Monday, August 30, 2010

Bali High - A Honeymoon Worthy Hotel (Part II), The Samaya Seminyak

After we left the tropical lushness that is Ubud, we were finally ready to make our way to Bali's popular beachy southwest coast. There are a range of areas to choose from and depending on what you are looking for you can be in a rollicking surfer's paradise or an serene and upscale beachside experience and everything in between. We decided on the serene and upscale version (again, we were in pseudo-honeymoon mode).

All I can say is that when the taxi dropped us off, I knew that we were in a different kind of hotel. Before we even got out of the car, our bags were in the lobby. It was really the beginning of much of the great service that we would receive at the Samaya in Seminyak, an area known for its more upscale atmosphere, shopping and restaurants.

It was surprisingly hard to find a beach front hotel in Bali. Many hotels and private villas for rent are across the street from the beach or a few blocks away. Husband J and I decided that being beachfront was a priority (an over 24 hour trip..heck yeah, it was a priority). I had read wonderful things about the Samaya, and the high expectations for it were met, if not exceeded, in almost every category that I can think of.

There are a few things you should know about the Samaya. One thing important thing to know is that it is actually split in two. There is one portion of the resort that has the one and two bedroom Royal Pavilion villas with spas and a pool and the one bedroom garden villas with plunge pools. There is another section of the resort across the road less than two minutes away by golf cart (I took the golf cart and it really was two minutes; maybe three minutes if you need to wait for some traffic to pass). These are the Royal Courtyard villas which are much newer and bigger. The pools and amenities in these rooms are apparently fabulous: flat screen TVs in the bathroom (nice) and huge personal pools are what you will find here. Husband J and I went for the garden pool villas since we knew ahead of time that were were going to be spending a lot of time pool and beachside. That being said I think we would have enjoyed our rooms regardless of our choice.

So here's a tour of our room a garden pool villa.

The entrance

Opposite side from the door to our room was the plunge pool.

The bed. Super comfortable

The lounge area of our room during our check-in. Check out the frangipani leis.

They left us a special treat, an delicious chocolate cake.

Our spacious bathroom

I love what they did to the bathtub. Thanks for the welcome, Samaya!

The common areas were lovely too.

The beach-side lounge

Husband J and I spent a lot of time here on the lounge chairs beach-side.

The Samaya's beach-side restaurant, the Breeze

We spent a lot of time looking at this:

The waves on Bali's southwest coast are huge and much bigger than anything that I have ever seen in the Caribbean or other beach areas I've been. It's a good area to surf; and if you don't mind the large waves, the beach can be fun.

So here's a run down of my thoughts on the Samaya. I'll do it in pros and cons as before.

Service - The staff is extremely friendly and seem to just do little things that really can make your stay wonderful. They knew our names (never really experienced that before ) and reminded us about our spa appointment. Wow! Okay, thanks. :) Since we spent a lot of time by the beach, the staff there brought us fresh fruit, water (which was always refilled) and helped us with our towels. I could go on about how much the staff does here.

Spa - If you are wondering about the spa, book it. I had two treatments here: one with Husband J as part of the Samaya's Honeymoon Package, the Ritual of Royalty Treatment (a foot wash, massage, and body wrap) and a hot stone massage. Our couple's treatment was in this room with a 180 degree view of the beach. Hearing the crashing waves was so soothing. Many spas pipe in sounds of crashing waves, but this was the real thing! The treatment room was a huge, modern room with its own shower, restroom and changing room. The treatment was amazing, especially the massage. My hot stone massage, while not cheap by Bali standards, was waaaay less than I would pay in the US and was also excellent. It actually cost much less than the spa at the Komaneka Bisma, the hotel we stayed in in Ubud.

Food - The food here is great! As I've mentioned before, t
he breakfasts are huge and out of this world. The food at the Samaya was some of the best I ate in Bali. It was definitely gourmet level. The bartenders were also great, and I got the best cocktails I had in Bali here.


Rooms - This is really a half con and not a full one. :) As you can see above, we stayed in the Garden Pool Villa. The plunge pool was nice to have, although we didn't use it as much as we could have. We were too mesmerized by the view of the beach at the main restaurant/pool area. While the room was nice, I think it could use some updating. Things did look a tad worn and ready for a replacement. I do know that the Samaya is planning renovations for those villas later this year, so perhaps if you're planning a trip there next year, you 'll get to see the finished product. That being said, I still think the garden pool villas rooms are still of a very high standard and have all the conveniences you would want.

