Saturday, July 28, 2007

Nara Sushi (Vienna)

My quest to find good sushi in Europe continues... Knowing that we've been craving for good sushi, our family friend recommended this restaurant in Vienna. Nara is a little sushi restaurant that serves a neighborhood clientele. We ordered the sushi and sashimi meal and was surprised by the mountain of food that we got. (What you see in the picture is for one person!) Needless to say, none of us finished. The fish was fresh - nonetheless, it was your typical tuna, salmon, etc. This was probably the best sushi meal that I've had in Europe, even though it still didn't come close to the variety and quality of fish you can get in US. I can't wait to get good sushi when I go home!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Muzeum Café (Budapest)

Our visit to Budapest wouldn't be complete without checking out some local sweets and pastries. Our family friend took us to the Muzeum Café, which is famous for where a lot of the artists and composers used to hang out. Their case was glittering with a variety of desserts, ranging from different kinds of "tortas," or tortes, to cheesecake to other traditional Hungarian sweets. We ordered several different desserts to share, including a espresso torte, a "Charlotte" (a strawberry and cream filled cake), a cheesecake, and a traditional Hungarian dessert that consisted of pieces of cake soaked in rum with a heavy rum-chocolate sauce (cannot remember the name though). The torte and the cheesecake were very good, although very sweet so we washed it down with plenty of coffee. The chocolate-rum dessert had way too much alcohol, but I'm sure a lot of people like it that way! :-)

The café has a really nice atmosphere that is very traditional with a beautiful chandelier in the middle of the room. They also offer patio seating so it is great for people watching. No cute guys when we were at the café but you could certainly sit outside and look for them!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Beautiful Budapest

Another entry from my sister:


We started the day off with a visit to the Central Market, which is like a farmers market. The basement is where you can locate the seafood, 1st floor is dedicated to fruits/meats/spices, and you can find all types of souvenirs on the 2nd floor. It was fun to walk around the floors to check out the different types of local food. Chili peppers seemed to be a popular spice, as you can see many strings of them hanging from various vendors. The 2nd floor was definitely a tourist trap with over-priced souvenirs and handicrafts but it was very fun to browse. My favorite part of the building was the mushroom exhibit on the 1st floor. Apparently mushroom grows wildly around Budapest. The massive display of mushrooms had detailed information about them so that consumers would know which are edible and which are poisonous. You can pick mushrooms off the streets and bring them into the market to pay someone to identify which ones would be safe to eat. It was truly an interesting sight to see.

After lunch, we ventured to Castle Hill on the Buda side and walked around the area surrounding Fisherman's Bastion. From the terrace, you get a panoramic view of the Danube River and the Pest side of the city. Right next to Fisherman's Bastion stands Matthias Church (named after the Hungarian king, Matthias Corvinus). The church has a gorgeous diamond-patterned roof, but unfortunately it was under renovations when we were there so you can hardly see it under all the scaffolds. You can still enter the church to admire a number of relics and the beautiful gothic interior.

After another delicious dinner at our family friend's restaurant, we went on a night cruise on the Danube. As I mentioned before, the sun sets at a later time in all of Europe during the summer, so there was still light when we first got on the boat and you could soak in the beauty along the Danube River. Soon the sun set and the dark sky was illuminated by the glows of the bridge and beautiful historic monuments. It was definitely worth the trip if you enjoy a relaxing ride with a view.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Momotaro (Budapest)

Thanks sis for helping me out with more entries!

I know this might sound odd to hear but we found some really good Chinese food in Budapest. We went to visit a family friend and they own a very cute noodle shop called Momotaro (named after the Japanese folklore hero). They also run a traditional beautiful antique Hungarian restaurant on the other side (called Tabiji) but that is only open for special group events. I'll admit that because we knew the owner, we received special treatment so we had a wider variety of choices in food. Nonetheless, the owner makes sure to choose the utmost high quality ingredients for each and every dish. I was truly amazed at how each entrée was prepared with such precision in quality. The flavors were truly wonderful when prepared by the head chef. There was a slight taste difference when it was prepared by the sous chef. One of my favorite dishes was the "xiao long bao", which is the traditional steamed little buns filled with meat. Each bun was brimming with flavor, just thinking about them makes me hungry! ^_^ They have a wide variety of noodle dishes to choose from and they make their own fresh noodles every day. I would definitely recommend anyone who is visiting Budapest to try out this lovely restaurant. The location is also great - it is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from various touristy spots such as the Parliament building.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Szeged Vendéglo (Budapest)

Szeged is my absolute favorite restaurant in Budapest. My friend introduced me to this place when I first visited 7 years ago, and I've been dreaming about coming back ever since! I was worried that it wouldn't live up to my memory (you know how sometimes things become idealized in your memory...) but I'm happy to report that it is just as good as it was 7 years ago.

