brought us Le Chateaubriand, and is right next door to it. The main difference is, at Le Dauphin you can order a la carte, while Le Chateaubriand offers only set menus in two seatings. Le Dauphin places strong emphasis on drinking, and is a very vibrant restaurant. The food was sharing plates. I love paris!

Steph’s Notes on Paris (Non touristy; where to eat drink shop in Paris)

I am writing this for future reference, and to keep these memories golden forever.

Montmartre

Touristy, but absolutely magical to climb the steps and walk the ancient streets that Picasso, Modigliani, Van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Dali and many others hung out at. The view at the top when you reach the Sacre Couer cannot be justified with words. Beautiful.

Pigalle 

(A short walk from Montmartre. Pigalle used to be a sleazy part of town for prostitutes. It has now cleaned up and is emerging with a few hip spots and night clubs, but generally still quite quiet like it is waiting to be discovered.)

Buvette – Named as the place Lefooding fell in love with the most this year. Me too. Cafes need to learn from Buvette. It has a simple yet satisfying menu. We had a tasty chicken salad and a waffle sandwich and wine. Sometimes, a simple meal like this is better than any Michelin starred fine dining meal. Highly recommended.

Glass – A new bar in the neighbourhood. Dark, rustic, wooden interior. Music is very good soul/jazz. They have daily specials and I couldn’t stop complimenting them on their slushie shots that go for 3 euros each. Refreshing and tasty and a brilliant way to salvage leftover ingredients. They serve complimentary salted popcorn, and we also ordered a piping hot and toasty hot dog. Delicious.

Other worthwhile visits: Dirty Dick

Opera

Porte 12: This restaurant was only three weeks old when we visited. We were lucky to snag a table because I made a reservation the minute they opened. Why is there so much hype around this restaurant? Chef Andre Chiang, whose eponymous restaurant in Singapore is #38 best restaurant in the world, has opened an outpost Paris. However, he is not helming the kitchen here. Chef Vincent, who worked with Chef Andre before, created the menu. Even the staff have worked with Andre before. Great food! So much thought went into the dishes and every component is well balanced! I might do a solo post on this restaurant if I have time. 68 euros per person before tax and wine.

Le Richer: They do not accept reservations so be prepared for long queues here! It is a casual bistro-style restaurant with pretty complex dishes and fresh ingredients.

Shopping: Galeries Lafeyette and Printemps are the biggest names here. I recommend that you walk through it if you must, then make a beeline straight to the top floor of Lafeyette for the rooftop garden where you can take in sights of the Eiffel Tower, the Opera and Paris.

Other worthwhile visits: L’Office

Goncourt/ Votaire/ Charonne/ Bastille

(Home to the hippest restaurants in town!)

Bones: This reminded me a lot of my favourite restaurant in Singapore, Burnt Ends, possibly because both have Australian chefs. Rustic, smokey flavours. I loved this from start to end. It is 70 euros per person without wine.

Le Chauteaubriand: Hot favourite restaurant recommended by so many people from Anthony Bourdain to a friendly bartender. Hipster french food. They have the most mind blowing dessert! It is 70 euros per person without wine. Check it out for yourself.

Le Floreal: I like this place because I get an extensive list of wines and cocktails, and fresh seafood platters to go along with it. Good fresh seafood in a very hip atmosphere! Right next to the metro station, very convenient.

Other worthwhile visits: Frenchie, Septime, Perchoir

Marais

Glou: Recommended in the Michelin guide, you know it’s good. I love it for its laidbackness, and quality of food is top notch. Order a simple steak tartare and it will probably be the best you have ever tasted. There’s a special something in their food.

Breizh Cafe: Some say they have the best crepes in Paris. Definitely worth a stop. I would choose the savoury crepes made from buckwheat because I think they are definitive of Paris. Sweet crepes can be found anywhere. They have wide selection of ciders to go along with your crepe.

Shopping: Shine at15 Rue de Poitou carries a lot of things I like. You can find comptoir des cotonniers, Helmut Lang and Zadig & Voltaire along the same street. The Kooples and Sandro shops are along Rue Des Francs Bourgeois (must visit), Karl by Karl Lagerfeld at Rue Vieille du Temple, and a department store BHV Le Marais. End off your shopping day by taking in the magnificent sight of Hotel De Ville, a stone’s throw away from BHV. When I was there, a timeout event was going on and the square was filled with giant white balloons, with the magnificent building as backdrop

Other worthwhile visits: Marche L’Enfants (outdoor food market) and Bibi Idea Shop (where i bought the whole shop down!)

St Germain

L’Atelier Joel Robuchon: This branch at St Germain has 2 michelin stars. A discovery meal is 175 euros per person. Surprisingly, it is not hard to get a table. I managed a walk-in and was seated. Something I must point out is that it is not suitable for big groups because it is bar seating. The food is French, not many surprises from the meal. It is okay.

