April 27, 2012

A burger in Beijing

SO you may ask, who goes to Beijing to eat a burger?

Well, that would be me.

But this was no ordinary burger. It was the world-famous DB Burger created by culinary impresario and Michelin-starred Chef Daniel Boulud.

Usually available in New York, the decadent DB Burger is now available in Asia through Boulud’s Asian restaurant outlets in Singapore and China.

Chef Daniel Boulud

I was pretty curious about it since Boulud, of course, is French. So what was he doing messing around with something as American and mass-produced as the hamburger?

Anyway, I finally got the answer after ordering the burger at Maison Boulud à Pékin on a recent trip to Beijing. The restaurant is in the stately gray old US Embassy building at the Chi’enmen 23 compound, just a skip away from the Forbidden City.

The kitchen is ably overseen by Chef Brian Reimer, who, according to Maison Boulud’s web site, was formally trained at the Napa Valley Cooking School in St. Helena, California, and from there worked in the kitchens of various well-known chefs in the US and Europe (Thomas Keller, Michel Rostang, Jean Paul Lacombe, Jean Pierre Vigato, Michael Slow).

He eventually became the executive sous chef at Boulud’s restaurant Daniel in New York; then in 2009, he was assigned to head the culinary team at Maison Boulud.

Back to the burger. I was hardly prepared for this dish, despite seeing lots of photos of it.

I was quite awed by the hugeness of it all. The sirloin beef patty itself was thick—almost 2 inches in height, and about 2.5 inches across in diameter.

TThe original decadent DB Burger is a sirloin patty stuffed with foie gras and braised short ribs, served in a parmesan bun. How to eat it? Very carefully.

I momentarily panicked trying to figure out how to eat it, despite the sandwich being served halved in two slices. (Bending your neck to one side and clamping your choppers on the bun and the patty sideways is the best way to chomp on the darned thing without spraining your entire jaw.)

The plumped-up height of the patty accom-modated a generous serving of superior-tasting foie gras, and braised short ribs. The beef itself was pure lean meat, and remained moist even after I ate the other half at midnight. (Since I had ordered it medium rare, it was still tender despite my later reheating.)

I could taste the velvety goodness of the foie gras despite all that beef, unlike other burgers that claim to have the fatty duck livers in them. I don’t exactly know what the braised ribs were there for, perhaps just for extra heft, because it was somewhat difficult to make out its taste amid the beef and the foie gras.

Unlike the New York version, this burger didn’t seem to have black truffles in them. (I went back to check the menu and, yes, it definitely didn’t mention the black truffles.) Perhaps these were not in season then or deliberately eliminated from the ingredients to keep down the cost of the burger. This was Beijing, after all.

The patty was served in a soft Parmesan bun, with a humongous serving of pommes frites on the side. Any man would have no trouble putting away the entire thing; I, on the other hand, only finished half of the sandwich and probably a third of the fries—it was just too heavy. I felt all the meat and potatoes just kind of sitting there right in the middle of my belly.

That is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. It was just a bit overwhelming.

Maison Boulud in Beijing. (Photo copyright Ma. Stella F. Arnaldo)

The DB Burger costs RMB168 a la carte. But if you order it as a main course in the prix fixe lunch (RMB 188), there is a RMB 50 supplement.

Now this reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in the cult classic Pulp Fiction. Vincent (John Travolta) asks Jules (Samuel L. Jackson): “Do you know what they call a Quarterpounder with cheese in France?” Jules says he didn’t. Vincent answers: “A Royale with cheese!”

At Maison Boulud, the hamburger is definitely given the decadent French royal treatment.

• Maison Boulud is at Ch’ienmen 23, Qian Men Dong da Jie, Beijing. For inquiries and reservations: +(8610) 6559-9200.

(This piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror, April 22, 2012. Photos of Chef Daniel and the DB burger from http://www.danielnyc.com.)

April 17, 2012

On leaving the comforts of home

(At Sitio de Amor, I had this lovely infinity pool all to myself!)

I COULD never understand why my father, when he was still alive, detested going on trips, no matter how near or short these were. He was the only person who I knew had never gone abroad, despite the many opportunities he had in his youth, according to Mama.

Toward the sunset of his life, he also got a bit prickly about motoring even just to go to my sister’s home down south, or going on vacation in Subic. I now understand why.

