Monday, March 26, 2007

The Trip Back Home

The duration between my trips to the US keeps getting shorter! I have set a new personal record with just two weeks between my trip to Orlando and this one. BTW, the US has (finally) begun introducing exit procedures when you leave the country. In San Francisco airport, there are now automated machines where you can scan your visa/passport to record your exit.

San Francisco AirportWhile awaiting the departure of my flight to Singapore, I noticed some wonderful murals in the new (?) Terminal G of San Francisco International Airport. The first one is by Juana Alicia and Emmanuel Catarino Montoya called Sanctuary depicting the arrival of immigrants and drawing similarities with migrating birds. The mural is painted in Fresco Buono, an ancient technique that mixes pigment directly into wet plaster.

San Francisco AirportThe second is a ceramic tile mosiac by Rigo, called Thinking by Balmy Alley, of a solitary boy totally absorbed in the art of painting, and is inspired by a mural (since destroyed) painted in 1993 by the artist and local youth in Balmy Alley, located in the mission district of San Francisco.

I had six hours to kill at Singapore Airport which gave me enough time to write up most of these blog entries in the lounge, take a shower, and enjoy some Chwee Kueh and hot wonton noodle soup, before taking the flight to Mumbai.


Sunday, March 25, 2007

San Francisco Moments

St. Regis Hotel San FranciscoSan Francisco is one of the prettiest cities in the USA. I love watching the traffic disappearing over the hilly horizon, the tram-cars that remind me of Calcutta, streets with Spanish and Victorian houses, the Golden Gate shining in the sunlight, the downtown area filled with many dining and shopping options, the hustle-and-bustle of Chinatown, and of course the people. I have been here many times before, but I still like visiting here.

The picture alongside is that of a decorative vase in my hotel room. My room on the 12th floor had a great view of the downtown area; the Metreon multiplex and Bloomingdale shopping complex are only two blocks away and I could see the distant hills with houses and roads winding up and down in the distance.

Ame San FranciscoOn the last night of my stay here, I ate at the Ame, the Regis' signature restaurant at the lobby level. Ame combines elements of fine Japanese and Western cooking.

Ame San FranciscoI ordered chilled sake and started with Tuna Sashimi with avocado tartare, shaved sake cured foie gras and nori tuile. For my entree, I ordered the chef's special for tonight that consisted of honey glazed rabbit with snow peas, spinach ravioli, dusted with goat cheese. And for dessert I went with the waiter's recommendation of a warm rhubarb pie with fresh strawberry salad and ice-cream, followed by freshly brewed Earl Grey tea.

Ame San FranciscoAme is run by husband and wife chefs, Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani. You can find more details of this wonderful restaurant and the menu here. The pictures in this posting are of the sashimi, the dessert and the unique teapot in which the tea was brewed and served. After this awesome dinner, it was time to pack up for my long trip back home the next day.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Fleur de Lys

Fleur de Lys San FranciscoThe team dinner this time was in an upscale French restaurant. The Fleur de Lys is said to be one of the best restaurants for fine dining in San Francisco. This 45 year old restaurant has won many awards, as has its celebrity chef, Hubert Keller, who also owns this restaurant. Keller has been a guest chef to the Clinton White House, and the author of more than one cookbook.

We started with a tasting platter of Alsation Choucroute consisting of Choucroute soup, toasted spatzle, paprika oil Choucroute fondant with Osetra caviar and Choucroute strudel with sauteed foie gras.

Fleur de Lys San FranciscoThis was followed by saddle and chops of rabbit with bean salad, carmelized cumin seed, honey and mint vinaigrette. Then came the symphony of smoked salmon tartar, chilled cream of salsify, Tartine of foie gras, duck breast and salad Lyonnaise.

Fleur de Lys San FranciscoFor my entree I chose the boneless Quail stuffed with ris de veau presented with roasted parsnips, young leeks and foie gras, lightly smoked Tarragon jus. Dessert was equally grand with peanut and chocolate pot de cream, chocolate mousse cake flavored with lemon herbal tea, chocolate and strawberry feuilletine, Vanilla bean ice-cream and orange terrine. Whew! I bet it will take you a dictionary or heavy use of Google to figure out what I ate unless you are French.

Fleur de Lys San FranciscoFor those who are wondering what Fleur de Lys means, it is a stylised, decorative flower symbol associated with the French monarchy and is still used in many logos and banners.Fleur de Lys San Francisco

And finally, here's a picture of yours truely with the celebrity chef himself!