Szeged (XI. Bartók Béla út 1) is a traditional Hungarian restaurant, located very close to the famous Gellert Hotel (known for its thermal hot springs/spa) on the Buda side. It serves cuisine from its namesake city in southern Hungary. Its most well-known dish is the fish soup, made with tasty chunks of fresh catch of the day simmered in a tomato-based soup with a multitude of spice. The soup is thick, its density borderlining on stew, so if you order a bowl of the soup, it could almost be a meal, especially since you'll be eating a lot of bread and using the bread to wipe every last drop from the bowl! And if you like spicy, be sure to ask for the hot pepper sauce and put a healthy dollop into the soup.

In addition to the fish soup, I've also been dreaming about the pork cutlet stuffed with foie gras for the last 7 years. I love foie gras in any shape or form, but the most common preparation in US (or France) is either seared or as a terrine. Szeged is the only place where I've had it stuffed in a pork cutlet, which is then breaded and deep fried. When it is prepared like that, the foie gras is protected inside the pork and remains very tender. When you cut the pork open, juices from the foie gras will flow out, and the slightly tough texture of the pork contrasts extremely well with the softness of the foie gras. Yes, this is probably one of the fattest dishes you'll ever eat, but it is worth every cholesterol!

We went for a late lunch so there was only one other table in the restaurant when we were there so I couldn't make an accurate assessment of the typical customer. Even though I can't give it any Q's, but trust me, if you are ever in Budapest, you will not want to miss this gem of a restaurant!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Citadella (Budapest)

I'm welcoming back my sister for another guest blog. (I know I'm really behind on all my entries so I need all the help I can get!)
Visiting the Citadella at the top of Gellért Hill (on the Buda side) is a must. Its breathtaking panoramic view of Budapest and the Danube River is definitely an amazing sight to see. I'd recommend going up to the Citadella a little before sunset to experience the beauty both in daylight as well as at night. Remember that in the summer, most cities in Europe do not get dark until really late. Walk around the area a bit and enjoy some Hungarian historical lessons, before journeying up the path to find the quaint castle restaurant (Citadella Etterem).

You will actually dine inside the castle in an area restored for this touristy restaurant. The menu changes daily but the food we ate was actually pretty delectable. To start off the night they served a traditional Hungarian soup, Goulash. Accompanying the dinner was house red wine for the table. The main course was a nicely prepared fried pork schnitzel along with delicious Hungarian rice and some fries. There was a stewed tomato and red bell pepper sauce. The meal ended with a simple home-made sundae for dessert. Overall the soup was good, I am sure it is not the greatest Goulash you'd find in Hungary but pretty decent for such a touristy spot. The fried pork schnitzel was actually very good with the Hungarian rice. I would definitely recommend this place for a traditional experience. Throughout your meal, you would be entertained by traditional singing or folk dance. It is a lot of fun and the view is incredible up atop the mountain. You really get a gorgeous panoramic view of Buda and Pest, the Danube River, and all the beautiful bridges. It was a great way to start off our stay in Hungary.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Il Latini (Florence)

Given the good experience with Zàzà, we decided to try another one of the guidebook's (and concierge's) recommendations. We were pointed to Il Latini (Via del Palchetti 6r, off Via della Vigna Nuova, Near Piazza Santa Trínita), which seems to be a tourist favorite. We were told that it would be impossible to get in without a reservation, but we decided to try our luck. We were seated promptly without any problems, albeit in one of the back rooms that seemed to be an expansion for the restaurant. It didn't have the same feel as the other rooms (with the hams hanging all over the ceilings), but we were happy to have a table.

As soon as we sat down, our waiter asked if we would like to start with a sampling of appetizers. We said sure, bring it on. We were then treated to a variety of plates including proscuitto with melon, a caprese salad, crostini with chicken liver mousse, and a barley salad. The prosciutto with melon was excellent, especially since the cantaloupe was very fresh and sweet. The crostini with the chicken liver mousse was tasty as well, but the caprese salad and the barley salad were just okay. After we finished our appetizers, our waiter came back and tried to get us to just trust him to put together a sampler of pasta and a sampler of meat course for us. We still had not seen a menu all this time, so we had no idea what price range this restaurant fell in. We found out later that the waiters there try very hard not to let you see the menu. We finally convinced the waiter to give us a menu and we ordered a couple of pasta dishes, gnocchi with pesto sauce and ravioli with tomato sauce. The pasta course was very average unfortunately. The gnocchi was overcooked and was too soft, and the sauces were quite oily. We hoped that the meat course would be a lot better, but it was disappointing as well. We ordered grilled steak and roasted chicken. The steak was quite a large cut (meant for 2 people), and it was good steak but nothing too unique. The roasted chicken was very dry though. We were quite stuffed by now, but we decided to try their almond torte dessert, and it was pretty good. The best part of the meal though was when our waiter brought out some Moscato dessert wine for us on the house (there's nothing that makes a customer happier than free alcohol! :-)

