Saturday, November 18, 2006

I Have Been There, or Have I?

My return flight from Los Angeles to Singapore had a scheduled stop-over at Taipei. While I was in the airport waiting to re-board, I wondered if this counted as a 'visit' to Taiwan. I guess not, even though I was on Taiwanese soil, and buying local merchandise and mementos at the airport shops!

So, let me see if I can count the countries I have landed in, but haven't exited their airports: Switzerland (Zurich airport during my first foreign travel in 1992, and also the first time I was flying), Germany (Frankfurt airport, one of my favourites especially the Delta business lounge), France (Paris airport, not among the best in Europe), UK (Heathrow airport, classy but expensive), Netherlands (Amsterdam airport, one of the better ones in Europe, and great if you want to buy cheese or tulips!), Hong Kong (Cathay's lounge is one of the best in the world), Korea (Seoul airport) and now Taiwan.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Moonshine Grill

After an intense day-long meeting that began at 8AM and ended only at 7PM, we walked down three blocks (from the Four Seasons) to the Moonshine Grill. Everyone chose Texan beer, while I decided to go with martinis. Their 'corn-dog' shrimps are truely unique and taste great and I finally got to eat fried green tomatoes (seen that movie?), but the entree took the cake that day!
Moonshine Grill AustinI decided to go Texan and ordered their Texan Flat Iron Steak, which the waiter said was his favorite item on the menu and also the most popular! When I said I wanted it well-done, he gave me a very disapproving look. And so, I decided (for the first time) to have it cooked 'medium-rare'. I have to admit the steak was fantastic; better than any steak I have had before!

That was followed by some great desserts that I could only sample: skillet apple pie with maple ice-cream, white chocolate bread pudding, etc.).

Everyone was looking happy and contended after that dinner as we walked out into the cold evening to our hotel.

BTW, I surprise many when I polish off Texan-sized dinners with elan! After I had polished off a large serving of Fajitas at a Mexican diner called On the Border in Dallas, our waiter couldn't help exclaiming "I am proud of you, man! Who would have thought a small guy like you can finish off that!". Since he was a towering, big, black guy, I didn't protest at being called 'small' :-)

Santa MonicaI had a very early morning flight to catch to Los Angeles, but was able to sleep on the flight. My work got done by early afternoon and I strolled down to Santa Monica Place and the 3rd Street Promenade. With the Holiday Season around the corner, the malls and streets are lit up, decorated and there is festivity already in the (cold) air.

I decided to have some Thai food at a place called the Yangzte Express. I ordered something called Fire Rice (very accurately named), and I swear I had smoke coming out of my ears by the time I got done!

Santa MonicaThis has been a long trip away from home, and I am very happy to be catching my return flight back home tonight.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Four Seasons at Austin

Arrived in Austin, TX today; this is the first time I have set foot in the state capital of Texas, which also claims to be the Live Music Capital of the World. Austin, to us techie types, is also known as the home of Dell.

Four Seasons AustinThe Four Seasons on the banks of the Town Lake oozes class right from the sandstone lobby to the rooms (mine had a great view of the river and the setting sun). And it is only a few blocks away from 6th street, the heart of Austin's nightlife.

Unfortunately, I was too tired to stay late; I also had an early morning meeting; so I downed some Guinness Stout at an Irish pub, and walked back to my hotel. Four Seasons Austin The pictures here are of my hotel room and the view right out of my window. But perhaps the area's strangest attraction is the nearby Congress Street Bridge. The bridge is home to North America's largest urban bat colony and in the late evenings you can watch almost 1.5 million of them take flight. These bats can consume upto 30,000 pounds of insects in a single evening; residents who initially fought to eradicate the bats, backed off when they found mosquitoes become nearly extinct on the lake, thanks to their neighbourly bats!


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Cocktail Cruise and the Palace Hotel

I am back in San Francisco, this time for a couple of dinner events. The first one, yesterday, was a cocktail cruise on a luxury yatch. The San Francisco Spirit has three decks and an air-conditioned interior, which was good because the temperature had dropped considerably. We tasted wine and nibbled on hors d'oeuvres, as we cruised in the San Francisco bay taking in stunning views of the city's skyline, the Golden Gate and Alcatraz at night-time (picture below).

San FranciscoThe Palace Hotel where I am staying has a long history; it is one of the oldest hotels in San Francisco, and it's old-world charm remains intact. The wide corridors, the ornate ceilings, and winding staircases are a welcome change from the other hotels. The picture here is of one of the ornate main doors to the hotel.

