Thursday, December 24, 2009
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Eating good Japanese food is one of life’s simple pleasures. Nowhere is this more achievable and enjoyable than at the Siam City Hotel’s Kamon Japanese Restaurant & Steakhouse. I was fortune enough to stop by the other day for a bento box lunch. For those of you not familiar, first a little background info...
O-bento is what the Japanese call a packed meal, usually lunch. Bento boxes have internal dividers, and sometimes several stacked layers, so different kinds of food sit in their own little compartments. (This is nice if, like me, you don't necessarily like to mix flavours.) The whole thing is usually wrapped together with chopsticks in a cloth or special bag, and the goal is to make the whole package as attractive as possible – from considering the colour combinations of the food and presenting and garnishing it as neatly and artfully as you can, to co-ordinating the box, chopsticks and wrapper, and any other items like paper napkins, knife and fork or spoon, drink flask or thermos. Bento boxes themselves range from handsome lacquered wood boxes, with which you may be served in a nice Japanese restaurant [like Kamon!], to children's plastic lunchboxes decorated with cartoon (anime) character art. There are styles to appeal to the businessman, the elegant young lady, the differing tastes of little boys and girls.
The crux of any bento lunch is cold, cooked white rice, or sometimes noodles – the filling, carbohydrate-rich staples of the Japanese diet. (I wonder if anyone in Japan is willing to try the Atkins diet, or are they all too sensible?) In addition, there's okazu – side dishes, which can include meat, fish, eggs, tofu, fruit and vegetables, all presented in bite-size form for handy chopstick action. They all have to be prepared in such a way that they will taste nice cold (although sometimes bento is reheated). Okazu add colour and flavour, vary with the seasons, and round out the nutritional value of the meal with protein, vitamins and minerals. For colour and dietary balance, they try to have one “protein” item and at least two from the fruit/veg category (remember, a healthy diet includes at least five handful-sized portions of fruit and vegetables a day!). Of course, there are also different ways of dressing up the rice or noodles to avoid monotony. As well as seasonal items, bento may showcase regional specialties – this is true of ekiben, takeaway bento sold at railway stations around Japan. You can take an ekiben eating tour of the nation if you like!
In the culinary arts, they say that presentation is as important as preparation. In Japan, it’s all about presentation when making lunch. This fanaticalism is called kyaraben, and goes beyond simply making the meal look appetising. So important is this that contests are often held where bento arrangers compete for the most aesthetically pleasing arrangements. Kyaraben is typically decorated to look like people, animals or characters, along with items such as flowers and plants. And that’s what you’ll find at Kamon: artfully presented and prepared food of the highest order.
Now, back to my story. I choose a delicious grilled salmon, sashimi (sliced raw fish), miso soup, chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) and tempura (deep-fried battered fish and vegetables) bento box; which set me back a very reasonable Bht 390++. This was accompanied by a few side-dishes to share with my dining companions: roasted ginko nuts (Bht 270), fresh seaweed with sour miso dressing (Bht 300), chilled tofu with ginger soy sauce (Bht 90), grilled eggplant with sweet bean paste (Bht 150) and a drink of lychee juice (Bht 85). The bento box was by far the shining star of the meal. The rice was light and fluffy; the salmon grilled to perfection; the tempura crispy and light; the custard savour and silky; the sashimi fresh and aromatic and the miso seasoned with just the right amount of salt. Sadly, I was so stuffed from entrees and mains that I had to forgo dessert; which is a damn shame as the restaurant’s green tea ice cream (Bht 100) and red bean jelly served on shaved ice with syrup (Bht 90) are damn fine!
One of the other great things about Kamon is the setting and service – both impeccable. One can choose to dine the regular Western way in the bright and airy main dining room (which also has two great tepanyaki stations) or in one of seven private dining rooms (capable of seating from 4 to 30 people) with chairs or tradition Japanese-style seating (e.g. on the ground). I’ve also had occasion to eat in one of the private rooms and I must say it is mighty fine. From the kimono–clad waitresses to the tatami mats (shoe-free), sunken table to flower arrangements, crockery and furniture – everything is perfect in every detail. For the full experience I highly recommend this, nobody does sensory-overload dining quite like the Japanese!
Getting there: Kamon Japanese Restaurant & Steakhouse is located on the 2nd floor of the Ayuthaya Wing, at the Siam City Hotel. Besides a taxi, the easiest way to get here is by Skytrain. The hotel’s closest stop (only 500m away!) is Station Phayathai, located on the Sukhumvit Line [just two stops from Station Siam]. At Phayathai, take exit 2 and cross over the large intersection. The hotel is a mere 100m up on your left-hand side.
Monday, December 21, 2009
Taking advantage of the cooler weather during December, January and February, the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra (BSO) is presenting a series of Sunday concerts in the heart of Bangkok – Sala Bhirom Bhakdi (auditorium), Lumpini Park. A “gift” to the people of Bangkok, the FREE concerts are absolutely spectacular and well worth attending. Starting at 5:30 pm in the cool of the early evening, the wide-ranging repertoire encompasses western classics, Thai classical music and popular hits from Broadway and film. Over almost 20 years, these concerts have introduced tens of thousands of Thais and expatriates to the BSO and the glories of orchestral music.
Eager for a little orchestral magic myself, I hopped along to the fist concert yesterday, Sunday, December 20, with a group of girlfriends. We happily set up camp under the shade of a palm tree on the plush grass and commenced to eat (yummy fresh bread, cheese, fruit and festive cookies), drink (wine of course!) and swoon ourselves into contentment. The BSO did a great job of keeping the mood light, festive and enjoyable. I particularly liked the Christmas songs and Thai pop tunes sang; very lively and enchanting.