Yes, you can pay less in Bali, but if you have a chance to treat yourself, I would highly recommend the Samaya.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Food Porn: Soup Dumpling Battle Royale

Remember Roo Mi? Well, she's always having some culinary adventure somewhere and often invites me along. A Chinatown galavant a few weeks ago was no exception. She and other friends of hers, KK (who I went to high school with and reconnected with through Roo Mi. Small world!) and KK's friend, My My (also from my high school!), decided to do an afternoon-long tasting of soup dumplings (aka Xiaolongbao, baozi or steamed buns ) in Chinatown. There are Shanghai style dumplings, which I believe are the ones that we tried that day (Roo Mi, if you're reading, correct me if I am wrong).

Always up for anything I accepted the challenge. I've never had soup dumplings before, so I sat back and allowed myself to be schooled by the experts. I feel like I have been learning more and more about Chinatown this summer. I'm happy about that because I've always wanted to go there more but never really knew where to go.

The Challenge: Three restaurants known for their soup dumplings...who would come out on top?

Before I start with the pictures, I should say that soup dumplings (or buns if you want to call them that) are made with raised flour and traditionally contain pork (or pork and crab; seafood and vegetables are common too) steamed resulting in a pretty translucent skin served on a bed of Napa cabbage. The "soup" part comes from the fact that a solid meat gelatin is wrapped inside the dumpling along with the meat. When the dumpling is steamed, the heat melts the gelatin into a soup mixture. You'll see below.

First stop: Shanghai Cafe.

Here are the pretty, pretty soup dumplings.

I had no idea how to eat the soup dumplings, so I followed everyone else. They broke a hole in the dumpling and poured some plum sauce (or I think it was plum sauce.. maybe it was a different kind of soy sauce?) into the hole they made.

Here's what the meat looks like inside.

For my first soup dumpling, I was pretty impressed. The pork was seasoned well and was soft and juicy. The broth was not overly salty and produced a flavor that you could tell had come from mingling with the pork. Not a bad start at all.

We ordered water spinach (a) to make us feel like we were actually eating something healthy; and (b) because the restaurant had a minimum per person, which I didn't realize Chinatown restaurants had. I guess when everything is so affordable, then it makes sense? Dunno..

We moved over to Shanghai Cuisine on Bayard Street. Much more touristy than Shanghai Cafe, which might explain why I think we didn't like their soup dumplings as much. Thicker skin, thicker soup broth...meh...Also my dining compatriots noticed no Napa cabbage on the bottom of the bamboo steamer basket. To them, that was a major FAIL. Many of these dumplings came to the table already opened. Uh, no...that defeats the purpose, yes?

We ordered some other stuff to make our minimum.

Scallion Pancakes

These were by far the THICKEST scallion pancakes I have ever tasted. They should have just called it scallion bread. Not kidding. It was like having a rock in your stomach.
Look how thick that is!

We did order this pretty cool cucumber salad with sesame oil and garlic. Simple, tasty, palate-cleansing and delicious. This was definitely the nice surprise of this stop on our tour.

Final stop: Joe's Shanghai. This is by far the most well-known of all of the restaurants we visited that day. It was a definite mix of tourists, locals in the know and those looking for a taste of their homeland. Could it measure up?

I would say that it was a very close in taste to Shanghai Cafe. My Blackberry was close to dead at this point; and, in my haste to try to be on time (which I should not have done 'cause my dining companions ran into subway trouble...LOL), I forgot my camera. Bad blogger....I was in the early stages of food coma anyway.

I did want to let you see how the broth inside the dumplings actually looks on a spoon.

By the way, the grand total for the Battle Royale (all three restaurants + sides): $21 each INCLUDING tip. Love you, Chinatown!

