Monday, February 20, 2017

Year of the Rooster Party

I'm a little behind on posts currently.  My friend threw a belated Chinese New Year party one of these past weekends and invited us out to her new apartment complex near Tung Chung.  Her building has a brand new fancy bowling alley.
After we bowled for two hours, we went to the very fancy and large game room which was equipped with a pool room, a mahjong room, a kitchen, a huge TV and playstation set, an outdoor hot tub and common spaces galore.
We feasted on a bunch of really tasty food - olives, cured meats, hummus and cheese, braised pork belly with string beans, noodles, ox tail, and skirt steak.  I made a massive quinoa salad with rocket and iceberg lettuce, multicolored cherry tomatoes, cucumber, avocados and mozzarella cheese.  For dessert, we had Japanese blueberry cheesecake and cupcakes from sift.  There was champagne and wine aplenty.  It was a lovely time!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Midweek Trip to Jakarta

As I mentioned in my previous post, last week I had to go to Jakarta for work.  I had been to Bali before, which is the playground of the rich and famous and an entirely different world from the capital city of this huge, sprawling country.  (Side note: many people do not realize how big this country is.  Did you know that Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country and third largest democracy in the world?  Yeah, third largest democracy, after India and the United States.  Think about that for a second!)

I was a little bit worried about a few things on this trip, mainly: (1) Zika and (2) security/safety, as I would mostly be traveling by myself.  I was also braced for bad traffic (not a huge issue but I can get very car sick, which doesn't help when I have to be sharp and really "on" for meetings) and sad that I was going to miss spending Valentine's Day with Michael.

All these concerns aside, I was lucky to be in Jakarta during a very interesting time - the gubernatorial elections were taking place on February 15th.  This was a public holiday so that all of the Indonesian citizens would be able to vote.  I am guessing that the traffic is so bad that in order to ensure that the city gets the required turnout, they need to give people the day off from work.  I've read that this was a hotly contested election because it was seen as a litmus test for Indonesia's pluralist politics, where some of the candidates had interactions with fundamentalist Islamic groups who believe that non-Muslims should not hold high office in Indonesia.  The winner of the first round was a Chinese Christian, Ahok, who is the current governor.  Ahok will face off against the runner-up, Anies, in a second round of elections in April. 

The trouble with traveling to Indonesia is that the flights are all at pretty inconvenient times.  The flight is about 4.5 to 5 hours, and you can depart first thing in the morning, at mid-afternoon around 3:30, or late night.  And returning, your options are the same.  This has the practical effect of taking out nearly two days on the front and back end of your trip.

As with most developing countries, Indonesia's infrastructure is sorely lacking.  It may not be as noticeable in small towns or vacation resorts, but the cumulative effect becomes very obvious in a metropolis.  In Jakarta, the traffic is notoriously bad - it reminded me a lot of Manila (where it once took 35 minutes for my friend and I to traverse the distance between two terminals at the airport).  The city has a huge issue with flooding, as all of the canals are very old and in desperate need of repair.  There is also a lot of garbage and pollution which has clogged the pipes and sewers, leading to congestion and likely also public health issues.  The internet can be slow - at night, often my connection would blink in and out, so that I would get batches of emails at a time.  Any emails with large attachments (a common occurrence as a lawyer!) would struggle to come through.

Upon arrival, I was met at the airport gate by a member of my hotel concierge, who escorted me to the Visa on Arrival counter where I purchased a visa, and then to the immigration counter.  From there, I emerged into the humid Jakarta night, only to be greeted immediately by my friendly driver who was waiting.  I don't know if it was the time of day that I arrived or what, but there were virtually no lines and I was in and out of the airport from gate to car in about 12 minutes.

From there, it was an arduous ride from the airport to the hotel, which took nearly an hour (at many points of the commute we were sitting in standstill, bumper to bumper traffic, usually where multiple lanes of cars were trying to merge).  After that, I was pretty much in my hotel, in a hotel car, in an office, or in a hotel car, the rest of the trip (well, except for one somewhat memorable and interesting dinner, which I will get to in a bit)!  The traffic patterns are somewhat predictable to the locals, depending on time of day and direction you're headed, but of course never certain.  The times vary astronomically - what was an hour long ride heading into the city from the airport at night took half the time heading out of the city two days later during the day.  When we went to dinner, it was a 45 to 60 minute drive heading to the restaurant, and a 15 minute drive back.  That's like L.A.!

