Flying the THAI Airbus A380 for the First Time

As good fortune and careful scheduling would have it, the return leg of my Hong Kong trip was aboard THAI Airways’ new Airbus A380. The A380, affectionately known as the Whale Jet because of its profile, is the world’s largest passenger jet, eclipsing the venerable Boeing 747’s floor space by almost half. 

The first A380 went into service in October 2007 with Singapore Airlines after lengthy production delays. These delays produced a roll-over effect and THAI Airways, the ninth operator of the type, just received its first aircraft this past September. (Only 92 aircraft delivered in five years…) Initially, THAI used the airplane for Singapore and Hong Kong flights before adding Frankfurt and Tokyo.

Unlike the Boeing 747, which has only a upper deck for only part of the length of the aircraft, the Airbus A380 has a full upper deck. This means that airport receiving regular A380 service need to have passenger jet bridges that can reach doors on both the upper and lower deck. In Hong Kong, one jet bridge is used for each level, although in many airports there are two lower level jet bridges and one upper level.

Most airlines reserve the upper deck for First and/or Business Class passengers. In THAI’s configuration, there is a small economy class cabin on the upper deck, the final eight rows of the plane. When you book your flight online and choose your seat assignment, the small upper deck cabin is not visible. Knowing that those seats existed, I had to visit a THAI ticket office and request an upstairs seat. Above, a view of this economy class cabin, which has a pair of exits in the middle of it, making for some generous leg room.

I was able to secure the last available window seat, the one you see on the left-hand side of the picture with the bin open next to it. One of the nice things about the upper deck is that there are small storage bins underneath the windows to supplement the overhead bins. This makes it easy to store small bags out of the way, freeing up your leg room while keeping items close at hand.

A look forward past the economy class cabin into the large business class cabin. Two interesting things I observed: there is a small security camera in each of the bulkheads, allowing crew members to see what is happening in each cabin, even if the curtains are closed. Also the overhead bins above the center seats have a different shape in business class than they do in economy. Usually, a single design is used in most aircraft.

Another nice feature of the A380 is the tail-mounted camera. You can watch the view on your seat back monitor. Unfortunately, there appeared to be some dirt (bird poop?) on the lens, making the view a bit less enjoyable. I have been on other airplanes that have cameras located under the fuselage looking forward or down, but this tail camera seems to be a consistent feature of the A380.

Taxiing to the runway, you can see a Russian made cargo jet and on the mountain behind, the tower from the Nong Ping 360 gondola. Here’s the view from the gondola at just about that tower, as I wrote about in this entry.

The view of the New Territories about a minute after takeoff. I lived in Hong Kong in 1998-99, not long after the new airport opened. In those days, there was significantly less development in this part of Hong Kong. Nowadays, there are clusters of high rise buildings everywhere as the city continues to grow, mostly vertically.

Inflight dining: chicken and greens served over egg noodles. There was also a salad of chicken and mixed vegetables and a panna cotta with berry coulis for dessert. The food was decent. 

As a comparison, here is the food we were served out of Bangkok, a Penang curry with chicken and bitter melon. It was very tasty, actually so much so that if they served it from a restaurant, I would seek it out. Also interesting that the service out of Bangkok had sturdier dishes for the main course as opposed to the aluminum ones out of Hong Kong. The salad was a so-so shrimp salad and the dessert was a mediocre chocolate mousse.

If you would like to see highlights of the entire trip, include a tour through the business class and first class cabins upon landing, please view the six-minute video above. Coincidentally, on my way out the business class cabin, I was recognized by one of the flight attendants, a friend of one of Tawn’s friends.

Another video covering my flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong aboard a Boeing B777-200, is located here.  

In this final shot from the gate in Bangkok, you can see that there are three passenger jet bridges attached to the plane, two on the lower level and one on the upper level. They have to be very careful as the bridge are close to each other.

Here is a view of the two forward bridges taken from the window on the upper deck bridge. I hope you enjoyed the trip!