The audience was an interesting and eclectic mix of younger folk (even younger than moi, I’m talking ‘teen’ here), trendy middle-aged musoes and elderly connoisseurs. I’m also proud to say that there was a very good sprinkling of farang to boot. Either way, the healthy crowd was a good indicator that classical music is not dead and that no everyone is dying to see Avatar! Most attendees were snugly reclined on rattan mats with bountiful picnics and makeshift pillows. The crowd were eager clappers, happiest when punchy Thai tunes filled the air, but also receptive to the odd Xmas interlude.
Although the show was a little brief, ending at 7:15 pm-ish, it definitely gave me a taste of things to come and I’ll eagerly be back again this coming Sunday for the next instalment. I presume it will have a particularly Yuletide feeling taking place just two days after Christmas. So yes, for those of you who missed this past Sunday’s show, never fear, there are seven more concerts for you to catch: Dec 27, Jan 10, 17, 24, 31 and Feb 7, 14. For more details, go to: www.bangkoksymphony.org.
Getting there: The easiest way from the Siam City Hotel is to take the BTS from Phayathai station. First hop on (towards Ou Nut) and go two stops to Station Siam. From here you need to get off, cross the platform, and then take another train, on the Silom Line (toward Wongwian Yai), two stops to Station Sala Daeng. From here you want to take exit 5 with Lumpini Park directly across the road; you really can’t miss it!
Monday, December 14, 2009
Siam City Hotel VM is easy to reach. Simply head out the front, and immediately turn right as though you’re going to the BTS. But instead of crossing the road, heading south, go the opposite way and head up the freeway (north) for one block. Shortly thereafter a shopping centre called Century One will appear on your right-hand side. On the far side of this centre you will find the bus station snuggled into a small soi-like area. Here you will find buses to Saraburi and about another dozen destinations all over Thailand. The vans are very safe, reliable and cheap. Only drawback, you must await until the van is full to depart, there are no set times; sometimes this can take up to half an hour, so be prepared. But, once on the road, these babies fly (and without stops usually, so don’t fill-up on liquids prior to your trip!).
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Although I cannot claim at being anywhere near a ‘petrol head’ and take little pleasure in all things auto, I did however jump at the chance to try go-karting on my recent weekend trip to Pattaya. Located right beside my abode, it could not have been easier to reach. Deciding to forgo the joys of the go-go bars along Walking Street for one night, my colleague Holger and I hit the EasyKart track on a barmy Sunday night around 9 pm (open daily 10 am-1 am).
Drivers can choose between the beginner, advanced and children’s track. Being wimps (well, me at any rate), the German and I opted for the first. For Bht 450 we got to zip around the 350m-long track as many times as we liked in 8 minutes, driving a 160 cc kart that could reach top speeds of 40 kmh (although not nearly that fast in my case). Safety is important, so a helmet (provided) and closed-toe shoes are mandatory [if you don’t have, they rent shoes for Bht 50]; they also have complimentary racing suits (optional) for a little added glam and protection. Besides that, it’s pretty straight forward: accelerator on your left, brake on your right, steering wheel in the middle and away you go...
And so we headed off. Being chivalrous I let Holger go first... Eating his dust I set off soon after and continued to trail him for the remainder of the time (in truth he lapped me several times!). It turns out that living abroad for so long and not driving a car (approx. 10 years) has had a hazardous affect on my motor skills. Getting my feet and brain to coordinate was frustratingly tricky and annoyingly slow. Fortunately there we no other punters using the track at the same time as us, for undoubtedly they would have found my erratic zig-zagging and careening (hug the corners!!!) around the track somewhat annoying and/or dangerous! Fortunately Holger is a good sport and masterfully side-stepped me and continued on his merry way.
I must say after about the 10th lap I was starting to get a little bored with the whole thing and wondering if I could make a quick pit-stop to use the loo (all the excitement you know!). I honestly don’t know how Formula One drivers do it, maybe it’s a “chick” thing, but I found the whole thing rather dull and extremely repetitive. But, as I’m not one to give up, I wearily kept going in circles until finally I saw the attendant madly waving the red flag signalling that we should haul our arses in. I must admit, I was not saddened by this, I was starting to feel nauseous, my palms were killing me from gripping the damn steering wheel too hard and my bum was a little dumb from the seat.
And so, with Holger grinning from ear-to-ear and mumbling something about giving it another go and progressing to the faster 70/kmh advanced track, I ponder the strange proclivities of man’s obsession with speed and my own yearning for a bath and a good book. Whilst I did have glimmers of fun, namely the first two minutes, I did not find it nearly as fun, challenging or varied as off-road quad bike riding. But still, there are not so many things you can do in just 8 minutes – knit a sock, watch a 1/3 of a sitcom, cook four rounds of 2-minute noodles – and I reckon this is one of the best.
At the end of your ride the management provide each rider with a print out of their lap times and other particulars like “best time of the today” and “best times of the month” (not surprisingly I did not make either list!). In 14 laps I managed a top speed of 0:33:979, averaging 0:36:009. Holger on the other hand managed a nifty 16 laps, with a top speed of 0:25:579 and an average speed of 0:28:483. According to the Leader Board the record belongs to DJ with an impressive Schumaker-esque 0:23:033.
Getting there: As I mentioned above, EasyKart is located beside the Siam Bayshore Resort & Spa on the southern end of Pattaya Bay behind Bali Hai Pier. From the hotel head out the back entrance (Beach Road) and turn left towards the pier. Walk straight for 200m past the 7/11 store and then take the small road heading off to the left. Follow it around and EasyKart is on your left-hand side, you really can’t miss it. For those not able to reach Pattaya, there is also an outlet in Bangkok, located at RCA Plaza nearby Sukhumvit. For more information go to www.easykart.net.