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Tim Foolery

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Monthly Archives: March 2015

Temple of 10,000 Buddhas

I slept slightly better on Friday night than I did on Thursday, but not a whole hell of a lot better.  I probably slept about 5 hours throughout the night.  I was awake, showered and ready to hit the town by around 06h00, like the day before, EAD and I decided to meet at 08h00 for breakfast.  The breakfast on Saturday morning was the same as it was on Friday morning – there were just about twice as many people eating on Saturday.

Our plan for Saturday was to visit the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas, then we would grab lunch and explore the Sha Tin neighborhood.  Our second morning was a bit luckier as it relates to the use of Le Méridien Shuttle (we actually caught the shuttle this time).  This was a much nicer ride into the Central Station on the bus than the taxi — the taxi wasn’t bad at all, just the bus was cleaner and more comfortable.

We decided to take the Metro to see the Buddhas – which required three train lines, but only took 45 minutes.  We left Central Station on the Red Line to Prince Edward Station, where we transferred to the Green Line and then connecting at the Kowloon Tong Station for the Light Blue Line (East Rail Line) finally ending up at Sha Tin Station.  We knew it was a short walk from the Station to the Temple, but we had heard this was a bit of a confusing walk.  We had a guidebook that evidently gave great directions – that is of course until construction changes the streets/landmarks around the area.

We followed the directions as best we could – then we found a sign to the temple on the hill.  There are hundreds of stairs leading up to the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas.  Everything I read/heard was that the stair climb can be taxing especially in summer with the heat and humidity.  We saw the stairs, then saw an escalator right next to it.  I heard nothing of an escalator – we thought this had been installed after our friends had visited and our guidebook published.  We continued to the top and found only a couple of locals hanging out.  Inside the temple the ceilings were a couple dozen feet high and the walls were covered with thousands of cubbyholes – each holding a different Buddha.

Not the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas

Not the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas

This is why we initially thought this was the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas.

This is why we initially thought this was the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas.

We decided that our planned visit out here was pretty lame.  This temple, while interesting, sure wasn’t worth a visit, especially on a quick 3 day trip.  We snapped a couple final pictures, and headed out.  As we walk out a different door, we saw this sign:

This sign would have been more helpful at the base of the mountain and not on a side exit door.

This sign would have been more helpful at the base of the mountain and not on a side exit door.

Well that makes a lot more sense.  We were in the wrong place.  We headed back down the stairs (the escalator only goes in one direction).  We were laughing that we were ready to head back to Central Station thinking we’ve seen the temple.  The signs were a little less clear once we got outside and back to the street, but we found it.  To enter the temple you walk past a parking lot near a grocery store and pass between a small gate in a chain link fence.

We approached the main entrance to the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas and came across two monks waiting at the entrance.  We read earlier that these aren’t really monks, there are just scammers dressed like monks wanting your cash for a fake blessing.  I’m gad we read about this before our arrival.

After we passed the monks, we knew we were in the right spot.  We saw a ton of stairs leading up a mountain — all flanked by different life-sized Buddhas all in different poses and with different expressions.  Luckily, the day we visited the Temple it was only about 18C with no humidity – so we weren’t big sweaty messes.  My favorite of the Buddhas are below.  Be warned, some of my captions may be offensive to some, but these are the first thoughts that came to mind when I saw these statutes.

Babysitting Grandpa Buddha

Babysitting Grandpa Buddha

I caught a fish "this big" Buddha

I caught a fish “this big” Buddha

Riding on a Peacock Buddha

Riding on a Peacock Buddha

We're just friends Buddha

We’re just friends Buddha

Oh No! The toilet is overflowing Buddha

Oh No! The toilet is overflowing Buddha

Bearded Bug-Eyed Buddha

Bearded Bug-Eyed Buddha

Someone looks a little high.

Someone looks a little high.

Loved this Buddha with inquisitive face and crinkled forehead.

Loved this Buddha with inquisitive face and crinkled forehead.

Stern Looking Buddha with Full Cloak

Stern Looking Buddha with Full Cloak

Looks like this Buddha is going to take a bite out of this lotus blossom.

Looks like this Buddha is going to take a bite out of this lotus blossom.

Wide-Eyed Buddha Dreaming of Better Times

Wide-Eyed Buddha Dreaming of Better Times

This Buddha looks a bit like Colonel Sanders.  I do love fried chicken.