Palace Hotel San Francisco The majestic Garden Court banquet area in the lobby level was earlier the Grand Court which served as an entry area for horse-driven carriages.

The hotel is also home to The Pied Piper, an Olde English style martini lounge that has been serving drinks since 1875. I had lunch at Maxfield's Grill, within the Palace Hotel. Lunch consisted of North Atlantic Salmon topped with a spinach pudding and garnished with baby carrots, followed by a sinful delight called Cookie-baked Alaska with Raspberry Ice-Cream.
Palace Hotel San Francisco
I also visited a museum with a group of colleagues: the California Academy of Sciences & the Steinhart Aquarium, which is is one of the ten largest natural history museums in the world.

The museum is undergoing major renovation until 2008 when it will reopen in a new and impressive building. Until then, the dinosaur section and the aquarium are open and housed near the Moscone Center in downtown SFO.

And finally the day ended with a formal cocktail reception followed by a sit-down dinner (cool reception committee, huh?)


Monday, November 13, 2006

Sipping Tea in San Francisco

That brings me to my renewed passion for fine teas. Like most Indians, I was brought up with the morning and afternoon tea rituals. Tea in India (cha in Bengali and chai in most of North India), is almost always served pre-mixed with milk and sugar.

Tea made by Indian chai-wallahs (tea vendors) and restaurants are usually prepared by adding tea leaves, sugar and milk together to the boiling water. It is also common to add cardamom or crushed ginger to the boiling tea for flavor. Other spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon are used to make Masala Tea.

Tea at our home has always been special, made with a blend of Lipton Green Leaf (for the aroma) and Brooke Bond Taj Mahal (for body and color). We put the tea leaves in boiling water, cover the tea-pot and remove from direct heat. Warm milk and sugar are added only after the tea is poured out into tea-cups.

The Kashmiris make tea which is quite distinct from anything else I have had in the rest of India. The tea is thick, sweet and garnished with finely chopped nuts. They call it Kehwa.

Many of the fine teas are best had without milk or with very little milk. The exquisite flavor and taste of Darjeeling tea, Jasmine Tea or Earl Grey have revived me after many a long journey in hotels and flights around the world. ‘Beats going to the bar sometimes!

Here's a short video of the Garden Court at the Palace Hotel where I was contemplating all that is Tea over a cuppa Darjeeling :-). The ornate ceilings and large dimensions seem more European than American!


Saturday, November 11, 2006

Sushi and Honky-tonk in Texas

Aware of my constant hunt for new dining options, my friends decided to take me to Ra, a newly opened Sushi bar in Houston. For some reason, we ended up ordering more sushi than we could eat.
Ra Houston The sushi here was very good: in addition to the California, Shrimp, and Tuna rolls, I decided to be a little more adventurous and try their Octopus rolls (picture below)! If you enjoy your sushi and like a bar-like ambience with loud music, this place may be just for you!

We also decided to have desserts at the Marble Slab Creamery. For those who haven't been to one, this is an ice-cream place with a difference: the ice-cold marble slab on which they mix your selection of ice-creams and toppings before placing it in the cup.

Ra HoustonHere's the recipe for the Murali Special (named after the genius who gave me this treat!): two scoops of butter pecan ice-cream mixed with pecans, shredded coconut, fresh stawberries, and finished off with a light topping of hot caramel). Try it, it is delightful and different from anything you have had before.

And then I was off to Dallas to spend (part of) the weekend with old friends. We decided to see a movie together; the one I selected turned out a disappointment (The Prestige, directed by Nick Nolan of Memento fame). We then decided to spend the evening at Billy Bob's, which is a honky-tonk place in Fort Worth. The band that weekend was an unknown Herman's Hermits from the UK. Eventually, we hit the bar, and after downing some scotch, the evening felt much better!

I get to read a variety of newspapers when I am tralleving, and this time was no different. A couple of interesting articles caught my eye. One was about which has carved a niche business of online obituaries, where friends and relatives can mourn and leave comments on a departed loved one. The interesting thing, however, is that in the online world people display more candour than usual. Therefore, these companies have had to hire an army of people who now scrutinize every comment for 'appropriateness' before they are posted, adding to their costs! From claims of illicit love, to abuse, these 'editors' have seen it all. However, Legacy is a profit-making companies and gets paid by the newspapers that run obituaries and links to their sites.

