Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Westvleteren: The Hunt for the "Best" Belgian Trappist Beer

When I landed in Brussels for a week-long vacation, I was a certified Belgian and Trappist beer (brewed inside monastery walls, though not necessarily by monks) novice, but my friends Luc and Carl wasted no time in indoctrinating me about the various styles of Belgian beer - lambic, kriek, gueuze, Trappist, tripel, dubbel, Flemish reds, etc etc. - and of course we spent quite a lot of time tasting all these "liquid gold", including a particularly hilarious experience at Dulle Griet bar in Ghent.

Through sheer luck, I was able to participate in the annual Belgian Beer Weekend at the Grand Place in Brussels - it was amazing: fun atmosphere, hundreds of different Belgian beers available, and surrounded by incredible architecture. Travel memories should all be like this.

Even though I had done some Lonely Planet guidebook reading about Trappist beers, I hadn't really tasted any prior to my trip except for Chimay. I was particularly intrigued to sample Westvleteren, the rarest among all Trappist beer and voted as the "best beer in the world" (we know how meaningless these "best of" lists are) by a website a few years ago. This honor simply resulted in more people driving through the Belgian countryside on the way to St. Sixtus Abbey in the town of Westvleteren. Pretty much the only way to get your hands on Westvleteren beer is to call the St. Sixtus abbey hotline and pick up a few cases (three cases annual quota), or relax at the nearby In De Vrede cafe and drink all afternoon.

So, when Luc and Carl suggested a road trip to Westvleteren, even a Trappist beer newbie like me realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and quickly replied, "Sure. When?". Our adventure (pictures here!!) commenced the next day from Ghent, and within a couple of hours we were outside the abbey, taking videos of the abbey workers loading cases into customers' trunks (lucky bastards), and then drinking Westvleteren 12 and Westvleteren Blonde at In De Vrede. At the small shop inside the cafe, I also bought a Westvleteren glass and even some Trappist shampoo (which didn't work out too well)!

And yes, Westvleteren 12 is an incredibly delicious beer. I savored each sip, trying to prolong the sensation on my taste buds. Although most of the Trappist beers are available stateside, Westvleteren is the exception. The monks frown on their cherished product being sold commercially, unfortunately. (Having said that, on two occasions I've tasted Westvleteren in NYC, but the beer came from the establishment owner's personal collection). Most Belgian beer enthusiasts can only dream of tasting the trio of Westvleteren beers (Westy 12, Westy 8, and Westy Blonde), but thanks to my friends, I had stumbled upon the Holy Grail just like that (or at least it felt like that). Lucky Belgian beer newbie me. A votre sante!

P.S. Click here for a few recommendations for great Belgian beer bars in NYC.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Pocari Sweating like a Pig in this Heat

I am beyond ecstatic tonight. On my trip to Japan a few months ago, I got addicted to Pocari Sweat, which is basically their equivalent of Gatorade. Despite its off-putting name (it does NOT taste like bottled sweat!! hahaha. So named because it replaces electrolytes lost when you sweat. Get it?) which makes me smile every time I see the distinctive blue colored logo on a bottle, Pocari Sweat became part of my daily purchases at the ubiquitous 7-11 (or Family Mart) convenience stores, or as shown below, at the even more ubiquitous vending machines dotting the landscape in Japan.

Why did Pocari Sweat become my favorite drink? Well, it tastes like Gatorade but only half as sweet. No annoying lingering taste of bubble gum in the mouth too. So, after coming back from the trip, I'd always wondered "Where can I find Pocari Sweat in New Jersey?". And tonight I just found out the answer: Mitsuwa supermarket in Edgewater, purveyor of all things Japanese. What a no-brainer. Sadly, it took a while for my brain to even think of Mitsuwa, even though it's only roughly a half-hour drive away.

