Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mae Salong

We had a minor windfall on our joint 4-D bets amongst my in-laws during the CNY festivities in Sungai Petani. The winning was just enough for a dinner for the extended in-law family. And we did just that. When they mentioned this Thai restaurant, my wife and I thought the name was My Sarong. It turned out to be Mae Salong which is a small village in Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand. 

I will not attempt to provide directions to get there. I was totally lost in the many twists and turns in the outskirts of Sungai Petani. But I can provide the address - 199-F Kampung Bakar Bata, 08000 Sungai Petani. The co-ordinates are N03* 06.887' E101* 34.629'. 

Mae Salong is a mini theme park of sort. It covers a big area and the whole place is beautifully done. It has water as the theme. The whole place is built around a large pond, with fountains, water running down roofs, bridge walkways and even a functional water wheel that channels water from the pond to surrounding areas.

Everything is made of wood, with a lot of plants giving the place a very natural aura. The furnitures are naturally done. The tables are large slates of timber and the seats are benches fabricated from crude wood. They are housed in many attap huts located around the water. Even the wash basins are dug-out timber pieces. I truly admire the handiwork.

They do have an air conditioned dining room in the main building. What struck me was that this air cond room is below the water level. Very well thought of.

I liked the authenticity of the place. And it is apparently very well maintained too. I did not expect such a beautiful place in Sungai Petani. 

The place was fabulous. But the food...

Well, we started the dinner with the usual plates of tit bits that comprised of peanuts and crunchy ikan bilis. It was very tasty. The ikan bilis was very fresh. It was one of those once-started-cannot-stop kind of tit bits.

The fried glass noodle (tong fun 冬粉) was rather soggy and bland. There were prawns, chicken, egg and some veges in it. It looked very good but the did not have the taste to match.

This was a Thai salad. It had strips of mango, cucumber, tomato, peanut, etc, in a sour and spicy sauce. The flavor was a little too sour for my liking.

The other salad was milder. I believe this was the mango salad. It essentially had the same ingredients with some ikan bilis. I thought this salad tasted better the the first.

The otak otak was not bad at all. It was baked in a metal foil. In it was good portions of fish and other seafoods. The flavor was aromatic, seasoned with some basel leaves.

The la la (clams) did not appeal very much to me. It was steamed in a spicy soup which was rather sourish. The flavor was so-so.

The pandan leave chicken was also very average. The flavor was not something I could remember. The portion of meat in the pandan leaves was small.

This was a most ordinary plate of omelet. Nothing worthy to write about.

This vege is the leaves of the sweet potato. It is a popular alternate to kangkong. It was stir fried in sambal balacan. I liked the flavor. It was a little too salty but with rice, it was tolerable.

I had no interest at all in the prawn dish. It did not look good and I thought it was not worth the effort to use my fingers to de-shell them. So I gave it the skip.

The final dish was the fish. Like the la la, it was steamed in a soup. But unlike the la la, it was not sourish. The snapper was quite fresh. But the flavor like most other dishes that evening, was just average.

All in all, I was not impressed with the meal. I thought the quality and flavor of the food did not live up to the aura and splendor of the place. On that night they had an elaborate lion dance to commemorate CNY. I did not have the presence of mind to snap some pictures of the lions. That was probably their first day of business after the festivities. And with a maddening crowd, this could be one reason why the food did not live up to expectations.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

MAS & Air Asia Inflight Meals

We had the occasions to make 2 trips to Australia over a period of 3 months on 2 different Malaysian carriers - MAS and Air Asia. I thought it was opportune for me to feature on the meals offered by the 2 airlines. I realize one is a full service airline and the other is a low cost carrier, and thus it is not justified to make comparisons on the level of services. But food is food - whether it is served in a 5-Star restaurant or a hawker centre. And I intend to do just that - focusing only on the meals onboard and not the other aspects of their inflight services.

Our first flight was to Perth on MAS flight MH125 in November 2011, returning on MH124 about a week later. Flight time each way was about 5 and half hours. 

Food services on both sectors were brisk and efficiently dispensed. We were seated quite far from the start of the food service and it didn't take very long before the food trolley arrived at our seat. The food was of course complimentary and had obviously been costed into the air fare. There was a choice of Malaysian or western meal. 

