Barcelona review

As part of my trip to Europe last month, I spent a week in Barcelona. This was my second trip, both times for work, and this time I was able to see a bit more of the city. Coincidentally, a few friends have asked me for recommendations so I have taken the time to update my “Spain” page on my website.

Barcelona is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world and it is easy to see why. It is also easy to get a sense that the city is overrun with tourists: I saw many signs and graffiti decrying the infestation.

The good news is there are plenty of places to go in Barcelona to enjoy the city without falling into all the usual tourist traps. In fact, I would argue you could largely bypass the big attractions and still find the city utterly charming.

 

Back from holiday in Europe

Two weeks ago, I returned from an 18-day trip to Europe, a combination of work and relaxation. While I didn’t plan it to be this complicated, it ended up being a five country, eight city itinerary. In the coming days and weeks, I will write more details about the trip and update the pages on my website with restaurants and recommendations.

IMG_2955

London was a sneaky twenty-three hour layover I managed to build in unexpectedly. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet friends but did get a nice walk in along the River Thames on a blustery Autumn morning and once the sun emerged stopped by the Spitalfields Market for excellent shengjianbao.

IMG_3209

Barcelona was my second stop, a week to deliver training (a bit of a fudge to my previous role as technically I am not longer heading the leadership development organization at DKSH). This was my second trip to Barcelona and I had a bit more opportunity to explore than last time, when I traveled with my parents and husband. Lots of good food on this trip.

IMG_3920-1

Italy was a return some 17 years after my first visit. We went to Firenze to see my cousin and his family, Matera to see the mysterious and beautiful city of caves, and Ostuni to explore the charm of the Puglia region – the “heel” of Italy’s “boot”. This trip reminded me what the quality of life is so high in Italy: simple food, nice weather, beautiful views and friendly people.

IMG_4728

Vienna was a a first-time visit for me. I wasn’t sure what to expect and ended up charmed by the city. It is a bit of a set piece for some European imperial costume drama, at least as far as buildings go. This is a city and country I would like to explore further.

IMG_3653

Zurich was a return visit for work. In fact, I stopped into the city three times on this trip, enjoying the convenient train system to pop into the city during my layovers and then concluding with a two-night stay for work. This time I was able to explore a bit further and enjoyed some good food and friendly company.

This trip provided some neat random connections, running into people I had not expected to see and striking up conversations with strangers who happened to have connections with me in different random ways. It reminds me that this is a very small world and that traveling it helps us appreciate that which is different and that which is universal.

More coming soon.

 

My week in a Taipei love motel

I travel frequently for work. Sometimes, this leads to some exciting adventures and unexpected, delightful discoveries. Hidden treasures, if you will. This last trip to Taipei included an altogether un-delightful discovery: I had booked myself into a love motel.

For those of you not in the know, a love motel is a place where couples, married and otherwise, can book some private quality time. It seems such places are more common in Asia where multiple generations live together and you might not be able to find as much privacy.

This place, the Mulan Motel in Taipei, is located very close to my office. After some disappointing experiences at other nearby hotels, I searched on booking.com and found the Mulan. “Ah yes,” I thought, “I’ve passed by that several times. It looks quite decent.”

Sure enough, the photos and reviews on booking.com were quite positive and the price was reasonable – only about US$130 a night. So I booked it.

Being a price-sensitive traveller, always trying to save my company money, I took the train in from the airport and walked the 800 meters from the station to my hotel. My first clue that this was not your average hotel was the lack of a lobby. Instead, you descended a driveway into a subterranean car park. The only office was a larger-than-normal guard box.

I also noticed that all of the parking spaces had a curtain that could be pulled around the car. “Perhaps to keep the dust off?” I optimistically thought.

Taking the lift to my room, I noticed the interior was quite dark and gaudy. Clearly a different decorating scheme than a conventional hotel. Then I found my room and opened the door:

IMG_5474

The room was quite large, with high ceilings and ostentatious decorations. A large bed sat in the middle of the room, with a large television and speaker system across from it. The light did not get any brighter and mood music played automatically. The far wall was solid glass with a heavy black curtain blocking the view to the bathroom.

My first clue that this might not be a long-stay hotel was the lack of a closet in which to hang my clothes. The second clue were the condoms in a bowl by the side of the bed. “Well,” I thought, “maybe the expectations are a bit different in the Taiwanese culture?”