Pocari Sweat is sold there in different-sized bottles, so I opted for the largest one - 2 liters of the stuff which will come in handy during this never-ending heat wave. It also comes in powdered form which I wasn't aware of, but the instructions on the package are in Japanese (duh), so I'll stick to the bottled version.

And guess who used to endorse Pocari Sweat way back in the 80s? No less than our favorite supermodel Cindy Crawford, who is shown stabbing imaginary opponents with her sword and who appears to have sweated a lot in the making of the video, what with that heavy armor covering the top half of her body.

Oddly enough, the bottom half of Cindy Crawford's body is covered only by some shiny flesh-colored material that I'm quite sure isn't meant for the battlefield. Oblivious to her wardrobe malfunction, Cindy practices her gladiator sword moves, then eventually tires of this charade (after picking up a hefty paycheck, no doubt), then cools off with a refreshing Pocari Sweat. As nonsensical as TV commercials get, but great fun nonetheless.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Petite Abeille

Petite Abeille ("Little Bee", just above the head of Tintin's statue in the photo) is one of a handful of Belgian restaurants in NYC. I'm not sure many people even realize it is Belgian; most probably assume it is French. For me though, the Tintin theme is enough to know Petite Abeille is in fact a Belgian restaurant. And yeah, the waffles, mussels, and extensive Belgian beer selection as well.

You could be forgiven for not knowing who Tintin is. Created by the Belgian artist Georges Remi (better known as Herge), our favorite journalist (who doesn't seem to do much writing) cum detective stars in one of the most successful comic strip series ever ("The Adventures of Tintin"), and is surely the most popular Belgian comics character. Aided by his faithful dog Snowy and friends Captain "Billions of Blistering Barnacles" Haddock and Professor Calculus (Tournesol in the French version), Tintin goes all over the world and dons numerous disguises in his pursuit of bad guys.

I'm not quite sure why the Tintin comics strip isn't that well-known in the United States; hardly anyone I talk to is familiar with it. Nonetheless, Tintin occupies a special place in the history of Belgian comics and is prominently featured in the Comics Strip Center in Brussels, which I was lucky enough to visit. Click here for some pictures and a video of Professor Calculus. Moreover, there are Tintin retail outlets in Brussels and Bruges selling apparel, bags, and other merchandise related to our hero's adventures.

Oh, back to Petite Abeille. During my meals there either at brunch or dinner time, the food has always been excellent, and the staff accommodating. The mussels never fail to disappoint, and I'm always happy to pair a Trappist beer with the food. Petite Abeille has four branches scattered all over Manhattan, and while other Belgian restaurants also offer the same dishes and beers, no place feels quite as Belgian as Petite Abeille.

Petite Abeille on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 12, 2010

Konnichiwa (fake) sushi lover

Though still groggy from my 14-hour nonstop flight from JFK to Narita airport, I managed to somehow navigate Tokyo’s subway system (no easy task, check out the image map) and found the ryokan (Japanese style inn) that I was staying in, albeit after inflicting my rudimentary Japanese on helpful locals who pointed me the right way.

Determined to eat as much as humanly possible during my vacation in Japan, I went for a stroll around the Asakusa neighborhood (where the ryokan was situated) to check out the restaurants and grab a quick meal (The in-flight meals proved inadequate in filling up the big belly).

Stumbled upon Koppabashi, which is the kitchenware district (a perfect analogy is the Bowery's lighting district) of Tokyo where all merchandise related to operating a restaurant are sold.

The item of interest that caught my eye were the "fake sushi", almost life-like pieces of fish that are used by a typical Japanese restaurant for displaying their offerings in a glass window display case outside their establishment. If I was just a little bit more famished, I would've popped the fake sushi into my mouth, plastic wrapping and all.

(Clicking on the image above brings you to the food replicas slide show).

Check out more Japan posts here.