The Winner of the Soup Dumpling Battle Royale: Shanghai Cafe! At least I think so. :)

At this point, we were all bursting at the seams. I didn't think my stomach could hold much more. Roo Mi barely seemed fazed. We actually stopped at a cool ice cream shop, and Roo Mi and KK got some lychee ice cream and red bean ice cream, respectively. I could not get one for myself but made sure to sample some of theirs :) (Did you think I wouldn't?) Soo good. I'm going back there for sure.

If you'd like to hear a much better wrap up of our day, Roo Mi has a brand spanking new blog, and she wrote a great post on our gut-busting afternoon. I want her to do a guest post here, but she keeps giving me the stank eye. :(

Happy Weekend!!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

In My 'Hood - Linger Cafe

Do you have a local cafe, restaurant or bar in your neighborhood or town that you know that you should patronize more often but don't?

I've got one, and it's called Linger Cafe.

Linger Cafe Interior

Cool ceiling, huh?

This place is so ridiculously close to me and quite good that it's a shame that the most I've ever been there has been the past few weeks. I should be so happy that this stretch of super busy Atlantic Avenue even has a cafe that serves good food, BEER & WINE, and has free w-fi. Hello!! Isn't that like the perfect cafe trifecta? Being out of work lately has made me just want to stay on my balcony rather than leave home and spend money. Perhaps the heat has made me lazy? Either way, I got off my butt the other day and went to Linger.

I've been wanting to spend more time outside this summer (Yes, I like the heat. I was born in a warm country.); and, while I am thankful for it, instead of occasionally baking on my super hot, uncovered balcony, I could have been here instead:

You're not getting this at Starbucks.

Bad move on my part for sleeping on Linger's quiet (and completely covered by trees) garden area.

I could have also been eating great salads and pastries. The pastries are baked on premises. I know that's true because I've seen them coming out of the oven. On one of my latest visits I had:

Kale & Quinoa Salad

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know that I am obsessed with quinoa this summer. It was a fresh and super healthy salad. Kale is a superfood if you didn't know that already. I thought there would be be more quinoa but was glad there was more kale. The raisins were a nice touch and added some sweetness to the dish resulting in pretty good balance of tart and sweet.

But I couldn't keep my visit totally healthy....

Apple & Butterscotch Scone

I ate the scone way too quickly and seriously thought about another one. I've never heard of apple and butterscotch anything, but I'm telling you it works. It was a damn good scone.

As I mentioned before, Linger serves brunch, a collection of local wines and beers and even some savory, small plates in addition to the usual cafe pastries. There's also live music during the evenings and weekends. Husband J and I caught a group playing Spanish music for free. Between a couple of glasses of wine and some guys who sounded just like the Gypsy Kings, it was a nice night out for a fraction of going into Manhattan or leaving the neighborhood.

I'm actually pretty happy to have something like Linger on this stretch of Atlantic Avenue, which has seen a major rebirth this year. Sadly, other parts of Atlantic Avenue are not faring so well. I'm hoping to patronize Linger Cafe more to support a local small business that is so close by.

Are there any small restaurants, cafes, or food businesses in your area that you go to often? What do you like best about them?

Linger Cafe
533 Atlantic Avenue

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bali High - Art in Ubud

As I have mentioned countless times, Ubud is considered Bali's artistic nerve center. I love taking in local art and museums when I travel, so I was thrilled to take in Bali's cultural offerings. Imagine beautiful art in magical tropical surroundings, and you've got a sense of what Ubud is like. Walking down the streets of Ubud, there is no lack of art galleries and craft shops to stop in and browse. Whether it's stone or wood carvings, paintings, sculpture or jewelry, there is at least a day's worth of art to see.

Ubud is actually home to the Neka Art Museum, considered the best museum in Bali (not to be confused with the Neka Gallery on Jalan Raya Ubud (Ubud Main Street)). The Neka Museum is a short drive outside of the main streets of central Ubud to Campuhan. The museum exhibits both traditional and contemporary art representing everything from well-known Hindu themes to scenes of modern Balinese life.

The Neka Museum was actually our first stop anywhere in Ubud. After being scared of some major pouring rain when we arrived night before and all the following morning and praying that this wasn't going to be the weather for our trip, this was a nice indoor hang out option until the sun came out and was already on my list of "must dos" while in Ubud.

This is just the lobby

The museum itself was beautiful, never mind the artwork. Here's Husband J taking a look at this stunning doorway.