IMG_5475

The bathroom was almost as large as the bedroom with a deep bathtub and a glass shower. There were towels and the usual amenities but it all felt a little off. Everything was clean, though.

IMG_5480

Oddly, there were no windows. Or, rather, the windows were covered with a black plastic film that, I discovered the next morning, had exotic butterfly shapes cut out in them so the morning sun would stream through them in a not-quite-claustrophobic way.

The staff seemed to sense my confusion. They struggled to create a proper invoice for me – unlikely that any of their guests have asked for proof of payment! They were friendly, though, and directed me to the restaurant where a sorry set breakfast was available included in the price of my room.

IMG_5558

The only upside to this hotel was the location. It was a two-minute walk from Starbucks, a three-minute walk from the office, and a five-minute run from a beautiful park along the river, where I ran two mornings with a colleague.

Thankfully, my week at the love motel was only three nights. I ended up unharmed and unmolested and upon my return wrote a strongly worded review on booking.com that this hotel should not be listed there as it is appropriate for neither business travelers nor families.

 

Welcome to the year of the dog

The Chinese and other lunar calendars in East Asia are based on a twelve-year cycle, with each year being represented by an animal. This year, which began Feb 16, is the year of the dog. It also represents the completion of my fourth cycle, for I will turn 48 later this year.

A friend who has known me several years was surprised by that information. “You will be 48 this year? Really?” I am not sure if he expected me to be younger or older.

A couple of younger colleagues were commenting that they, too, are born in the year of the dog. I quickly realized they are completing only their second cycle.

Based on my grandparents’ longevity, there is a reasonable chance that I should make it to my eighth cycle, so I am about halfway along this journey.

The being older doesn’t bother me – this is the natural course of things. I do notice that I am increasingly aware of my age: I am conscious that I am working and interacting with people whose reference points are significantly different than mine.

The thing I am most aware of is the realization that the further you travel through life, the more you realize how little you really know. Youth comes with unearned certainty. Age brings experience and a measure of wisdom in the form of humility: What could I know about life? I am still living it.

In any case, I will celebrate this year as a milestone and endeavor to learn as much from it as possible. Happy year of the dog. May it bring you prosperity, good health and great happiness.

Trip Report: Singapore Airlines Premium Economy

In my last post, I wrote about my experience flying in premium economy class on Lufthansa. Recently, I have flown twice on Singapore Airlines in their premium economy cabin: once to Paris and the second time to Australia and New Zealand. I’ll do a quick review of the experience here as a point of comparison.

The planes

On my flights between Singapore and Paris and Singapore and Melbourne, I flew on the Airbus A380, the largest passenger plane flying. On the flight between Singapore and Auckland, I flew on the Boeing 777-300ER. Both planes feature premium economy class in a 2-4-2 configuration.

2017-05-037

Above, the Airbus A380 after our arrival in Paris.

Of the planes, I prefer the Boeing 777. The Airbus A380 is a massive, double-deck plane and it simply feels like a huge plane with heaps of passengers in it. In reality, the A380 has only 379 seats (Lufthansa puts 509 on the same plane!) so it is not as densely configured. Nonetheless, the Boeing 777-300ER has only 264 passengers so feels much less crowded.

The cabin

2017-05-023

On the Airbus A380, there are 38 premium economy seats in a 2-4-2 layout. The seat is 19.5 inches wide with a 38-inch pitch. According to the stats on SeatGuru.com, this is 1.5 inches wider than on Lufthansa. That said, I did not find the seat any more spacious.

2017-05-024

There is a large seat back monitor, which is controlled from a remote in your armrest. The screen appears marginally larger than on Lufthansa but that doesn’t make a huge difference.

The seat has many storage areas and useful amenities, including an individual power port and a USB plug. The magazine pouch has a cheap, plastic feel and was broken on two of the seats. Overall, the seat was comfortable although I found it more so if I place a pillow on the front of the seat cushion under my legs.

There is ample legroom and, as with other airlines’ premium economy, each passenger has his or her own armrests. There is also a nice pillow and large blanket for each passenger along with noise-cancelling headphones.

2017-05-035

As a comparison, here is a view of the regular economy class during the flight. It is in a 3-4-3 layout and feels considerably more crowded.