Clientele was mostly tourists. No Q's, but you can expect friendly service (and most likely free dessert wine)! As for food, it was a bit of hit or miss - appetizers were pretty good but the entrees, especially the pasta dishes, were very so-so. So if you are looking for great Italian food, this restaurant probably won't meet your expectations. However, if you are just looking for a fun atmosphere with friendly service, Il Latini could be a good choice

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Trattoria ZàZà (Florence)

Trattoria ZàZà is a quaint restaurant located in the heart of Florence. This was one of the restaurants that our guidebook recommended. Usually I'm somewhat skeptical, especially since the last few didn't work out so well, but the concierge at our hotel also suggested this restaurant so we decided to give it a try. It turned out to be quite good for very reasonable prices.

We started with an appetizer combo plate, which included a sampler of cold cuts, bruschetta topped with tomatoes and mushroom, fried potato dumplings, and toasted brioche with cheese and some type of liver spread. For entrees, we ordered an omelet with truffle cream, a seafood risotto, duo of ravioli with truffle sauce, and a combination pizza, with 4 different kinds of topping: proscuitto, truffle cream, pesto, and mushrooms, each on a quarter of the pizza, topped with fresh arugula. Everything was delicious, especially the ones with truffle cream sauce. :-) (Yes, we do love truffles, and ZàZà certainly makes a great truffle cream.) We ended with their house tiramisu, which is denser than the typical one that one would get in the States but still very tasty.

The service was quite friendly as well - the waitstaff all spoke great English and made good suggestions. The clientele seemed to be mostly younger, probably college students who are trekking through Europe. There were some local folks as well, but all in all, unfortunately I didn't see anyone worthy of giving this restaurant a Q... Still recommend it for the food though - it's a convenient stop after a long day of sightseeing in Florence.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Andrea Zanin (Venice)

Unfortunately, ever since we arrived in Venice, our meals have mostly been very touristy and nothing to write home about (literally). That's why it was so great when we discovered Andrea Zanin. I have to give it to my sister - she always has an eye for spotting good food. She randomly saw someone carrying a bag with what looked like desserts (branded Andrea Zanin), and we somehow managed to find this little cafe on our way to Rialto Bridge. It reminded me very much of patisseries in Paris but like many Italian cafes, you can simply grab an espresso at the counter and select from a variety of pastries/desserts. We tried a few different things such as a fruit mousse and passion fruit tart and they were all delicious. This place is definitely a great place to stop by for some afternoon snack/coffee after a tiring day of walking around Venice!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Dali Museum (Figueres, Spain)

Spanish artist, Salvador Dali, was a master of surrealism. He chose to house an amazing collection of his work in his hometown, Figueres., which is about an hour and a half from Barcelona by train. The Dali Theatre and Museum is the second most-visited museum in Spain (after the Prado in Madrid). I've heard great things about the museum so we decided to take a day trip to Figueres.

When Dali set off to design the museum, he wanted to make it a multimedia experience that showcased a variety of his works, from paintings to sculptures to installations, etc. The result was an eclectic collection that takes you inside the (in my opinion) very strange mind of Salavador Dali. Some of the most famous pieces include the painting of his wife, "Gala Nude Looking at the Sea Which at 18 Metres Appears the President Lincoln." It is indeed very cool how when you look at the painting closely, you see a naked woman from the back, but if you stand far enough back (or simply look at the display on your digital camera), you'll see the face of Abraham Lincoln. The piece I wanted to see the most was the installation of a room that when you just look at it, it looks like a living room with a couch, fireplace, and some paintings. However, when you look at the room through a wide-angle lens (which you usually have to stand a pretty long line to do), you'll see the face of Mae West.

