Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Lighthouse

Although we reached safe and sound, one arrived at the entrance with unintended two-tone jeans while the other one had to fork extra for a cab to avoid the rain, the hassle and arrive fashionable. Nothing wrong with that, of course, especially after a gruesome camp in some exotic part of Malaysia.

Even with the heavy morning shower, which had gradually reduced to a cooling drizzle, the view from the top floor of the historical hotel was pleasant - with the Singapore Flyer standing between the Esplanade and the future Marina Bay Sands. Imagine a sunset dinner in the restaurant, which resembles a lantern room, followed by some time at the balcony with wine in hand, overlooking the prominent landscape of the lion city. Sounds great to me.

We were here for the Italian Prosecco Sunday Brunch that came with free-flowing house wines and yes, prosecco. It didn't take long for us to make a reservation when I read about it in a complimentary daily. It's still very much ala carte here. Initially, we'd devised a plan to order an appetizer or dessert just and pace ourselves with the dish to keep the prosecco pouring until their very last bottle. A study of their menu changed our minds. So, from a supposedly antipasti OR dolci, we went for a full course instead.

Uova In Camicia "Alla Florentina" - Poached eggs "Florentine styled"

Guancia Di Maialino Da Latte Grigliata, Purea Di Zucca, Composta Di Mele Verdi - Grilled pork cheek, pumpkin puree, green apple compote

Garganelli Al Ragu' Di Cinghiale, Pecorino Toscano - Garganelli pasta with wild boar ragout, Tuscan pecorino

Tonno Scottato In Crosta Di Pistacchi, Zucchine Grigliate, Insalatina Di Arance E Olive Nere Pan-seard tuna in pistachio crust, grilled zucchini, orange and black olives salad

Cannoli Siciliani Caserecci, Gelato Alla Cassata - Homemade Sicilian cannoli, cassata ice cream

Tiramisu Classico Alla Moda Di Venezia - Classic Venetian Styled Tiramisu

It should be easy to identify those dishes decided by me, right? The grilled pork cheek came highly recommended and cheek being made of some collagen, gave smooth texture and was additionally flavoured with the subtle sweetness of pumpkin and green apple. Now, if only they'd serves this as a main...with a dozen pieces of such. That's bliss. My ragout must have been drowned with a fat wine, for the taste was wonderfully dense. Topped with some pecorino, I enjoyed it very much. Somehow a trait of fine-dines, the portion could have been more generous. It is afterall, partially breakfast and we definitely need the energy to last the day (and the prosecco). I didn't hear of any complaint on the poached egg but the tuna, with its tad saltiness, would have been a suitable filling for the complimentary warm, fluffy bread instead of being served as a secondi. There's nothing ricotta cheese can't fix in a dessert, like in the case of the cannoli. It would have been better if the pastry was more refined. Then again, I've not had any cannoli that has an egg-roll like texture. So, what's the difference between a tiramisu and a Venetian style tiramisu? I'm afraid I don't know. But I know my kind of tiramisu must consist of sponges heavily soaked in kahlua or cognac and with covered with a good amount of mascarpone and sprinkled with a strong-tasting chocolate. A simple demand, I feel. This one was dull.

It's amazing how we gorged the prosecco continuously and yet, were able to discuss food and snapped some photos of the bay. What's even more impressive was the fact that we, in our inebriated state, managed to take a bus to Orchard Road and continued on wandering aimlessly, stopping at the stalls at Ion Orchard for snacks.

Sometimes, we still talk about The Lighthouse. I guess what magnetizes us is the fact that the menu consists of creative and less conventional ideas. A revisit sounds workable but first, we must make sure that it won't rain that day. I'm not quite the two-tone jeans fan.

The Lighthouse
1 Fullerton Square
Level 8
Fullerton Hotel
Tel: (+65) 6877 8933

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tell-A-Tale (Part 59): Yogya On My Mind

Somewhat trivial, I was informed that most of the names of the places I’ve been to in Indonesia begin with the letter B. The first of the Bs was Batam. Yes, this is an industrial island that, as far as I know, is not in anyway a preferred destination for interesting Indonesian food. Nevertheless, my 1 year stint there (circa 2004-2005) had given me good exposure to staples like ayam kalasan, bakso, bak mie, ayam penyet and pecel lele, that despite the commonness of these dishes in other parts of the country, were hearty and delicious. I shouldn’t forget the affordable thirst quenchers like Teh Botol and Bintang as well. Oh, and the sweet and rich apokat. Post-Batam holidays in some other Bs of world’s largest archipelago had never failed to rekindle my fondness for them, for the comfort they brought after the long hours at work and at the same time, had introduced me to local specialties like babi guling, betutu, bakpia and recently, gudeg, which I must admit was quite intimidating a dish for me in the beginning.