Billy Bob's DallasThe other article was about the lobby at the Hyatt in Guatemala which is always filled with American couples with newly acquired infants. Apparently, Guatemala now is the third largest among countries from where Americans adopt babies (Russia and China are the first and second respectively). And so, if you enter the Hyatt here, be prepared for crowds of wailing babies and doting parents. The gift shop in the hotel sells diapers and other baby stuff as well :)


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Steaks and more!

Sullivan's HoustonIn good 'ol Houston, Texas this week. Besides long meetings, I visited some good dining places for the first time: Americas on Post Oak and Sullivan's Steakhouse on Westheimer. Great food, but the Texan-sized servings can leave you feeling really, really full! Here are the 'before and after' pics of an 8-lb lobster (translation: really big!!) we ordered along with our entrees at Sullivan's.

Sullivan's Houston


Sunday, November 05, 2006

Cyclos and Fried Scorpions

Chào ông, Chào bà! Hello again! Today was the day of the grand dinner event. And what a day it was! About 200 of us put on straw Vietnamese hats and set out in a long procession of cyclos.

Saigon Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam The cyclos are like the cycle-rickshaws you see in smaller Indian cities with two differences: the passenger sits in the front with the driver behind him; also the cyclo can take only a single passenger. It was a exciting 15 min ride to the destination, cutting through traffic all the time (these guys can give the Pune auto-rickshaw drivers a run for their money).

The boat had two decks, brightly lit, with tables set up for dinner. We were welcomed by a bunch of waving guys and gals lined up on either side of the ferry in white sailors' uniforms.

The friendly crew, exotic drinks, and the good food had already gotten me in a happy state of mind. But when the horn sounded, the crew lined up smartly saluting the shore, and the boat took off on the Saigon River, I knew I would remember this evening for a long time!

Saigon Ho Chi Minh City VietnamFood contained fried sushi, mussels, sea bass, skewers of meat, fried rice, and exotic desserts. There was local beer, Pepsi that tasted different, but I stayed with the red wine.

Our dinner entertainment consisted of the cheerful man in the suit; he first played the flute with his nose, followed by many musical instruments he had created from ordinary objects (window pane, fluoroscent tubes, bottles, chinaware, etc.).

But the highlight clearly was what followed. The beer drinking competition followed by one where you had to drink vodka with fried scorpions!

Saigon Ho Chi Minh City VietnamThe young lady from Japan and her colleague (in the pic here) have just tasted their first scorpion! They had no idea they were signing up for much more than a vodka drinking contest. Doesn't taste too bad from their expressions...

Saigon Ho Chi Minh City VietnamOther Posts from this Trip: Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, Other Ho Chi Minh Moments, The Entertainer in Saigon.


The Entertainer in Saigon!

Here's a short video of the 'cheerful entertainer' from the post above. In this clip, he's playing a violion fashioned out of working fluroscent tubes! You can also see the lower deck of the boat as it chugs down the Saigon River).


Other Ho Chi Minh moments

Saigon Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

Saigon Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

Saigon Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam


Saturday, November 04, 2006

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City

Damn! Even Vietnam has modern, gleaming, and clean airports!! That was my first thought as I walked out of my Singapore Airlines flight into Tan Son Nhat International airport, Ho Chi Minh City.

Saigon Ho Chi Minh City VietnamI landed in the morning hours under clear visibility conditions, and from up there in the clouds, it almost looked like Pune below - sparse vegetation, tracts of reddish soil, clumps of housing, and winding roads.

However, the airport was modern (even better than Mumbai airport after the recent renovation), and not a speck of dirt or stain on the floors and walls (no public place in India can claim this; I guess we only have ourselves to blame!).

As I was driven down to my hotel in downtown HCM (which is how the locals refer to the city), the streets looked even more like Pune! The roadside shops, shops, and also the girls on two-wheelers with most of their faces covered in scarfs :)

Saigon Ho Chi Minh City VietnamThe Saigon Sheraton is a pretty large hotel and good if you compared with some of their other properties in the USA. The Signature restaurant on the 23rd flooor is very elegant, and offers stunning panoramic views of the city. This is where I had lunch today; a medley of food from different regions of Asia; food was generally good, different in flavor and preperation, and less spicier than those I have had in China and Singapore.

I was feeling so rich when I exchanged money here! US$100, and you are a millionare (in Dong, the currency here which is approx 16,100 dongs per US dollar). Never seen so may zeros on a currency note before!

Saigon Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam Lots of options of shopping or eating within this large hotel; planning to check out the rooftop Club and the Spa in the coming days.

Tam biêt or goodbye for now!