Once you walk out the main museum, there is also a jewelry museum that displays Dali-designed jewelry. (I didn't even know he was jewelry designer!) There are some very cool and intricate pieces, not to mention unusual, like the rest of his work. Overall, the Dali Museum is definitely very different than other museums one would typically visit in Europe, but worth a trip out of Barcelona if you have time.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Mercado de la Boqueria and El Japonès (Barcelona)

One of my favorite markets in Europe is definitely the Mercado de la Boqueria in Barcelona. It has some of the freshest produce, meats, seafood, etc. around. The best part about it is that even if you are a tourist and aren't looking to cook, you can easily pick up fruit plates already cut up for you or just grab a seat at one of the tapas bars around. We sat down at Pinotxo Bar, which is near the entrance right off of Las Ramblas. Typically these bars will have a few staples plus whatever is fresh that day, so we ordered a number of plates including lamb chops, croquettes stuffed with different chesses, fresh catch of the day, etc. The service was very friendly and it's easy to chat with fellow diners at the bar, checking out what each other is eating. After a satisfactory lunch, we walked around the market some more and picked up a number of different fruits to try as well as some fresh-squeezed juices/smoothies. There were combinations of every fruit imaginable, from passion fruit to mango to starfruit, although it's a bit of hit or miss on which stands had the better ones. All in all, this is one place not to be missed when you go to Barcelona.

We spent the rest of the day walking around Park Guell, which is one of my favorite spots in Barcelona. We were quite hungry by dinnertime, and I was craving sushi. As most of my friends know, I'm a huge fan of sushi. And as good as food gets in Europe, that is one thing that I missed the most. By now, I've been in Europe for a month and a half, and I still have not found really good sushi. The sushi that we had in Marrakech (see July 14 entry) only whetted my appetite for more...

El Japonès looked promising - the decor was very chic and the place was crawling with people. They also charged prices that were similar to what you would pay in a trendy NYC restaurant. Unfortunately though, the similarities ended there. The sushi we got was fine but unimaginative. I have yet to find a sushi restaurant in Europe that served more than just tuna and salmon. We also ordered some rolls, tempura shrimp, and teppan yaki soba noodles. They were all decent, but portions were tiny for the price they charged. Sigh, the craving for sushi continues... And no, I have not forgotten my mission, but as I looked around the chic restaurant, the hunt for cute men shared similar disappointments as my hunt for good sushi.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Tatchibana (Marrakech)

After three days of all Moroccan food, we readily accepted our hotel's suggestion for something different - a Japanese restaurant. We were a bit skeptical as to how good Japanese food could be in Marrakech, but we were pleasantly surprised. When you first enter Tatchibana (, you feel the stark contrast of the serenity within the restaurant with the chaos outside on the streets. The owner of the restaurant is a German guy who spent a number of years in Japan (the chefs are Japanese) and he took great care in designing the restaurant.

We were there for lunch and they had some great set menus that ranged from about $15-20. It came with soup, appetizer, entree, rice, and dessert. The appetizer was a light salad with chopped salmon on top - it was very refreshing and reminded me of Japan. For entree, my mom and I chose sushi while my sister chose chirashi (bowl of rice with sashimi on top). Our sushi came with a bowl of rice as well, and it was made exactly how I remember them in Japan, with thin slices of seaweed, egg, topped with salmon roe. Although the slices of fish on my sushi were quite thin, they were pretty fresh. We ended the meal with some ice cream with meringue. Overall, the meal was probably the most authentic I've had on this trip - more so than any of the Japanese restaurants I went to in Europe. Not only was each dish prepared with great care, but also the entire menu really paid attention to the Japanese concept of seasonality so that everything was very light for the hot summer weather. So if you are ever in Marrakech and find yourself wanting a break from Moroccan food, Tatchibana could be a good choice.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Le Comptoir (Marrakech) - Q

Le Comptoir is another restaurant that came highly-recommended by many and apparently one that is popular with stars (a quick tour of their website boasts pics of the likes of Will Smith and Laurence Fishburne). It serves traditional Moroccan cuisine as well as a mixture of East-meets-West dishes. It is also well known for a spectacular show of belly-dancing, promising a quintessential Moroccan experience.

When we first arrived at the restaurant, we were invited into a dimly-lit, richly-decorated space that was a cross between a Moroccan palace and a trendy New York club/restaurant. We started off by ordering some house cocktails while they served us three different kinds of bread. My sister ordered a pastilla (or bastilla) with chicken for appetizer, which she really loved (so much so that she ordered a second one later). I got a small sampler plate of various ingredients such as cheese, tuna, etc. stuffed in phyllo (or filo) dough and they were very tasty. While I opted to go with a traditional tangine for entree, my sister went for steak which she has been craving. My tangine was served with a flair (see pic) but I thought the meat was a bit tough. My sister's steak, on the other hand, was prepared well and the fries were accompanied by three deliciously-flavored mustard.

