Year-end getaway. 

Happy 2016!

It’s amazing how time flies. 2015 seemed to have come and pass in a flash. It was a milestone sort of year for me, witnessing the first major investment of my life so far, with the finalisation of the flat purchase in early January. Renovation proper only started sometime in April, and has dragged on almost to the end of the year. Despite that it is still not 100% complete, the contractor’s work is done and the remaining items are touch-ups and ah hoc works that I found out I should or need to do. Anyway, we have officially crossed into a new year and this will be the year that sees the next chapter of my life.

Before the year ended, I took my final trip of the year, closing 2015 with 5 vacations! I ended where I started the year at – Hong Kong. It was the first vacation of 2015 in January, and it was also where I decided to go for the last vacation of 2015.

As always, flights are in the morning and what better way to start the trip pre-boarding, by having a aromatic cup of local coffee with a warm, lotus seed paste bun. These may not be the best choices for coffee or paus, but nevertheless makes for good comfort food at the airport!We arrived at the hotel in the afternoon, after the usual long, snaking queues clearing the Hong Kong arrival immigration, picking up our luggage and hopping onto the Airport Express train and then connecting shuttle bus from Hong Kong station. Our hotel, Island Pacific, located in the Western District area of Hong Kong Island, was the last stop on the shuttle bus route but it’s still quite a fuss-free and complimentary connection from airport to hotel!

The view from our room, which we didn’t really take the time to enjoy because most days we are out in the day. At night, there weren’t any lights on this part of the opposite shore to beautify the view so we just kept the curtains drawn, which also helps to keep out the cold!
The hotel is generally ok, but I felt the decor and its overall look and feel were a little dated – the old-school kind of hotel complete with amber lighting. I found the housekeeping standards of the hotel quite inconsistent, and they don’t seem to be thorough enough despite that on the whole, we kept the room quite clean and tidy. Maybe that’s also the reason why they don’t spend extra effort on the house-keep because they think everything is in place? Hmm.  The bathroom, with the marble vanity top, is just so typical. Haha.
After dropping off our luggage and snapping some photos of the room, we decided to head out to grab coffee. In anticipation of possibly nicer coffee that I could get, I hadn’t requested for any coffee or tea onboard, and the short hours I had the night before had already wore out the effects of the morning Kopi-O. Or so I would like to think, to justify the need for a second cuppa!

There was this place in Sheung Wan that was on my list of cafes to visit and as we walked past it, it was just the opportune time to pop in. Barista Jam, which was just on the street opposite to Holiday Inn Express Soho, which I had stayed at last December, proved to be pretty good!

We ordered a muffin and chocolate mousse cake. I think the muffin had walnut but I can’t remember if it’s banana walnut, or was it with something else.I realise that muffins in Hong Kong now are made without the proverbial ‘muffin top’, with the top overhanging the paper-cup. I wonder if it’s a conscious effort to steer away from the negative connotation of eating muffins and growing a muffin top as a result. Haha. Anyway, it was pretty forgettable and quite a disappointment for me because the top wasn’t as crunchy/crisp as I would have liked it to be. It’s rather soft, without too much distinction of texture from how the inside spongey/cakey part felt, so after this I actually did not order any more muffins from other cafes. Perhaps a good idea as well to keep to my goal of having less of such indulgences.
The chocolate mousse cake was not too bad though, as the cocoa or chocolate used had a tinge of bitterness and wasn’t oozing of overbearing sweetness like how some cakes tended to be. The size was also a comfortable one for sharing and went perfectly well with a cup of coffee or tea. 🙂The crema of my long black, along with the gold foil paper used to hold the cake, exudes an appropriate festive, yuletide feel for the moment.
We continued our traipse along down to Central, where we headed into the Landmark, and check out how elaborate their Christmas decoration was. Malls in Hong Kong probably try to outdo one another in their annual Christmas decor, and it’s on a completely different level and scale from what we have in Singapore! I wonder if any of their festive decorative pieces have caused any mishaps though. There were oodles of people all around this centerpiece vying for the best angles to take pictures or selfies. As much as I could, I tried to get a shot without too many heads bobbing at the bottom, and I think I did quite an ok job at that!

