Wineweek 12: A Letter from Kuala Lumpur

It’s Sunday again and time for Wineweek, the recap of events accompanied by a lot of pictures. Taking pics is probably one of my favorite activities when it comes to the blog. It of course means that I am all the time snapping food/wine photos and some times people find that a bit weird. No worries, I am comfortable with that.

Last week Saturday we flew from Koh Samui to Kuala Lumpur, my former “home” city (I spent a school semester there). It was a short stop because we thought there would not be much there for us. However, we were partly mistaken. It’s always easier to be wise in arrears, but we should have reserved a few more days for going around. Kuala Lumpur has developed immensly in 10 years and there is a growing coffee culture and great food courts.

The two full days we had were spent on walking around and drinking coffee. If we would not be so tight on luggage space KL is a great place for shopping as well. We also bought a bottle of bubbly from Samui airport to have wine one night (KL is not the best place in the world to start looking for wine bars). To our disappointment the Dominique Portet Brut Rose that  we bought had cork damage. Oh the agony! You are just waiting to have that first cold sip of wine, and you realise already when opening the bottle that it has gone bad. That is what we wine-geeks have to live with. After tweeting about the incident though, the producer actually sent us a message suggesting they could replace the bottle if we live in Australia. Unfortunately we don’t, but I really appreciate the gesture. I love when producers respond to posts or tweets and want to be engaged with their customer base. I am very much looking forward to the next opportunit to try out their wines some day.

So what were the highlights of KL:

1# VCR is a cafe on a small side street close to Jalan Bukit Bintang. They had excellent speciality coffees and some delicious looking cakes. When eying what people were having in tables next to us it seemed that they also did some pretty yummy brunch.

2# Three Little Birds Cafe is located in an office complex on Jalan Sentul. It was not easy to find and we were thrown off by everything else being closed due to a holiday (I have no idea which one, it caught us off guard). They do excellent espresso based coffees as well as filer coffees and it is a calm, almost tranquil environment to sit and do some blogging.

3# Acme Bar & Coffee is a restaurant on Jalan Binjai, close to the KL city centre park. What I really like is that Acme is a restaurant with good coffee, not a cafe with good food (you have plenty of those around). We dine out a lot and however nice the restaurant, the coffee often disappoints. Even at three michelin star restaurants the coffee, the last thing you put in your mouth, is just not good enough. I hope Acme will inspire other restaurants to pay more attention to coffee.

4# Food Court at Paragon. This is a massive food court in the upscale Paragon Mall on Jalan Bukit Bintang. I actually used to live next to here, but 10 years ago, Paragon was not there. I was shocked how my former home street looked like. It was like from a different world. If Paragon and its wonderfull selection of food stalls would have been there 10 years ago, I would have been in heaven.

5# Lokl is a cafe located on Jalan Tun. The coffee was a disappointment, mainly because it had sugar in it. It was our own fault though as we ordered local coffees without asking for them not to add anything. I have noticed thay they like things sweet here in South-East Asia. Lokl had some great food though, like a Chicken with rice and herbs and Pulled beef burger. We also had a Profiterole for dessert.

Kuala Lumpur was probably the dryest wine destination of our journey through Asia. Luckily we are now in Singapore which seems to be the best. As with other South-East Asian countries, wine is expensive here (perhaps I should stop complaining about the Monopoly in Sweden). However, we have been able to find some shops, bars and decent bottles at restaurants. My wine-deprivation is starting to withdraw, and I forsee future posts having much more action around the main topic of our blog. So happy coming (wine) week to everyone! Next week we will be starting our posts on Singapore with some London memories and KL reviews to add to the mix. Soon we will also start looking more to the future. Our return flight to Sweden is in a few weeks and we have a bunch of company stuff on the table. It will be a nice change to start writing more about that.

Wineweek 11: Samui Edition

Goodbye Koh Samui, Good morning KL! After a week and a half at the beach, we are happy to be in a big city again. I am not expecting Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia being a muslim country and all, to have much wine action. However we have read about a blooming coffee scene, and I am looking forward to some yummy Malaysian food. This is not my first time in KL. No, our paths have crossed before when I was an exchange student there almost 10 years ago. My time in KL was far from blending in with the local culture. I hung out with other Finnish students, lived in a hotel on the main shopping street and took taxi to school. Don’t get me wrong. If it would (monetarily) have made some sense to go more local, I would have. However our generous subsidies from the school and the Finnish government did not encourage more monetary efficiency. I had a great time (and maybe learned something), that was the main thing!