UPDATE: You can read about a more recent visit to Fleur de Lys here.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Getting to San Francisco

I finally got to experience Singapore Air's new business class. The new seats are like the ones in first-class cabins of most other airlines at this time. Much wider than before (they have replaced the 2-2-2 configuration with a 1-2-1 configuration, which means there are two less seats per row, and every seat is an aisle seat), large TV screen, and lots of storage space for glasses, books, shoes, etc.

The seat converts into a fully flat bed, with bedsheets, duvet and large pillows! They also have new and better noise-cancelling headphones. Watched Casino Royale all over again; I think this one is one of the best James Bond movies ever. Also watched Flushed Away (children will enjoy the movie), Deja Vu (timepass), Dreamgirls (very good), and A Night at the Museum (timepass).

Incheon Airport SeoulThe stopover in Incheon Airport, Seoul was extended by an hour due to some technical problems in the aircraft that had to be fixed. That gave me a chance to spend time at the excellend SilverKris lounge.

The service by the Singapore Air staff continues to be excellent. They had hand-outs explaining the delay within mintues of our landing in Seoul. I also noticed they won the Conde Nast Traveller's Best Airline award for the 8th consecutive time this year.

Incheon Airport SeoulThe pictures here are from Seoul airport. The first one is of food displayed at an airport restaurant, the second in the Silver Kris lounge.


Four hours in Mumbai

Unpretentious, superior hospitality, and cosy restaurants. That, in a nutshell, is how I would describe the Le Royal Meridian Hotel in Mumbai. I spent exactly four hours here before taking the Singapore Air flight on my way to San Francisco. The hotel is located behind Hyatt Regency and ITC Grand Maratha, and is very close to Mumbai's International Airport.

Le Royal Meridien MumbaiThe hotel is not large and lavish like most five-star hotels in India. However, the lounge area on the same level, surrounded by the Chinese and multi-cuisine restaurants are done up rather nicely with white drapes and chandeliers. The live music during the evenings livens up the atmosphere considerably.

I ate at the Imperial China which had Oriental fans swaying to-and-fro in the ceiling; never seen that before! The prawns in black pepper sauce was delicious; however, the chilly-garlic rice was nothing to write about. I finished off with rose-petal ice-cream, which was rather nice and reminded me about childhood indulgence of home-made rose-flavored sweet dishes.

Le Royal Meridien MumbaiWhat stood out during the few hours I spent here was the great service by the hotel staff. The moment I got off the car, one of the staff greeted me by name, escorted me directly to my room and handed me my room keys, etc. The bellboys and front-desk staff were very courteous, as was the waitress at the restaurant, offering me complimentary kimchi and starters while I was waiting for my order, and magazines to read. Definitely a notch higher than the service levels at most hotels I visit; almost Oberoi quality!


Friday, March 16, 2007

The Best just got Better

Is is any surprise that Singapore Airlines almost always bags the Best Airline awards everywhere? They not only have a very modern fleet and a great airport in Changi, but also manage to keep their prices competitive. The Singapore Girl is often cited as yet another reason for travelling on this airline!

While most travellers equate the Singapore Girl to pretty attendants on the flights, it is serious business for the airline which has used the 'Singapore Girl' as one of its most successful brand icons. French haute-couture designer Pierre Balmain designed a special version of the Malay sarong kebaya as the uniform which later became one of the most recognized signatures of the airline. The icon has become so strong that Madame Tussaud's Museum in London started to display the Singapore Girl in 1994 as the first commercial figure ever.

And now there is another reason to look forward to travelling by Singapore Airlines: the newly designed cabins that have been introduced on routes serviced by their newly acquired Boeing 777-300ER jets. Here are some pics of their new business class cabins (seats in 1-2-1 configuration).

An excellent article on Singapore Airlines and how they built one of the most successful Asian brands can be found here.


Thursday, March 15, 2007

Land of Contradictions

BusinessWeek's recent cover story lists horror stories resulting from India's poor infrastructure even as the country continues to be the leading destination for offshored IT and IT-enabled services (accounting for a 58% market-share as per NASSCOM's recent 2007 strategic review). As can be expected, this story has generated a fair amount of discussion on Indian blogs such as this one.

