Friday, September 14, 2012

Brunch at The Penthouse @ Huntley Hotel: Great views & MImosas-a-flowing

Back in February I purchased a GiltCity voucher for brunch at the Penthouse at the Huntley hotel. For $125, you got a brunch for 4 which includes entrees, 2 desserts to share, coffee/tea and most importantly, choice of bottomless mimosas or bloody marys. The voucher expired in May and when I called in April to make a reservation, they were all booked up through May. Fortunately, they planned to honor the voucher after May, with no expiration. A few months later in August, I finally decided to redeem the voucher.

The Huntley Hotel is a luxury boutique hotel in Santa Monica a block off the ocean, and The Penthouse is their restaurant located on the top floor.

The hotel used to be a very dated Radisson Hotel until some 5 years ago and The Penthouse used to be their Mexican restaurant Toppers – which had great happy hours. The Penthouse is definitely a nice upgrade from Toppers – the décor is sleek, chic and bright. The view is still as spectacular. The restaurant has wall-to-wall windows and a gorgeous panoramic view of the ocean, mountains and city.

This is the view from their bathroom!

When we arrived, I saw many mimosas being passed around – I knew right away that this would be my happy place.

The menu is typical upscale American brunch. If you were not fortunate enough to buy the GiltCity voucher, they also offer a $42 brunch on their regular menu that includes bread basket, entrée, dessert and bottomless mimosas or bloody marys. Not bad at all.

Delicious mimosas with fresh orange juice. Our waiter never allowed our glasses to be empty.

Although not included in our GiltCity voucher, we supplemented our brunch with a pastry basket consisting of banana bread loaf, lemon poppy seed muffin, pistachio scone, blueberry muffin, served with berry preserve, honey and butter.

Bananas fosters ~ Huge serving that consisted of soft French toasts with a delicious eggy coating and topped with dark rum and brown sugar. The dish surprisingly had a good balance of sweet and savory - it wasn't as overly sweet as it sounded.

Eggs benedict ~ typical simple brunch dish. Nicely poached eggs, and the potatoes were rather tasty with a bit of crispiness.

Huevos rancheros ~ black beans, queso fresco, corn tortilla, sour cream, guacamole, pico de gallo. Great combination of fresh tortilla with a crisp, and topped with a semi runny fried egg. You could tell how fresh the other ingredients were.

Even though everyone was so impressed with their dish, I think I ordered the best one on the menu!
Corned beef hash ~ poached eggs with chive hollandaise. What a gorgeous presentation -it looked like a steak tartare. The potatoes were well seasoned and cooked well (firm yet cooked through). The chunks of meat were tender, salty and had a slight cured taste to it, yet not overpowering. Loved the half poached eggs on top which added creaminess to the meat and potato mixture when you mixed them all up together.

For dessert~ we shared two between us four, both of which were outstanding.

Chocolate and peanut butter truffle with toasted marshmellow ice cream and toffee pretzel. The chocolate block was very rich and decadent. I really enjoyed the salty pretzel sticks.

Profiteroles were filled with vanilla bean ice cream and served with a side of hot fudge. The choux pastry was fresh and airy. I liked that they filled the profiteroles with ice cream instead of the usual pastry cream.

The Penthouse is a great place for a nice brunch. Our waiter was very attentive and really kept the mimosas pouring. The SO and I recently discussed that when we have guests in town, we will definitely take them to The Penthouse for a nice brunch. The $42 mimosa brunch on their regular menu is still a good deal especially with the good food, excellent views and the very constant pours of mimosa. In what turned out to be perfect coincidence, I received an email yesterday from Travelzoo regarding the same brunch special so I purchased another one today!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Scenes from Shanghai ~ a 24h layover

Even though I grew up in Asia and am Chinese by race, I have never travelled to China or even had the desire to visit. It was really through the nudging of the SO that I started to gain more interest in the country - he did a semester abroad in Beijing for law school and really enjoyed his time there. As such, when we booked our Asia flights, we made it a point to plan for a 24h layover in Shanghai. By the way, if you fly into Shanghai (Shanghai only, not Beijing etc), you can enter the country with a visa-on-arrival. Just go to the immigration guy and he will direct you to another window. This is important information as we were getting inconsistent information from the Visa website and airline representative (the latter being wrong!). Of course, always check back on the Visa website before you travel as requirements may change.

Unfortunately our stay in the city was short but thankfully we had some expat friends who just moved to Shanghai and were excited to show us around around time for just one night.

Nanjing Road is a long pedestrian road packed with lots of shops. Some compare it to a mini Times Square because of all the lights and action.

Across the river is a great view of the Pudong, just east of the Huangpu River. I guess you could call it the new city, as opposed to the historical part on the opposite side of the river – In any case, this is a great spot for a photo op.

Yuu Garden is a large garden in the middle of the city, with ponds, rockery, and my personal favorite, the cute little bazaar of narrow corridors that houses shops and food stalls such as the famous soup dumplings/XLB. The quail on a stick caught my eye, unfortunately I wished we hadn’t eaten at Din Tai Fung as I would have preferred to get this type of food instead of dining in a (chain) restaurant.

The next day, we took a walk around the hotel area in the French Concession area.