Friday, July 02, 2010

A Pis of Manneken for breakfast

Breakfast in Japan usually consists of something I pick up from the pastry aisle at the generic 24-hour convenience store. This is mostly out of convenience but partly due to the kick I get out of perusing the hundreds of varieties of cold canned coffee, which in my opinion can be boiled down to exactly two: black and au lait. Oh, and of course, to pick up my daily fix of Pocari Sweat.

One morning, my half-shut eyes spotted what looked like a Belgian...excuse me, a Liege waffle, and true enough, that's what it was. A closer examination of the waffle package showed the Belgian flag proudly displayed on top, as well as one of Brussels' most visited landmarks (read: tourist trap), the Manneken Pis.

I could hardly believe my eyes. How could a Japanese company have appropriated this much-loved Belgian icon, him with the fabulous wardrobe, and plastered the Manneken Pis' image on a cheap snack to be hawked at every 7-11, Family Mart, and Lawson's outlet across Japan? Why isn't the Belgian trade minister screaming loudly at the WTO for sanctions?!

My indignation was short-lived, however. I tore into the package, and pretty soon was munching contentedly on the waffle. Tasted quite good, actually, though hunger can muddle one's thinking.

As I pondered the situation, the more my views shifted to admiration for the business acumen of the company. After all, wasn't it clearly a master stroke to use a cliche associated with a foreign country to market products to the local population? The use of the Belgian flag seems rather dubious and over the top though.

Checking the website for more information led to nowhere, as it was purely in Japanese. (Or maybe the "Click here for English" was also written in Japanese. Hahaha). Anyone care to translate and help shed more light on this?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

All aboard the Sushi Train!

Update: One of my friends said, "This is all very nice, but what do you do if your favorite sushi just never reaches you?". Hmmm, more food for thought.

Japanese food is one of my favorite cuisines, if not my most favorite. Although New York City has tons of Japanese restaurants offering sushi, yakitori, ramen, and even curry, I haven't really found one that offers conveyor belt sushi.

There are probably a few places out there that I'm not aware of, but they're far from being ubiquitous, unlike in say, Australia, where the conveyor belt sushi ("Oh, the sushi trains!", exclaimed my Aussie friend) places are everywhere, usually operated by proprietors of Japanese descent. Great for them, but why not NYC? Isn't that strange?

Sushi Train video

If you've never heard of conveyor belt sushi, that's exactly what it is. The sushi plates are placed on a rotating belt that moves around the sushi bar, with prices varying according to the color of the plate. As the plate that catches your fancy passes by, simply reach out and grab it from the belt. Your bill will be tallied up after wards according to the number and color of plates you have consumed.

Fortunately, my vacation in Japan gave me a couple of opportunities to hop aboard the sushi trains, so to speak. Not that I made it a point to do any research on kaiten sushi places, but rather stumbled upon them while sightseeing - one in Shinjuku, Tokyo, and the other in downtown Kyoto.

During my initial conveyor belt sushi experience, it took me a few moments after sitting down at the counter to figure things out, like where the tea cups were and how to get water from the nearby spigot. Everything is truly self-service, although the staff is happy to assist if you wish to ask the chef for a custom order.

Watching the sushi rolling merrily along the train tracks proved quite entertaining, though the signs puzzled me since I don't speak any Japanese. Sushi plate prices are clearly indicated on a chart and start at around $1.50 for two pieces of fish (e.g. tuna, salmon), and increase for more special items (e.g. eel).

Sushi Train video

I found the conveyor belt sushi dishes to be quite fresh and delicious, contrary to some people's dismissive attitude towards kaiten sushi places as being "fast food sushi". Since they're part and parcel of Japanese culture, some of the world's most meticulous consumers, I wasn't surprised about the high quality standards though.

On each occasion, empty plates 8 or 9 deep were stacked up in front of me at the end of the meal. The self-service aspect also meant lunch took less than half an hour, leaving more time for on-a-full-stomach post-meal contemplation: why aren't conveyor belt sushi restaurants more common in New York City (or the USA in general)?