What about the past week then? Koh Samui has treated us well. We even had some wine: Vallformosa Brut cava at the pool; and a lot of local beer. It took us a few days, and the realisation that we should rent a car to really enjoy the place. However after some exploring, we found many places worth mentioning on this blog. Perhaps most of the restaurants etc will not get their individual posts, but here is a list of the our top 5 on Koh Samui.

#1 Boy’s Organic Coffee: is a small coffee shop in the south of Samui. There is really no other convenient way to get there than by car, but the south road is calm and quite nice to drive. They roast their own beans and do mainly espresso based coffee. It is the best coffee you find on the Island. M would say its very mediocre in the greater context, but man did that latte taste good after a few days break. They also have some nice teas that you can buy in a cute jar.

#2 Art Cafe by June: has two locations: one in Nathon and the other in Bo Phut, where we were living. They focus on “healthy” food: wholegrain bread, brown rice and raw cakes. It was not only reasonably healthy, it also tasted great. They also make wonderful fruit and vegetable juices and shakes. We spent a good amount of hours at this cafe just reading and enjoying some fresh snacks.

#3 The Hut is located in Fisherman’s village. Otherwise very touristy, the Hut is a fresh breeze of original Thai on the shopping street. We were initially lured in by the local menu that did not advertise any European food (I didn’t come here to eat pasta) and later experienced that the food was excellent as well. Its very popular so we had to actually reserve a table several days in advance for the second visit.

#4 I-Talay Nasai Garden & Restaurant is a lovely cafe on the Taling Ngam beach. It is located right on the rather calm beach. They have some tables with shelter from the sun, and you can just sit there, eat snacks and dip in the water in between. We spent 3-4 hours at this place just sitting, reading and snacking. Occasionally we dipped into the water to cool down. The food was decent (you can’t really screw up a fried rice can you) and the fruit shakes were nice and refreshing (but as always in Thailand do mention you do not want added sugar in things unless you wish to have them overly sweet. It was the perfect spot to spend the hottest hours of the day.

#5 Let’s Relax Spa. A visit to Thailand is not complete without some relaxation at the spa. Getting a massage is criminally cheap and my back has been aching for a good rub down. We opted for something, not upscale, but “better” than your average beach Thai massage. Some of the spas on the island are very expensive, but this road side palace had a decent price level. Both of us took a Relax package with a 45 min foot reflexology and a 120min Thai massage. This cost us around 1300 THB (~€40) for almost three hours of of bliss and pain. When it comes to a proper massage, No pain, no gain.

(#6) Wine Connection, not in my top-5 experiences but worth mentioning because this is a wine blog. It is the only proper wine shop (chain) on Samui. In the greater context it is not a great shop (or at least it is not a great shop for me, as it has a thin selection of sparkling) but if you want to buy some wine, then this is your place. Prices seem reasonable and the wine is kept in acceptable conditions and temperature. Wine connection has a few branches of Samui. One on Chaweng beach, and another one in Bo Phut next to the big Tesco. The one on Chaweng apalso has a wine bar, so that might be your place if you want a good glass of wine on your trip.

After nine days at Samui I can conclude that it was worth it sacrificing part of our vacation to hang out on the beach (we are city people). I am not much for vacationing in the same places every year, but now I would know what to do differently if I would come again. My top recommendations are to look for accommodation either in the south or western beaches as they are much calmer than Lamai, Chawaeng and the newly popular Bo Phut, and rent a car. Don’t be daunted by the left-sided traffic, just keep your eyes open and drive slowly. Without a car, you are at the mercy of the ruthless taxi drivers, and that alone can ruin your vacation.

What to expect next week? We will be continuing with some cafe and restaurant posts from Bangkok, wine shop memories from London and of course wine reviews. We also did a beer tasting on what Samuis stores have to offer and will be posting about. The next Wineweek will be written to you from our final stop and the most exciting wine-destination (with at least some decent wine-bars) in South-East Asia, Singapore.

