Something for my Christmas list

The last remaining bottle of the world's most expensive whisky is going up for auction tomorrow in LA. Glenfiddich made only fifteen bottles of the "Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve" from a cask that went into the barrel in 1955. (Janet Sheed Roberts was the oldest living person in Scotland and the granddaughter of the distillery's founder.) They apparently went into glass in 2010, so the whisky is considered 55 years old. One of the bottles from this set went for $94,000. According to the Glenfiddich malt master (how do I become a malt master?), the bottling is "incredibly elegant". Here are some other tasting notes.

The bottle itself is special too, "Each of the beautiful hand blown bottles has 24ct Gold adorning its neck and front. The stopper which consists of an aquamarine Cloisonné medallion monogrammed in gold with Mrs Roberts initials was made by Thomas Fattorini's." [From Glasstorm.com]

Yes please!

Glenfiddich Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve, 55 year old whisky

[Via "This Is The World's Most Expensive Whisky" from NPR]

World's Best Paper Plates: Wasara

Once again, Michelle has found (for us anyway) another gorgeous, beautifully designed product. This time, it's Wasara paper tableware. These drop-dead stunning plates, bowls, and cups are designed by a Japanese company and made from sustainable, biodegradable products -- bamboo, reed pulp, and sugar processing by-product. Some of the items have thoughtful design touches to help you carry the items one-handed -- a nice touch for a paper plate. Even the packaging is beautiful.

They're not cheap ($12 for 8 plates vs. $4 for 36 Chinet paper plates - 13.5x more - Amazon has them in bulk for a little less), but when you want or need to use more elegant disposable tableware, Wasara looks perfect. (Even though they are made in China, we can't buy them here. Oh well.)

Wasara

A stack of Wasara paper plates

Wasara cups, bowls and plates

Wasara packaging

World's Best Vacation Ever: Pulau Pangkil Kecil

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Back in March as part of our trip to Singapore, we spent a few days with some friends on a private island in Indonesia. (Yes, I realize I'm more than a little late with this post.) It was probably the best vacation we ever took.

The island is called Pulau Pangkil Kecil; it's a tiny island about a half mile long near Singapore. It's owned by a wealthy guy in Hong Kong who has done a fantastic job building out the island, outfitting it with rustic but luxurious driftwood buildings and training a very attentive and professional staff. The island is available for vacation rentals where you basically get the whole island to yourself and your family/friends. There are enough bungalows for forty people to comfortably stay on the island; it was especially roomy with just seven of us plus the staff on the island.

The island has electricity and water but no real internet access and barely even mobile phone coverage; it was kind of a treat, really, to not be connected for a few days. We spent the time playing the tidepools, swimming in the lovely pool, snorkeling, kayaking, sailing, reading, napping, playing board games, and getting massages (at our request, they brought a masseuse to the island who stayed the whole time and was basically on call for us.) Oh, and of course, we ate. Well. A lot. The cook was fantastic, preparing amazingly great Indonesian and Malaysian food -- curries, seafood, and other treats.

Another treat was stargazing; since the other islands nearby had very little or no people, there was virtually no light pollution. We could see zillions of stars; we even saw the Milky Way quite clearly. I'm pretty sure it was the first time the kids had ever seen the Milky Way.

I can't recommend this place enough and am dying to go back.

Michael (9) in front of the main building. This is where we ate and hung out a lot.
Michael standing in front of a two story thatched roof building with open sides.

The inside of the main building. You can see the open bar and coolers on the left and bunch of tiny, amazingly delicious bananas hanging in the middle. The "floor" of the building is all white sand.
Interior of the main building

This is the biggest of the bungalows. It's the only one with the bathroom inside; the others have a nice bathroom next to the house.
Big bungalow, up on stilts.

Here's a shot of the inside of the bungalow. Tropical/rustic but comfy and clean. The mosquito netting was necessary. Bugs were maybe the only bad thing about the island.
Shot of the inside of the bungalow. Big mosquito netting tent over the bed.