It was our second and final day in Yogya. I knew we shouldn’t have stopped by the museum at Prambanan, 18 km from town and instead, head straight for our car after visiting the Trimurti temples. Halfway between the museum and the car park, the rain poured again, forcing us to dash out of the open compound of the temple to get to our car, passing a semi-sheltered tourist market and a row of warongs. The car was nowhere to be found and by then, we were already mostly wet. The next most sensible thing to do was to storm into a nearby warong for shelter. And for lunch too, an important agenda we'd neglected as we I needed more time to get some good shots of the temples. As expected, the pouring rain didn’t last long and the sky was bright again before we could finish the last dish. The stalls at the market reopened, tour buses started appearing again and it was time to get some souvenirs. Then, we realized that our car had been waiting for us at the promised spot all along. We just ran to the wrong side of the car park.

The warong that we stormed into was well-stocked with cigarettes, drinks and snacks. The food menu boosted an impressive array of ubiquitous street food, ranging from mie godok to bakso and more. Memories of Batam surfaced once again. I urged XLB to try the Teh Botol as it is consumed as much as the real thing in this part of the world. Moreover, how often does one get to drink teh-O from a glass bottle? One of the items we had was the nasi rames, a dish consisted of steamed rice mixed with a selection of sides ala mixed rice. The general description of nasi rames itself is nothing more than ordinary but to have white rice mixed with fried noodles is something else. Especially for the Chinese, rice and noodles, as we were taught by our parents, should be eaten separately. It's only appropriate that way. I guess one man’s bisa is another man’s boleh. I’m the type who likes variety and despite it being enthusiactically MSG-ed and as with all other goreng dishes, stirred with an overdose of kicap manis, I cleaned the plate within minutes.

Nasi rames

The ride back to town was very much peaceful and quiet. Maybe we were just exhausted from the sunrise tour, the Trimurti temples and the rain. A familiar song was playing on the radio – Ten2Five’s I Will Fly. This was one of the Indonesian songs that hit me instantly back in 2004. Got to love the wonderful combination acoustics, Imel’s voice and infectious melodies. What are the chances of hearing a song one used to like on a radio in a foreign land that has not been heard for 5 years while on a vacation? That was indeed, a cool moment.


With less than 12 hours to go before flying back to Singapore, we really had to make our last night in Yogya a memorable one. And what better way to it than by trying the most definitive dish of them all – gudeg. To make it even more memorable, we had it lesehan-style.

Be it young or ripe, I am not a nangka (jackfruit) fan. There's something about that plasticky smell that drives me away. But how could I not have a taste of it, at least? It was a historical moment for me. I asked XLB to snap a picture of me attempting my first bite of jackfruit in a long time. I survived. Basically, gudeg is a spiced stew consisting of young jackfruit, palm sugar, coconut milk and a generous portion of spices including coriander, galangal and interestingly, teak leaves for colouring. To have that many types of spices in the stew meant that the smell of the jackfruit was minimize, hence my survival. The sweetness of the jackfruit did accentuate the flavour of the dish though. I can’t help but to draw a comparison between this dish and our ayam kurma (chicken stew cooked with dates and coconut milk). Of course, gudeg is of a more viscous texture. A complete gudeg experience comes with a hard-boiled egg, fried chicken and the exotic sambal goreng krecek or stewed, fried beef skin. I could have had another portion of the krecek as a side dish. Another must-try is the ayam goreng Yogya. The first bite of the free-range chicken revealed a marinade that was rather new to me and faintly resembled a certain brand of hair cream for men. I found out later that it consisted of coconut water, palm sugar and a simple coating of bumbu or ground spices. Apparently, the crispy bits of the bumbu detached from the chicken during the frying process is strained and collectively used as a topping for the fried chicken. Not the version served at this stall though. Nevertheless, a tasty piece of chicken that was.