The service

2017-05-027

Before departure, the flight attendants did not offer beverages – different than on Lufthansa. Menus were placed in the seat back pockets. Singapore does offer a “book the cook” option, allowing you to select certain main courses in advance, a feature Lufthansa does not offer in premium economy.

2017-05-026

After takeoff, warm towels were handed out followed by a service of drinks and nuts. The signature Singapore Sling cocktail is available as well as a full selection of premium beverages.

2017-05-033

The flight attendants are friendly and attentive. They are more polished than at Lufthansa, in terms of having very specific customer service phrasing they are expected to use. Some people perceive this as robotic, other people like it.

As an example, when Tawn asked for a beverage that they didn’t have on the cart, the flight attendant said she would be happy to get him the drink but it would be a few minutes – but would he like something else while waiting?

I thought that was a good touch.

Also, when I was boarding, the flight attendant saw my boarding pass, recognized my seat number, and said “Oh, 35D! You have the special meals ordered, a XYZ for dinner and XYZ for breakfast.” I was impressed that he remembered that off the top of his head.

The meals

2017-05-028

Meal services are decent, although I liked the ones on Lufthansa better. Here is a braised beef dish with mashed potatoes.

2017-05-029

There as also a Chinese-style stir fried chicken with rice, which was a little oily but tasty. Notice that for this flight served out of Paris, we had a little block of cheese.

2017-05-030

The breakfast service before arriving into Singapore was sad. This quiche and hash brown was limp.

2017-05-031

And the waffle was soggy and the egg rubbery. Overall, a poor showing from Singapore airlines.

While I do not show them here, I did try the “book the cook” meal service when fling to the southern hemisphere. While I liked having the option of choosing a meal in advance, I was not overwhelmed by the quality of the catering. Only the cumin-spiced lamb chops out of Melbourne were impressive.

2017-05-034

For the Paris flights, premium ice cream was served – a nice treat.

The timing of the service was generally fine. The exception was the overnight flight from Melbourne to Singapore. Only 7.5 hours in length and departing at midnight, there is only a light snack service to begin with (which I slept through) and a full meal is served before landing. Unfortunately, they started the service 2.5 hours before landing. Had they pushed it back another 30-60 minutes, it would have allowed people to get more rest.

2017-05-025

In terms of inflight entertainment, Singapore Airlines has a huge selection of movies, TV shows and music to keep you occupied. The selection was wider than on Lufthansa, although there is only so much time you have on the flight so on either airline you will be able to find something to fill your time.

2017-05-032

The screen is high-resolution and bright and the controls were responsive. Unfortunately, the screens were not touchscreen, requiring you to fiddle with the handset controller.

The lounges

IMG_4144

Singapore Airlines has just recently opened a new lounge in Bangkok on the D concourse, a location superior to their previous lounge on the A concourse. The lounge is beautiful and continues to have a wide variety of foods and beverages.

2017-05-021

A selection of food in the old lounge in Bangkok

2017-05-022

Above, in Paris all the Star Alliance carriers use a shared lounge facility which has a good selection of food and beverage but which can become quite crowded and is also a bit dark.

2017-05-038

Most disappointing is the “Gold Lounge” in Singapore, especially the one in Terminal 3. Singapore Airlines, like all Star Alliance members, welcomes other members’ gold-status passengers. In Singapore, their main hub, they have a separate lounge just for non-Singapore gold members. These lounges are not that nice: crowded, limited food selection and no showers or other amenities.

Overall

Premium economy is usually a reasonable value: more space and comfort without breaking the bank. Depending on the route and when you fly, Singapore offers some attractive prices for this good service.

Comparing Lufthansa and Singapore, they are quite similar. Singapore has a better entertainment system. Lufthansa has better food and a slightly better seat. Singapore has friendlier flight attendants but slow service. Lufthansa has service that gives you more time to sleep but with flight attendants who, while professional, are not as buttery with their words. Lufthansa offers better lounge experiences across the system; Singapore offers good lounges for non-Singapore passengers everywhere but in their hub city.

At the end of the day, if the two airlines offered me the same price on the same route, I would choose Lufthansa as I think the experience was just slightly better. But you will not go wrong with Singapore at all.

