Sunday, August 19, 2007

a habib's birthday

My habib's birthday deserved a four day celebration. We didn't organise any party or anything similar, unlike we used to do in Lebanon (somehow, the lack of a balcony and of the Mediterranean Sea breeze takes the charm out of it...), so I woke him up at 5am on his birthday with Las Mañanitas and a special book he'd been wanting for a long time, then took him to choose his next gift, then took him for dinner at Beijing's first ever restaurant with authentic Mexican food, and simply tried to accommodate his every whim no-questions-asked four days (now, how many of you get THAT for your birthday?).

But, rituals ARE an important part of every celebration and relationship, so we also went to have a drink at one of our favourite places in Beijing: Green Tea House. What can I say, we love the place: an extremely stylish, minimalist zen-style decor restaurant-bar, tea-infused creative cuisine, an elegant atmosphere and attentive service; an elongated white dining room with a single long, slender black table, flanked by black chairs with uberlong elegant backs stretching way up, and more private areas next to the windows where you recline or sit with legs crossed to relax and dine. AND... champagne with gold leaf at the bar, which barely sits 6 people. a 6 person bar? champagne? gold leaf? I know, sounds snobbish, but it's one of those places we've chosen to dress up for, go, sit surrounded by a nicely designed space, look into the eyes of the person you're sharing your life with, share a glass (or two) of champagne in long glasses with sparkles of gold floating in, and simply... share.

And, my habib still had a wild night out with friends at the usual night-club, and next day a delicious (and slightly TOO abundant) Middle-eastern lunch, with the tastes of fattoush, tabbouleh, hummus, baba ghanouj, kaak with sumac, Beirut, Aleppo, sunsets by the sea and old mosques. In a way, excluding his book and tennis shoes, the whole celebration was as much a gift for him as for me.

Until next time. Peace.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Cambodia at last! Final post: one last Cambodian surprise, a quiet night in Singapore

As you've seen, Cambodia offered us wonder after wonder, one unique experience after the next, and our last day there could be no exception. That day we were supposed to visit another temple (Banteay Srei), a lake nearby (Tonle Sap) and a big reservoir (the Western Baray).

Let me start "backwards". The Western Baray was... a huge water reservoir. Huge, by all means, some 8 x 2km, built for providing water for the area. But beyond its size, and after the marvels we'd seen... well, we didn't take more than 10 minutes to tick it as "seen" and leave.

Now, the lake... we took a whole tour around, which lasted at least an hour. There were floating houses, a floating school, a floating christian church, and even a floating "research centre", which held little more than souvenirs made in China, a submerged cage holding way too many half starved fish for the entertainment of tourists throwing food in, and another cage with some 7 crocodiles which could make anyone feel sorry for the miserable life they had. A number of Cambodians of Vietnamese origin were going around in frail boats peddling bananas, and whatever they could, for a dollar a piece. The water of the lake was brown with mud, and there were a number of boats gleefully polluting the lake with deafening motors. We were asked for a tip for our boat driver. We had payed quite a sum (by Cambodian standards) for the ride, so we were stunned to find out that the driver made next to nothing and lived on tips. It was a very enlightening experience, if not a pleasant one.

And now, Banteay Srei. That, ladies and gentlemen, was a genuine surprise, and after everything we had seen already, that was certainly no easy feat. First, the facts: built in the 10th century and dedicated to Shiva, commissioned by a Brahman, and subject to a major and systematic restoration effort in the 30's, Banteay Srei (or Citadel of Women) was the climax of our temple roaming.

The complex itself is not that big, but what catches your eye, first of all, is the colour: the temple is made of some pinkish stone that gives the place a very different look from other temples. Then, you approach, and when you finally get close to the gates, walls and interior of the temple, you discover what makes this one unique: the carvings and reliefs are probably the most exquisite in Angkor (at least from this layman's point of view), and not only that, practically every surfaced is covered with gods, goddesses, demons, flowers, diverse motifs, all of them intricate, all of them done with such meticulous care, and in such abundance... This was a temple where your eyes had just too much to absorb, darting from wall to wall, from lintel to gate, from face to hand to beast to dancer... We simply couldn't stay long enough to take it all in, to understand the fractal like beauty of the temple, where every closer look took you into a realm of new and surprising detail, yet where the sum of the parts told a story too, with scenes from different myths jumping at you from the slender structures. A total delight.

That day, when leaving Cambodia, the sun shone on the wet ground below, reflecting with a surprising silver cast on dozens of pools, providing a relaxing and beautiful closing scene for our trip to Cambodia.

When we got to Singapore we didn't do much anymore. We were lucky to get a room with a view to the recently inaugurated Buddha Tooth Relic Museum and Temple, and with that image, we went to sleep, to go back home the next day.

This was a trip to "compensate" for our failed Tibet plan. This was planned in a hurry. Yet this has given me enough to write six posts, to take 211 photos and 48 videos, and to finally fulfill a dream I first had some 10 years ago. I'm happy.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

a 6th anniversary dinner

A 6th anniversary dinner

Since our anniversary fell on a Monday, we decided to just have a simple toast at home that day, and have a long and enjoyable dinner on Saturday (July 28th). And how did that go? First of all, I booked a table at The Courtyard: one of Beijing’s best restaurants and, no less important, one with direct views of the East Gate of the Forbidden City. Since I was calling a whole week in advance I got to book the ONE table with prime views, right next to a floor to ceiling window.

Step two was… talking with the restaurant’s master chef, Ray Lim, whom I had happened to meet while I was a student in China (a long, long time ago) and asking him to prepare a special dinner for two, a VEGAN dinner, that is. He was a bit worried (especially about dessert! “you mean, no eggs? nor butter???”,), but he took the challenge, I gave no other indications except that everything be vegan, and entrusted him 100% with our anniversary dinner!

And step three… was arriving at the place to enjoy a scrumptious dinner, at possibly one of the most romantic spots in the city. And since it was SO delicious, we want to share that with you! Some of the pics don't show the dish as it was presented, the food was so good I'd start eating before I'd remember to take a picture! And the pictures aren't that good (and my descriptions are probably lacking in ingredients and details...) I'm afraid, but then again, the whole point of this blog is sharing, so here!

1. Cold Entrée: Gazpacho watermelon soup, with sun dried tomatoes, herbs, and a dash of tabasco. Honest, when he said “watermelon” I worried a bit, but the taste was so amazing my mouth’s watering again!
2. Hot Entrée: Risotto, with a slightly creamy texture and delicately placed on top of a half tomato on a spinach-based sauce, with asparagus, a thin just slightly fried banana slice and a kiwi-avocado sherbet on top. Another hit that looked suspicious yet had me raving over it.

3. Main Course: Vegetables (including oriental ones I can't name), caramelised onions, on a HUGE, juicy, flavourful Portobello mushroom.

4. Dessert: very finely crushed ice flavoured with tiny bits of peaches, kiwi and other sweet yet delicate fruits, with some liquor I couldn’t quite place. Cool, light, and just the right ending for a fantastic dinner.

As for the wines, we had a glass of New Zealand white wine, and a glass each of Basque and Chilean red (and I’m sure the connoisseurs amongst you are shocked at my simply naming the countries/regions of origin, but I can’t remember the names of the wines… maybe we did have a glass too many? LOL).
The setting, the delicious food, the views, the knowledge that it was a dinner prepared just for us… it was one fine way to celebrate the beginning of our 7th year. Salud!