This Buddha looks a bit like Colonel Sanders. I do love fried chicken.

Buddha and a Dragon/Kitty

Buddha and a Dragon/Kitty

Buddha and a Dragon/Kitty

Buddha and a Dragon/Kitty

Sad Buddha with scepter.

Sad Buddha with scepter

I enjoyed this little trek out to see the Temple and was really moved by the various statues, their expressions, their stances and sheer quantity of them.  If you have a few hours to kill while in Hong Kong, take a quick trip out to see the Temple.  Once you get off the Metro, ask for directions – don’t waste your time attempting to find the Temple on your own.

Have you been to the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas?  Where you lucky enough to have cool weather while visiting?

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Rotating Credit Card Bonuses

In general, I like rotating credit card point bonuses – credit cards offer increased points for a given month or quarter on certain types of spend, like grocery stores, restaurants, movie theaters, etc.   The Chase Freedom Card is the only card I have that offers regular rotating category bonuses.  This card offers 5 points per dollar spent in these rotating categories versus the standard 1 point.  This category bonuses cap out at $1,500 in spend or 7,500 points each quarter.

For Q4/2014 the category bonus included Amazon.com – it was easy to max out last quarter.  I purchased Amazon Prime, bought a dozen or so books for Christmas gifts and even purchased a bunch of non-perishable household items like light bulbs.  I find it usually pretty easy to max out on these bonuses considering the limit and the relative diversity of the categories.

For Q1/2015 the category bonus includes grocery stores.  Unfortunately, I thought the category was restaurants (restaurants are actually in Q2).  I used this card almost exclusively at restaurants over the past two months.  I then realized I was wrong.  I had a lot of catching up to do.  How do I spend $1,500 in just 3 weeks at grocery stores?  Gift cards, obviously.  I know I’ll be spending money at grocery stores over the next several months, I might as well pre-pay for grocery store gift cards and max out on Ultimate Reward Points.

So, what’s the moral of the story?  Even if you are positive of the category bonus double check it, if I didn’t I could have left 7,500 points on the table this quarter.  For anyone in the points/miles game this would be a cardinal sin.

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (Dinner)

We booked reservations at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon several weeks before our actual trip to Hong Kong.  This three Michelin star restaurant was pretty high on my list of places to try – but I couldn’t find a single person who had actually been to the restaurant. I read a ton of reviews and was excited about visiting.  The restaurant is right at the Central Station – just a quick walk from where our Shuttle dropped us off.

This isn’t like any other restaurant I’ve been to – the main seating area was a high top bar around the centralized kitchen where you watch the chef and the souses prep and plate the meals.  There is an outer ring of high boy tables that offer additional seating – none of which was needed the Friday night we visited.  The one main thing I constantly saw/read about L’Atelier was about their wine list.  It was hugely extensive – with hundreds (thousands?) of bottles from all over the world, but a huge selection of French wines.  The best part – the markup wasn’t the standard 3-5 times retail upcharge – much of the wine was increased between 25% – 100% (estimate).  Definitely one of the best wine lists I’ve seen – and I hear one of the best in Hong Kong.

I was really digging the interiors – sleek, modern, dark, yet welcoming.  I was not at all sold on the whole bar only seating area.  I don’t like eating dinner at the bar – it isn’t conducive to a good conversation among friends and is nearly impossible if there is more than 2 people together (lucky for us, it was just two of us).  I don’t mind watching the inner workings of a world class kitchen — in small doses. The idea of watching for the entire meal wasn’t too exciting for me either.

We sat at our bar area and EAD decided to order a couple glasses of Dom Perignon.  The by the glass vintage was 2004, which in my mind is head an shoulders above the 2003 (which is served on Thai Airways A380 Flagship Service).  This was EAD’s first time trying Dom.  It was definitely good, but I think you are paying quite a bit for the name versus the quality of the product.  I actually prefer Krug over Dom, but I’m not all that discriminating when it comes to bubbles.

While we finished our champagne, we reviewed the outrageously extensive wine list – dozens upon dozens of pages of wines.  Since we were in a Three Michelin Star French Restaurant, I figured we should have a French wine and since I had just returned from Burgundy a few weeks prior, I figured we should stay within that region.  We asked the sommelier to join us and offer some guidance.  This is where the meal started to go off the rails.