At night they built huge bonfires on the beach for us. We roasted the marshmallows we brought over them. You can see the kids sitting near the fire (they're about as close as they could get -- it was a big fire.)
Kids sitting near the huge fire on the beach.

Here's Andrew (12) near their iconic tent/table on the beach.
IMG_2018  

On the other end of the island they have  beautiful freshwater swimming pool, tucked behind the rocks. You walk through a passage in the rocks to get to the pool.
Passageway under two huge boulders. 

Gorgeous swimming pool.

They also arranged fishing trips for us. We used hand reels to catch reef fish for dinner.
Andrew with a catch. 

Occasionally, a local family would paddle by the island.
Traditional Indonesian row boat with two people

The staff was lovely, super attentive, and all-around awesome!
Seven lovely staff ladies in red polos and khaki shorts

Here's the sad view as we left the island. This boat took us back to a bigger Indonesian island. We then took a 30 minute bus ride (nice air conditioned private coach) across that island to a larger ferry back to Singapore. All told it takes about two hours to get to the island from Singapore.
Big launch near the beach.

World's Best Ramen: Ramen Jirou

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While I was in Tokyo this week, my colleague, friend, and ramen fiend K1 (his name is actually Keiichiro, but since ichiro means one in Japanese, he goes by "K1") took a few of us to his absolute favorite ramen place -- Ramen Jirou.

As it turns out, this shop has a cult-like following among the Japanese. Ramen Jirou is completely different from other ramen places I've been like Ippudo or Kyushu Jangara (some purists don't even consider it to be ramen.) People have compared the place to the restaurant of "Soup Nazi" fame. To begin with, the branch we went to kind of dirty, more like something I'd expect in Beijing, not Tokyo.

There's nothing to order besides ramen -- no gyoza and if you want something to drink besides water, you can buy it from the machine outside. There are only a few seats, and often a half-hour line. You sit when a seat opens up -- no waiting for enough room for your party.

There's only one basic menu choice -- a super-rich pork-based soup with thick and dense noodles (vs. the thin ramen noodles or lighter udon noodels), a few slices of pork, and a pile of cabbage and bean spouts mounded on top. It has none of the classic ramen toppings, no egg, no menma (pickled bamboo shoots), no cod roe. It's not a really visually attractive bowl frankly -- kind of monochromatic and slopped in vs. the carefully composed look of most Japanese food. The only choices are whether you want a big or small bowl with extra meat or not. You buy a chit from a machine that specifies your preference. I ordered a small bowl with a normal amount of noodles and meat. It was 600 yen, a little over USD$6.00.

When the chef hands you the bowl, you specify whether you want garlic, vegetables, more pork fat, and additional soy sauce (K1 says it's too salty with additional soy sauce). You have to order in a specific way, like ordering a latte at Starbucks, or you will be met with derision. (I had to memorize the order in Japanese before I sat down; naturally I had it with everything except the additional soy sauce. You say "yasai, niniku, abura" for "vegetable, garlic, fat") Once the bowl arrives, you eat silently, seemingly as fast as you can. Once complete, you put the bowl on the upper counter, wipe off the counter, and leave quickly.

OMG -- it was fantastic and unlike anything I had ever had. The soup was amazingly rich and tasty with blobs of pork fat suspended in the soup. The noodles were dense and chewy, the meat tender, and the veggies added enough crunch and variety to balance the thing out. A few shakes of white pepper kicked it up even a little more. I slurped up my bowl in a few minutes with a huge grin on my face. There's nothing subtle about it. Just pure porky goodness.

K1 has described the various stages of Ramen Jirou addiction. Early on, other ramens taste wimpy. Apparently at the last stage (the one he's in), you can't think of anything else. He dreams of Jirou incessantly and goes there first whenever he lands in Japan. It's not just K1. There are a lot of write-ups on Ramen Jirou including an NPR story, a CNN article, a Guardian UK article declaring it one of the 50 best things to eat in the world, and more.