Ayam goreng Yogya

Literally translated as fried virgin bird, the burung dara goreng was served as a whole. Tearing up the pigeon before your very eyes can be traumatic but once you overcome that, you'll be treated to some well-seasoned, crispy skin and succulent meat. At a fraction of the celebrated ones from Hong Kong as well. We tried many other dishes too (the boss looked happy, of course) but there’s just one more dish that I would like to highlight – soup buntut or oxtail soup. Unlike the usual, heavily spiced version, this was much lighter in taste. The undistracted beefiness of the broth was appreciated and the most amazing part of it all was the presence of a strong buttery taste that probably came from the fat. Since it’s not for daily consumption, I happily gulped every single drop of it. Some bread at that point would have been great.

Burung dara goreng

Sup buntut

Generally, a lesehan setting comprises of solely tables, shortened to about 1 foot, not unlike the traditional way of dining in Japan. There is an endless stretch of lesehans along the upper part of Jalan Malioboro, with most offering a similar menu. To have dined among the locals and some adventurous tourists on my last night in Yogyakarta was satisfying. Street artistes and salesmen crowd at every table to offer songs, portraits and decorative products to the diners. A polite decline will do the trick, if one is not interested.

There's something more to Yogyakarta than Borobudur and gudeg. Despite being a tourist spot, I find it less chaotic here as compared to its more popular counterpart. I should not forget the wonderful and friendly people we met as well - from the helpful hotel staff at Manohara to the smiling security guards to the generous market vendors at Jalan Malioboro.

Before dinner, we walked around town and surveyed for prices to another destination in the island of Java. Pretty reasonable, I thought. And guess what, the name of that place also begins with the letter B.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tell-A-Tale (Part 58): Wishing You A Speedy Recovery

Like Vanuatu, Easter Island and Marrakesh, Port-Au-Prince is one of those places with an interesting name that piqued my interest. It's a shame that we've been introduced this way.

On 12 January 2010, an earthquake of 7 on the moment magnitude scale struck Haiti, near the capital city of Port-Au-Prince. The Presidential Palace, along with the main prison, the disaster relief offices and the main airport were all destroyed. Countless homes were lost and people had to live on the streets, not too far from the hundreds of thousands of bodies scattered around the city. From what I read, the first 24 hours of the aftermath were spent in confusion and helplessness as no immediate assistance was made available to the victims.

Into the sixth day of the aftermath, despite the growing global relief efforts, essentials like food are now slowly and painfully reaching the affected Haitians. One of the causes, as I understood from the news, was that chaos has spread throughout the affected areas. In one particular report, it was shown an aid truck turning away from a massive crowd fighting for distributions handed out by the aid workers. A father who was at the incident to get food for his 7 children spoke to one of the reporters and questioned why the truck has to turn away when he, as a sensible adult, was not involved in the fight and therefore should not be punished for it. Looters were seen carrying machetes and one can imagine the level of security there with thousands of prosecuted criminals from the broken prison now living at large. The stench of decomposing corpses in the heat are not making things any better.

And here we are, fussing shamelessly on an issue that was not even an problem to begin with.

Haiti, my thoughts are with you.

Check out the following links, if you are interested in making a donation for the victims of the earthquake:

Singapore Red Cross Society

Malaysian Red Crescent

Some reports on the earthquake:

Link 1

Friday, January 15, 2010

Tell-A-Tale (Part 57): Happy New Year?

There are just so many things that I’ve been meaning to share in the past 2 weeks - the temples of Prambanan, gudeg, Alexandria, Saqqara, Luxor and of course the good food I had, leading to the new year. After each great experience, I just couldn’t wait to get my photos done and blog about it. Sad to say, fatigue has gotten the better of me. I’m tired, really tired - physically and mentally. Perhaps 2010 may not a good year for me, as I’ve observed so far. There are, among others - a failed module (the simplest one, at that), backlogs, delays and disputes. On average, I get 4 hours of sleep. I started consuming coffee again to perk myself up and had diarrhoea for that, seriously. The only thing I want to do when I open that bedroom door is to just die on the floor. But of course, there are reports to read and chores to be done.

I re-read the above.

Funny. There I was, the cynical one who would roll eyes reading posts of people bemoaning their allegedly f-ed up lives/jobs/girlfriends/boyfriends/etc.

Let me just come back to the point, which is to talk about the one particular incident that had left me really beaten. That day, I’d slept for merely an hour before hitting the office.

For the past 13 years, I’ve developed this love-hate relationship with the Puduraya bus terminal. What can I say, this is one of the very few places where one can get affordable coach tickets to other states and beyond. Where else in the world can you get relatively comfortable express buses to Johor Bahru and Singapore for mere RM31 and RM50 respectively? And it’s always the first sighting of the terminal that makes me feel that, yes, I’m home.