 

Happy Birthday to My Mother

Yesterday was my mother’s birthday, so this morning (because of the time zone difference) Tawn and I called her. As my parents age, I realize that they will not be around forever. This, combined with listening to the drama-filled stories of friends about their families, makes me appreciate what good parents I have.

While not perfect, they have been supportive and encouraging throughout my life. When I was a child, they set regular routines and clear expectations of behavior. While punishments were not harsh or unreasonable, breaking the rules has predictable consequences. Raised in the American Midwest before starting a family in California, my parents instilled typically conservative, Midwestern values that they summed up with time-worn sayings: If something is worth doing, it is worth doing right. A penny saved is a penny earned. Waste not, want not.

There were times when this conservative approach to life chaffed. When I wanted a particular new toy or didn’t have the popular brand of jeans and was reduced to wearing Toughskins, I didn’t appreciate their thrift. But when it came time for college and they paid for the tuition so I didn’t have to take on student debt, I saw the wisdom of their ways.

To this day, my parents lend supportive ears. When I face challenging times, they listen, nod with understanding, and wait to be asked for their opinions. Even when invited, their opinions are conservative, rarely intruding very far across the “you should do” line. Instead, they acknowledge that life can be tough at times and then generally encourage me to tough it out.

One thing I most appreciate about my parents is that our family is free of any psychological games. As I listen to other people talk about their families, I can see behaviors and actions that could keep a psychologist in business for decades. My parents raised us without using guilt or goading, without projecting their own aspirations on their children, and without seeing us as competition for their spouse’s affections. Drama was something reserved for the television and our viewing of that was tightly restricted.

Perhaps such a life, like the rolling fields of Kansas, is a bit boring by some accounts. But it also provided a steady, stable environment in which to grow and – another of my parents’ sayings – to reach my full, God-given potential.

Food in Hong Kong – Tim Ho Wan at IFC

Twice during my trip to Hong Kong, I enjoyed dim sum at Tim Ho Wan, the (world’s least expensive) Michelin-starred restaurant founded by former Four Seasons Chef Mak Kwai Pui. The first time was at the original Mongkok hole-in-the-wall location, which closes the end of January to move across Kowloon at Olympian City. The second time was on my final morning at the newer location one floor below the Airport Express check-in lobby at the International Finance Centre.

The crowd that gathers (and waits for hours) outside the original Tim Ho Wan location. I am sure that the neighboring shopkeepers are thrilled that this crowd will soon go away, as I suspect few of the dim sum customers, many of whom are non-locals, shop at the neighboring businesses.

The inside of the shop seats perhaps two dozen people. That was part of its charm, but what was a hidden treasure has spawned three branches, each much larger. It seems that the magic of the hard to find gem of a restaurant is gone, replaced by the desire to cash in on the popularity.  

Above, a full house within five minutes of starting service for the day, with another full round of customers waiting outside. 

One of the nice things about Hong Kong is the Airport Express train. What makes it so nice is that for most airlines, you can check in up to 24 hours before your flight. The agents tag and collect your luggage, leaving you free to roam the city until it is time to head to the airport, unencumbered by heavy bags.

I checked in for my flight at 8:00 am, more than five hours early. Ten minutes later I was downstairs in front of the restaurant, the first person to arrive. I opened my iPad and settled in for a wait. Slowly, other customers arrived and formed a queue behind me. At 8:50, Gary, Rudy, and the other Xangans arrived so we were the first seated and snagged a nice table with great lighting.

Since I have written about the original location and the second location before, I’ll just share pictures of the food. 




While there are some folks who complain that the food at the branches isn’t as good as the original, I think they are carping mostly to make themselves sound superior. The food at the branches continues to be very high quality and the additional seats means that the wait is shorter.

 As I observed, having arrived early, the kitchen staff is still making everything by hand and that quality and attention to detail is clear when you eat the food.

As we finished our meal and I headed to catch the train to the airport, the crowd had grown even larger. As you can see, it is a first or last stop for some people who are going to or coming from the airport. A very convenient location and perfect if you have a long layover and crave some world-class dim sum!