I'm fast on my way toward Ramen Jirou addition too.

Some pix:

The line outside Ramen Jirou. All of the official branches have this yellow awning sign.
The line outside Ramen Jirou (the yellow sign).

The scene inside as I look longingly from outside. There are a few few seats at the L-shaped counter and two people working inside.
 Patrons seated at the counter.

This is the machine you order from. The row on top are the small bowls, the lower row is the large bowl. The choice on the right is extra meat.
Vending machine where you order Ramen Jirou.

The master at work. He kind of just slops everything into the bowls. You can see the sliced pork at the bottom.
Ramen Jirou master preparing bowls of love.

The bowl of happiness. It doesn't look like much, but damn, it's good.
Ramen Jirou bowl.

Garagiste Great Producers Tasting

Our friend Kellie invited Michelle and me to an incredible wine tasting event - the Garagiste Great Producers Tasting. Garagiste is a small company who sources interesting wines from around the world and then sells them via their mailing list. This tasting event was held in their warehouse in Seattle; definitely nothing fancy. But, for $175, they poured dozens of amazing bottles of wine for the 40-50 people who attended; they maybe had one bottle of each wine, so not everyone got to try everything, and we really got just a taste of each. However, I've never had so many old and (in many cases) rare wines.

 The table full of the bottles we tried.

The theme of the evening (revealed at the end of the night) was "Is it worth it?" In the tastings (some blind) they laid out comparable wines from different areas, producers, or eras. I admit my taste buds are simply not tuned enough to discern what was so great about many of the old wines; the bouquet was often lovely and I loved the brownish color of the old wines, but the flavor was often disappointing to me. Still, I loved the opportunity to learn about the wines (Jon Rimmerman, the owner, presented detailed backstory on the wines and delivered the talks with obvious passion).

Jon Rimmerman pouring wine at the 2009 Garagiste Grand Producers Tasting

The browish color of old wine.

My favorite of the evening was a 1978 Chateau Montelena Cab from Sonoma. Absolutely delicious. Some of the other notables in the line-up were 1947 Bourdy Cotes du Jura, 1989 Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay (the Australian white that stunned and outraged everyone in blind competition in France), 1966 Grands Echezeaux, a pair of 1942 Spanish wines - Bosconia and Tondonia (interesting how they had to scrounge for bottles during the war), 1982 Sassicaia from Italy (yum), 1982 Yarra Yering (the wine that helped really put Australia on the wine map), a pair of Celestins Chateauneuf-du-Pape (contrasting different styles of Chateauneuf from different eras - 1978 vs. 1998), and an amazing '94 Dunnhoff Auslese. Oh, he also poured some DRC, Screaming Eagle (pretty universally panned that night), and Chateau Lafite.

1978 Chateau Montelena wine bottle next to a 1983 St. Emilion.

I think if I knew more about wine (especially old wine) I would have been even more impressed; I didn't get to ooh or ah with everyone else when the wines were announced. Once we move back to Seattle, I'll undoubtedly sign up for the mailing list. The write-ups are fascinating and educational; I just can't handle more email that I can't act on right now though.

Three old wine bottles: 1947 Bourdy, 1942 Bosconia, and 1942 Tondonia.

It was a great experience. I'm definitely inspired to learn more now.

(For the record, my answer to the question "are they worth it" is no. The stories and history were fascinating, but none of the bottles were worth hundreds or thousands of dollars to me.)

World's Best Caramel

I don't really have much of a sweet tooth, which surprises some people since I love pretty much all other kinds of food. It's pretty much the one class of food to which I can say "no".  I like sweets, but I just strongly prefer salty stuff. So, it should come as no surprise, then, that my favorite confection in the world is Fran's Gray Salt Caramels.

