The Holiday Hangover

I hate the holiday hangover. It feels like shit to go back to work after the completion of an amazing trip abroad. Recently we spent a month going around the world, visiting fantastic places, seeing incredible people, and eating some of the best food of our lives. We spent time in Hong Kong, Milan, Rome, Positano, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Girona, Zurich, and Boston. We ate at Bo Innovation, Tim Ho Wan, Cracco, La Pergola, Imago, Akelarre, Mugaritz, and Arzak with many others in between. Now that’s one hell of a trip!

But once we return home, face the reality of regular life, the enormity of the credit card balance, and the growing expanse of my waist, a sinking feeling sets in. Wouldn’t it just be easier and much less expensive to simply stay at home? Why do we have this insane obsession with seeing the world?

And then we reflect. We spend an afternoon gazing through the thousands of photos we took on the trip. We open the gorgeous cookbooks and remember some of the incredible dishes we tasted. We read some of the tweets from the new friends we made around the world. And then it hits us – these are the reasons we travel.

It’s the so friendly and helpful people of Hong Kong, who not only helped us find Tim Ho Wan (1 Michelin starred dim sum madness) but spent time translating the full menu into English for us. It’s chef Alvin Leung (Bo Innovation) sitting down with us and giving us tips on the Spain part of our trip.

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It’s seeing the Alps for the first time on the train ride from Zurich to Milan.

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It’s standing on our balcony next to the Duomo in Milan, Nastro Azzuro in hand, watching the world go by.

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And it’s standing in the middle of the Colosseum, right where the gladiators walked into the arena thousands of years ago. It’s talking ourselves into spending a couple hundred Euros each to visit La Pergola and being seated outside in time to see the sun set over Rome and the Vatican. And it’s the look on my wife’s face when she sees the dessert surprise. It’s also another amazing sunset at Imago, above the Spanish steps, and having the most incredible ravioli we have ever tasted.

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It’s arriving at our room in Positano and having our breath taken away by the view. It’s listening to my in-laws (they crapped on about it for years) and taking the little-red-fish boat to Da Adolfo and having one of the best seafood lunches on earth. And it’s growing some balls and climbing up to a little rock arch and jumping off into the Mediterranean. It’s also about spending the night on our balcony, eating luscious prosciutto, and drinking fantastic Italian wine.

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It’s seeing a pinxtos bar for the first time in Bilbao and diving right in.

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It’s checking into our room in San Sebastian and realising that not only do we have a gorgeous balcony but it looks right over the sea. Not only that but realising that it’s festival time in the Basque country and that we’re smack in the middle of a weeklong party! It’s the sunset at Akelarre and then having some of the best food of the trip, top that off with meeting Chef Pedro Subijana!

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It’s being complete idiots and booking the #4 and the #8 restaurants in the world, Mugaritz and Arzak, on the same day… for lunch and dinner. Yep, that’s thirty-nine courses, and seven hours of eating later! But it’s having simply the most enjoyable meal ever at Mugartiz. It was the food, the kitchen tour, scoring an authentic apron, enjoying dessert outside, buying a copy of Mugaritz BSO and then being lucky enough to have Chef Aduritz sign it in person and then thank US for coming.

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It’s meeting both generations (and genders) of Arzak chefs the moment we walk into the restaurant for dinner. And senior Arzak telling us he loves a “little restaurant in Sydney called Tetsuya’s”.

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It’s making the best decision of the trip and spending an extra 60EUR a night to get a balcony in our room at Hotel 1898 in Barcelona. And then eating mammoth amounts of tinned seafood with cheap-ass sangria each night. It’s also having the best sandwich on earth – nothing but tomato smeared bread and jamon Iberico.

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It’s being convinced to hire a car and visit Dali’s house in Portlligat. And being greeted by a freaky stuffed polar bear as we walk in the front door!

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It’s being bummed that we couldn’t get into El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, no matter how much I harassed them by email and Twitter. But it’s then finding an amazing gem in NU Restaurant, where we sat at the bar and the chef cooked a mind-blowing degustation menu for us.

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And then him loving our Spanish attempts so much that he started ad-libbing dishes for us, taking a photo of us together, and plying us with shots of an alcohol available only in Girona.

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It’s finding out that Zurich is fucking expensive. No, really. Really.

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It’s seeing my parents and best friend for the first time in two years and my mother putting on her annual luau. And it’s my best mate looking like a complete dumb ass.

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It’s $12 lobsters in New England.

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It’s taking my mom, dad, and wife to a Red Sox game and my dad wearing his Australia hat for the whole day. It’s dad and my wife pissing themselves with laughter during the sixth inning. And it’s the Sox winning and my dad smiling like a little kid.

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It’s finishing our trip with a freaking cool ice cream sandwich at Coolhaus LA...

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and then having what some consider the best burger in the world at Fathers Office.

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And it’s giving each other a kiss on the cheek on the flight home.

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Guess all that travel is worth it after all.