Besides the standardization of counter sizes, a few LCD screens and a layer of new paint, nothing much has changed, I feel. There’s the overwhelming amount of carbon monoxide emission at the platforms, the perpetual congestion that causes delays and the countless ulat (touts), which I must admit, are pretty helpful at times.

I was waiting for my bus to return to Singapore at 11.15 pm on the first Sunday night of 2010. To have to anticipate the late arrival of buses here is of no surprise. So, around midnight, the bus made a grand entrance into the boarding area. It was 30 minutes late. Not too bad, really. I’ve experienced delays of more than 2 hours on several occasions.

The interior of the bus was well-furbished, colourful and hooray, I’ve gotten an individual seat! I was really looking forward to a good sleep after an exhausting week in Egypt. Just as I reclined my seat, this girl in her mid-twenties asked to confirm my seat number. Our seat numbers were identical and both tickets were issued by the same bus company. There must have been a mistake somewhere. We questioned each other and decided that the best way to settle this was to ask the conductor. By the way, several other duplicates were found too. At that moment, you could see many of the victims getting restless. They must be first timers. Or tourists.

The conductor, the great judge himself graced the bus with a smile. He must have not been informed of the happenings in the bus. The driver, sitting comfortably with a packet of kopi-o in hand, refused to assist the anxious passengers. Saya tak tau. Lu tanya sama itu koyak tiket punya orang. (I don’t know. Ask the conductor later.)

After checking the tickets, the conductor would ask one of the two passengers with the identical pair of tickets to get off the bus and proceed to wait for the next in schedule. Schedule? Dah nak sampai dah. Kat Sungai Besi tol dah. (The next bus will arrive soon. It’s now at the Sungai Besi toll). This was repeated to others facing the same problem. I saw some people retaliating to that by not giving up their seats. They were not wrong. Why should anyone with an official ticket be told to get off the bus? Was that the best answer he could give? It certainly sounded more like an instruction to me. Came our turn and his honour, again, churned out his little number. I tried to reason. I told him that it’s unfair for me to leave my seat. Afterall, I’m not the problem here. He then announced, kalau macam itu, bas tak payah jalan lah! (if that’s the case, the bus will not move!). I can’t help but feel threatened. Why should I just give up my seat when ultimately, what's in my hand was a legitimate ticket issued by the staff of the bus company?

The girl in her twenties was joined by her elderly mother and a younger sister. They had bought all the seats in that particular row. Some of the passengers had given up and only a few more were still defending their seats. I had to decide. Someone must leave and I had to make a choice, unwillingly.

As I picked up my heavily loaded backpack, a young man was still arguing with the judge. The girl in her twenties saw me leaving and said, hah, dah settle dah! with a victorious look on her face, as if she had proven that I was the guilty one in this case and had been given the sentence I deserve. You could have, at the very least, thanked me.

On one hand, I felt that I've made a stupid decision. It did appear as if I’ve shamelessly given up my right to the world and proclaimed, nah, take it away from me, please! with a smile. Conscience - that was all I had at that point. I could have argued on with the judge but the thought of the elderly mother having to wait for the next bus in the humid and intoxicating condition at the platform or to leave without one of her children had me surrendering to an erroneous system. This is the very same system that had victimized many for the longest time. I know, for I’ve seen it happening for more than 10 years. A good kakak from another bus company, who later became a friend, had told me countless sad tales like this one.

Knowing that the next bus will be late as well, I ran upstairs to question the person-in-charge of the bus company’s counter. He looked more confused than I was and simply brushed off my complaint by saying, ah….ya ya. You ikut cakap itu konductor saja lah. (Yes, yes. You just follow what the conductor says). Amazing.

The next bus did come, around 1 am. The losers from the earlier episode had inevitably created some chaos in the bus again, due to the mismatching of seat numbers.

Obviously, the problem lies in the company’s governance. More specifically, the ticketing system. Being a well-received bus company specializing in this niche and lucrative route, it’s only wise to invest in a computerized system that will greatly reduce the amount of human errors like this. If other bus companies can do it, why can't they? Some might say that one shouldn’t expect much from a cheap ride, so take it or leave it. Of course, we are not asking for meals on board or personalized mobile entertainment. I'm sure efficiency is included in the price of the ticket, right? They are obviously not looking at the bigger picture as well. In my opinion, this is an important issue that should have been studied years ago. A good public transport system ensures progress in many other industries, including tourism. You should have seen that frustrated look of the tourists due to the delays and unclear details scribbled onto their tickets. Not a pretty face, I can assure you. I don't see them returning anytime soon too. And what's even sadder? That we are swarmed by frivolous matters that have been blown out of proportions instead. One seat, two tickets – that’s REAL confusion and a matter of fact. Now do something about it!

