Sunday, December 14, 2014

Conquering Mont Blanc at Cafe de Ginza Miyuki-kan Ginza, Tokyo

Always trust your stomach's intuition!  My betsubara (Japanese term for "second stomach, for dessert only") and I were walking along Ginza one evening a few weeks ago when we passed by this cheerfully lit coffee shop that seemed uprooted straight from some sidewalk in Europe. 

Plant boxes filled with festive red flowers and fairy lights were a welcome sight on this cold and rainy evening.  It certainly looked warm and cozy inside.  I had just come from an office dinner but my betsubara had me rooted to the spot.  

The other reason why I just couldn't move on was this large poster showing the signature dish of Cafe de Ginza Miyuki-kan.  This is not spaghetti or any kind of pasta noodle -- this is a picture of a Mont Blanc, a pastry made of cream and pureed chestnuts.  While I had frequently read about it,  I had yet to try one.  
Now, I would finally conquer Mont Blanc!

As it says on the door, Cafe de Ginza Miyuki-kan has been on the scene since 1969.  However, they only started serving the Mont Blanc a little more than 10 years ago so I suppose even if you put these  pastries one on top of the other, they wouldn't be as tall as the real Mont Blanc.

The shop is indeed charming and reminded me of any one of these quaint little coffee shops you'd find in a small town in Europe.  I imagine the french windows open up during spring or summer and you can probably have your coffee al fresco.

While waiting for my tea and Mont Blanc -- the table tent card showed  how a Mont Blanc is constructed.  The base is a meringue disc followed by a topping of cream and then pureed chestnut is piped on in thin ribbons.
I cannot read Japanese but when I did some research on Cafe de Ginza Miyuki-kan, I learned that they use only premium Japanese chestnuts from Kuma, in Kumamoto Prefecture.  Apparently, these chestnuts have a mild aroma and sweetness that works best for the Mont Blanc pastry.
The shop uses about 15 tons of chestnut a year -- serving up an average of 200,000 of these exquisite little pastries.

I unwrapped the thin wax paper surrounding my Mont Blanc to get a better shot of this three tiered dessert -- meringue, cream and chestnut puree.  The chestnut puree is a rich caramel colour -- it's such a delectably dainty  bit of dessert.

After my first forkful -- I became an instant Mont Blanc convert.  
I was a little worried that it would be too sweet -- given the meringue, the cream and the chestnut puree but this was just delightful.   The chestnuts used in the puree must have been laced with just the slightest hint of sugar to allow the natural sweetness of the nut to shine through.
I could actually have eaten another one with relative ease --- who am I kidding, I could have eaten two more with out batting an eye!

But no, such genteel and refined surroundings did not warrant a gluttonous binge.
I scraped the very last bit of my Mont Blanc from the plate and reluctantly stood up to pay my bill.  As I passed by the chiller containing Cafe de Ginza Miyuki-kan's other sweet offerings, I knew that before I headed back home, I would make another stop for their Mont Blanc.
Rather than conquering Mont Blanc, it had conquered me!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Swishing the shabu shabu at Ginzasyabutsuu in Ginza, Tokyo

To the tourist who loves Japanese food, perhaps shabu shabu is not on the top five list of foods to eat.  There's ramen, tonkatsu, soba, tempura and of course sushi and sashimi  -- all of which are best eaten right at the source, i.e. anywhere in Japan.
On last week's business trip to Tokyo, I was wandering around Ginza at dinner time, trying to decide where my first "welcome back to Japan" meal would be when this well lit doorway caught my eye.

Ginzasyabutsuu is a shabu shabu restaurant that I later learned from the website Gurunavi  is famous because it invented "all-you-can-eat" shabu shabu.   In other words, shabu shabu kuidaore or eat-until-you're-ruined as they like to say in Osaka.  The restaurant is in the basement so you have to walk down a narrow staircase.

The menu is  in Japanese but there is a one-page english menu for the gaijin.  You can choose from all you can eat courses of five types of meats or a more expansive (and expensive) version that includes more varieties plus Japanese black beef and a special domestic chicken.

For the less hungry, there are sets that start at Y2,400 for two types of meat -- pork belly and sirloin.  I decided to go with the "udon" set with three types of meat plus noodles.

Nothing  starts a meal better than beer.  I ordered the medium nama beer, in this case the restaurant's beer on tap is from Kirin.

We're lucky we snagged the last few seats at the counter.  The restaurant is not that big, just a few booths in the back, all of them completely full.

 Each person at the counter has the small pot of boiling water on top of a gas burner.  The shabu shabu set includes a small dish of vegetables -- carrot slices, greens, enoki mushrooms and a tofu skin pouch filled with minced herbs.

 There are two types of sauces for the shabu shabu. There is a light ponzu sauce and Ginzasyabutsuu's special sesame sauce that is also a bit citrusy.  This creamy yet tart taste is more to my liking and is ideal for dipping the meat in. For my 3-meat set,  I chose beef tongue, pork belly and sirloin (left to right, on the plate above).