I stayed at the Keraton at the Plaza, which had huge rooms (one of my colleagues said it was bigger than his apartment in Hong Kong), very high ceilings and a very large bathroom.  My room itself was very pretty and comfortable, however, the hotel had some funny quirks.

There was one set of elevators for residents which you cannot access, but confusingly looks like the main elevators to get down to the lobby.  I stood there for a few moments anxiously pushing the elevator button and freaking out a bit before I went exploring.

The lobby also has arguably the most confusing layout.  Instead of keeping it open, they divided the elevator lobby from another hallway and cut the lobby into two sides, so that every time you emerged you were never really sure which way to turn.  There was also only two elevators, which seemed confusingly sparse for a hotel of this size and lobby space.  Oh well.

They did have security controls (you cannot access any other floor without a room key, and every car entering the hotel grounds is accosted by a few guards who take down the driver's ID and check the trunk of the car) and a 24/7 concierge that could be reached via telephone, email, text, whatsapp, wechat and line messages when you are out and about.  That security and accessibility both reassured and worried me - obviously they felt it necessary to protect their guests as much as possible!  Also, the car checks seemed very much like form over substance - I suppose it is better to have the checks than not, but if everyone knows that it is just the trunk that is checked, wouldn't you just put your weapons somewhere else...
As you can see, the room was very nice. When I woke up in the morning, I pushed some buttons to lift my black out blinds, to reveal... this.   Yep.  Not a very pretty skyline, is it?
 The hotel abutted a construction site and a murky canal.  Lovely!
My meetings were fine - I got the chance to go to the Indonesia Stock Exchange and experience the ubiquitous metal detectors.  I was mistaken for Indonesian here and at the airport, which is kind of funny.  As I've mentioned before, in Southeast Asia I often get mistaken for being from the country I'm currently in - so far it has happened in Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos and the Philippines. 

Anyway, on to my crazy Valentine's Day dinner!  I went to a teppanyaki restaurant with some colleagues and clients, where we were put in a private room and were each provided with a bib.
The food was decent (we got a variety of seafood and beef - none of which were sourced from Indonesia) and I thoroughly enjoyed my red bean ice cream.  Afterwards, we went to a club called BATS, which is located in the lower level of the Shangri-la hotel.

Before I knew it, a bottle of vodka had been purchased, we had descended into a cavernous bar underground and I found myself sitting in a booth with four other men, with a pulsating disco beat (followed by a live cover band), watching the both seedy and upscale Indonesian night scene unfurl before our eyes.  Picture a dimly lit underground space with a circular bar, booths and bar tables lined along the walls, and a dance floor on the side, filled with a sea of young, nubile Asian women, scantily clad in their alluring best, chatting it up among themselves in the hopes of attracting attention, or coyly touching/dancing/flirting/conversing with a few men, and that about sums it up.  The men are of all sizes, age and ethnicities, but there is no doubt what the parties are here to achieve.  I find it all so distasteful, as much for the stereotypes that these scenes perpetuate as for the atmosphere of objective calculation that pervades this modern meat market.  This is where I spent my Valentine's Day. 

The rest of the trip was much more uneventful, thankfully.  At the airport, after checking in at the counter, I was ushered into the lounge (before going through security or passing through immigration).  At the lounge entrance, I was asked to hand over my passport and boarding pass - apparently, as a service for business or first class members, they will process your paperwork with immigration for you.  This struck me as absolutely crazy.  First, I don't like handing over my essential travel document in a country where I estimate their chances of losing my passport to be no less than 72%.  Second, isn't the whole point of immigration so that the officials can stare you in the eye and determine whether you are who you say you are and that you do not pose any threat to national security?