I reached Singapore later in the morning feeling completely exhausted and mentally beaten. The next few days were not any better but I survived. By planning my schedule and meals well, I'm sure I'll recover fast.

However, reading the bad news surrounding us these days has proven to be detrimental. I was, again, haunted by the lack of conscience and understanding among us. Believe in the truth, my friends. Believe that there are better ways to things. Believe that it'll take nothing but impossibility to divide us. And we shall emerge stronger and wiser than ever before.

In the process of writing this post, I felt that perhaps I should start another blog. HairyBerry's Tell-A-Bus-Tale, anyone?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Tell-A-Tale (Part 56): Sunrise, Sunset...and Borobudur

November marks the second month of the monsoon season in Borobudur. I knew that before clicking on the "CONTINUE" icon on the budget airline's website in May. What I didn't know was that I'd missed an e-mail notifying us on the change of date of last year's Deepavali celebration. And that the first of a few exams was just weeks away. So, I had to take leave and my examination result, as I was informed recently, was far from desirable. But did I ever regret going to Borobudur? Absolutely not.

The pouring rain greeted us as soon as we stepped out of the Adisucipto International Airport in Yogyakarta. Luckily, the pre-booked car to the Manohara Hotel was already waiting for us. The hotel itself was fantastic. Perfectly located within the compound of the Borobudur Park, it's just 300 metres away from the stunning Borobudur Temple. As we'd discovered later, rain doesn't last long in this part of the world. When we exited the town of Yogya and onto Magelang and Muntilan, the sky was bright again. The journey of approximately 40 km took an hour to reach the entrance to Borobudur. Here, the landscape transformed from dusty towns connected by wide and well-kept roads to lush green paddy fields (the fertile land is a gift from the nearby volcanoes) with endless humps and potholes. Accessorizing the view were historical candis that looked like miniatures of the ancient temple.

When in Borobudur, one must witness the amazing sunrise. That's what I was told. At 4 in the morning, the park was dark and humid. The temple, with just a few spotlights guarding the walls, looked as if it was still asleep from afar. With a group of other enthusiasts, we made our way towards the temple. The guide left us at the gate and basically, it was just us, the temple and our complimentary torchlights from that moment on. The steep stairway leading to the top of the temple (about 120 metres tall) was not a challenge, but to do it in the dark meant that speed was greatly reduced.

According to Buddhist cosmology, the way to go about the temple is by ascending the 9 levels that form a mandala in the clockwise direction. Each level represents a different state, with the highest being the state of attaining nirvana. The figures of Lord Buddha on the top level being isolated by the stupas from the rest of the world speak clearly of this. Most of the statutes have been disfigured by earthquakes, rain and terrorism. The sights of headless, armless Buddhas meditating might not be aesthetically pleasing but I feel that perhaps it's more significant this way - that the perfect peace of the state of mind is one that's free from all forms and desires.

Nearing 5 in the morning, the crowd gathered towards the east. As light began to shine upon the misty land below us, so awoke the figures of the 2 most majestic volcanoes in Central Java; Gunung Merapi and Gunung Merbau. However, the sky still looked gray and I overheard a tour guide telling an old Singaporean couple that it might take a while longer for the sun to rise that day. But he was wrong. The sun did rise at the usual time, but the thick monsoon clouds had hidden its majestic rays from us. What's not told to us was the beautiful sunset. Not as grand but definitely worth the experience, especially with a thinner crowd.

When asked of my trip to the Borobudur temple, I would tell my friends that I felt like I've revisited a chapter in our history textbook. The one with the kingdoms of Srivijaya, Majapahit, Langkasuka and Sailendra. Except that this infamous temple was never part of the syllabus.

It's only at quieter times that one can appreciate what lies beyond the extensive structure and intricate details. The Borobudur temple has an unexplained story to tell. A mysterious one, at that. Was it forsaken due to a change of belief? Or perhaps superstitions had caused the people to abandon the temple? Or was it simply covered by ashes and forests through a series of volcanic activities?

Only they will know.