The older we get, the more it becomes a pain to pack a suitcase and leave the comforts of home.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always been excited to go off and visit new places and make new friends—I do have a mole on the heel of my right foot, which according to folklore means I’m prone to be layas. But, yes, sometimes it’s just a whole lot of trouble to plan what to wear, how many footwear to bring, and the sort of amenities one needs when one goes off on a trip.

Also letting go of the familiar sights and sounds of one’s home can throw off one’s vacation, no matter how lovely the destination one is in.

For instance, I have a quite a few family members and friends who simply can’t empty their bowels no matter how luxurious their bathroom is in their five-star accommodation. Heated toilet seat or not, the namamahay phenomenon afflicts a huge number of Pinoy travelers (no idea if it happens to foreigners too). I think there ought to be a scientific explanation for it, you know, like bangungot? I, on the other hand, am a wake-up-and-go kind of person, no matter what tourist destination, hotel, resort, or home I am in. Ugh. TMI.

(Mrs. Bondad prepared a hearty bulalo for lunch, among other yummy dishes!)

But I do harbor some basic standards in tourist accommodations.

Like the bathroom cannot be too far from my bed, otherwise it just f**ks up my sleep pattern. I drink a lot of water during the day, so I usually go to the bathroom at least two times at night, and most especially when the air conditioner is just blasting freezing winter.

So much to my regret, as I learned from a recent trip, I can no longer “rough it up” and sleep in a loft when the bathroom is miles away downstairs. It was just too damned difficult creeping around in the dark and padding around with only my socks on. (I didn’t want to wake my friends by switching on the stairwell light and wearing my sandals that could create noise as I crept down each step).

I also need at least three pillows for sleeping and a mildly thick blanket to keep me warm. So whenever I go on a roadtrip these days, I bring at least one pillow with me, as most hotels and resorts these days already provide a pair for each guest. (Why three pillows? One goes under the head, another under the back of my knees to support my bad back, and the last one rests on my neck to protect me from Dracula’s teeth. Blame this on the Christopher Lee retrospectives of my youth!)

I also confess to packing junk snacks, canned chicken Vienna sausages, and 250 ml cartons of soymilk in my suitcase, just to satiate the hunger pangs which may gnaw at my tummy after midnight. I’ve been to enough hotels with super-expensive or otherwise bleah-tasting food that don’t justify that room-service call. (And sometimes it’s just too much trouble to pick up the phone, say your order, and wait for 30 to 45 minutes for the dish you want. It’s so much faster to pop open a can of meat or tear open one’s favorite chichiria—talk about instant gratification.)

Then of course, I never go anywhere without my beloved soft-on-the-tushie three-ply toilet paper. I’ve just had too many unfortunate experiences in so-called luxury hotels and resorts that bust the bank for the best interiors, furniture and food, yet scrimp on TP. One-ply TP in a five-star international establishment is just...well, cheap. Not to mention unbearable.

(WIth love and care, the Bondads have managed to grow a number of lush trees, shrubs, and flowering plants on their property.)

If you think that’s weird, I know someone who brings her ratty blanket wherever she goes—yes, the same one she’s had as a child. And she is 50+! Oh and travel buddy Ms. RP doesn’t leave home without her iPod, the speaker, and a tiny nightlamp for her reading. She’s also the one I can usually persuade to squeeze the red wine bottle in her suitcase, hehehe.

Leaving one’s cozy home can be distressing. You can never be sure that the destination you’re traveling to would be equally restful and comfortable. And just the packing, then unpacking after you come home, can be a bitch.

Needless to say, I manage to compensate and overcome such distress by lugging around a huge suitcase with, yes, almost my entire house. And you wonder why I have a bad back. Tch.

* * * *

BUT stuff my suitcase I did when the gang and I went off to San Pablo, Laguna, for the Holy Weekend. We were there to watch the traditional Good Friday procession around the town plaza which features lavish carozas owned by some of the oldest families in San Pablo and in Tiaong, Quezon.

This was my second trip there, but this time I was staying in a different establishment. I found Sitio de Amor Farm Resort quite by accident, as I was Googling for other possible places to stay, as my go-to B&B was already fully booked that weekend.

The photos on Sitio’s web site looked interesting, and Miggy did say it had more “character” than another place we were considering. It was reasonably-priced as well.