As our meal started to wind down, the performance began. As the music started, a number of belly dancers strutted their stuff around the restaurant. The dancers were all very beautiful and sure could move their hips. They not only mesmerized all the men in the room but also captured the attention of the women. It was a lot of fun and everybody seemed to have a good time. The trendy restaurant attracted a chic clientele - almost everyone was a tourist or expat but it was certainly a happening place to be.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Ourika Valley and Jemaa El Fna

We hired a car and driver today to take us out to Ourika Valley, which is set among the Atlas Mountains and about ~2-3 hours away from Marrakech. The lush, green scenery of Ourika Valley certainly was a stark contrast to the dusty deserts around Marrakech. Ourika Valley was a good few degrees cooler than the 40 degree Celsius weather that we have been experiencing in Marrakech so it was definitely welcoming. We finally made it to Setti Fatma, which is the last village in the valley, by lunchtime and enjoyed a leisurely lunch there by the river. Setti Fatma, which I think means "seven sisters," is known for its seven waterfalls. After lunch, my sister and I decided to hike only to the first one since the hikes sounded pretty strenuous, and it certainly was the right decision for us! We hired a guide since there really isn't a marked trail and there were many dangerous spots (some steep climb and lots of slippery rocks). When we made it to the first waterfall, we felt quite accomplished!

By the time we got back to Marrakech, it was close to dinnertime. We decided to check out Jemaa El Fna, which is the main square that is a market by day (and entrance to the souks), and a giant food court at night. It reminds me much of night markets in Asia, where rows of food stalls line the square, each serving their specialty ranging from skewers to snails to sheep's heads. As you browse through the different stalls, many will approach you to convince you that their stall has the best food. We tried a few different stalls and it's a bit of hit or miss. I suppose only the locals would know which stalls have the best food. We ended our meal with a couple glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice at nearby stalls (and there are many of them) and took a couple bottles home as well (the orange juice here is so sweet and refreshing!) We know we will be back for some more before we leave.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Al Fassia (Marrakech)

We arrived in Marrakech last night and were welcomed by the sweltering heat even though it was nearly 11 pm. After spending the day doing a walking tour around the Medina (old city), we needed some good food. The owners of the riad (traditional Moroccan-style hotels) that we were staying at highly recommended El Fassia (they claim that's where many of the stars go to eat when they are in town). The restaurant is also a women's cooperative so everyone working there is female. We started the meal with a pastilla (or bastilla) stuffed with quail, which had a light flaky crust similar to phyllo (or filo) dough. It is salty on the inside but sweet on the outside so the flavors made an interesting contrast. We got several main dishes including a tagine and skewers, but the best dish was definitely the lamb shoulders with almonds (one portion is for 2 people). The lamb was very tender and flavorful, with a mix of many different spices. We ended the meal with a variety of Moroccan pastries but they were a bit too sweet for my taste. Alas, there was no star-sighting though and we didn't see any cute guys. I do have to note that we were very impressed with the service. After we asked them whether there was a non-smoking section in the restaurant (which we knew was very unlikely), they asked the tables closest to us not to smoke, which was quite thoughtful. Now I only wished restaurants in Paris would do that!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

La Finca de Susana (Madrid)

We took the overnight train from Bilbao to Madrid which was actually pretty comfortable. We were just stopping in Madrid for the day and flying to Marrakech in the evening. Since it’s Monday, most of the museums were closed, which was a bummer, but fortunately I’ve been to all of the big ones the last time I was in Madrid. We did a quick walking tour of the city and then proceeded to our favorite activity – eating! We stopped in the Museo del Jamon for some breakfast/snack and of course sampled some of their ham. We tried a variety, and while they were all pretty good, nothing blew us away.

We went to La Finca de Susana (C. Arlaban, 4) for lunch. The restaurant was very highly recommended in the Let’s Go Guide for having “delicious fine dining and swanky surroundings… at an extremely low price.” Well, Let’s Go got two out of three right: the restaurant had a nice atmosphere, and the price was indeed really low: the lunch prix-fixe menu was 8.50 euros for appetizer, entrée, dessert, and drink. Unfortunately, the food left much to be desired. My sister and I got the quiche for starters while my mom got a salad. Both were pretty bland but we tried to eat as much of it as we could. But when the entrees came, we gave up – they were all so bad that we just couldn’t eat anymore. The tuna was rubbery, and the veal was so tough you’d think it came from old jerky. All of us barely touched our food, which was pretty unusual for us. We unanimously agreed that this was the worst meal we’ve had so far in Europe (and it’s still true even as I’m writing this two weeks after…) Maybe we caught it on a bad day, but we certainly do not plan to try again.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Bilbao - Guggenheim and More

I would like to welcome the first guest author to my blog - my sister, who has been a faithful travel companion on my European tour despite all her complaining! :-) She insisted on writing this entry because she had some pretty strong feelings about this place.