Dinner at Asia’s #1

I must admit I came to the visit at Nahm with high expectations as it, with spot 13, is the highest ranked Asian restaurant on the top 50 restaurants in the world (and consequently also ranked number 1 on the top 50 list for Asia). Perhaps I should have known better as I am not always in agreement with the list makers at the Worlds 50 best restaurants (still cannot get that Dinner is number 5, yes a good restaurant but not really the top class to deserve such a spot).

Nahm is at the entrance floor at the Metropolitan hotel in Bangkok. The building has a distinct 70s feel to it but when walking into to the restaurant it looks very nice as the first thing I saw was the nice seats outside. We were unfortunately not seated there but if we would go again I would make sure to ask for a seat on the terrace up front. The decor inside is nice but also a bit boring, it could basically be an upscale hotel restaurant anywhere in the world. What gives away that it is either Asia or the US is the AC being cranked up so much I wish I brought more clothes. I have never really understood the need to lower temperature to 18 or so when it is 30 outside.

After being seated and handed menus we were asked about drinks. After quickly browsing the wine selection (pretty decent) and price level (as most places in Thailand a bit of a joke, for example a glass of champagne was around €35) so we opted for cocktails instead. The list was fairly extensive but surprisingly not that exciting for me or S. I opted for their twist on a Moscow Mule, a Strawberry Mule with vodka, strawberries, fresh ginger and ginger ale. Very refreshing and not sweet so would fit well with the dishes to come. S selected the ginger martini, also very fresh but they should really work on the presentation as it was just dull.

On to the main reason for the visit: the food. Australian born executive chef David Thompson together with head chef Prin Polsuk heading up this place are doing traditional Thai food with some slight twists. The menu was very extensive and split into six sections as well as a separate dessert menu. It had canapés, salads, soups, relish, curry and stir-fry/steamed/grilled. There is also a tasting menu offered for 2200 THB per person and that features a selection of canapés and a choice of one dish from each section as well as dessert.

Browsing the menu we quickly grasped that it would be a better option to just order what we wanted from the a la carte instead of taking a tasting menu. Trying to discuss the menu with the staff was however nearly pointless as their level of English was just not sufficient. We could not really get any information on how many dishes should be ordered and despite repeating several times that we did not want anything from the relish section it was repeatedly pushed by the staff.

Since we got nowhere with asking we just picked dishes that we thought sounded good and hoped it was not too much. We choose the following dishes:

– Grilled Mango Salad with Pork and Sour Leaves
– Coconut and Chicken Soup with Deep Fried Garlic,
– Green Mango and Chilli
– Wild Mushroom and Ginger Soup
– Duck Curry with Banana Peppers and Shallots
– Grilled Pork Cheek with Smoky Tomato Sauce
– Stir-fried Wagyu Beef with Charred Onions, Oyster Sauce and Thai Basil

We were informed that it would all come approximately at the same time as it is for sharing. We checked if there was an option to not have all at the dishes at once as food will go cold but not an option. I know that it is pretty typical but still prefer getting a few dishes at a time to be able to eat food while it is at least warm. The food did indeed arrive almost all of it at the same time. Only dish that took longer was the Pork Cheeks that arrived around 15 minutes later than everything else. We were served rice by a waiter walking around with a big bowl. That is of course fine but the problem is that the rice tends to need to be refilled and the waiter was not really attentive so often could be without refill of rice for 10 minutes with all the food on the table. Not a big issue but at a restaurant with ambitions that is not really good enough.

If I look at the food, all of it was good but not at all spectacular in any way. The Mango salad was decent but not really anything I would want to order again, pork was very tough to chew as well. The wild mushroom and ginger soup was also a fairly boring dish, did just have some taste of ginger and the mushrooms were barley noticeable. The other soup, coconut and chicken, was however very nice, pleasant roundness and a proper sting of spiciness. It was also good for warming me up in the cold restaurant.

It was at this point also clear that the we had way too much food, 3 or 4 dishes to share between two people would had been enough. Not sure why the staff could not manage to say anything despite asking several times. The Duck Curry had also sounded exciting but it turned out to be a very plain curry with meat that was chewy and not really tasty. The stir-fried beef was very good, nice texture of beef, good balance to the spiciness. My favorite dish was the pork cheeks or rather part of the dish. They were supposed to be grilled but only part of them appeared to be. Some were almost charcoal like while others were barely grilled at all. Lovely taste to the ones that were grilled properly but too poor execution for the full dish to be a success.