Even if the resort did point out there was no Wi-Fi and TV, it didn’t matter so much since we were used to talking up a storm among ourselves. And, well, it was Holy Week after all; if we couldn’t abstain from eating meat, we could at least give up the TV, Facebook and Twitter.

Sitio de Amor is a 5-hectare property with only a few casitas, thus ensuring the privacy and quiet for its guests. We were served a sincere, home-cooked lunch consisting of bulalo, grilled blue marlin, ginataang langka, and sweet chicken marinated in soy sauce. It was such a hearty meal that had our tummies happily toiling away.
(Isn't it wonderful to just sit around and do nothing?)

While there were some issues with the fluctuating electricity which kept the air conditioners from running smoothly, and cobwebs in the ceiling of our bathroom, we had quite a pleasant stay. It has pocket spaces for meditation, a wonderful array of flora, and a few animals on the property. Oh, I couldn’t resist swimming in their lovely infinity pool, which I had all to myself! (Canned evil witch laughter here.)

The owners—Amor and Jorge Bondad—were ever so helpful and hospitable. The bright and cheery Mrs. Bondad was definitely the culinary expert and foodie, who even served up a seriously mouthwatering suman sa latik from Liliw for breakfast the next day. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t persuade her to part with some for me to take home, even if I did offer to pay for them.) I liked her the minute I spoke with her on the phone as I finalized our reservation.

Mr. Bondad regaled us with stories of how they had rehabilitated the property into the lush green gem it now is, far from the rather empty lot with logged-over coconut trees that it once was. Right now, he is rebuilding an old resthouse of Don Tomas Morato Sr. from Caluag right on the property, to serve as another guesthouse. Mr. Bondad is the inveterate “picker” who manages to discover really good finds among old houses, or what appear to be junk just by the roadside. They use all of these recovered items on their property.

So the upside of traveling away from the comforts of one’s home? It’s meeting fascinating, genuine people with loads of entertaining stories to share.

* Sitio de Amor is along Km. 88.8 Maharlika Highway, Barangay San Vicente, San Pablo, Laguna. For inquiries, visit www.sitiodeamor.com.

(This piece was originally published on April 13, 2012, in Something Like Life, my weekly column in the BusinessMirror. All rights reserved for these photos.)

April 14, 2012

ADB meet to help sell PH tourism

MANILA, Philippines- The country will have a chance to put its best tourism foot forward when the annual meeting of the board of governors of the Asian Development Bank is held on May 2-5 at the Philippine International Convention Center in Manila.

In a speech before the Makati Business Club Thursday, Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez announced that international news network CNN will do a series of features on the Philippines as it covers the prestigious economic meeting. The meeting is expected to attract some 4,000 participants from around the world.

“The country is hosting the ADB and we’re determined to make the most out of it. It is an opportunity to dramatize that the Philippines has turned the corner in more ways than one. So the CNN will cast an eye on the Philippines during the ADB meeting and will focus on the achievements of the Filipinos, and include tourism spots,” Jimenez asserted. (Read the rest of my piece in InterAksyon, the online news portal of TV5. My piece was originally published on March 29, 2012.)

Sun, sea, and a swell spa in Boracay

For sure, many of you are all revved up for your holiday in Boracay Island this Holy Weekend.

Let me share with you a little-known secret—where to get the best bang for your buck for a great massage, that is, after making your Lenten sacrifices on the beach.

SunSpa Boracay offers a wide array of rejuvenating spa treatments (ranging from Php750 for single treatments to Php2,000 for two-hour full pampering packages) that will help you meditate and reflect on your ahem, wicked ways, and yet be in a most relaxed state while you’re at it. (Click InterAksyon, the online news portal of TV, for the rest of my piece. This was originally published on April 3, 2012.)

Saigon—Remembering the past; celebrating the vibrant present

(Inside the Saigon Central Post Office - designed by Gustav Eiffel in the Gothic style.)

WHEN it comes to Saigon, one never knows quite where to begin.

Should I first write about the zipping motorbikes slowing down in the middle of the road as its riders try to quickly whip out their colorful raincoats as the monsoon rain starts pouring down?

Perhaps it should be the Pho, that ubiquitous noodle soup that is hearty and at the same time heartwarming, and yet uniformly tasting at any restaurant one goes.