Another story, splashed across the headlines of most business newspapers in India today, is the possibility of a joint-venture between Reliance Industries (one of India's largest companies) and Dow Chemicals of the US, which has the potential of making Reliance the second-largest chemical company in the world. This, coupled with the recent Tata-Corus and Vodafone-Bharti deals, is generating considerable excitement as Indian industry finally begins to show up on a global stage outside of IT.

All this is happening as I read Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods, an interesting perspective on contemporary India. Like I am prone to doing, I am also in the middle of another book, this one on China: James Kynge's China Shakes the World. Both Luce and Kynge reported for Financial Times, and both of them have lived long periods in the countries they write about.

As even more people try to understand and decipher India, here are two interesting quotes on India by Mark Twain:

Its stupendous population consists of farm laborers. India is one vast farm - one almost interminable stretch of fields of mud fences between. Think of the above facts: and consider what an incredible aggregate of poverty they place before you.

-Following the Equator, 1897 and quoted by Luce in the chapter titled India's schizophrenic economy

So as far as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone, either by man or nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds. Nothing seems to have been forgotten, nothing overlooked.

- Quoted in today's Economic Times where they headline the possible Reliance JV with Dow


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

US Airline Woes

Delta used to be my favourite airline. Their BusinessElite seating was one of the best some years back. I thought they had the best Frequent Flyer program and also the best selection of wines. Their lounges are among the best I have seen in the USA (of course, they are still way behind if you compare the local airline lounges in Singapore and Hong Kong).

But times have changed. While the Asian airlines thrive and keep upgrading cabins and service-offerings every year, the large US airlines (United, Delta, Continental, Northwest) have been trying to stay afloat. The last six months seem to have been good and profitable; however, I think they still have a long way to go before they can compete with the Asian airline companies. Here's an article from USA Today that discusses the troubling signs.

The average age of planes owned by the big four American airlines varies between 17-11 years! The problem is, even if the US airlines find money to upgrade their fleet, the only two suppliers of airplanes - Boeing and Airbus - have an order backlog all the way to 2010. And guess who's been ordering planes by the dozen all this time:the burgeoning airlines in India, China, Middle-East and Far-East Asia.

I flew to Orlando and back with my family on Delta with mixed feelings knowing I may not fly with them again any time soon.

BTW, when you fly business on Delta, they usually put you on First Class in the local US connections; I don't know of other airlines that do this. On the negative side, most Delta flights from India connect via Paris, which is probably the worst airport in Europe!


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Downtown Disney

Since we visited the theme parks only on three days during this trip, we had a couple of days to laze around in the resort. During these 'lazy' days, we would take the bus to Downtown Disney during lunch. Downtown Disney has a variety of shopping, entertainment and dining options arranged around a lake.

Rainforest Cafe OrlandoA huge Virgin store for all the movies and music you want to buy, an AMC 24-screen multiplex, a Cirque du Soleil theater playing La Nouba, and the largest Disney shop in the world for Disney toys & clothing. It's all here in Downtown Disney along with night clubs in Pleasure Island which requires entry tickets. This is the only Disney location which seems to have something for the adults to do after being surrounded by Mickey, Donald and their pals in the theme parks!

Rainforest Cafe OrlandoHowever, what drew me here were the many dining choices. Bongo's serves Cuban food and is owned by Gloria Estefan and her husband. Other options are the House of Blues, Planet Hollywood, Wolfgang Puck, and the volcano-spewing Rainforest Cafe.

Rainforest Cafe OrlandoHere are some pictures of the rather interesting fare we sampled at the Rainforest Cafe. The Chimi Cha-Cha is a starter; light, crisp wonton skin embraces roasted chicken breast, sweet corn, black beans, citrus zest,roasted red peppers, and a 4 -cheese blend.

The Pastalaya, an entree, is made of shrimp, sauteed chicken breast, bell peppers, onions and Andouille sausage tossed in a hot and spicy Cajun sauce and served over linguini.

Of course, the most interesting thing in this eatery is the ambience: vines and trees all over the place, animals that move and make threatening noises accompanied by periodic thunder and lightning. My little angel felt threatened by the ugly-looking gorilla right above our table which would grunt and beat his chest every few minutes. Bad gorilla!

Bongos Cafe Orlando


Africa Recreated

I had written earlier about Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge here. This resort is probably Disney's best 'deluxe' resort and also one of its newer ones. I had booked a Savannah facing room and we would occasionally see giraffes, zebra, pelicans, deer and other African animals right from our balcony.