One of my greatest regrets in Bilbao is going to see the Guggenheim. The attraction was to see one of Frank Gehry’s architectural masterpieces. Alas it was such a disappointment once you enter in the museum. The only artworks that were even worth looking at are visible from the outside so don't waste money on a ticket. It is 12.50 euros for the regular entrance fee, but if you are a student who is under 26 years old the prices drop to 7.50 euros. Audio guide is included. Like I said, don't waste your money on a ticket. Just go to the front of the museum for the cute dog, known as “the puppy”, to take some nice pictures. It is a gigantic wired puppy piece decorated with an array of flowers that supposedly differ in color as the seasons change. Just take your digital camera, zoom, and click. Believe me, you don’t want to go in to look at the horrid “modern” art they have. It really lacks any pieces of work that are worth the fee. I cannot begin to describe the bitterness, anger, and frustration that I felt when I toured this horrid museum.

My experience at the Guggenheim really marred my impression of Bilbao but the city did have other redeeming qualities such as the food, the hotel, and the ambiance. We ate at two restaurants near the entrance of the museum. The first place was Serrantes III, where we were able to try a unique dish of “barnacles” at an exorbitant price of 150 euros per kg. They were delectable, but I am not quite sure they were worth the price as we found them in the fish markets later in Barcelona to be much cheaper. We only had some snacks/tapas at this restaurant because the prices were ridiculously high. Fortunately we had passed an Asian restaurant earlier on the way that looked much more reasonable so we went back there for lunch. It turned out surprisingly good (and it's almost right across from the main entrance to the museum). For those of you who speak mandarin, the supposed Japanese restaurant that was run by Chinese/Cantonese people named the restaurant Tamaya (Ta-ma-ya). Can we say a little ironic and maybe a hidden message? ^_^ Refreshingly, this restaurant was actually pretty decent and for a great price. Their lunch “menu” was 13.50 euros; which included appetizer, rice or noodles, a main course, dessert, and drinks. Usually the entrees for such a low price would be either horrendous or extremely tiny or both. This place was wonderful because I had a nice plate of shrimp tempura, a mediocre fried rice, a generous amount of peking duck, violet ice cream, and water. As for my sister and mom, they ordered sushi, stir-fried instant noodles, enormous sauteed shrimps, fresh fruits, and tea. For the price of 13.50 euros, we constantly talk about this diamond in the rough. Once you come to Europe you will find out that there are really no delectable Asian restaurants, nor are they all at reasonable prices. We often wish to find a place like this in Europe, when we think about it we say “ta ma yah!” (those of you who speak Mandarin will get it) ^_^.

The ambiance of Bilbao is also pleasant because they have a lot of intriguing architectural splendors as the city tries to fit into the setting of Frank Gehry’s design. The bridges over the rivers are very modern and nice to look at. As for our hotel, we stayed at the Hesperia Bilbao, which was located across the river facing the Guggenheim. It was a pretty nice hotel for a very reasonable price, but I must say I know why it was not that expensive for a four-star hotel! They trick you to come to Bilbao to suffer and visit the abhorrent Guggenheim museum that they recognize as their treasure. What a mockery! I would never come back to Bilbao because of this abomination! I recommend you to stay in San Sebastian to bask in the splendid city and stay close to the ethereal beaches.

Um, okay... Thanks, Sis, for your candid review. I guess I'll see your posts again the next time you really hate a place!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

San Sebastian - Tapas, Tapas, and More Tapas!

From the moment we stepped into San Sebastian, we fell in love with it. The city is situated in northern Spain near the border of France and overlooks Bay of Biscayne. Our immediate reaction was to regret that we are only spending one day in this lovely place. For lunch, we strolled down to Old Town, where tapas bars and restaurants line the streets. We sampled a number of tapas bars and tried everything from mussels to calamari to things that we weren’t too sure what they were. I love tapas because they are a great way to sample so many different things. Our favorite tapas bar was definitely the Goiz Bargi, where they have this grilled shrimp skewer that was just scrumptious!

After we were already nearly full on tapas, we passed by this restaurant called Irutxulo that showed a picture of fresh uni (sea urchin) on its menu and I knew I must try it! I was very curious to see how the Spanish would prepare uni. The uni was mixed with some crab and then it was steamed and lightly flavored. The presentation was beautiful – they were served in three shells garnished with some salmon roe on top. The dish was interesting, but I would still prefer raw uni typically served in Japanese restaurants. I was happy that I was even able to get uni here though! We also ordered a number of other dishes since their seafood looked so fresh (since we were only in San Sebastian one day, we needed to squeeze in multiple meals). We had some grilled shrimps, which were very good and cooked to perfection. We also ordered some fish, which was lightly battered and served with a tartar sauce on the side. It was good but nothing too special. The kitchen also surprised us by giving us a dish of baked scallop with vermicelli, which was very nice of them. Irutxulo also made a very nice sangria – a bit on the sweet side but very fruity and delicious.