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A love affair with peanut butter

I think I have always liked peanut butter. But recently, I seem to be giving in to my craving more to indulge in it. It doesn’t help that I discovered, some years ago, that the local cafes (starting with Ya Kun, and subsequently now, more and more of these local outfits) are having peanut butter as a regular item on their menu! 🙂

I love Ya Kun’s toast, because it is crispy and crunchy, as compared to the generally much softer and not-at-all crispy/crunchy “toast” from Killiney or some other cafes. When they had a version that had peanut butter as the spread, that was like a heaven-sent. I don’t know what else they spread on it, but to be precise, I always tell them I want the “peanut butter toast, without butter”. I know it sounds a bit silly, since peanut butter is a term in itself, but I infer that butter is the basic spread on every single type of toast, followed by whatever else they spread, so I do not want the butter, but only want the peanut spread. It goes fabulously with a coffee or tea, especially now that I have discovered the goodness of coffee sans milk, a.k.a. kopi-o (siew dai). I have tried it without sugar, and it is drinkable, but doesn’t really taste good, somehow.

Along with the other cafes that I have now discovered offering peanut butter / crunchy peanut toast, Toast Box’s version is one of my latest favourite, the multi-grain peanut thick toast. Pairing a slice of thick, toasted, chewy bread with a generous spread of crunchy peanut butter is absolute nirvana for someone like me who loves bread AND peanut butter. Just check out this awesome deal.As compared to the usual kaya butter toast, I think this would also serve as a slightly healthier choice? Although I doubt that the peanut butter is worth any less calories, because I do taste the saltiness in it, but as I really love peanut butter, I would like to comfort myself that it is a better choice, whether comparing it against the kaya butter, kaya sugar, or whatever other toast, or even against the muffins, cakes or pastries that I would have ordered had I visited Starbucks or Coffee Bean instead.

The picture earlier had a filter, rendering it in a nicer hue of colour. This is another closer look at the toast in plain colour. Still awesome; as I look at it, despite just having had lunch not long ago, I am craving for it. I wonder when, or if I can ever stop craving bread and spreads.
Once, I visited another Toast Box, and they didn’t have the multi-grain thick toast, bleah. The cashier wasn’t particularly friendly too as she responded that they do not have it, and also because I do not really fancy having thick toast in white bread, I decided to just order the “Traditional Toast” with peanut butter. I don’t know if I should qualify it as a bad choice… because their traditional toast is really pathetic; they sliced off the sides of the bread, then cut it into half with some spread in-between, and this is what you get.IMG_4067A serving of peanut butter toast that I get from Ya Kun, Coffee & Toast or Nanyang Old Coffee (is that its name), gives you 4 pieces of bread, because they use the old type of white bread (usually dyed brown) that is longish/rectangular-shaped. This is probably the newer, modern kind of square bread. This obviously fitted nowhere within my huge appetite and left me totally unsatisfied. It also didn’t make things better that the traditional toast wasn’t well-toasted, by my standards, so it didn’t feel crunchy enough.
IMG_4068Not that the thick toast is super well-toasted; in fact, it isn’t as well. But the chewiness of the multi-grain toast alleviated that deficiency, and I’m happy to just chew on the bread with the copious amount of peanut butter literally dripping off the surface of the toast.

High-tea at The Marmalade Pantry, Ion

After hearing several raves about the Afternoon Tea set at the Marmalade Pantry, I finally got to try it one day. All this while I have not really had the chance because afternoon teas tend to be too much for two persons and it’s typically geared towards more sweet than savoury items. Despite that I generally have a sweet tooth, there needs to be a balance, usually.

Priced at S$38 for a set that is supposed to serve 2, it’s really quite value-for-money because as compared to some other places, this works out to be about S$22 per person after applicable taxes.