 "Shabu shabu"  is onomatopoeic.  They say it is the sound you make when you swish the meat around in the boiling water.  All I could  hear though was the grumbling of my hungry stomach.

Once you've finished the meat on your plate, the waitstaff bring a small bowl of udon noodles with a side of tanuki and chopped green onions.  The remaining broth from the shabu shabu pot is then skimmed and strained of any bits of meat and is poured on the noodles, thus creating an instantly flavourful udon bowl.

A small scoop of yuzu flavoured sherbet ended the meal and was the perfect way to cleanse the palate of any lingering beefy aftertastes.
Ginzasyabutsuu was a lucky find for my first meal on this trip to Tokyo.
I hope I can find my way back next time!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Of a Jesuit church, Frescoes, A Miraculous Well and an Earthquake Survivor -- the Our Lady of Assumption Church in Dauis, Bohol

The massive earthquake that happened in Bohol last October 2013 damaged so many beautiful churches -- most of them are beyond repair.  When I saw these magnificent structures reduced to rubble,  it broke my heart.  I regretted that I had not been to Bohol earlier -- so that I could have seen these centuries old churches while they were still intact.

Some of the churches, those farther away from the epicentre and those built perhaps on more solid ground or of sturdier construction avoided complete destruction.  
One of these churches is the Assumption of Our Lady Shrine in Dauis in Panglao Island.  Originally established by the Jesuits in the 1700s, it was passed on to the Augustinians when the Jesuits were expelled from the country.
On this last trip to Bohol for work, I purposely stopped off to see the church on my way to the airport.

The portico that used to be a significant feature of the church facade had been completely felled by the earthquake and portions of the tall bell tower rising high above the church had also been destroyed.  Despite these, I felt that the Dauis church still fared much better than the church in Loboc where it seems that repair and reconstruction are more daunting, near impossible

You can see that reconstruction has started on the gothic inspired bell tower. Cream coloured limestone bricks will replace those that were damaged, keeping the overall look of the structure.

The church interior is graceful and quietly elegant.  It seemed to me that it suffered  less damage than the exterior.  Sunlight streamed in from the windows and the tall white columns and posts add to the spacious and uncluttered feel.
The statues have been removed for protection as the church undergoes repair.
Masses are not held inside the church but outdoors, as precaution from whatever danger could arise from the weakened structure.

This is a view of the interior taken from the altar.  The massive posts you see in front, flanking the entrance are there to hold up and support the portico, now completely destroyed.
A gaping hole in the ceiling shows where the top of the portico would have been.

The ceiling all along the central nave and aisles shows not frescoes but woodwork.  
Each square frames ornamental non liturgical symbols, in gold and a vivid turquoise blue.  

The religious scenes such as this one showing Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem, are painted along the sides of the ceiling.  These marvellous frescoes were done in the early 1920s by Ray Francia, a famous Boholano painter.  

The work of this outstanding artist continues throughout the ceiling of the church.  Right under the dome is this fresco showing the Assumption of Our Lady.  

On top of the altar are more frescoes depicting various scenes like the Last Supper and the Agony in the Garden.  These are all beautifully painted and would not look out of place in the grandest of churches anywhere in the world.

Aside from its striking and impressive appearance, Dauis church is more popular because of the presence of miraculous waters right inside the church, coming from a deep well located just in front of the main altar.
According to local lore, centuries ago, the town was attacked by pirates.  To keep themselves safe, the townspeople locked themselves inside the church as the pirates ransacked the town.  After a while they ran out of food and water.  A well miraculously appeared inside the church and they were able to sustain themselves until it was safe to come out.
To this day, fresh water continues to spring from the well and is available to anyone -- just bring your plastic containers and fill them up.  People have faith that the waters have healing powers.

The back of the church has also sustained damage and reconstruction is ongoing.  A squat hexagonal watch tower, dating back to 1774  sits on one side.  In Spanish times, this was used to watch out for Moorish invaders who came by sea.

This is a panoramic shot of the back of the church.  On the left side is the very impressive and large convento -- also made of bricks and limestone.  It is built along the lines of the tradition Philippine bahay na bato.

This is the view that looks out over the sea.  Right now, it is tranquil and calm but I can imagine that centuries ago, when Moors and pirates were a constant threat, being on the edge of open water such as this must have been a constant concern for Dauis and its inhabitants.

The convento is massive and imposing.  Because it is so wide and squat, it seems to have been spared from the destruction wrought by the earthquake.   I had spent quite a bit of time walking in and around the complex and I felt that I should be on my way to the airport.  But something made me step inside the convento.

The ground floor houses a small coffee shop and a gift shop selling church and Boholano souvenirs and crafts.  Part of the space is now occupied by these statues, rescued from the church.  Some have lost fingers and limbs and will have to be restored.