The lounge was very crowded and dimly lit.  I took these pictures after most of the lounge had emptied out.  As you can see, the lounge services practically every airline that flies out of Jakarta.

I kept going back to the front desk to ask about the status of my passport.  Each time I was told, "Oh it's not ready yet ma'am," even though no one actually checked any list or papers.  After an hour had passed, I suspected that something was amiss.  As I predicted, they could not find me in the sea of people and had to page me over their loudspeakers, asking me to please approach the front desk.  Anyone with any common sense could tell you that taking everybody's passport and then leaving them to wander in this huge, crowded, dimly lit room over the course of an hour, is a serious risk.

Once out of the lounge, the airport terminal is very bright and pretty.  You go through one set of metal detectors and scans here, and then one more very thorough check at the actual gate itself.  Combined with the initial scan machine at the entrance of the airport, you go through three separate checks.
And there you have it, my first trip to Jakarta!  My post may have come across as very frustrated or negative about the city, but I point them out more because those are the points that are so different from my every day life.  I found the people that I interacted with to be very kind, and in each instance clearly to be doing the best that they can under the circumstances.  I can't say that I am looking forward to my next trip to Jakarta, however, I am very much interested in returning to Indonesia and seeing more beyond the narrow confines that my work trips allow me to encounter.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Happy Valentine's Day!

Hope you all had a wonderful Valentine's Day this year!  I actually spent mine in Jakarta, having had to go down for a work trip (more on that later) - but Michael and I did celebrate the night later upon my return. 

We don't usually do anything big or splashy on V-day, however, we do usually do a little something something.  It's not so much that we really believe the holiday signifies anything meaningful, but rather that we like to find ways to show our appreciation for and celebrate each other, and this is an easy way to do so. 

It was all a surprise, but I had been forewarned not to eat too much on the plane because I was getting what sounded like... a home cooked meal!
Michael bought me flowers, and set the table with sparkling water and candles.  He made a salad with radish, avocados, tomatoes, cucumbers, rocket and spinach, paired it with a tangy dijon mustard balsamic vinaigrette dressing, and also broiled the main entree, Japanese mackerel fillets, marinated in a mirin, soy sauce, ginger and sugar mixture. 
The fish was a better love letter than any missive Michael could have written, because mackerel are a notoriously fishy fish that I love, which Michael loathes.  So I was nearly speechless to see that he had bought them raw, prepared them, cooked them, and then without prompting or cajoling, sat down to eat them with me!  Actions definitely speak louder than words.
I gave him two boxes of chocolate to profess my love - I know he would have liked whiskey more, but my choices were preeeeeeetty limited in Jakarta.
 The best part?  He got me two bags of candy, one sour and one sweet, from one of the best sweet shops in Hong Kong.  Love sure is sweet!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

New Sound and Gaming System

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that as part of the new TV we bought, we got a soundbar and subwoofer and another 32" TV thrown in for free.  Michael picked up the new items the other day and has set up our sound system. 

The sound bar looks very nice and fits perfectly in front of the TV on our TV stand.  The subwoofer sits to the side.  The digital dolby surround sound is amazing and sends a shiver down my spine.

We successfully traded in the new TV for some cash (we probably could have sold it on our own but, we received a few half-hearted, somewhat disinterested offers and then we got impatient).

We also upgraded Michael's XBox 360 (last bought circa 2007) and got him a blazing fast XBox One S with the new FIFA game.

It's not as if we needed more reasons for him to sit and stare slackjawed at the new TV, however, his current XBox is held together by duct tape and bobby pins (well, something relatively similarly dire) and we figured, why not. 
 The game is beautiful, even to my non-gaming eyes.  With the rich, beautiful content and the realistic real-time commentary, it's hard to believe this is a video game!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Game Night

As I am sure many of you do, every morning I emerge from my blissfully bleary state to breaking news alerts that have sprouted overnight like toadstools on my phone.  It's a bit stressful. 

For those moments when you want to set aside your cares and take your mind off of the doom and gloom occurring in all parts of the world, I recommend a rousing game night.