The afternoon tea offerings are served in a three-tier rack, with the top tier holding the condiments, which includes strawberry preserve, marmalade (of course they can’t not have this) and clotted cream. The middle tier displays the scones, a mixture of mini buttermilk scones and mini cranberry scones, a whopping total of 10 pieces! Of course, these are about half the size or less of a usual scone, but I think there is still too much of it. 10 pieces! Gosh, how can anyone finish that much, which was why I guess most comments I read about this set would be that it probably would serve three better instead.The lowest tier serves an assortment of mini sandwiches, which includes 2 open-faced ones. These are supposedly egg and cress, beef and horseradish and green land shrimp. These finger sandwiches make up the only savoury part of the set, and we both agreed that we would rather have swapped out some of the scones for more of the sandwiches because the bread is really nice! The fillings are great as well but I like the toasted and crusty texture of the bread. Perhaps one of these days I could order the sandwiches there just to have the bread. 🙂A closer look at the overwhelming number of scones. They aren’t too bad, but from what I could recall of them and what I had before, they aren’t the best scones around. The size is great of course, because we all know how dense scones can be and just one normal-sized scone could count for a meal/snack, e.g. breakfast. Another point to note is that the clotted cream also isn’t fabulous. Clotted cream is of course better than whipped cream, anytime, but the clotted cream at Marmalade Pantry still feels a little light and not as decadent as how we would usually want clotted cream to be!
Besides these, the set also comes with a cupcake each of your choice. We picked the Limonata (tart lemon glazed cake) and the Granny’s Apple (spiced apple and cinnamon cake with cream cheese). The latter, with the dollop of apple on top, was a much better option, because the Limonata’s topping somehow just tastes too sweet and artificial, even its base. I would have expected something more zesty but it just felt very sweet overall.
Not too bad an experience, but there are so many other afternoon/high tea sets around to check out to do a repeat, unless it’s really worth it or good, such as that at Fosters! It costs just $11.50 for 2 scones, a slice of tea cake and a finger sandwich. From what I remembered of it, the scones and clotted cream they have are pretty awesome.

Oh and Marmalade Pantry’s set also comes with a pot of Gryphon tea each of your choice. I would have preferred if they offered coffee too, but then it would probably have resulted in me overdosing on coffee, and what’s Afternoon ‘Tea’ without tea?

Baker & Cook, Opera Estate

This is only the second time I have visited Baker & Cook. I don’t recall how I came to know about this bakery, but then I had wanted to check them out and back then I only knew about the one at Hillcrest Road. I was meeting a friend for brunch and since we had a ride, I mooted this place for coffee and some breads! Obviously, I was the only one who was keen to indulge in the breads but anyway they serve up a pretty good brew too!

So that was sometime back, maybe a couple of years or even longer. My memory has grown hazy, along with the haze that is shrouding our little city state currently. Bad analogy. But well, I was visiting my friends at their new crib in the Eastern part of Singapore, and after lunch at Bedok Mall, or whatever it is, the mall connected to Bedok MRT station, I wanted to grab my caffeine fix and they suggested this bakery where they thought I’d love, rather than our original plan of Starbucks.

It was only when they drove me there that I knew it’s Baker & Cook and I was delighted! Well even though I already had lunch and was not likely to be ordering any breads, which is what I so love, it was tea-time and so I prodded my friends to order some sweets to share! I probably had the lion’s share of it but oh well, at least I didn’t clean off everything solely. Haha.

So, we ordered a something-tart and a slice of Lemon Drizzle cake. The tart was quite nicely done as I remembered it, while the cake was a little of a disappointment because I found it to be a tad too sweet and moist. It wasn’t that I like dry cakes, definitely not, but this was a bit too dense and wet, like it hadn’t been baked enough? Or maybe that was how it was meant to be but I just have differing preferences.

When I posted it on Instagram with my rant though, someone commented that at least it looked pretty enough to be Instagrammable. Heh.

A closer look at the tart, which should be either peach or apricot with almonds? That’s what it looks to me. It was just a few weeks ago but it has totally eluded my memory.

Anyway the coffee (that came with a small cube of awesome brownie) did make up for that, and the company that afternoon was also great, catching up for a few hours after what felt like forever since we actually met!  
As I tried to name the 2 sweets that we ordered, I was checking out their website and menu and I just feel like trying so many things on it! Obviously, the breads would be the main item drawing me to them, seeing as to how I am such a big lover and fan of breads, but their locations tend to be a bit forbidding for me, except for perhaps the outlet at Intercontinental Hotel. Then again, I don’t think that would be as nice as their other locations at Hillcrest and Swan Lake.