The museum consists of six or so free-standing buildings containing different periods, styles or themes in Balinese art history.

Here are some of most intriguing pieces from the museum (at least to me anyway):

A close-up of the painting above. This is oil + acrylic on canvas

One of my favorite sculptures in the museum. Each finger represents a different aspect of human nature. For example, the thumb is a mother which signifies nurturing. The middle finger is someone with a full stomach representing the human tendency to be gluttonous. Fascinating, huh?

While walking through the museum, we started to hear some happy, light xylophone-like music. When we came into the central courtyard area linking all of the individual rooms of the museum together, we noticed a man playing what the Balinese call a rindik. He was nice enough to give me a quick lesson. First of all it's WAY harder than it looks and required MUCH more concentration that I thought it would, but I ended up playing a song with him afterall. Lots of fun!

In Ubud it's not only fun to take in some of the visual arts but also to see live cultural performances. There are traditional Balinese music dance shows almost every night. Don't worry about trying to find out about one; they'll find you. There are folks on the street hawking tickets to shows right in central Ubud. While we were there there were shows on the main temple on Monkey Forest Road, but we ended up seeing a show in Pura Sarswati.

That night, we were lucky to see a local all-women's music and dance troupe.

Rock on, ladies!!

Having danced myself for some time in the past, I've always been a fan of seeing different dance forms. Balinese dance does not have a lot of flourishes and large movements. It's much more subtle and much of the drama and conveying emotion comes through small and subtle eye and head gestures.

One of the women performing a welcome dance

A dance to glorify the bravery and strength of the Balinese soldier

When planning our trip to Bali, I knew that I wanted to explore as much of the culture of the island that I could. Ubud offered all of that and more.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Adopt a Block - Van Brunt & Dikeman Streets in Red Hook

So in NYC, restaurants often spring up next to each other. A restaurant or bakery begats another one, and so it goes. With that in mind, I thought I would highlight various blocks around NYC that have great little restaurants and food spots that have made their own little restaurant row wherever they may be. Welcome to the "Adopt a Block" series!

This week's block:

The corner of Van Brunt Street and Dikeman Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

I was lucky to get to visit Baked and Fort Defiance, which are right across the street from each other on Van Brunt Street. I don't really ever get a chance to go to Red Hook, or should I say that I don't really make the effort. It's a neighborhood right on the water in Brooklyn, but it has no dedicated subway station nearby. My trip to these two outposts required a bus trip. I hate buses, but the B61 runs pretty frequently in case you're wondering, Brooklynites and another NYers. Also back in the day, Red Hook didn't have the greatest rep. If you heard that the party was in Red Hook, you declined. Know what I'm sayin'? However, like so much of Brooklyn (and NYC for that matter) the neighborhood has changed quite a bit.

Baked is not new to New York City's baking scene as it's been around for five years. I've been hearing about this place for quite awhile and couldn't wait to try its sweets. Baked sells whoopie pies, brownies, cakes, cupcakes, various dessert bars, name it. Besides, Baked's goods are on Oprah's Favorite Things list, so it must be good right? Ha! :) What did I try?

The Sweet & Salty Cupcake

All I can say is PER-FEC-TION. This might be the perfect cupcake for me. First of all, the cake is completely and totally perfect. I would eat just the cake any day without any frosting. It was moist, full flavored REAL chocolate-tasting chocolate cake. This is what chocolate cake should be (Yup. I liked it THAT MUCH). What was most fascinating about it though was the frosting, which had a consistency more like a ganache than anything. It almost didn't make it into my mouth on the first bite (Yes, I know. Lovely image). I couldn't figure out what the flavor was until an AHA! moment: Toffee! At least I thought it was toffee. Ooohhh...Plus, I love salt. LOVE salt! There were some big crunchy salt crystals on the top. Awesome! This cupcake was the perfect blend of salty, sweet, creamy, and chocolate-y. These cupcakes also just got the Serious Eats NY distinction for Best Cupcake in New York City. Although I need to do some more research, I may have to second that. By the way, the grasshopper bar (creme de menthe filling sandwiched between chocolate mint cookies) was great too, and I'm not a huge fan of mint and chocolate.