On our outgoing flight to Perth, breakfast was served. I opted for the nasi lemak. It was a substantial meal, compactly presented on a tray. The rice was served with a big portion of sambal prawn. There was half a boiled egg. The ikan bilis and peanuts were separately packed in a plastic container. Other items in the tray included a loaf of croissant together with small portions of butter and jam. There was a bowl of assorted fruits. Dessert was a piece of lemon cake. There was also Ferrero Rocher chocolate and a muesli bar. Drinks were a cup of orange juice and coffee or tea. Wines (red and white) were available on request. The quality of food was generally good. However, the rice somehow lacked the santan (coconut milk) flavor and the sambal prawns were hard and over-cooked.

The western breakfast was omelet with a piece of chicken sausage, button mushrooms, a grilled tomato and a piece of hash brown. All others items on the tray were the same. The meal was rather dry. There was no sauce or gravy. 

After the meal, ice cream bars were distributed.

On our return flight from Perth, the Malaysian selection was curry chicken and tomato rice, with some bland vegetables. The chicken and rice looked better than it tasted. It was not great. The vegetables were pathetic. On the tray was a bowl of chick-pea which was rather tasteless. There was a hard roll and butter. And a slab of cheese and crackers. Dessert was a piece of chocolate cake. Drinks were water, orange juice and coffee or tea. Again, wines were available on request. This return meal was apparently prepared in Perth. It was definitely not as good as the breakfast from Kuala Lumpur.

The western selection was baked fish and potato and the same bland vegetable. The fish was served with a tomato based sauce. The meal was rather boring. The taste was flat. It was OK if you were hungry, definitely not something to relish. As before the other items on the tray were the same.

Overall, the meals offered by MAS were satisfactory. They were substantial and adequate but not something I would look forward to. It was nourishment in a flight and not gourmet delight. 

Our flight on Air Asia X was to Melbourne (flight D7212) on in early February this year, returning on flight D7215 nine days later. Flight time on both sectors was nearly 8 hours. Meals on board were not complimentary. We booked the meals and paid for them when we made our flight bookings on line. Each meal was priced at RM20.

Meal service was accomplished from meal carts by the flight attendants in the same manner as MAS. They were selling their food. Available for sale were the hot meals, cup noodles, sandwiches, tit bits like chocolate bars, nuts, candies, etc, plus hot and cold drinks. Passengers who had pre-booked their meals on line like us, had to show their boarding passes to claim them. 

Service was slow. It took some time before the meal cart reached us.  This was probably because of the sale transactions. It was also probably because they did not stock enough food items to go around. I saw the flight attendants moving around from one meal cart to another getting stuffs requested by the passengers. This was particularly evident on the return flight from Melbourne.

Like MAS, there was a choice of Malaysian or western hot meals. The Malaysian option was nasi lemak on both the outgoing and return sectors. It was served in a thin plastic container. There was no tray or presentation - just the food container on a paper table mat and plastic fork and spoon. A small bottle of mineral water was provided with the pre-booked meal.

The portion of nasi lemak was rather small. With the rice was half an egg, a small portion of rendang chicken and some sambal sauce. The ikan bilis and peanuts were packed separately. The taste was good. I think it was much better than that served by MAS. The rice was aromatic and and the rendang was quite delicious. This nasi lemak was more genuine and did not taste like it was mass produced.

The western meal on the outgoing flight was Chicken Ala Kiev. It was presented like the nasi lemak, with a bottle of water. The chicken breast meat was fried in a batter and was served with some potato and boiled broccoli and carrots. The taste was not bad too. My only complaint was that it was rather dry - devoid of sauce or gravy. But the piece of meat was quite delicious. Again, I rate this western meal better than that served by MAS. However, like the nasi lemak, the portion was rather small.

On our return flight from Melbourne, while the Malaysian selection was the same nasi lemak, the western selection was different. It was Chicken BBQ. It was a small piece of grilled deboned chicken, served with some potato wedges, some carrots and beans with a dash of BBQ sauce If the Chicken Ala Kiev was small, this serving was even smaller. The taste of this chicken was not as good. Still I think it was better than the fish served by MAS.

