Friday, February 29, 2008

Hong Kong: Sift

(May is in Hong Kong, having such a hard time!)

My cousins Holly & Elaine heard about this dessert bar called Sift and wanted to try it out... so being tempted by chocolates and creams and all things sweet, I went along merrily. To my surprise, there was still a line waiting outside at 10:15pm. After a bit of a wait, we were able to secure 3 seats at the dessert bar, which I actually prefer to being seated at a table, as we were able to watch our desserts being prepared. After much deliberation, we decided on the sift chocolate cake, the chocolate strawberry pavlova, and the cherry napolitan.

The Sift Chocolate Cake is the signature item of the dessert bar:
chocolate ganache, jivara cremeux, praline crunch, and chocolate
fudge cake... heavenly.

The chocolate strawberry pavlova (Holly's favourite) was paired with a champagne(?) jelly, and they complemented each other nicely.

The cherry napolitan truly melted in our mouths, and I believe the cherries were enhanced by some liqueur. I wonder if it'd be better to use puff pastry though... as pretty as it looked, it was rather awkward to eat.

I think of the three desserts, I like the Sift Chocolate Cake the most.

Not much to complain about the dessert, but I think their service could use some help. Like I had mentioned earlier, it was neat to be seated at the dessert bar, being able to watch the chef work her magic. However, not once did she look up and make eye contact with anybody - nor did I notice her smile at all. I guess that is to discourage "nosey" foodies from asking too many questions.

Personally, I think she played it a tad too cool... Also, I noticed that instead of placing our plates in front of us, the waiters tend to slide the plates towards us. When they are charging HK$70 - $90 for each dessert, plus any dessert wine or coffee on top of that, yes I do expect a certain level of service as well. When one is trained by a Michelin starred chef, (as per the chef/owner of Sift) it is not enough to only learn the culinary skills.

47 Graham Street, Central, Hong Kong

Friday, February 22, 2008

San Diego

When we travel, May is the restaurant sleuth. Our trip to San Diego was no exception and she read about a great to have brunch called Café 222, so we went.

Below is 222's specialty, the pumpkin waffle. It was pumpkin and it was definitely a waffle. Besides for those facts, it was pretty much uneventful for me... (Orange, in Chicago, easily beats Cafe 222. However, it might not be worth the drive if you live in San Diego)

At night, we checked-out JSix which is - what do you know, at the corner of 'J' street and 6th avenue. Decent food, very nice decor. It was a Monday night but even then, I thought that the place was really empty.

Simply raw: Hawaiian tuna, oysters, smoked salmon tartar, scallop seviche, Yukon potato chips on the side (not pictured).

The Maine lobster salad and the roasted asparagus salad (very yummy)

Grilled Brandt Beef Rib eye; caramelized broccolini, lobster whipped potatoes and lobster reduction. That was really good.

Both our deserts were not very good; not delicate and no interesting flavors. JSix should outsource their pastry chef... or replace him/her.

All in all, a good time in San Diego. Friendly people, quaint little downtown with a few good restaurants to pick from.


Day 5: Puerto Vallarta

The last port on our cruise is Puerto Vallarta. Very nice resort town with a boardwalk lined with restaurants, shops and hotels. We had booked an outdoor adventure tour so, most of our day is occupied outside of the city. However, at night, we try a restaurant by the sea called Mi Querencia. Good food, friendly atmosphere, but crappy looking menu. Guys, you have to work on the menu and give it some panache.

Starters from $5 to $14
Main courses from $8 to $17

(The red sauce was very spicy)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Day 4: Mazatlan; the scam and the surprise.

After Cabo San Lucas, a mostly boring port on day 3 of our cruise, we stopped in Mazatlan, a much larger city (about 350k people).

We disembark, take the shuttle and are dropped in front of the shops and other vendors. Seeing some of them peddling pictures of resorts and hotels, I stop May and say "Well, the guided tour of the city with the ship is $40 per person. If those guys can give us something similar for free, I don't mind visiting their resort for an hour or two". To which May says "As long as it is not a time-share presentation". We check with one of the guys and he says it is not; it is supposed to be a hotel offering a few perks and a visit to attract future business. Some further checking with May and we agree after some more negotiation (we get USD $50 to spend on food and drinks at the resort and a 2 hours taxi tour of the city).

Well, it was a time-share presentation...
May is slightly pissed-off but I am having some fun with the sales guy as I do the maths in front of him to prove to him that the time-share concept would absolutely not work for us. He lets us go after 25 minutes...

That is the hotel resort. Pretty nice actually. The tour of the premise was about 45 minutes.

Now, that was the surprise. After the hotel/resort visit, we were quite hungry and we decided to use that $50 at the hotel's restaurant. The food was really good and so were the drinks. First time I tasted refried beans that actually tasted nice, as opposed to the typically pasty, yucky stuff we get in Canada. Quesadillas had a generous helping of tasty chicken, not too dry. And the guacamole was excellent. I just couldn't believe it. Oh, and I forgot the soup; perfectly spicy and zesty.