Oh yeah, Baked was just on Bobby Flay's Throwdown last night (actually as I am writing this). Apparently it's Peanut Butter Banana Cream Pie was up against Bobby's version of Banana Cream Pie. I'm also excited to eat more of Baked's goods at my BFF's wedding later this year.

I moved across the street to get a drink at Fort Defiance, a bar named after a Revolutionary War fort that was built in the area for the Battle of Brooklyn (the US lost that one, but, thankfully, didn't lose Brooklyn). Fort Defiance is a part of the sorta not as new movement of haute mixology. It's all about getting back to the tradition of finding the finest spirits and mixers to produce quality cocktails.

It's been blazing hot here in NYC, so I actually ended up getting something pretty refreshing:

The Barbados Buck

I was pretty shocked when I was served the drink. I've never seen a light-colored Dark and Stormy before. The recipe is apparenty a throwback to Bridgetown, Barbados' British Club recipe from 1930. It was soo good. Perfectly mixed (Don't you hate overpowering alcohol tastes?) and tasting as if there was actually fresh grated ginger in there except there was none in sight (I suspect they made their own fresh ginger beer). I wanted to try another drink, but I thought it would be too much. Although now that I think about it, I should have just gotten another drink. I enjoyed speaking to my extremely friendly and knowledgeable bartender about spirits from Antigua, especially since they had one that I had never heard of there, English Harbour rum!

Technically, this bar is also a cafe selling primarily small plates, so I figured I would try some of the bar food. If you're thinking chicken fingers and mozzerella sticks, you've got the wrong place.

Deviled Eggs

A whipped smooth egg mixture with a nice dash of black pepper to enhance the flavor. Yum! I couldn't believe the size of the deviled eggs. They were hard to put in my mouth and not really the finger food that I thought they're supposed to be, but I wasn't going to complain. :)

I also tried the oysters. Fresh and tasty. I wished I'd had more.

Icky Blackberry shot...actually these are all pics from my Bberry

I'm glad I explored Red Hook especially since it's so close to me, but can feel kinda far away at times. There are many restaurants out there that looked quite interesting, so I urge anyone to buck up and come out to try Red Hook's offerings.

Have you explored any new neighborhoods or streets in your town lately just for the food?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bali High - A Honeymoon Worthy Hotel (Part I), Komaneka Bisma

As I am sure I mentioned before, Bali was the honeymoon Husband J and I did not take right after our wedding in 2009. Honestly, I really wanted to stay at nicer hotels on this trip if we could. Bali has a range of hotel and private villa options, some for under $100 USD per night. You'll be spoiled for choice should you decide to ever travel here.

Our first hotel stop in Bali was the Komaneka Bisma in Ubud, Bali's artistic center. It's the newest hotel in the Komaneka hotel family as there is one right in the very center of Ubud on Monkey Forest Road as well as another hotel about 2o minutes away in Tanggayuda. While doing research for the trip, many sites were lamenting (and some rejoicing) that Ubud would get a bump in tourism from the release of "Eat, Pray, Love." Look, just go to Ubud. The copious amount of art, the beauty of the landscape, the relaxed vibe (minus all of the traffic at times) is totally worth a stay in Ubud. It's also a great place to use as a base for daytripping to sites all over the island. See my posts on the sites we saw, and I think you'll agree.

Let's take a tour of the room. I knew that this was a newer hotel and that the rooms would be nice, but I did not expect them to be so darn large. When I mentioned to Husband J that these were the low-end rooms, he was pretty shocked.

Our very large balcony

The view from our very large balcony
The Komaneka is built into a valley of sorts and has its own rice terrace, which many of the rooms overlook. There is actually someone on staff who takes care of the rice terrace, and we would see him out in the mornings and early evenings doing his thing.

Honestly, I just wanted to sit out there and stare even when I felt like I was being eaten by bugs (even with our high percentage DEET bug cream, I will say that feeling never truly went away while in Ubud). I loved hearing the birds, insects, and taking in the smell of the mud and grass all while never leaving my room.

One morning we had breakfast on our balcony. There's nothing like early morning bird sounds with your freshly squeezed papaya juice. By the way, I was just joking with my ILs this weekend that based on our pics, it looks like Husband J had a great time in Bali...without me! I will definitely get in front of the camera more next trip.