 

The Pawn Building in the 1960s

After posting the write-up of dinner at The Pawn in Wan Chai, which is located in a nearly 100-year old building, Angel happened to find a picture of the building from the 1960s. Makes for a fascinating comparison.

Relatively recent picture.

And a picture from the 1960s.

What most strikes me is that you can see the hills behind Wan Chai – no skyscrapers! Standing in front of the building today, you have no sense of the nearby geography, only the sheer vertical nature of the cityscape.

Food in Hong Kong – The Pawn


Image courtesy flickriver.com

Located in a 100-year old former pawn shop alongside the tram tracks in the bustling Wan Chai district, The Pawn is one of a number of newer restaurants in Hong Kong that promise (and mostly deliver) standard British pub food done well. 

On Friday evening, the entire group of Xangans plus two partners and another visiting friend (who, coincidentally, is a long-missing-in-action Xangan) gathered around a second floor table located on a balcony with a street view. Because of the desire for privacy by a number of the diners, certain faces have been obscured.

The atmosphere is nice and service, like most in Hong Kong, is spotty. When one of our diners asked the waiter for a suggestion of a drink with vodka (or something like that), the waiter replied, “The drinks are in the menu.” Very unhelpful. The menu itself is interesting and decidedly meat-centric. We ordered several starters and opted for larger mains designed for sharing. 

Glazed pig cheeks with apple cider, mustard seeds, and warm potato salad garnished with a crispy sliver of fried pig skin. This was a well-prepared appetizer with classic flavors. Nothing cutting edge but certainly enjoyable.

We also had a roast chicken risotto with thyme and sage crumble, quail egg, and sweet onions. Risotto is always a treat, although this one (as with so many others) was too firm. A real risotto should be soft and spread out on the dish. Flavors were fine, though, and the rice was properly cooked.

The organic beets, ricotta cheese, pear, pistachio, dandelion leaves, and sunflower seeds arrived on a weathered serving board in a presentation right out of Jamie Oliver’s “30 Minute Meals”. It was difficult to tell whether the chef was trying to be rustic or artistic. Again, the combination of flavors was nicely autumnal although a bit more seasoning would be nice. 

A main dish of macaroni bake with Shark Bay crab in champagne cocktail sauce, topped with toasted Gubbeen cheese served as a reminder that one should under-promise and over-deliver, not the other way round. The pasta was gloppy, the crab nearly absent, and the “champagne cocktail sauce” was indistinguishable from a typical cream sauce.

We ordered a trio of roasts which are suitable for sharing. All are served in proper British fashion with crisp Yorkshire puddings, a side of cauliflower and cheddar cheese bake, duck fat-roasted potatoes, and an oversize boat of gravy. This was the whole young chicken with smoked garlic and marjoram. It was a nicely done chicken, juicy and tender.

This was the lamb shoulder with sticky redcurrant sauce. It was nicely cooked, pink but not underdone, and had loads of flavor.

The Berkshire pork belly with caramelized Granny Smith apples was also tender with crispy skin. The fat was nicely rendered and meaty – not too squishy in the way that excess fat can be. The apples were a little scarce, another few slices would have been nice. On all the dishes, the quantity of potatoes seemed stingy for dishes designed for sharing.

Finally, the naturally reared (whatever that means) Cedar River sirloin with sage slow-roasted onions. Didn’t see the onions, though, just some cabbage and mashed potatoes. Still, the meat was well-cooked and surprisingly tender for a sirloin.

For all of the mains, the preparation was competent even if there was little that was groundbreaking about the menu. For a restaurant setting out to be a traditional British gastropub, they fulfill their promise. Even if you leave uninspired, you leave satisfied.

The dessert menu turned out to be the spot where the inspiration was hiding. While the dishes remained simple, there was greater playfulness and creativity.

A clever take on Eton Mess, one of the most classic of English desserts, arrived a martini glass filled with small toasted meringues, rich raspberry sorbet, clotted cream, and delicate Thai basil leaves. Using individual meringues instead of a larger meringue broken up, made for an eye-catching presentation and the basil leaves added a delicate perfume that elevated the dish. 