Beginner's Guide to a $10 Michelin * Meal (Michelometer at 3*)

In a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain's "The Layover", he had a meal at Tim Ho Wan. It's also featured in Where Chefs Eat (one of the handiest books for travelling I own). It is renown as the cheapest Michelin-starred meal in the world so you know it just had to be on our itinerary for the Hong Kong stop of our global culinary adventure!

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Firstly, you need to decide which of the three restaurants you want to visit as it's now a bit of a franchise. The original in Mong Kok is now closed (it only had 19 seats) and the one with the Michelin star is in Sham Shui Po. Another is in Hong Kong station (I'll provide directions to this one at the end as it's can be confusing). We decided to get the authentic starred meal even though we went to the Hong Kong station version the next day and the food was identical. 

So, assuming you're going to the Sham Shui Po restaurant you'll need to take a train to that station (or get a cab), come out on the Fuk Wing exit, cross Fuk Wa St, and turn right on Fuk Wing St. Address is 7 - 9 Fuk Wing St so you'll need to walk a bit to the end of the street. I dropped the ball and didn't bring the address so we were lucky a local noticed my frustration and helped us find it. Ironically, we didn't talk to a single local who had heard of it. Strange. In any case, if you're struggling to find it look for this sign at the low end of the street.

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Once you get there, the easy part is over. You need to queue up - we've heard it could be up to an hour. Walk up, get a number and a menu and wait until it's called. We were a bit worried that the menu was only in Cantonese but, as usual, the locals came to the rescue and this very friendly couple helped us translate all the items. Later we would find that they actually have an English menu inside - we almost wished they didn't after the fun we had with the locals.

So, other than a few mistakes finding the restaurant it went pretty smoothly. Then came our biggest error so far - when you order two of something you get two plates , not two pieces. So our order of two pork buns became six pork buns, two prawn dumplings became six, and so on. Needless to say, we had a challenge ahead of us. So much that the wait staff brought a second table for all the food! We were the subject of much laughter with the locals.

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In the end we did pretty well. Only ended up with a couple pork buns and fried dumplings left over. What an amazing meal!

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Now while the bill for our monstrous order totalled $20 each, we went back the next day to the Hong Kong Station location and indeed finished for less than $10AUD each. Had we not had a Coke it would have been $8AUD - FOR A MICHELIN STARRED MEAL. Beat that anywhere in the world!  Let us know if you make it over, it will blow you away...

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Hong Kong Station Tips - Ok, this one confounded us to no end. In reality, it's simple to find if you know the finer details and understand that the Google address is wrong. Enter the IFC Mall building at the ground floor at the cab rank and immediately go left down the escalator. At the bottom, turn left and go through the tunnel to a bunch of shops. Turn left and about six shops down on your right is Tim Ho Wan. The Google problem is that it is NOT in the IFC Mall and it is NOT on Podium Level 1. It is in Hong Kong Station, Level 1. Very different. In any case, once you find this sign you're home. Enjoy!

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Bo Innovation (Michelometer at 2*)

As you would have seen from previous posts, we are at the beginning of a month-long culinary journey around the globe and we have just started our adventure in the great city of Hong Kong. We are hoping to find amazing food in a variety of places, from world-renown, Michelin-starred restaurants, to simple but tasty street food. And our journey begins with Bo Innovation, the irreverent and leading edge Chinese molecular restaurant on Hong Kong Island.

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As you can see from above, Chef Alvin Leung is not lacking in confidence or self-promotion! That said, it's obvious that his style permeates the décor, interior style, and staff personalities in so many ways. To be honest, this is 2 Michelin star dining the way we like it - relaxed but precise, loud yet refined, simple yet amazingly complex. From the moment we entered we felt right at home. The staff spent so much time visiting our table, finding out where we were from, what we were doing in HK, etc. The head waiter even took the initiative to write in Chinese what we should order from the street markets the following night.

We like a restaurant like this where we can laugh with the staff and share stories. One of the funniest points of the night was when we asked one of the waiters if he had any other suggestions in the city for the next couple nights his response was, "I'm not sure. I'm really not a foodie.". Hilarious! 

All that said, at the end of the day it's all about the food. And we were not disappointed in any way. It all started with a mini spring onion dumpling in a crispy package - all reminiscent of the food we have seen at the various food stalls in the city.

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To loosen things up and get us started we were presented a Mao Tai Sour in a classic Chinese-emperor style goblet. And yes, that's not a typo - it's a "Mao" Tai sour, using a special kind of Chinese alcohol.  We could already sense something special was happening.

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Next was a sesame cured mackerel in "chinkiang" vinegar. It was served on a silver plate that billowed sesame infused "smoke". I say that I as I am pretty sure it actually was liquid nitrogen bubbling away underneath and not real smoke. But it smelled amazing. And the reason there's only one in the shot? The waiter was so animated in his description of the dish that he knocked the other one off the platter! He was thoroughly embarrassed but we loved his enthusiasm. All a good laugh. 