Disney's African Kingdom Lodge OrlandoEverything here is designed to contribute to the 'being in Africa' feeling: the staff from African countries (or cast members as Disney prefers to call them) , real African artifacts, the low lighting in the rooms and corridors, the furniture, the African drum-beats heard in the corridors, the greenish colored swimming pool, the thatched roofs on the hotel, and of course the large Savannah that surrounds the property.

The main hall is awe-inspiring (click picture to view a larger sized one) and appears to be constructed of logs held together by ropes and with a thatched roof. This feeling is reinforced by the detailing that includes chandeliers made of tribal shields and spears. A massive fireplace is placed in one corner, with large windows looking out into the Savannah. There are multiple activities conducted by the rangers for kids during the day at the Arusha Rock viewing area, the flamingo pond, and at the Sunset Lounge.

Disney's African Kingdom Lodge OrlandoBut what did I like the best? As you can guess, it was the food! The African Kingdom has three dining options: The Jiko serves contemporary African food and stocks over 70 African wines, the Boma serves buffet in a market-place setting, and Mara for quick-service options. Both Jiko and Boma have won recent awards; Zagat Survey recently rated them among the top five restaurants in the city.

Disney's African Kingdom Lodge OrlandoBoth breakfast and dinner buffets at the Boma were a treat for the senses. The ambience, the presentation, and the quality of food and drinks served are excellent. There were about 60 items in the dinner buffet and I can remember Marakkesh Cous Cous, Fufu, Pap & Sheeba, Sharaak, exotic salads made of orange with raddish and watermelon rind. Dessert choices that included peach crumble, zebra domes, fruit tartlets, chai flavored kheer, etc.

Disney's African Kingdom Lodge OrlandoFor breakfast I usually had their jungle juice, made-to-order omelettes (mine usually had ham, cheese, mushroom, and onion), french toast, banana nut muffin, sausages, bacan, baked potatoes, and fresh fruit. Oh yes! I was having fun. I can also say that Boma makes some of the best omelettes I have ever eaten. BTW, why can't they make muffins in India? I miss my banana-nut and blueberry muffins!

Disney's African Kingdom Lodge Orlando Other Posts From This Vacation: Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, The Magic of Disney, Downtown Disney


The Magic of Disney

This was my longest vacation at Orlando and quite different from those in the past. First, because we were spending an entire week here, which gave us days to just chill out in our beautiful resort. And second, this was our first time at Disney World with our little one, who was completely, completely excited at being surrounded by characters from her favorite TV shows!

Walt Disney World OrlandoDisney's theme parks are among the few places left for squeaky clean fun for the entire family. We spent more time at Magic Kingdom than any of the other resorts. My little angel queued up to get pictures with Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Ariel, Alladin, and dozens of her favorite characters.

As Disney resort guests we were allowed an extra hour in the morning before the gates opened to the regular vistors. This can be a big advantage during peak season when the lines get really long on the most popular rides. The other advantage of staying at a Disney resort is the complimentary transport to all their theme parks which saves time.

Walt Disney World OrlandoThis was my fourth time at Disney World, but I still come back entertained. I liked the theatrical shows the best: Festival of the Lion King at Animal Kingdom, The Story of the Little Mermaid at Disney MGM Studios, and the more recent Finding Nemo - The Musical also at Animal Kingdom.

The 3D movie shows such as It's Tough Being a Bug at the Animal Kingdom and Mickey's PhilarMagic at the Magic Kingdom are a close second. Given my daughter's age, she also liked everything that had Princesses or Winnie-the-Pooh in them.

So, what's there to not like in Disney World? Well, crowds, long lines for rides, even longer lines for food, tickets that have gotten even more expensive, and the fact that nothing is free or modestly priced here! Methinks there could be an opportunity to do a SouthWest Airlines in this industry too!

Walt Disney World OrlandoHowever, for those who are willing to splurge, an extensive menu of concierge services ensures that Disney can make any little whim or grand dream happen - for the right price. "Disney World is a place where money talks," said Bob Sehlinger, author of "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World." "There's very little that money can't buy." Resort concierges and Disney event planners have been known to arrange unique moments like a creative marriage proposal on the monorail or an elaborate dinner party in the Haunted Mansion.

Here's an excellent source for the best in Disney World accomodations and dining.