Overall, I rate the flavor of food on Air Asia better than MAS. The biggest problem with Air Asia's meals was that they were too small. And there was no side dishes like starters or desserts or bread to fill the stomach. The KL-Melbourne flight at nearly 8 hours was a long one. Such tiny meals were definitely not enough. They did do a second meal service and sale before landing. But by then they had ran out of hot meals. Only cup instant noodles were available. Fortunately we had the foresight to bring along some sandwiches from home even though Air Asia declared that they practise a no-outside-food policy. As far as we were concerned, it was to hell with that policy. The flight to Melbourne landed after midnight. There was no way we could find any food at that ungodly hour after the flight. And we were not prepared to go hungry. Air Asia cannot impose their policy when it cannot even cater to the needs of its passengers.

Between the 2 airlines, without considering the matter of fare and pricing, I would prefer MAS as far as meals are concerned. Air Asia's meals were totally inadequate. MAS' provide full wholesome meals even though they are not as delicious. At least there is no need to resort to cup noodles, chocolate bars and peanuts. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Quang Vinh

With the fantastic hospitality we received in Melbourne, I really felt I needed to buy my hosts a dinner. Unfortunately, Joyce was not with us. Alan stayed back in Melbourne after work (he lives in Geelong), and we all went for a Vietnamese meal in St. Albans. 

St Albans is a Melbourne suburb very near to Eddy's place. It has a large Vietnamese population and I particularly like their pho bo (beef noodles) there. The restaurant that Eddy and Alan chose was the Quang Vinh - a Vietnam and Chinese place. The place is apparently very popular with the locals in St Albans and the neighboring suburbs. It occupies 2 shop lots and was almost full house when we arrived.

The menu in this restaurant was wide-ranging. It had the Vietnamese pho bo which I observed a lot of people eating and Chinese dishes. Service was brisk, efficient and business-like. No friendly personal touches. Like all Vietnamese eating places in the vicinity, tea was complimentary and served in small thermo flasks.

Eddy, being the "resident" diner, did the ordering. He hesitated on the first dish - the Vietnamese salad - which he deemed too expensive at 30 Aussies. I plodded him to go ahead to order. And was I glad I did. For it turned up to be fantastic. This so-called salad had lots of boiled pork, prawns, jelly fish, some onions, basil leaves and carrots, topped with some crunchy peanuts. The whole thing was mixed in a spicy sweet and sourish clear sauce. It was delicious. The pieces of pork was wonderful in taste and texture. The jelly fish was crunchy to the bite. The prawns were very fresh. Good to the last morsel.

This clay pot tofu was cooked with salted fish, and some minced pork and mushroom. It was another delightful dish. The aroma of the salt fish was tantalizing. It went very well with the rice. The tofu was soft and smooth. It was simple yet so very delicious.

The next dish was perhaps a typical mat-salleh selection. It was pork ribs in a sweet and sour tomato sauce. It was as stereo-type as it could get. Yet it was delicious. The pork was tender and deep fried to a nice crisp before being stirred in the tomato-based sauce. 

I think we asked for choy sum but the vege dish turned up to be kangkong. But heck, no complaint. The kangkong was great. It was fried in a spicy sauce, but it wasn't sambal belacan. All the same, it looked and tasted like the kangkong we have at home.

The squid was deep fried in a salted egg yolk batter. Salted egg yolk batter is rather new and is now very popular in Malaysia. I was surprised to find it down under as well. The aroma of the salted egg yolk was rich and enticing. The squid was very fresh. It was a superb combination. A great sinful dish.

The last dish was the Mongolian beef. It was sizzling beef on a hot plate cooked, I believe, with oyster and soy sauces. It basically was the same hot plate beef that are so common in Malaysia. I don't know why they call it Mongolian beef. I seriously doubt the Mongolians cook their beef this way. Anyway, it wasn't bad at all. The beef was tender - typically Aussie quality. The taste was good.

I have to mention the custard apple juice that Crystal ordered. I have tasted some fabulous Australian custard apples - in Malaysia, not in Australia. They are darn expensive - up to RM45 for a fruit. These Aussie custard apples are super sweet (unlike the sour Malaysian variety) and smooth. The juice that Crystal had was a concentrated glass of this delightful fruit. It was sweet and absolutely marvelous. 