The food was in a sense pretty decent but I expect more from a restaurant that is this highly regarded and that charge well above the average Thai prices. Service was also poor, language skills were not good enough and there was a general lack of attention. The restaurant was not nearly full and there were lots of staff wandering around but still very difficult to get service. We ran out of drinks half-way through dinner but did not manage to get the attention of anyone so ended up not ordering any more drinks. When we finished the mains it was almost impossible to get anyone to bring us first the tea menu and to then take orders. It also appeared to come as a total surprise that after eating we want to pay.

Of the ‘fine dining’ restaurants we visited in Bangkok Nahm was clearly the worst. That is not saying that it was bad but I would not return while I would happily return to Issaya Siamese Club and Gaggan. Price for two was still decent, way too much food, cocktails, water and tea ended up with a bill of around 5 000 THB (approximately €130-140).

Lunching at the Club

When planning for our trip to Asia, we did not have much fine dining in mind. However, after looking at the prices for tasting menus at some of Bangkoks hot spots, we changed our mind. An eight (8) course lunch at Issaya Siamese Club set us back only 1500 bath (below €50), so it felt impossible to pass by. After a sweaty walk (45 min in the scorching mid-day heat) we arrived at Issaya Siamese Club. A beautiful green garden surrounding a colonial style Thai villa. Looking at the pictures one could almost think the building is in the middle of the field with no signs of the concrete jungle on the other side of the walls. As we were hot from the long brisk walk, we opted to sit inside. The terrace looked nice as well.

We started of by ordering some cocktails (we are on holiday after all) to cool us down. The list was several pages long with thai influenced drinks. Reading the list made me even more thirsty. I went for the Pandan Cooler with good old ginger and some pandan leaf. It looked great and tasted even greater. They even took the time to make a little origami fish for me to swim around in the glass. How cute is that! For the love of God I cannot remember what M had, but it looked as well as tasted great. I could have went through the whole list, but it was perhaps too early in the day for that. For food, we chose the set menu with 8 dishes to share. It wasn’t the traditional one dish at a time menu, but rather a real Asian meal with food arriving when it was ready, some dishes at the same time, but clearly in three steps: appetisers, main and dessert. In addition we were served a lovely three piece “greeting from the kitchen” (amuse bouche) and some (take-away) marshmallows for an extra dessert. A casual 10 course lunch, nothing out of the ordinary (LOL).

So what kind of food did we have? The amuse bouche was a lovely trio: tuna tartar with Thai spices and chili, a lightly fried and battered shrimp with tamarind and aubergine and chicken with rice omelette. For starters we had banana blossom and palm heart salad with crispy shallots and roasted peanuts, slowly cooked ribs and grilled beef with fresh herbs and vegetables in charred birds eye chili vinegarette. After the starters, we got a small raspberry sorbet to freshen us up and to cleanse the pallate. For mains we were served some lovely lamb shank with massaman curry, volcano chicken (they set the chicken on fire) and tiger prawns with house pepper mix and holy basil. As a side we were served a lovely smoky multigrain rice in hot pot. The dishes made a wonderful combination. Ok at this point I was stuffed with dessert still to come. Luckily goodies go into a separate stomach, and the jasmine pannacotta in pandan leaf was also quite light. I was able to stuff it all in.

The service was really what made the final difference when considering how to rank the restaurants we visited in Bangkok. Perhaps we got some extra attention because the restaurant was not very full that day, but regardless of that we felt very welcome from the minute we walked in. The head waiter took some extra time to chat with us about the food also taking an interest in where we were from and what our preferences were. There was nothing pretentious or overwhelming about the wide smile we encountered every time a dish arrived at our table. If something could be improved in the service it is little things, for example clearing the empty plates briskly after we were done. This felt like the only thing in the way of Issaya getting a Michelin star (can’t comment on the consistency of food though, perhaps I have to visit again). All in all, I very much enjoyed our lunch at Issaya. It was the first ‘real’ restaurant we visited in Bangkok so it has set the expectations for the coming restaurants rather high.