In a few weeks, I will be flying EVA Air, the Taiwanese carrier, on their premium economy service. I will post another report covering that trip.

 

Trip Report: Lufthansa Premium Economy

This is the first of two reports about premium economy experiences. For longer-haul flying, I am reaching a point where being crammed into economy is painful but business class is unaffordable. The compromise is to pay a bit extra for premium economy which is sometimes quite a good value. In this report, I cover a round trip between Bangkok and Lisbon (returning from Barcelona) on Lufthansa made in October 2016.

2017-05-013

The plane

Lufthansa adjusts the capacity on the Bangkok-Frankfurt route throughout the year to match demand, everything from a 509-seat Airbus A380 to a 251-seat Airbus A340-300, which was used both directions on my trip.

The Airbus A340 is a comfortable widebody plane but the type was introduced in 1991 so it is not the latest technology. The normal economy class configuration is 2-4-2.

The cabin

2017-05-002

The premium economy cabin, which is located between the business class and economy cabins, has only 28 seats, arranged 2-3-2.  These seats are 18″ wide and have between 38-39″ of pitch, the distance from one point on the seat to the same point on the next row.

2017-05-003

Leg room is quite reasonable although when the person in front of you reclines, you will still find it difficult to get out unless the person in the aisle seat gets up. There are plenty of storage spaces for items and there is a foot rest on the seat in front of you. Bulkhead seats instead have a leg rest that extends from the seat cushion.

One feature of these seats is that there are two armrests for each passenger so no fighting for personal space. This is a huge advantage over regular economy.

Large touch-screen monitors are available at each seat. The image is bright and the responsiveness of the system is good.

The seats are comfortable although a bit firm. After a few hours, I ended up sitting on my pillow to provide extra padding. Recline is quite deep but I still find it difficult to get any meaningful sleep. On the outbound flight, I probably slept about four hours total. On the return flight, less than two.

2017-05-010

As a comparison, here is a view of economy class mid-flight. You can see the premium economy cabins in the distance, separated only by fabric dividers hanging from the overhead bins. You will notice the monitors in economy are smaller and there is an extra seat in each row resulting in only 17″ width and narrower armrests.

The service

2017-05-004

Before departure, water or juice is served and menus are distributed. There is no advance meal booking beyond the usual dietary and religious meals. The selection consisted of two main courses. For these flights, each approximately 12 hours, there is a main meal and then a breakfast closer to arrival.

2017-05-005

After reaching cruising altitude, a drink service commenced. There was a wide selection of beverages and premium economy includes sparkling wine and a premium beer.

2017-05-006

The outbound dinner was a choice of pork Panaeng curry or pan-seared veal sausages with onion sauce, sauerkraut and mashed potato. I chose the latter. It came with an appetizer of coleslaw with smoked chicken breast and a dessert of apple strudel with vanilla sauce.

2017-05-008

Before landing in Frankfurt, a breakfast of cheddar cheese omelette with Lyonnaise potato, ratatouille and tomato with fresh fruit was served. There was no other choice.

2017-05-007

For the flight from Frankfurt back to Bangkok, we had a choice of beef goulash with carrot zucchini stew and potato leek mash (which I chose) or tomato mozzarella fiorelli with basil cream sauce and tomato concasse. The appetizer was a seasonal salad with pumpkin slices and Italian dressing. The dessert was mango pie with creme fraiche.

2017-05-009

Breakfast before landing in Bangkok was scrambled egg with cheddar cheese accompanied by diced chicken breast, Chinese vegetables (which seemed to be missing) and potato wedges with a dessert of vanilla curd cream with blueberries.

Overall, the food quality was good and the quantity was sufficient. The food is served on ceramic dishes with metal cutlery and glass stemware, which creates a nicer impression.

During the flight, light refreshments (sandwiches, fruits, pretzels, candy bars) were available for snacking.

2017-05-011

Shortly before landing, small chocolates were distributed throughout the cabin. Service from the flight attendants was friendly but efficient. It was notable that effort was made to complete the first meal service quickly, presumably so passengers could go to sleep as both flights are overnight.

2017-05-012

The inflight entertainment system worked well and has many options. By the return flight, I did feel like I was running out of things that piqued my interest. Thankfully, the seats have USB and power ports, so I was able to pull out my laptop and work and use my iPad to read and watch shows.