Or what about the numerous memorials and museums to the Vietnam war, that deep-seated skirmish that Americans still can’t seem to forgive themselves for, and yet the Vietnamese seem to have already moved on from? (Read the rest of my piece and check out more of my photos in InterAksyon, the online news portal of TV5. My piece was originally published on March 29, 2012.)

Ayala unit boosts fresh water supply to Boracay

Boracay Island as seen from the air.

WITH thousands of holiday revelers expected to converge on the tiny resort island of Boracay this Holy Weekend, they can be assured of better access to clean, fresh water with the recent inauguration of a P126-million submarine water pipeline.

The 1-kilometer pipeline constructed by the Boracay Island Water Co., (BIWC) a subsidiary of the Manila Water Co. Inc., runs from Caticlan to Boracay, and will augment the current 13-year-old pipeline which supplies water tothe island from the mainland Malay town in Aklan.

Manila Water is a unit of the publicly-listedconglomerate Ayala Corp., and commonly known as the East Zone water concessionaire of Metro Manila.

During the inauguration ceremony for the pipeline on Friday, March 30, Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr. lauded BIWC for the improved water services and wastewater management in Boracay since the company began operating there in 2009.

He said 96 percent of the island population on the island now enjoys round-the-clock water supply, with the quality of its tap water 100-percent compliant with the strict criteria set out by the Philippine National Standards for Drinking Water.

“I salute the partnership between Boracay Water, the local government and the [Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority] for turning things around and making things happen here in Boracay. As the premier tourist destination in the country, we need to ensure that the basic services such as water and wastewater services for the locals as well as tourists are well-provided. This is also ensuring the sustainability of the island paradise for the years to come,” he said.

Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez inaugurates a P126-million, one-kilometer pipeline in Boracay on March 30. Also at the launch are (from left) Malay Mayor John Yap, Aklan Rep. Florencio Miraflores, Jimenez, DOT Region 6 Tourism Council chairman Vicky Ramos, TIEZA general manager Mark Lapid, Manila Water president and CEO Gerardo Ablaza Jr. and BIWC president Virgilio Rivera. (Photo from the Philippine Star)

The BIWC has been upgrading the wastewater management system of the island and hopes to reach its 52-percent target coverage by the end of the year from the current 31-percent coverage. The company’s P78-million project, inaugurated in April 2011, aims to improve the island’s treatment plant located in Barangay Balabag to a world-class facility, and ensure the treated wastewater being flushed back into natural waters is within the strictest environmental standards that will keep its beach pristine.

Last August, BIWC received a P500-million loan from the Development Bank of the Philippines and Security Bank and Trust Corp. to finance its capital expenditures for its projects in Boracay.

The loan, obtained through the Philippine Water Revolving Fund, has the option to be increased to P1 billion. The PWRF is a joint project between the national government, the United States Agency for International Development, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency. The fund was set up to help the country meet its own economic and human development targets under the Millennium Development Goals, a United Nations initiative, by 2015.

Boracay Island is the most popular tourist destination in the Philippines with 908,875 visiting in 2011, up 16.6 percent from 2010. In December 2011 alone, arrivals shot up by 34 percent from 2010 figures, generating P1.43 billion in tourism receipts for the government.

From only one airline serving the destination in 2006, now all major Philippine carriers as well as chartered international flights are bringing in local and foreign tourists direct to Kalibo, the capital of Aklan, or Caticlan, the jump-off point to Boracay.

Last year business tycoon Ramon Ang of San Miguel Corp. also funded the renovation of the Caticlan airport terminal, while its main runway is now being lengthened to accommodate jets.

Unfortunately, the hordes of tourists over the years have put a strain on the island’s fragile ecosystem. In 1997,the Department of Environment and Natural Resources declared the waters around unsafe for swimming as its tests yielded the dreaded E. coli bacteria, which is usually found in fecal matter.

This pushed the resort owners in Boracay to adopt stringent measures to help clean the island and prevent the contamination of its waters.

(My piece was originally published on April 3, 2012 in the BusinessMirror.)

If you want really good ice cream...

I’VE been thoroughly entertained lately by the nega-tweets and comments/status updates on Facebook regarding a newly launched ice cream bar that its advertising promises to make the one eating it feel like royalty.

Why so much hate, peeps? Or is this your way of expressing disgust at yourself for falling for the brand’s slick TV ad? Hahahay naku!