After lunch, we walked around Old Town a bit more and enjoyed some gelato. We also decided to do the touristy thing and took a ride in one of the mini-trains that toured around town. It was a good way to see the entire coastline when you are too lazy to walk. :-) We wanted to have dinner at La Perla Restaurant because it was supposed to be good but it wasn’t open for dinner until 9 pm! (I guess it’s not that unusual in Spain for restaurants to open so late…) Unfortunately we couldn’t stay that late so we ended up just grabbing some sandwiches at the La Perla Café, which was on the terrace and had a nice view of the ocean. We can’t wait to come back to San Sebastian again!

Saturday, July 7, 2007

No Bull!

So we got up at 4:30 am in order to get a good spot to watch the bull run, known as the encierro. When we first got to the downtown area, it looked like a waste dump – the aftermath of all-day and all-night partying. The workers began setting up fences and we squeezed ourselves into a plum spot. The route from the bull pen to the bullfighting ring is a short one, and the most popular spot to watch the spectacle is at “the turn,” which is a sharp turn where the bulls and runners alike often slip. We situated ourselves at the perfect place where you can see the bull coming down and then make the turn. A number of us stood there since shortly after 5 am and had to endure massive crowds pushing and shoving us, drunken guys falling on us and trying to steal our spot, as well as street cleaners spraying gallons of water at us with something very similar to a firehose (we were drenched from the waist down). We thought, okay, the bull run better be worth it. However, with 30 minutes to go (the bulls start running at 8 am), the police told us that we were not allowed to stand in the area that we were in, even though the guys next to us had asked the policemen when we first got there whether we could stand there and they said yes. They made all of us move to a different area, and of course by now, any visible spot has been taken. We valiantly tried to see if we could still catch a glimpse of the action, but there was no way with the crowds of people packed on the fences and all around. We didn’t even know when the bulls ran by us. Sadly, all our efforts were for nothing and my mom and my sister are genuinely mad at me now. So unfortunately, I didn’t any shots of the bulls running – you’ll find much better pics on the internet or watch live telecast on Here is a picture of the people on the balconies with the great views and away from the crowds… how I wish I was up there with them this morning!

Friday, July 6, 2007

Viva San Fermin!

I arrived in Pamplona, Spain, yesterday for the annual San Fermin festival (also known as Running of the Bulls). I walked through the square as well as the route of the bull run, and the streets were already filled with people getting an early start on the celebration. The festival officially starts at noon on July 6th, with the Txupinazo, which is the rocket that sets off from City Hall to signal the beginning of the festival. Of course we had to be there but what we didn't know was how crazy the celebration gets. We were packed into the streets like sardines and we couldn't even get close to City Hall. People were spraying champagne, beer, and red wine everywhere, and there was not a person who was not soaked in sight. It started getting really gross when people were throwing ketchup and mustard as well. We managed to dodge most of that, but our hair was still drenched with red wine. Bang! The rockets started going off and more craziness ensued. More rockets go off and the enthusiam of the crowd was contagious and people started singing "olé olé!" It was pure madness but an incomparable experience.

Then at 11 pm at night (as well as every night of the festival), there are fireworks near the Ciudadela (the old citadel) and again, the streets were lined with crowds. Fortunately this time people weren't throwing champagne or mustard around so we could enjoy the spectacular fireworks display. After nearly half an hour of sparks, the mass exodus of people meant that it was nearly impossible for buses to get through or for us to get home. We eventually made it back to our hotel though, because we only have a few hours left to sleep before we had to get up for the bull run!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Musée du Louvre

This is my third time to the Louvre but a Paris trip wouldn’t be complete without a visit to home of the Mona Lisa. Besides, there is always so much to see it is certainly worth multiple visits. After admiring probably the three most well-known treasures of the Louvre (Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and Winged Victory), I also made sure that we visited one of my favorite pieces at the Louvre, the sculpture of Cupid and Psyche. Afterwards, we proceeded to make our way through various wings of interest, starting with the Egyptian Antiquities, with which both my sister and I hold a strong fascination. We spent a good amount of time studying sarcophagus, mummies, and artifacts before moving onto other areas such as the Michaelangelo Gallery, Medieval Louvre, and Mesopotamia Antiquities. We ended our visit in Cour Marly and Cour Puget, which essentially form the sculpture garden at the Louvre. Our legs were certainly sore by the end, but I think we barely covered a fraction of the museum!