There is a charming painting showing the walkway from the church to the boat shed at the end of the small pier.  I can imagine the people of Bohol, coming to church via banca, tying up their boats at water's edge and attending church services.

Behind the convento is the open air area where pews have been set up and masses and church services are now held.  It overlooks the sea and is ringed with large old trees -- acacia and narra perhaps.  I can imagine that it is conducive to prayer and meditation.

The lady at the gift shop asked me if I wanted to pay a visit to Our Lady of the Assumption. She pointed me to the back of the convento and told me to enter where an angel stood guard at the door.

The room had been transformed into a small makeshift chapel.  Our Lady of the Assumption, also proclaimed as miraculous by the people of Bohol who have worshipped her for centuries, stood serenely on an improvised altar covered with blue cloth.
It is far cry from her majestic, gold crowned perch on the main altar.
As I stood before her,  I could feel her strong, loving and protective spirit, lessened not one bit by the simple and humble surroundings she is in.
Now I understood why I was drawn into the convento -- it was Our Lady calling me to visit and
spend some moments with her.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Ramen, Filipinized ....

We had been eating so much ramen lately that I thought I'd see what would happen if I added a Pinoy twist to this Japanese staple.  And you know what they say about idle minds ...

 My first experiment with Filipinizing ramen was with a pot of bulalo, remnants of meat and marrow from a rainy Sunday lunch.  The idea of recycling it into bulalo ramen for dinner was my lazy way of coping with left overs.

I always keeps packs of fresh egg noodles in the vegetable bin.  These are pre cooked noodles so no need to cook but I do blanch them twice in boiling water just to remove any alkaline smell and taste.

I placed a serving of noodles and dipped them in the simmering bulalo broth so that they could absorb more of the beef flavour.

The shin bones, I served on the side.  Marrow on hot soup and noodles may not seem like ramen at all but it was still a delicious one dish dinner!

My next experiment involved lechon kawali which I thought would be the Filipino version of chashu. Instead of using recycled broth, this time I made my "ramen" broth from scratch -- using pork bones, dried kelp and niboshi -- ingredients commonly used in the basic ramen base.  

Instead of the usual chunks, I cut up the lechon kawali lengthwise.  

Just two  thick slices of lechon kawali were enough to top each individual bowl.

 Since I had quickly dipped the lechon kawali in the broth,  the skin retained some of its crisp and crunch.   The broth was flavourful and yet light,  and the lechon kawali definitely transformed my ramen experiment into a Pinoy eating experience.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Dimsum Breakfast at President Tea House in Binondo

One Saturday morning, I woke up with an intense longing for a good old fashioned dim sum breakfast.  Since I was not in Hong Kong, the best way to satisfy the urge was to head all the way to Binondo to enjoy all my favourites at President Tea House.

Because of the horrendous Saturday traffic, it was nearer brunch time when we  got to our destination.  But no matter, we were still given the condensed early morning menu which includes congee, noodles, rice toppings and of course, dim sum.

It had been a while since I had been to the Binondo branch and was pleased to see that President Tea House had renovated their interiors -- it's brighter, more modern looking and the predominantly cream coloured booths make for a cleaner look.

One of the reasons why I love dim sum is that it is encouraged that you  have many small bites on the table.  That way, you enjoy tantalising little tastes of many things -- all of them delicious.
I couldn't decide if I wanted noodles or congee this morning.  So I ordered both. We had the house special -- beef brisket and wonton noodles plus a bowl of pork bola bola congee.  They came in deep bowls, perfect for sharing.

Congee is best eaten with bicho bicho or crullers -- the crunchy "sticks" add texture and chewiness to an otherwise soft, simple bowl of boiled rice.

We craved for something oily -- so I ordered radish cake which came delightfully deep fried and instead of one big slice, was artfully cut up in small cubes, the better to apportion and enjoy.

I cannot pass up steamed spare ribs with tausi or black bean.  It's a simple dish but very easy to get all wrong -- sometimes, the pork can be tough, sometimes it's too fatty, or too salty.  President Tea House gets it done just right.  The small bite size morsels are tender and the black beans do not overpower the dish.

President Tea House's asado siopao comes two to an order.  We also ordered a jumbo bola bola pao but that wasn't as good as the asado so be warned!

The pork and shrimp siomai was juicy and scrumptious.  Dim sum literally means "touch the heart" and yes, these little dumplings did just that.

The hakaw or shrimp siomai was equally good -- the shrimp were whole and fresh and the transparent rice wrapper was not too thick.  This is how hakaw should be.

Our hands down favourite was the quail's egg siomai.  Just three pieces to an order, each small whole quail's egg is placed on top of a smidgen of ground pork and then bundled up in a wonton wrapper and steamed.  It was a little pocket of delight.

Next time you have a craving for authentic old fashioned dim sum -- make your way to President Tea House, the main store in Salazar Street in Binondo is the best place to fulfil your dim sum desires.