Fran's Gray Salt Caramel

Fran's is a Seattle-based chocolatier who makes a luscious caramel, robes it in rich chocolate, and the sprinkles a few grains of gray salt on top. The salt really brings out the yumminess (sorry for the technical term) in the caramel and provides a nice balance to the sweetness. They also make an equally great smoked salt caramel.

These little morsels of love are one of the few things we've had friends bring to us from Seattle to China; pretty much everything else we've been able to find here or live without. Michael (8) is especially fond the "salties", as he calls them.

If you can't wait to try them (and really shouldn't be waiting) and you don't happen to live in Seattle, you can order online right now. Too bad they don't deliver to China...

The World's Best Dan Ta (Egg Tarts)

This is a long overdue post. Last month, just before we moved, I was in Hong Kong for an offsite. Since I had arrived early from the US, I followed up on a tip from a foodie buddy, Meng, who said I just HAD TO go try the dan ta at Tai Cheong Bakery (the website is much more fancy than the bakery). This hole-in-the-wall bakery is famous for these sweet desserts - thick egg custard in a pastry pie crust. Chris Patten, the former British Governor of Hong Kong, was apparently a big fan of the place.

So I trekked up the Central-Mid-Level escalators and looked around for the place. (As an aside, why do they have the escalators going down but not up in the morning? I don't care if there are more people going down. The damn hill is steep!) Although I was completely unable to follow a map that morning, I eventually found Tai Cheong and ventured in.

Tai Cheong Bakery storefront

I bought the last two dan ta and some sugar puffs (blobby donuts covered in sugar). They were all still warm and fresh smelling. I took the bag and ate the goodies right on the street, across from the bakery.

OMFG, I had never had anything like these dan ta. The crust was tasty and flaky (apparently they use lard -- further evidence that pigs are proof of a kind and loving God) and the custard was rich, eggy, and densely flavorful. (My mouth is watering again as I write this six weeks later).

Yummy Tai Cheong dan ta (egg tart)

After I scarfed these two tarts down, I ate the sugar puff; this might have been even better than the dan ta. It was kind of like a warm brioche covered in sugar. If I hadn't bought the last two tarts, I might have gone back in for more. These were heaven on earth. What's more, they were cheap. I love Hong Kong. If you are in HK, be sure to go.

Tai Cheong Bakery
35, Lyndhurst Terrace
Central, Hong Kong
Tel: (+852) 2544 3475

Other info:

  • In Cantonese, they say "daan taat" instead of the Mandarin "dan ta".
  • The Tai Cheong website
  • A nice write-up
  • Ignore articles you find on the web saying the bakery is closed. They apparently did or almost did, but they're still around. I almost didn't go thinking the place was closed.

The World's Best Bacon (or The Bacon of Bacons)

Bacon and eggs
Regular readers know that I have a special part of my heart (and my waistline) reserved for bacon. I've written about the world's best way to cook bacon, linked to bacon humor, and even had my son aspire to bacon art.

However, I haven't written much about great bacons yet. My friend Chooky describes the best of something as "the bacon of xxx" (like his posts on the "bacon of yogurt" or the "bacon of pens".) This lead me to wonder what the "bacon of bacon" is.

Since I seem to inhale any bacon in front me too quickly for a thoughtful taste test, I turned to Cooks Illustrated, my favorite food magazine ever. They're the Consumer Reports of food. They'll test a hundred variations of a recipe to get it right; they also compare brands of foods and tools and give you the low-down. Their stuff is almost always gold. (They're also known as America's Test Kitchen on TV and in some cookbooks.)

Cooks Illustrated did two taste tests for bacons, one for supermarket brands and another for premium brands. (Note, CI requires a subscription to get to this content; they have a free 14-day trial offer though.) The winner of the supermarket brand is Farmland Hickory Smoked Bacon, topping stalwart brands like Boar's Head, Hormel Black Label (which I had yesterday morning and thought was lovely), Armour, and Oscar Mayer. Tasters described it as "meaty", "full-flavored", and "crispy, yet hearty".