We stumbled upon a small local restaurant. Actually, it was the only dining place open at 9am, and we were desperate so we decided to give it a shot.

It’s a real small and non-fancy restaurant (Yi Jiayi (伊加伊)) with only locals inside. Thankfully they had English menus for us.

Condiments of chili, sesame oil and soy sauce - my favorite trio in Chinese cuisine.

Spring roll (I was craving them) were large sized, freshly fried and crunchy, and filled with meat and shredded cabbage. I’m such a sucker for good spring rolls & I thought these were pretty fresh.

Char siew pastry was a disappointment. I liked the flakey crust but the pastry needed some seasoning as it was terribly bland. Plus the barbeque pork was rather dry and not moist as I would expect.

Leek dumplings were tiny but there were a lot of them. There was definitely a higher wrapper to stuffing ratio, but I appreciated that the dumpling skin was moist and fairly tender.

Since we were in Shanghai, I had to test their XLB. It was disappointing as the skin was tough. But I didn't want to dwell too much on it as it was still better than not having had any.

Wonton soup with flat noodles was rather tasty. I liked the slippery flat noodles and the tiny wontons with a small ball of minced pork, but the best part was actually the flavorful broth.

This was by far the dish I was most excited and pleased about. Fried intestines! It was so tasty especially since the intestines were chewy (but not rubbery) and had that intense offal flavor and a fattiness to it. I ate the whole plate on my own. The intestines were stir fried with vegetables and a spicy black bean sauce.

This most definitely is considered a good Taiwanese restaurant in town by any means (in fact, I think it might be considered  fast food) but I am glad I got to sample a local joint and got my fill of intestines before we flew back to LA.

Scenes from Laos

The main purpose of our Asia trip was to visit Laos. Since we only took 6 days off from work and was already planning to spend half our trip in Singapore, we could only visit one Lao city. Vientiane is the capital of Laos and was our pick. It's a really laid back city, none of the hoards of motorcycles of HCM City or the upscale touristy beach resorts in Thailand. The prices here were great!

There aren’t much touristy sites in Vientiane- you mainly go there to chill out, relax and soak in a lovely country that is still fairly untouched by tourism and less commercialized than to its neighboring countries.

I recommend that you just walk around the night market, hop on a tuk tuk for a tour around the city or grab some seats at rooftop restaurant/bars such as Bor Pen Nang or Salana Hotel.

We also got a tuk tuk to drive 45 minutes away to floating restaurant on the river. I recommend it if you find that you would like to do and see more apart from the city.

Our hotel in Vientiane was the Salana Boutique Hotel, which I believe is one of the best hotels in the city as it is new and also centrally located just a few blocks from the river.

Now, on to the FOOD! I really enjoyed the breakfast buffet at the Salana, that was inclusive in the room price.

Pork porridge with spicy chili, fried anchovies, pickled radishes. This was my favorite part of the breakfast and some mornings, I had two servings. Love the crunch of the anchovies and the sour/spicy combination of the radishes.

Small selection of dim sum and some western picks including croissants.
They also had made to order eggs, pancakes, waffles and French toast.

After breakfast, we ventured out for more food!

Khop Chai Deu is a a fairly popular place, located in the Inthira Hotel, and has a courtyard and balcony seatingarea.

Mok pa ~ Chicken wrapped in banana leaf, with traditional Lao spice combination of lemongrass, shallots, garlic, fish sauce and fragrant kaffir lime leaves. Very good flavors despite the chicken looking so bland. It was served with a very very spicy sauce but also with cucumber slices to help lessen the heat.

Sticky rice is a popular staple, and was a good pairing for the mok pa.

Grilled liver was served with a very spicy grounded chili mixture - you can see those sneaky chili seeds. The waiter advised us to use it sparingly but even a little bit packed a lot of heat. I really enjoyed the well seasoned, simply grilled liver with the sticky rice and a smattering of chili.

Apart from restaurants, there was also abundant street food. On many streets, you can find vendors grilling up skewers, preparing noodles and local fried river fish.

Grilled gizzards skewers and some cold Beer Lao

Assortment of grilled Lao sausages and fish balls, served with a spicy sauce.

We stumbled upon Full Moon Cafe because it has A/C and I was dying from the sweltering heat and humidity. We ordered a traditional Lao dish - Spicy laarb with vermicelli noodles, ground meat and vegetables. We have been all over Asia but this was by far the spiciest dish we have had in years.

One of our favorite spots (which we went to twice a day) was Ban Lao, a beer garden.

We ordered the spareribs with deep fried spinach hen we were at Ban Lao. Not what I had hoped. I thought it would be deep fried spare riblets but it was actually pan fried.

Even though the SO is very adventurous and loves trying different cuisines, he was dying for some western food so we compromised- Beer Lao battered Fish & Chips from a restaurant called Sticky Fingers (love the name!). I liked the crispy yet fine texture of the breading, which had good seasoning to it too.

Overall, I feel that the Lao cuisine is a blend of flavors from its neighbors Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Vientiane is fairly small so we found ourselves hitting up some of the same restaurants/bar when we were there. Additionally, there is not an obvious restaurant/bar row so essentially, you will have to walk up and down various streets in search of food/drinks. But that's actually a good thing - it only means that Laos is still such a hidden gem.