The system does have a nice maps feature that shows computer-generated views from the tail and the cockpit of the plane. This gives a perspective of what the outside world looks like although it is misleading because the above pictures of our final approach into Frankfurt shows daylight but it was in fact before sunrise.

The lounges

2017-05-001

Premium economy does not come with lounge access but as I have “gold” status with one of the Star Alliance carriers, I was eligible to use the lounge. In Bangkok, I was able to use the main THAI Airways lounge. Other lounges closed too early to use as the Lufthansa flight departs after midnight.

2017-05-014

In Frankfurt, I was able to use the Senator lounges, which are very modern, have a huge selection of food and drink, and offer showers for transiting passengers.

Overall

I particularly liked the 2-3-2 layout in the plane. The middle seat next to me with empty both ways, giving me even more space. The food was tasty and good quality. And the lounge in Frankfurt was truly refreshing. Connecting through Frankfurt is convenient and results in efficient travel times to Europe from Bangkok.

The seat cushions were a bit firm for my tastes (although I find this on a lot of planes), the selection of inflight entertainment was a bit uninspired and Frankfurt is not the most pleasant airport to connect through as it is drab and not particularly intuitive to navigate.

I managed to get an attractive price for this flight, only about US$ 1,400 round-trip. The usual premium economy price is closer to US$ 1,800. The extra space and increased comfort made the trip much less taxing and, for the money, was a good value. Lufthansa’s premium economy would be worth taking for future trips.

 

Sous vide chicken fried steak

While I do not get to play around in the kitchen as much as I would like, I was fortunate that my friend Nat invited me to help cook dinner on Saturday for a group of our friends. He is always up for experimenting so this gave us the chance to try an idea I have had in mind for a few weeks: sous vide chicken fried steak.

IMG_3785

Chicken fried steak, in its classic rendition, is a usually inexpensive cut of steak pounded to tenderize it, coated and fried like a piece of chicken and served with gravy. During season thirteen of Top Chef, chef Jeremy Ford tried the technique of cooking a nice cut of steak in the sous vide, “gluing” chicken skin to the steak using transglutaminase and then frying the end result so the chicken skin was crispy. I was interested in trying this technique.

IMG_4153

We followed a similar preparation, cooking a very nice grass-fed filet mignon in the sous vide until rare and then slicing it into medallions. The benefit of sous vide is that by cooking the food in a vacuum-sealed bag immersed in a water bath, the entire piece of food reaches exactly the desired temperature and then cooks no further. Instead of the outside of the steak being cooked and the inside being raw, as might happen when you fry or roast a steak, the entire cut was a consistent 131 degrees Fahrenheit and still a pretty pink.

As the meat cooked, about two-and-a-half hours, we skinned whole chickens, basically turning them inside out. This was an interesting experience, something I have never done before. The end result are these sheets of chicken skin (seen layered in plastic wrap, above) with little “fingers” of skin like a glove where the legs were.

IMG_3794

After the meat was finished and sliced, we sprinkled it liberally with the transglutaminase.  (From the molecularrecipes.com website, “Transglutaminase is an enzyme that stimulates a bonding process at the cellular level with the amino acids lysine and glutamine in proteins. It’s not technically glue, though that’s what it’s often referred to as. It’s a protein that’s present naturally in both plant and animal systems. The product used in kitchens is created from natural enzymes using a fermentation process.”)

IMG_3791

I then wrapped the chicken skin around the steak. Trying to get the chicken skin cut to the right size was a bit tricky, and some extra transglutaminase was needed where there was overlap of the skin.

IMG_3790

Normally, it takes about two hours of refrigeration for the “glue” to firm up. But a quick trip back in the sous vide for about ten minutes sped up the process, resulting in this tightly-wrapped packages that looked a bit like duck breasts.

When it was nearing time to serve, we dredged the pieces in a mixture of flour, salt, pepper and chili powder and fried them in about two centimeters of rice bran oil. The end result was a crispy skin and a steak that was a perfect medium rare. We served this with an onion gravy and salad.

All in all, the result was positive. We could experiment with more consistent portion control – sizes of steaks varied a bit – and maybe a liquid batter instead of a flour batter. But, overall, I would rate this a culinary success.