L’Comptoir: As you can see from my restaurant recommendations so far, I am not fan of traditional french food because it is too rich and heavy. However, L’Comptoir scaled down portions and revised it for modern palates. Another plus point is it is open all day, meaning you can stop by for a snack and wine at 4pm. Recommended by Anthony Bourdain.

Prescription Cocktail Club: Opened by the illustruous Experimental Cocktail Club brand, a small speakeasy that has no signboard on the exterior, and the bouncer will ask you a question before you are allowed to enter. It has loud music, but is comfortable with its couches and lounges. We tried a couple of their creative cocktails, but ended off with our favourite classics: Side Car for me and Old Fashioned for him. Always.

Terroir Parisien: Chef Yannick Alleno who received his Michelin star at Le Meurice left to open this bistro. He gives his modern take on traditional french food in this vibrant venue.

Shopping: Boulevard Saint Germain has boutiques like Kenzo, the first Diptyque store, and most importantly, department store Le Bon Marche. Equally well stocked as Printemps and Lafayette, but with NO TOURISTS. Be sure to check out their gourmet wing as well.

Rue Saint Honore

Colette: The one shopping stop I highly recommend. I always tell my boyfriend that the merchandising in Colette is one I strongly admire. Everything is interesting, conversation worthy, trendy, unexpected, and so much more.

Chanel store at Rue Cambon: It is such a chore to buy Chanel in Paris. There is so much waiting involved. But if you are interested in getting your Chanel fix in exclusive white boxes and white paper bags, go to the Rue Cambon store. There are a few other stores down the next street. Those have shorter waiting times but black paper bags. The decision is yours.

Bookmarc: Marc Jacobs’ only bookstore. Drop by, get a pen or sharpie or notebook.

Eiffel Tower

Les Tablettes de Jean Louis Nomicos: Michelin starred restaurant near the Eiffel. The set menu comes with two glasses of wine and is a reasonable price of about 80 euros for a Michelin experience.

David Toutain: Hottest place to eat in Paris now! Lots of vegetables in this meal. Hard to get reservation.

Burnt Ends @ Teck Lim Road

Burnt Ends is no stranger to publicity as it has been featured on the New York Times, and named among the hottest restaurants of 2014 on Zagat.

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It is a collaboration between Loh Lik Peng (local hotelier/restauranteur) and Andre Chiang (of Restaurant Andre). Kitchen is helmed by Aussie David Pynt – who has had a long history with barbecue (in Aus & London), therefore – he makes the perfect fit at Burnt Ends, which as you might have guessed, serves smoked/ grilled/ wood-fired dishes.

As such, I would consider a good oven to be the backbone of support at such a restaurant, as all its dishes rely on it. Sure enough, their oven was custom-built to accommodate different temperature settings for different dishes at once. This can go up to 1,700 degC. Another system that caught my eye was the open grill, that can be lowered and raised using a lever. This was also custom and designed by David Pynt himself.

Look around the restaurant, it is small with only 18 seats along a bar counter. There is a no-reservations policy except for the chef’s table – which takes reservations almost 2 months in advance and has a min spend of $100/head. Of course, it is worth every penny. The open concept restaurant lets you witness the start-to-finish of your dish, and more interestingly, the theatrics of this lively kitchen. There is non-stop movement and action that adds to the unmissable burnt ends experience.

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I started with a warmed oyster ($6), which is a fresh raw oyster in delicious hot soup – I made out melted butter and white wine.

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Next we had the smoked quail eggs, their signature ($6 for 5). The egg is bouncy on the outside and when you bite into it, the yolk explodes in your mouth like a tasty revelation. The smokiness from the grill is perfectly conveyed to you via the eggs, which makes it the perfect introduction to the restaurant, and start to our meal.

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On a separate visit, we had the smoked quail eggs with caviar ($15 for one). It adds a decadent texture to the classic dish, but you can do without it.

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Fennel with orange and burrata was a well balanced blend of creaminess and tanginess – with added crunch.

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Their other signature is the Burnt Ends Sanger, which has in it pulled pork, cole slaw, chipotle aioli in a brioche bun ($20).

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The Iliocostalis ($14) was a small piece of beef, with crispy fats around it, and tender meat in the center. Served with mustard. Came highly recommended by our waiter with reason, if you are looking for a savoury starter, or meats in small portions.

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The only main we ordered was the flank with burnt onion and bone marrow ($23 per 100g). Even though flank is usually the cheaper part of a cow, this was amazingly tender. It was beautiful watching our chef cut up the piece of cooked meat to reveal the red rareness of the meat inside. Would do this again 1 million times.

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Dessert came in the form of a burnt lemon sherbet, blueberry compote, marshmallow and crumble. It would have been perfect without the blueberry which overwhelmed the dish and confused our tastebuds. ($12)

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I find the dishes reasonably priced for this standard. Definitely deserves a revisit.