Saint Marc Café, Japan

Back then when I first tried this in Tokyo many years ago, probably during my maiden visit in 2006, I knew this as “choco-cro”, which is what is printed on the sleeve that holds the croissant, as pictured below. I guess the original version of this yummy crispy snack is the chocolate croissant, which explains its name. But it actually is a product of St. Marc cafe, which I only knew of when it opened in Singapore a few years ago. Talk about being ignorant! That’s me!  To be very honest, I seldom ever pop into this cafe in Singapore, because somehow I never had any serious craving for it. There are many other nice croissants around, and I am not super big on them anyway. Besides, I have this nagging suspicion that they are overpriced here, like most things that are imported, even if I am paying for overpriced coffee in many other cafes around… but well, you get the drift. I remembered meeting a friend there once for coffee and was feeling hungry so I had wanted to order a sandwich. But then, what they offered as sandwiches were sad-looking square slices of bread, kind of like those commercially-manufactured loaves sold in supermarkets, with equally miserable-looking slices of ham and lettuce of sorts wedged in between. That wasn’t the reason why I decided against ordering those sandwiches, but instead the price tag that read … if I remember correctly, S$7.80, or something in that vicinity. Imagine my shock. So I ordered the croissant eventually.

But these photos are from my trip to Sapporo a couple of months back. We actually went to St. Marc cafe for breakfast twice, since there was a fairly large outlet near our hotel and it wasn’t really crowded on both occasions when we went.

On the first visit, I ordered the chocolate croissant and it still tastes good. I think the ones in Singapore aren’t too bad either, just that somehow it feels nicer having it in Japan. For some reason. Haha. Double standards, I know.
On our second visit, I decided to try something else, which was a ham and egg mayonnaise sandwich, which I really love because the bun used is somewhat like a cross between a brioche and croissant. Or basically croissants are generally buttery anyway so that explains why I feel as though it’s like a brioche.Yummy bliss.
My friend tried the french toast, which looks a little limp, but I think it still tasted ok overall. Most of their pastries are already prepared and displayed on an open shelf that you could just pick up and pay, and they won’t be re-heated again so I guess that explains the general “limp-ness” of how they look, as compared to freshly-baked/prepared items that tend to look more fluffed up. I cannot recall what the other item contained within, but it’s a different version of the croissant, i.e. different filling contained within. So far, I have tried the matcha-flavoured croissant and a strawberry daifuku version before, in addition to the original chocolate. They are all pretty nice, because the filling is typically not so sweet and complements the savoury buttery croissant well, which of course also goes perfectly with a cup of piping hot coffee, especially on cool chilly days.Ah.. how I miss Japan!

More birthday meals

Even if I didn’t have many birthday celebrations, July was nevertheless still considerably a month of feasting for me. With 3 birthdays happening in my family and a cousin’s wedding within the span of 12 days, it is no wonder that all of us were really stuffed by the time July came to an end.

For Mum’s birthday which fell a weekday, since old folks have this thing about not wanting to celebrate their birthdays post the actual day because they believed it to be inauspicious, we met up after work at the Redhill area, at this Cantonese eatery that was supposedly highly-recommended by one of my brother’s colleagues. Since it was a week night, the place was extremely empty and devoid of patrons. We were one of 2 or 3 tables of customers in the air-conditioned part of the restaurant (that of course attracted higher prices as compared to the non-air-conditioned coffee-shop part). But I think they serve similar, if not the same, dishes. And because it was a weeknight without many customers, we could even order dim sum from the coffee shop to be served here. We kind of made a note to return, some day – wondering when that day will be, for dim sum brunch because based on what we tried, they were pretty good.So the above is a collage of the spread that we had. Imagine all that food for 6 adults who kind of are past their prime in terms of appetites. We are all now at a stage where our tummies can’t really work like they used to be, despite that on all other fronts we are definitely still very young! I enjoyed their dishes, the ones that we ordered anyway, because they exuded a home-cooked feeling and tasted not too overwhelming in terms of flavouring and seasoning. Of course, whenever I’m at the dinner table, my brother always made it a point to ensure there is sufficient veggie for the (almost) herbivorous me. I eat meat, yes I still love meat to a certain extent, but sometimes I realise I can go without meat for quite a fair period of time. Until such time when I kind of start missing eating meat. Hurhur.