Wineweek 10: Bangkok Edition Vol. 2

Greetings from sunny Koh Samui! Its nice and hot here, feels much warmer than in Bangkok (temprature is actually pretty much the same). I guess it is the humidity in the air that really makes the difference, and it makes me crave for some cold, dry and sparkling even more. It was to be expected, but the selection of wine here on the island is even worse than in the Capital, obviously. However, in such a sauna, beer tastes almost as good. So we have stocked up with some local and local-ish (read: Asian) beer to keep the thirst at bay. I actually prefer to have my beer from cans. Like Coka Cola, it just tastes better from aluminum, or what do you think? But back to Bangkok for a while, the island edition is coming up next week.

We were so overly excited to find a decent wine bar in Bangkok, that we published a review immediately. You can find Ms review on the @494 at the Grand Hyatt here. We were equally offput by a Romanian sparkling wine we bought at the store, that we posted a Wine warning. A Wine warning will be issued when a wine has the look of something drinkable, but majorly disappoints when tasted. Some wines you already know will not be good, like many bag inbox, so you just have yourself to blame if you put it in your mouth. But the devious wines that manage to trick their way into my glass, they are the ones that will get a Wine warning.

What else did we do in Bangkok this week? We went to some very interesting restaurants. We had not planned for much fine dining, but it was much easier to reserve a table in the Bangkok top spots than one could have thought. We picked three interesting restaurants from the Asias To 50 -list (2015): Nahm (#1), Gaggan (#3) and Issaya Siamese Club (#31). The restaurant ranking lists are a bit tricky, and we found ourselves disaggreeing heavily (with the list, not eachother) on which one should come first. We will write some separate reviews on all of them, but I think it is worth mentioning here how we placed our votes.

Ambience:
1. Issaya Siamese Club
2. Gaggan
3. Nahm

Food:
1. Issaya Siamese Club/ Gaggan (50/50 vote)
3. Nahm

Service:
1. Issaya Siamese Club
2. Gaggan
3. Nahm

Issaya Siamese Club was a beautiful, unique and very customer oriented restaurant that was very strong in quality produce and talented cooking. The only minus could be that it was hard to find, but perhaps we can only blame ourselves trying to be very Scandinavian and walk there (google maps really let us down). Gaggan is a restaurant doing Indian fusion (or progressive Indian as they call it), a style of food that has failed me many times. With a chef who used to work at the famous El Bulli’s food lab they do a bit of hokus pocus but still with focus on flavors and that it should taste good. There is an Indian twist, but not too forceful to take the focus off the culinary experience. This is very hard to achieve, so thats why M and I disaggreed on the first spot for food in our ranking. Nahm was good, but nothing that stood out from a good hotel restaurant anywhere in the world. Service in general lacks behind Europe and the US, but perhaps it is also how we want to be served compared to what the local culture considers valuable.

As I mentioned before, the lack of wine would perhaps be compensated by some refreshing cocktails. In general, I must say I was a bit disappointed at many bars we looked at. Even the Speakeasy on the rooftop of our hotel, The Muse, that was supposed to be one of the best in town was very average. I guess they ranked it based on the view. Cocktail list consist mainly of Mojitos, Martinis and the occasional Sex on the beach. This is what I can get at the local pub, equally boring and poorly made. I guess I was hoping for some nice fruity Daiqiris and a lot of stuff with lemongrass and ginger. But the three restaurants mentioned above did not disappoint in this area either. Gaggan had several pages of drinks under the title Mixology (yes a lot of smoke and dry ice) and Issaya walked the extra mile in both fresh ingredients and look of the cocktails. So we cast aside the wine lists and had some coctails together with our food. I am not a huge fan of the concept, but especially with some spicy Thai cuisine, a fresh cocktail works better than many wines.

Thats it for Wineweek 10. Next week will bring some more beach to the picture with posts from Samui. You can also expect more on street food, reviews from London (to keep up the focus on wine) and Ms coffee reviews. Btw. Did you know that coffee has around 1500 different tastes as opposed to wine having only 200. That my friends is why coffee deserves its own reviews. It is such an interesting subject that we have taken it as permanent part of our blog.