After all the fun and games,  you will be refreshed and re-energized, and ready to turn your mind back to strategies and action plans for countering this authoritarianism regime which is steadily dismantling all of the institutions and liberties that we hold dear...

Oh, I digress.  Anyway, last weekend, we invited a couple of friends to our apartment and kicked back, starting with a light warm up game of Rummikub before dinner.

We then enjoyed a filling and delicious repast of calamari and Caesar salad, pastas (spaghetti with arabiatta sauce, rigatoni with a meat ragu, and farfalle with a spicy sausage sauce), and a chicken milanese (breaded and topped with cherry tomatoes, basil and mozarella cheese).

I didn't take any pictures of the night, including any of that beautiful food, however, I did buy some beautiful red flowers to dress up the apartment, which I have documented.
After stuffing ourselves, the hours whizzed by as we chatted and laughed our way through Monopoly Deal and Exploding Kittens.  Both of these games are card games and were new to me, and I loved them both.

Monopoly Deal takes a familiar and well known game, removes the board and small pieces, and adds a little bit more strategy.  With cards like "Pass Go" which grants an extra turn,"Debt Collector" which allows you to take or swap cards from your fellow players, "It's My Birthday" which allows you to collect money from everyone... the game rarely drags.  All it takes to win is to form three complete sets (although you can make the game last longer and/or be more challenging by removing some of the "Pass Go" cards or stipulating a win only after four complete sets or a hotel is built).  This game is definitely kid friendly and accommodates many players, which is also nice.

Exploding Kittens, on the other hand, is definitely not so kid friendly, as the cards are full of politically incorrect and rather raunchy commentary (which actually have nothing to do with the game, for the most part).  The game is incredibly simple - in a deck of cards, there are a certain number of "Exploding Kittens" cards, which you definitely, absolutely, do not want to pick.  These cards signify sudden death, unless you have a "Defuse" card - but every player only starts off with one such life-saving card, and they are gone once they are used, and can also be taken by another player.  There are two more of these "Defuse" cards that you can pick up in the deck if you're lucky.  The last player remaining, not yet taken out by an Exploding Kitten, wins.  It's a nerve-wracking game of chance and, save for a few action cards that may be able to help you stave off an unlucky future (cards like "Attack" or "Skip" or "See Into the Future") eventually those Exploding Kittens will come for you.... dun dun dun! 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Hiking the Twins, Again

I hiked the twins again, recently - a hike that is grueling for its sheer number of steps and for the diabolical series of mental games it plays with you as it forces you to ascend, then descend, then ascend again (1000 steps straight up), then descend, only to then ascend again (about 300 steps straight up), to finally descend fully and completely. 

It's not actually a long hike, though - only about 2 to 2.5 hours, and so it's very doable.  This hike is great exercise for the body (legs and glutes especially!), but also for the mind.  It builds mental fortitude!

To get to the trail marker at Twins, coming from the north side of the island, the easiest way is to take a taxi to just before Parkview Towers at 88 Tai Tam Reservoir Road, just opposite the Wilson Trail.  To come from the south side, you should start at Stanley Gap Road. 

My friend and I wrapped up the hike in just over 2 hours (and I think that was enough time for me to have burned my scalp!) and from there, stuffed our sweaty, nearly limp bodies into a taxi and headed directly to a dim sum restaurant, Yum Cha, where we met our (fresh and clean and well rested friends) and stuffed our faces with adorable BBQ pork buns like these:
We also tried a vegetarian purse, which is a traditional dish to be enjoyed for Chinese New Year:
the restaurant's so-called "sexy desserts" (for no other discernible reason than that they come with lots of steam billowing out of them):
 and finally, a really crazy red bean dessert topped with a large glob of bright blue cotton candy:
The food was pretty good - served hot, arrived quickly, and was overall pretty tasty (though I barely tasted the first four or five dishes because I was so hungry I was inhaling the food as quickly as I could).  That's why there are no pictures of the meal except for the desserts.