On the premium side, Niman Ranch Dry Cured Center Cut Bacon won the day (I mentioned Niman Ranch in my post on cooking bacon.) Here's their description:

Niman Ranch Dry Cured Center Cut Bacon Oakland, California $8 for 12 ounces Tasters found this bacon hearty, rich, balanced, and smoky. One taster said, "Yum . . . what bacon should be."

This is our "house bacon" whenever we can swing by Trader Joes.

One note for the organic, free-range, no-preservative crowd: CI observed in their reviews that nitrate-free bacons did not fare well. Turns out that people are used to the color and taste of nitrate in their bacon, so it doesn't taste right when the nitrates aren't there. This is consistent with a taste test we did between corned beefs a few St. Patricks' Days ago. We ordered a nitrate-free corned beef that was excellent except that everyone liked the regular supermarket one better. The nitrate-free corned beef was grey instead of the familiar red and missing the tang that we've come to associate with corned beef.

CI also noted that there is a visible variation in meat-to-fat ratio between different packages of bacon. This seems obvious since bacon is a natural product (well, it starts off natural anyway and then becomes ethereal). It's worth a few extra seconds in the store to pick your package of bacon carefully, just like you would pick out good apples.

So, go give these brands a whirl and let me know what you think. Of course, as CI notes, "Bad bacon is something of an oxymoron."

World's Best Apple Cider

Every week when I pick up our share from The Root Connection, I stop by Minea Farms across the street for some the best apple cider I've ever had. Minea uses a 100 year old cider press to make both single variety and blended ciders. Unlike most store-bought cider, Minea's actually taste like apples rather than sugary brown water; what's more, each variety of cider tastes different, as it should. I love them all, but I especially prefer the sweeter ones like Gala and Fuji over the tarter varieties like Granny Smith. Each week they have a few different types and offer tastings so you can decide which to choose from. (Michael (7) likes the cherry-apple cider blend.)

This time of year is especially good since they are pressing recently harvested apples; earlier in the year, they sell cider frozen the previous autumn (still super damn good). In addition to cider, they have apple butter, veggies, apples, fruit leather, and other farm products, but the big draw is the cider.

Their usual hours are Wed-Sun 11am - 5pm. They're located at 13404 Woodinville-Redmond Road. Here's the sign from the road:

 Minea Farms sign

If you haven't had fresh apple cider before, you're in for a treat. If you have, well, you know what you're missing. Either way, get off your butt and go get some...

(OK, as usual, I have no idea if this really is the world's best anything, but it's pretty damn good cider.)

World's Best Potato Chips

Tayto CripsI love potato chips. They're like the veggie brother of bacon. I almost went to MIT instead of Stanford because I fell in love with Cape Cod Chips when I visited Boston. Really. (Thank goodness I didn't since by senior year, we could get Cape Cod Chips in Palo Alto. I got to be in shorts in February and eat yummy chips. Top that, MIT!)

I've eaten potato chips around the world and loved almost all of them, but the very best chip (or should I say crisp?) in the world are Cheese and Onion Tatyo Crisps from Ireland. These are the most popular crisps in Ireland (the dark horse is Kings, made by the same company and very good, but just not world class.)

I typically shy away from flavored chips, but these don't hit you over the head. They're thin and crispy like Lays (vs. the heavier crunch of Cape Cod or Tim's). Simply heavenly with a pint of Guinness.

They have a "smokey bacon" flavored chip too which I have not yet tried; those might actually be the best chip in the world...

For years, I've relied on friends traveling to Ireland to feed my need (thanks to Fergal to bringing me back a few bags recently to remind me of the old country). However, I just discovered that you can mail order Taytos from Ireland to the US. Of course, they're not cheap. US$20.59 for twenty snack-sized bags plus $31.88 shipping to Seattle (ten day service).

This is an affordable luxury and a small price to pay for such delight.