Our Bed upon arrival
The main portion of the room was divided in two. One portion had a king sized bed with night tables at each bedside. A long desk divided the bed area from the front portion of the room, which was comprised of living area that had a small loveseat with a large raised flat screen TV. I will say that the TV reception wasn't all that great, but we weren't exactly there for TV watching (minus a few hours of the World Cup).

Let's talk bathrooms, y'all. This has got to be THE nicest bathroom I've ever had in a hotel. It was GIGANTIC!! I am lucky enough to have more than one bathroom in my Brooklyn apartment (even though the second one is the size of a very small closet), and I think I can easily fit both of my bathrooms into this huge one. I dream of double sinks one day in my everyday life. The tub was phenomenal, and I did use it. Let me show you the shower...

You can have a party in this bad boy! Does this pic show you how big it is? I think you can easily fit four people in there. The shower has great water pressure. I am one of those types who likes steaming up the bathroom with hot water, which was readily available and didn't run out (I hate when that happens!).

One of my favorite things about our room at the Komaneka were the touches of Balinese art. I love these Garuda-shaped bottle tops.

The artistic touches extended to the common areas of the hotel too.
Cool, life size human sculptures made of wire in the dining room.

The super modern decor of the lobby

There is a large fountain-like pool in the center of the lobby.
Taken our first morning. There was quite a bit of rain.

The view from the lobby area to Komaneka's rice terrace.
A rainy morning

So let's get down to the nitty gritty. Here are the pros and cons of the Komaneka Bisma from my perspective:

1. If you are planning on getting some spa treatments, I'd advise on getting them elsewhere. The spa facilities from what I saw are actually gorgeously appointed and in a breathtaking spot. BUT the spa is MAD expensive!! For example, the Komaneka's massages cost $95-$120 USD, which is what one can pay for a variety of spa treatments here in NYC. You can get a hour-long massage in Ubud for less than $10 US (although the spa may not be as nice). Save your money and look elsewhere.

2. If you plan on being here for more than 5 days or so breakfast might become a bit repetitive as there are only so many options on their menu.

3. If you are planning to walk from the Komaneka Bisma to the center of town, i.e, Monkey Forest Road or Ubud Main Street (which is easy to do), make sure you're wearing some solid shoes as there are many areas on the walk where the road is in pretty rough shape.

4. There were barely any covers on the bed. Sheets, yes, but I need a blanket. If you are going to have the AC blasting all the time, then I needs me some more bedding beside the thin sheet that we were given. There were no blankets in the room. Look, Caribbean people do not have thick blood that can live in sub-zero degree surroundings! :) It was a pain trying to fiddle with the AC. It was often too hot or too cold. We couldn't keep the door of the balcony open because we definitely didn't want any bugs (You guys didn't want me to come back with Dengue Fever, did you?) I guess we could have asked for a blanket, but I was disappointed that there really wasn't anything in the room to really cover ourselves.

(Can you tell I had to reach here for cons? I really liked it here.)

1. All the little extras. Can I list them here for you?
-A cookie jar constantly filled with what tasted like homemade mini-cookies. YUM!!
-Outside slippers and bedtime slipper and indoor slippers...lots of slippers
-Komaneka nightgowns...loved these! (they were left out each night for us with evening turn down service)
-a little bedtime story every night with turndown service
There might be some that I am forgetting....
2. I have never been called by name by ANY hotel staff before. Maybe I don't stay in nice enough places? Also everyone at the hotel greeted us with a smile wherever we went. It made us wonder if they are really this nice or trained to be that nice. I think for the Balinese, it's a bit of both.

3. The room was extremely large, well-appointed and laid out in a way that was helpful. We even had a great walk-in closet that also served as a small luggage room. Everything about the room was well thought out, and we had everything we could have wanted or needed there (minus the blankets).

4. Proximity to central Ubud by foot and car. We really were in the heart of everything, and we could walk to all of the shops, galleries and restaurants on Monkey Forest Road and Ubud's other central streets. The hotel does provide a shuttle usually on a schedule, BUT they spoiled us a bit and took us where we wanted to go as long as the car was available. I liked having multiple options for getting around central Ubud.

5. It's a beautiful, beautiful place.


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