A chocolate fudge pudding was properly rich without being monolithic. The malt chocolate sorbet provided an interesting contrast in chocolate tones and the toasted homemade marshmallow and dusting of pistachio crumbs were perfect accompaniments.

One of the “more than meets the eye” desserts was this treacle tart. Treacle, a golden sugar syrup not unlike Karo corn syrup, makes for a sweet and crisp tart that is essentially a pecan pie minus the pecans. In and of itself, it is crisp but otherwise uninteresting. Add to it a scoop of the blood orange jelly and your taste buds are sent to another dimension. The jelly is sweet, tangy, and brings out the slight saltiness to the tart. Excellent combination.

A final dessert, leaning towards the modernist edge of plate design, was the watermelon, white chocolate, strawberry sorbet, and granola. The watermelon was, I think, compressed. Each piece was firm, seedless, and bursting with concentrated watermelon flavor to a degree one could never find in a simple slice of melon. The effect was intense and the combination of flavors and textures made for a satisfying finish even if the plate itself was a bit of a mess.

Overall, the Pawn turned out to be a good choice for dinner and will be on my to-return list next time I am in Hong Kong.

 

Vegetarian Food on Lantau Island

On Saturday morning after a hearty local breakfast, we headed to Lantau Island to visit the Po Lin Monastery and try the famed vegetarian food served there. Lantau is the largest of Hong Kong’s many islands and is among the least populated. More than half of it is covered in park land, making it a pleasant contrast to the densely populated areas of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

When I lived in Hong Kong in 1998-99, a visit to Lantau required a 45-minute ferry ride from Central and, if you wanted to go to the monastery, an additional bus ride to the far end of the island. Since 2006, you have had the option of taking the Nong Ping 360, a nearly 6 km gondola that leads from the Tung Chung MTR station across the water and over the peaks, dropping passengers off just a short walk from the monastery. The gondola ride, which takes about 25 minutes, is not for the faint of heart!

Along the way, you are treated to a spectacular view of Hong Kong International Airport. Built on neighboring Chek Lap Kok Island with tremendous amounts of landfill, HKIA serves more than 53 million passengers a year and will soon be building a third runway and additional gates.

The Nong Ping 360 gondola sets you down in a shopping and entertainment area called the Nong Ping Village. Built in a Chinese architectural style, it contains a number of very touristy attractions and, of course, a Starbucks. We would have hurried past the village and on to the monastery but a stealth storm caught us. We sought refuge in a tea shop for an hour, where we learned the intricacies of the Chinese tea ceremony.

After the rain, we headed to the Tian Tan Buddha, a 34 meter (112 foot) tall bronze seated Buddha statue that was, until 2007, the largest seated Buddha statue in the world. You have to climb 240 steps to reach the statue and on this overcast and misting day, the view was limited. Afterwards, we visited the Po Lin Monastery across from the entrance to the statue. 

The monastery, which dates from the early 1900s, is famous for its vegetarian food. When I visited in 1998, the food was very tasty. With the opening of the Nong Pin 360, the number of visitors has increased tremendously and, it seems, the quality of the food has declined.

The spartan dining room was filled with visitors, mostly Chinese. We purchased a ticket in advance for a set meal and the dishes were brought by a waiter.

The meal began with an odd soup. We struggled to identify the ingredient but eventually decided it was some sort of a yam or sweet potato. The texture was very soft and the broth itself was nondescript.

A dish of stir-fried lettuce and shitake mushrooms. I expected that the mushrooms would have more flavor but these were pretty bland. Of course, I should point out the Buddhist vegetarian food is generally supposed to be bland – no onion or garlic, for example – as the purpose of food is to sustain life, not to bring pleasure.

Stir fried vegetables and firm tofu. While this was a simple dish, the vegetables had a pleasing crunch that added some much-needed texture to the meal.