We then went on our 2 hours city tour. We had time to visit pretty much everything we wanted and, as we were making our way back to the ship, I thought: "These guys have actually lost money on us today".

Nevertheless, make no mistake if you are offered to visit a hotel but not a time-share for perks; it will be a time-share, and be prepared to say no, no matter how good the deal might look.

(It is not a good deal, trust me)

The kitchen on a cruise ship.

During our galley tour on the cruise ship (Dawn Princess), we were given a little brochure with tons of stats which I thought I'd share with you:

Average amount of fish prepared every day: 1,100 lbs
Poultry: 900 lbs, veal: 120 lbs, beef: 1,000 lbs, lamb: 150 lbs, pork: 600 lbs.
Average amount of flour used daily: 1,300 lbs
Average amount of fresh fruits served daily: 4,200 lbs
Average amount of dishes washed daily: 50,100

And, from what I read somewhere else:

Average weight gained on a 7 weeks cruise: 5 lbs

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Princess Cruise on the Mexican Riviera

Leveraging our very high Canadian dollar (relative to the the USD anyway), we booked a Mexican riviera cruise, leaving San Diego on January 20th and returning Januarty 27th. We then tacked-on 2 days in San Diego.

I will cover the cruise, ports, and San Diego et separate entries.

So, here's our ship, the Dawn Princess,

We actually sailed on its sister ship, the Sea Princess, about 10 years ago. We loved the food on board back then and we were anxious to see whether it would match our recollections.

The port we visited are: San Diego, Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta.

Before I detail the food, here's a few shots of the inside of the ship.

That's our stateroom:

The pool deck:

The atrium, right in the middle of the ship. We be there quite often as, unfortunately, the outside temperature turned-out to be way colder than we would have liked (about 12-15 degrees).

So, how about the food now? This was our 5th cruise and the second with Princess. We cruised on Princess, Norwegian, Royal Caribean, and Celebrity. Onboard cruise ships, there is basically two dining/food experience; the sit-in, more formal dining experience, and the buffet/burger joint type experience. In both cases, they are all you can eat. Yes, if you have lobster one night in the dining room, you can ask for a second order. Or ask for 3 desserts if you can handle all that sugar. It used to be that the only formal dining option was a set time dining; there would be an early seating and a late seating arrangement where you are assigned. I guess people complained and wanted Denny's type service where you can eat whenever so cruise lines (including Princess) now have dining rooms with no set time as an additional practice.

I do not know whether it is a result of the freestyle dining, or because there had been some cases of Norwalk on the previous cruise, or because Princess' food preparation went down the drain, or because the kitchen staff was clueless, or whatever it may be... but the food was, overall, not very good. We were so disapointed. May thinks the explaination is that, 10 years ago, it was our first cruise and we had no expectations. However, I do not believe so; the reason being that one thing that was still as good as I remembered are the made to order Italian-style pizzas in the La Scala pizzeria. Still every bit as good as I remembered. But, in the dining room, let's see:

- service went down; servers used to bring the dishes all together (as it should be done). Now, it was a mix of appetizers, soups, desserts, whatever.

- they could not get any steak, ANY steak, cooked to the right temperature. I take my steak rare, May likes it medium-rare. I got mine medium, she got her's well done. I had her eat mine and I nibbled of the overcooked carcass. The next time, I asked for mine 'blue' and for May's to be rare. No friggin go! Mine came up medium! I had to return it and they finally got the message. I know they are cooking for 300, however, that didn't seem to be a problem before.

- On the first night, May had chicken pasta; they were swimming in a quarter inch of water, the chicken was sliced too thin, they overcooked it.

- Soufflés were overcooked

We had a few better meals but overall, it was not an experience I would like to reproduce. We had better food (Mexican) on shore.

Here are a few menu samples (it all sounds fine... it's just rendition that was sub-par):

Conchiglie alla Campagnola; Pasta shells tossed with lemon-roasted Chicken and fresh steamed broccoli in a sauce of fresh tomato, capers, Kalamata olives, gralic and parmesan cheese.

Watery, mostly bland, the tomatoes are not fresh as the chef himself pointed-out in a demonstration (he said using canned tomatoes was the only way to get consistent results)

Seafood Turnover; ya, that's it, turn it over so you don't have to look at it. Botched presentation. Does it absolutely need to taste like canned food?

An overly dry soufflé:The Horizon Court where buffets were served. It had its good days; one morning, we had eggs bennedict which were appropriately runny. Funnily enough, the next day, eggs florentine were hard!

Pizza was still very good, as we remembered.

Should this discourage you from going on a cruise if you are a foodie? No. But, please do advance research on the Web. Food quality sometimes varies more between ships and itinararies tahn between cruise lines. Obviously, if you splurge on a Crystal or Radisson cruise, food should not be an issue...