We started by telling him which menu we had chosen for the evening and that we were looking for a Burgundian red.  We further explained that we love Pinot Noir for the lightness, but want something bolder to fit well with the beef entree.  We then quietly pointed out our price point — even though the restaurant doesn’t mark their wines up 5 times, there was a selection of bottles priced over $100,000HKD and we didn’t want to pick up one of those.  The somm spent about 3 minutes going through pointing out several bottles (but not telling us anything other than “this one is good…so is this one.”) He pointed out items that were priced half what we suggested up to 4 times the price.  He added absolutely no value to the experience.  The interaction with the somm was something I was looking forward to.  I don’t expect someone to know everything about all the wines on a 135 pages wine list, but I expected much more than we got.  We ended up just picking a Burgundian wine in the price range we were reviewing with no further guidance.  Disappointment number one (the service, not the wine).

For dinner we opted for the 6-course menu.  Which started off with smoked salmon and pureed watercress.  I am probably the only person I know who doesn’t like smoked salmon. That being said, whenever I am out and it is an option on a tasting menu, I will often try it. I’m waiting for the time that it just wows me.  Growing up I didn’t like fish in general, but now we eat fish a few times a week and if I could eat just one type of food for the rest of my life, it would be sushi. The roe served with the salmon was salty/briny and had a great pop of flavor.  I did not really dig the salmon.  I also forgot to take a picture of the amuse bouche and since I can remember nothing of it, I guess my bouche was far from amused.

LE SAUMON FUMÉ - Smoke salmon and potato crisps with Méréville watercress.

LE SAUMON FUMÉ – Smoke salmon and potato crisps with Méréville watercress.

The next course was crawfish, which I found to be better than the salmon.  It had a nice coralline emulsion with it and I will admit, I felt a bit like Babe, Pig in the City.  I didn’t know what coralline was, so I Googled it. Seaweed.  Got it.  I thought this dish had started to put us back on track – following a rough start with the somm and the salmon.

LES ECREVISSES - Roasted crayfish with fregula pasta and coralline emulsion

LES ECREVISSES – Roasted crayfish with fregula pasta and coralline emulsion

Next up was the entree in which we had a selection of either lamb or Kagoshima beef.  The beef had an up-charge to it and if we wanted to have the highest grade beef possible we could do so for a secondary up-charge.  We both opted or the beef but without the secondary up-charge.  I struggle with beef at restaurants. I blame my father – beef or steaks in general were always thought to be the best of anything one could eat.  In my day job, we are often taken out for a meal and steaks are the go to option – it shows how important we are as clients if they pay for big filthy steaks — or so it seems.  I don’t often eat beef at home or order it at a restaurant unless it’s a work function.  When I do, I am often left thinking about how I’m missing out on the other item.  I am never happy, I guess.

Unlike the previous dish, I knew about Kagoshima beef and while I’ve had it a couple times before, I figured tonight would be another good night to try it again.  The black cows of Kagoshima are world famous.  This dish also came with a portion of foie gras.  Be prepared to roll your eyes — I’m not a big fan of foie gras either.  I can handle it in a small portion as long as it is accompanied by something else — my perfect portions are 1/3 foie and 2/3 something else.

The beef was perfectly prepared and had very nice flavor as did the foie gras. There was a ton of foie on my plate – nearly 2/3 of the amount of beef.  One thing I love about beef outside of the US is that you get a real portion – not an enormous 24 ounce cut of meat.  No human should consume that much of anything in sitting.

LE BŒUF DE KAGOSHIMA - Pan seared Kagoshima beef tenderloin and foie gras, salsify with black truffle and parmesan cheese

LE BŒUF DE KAGOSHIMA –
Pan seared Kagoshima beef tenderloin and foie gras, salsify with black truffle and parmesan cheese

After the beef and foie gras, our waiter mentioned that we could add a cheese course if we wanted.  C’mon!  Anyone who has eaten with me knows if a cheese course is offered, I will take them up on it.  Plus, this Three Starred French restaurant should have a fab selection.  The layout of the restaurant was not conducive to have the cheese trolley actually move from table to table. Instead it was set back in the corner and we were paraded in front of it.  There were approximately a dozen cheese selections – goat, sheep and cow.  Firm, semi-firm to soft.  As we were guided through the various options, I saw on calling out to me.  It was inside a small round wooden cheese box.  I eagerly awaited while our host made his way to this cheese…but he never did.  I saw the little box labeled Époisses and my heart skipped a beat (probably equally because after eating it twice daily over Thanksgiving in France my arteries were clogged and because I had missed this beauty so much).  How could the cheese guide skip it?  I asked him if there really was Époisses inside and he confirmed, but said that Americans really don’t like that cheese and they often see it go to waste, so he usually doesn’t mention it to us.