The custard bun looked really good but as I am really not such a big fan of it, I didn’t have any of it. But the rest of the dishes got a big thumbs up from me!

For my brother’s birthday that capped off the month, we went to this coffee shop near Kembangan that supposedly serves awesome liver mee sua. Well, it is weird to associate me with this, because when I visited Taipei and everyone went crazy over Ah Zhong mee sua, I was one of those that ate it only because I had to. I hate the taste of liver, in whatever forms, and the gooey texture of mee sua somehow doesn’t appeal to me. But this one was pretty alright, plus the other dishes that were ordered to supplement our main (which is the mee sua – one bowl per person OMG). Or maybe because I was really hungry, having gone almost a whole day without much food because I was under the weather, battling a fever complete with chills and a suspected gastric flu/cramps of sorts. Yes, so even with that, as my sister-in-law remarked, I could still muster such a healthy appetite. Sigh. What can I say, me appetite seldom ever takes a break.

No photos of the dinner, because even if my stomach was working very hard and appreciating the food, the other parts of my body were in a shut-down mode that whole day. I even took a nap in the afternoon! Something I hadn’t done in years I think!

Doutor Cafe, Japan

Just before my birthday last month, I jetted off to Sapporo, Hokkaido, for a week to take a short break. It hasn’t been that long since I visited in Tokyo in April, but I just felt like I needed a break. Even if time is passing by so fast, particularly this year it seems, holidays are like an oasis in the desert. Although I have been to Japan so many times over the last few years since my first trip there in winter of 2007, I have never set foot on the northern territories of Hokkaido. It was an opportune time to visit even if summers in Japan can be mercilessly hot, because summer is the period when flowers bloom in Hokkaido, and temperatures there are generally more forgiving and bearable than in Honshu itself.

So because we needed to transit in Tokyo to get to Sapporo, we decided to take a red-eye flight to Narita with a short hour-plus transit stop, where we had to collect our luggage and re-check it in, due to security concerns, before hopping over to the domestic terminal at Narita to catch the flight out to Sapporo. The queues at the custom was not too long, though there was still a fair bit of arriving tourists and foreigners waiting in line. We managed to have sufficient time to clear the arrival immigration, and still queue to deposit our luggage for the domestic sector.

By the time we arrive in Sapporo, it was probably around noon. We went to the tourist information counter, or the JR office, I can’t remember the exact name, where we bought ourselves a 5-day JR Rail Pass, as well as a ticket that would take us to the city, which is just about half an hour away on the limited express train.

Our hotel, Century Royal Hotel, is located not far from the JR station. There is an underground walkway that could lead us to the hotel, but with the luggage it’s easier to walk above ground, wheeling our luggage from the station, out onto the street and across a road, where the hotel stands. Hotel Gracery is also nearby, in the adjacent street, and its exterior facade somehow looks nicer. However, I think it either cost more when we were booking or it wasn’t available anymore because this is travel peak season and ours was a fairly last minute trip.

Finally, we settled for a late lunch, more like a tea break, after checking in. We were exploring the area for food options, feeling slightly zombie-fied from the lack of sleep in the flight. This was what we picked eventually, me wanting to have a coffee badly. As it wasn’t that far off from dinner time, we ordered these to share – a sandwich and a pumpkin tart.
Here’s a closer look at the tart. There are lots of such tarts being sold in the cafes all over Sapporo, mostly cheese tarts. Probably because it is Hokkaido after all, where milk, cheese and dairy are the thing to have! The texture of this cake was a little mousse-like and not really too sweet or heavy. Or maybe my taste buds had fallen asleep. But overall, it was a pretty good tea break!

Over the next few posts, expect to see more of these cafe shots and also food! What’s a holiday without savouring the gastronomical offerings of the destination?!?