I won’t bore you with the details of the comments, but suffice to say that most who don’t like the supposedly sushal ice cream brand feel shortchanged. Poor kiddies, didn’t feel the royal spark at all. Seriously though, when you buy a P50 product, you don’t expect P150 quality, yes? Or do you? Sus.

I haven’t tried it myself, but even then I am not one who gets all flustered by grand advertising and hyped-up marketing campaigns especially those using celebrity endorsers. I’m sure I will get around to trying the bar sometime, but until then, here’s my list of current favorite ice cream products:

Fog City Creamery

Created by Edelyn Gamboa, and inspired by the artisanal ice creams in San Francisco where she used to live (thus, the brand “Fog City”), every spoonful is just luscious and exciting.

The sugar-free varieties are made with coconut sugar, said to have a low glycemic index and thus apropos for diabetics and those just trying to keep one’s blood sugar at safe levels. However, it leaves a slick of what appears to be coconut oil grease (sebo) on the backside of the spoon. Though unappealing in appearance, it isn’t exactly bothersome to those who love to lap up this ice cream which tastes oh-so-decadent, except that it’s actually healthy!

Of course, Fog City Creamery does have regular flavors which use sugar. The Salted Caramel is said to be its most popular, though I find it too sweet. Lucky you if you don’t have to worry about your sugar levels...you are in for an even greater treat. My all-time-favorite sugar-free variety is the Butterscotch Pecan. What’s cool is Fog City also makes seasonal flavors. Like last Halloween, it had a winsome Pumpkin Pie variant which was scary because I lapped up a pint in just a day. Boo!

The downside is, it’s difficult to buy unless you live in certain upscale cities where a delivery service is available. So I usually just wait for JJ Yulo’s foodfests at The Podium, which Edelyn usually participates in. But do check out Fog City’s Facebook page or www.fogcitycreamery.com on how to order.

Sebastian’s Ice Cream

This brand has been around since 2006 and is probably the original artisanal ice cream in Metro Manila. The first time I had a taste of the Chunky Mocha Almond Fudge, I almost dropped dead from sheer ecstasy. And by the way, that was a sugar-free variant! How can sugar-free ice cream taste this sinful, I wondered.

Though a bit on the sweet side, Sebastian’s spells rich and creamy, and uses huge globs of the finest ingredients. Like if you get the strawberry flavors (I forget now its actual title), you actually get huge chunks of the fruit. If you like Ben & Jerry’s, Sebastian’s is every bit as imaginative—I mean who can think of making our Filipino comfort food and delicacies like champorado and sapin-sapin into ice cream? Magaling!

Sebastian’s is readily available in malls like SM Mall of Asia, SM City The Block and TriNoma. Unfortunately for me though, my favorite sugar-free variety isn’t offered in all of its scooping stations. Waaah. By the way, it also has dive bars and ice cream burgers.

I’d recommend Sebastian’s hands-down for that impetuous snack break from shopping when at the mall. Or just bring home a half-gallon for the entire family to enjoy. The flavors are always amazing and unique.


Korean in origin, I like Binggrae’s unpretentious but witty take on ice cream.

Like the Samanco is just your basic vanilla ice cream in a waffle shaped like, well, a fish! And the surprise is, sandwiched between those layers of vanilla ice cream is red bean paste, so the contrast in textures is just a welcome delight.

Then a friend recently gave me a box of Binggrae iced popsicles which made me reminisce a bit for a local brand’s Twin Popsies of old, except these ones were creamier and full-flavored. Oh by the way, these are called Melonas but are actually strawberry-flavored, hahaha.

Curious, I Googled it and discovered that Binggrae is actually a 38-year-old company and is probably Korea’s most successful ice cream brand. It also makes yogurt products, fruit-flavored milk, and bottled coffee drinks. Oh and it also sells chichirias but I haven’t seen them in any of the local supermarkets yet.

Anyhoo, if there’s anything welcoming about the Korean invasion, it’s their ice cream products (and fine restaurants). Binggrae is available at SM, S&R and, I would assume, most local Korean supermarkets. Call Grace Lee to be sure.

(This piece was originally published on March 30, 2012, in Something Like Life, my weekly column in the BusinessMirror. Photos from company/product web sites, except for the latter.)