Ok – I get it.  An unpasteurized, soft, aromatic cheese is a far cry from the Kraft Singles most people here eat, but c’mon!

I responded to him by saying: “Escusez-moi…mais j’aime l’Époisses. Il est le meilleur fromage bourguignon. Mon ami n’a jamais essayé.  Nous allons asseyer” – or “Excuse me, but I love Époisses. It is the best Burgundian cheese. My friend has never tried it.  We will have it”.  Oh my – it was wonderful.  It was stinky, it was runny, it was fabulous.

We split a cheese plate as we weren’t especially hungry at this point.  Our lovely cheese guide took the liberty of sprinkling some herbs over the various cheeses to help expand the flavor profile.  So good.  Did I mention how great l’Époisses was?  In the picture below it is in the 15h00 position — see it starting to melt at room temperature? Heaven.

Cheese Course - including Époisses de Bourgogne, my favorite French stinky cheese).

Cheese Course – including Époisses de Bourgogne, my favorite French stinky cheese).

Next up was the dessert. It was unmemorable.  So unmemorable in fact, I have no idea what it is. I checked the current menu, which shows the dessert as Japanese Strawberries — this sure isn’t that.  I ate most of this dessert, I know that.  I have no clue what it is and I know when eating it I wasn’t really into it.  It looks pretty though, right?

P1050559 (Small)

As we finished our dessert (whatever it was) and sipped the last bit of our wine, our check was delivered along with some petit fours / macarons.  At this point in the meal, I was pretty full, but it sure didn’t stop me from eating a macaron or a Madeleine, both of which were very good.  I wish every restaurant would leave you some of these little treats as they drop off your check.

Petite Fours et Macarons

Petite Fours et Macarons

Those who know me or read this blog from time to time know that I love fine dining, although I am equally at home at a Three Star Michelin restaurant as I am at a squat stool on a side street eating off of a semi-clean spoon (that was lunch the day after this meal here).  I was very much looking forward to eating at one of Hong Kong’s only Three Michelin star restaurants (there are 3 others).   L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon has three stars, but honestly, I have no idea why.  The service was pretty good. The sommelier was very disappointing, the courses were almost completely forgettable. The cheese course divine.  This meal was by far the most expensive per person meal I’ve had in my life.  It ran us more than 500USD/person all included.  Alinea, in Chicago – what use to be the world’s best restaurant – was cheaper.  Let’s be clear – I am very happy I visited and I don’t regret the decision for a moment, but I just don’t see how this is a Three-Star restaurant.

I am very happy I took photos of (almost) every course and that the menu remains online, because almost everything we had that night at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon was forgettable (other than the unimpressive somm and the Époisses).  When I return to Hong Kong – and I guarantee I will – I will not return to l’Atelier.

7 Minutes 8 Seconds and 20,000 Starpoints

About 8-9 weeks ago I booked a room at the St. Regis in Rome – for a stay over the summer.  Two nights cost me 73,500 points.  The St. Regis was a category 7 – the highest category in the Starwood portfolio of properties.  That’s a ton of Starpoints to use for just two nights, but I’d rather use these points than pay the 500EUR/night for this stay, that’s for sure.

St. Regis Rome – photo courtesy of St. Regis Rome and Starwood

Then a few weeks ago I received the annual email from Starwood showcasing the hotel category changes for 2015.  Each year (most) hotel chains review and update the categories of their various properties – not every hotel is adjusted and not every hotel goes up to a more expensive category.  Surprisingly, the St. Regis Rome went from a category 7 to a category 6 – which saves 10,000 Starpoints each night.  That’s a total savings of 20,000 points or another night at a category 6, two nights at a category 4 or five nights at a category 2.  That’s meaningful.