Hiramatsu (Paris)

Hiramatsu (52, rue de Longchamp; M: Trocadero) came highly recommended and it certainly lived up to every expectation. It is a 1-star in the Michelin Guide and offers a 3-course lunch menu for 48 euros that is worth every penny. We started off with an amuse bouche of gazpacho with tomato “ice cream” and it was very refreshing and the flavors complemented each other. Then for appetizer, we all chose seared foie gras on brioche with a cherry sauce (we are all big fans of foie gras) and the foie gras was nice and fatty. For my main course, I chose beef with artichoke hearts and chanterelle mushrooms, and the different textures of the ingredients enhanced each other. For dessert, I had strawberry “soup,” which was a lightly whipped concoction of fresh strawberries with vanilla bean ice cream. It was not very sweet and it’s perfect for a summer day. To finish, they presented us with an assortment of “gourmandises,” which included a chocolate macaron, a banana financier, cream of pistachio, apricot and raspberry-flavored jellies, and a spoon of tomato with light cream. The service was also impeccable – it was truly a 3-star experience for a reasonable price. No cute guys, but very highly recommended for food!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Fete de la Musique

It’s officially the first day of summer, and the French celebrate it by partying hard in the streets with music performances everywhere, otherwise known as Fête de la Musique. I’ve heard about how crazy it can be, so of course I had to go check it out myself. I met up with N and his friends and we started off near where I live, in the Latin Quarter. After enjoying performances by many different bands (I have no idea if any of the bands were famous but we were just following the crowds and there were bands playing on practically every street corner). We slowly made our way over to the Bastille area, where it was even more happening, with stages set up and people everywhere. It was definitely quite an experience – someone described it to me as Mardi Gras amplified and it’s celebrated across all cities in France. So if you ever are in France on June 21, be sure to join the fun and enjoy the music!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

More Cooking and Eating

After my fun experience with the cooking course last week, I was itching to try my hands at another dish. My sister and I signed up for a class at the Ecole Ritz Escoffier, which is a well-known culinary academy at the Ritz Hotel (my friend S is studying there to become a pastry chef). They also offer lunch classes and today we made seared tuna with julienned leeks. A class at the Ritz school is three times the price of the one I took with L'Atelier des Chefs last week, but it was well worth it. The class is smaller (there were only four of us) and the instructor really taught us some cooking techniques, whereas with L'Atelier des Chefs it was more just cooking from the recipe. Both are a lot of fun, especially since we get to eat the end result! The seared tuna was simple to prepare but it was very tasty, and the flash-fried julienned leeks were not only delicious but also added to the presentation. If you are more serious about cooking, I would definitely recommend trying one of the courses at the Ritz cooking school.

After our lesson, my sister and I headed to Fauchon (since it's on the way back to the metro station). Fauchon certainly is an institution in Paris, known for their madeleines. We tried a number of different flavors, including some unusual ones like truffle and roquefort (cheese). They also have some beautiful-looking desserts and cakes so we picked up some pastries as well. (Yes, I know we just had lunch 10 minutes ago but we didn't have dessert!)

My sister and walked around quite a bit browsing the stores in this area (I think it's considered St Honore - around Madeleine and Place Vendome), and I noticed that there were a lot of good-looking men walking around. I'm not sure where they came from, but I've walked around a lot of different parts of Paris since I arrived, and so far I've found this area to have the highest concentration of attractive men. While I suppose I can't really rate an entire area, I will definitely have to come back and find a good café to people-watch!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Day with Claude Monet

A nice day trip to break away from the bustling city life of Paris is to go to Giverny in the morning before heading to Rouen, a city in Normandy, in the afternoon. This will appeal even more to fans of impressionism, since Giverny was the home of Claude Monet and Rouen is home to the cathedral that inspired one of Monet's most famous series of paintings. My sister and I got up bright and early to catch the morning train to Vernon, which is about 45 minutes away from Paris by train. From Vernon, one would take a bus to Giverny, which takes about another 15 minutes. The morning train allows you to get there as the garden opens and there aren't as many people, although my sister and I spent so much time taking pictures everywhere that soon the gardens filled with people. Giverny has always been one of my favorite places in France - walking through Monet's garden almost feels like stepping into one of his paintings, surrounded by willows, serene water, and of course his well-known waterlilies. Nearly a hundred pictures later, we took off for Rouen - to snap more pictures of course.

My favorite street in Rouen is to stroll down Rue du Gros Horloge, a cobblestone street lined with shops leading up to Cathedral de Notre-Dame, the subject of Monet's series of paintings where he studied the effects of light on the cathedral. (See an example below.) I tried to take a picture that resembled Monet's paintings but I thought he painted them from a different angle so it didn't quite turn out as I planned but you can still see it...