The dinner at St Albans was most enjoyable. The food was great. We talked about our lives, my hosts' Aussie experiences and reminisced on our Malaysian pasts. Could the evening be better than this?

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Moroccan Soup Bar

The Moroccan Soup Bar is a vegetarian restaurant in Melbourne. It was our nephew KJ and his girlfriend Ann who took us there. I had never experienced Moroccan food before, let alone vegetarian, and I was immensely curious and eager. 

It was a small crowded place, with a simple yet pleasant ambience; brightly painted and furnished with an assortment of tables and chairs. It was really quite homely, except perhaps a little too noisy. It is located on 183, St. Georges Road, Fitzroy North in downtown Melbourne. 

I liked the many artifacts on display. I wanted some pictures of them but it was very crowded. When I moved in to take some shots, the lady boss (apparently named Hanna) gave me a "Hey!". I didn't what she meant. Perhaps I was in their way or perhaps they do not encourage photography in the restaurant. 

I didn't see a menu. I don't think they have one. Hanna came over to take our orders. She recommended the banquet. It was a set meal. They had the banquet for AUD20 per head and the banquet extra for an additional AUD5. We opted for the extra. 

I really did not know what exactly we ate. There was various combinations of vegetables, beans, nuts, grains, roots, mushrooms, diary products - all vegan. I cannot provide the names of the dishes - just the visuals. I will however attempt to describe the taste as I remember them.

The dishes came in 3 waves. First, the starters. The main dish of the starters was this combination of yoghurt and hummus. Hummus is a middle-eastern paste of grounded chickpeas, sesame, lemon and garlic in olive oil. Added to the yoghurt and hummus were potato, egg plant, olive, beet, some other un-identified vegetables seasoned with un-identified spices. The taste was a combination of diary sourness and aromatic spices. It was eaten with some pita bread.

Then there was this bowl of beans, peas, corn and other stuffs. 

A small bowl of assorted vegetable with cheese.

Another small bowl of cauliflower and potato.

And a spoonful of I-have-no-idea-what. It looked like sambal but tasted more like a pickle, apparently to be taken in minute amount.

The starters were served together with cups of sweet mint tea. I liked the tea. It had a very pleasant and mild flavor of mint.

The table was then cleared and the entree arrived. Dominating the main meal was this large bowl of baked chickpea and lentils. Above it was a layer of cheese and sprinklings of almonds flakes. It was baked with various spices including some saffron. It was delicious. 

This was a rice dish. I cannot remember what the accompaniment was. I think it was potato and mushroom in a thick and rich sauce. The rice was cooked in a tomato sauce. I liked the rich flavor.

This was a couscous dish. It was the first time I tasted couscous. Couscous is a North African grain - look like rice but taste very differently. The couscous was buried below a rich mixture of potato, carrot, onion, tomato and egg plant. I did not have the presence of mind to take a shot of the couscous below. I did not find the dish exceptional. The couscous was rather insignificant. It did not have any peculiar flavor or texture. 

Another rice dish. I think it was saffron rice. The accompaniment was beans. This dish did not leave much of an impression in my mind. I cannot recall how it tasted. I think I preferred the first rice dish.

Finally, it was a dish of egg plant, rice and sour cream. The egg plant was good but the cream was a little too sour for my liking. I believe we were supposed to mix the egg plant and rice into the sour cream. But we did not. The dish was just so-so.

The 3rd wave of our meal was dessert. There were 2 small plates of sweet Moroccan cakes. I had no idea what they were made of. I was expecting a grander closing to our meal. The cakes were quite mild and were not exceptional. 

Coffee was served from a strange perpendicular kettle into small cups. The waitress warned us that it would be strong. We were just to sip it. But it did not turn out to be that mighty. I had tasted much stronger coffee than this. Still, after a heavy meal, it was nice to have a cup of aromatic coffee.

I do not know why the restaurant is so named, for no soup was served with their "banquet". It would had been nice to try what Moroccan soup to all about. All in all, I enjoyed the meal. It was something new. Some of the dishes were delicious. Some were just so-so. But my wife did not quite like it. The meal was too sourish for her. Indeed, with the yoghurt, sour cream, tomato, etc, the meal was on the sour side. Also, there was a lot of food - all vegan - cooked in manners new and strange to us. At the end of it, I did yearn for some meat.