Yum Cha
(multiple locations in Hong Kong)
Nan Fung Tower, 2/F, Nan Fung Place
173 Des Voeux Road Central
Hong Kong
+852 3708 8081

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Chinese New Year Date Nights - Dinner at 22 Ships, Blue Butcher and Sen Ryo

Apologies for the lack of posts, my week has been absolutely cray cray!

To get back to the fun stuff, because we didn't go away for Chinese New Year, Michael and I decided to eat it up while we were in town in Hong Kong.  We did a date night extravaganza every night!  I had to work during one of the days of my public holiday (which is, truly, sacrilegious - this is like making someone work on Thanksgiving or Christmas) but I am not going to dwell on this point.

On to the food.  I love 22 Ships (conveniently located at 22 Ship Street), a small tapas restaurant in Wan Chai helmed by the Michelin star chef Jason Atherton, but it's normally terrible eating there because the lines are so long and they don't take reservations.  Chinese New Year was the perfect time to go - no wait, we waltzed right in, and in minutes we were ordering our delicious tapas.

Our view at the bar:

Tuna tartare and spicy rice cracker chips:
 Duck egg with grains and duck ragu:
 Beet salad with feta cheese:
 Seafood paella with crispy jamon:
 Grilled chorizo with red peppers and onions:
 Cauliflower salad with cheese and walnuts:
They gave us a free dessert on account of the Chinese New Year, which was a delicious, rich chocolate cake, and we ordered a goat cheese ice cream with fresh raspberries and crunchy cake bits.

Everything was really fresh, innovative and tasty - we really enjoyed our meal here, and you can easily see why the restaurant is still going strong well past its inaugural year.  The lines here are warranted.

22 Ships
22 Ship Street
Wan Chai Hong Kong
+842 2555 0722

On the next night, we went to Blue Butcher, because Michael (and admittedly, I) was craving steak.  I think Blue Butcher serves up one of the tastiest steaks in town.  We contemplated going to one of the big fancy steak joints, but we ultimately decided we didn't want a hotel or steak chain.  The restaurant was quiet and we got a comfortable corner booth. 

They have a meat locker on site.

They also converted the downstairs bar area to a butcher shop of sorts, so you can select meat to take home.
Michael wore his gold cufflinks that were my parents' Christmas present to him - they looked fantastic!
We ordered a large 38 oz. Wagyu ribeye to share, coupled with truffle fries and a green salad.  The steak was a standout - tender, delicious, perfectly cooked (we asked for medium rare, but more on the rare side).  The steak had the most amazing charred crust and the interior was so flavorful.  It needed no extra sauce at all.
The fries were very tasty too, just the right width and crispiness and covered in truffle oil and grated cheese.
The green salad was very simple (just bibb lettuce and pickled onions) - and the vinaigrette was very, very tart. 
The dessert (a peanut butter whipped cream dessert with hazelnut ice cream) was a bit bland and too creamy for my taste. 

Blue Butcher
108 Hollywood Road
Central Hong Kong
+852 2613 9286

We also went to Sen Ryo, which is admittedly not as fancy as the other two, but it's a fun experience because it's conveyor belt sushi.

 Michael got a hot sake which came in a fancy pot to keep it warm.
We were hungry, and we went in... the restaurant charges you based on the number of plates you eat, and the colors and patterns of the plates correspond to different prices.  Stacking them up...and up...
 I got one of these fancy sea urchin plates:
Everyone sits at this long, long looping table, grabbing food off of the conveyor as it goes by.  The chefs feed the plates from the back.
There are also a la carte options (I ordered a fatty tuna hand roll with spring onions that was the highlight of my meal).  Never one to pass up sea urchin, I also tried their warship.  Not too bad.
 Michael got one of these wagyu steak sushi, which was probably his favorite.
All in all, it was a very satisfying meal, but some plates, especially on the conveyor belt, were hit and miss.  The tricky thing with this kind of sushi is that you can't really keep track of what the prices are.
Would we go again?  Maybe if we really felt the need for a fix, but we will probably stick with our usual cheap go-to place, Itacho Sushi.

Sen Ryo
Floor 3, IFC Mall (multiple locations around Hong Kong)
8 Finance Street
Central, Hong Kong
+852 2234 7633