A stew of corn, peas, and tofu in a tomato sauce. This was pretty tasty because the corn provided a more pronounced flavor than most of the other dishes.

This stir fry dish had a trio of mushrooms, baby corn, carrots, and textured vegetable protein. TVP is basically made from soy flour, the after product of soybean oil extraction, and can be fashioned into meat-like pieces. This dish was actually pretty tasty and did provide more of a meaty feel.

An interesting deep fried dish like a spring roll. The outer skin was very flaky, perhaps made from tofu skin? The inside was very bland but of course the crunchiness offered a nice change of pace.

Interior view of the fried spring rolls. I think the filling was primarily daikon radish strips and carrots, although I may be wrong about that.

Overall, the meal was a disappointment. The experience of getting to and from the monastery by gondola was interesting, though. While on the way there, we noticed a hiking path that more or less follows the gondola’s path from Tung Chung to Po Lin. It looks like it would take about 2-3 hours to hike. Maybe on a future trip the focus should be on hiking the route instead of eating the vegetarian food. 

As we left the monastery, the rain started to fall again. Along the path back to the gondola, Rudy spotted a shop (a tent, really) selling douhua, a dessert made with very soft tofu. You might best call it “tofu pudding” and it is served with a mild sugar syrup and has a pleasing texture. Served warm, this was the highlight of the trip, a perfect conclusion to an otherwise bland meal.

Food in Hong Kong – Sunning Restaurant

The evening I arrived in Hong Kong, I joined fellow Xangans Gary and Rudy for dinner at Sunning Restaurant in Causeway Bay. Sunning is a long-time favorite of locals, dating to 1948, and specializes in Western food. It is the type of place where local families go for special events or weekly Sunday dinners, a chance for “fancy” food that today feels reminiscent of the era of Julia Child. 

Despite its lengthy history, the restaurant moved not long ago to Lee Theatre Plaza, a modern building in Causeway Bay. The new interior is tasteful, clean, and modern. The white linens are starched. The waiters dress in tuxedos. It is easy to imagine that you have entered a time warp and landed in the 1960s Hong Kong celebrated in director Wong Kar Wai’s film In the Mood for Love.

Gary ordered (and shared, thankfully) a dish of escargot. Unlike all the other escargot I have eaten, this dish wasn’t drowned in butter and garlic. Instead, the snails were served with a rich brown sauce and rested on a layer of broiled, molten mashed potatoes. They were tender and scrumptious.

I ordered foie gras on toast, a very basic pate that was tasty but not fancy. The taste of the foie gras reminded me of the Oscar Mayer liverwurst my grandfather used to serve me for lunch on Triscuit crackers.

As the main courses arrived (Rudy had the lamb chops and Gary had the sirloin steak), the waiter brought a plate with baked potato toppings: sour cream, bacon, and chives. Classic!

I ordered the Spanish Kurobuta pork served with the special house sauce – same the was on Gary’s steak. All of our dishes were garnished identically: baked potato, half a roasted tomato, and a floret of cauliflower. The simple presentation reminds me of the food at Uncle John’s in Bangkok, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where a former hotel chef turns out Western classics in distinctly hotel banquet style. The Sunning version was tasty, well-cooked, and completely unimaginative. That isn’t a complaint, though, because the restaurant serves exactly what is promised at a reasonable price. No molecular gastronomy is needed here.

The three of us shared two desserts. The first to arrive was a lemon soufflé, perfectly spongy and light with a dry middle.

The second dessert was a Baked Alaska. This Betty Crocker classic is something I haven’t seen in a long time and was eager to try. It was the expected show-stopper, a meringue covered Mount Vesuvius with two maraschino cherry nipples served en flambé. 

Here’s a brief video showing the flaming dessert in all its glory:

The inside of the dessert was different than I had previously had. In addition to the yellow cake base and ice cream, there was fruit cocktail. While unexpected, it lent additional retro credibility to the dessert and I’ve decided that I will have to prepare Baked Alaska one of these days soon.

(For a more complete review with better pictures, visit Gary’s entry about the restaurant.)