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The chili paste in the "Dan Dan Noodles" has to be one of our favourite flavours from the night. It was paired with noodles and some infused apple. We were seconds from licking our platters clean when they were whisked away. Thank goodness as we would have looked like idiots!

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Following was a molecular "Xiao Long Bao" which was a spherified liquid that tasted just like street pork buns. To be honest, this was the only truly "molecular" dish in the traditional sense. I'm not sure where the criticism comes from but the dishes were just incredible creations, not gimmicky at all. The three tomato dish, with one infused in vinegar, one in fermented Chinese olives, and one as a marshmallow was fantastic. Just be careful of the big tomato - the Gourmet Female tried to bite hers in half and it blew up all over her part of the table!

We started to get into the larger dishes with "Red Fish" and mandarin peel, shiitake, and potato.  The dish was just incredibly smooth and luxurious. it felt familiar but at the same time amazing. 

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We like to think we are adventurous eaters and for the most part we are. Usually, though, it's better for us to understand what we've eaten after the fact rather than beforehand and getting a little anxious as to whether we'll enjoy. The sweatbreads with oyster sauce and artichoke definitely intimated the Gourmet Female but we went for it and were not disappointed!  And I have to say, if you ever have a chance to taste an oyster leaf do it. The taste is incredible.

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Rock lobster with sichuan hollandaise, chilli, and charred corn was next, which was followed by the main, "Long Jiang" chicken. The rice in the chicken dish was delightful and smooth. The chicken was some of the best chicken we have ever had. And unlike some other degustation dishes we've had the portion size was just perfect.

To finish things off we started to get into the desserts. Except the first dessert sounds nothing like what you'd expect. It was "Goldenpin", which is chicken with Chinese cloud fungus.  You start by taking a bit of the dried crispy chicken skin, which was so crunchy and salty. Could this really be a dessert? Oh yes, dear Gourmet Male readers, it was. It had ice cream and sweet mushrooms. It was also one of the most interesting and tasty desserts I have ever had.

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Next was "Baijui", which had lemon curd, chocolate ganache, and banana on caramel. When the waiter returned we jokingly asked, "That's not it, is it?!". To our amazement it certainly wasn't... things finished up with eight different treasures. Mandarin peel with chocolate truffle, rose macaron with lychee, red date marshmallow, and chrysanthemum crème brulee were all part of the fun.  

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Now, I've tried to limit the length of the articles by skipping some photos but this is one you just have to see. We were talking about checking out the street markets the next night and that we were excited about what we could find but a bit nervous that we can't speak Cantonese. What did the head waiter do for us? He asked what types of seafood we like and then hand crafted this: 

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Thank you, Chef. We had the meal of a lifetime. 

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Travel to Hong Kong - Let's Go!

As I’ve mentioned a few times in the past, I was traveling to and from Melbourne four days per week for nine months over the past year and the one perk that’s given me is Platinum status with Qantas and their One World partners. So when we decided to fly Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong I as giddy as a little kid when I realised that my Platinum status would allow us to enjoy the start of the trip in the Qantas First Class Lounge!

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I have to say, we felt a little bit like celebrities or rock stars. We grabbed a breakfast table and within seconds suited waiters appeared out of nowhere, providing us with a full breakfast menu. Now, I should probably feel guilty about this but we declined tea and coffee and jumped right to the champagne. It was, incidentally, 7am… But we were shocked when we asked for a glass and the response was, “What kind of champagne?”. Wait, they have a champagne list! Nice one – I scored a glass of Delamotte. To eat we had the Eggs Benedict with leg ham and a bowl of fruit salad. I have to say, we enjoyed some of the freshest eggs and fruit in those dishes. Far better than I’ve had in most restaurants. Alas, after another glass of champagne (it was at least 8am at that point) we were off for Cathay CX162 to Hong Kong. (how gorgeous is my travel companion??)

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Our A330 was a little dated but business class was decked out in the latest in entertainment and technology. Power points, USB charging jacks, wide 15” screens, and heaps of movies and television. But it’s the service that really made things shine. The crew were so accommodating and polite, not to mention really quick and efficient.  Lunch started with seared sesame tuna, lemon prawns, and salmon gravlax. My main was Hong Kong curry prawns with rice and steamed vegetables, which was as good for an airline as I’ve had. The prawns were sweet and the curry had the right amount of kick. Things were rounded out by a cheese selection and then an apple tart with raspberry coulis. I hope this hotel has a gym (am I drunk?).

It’s always hard to stay awake on daytime flights as I want to be able to sleep when I land. We’ll see how this one goes as I got about a two hour nap in and then hopped on the laptop. It’s hard to believe that the trip is actually here and that in just over three hours I’ll be somewhere I’ve never been before, eating things I’ve never eaten before, doing amazing things. As day one travel days go this one has been pretty great!

Any tips for the three days we have in Hong Kong?