Not surprisingly, Starwood doesn’t just automatically credit you back after these adjustments, you have to either cancel and rebook or call and see if they’ll credit you back the points without a cancel/rebook.  When I initially booked this stay, I couldn’t book it online so had to call the Platinum Desk to complete the booking and I did the same thing to get my points back.

I called and was immediately connected to Sue, who knew exactly what I was up to and was pretty confident she could just credit the points back without a cancel/rebook, but after about 45 seconds of trying she realized that wasn’t going to happen.  She quickly cancelled and rebooked my room – and reapplied my Platinum Suite Upgrade.  I was on the phone with Sue for 7 minutes and 8 seconds. Fantastic use of my time.

If you have an upcoming award stay which you booked earlier this year (or last) you should double check the current hotel category (this goes not only for Starwood, but Marriott, Hilton and others too) and see if you’ve got some savings coming to you.  One important thing to note too – if you’ve booked an award room and that hotel has increased in categories you won’t have to pay additional points (unless you cancel/rebook now, of course).

How do your current reservations look?  Are you getting a deal now or are you leaving some points on the table?

Victoria Peak – Hong Kong

My body clock was all messed up on this trip, so the first night I slept about 3 hours and was awake from 05h00 on – showered and ready to hit the town by 06h00.  The night before, we planned on meeting at 08h00 for breakfast, then head into the City and see Victoria Peak.  No matter where I go, I want to go to the highest spot and just look around.  I’ve done it in Cape Town, Paris, Shanghai and I always make visitors to Chicago do the same.

After breakfast and just missing the complimentary shuttle at the hotel, we hopped in a cab and headed to Central Station.  From there we wandered aimlessly around the shopping mall, trying to find the best door to exit – dropping us off as close as possible to the Peak Tram.  Once we made it outside (the wrong door, of course) we realized the signs were pretty clear on how to get to the tram.  We walked up a bit of a hill (huge hill for a flatlander Chicagoan, like myself) and stumbled across St. John’s Cathedral – which warranted a quick stop.

St. John's Cathedral - Interior

St. John’s Cathedral – Interior

St. John's Cathedral - Interior

St. John’s Cathedral – Interior

I dig the Gothic arches and the colonial vibe of the fans in this Cathedral.  We spent a few minutes walking around – I always take time to sit in the center pew and just be.  I’m not religious, but I do dig the history.  I think about the building of this structure, the people who toiled in it’s construction, the people who eagerly awaited it’s opening, the children who begrudgingly sat their listening to the priest yearning to go out and play – where are those kids now? Do they do the same thing to their kids?

We then walked over to the Peak Tram Terminus where I attempted to buy two round trip tickets with observatory access.  I say attempted to, but something was lost in translation — we were sold a one way ticket.

Peak Tram Approaching Stations

Peak Tram Approaching Station

We waited for the Tram and were surrounded by a surprisingly large number of Americans.  I was a bit shocked.  I was also shocked that the largest advertisement in this tram station was for the American chain Bubba Gump Shrimp.  The large group of Americans around us talked constantly about how great Bugga Gump is and how they can’t wait until they get back from the Peak and can go their for lunch.  Let’s just say we did not have the same conversation nor the same plans for lunch.

Once atop the mountain you disembark and then walk through a shopping mall (for some reason) to get to the observation deck (this is where we found out we didn’t have the full access ticket).  We grabbed the audio guide, which I usually stay away from these because more often than not they go through painstaking details and I don’t have the patience or the time to listen.  This time was different – my first visit to the City and I hoped this audio guide would give me a better lay of the land (and it did).

From Victoria Peak you have nearly 360 degree view of Hong Kong.  The weather was beautiful the day we went to the Peak.  At the top, it was a bit windy/brisk, but the warmth of the sun made up for it.

View from the Peak

View from the Peak

View from the Peak

View from the Peak

Peak Tram making its way up the mountain.

Peak Tram making its way up the mountain.

We spent about an hour at the top of the Peak enjoying the views, the sun and the peacefulness of the space.  Such a quiet sanctuary in the middle of a crazy busy City.  I’m very happy we paid the Peak a visit – it is definitely one of those check-list items you need to do when visiting Hong Kong.  That being said, I can’t imagine making this a regular stop on my visit to Hong Kong.

When you visited Hong Kong did you visit the Peak?  How about on subsequent visits, does it remain on the required stop list?  Did you have the same issues I did with the tickets?