Thursday, December 24, 2009

Schloss Neuschwanstein

After they arrived at Munich airport, they went straight to the Hertz Rent-a-car center to pick up the rental car they have reserved. The lady at the counter's first question was, "Do you need winter tires? The car reserved has summer tires."

They were given a choice of taking the default car with summer tires, a BMW 318i with winter tires or going back in 30 minutes for more options with winter tires. The last option seemed to be the most sensible at the time and they decided to explore the area around Munich airport while pushing their trolleys of suitcases. Right outside the airport terminal, there was a small Christmas market selling everything from hot food, ie sausages to X'mas decorations. But then airport trolleys and Christmas market were not the ideal match and dad was glad that 30 minutes went like a breeze in the wintry open-air market.

It was 30 minutes worthwhile waiting for. They were given Range Rover Sport 4.2L Diesel with Twin-turbo engine. And this came without needing to pay extra for the bigger and more powerful car, which probably carried a price tag double that of the BMW 5 series reserved. They only paid extra EUR 60 for the winter tires, designed to improve grip under lower temperatures.

"I can't where to slot the car key in!!", mum said after looking up and down the dashboard near the steering wheel on the left side of the car.

"I think it's a "key-less" car.", dad mumbled after seeing the "Start / Stop" button. The engine started after one press at the button. Apparently, the attendant at the Hertz Rent-a-car drop-off in Frankfurt had similar problem in figuring out how to start the car upon its return. Blame it on modern technology and you normally don't expect a quick-start manual to come with a rental car. The rental car in San Francisco had satellite radio, this one had iPod / iPhone connectivity as they found out accidentally while fumbling for a place to put drinks.

Overall, they liked the Range Rover especially when they pressed the gas pedal hard to overtake cars traveling at 160-170km/hr along Germany's famous autobahn. The car clocked more than 190km/hr at some open stretch of the autobahn but average more than 140km/hr for most of their journey.

The GPS was built-in with other controls in the car's dashboard and it was a breeze to use once it was switched from German to English. After the address of Mandarin Oriental was input, they drove all the way to the destination without taking a wrong turn. Instructions were timely and clear. One would only appreciate such luxury if they had experienced the stress of driving in a foreign country using nothing beside a compendium of maps. "Ah, we are meant to have turned out from the last exit." Then you spent the next 10 miles, if you're lucky, looking out for the next exit and tried to steer back onto the right route after you turned out.

The hotel sat right in the middle of Munich's city center. They just couldn't wait to visit the Christmas market there once they settled down in the hotel. They braved the frigid weather and started exploring the market. It wasn't long before they concluded that there were only two food items on sale in the market, sausages and gluhwein. The gluhwein were served in porcelain cups from different shops which you paid a deposit for and the sausages were served piping hot in bread roll. As usual they kept walking until they found the stall with the most people queuing and bought some sausages there. It wasn't long after they had their first taste of this Bavarian speciality that they decided that it was just too cold and retreated back to the warmth of the hotel bed. Dad hasn't slept for 40 hours since waking in New York the morning of the day before.

6:30am was when the hotel's restaurant opened for breakfast and they were there five minutes after it opened. This Chinese lady from Nanjing, China was still busy putting out all the breakfast buffet items. The buffet had a good spread of items and they tried the boiled Bavarian white sausages with honey mustard and pretzels as well as the safer choice of egg benedicts. Apparently, you need to take the sausage's casing off before you dig into the stuffing of the sausage and it tasted great.

The frigid weather continued and the snow covered trees and slanted roofs really lent a great deal to the Christmas feel of the whole place, especially along the journey from Munich to Schloss Neuschwanstein. It was like looking at an extended picture of X'mas card.

The castle image of Schloss Neuschwanstein is perhaps one of world's most recognized but you probably won't associate the image with a castle in Germany, but instead a castle in your dream or in the US, in Disneyland. In fact, this is perhaps the only example in the world where the replica is more famous than the original.

It was 3:30pm when mum and dad finally arrived at the foothill near the castle and the sky was starting to get dark. No more tickets for the entrance into the castle as they asked the man behind the ticketing booth. He then showed them the picture book of what's inside the castle and said, "Now you have seen it all!! To get to the castle, just walk up the slope from here." Having been told earlier by a lady with kids that they should take one of the horse drawn cart up the slope. They decided to take the walk up. Since most of the pictures of the castle emphasize its external beauty, it probably wasn't a big loss not being able to see the inside.

The track up the castle was lined with horse manure all the way. One of the workers would drive an open top lorry to scoop up the individual pile of manure along the way. The sight of the manure washed down by the melting snow wasn't particularly appetizing unless you had an innate fascination with faeces like us, doggies. And this really put the chapter of "Superfreaknomics" by Steven Levitt on the problems brought by horses before the advent of automobiles into perspective.


"Guess we should go and visit SoHo, since you've never been. And we don't have much time before going to the airport." Dad said to Mum. So after stuffing themselves in the two Momofuku restaurants they went to SoHo. There really wasn't much time exploring the artistic side of the area. They got sucked into Dean & Deluca and then the closing down sale of a shoe shop. So not a lot of story, we can only let the photos tell the stories.

1. They have Pet Adoptions Day too. Abandon dogs everywhere in the world. Please don't give us out as gifts and presents. We are a lifelong commitment.

2. Distinctive architecture in SoHo.

3. The ubiquitous cobblestone street in the Cast Iron District.

4. The ultimate stimulus package - Obama Condoms. For hard times. You see them on sale everywhere.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


So what about the restaurants? Why's there no mention of any Michelin stars?
Mum was busy working during this trip in New York and dad survived on eating 2 meals a day. With the American serving sizes, he could probably do with 1.5 meals a day.

The exceptions were Momofuku and Daniel.

Momofuku is a chain of restaurants opened by the Korean Chef, David Chang. He started with Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2003 (Momofuku is probably a tribute to Momofuku Ando, the father of instant noodles). Upon its success, he opened Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Momofuku Ko and the Milk Bar afterward. And the latest restaurant due to open was Ma Peche inside the Chambers Hotel in 56th Street near 5th Avenue. You can read about it all in the wikipedia entry above.

Mum ate the Ma Peche menu 3 times during her trip and dad ate once. Yes, we did say, the restaurant wasn't opened yet. But they started serving the Ma Peche menu in the lounge of the Chambers Hotel before the restaurant was ready.

On Saturday, before they took off for Germany, they went for a trip exploring all the Momofuku shops before making a short visit to Soho.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar is a causal diner serving a mix of everything. Its latest claim of fame is perhaps being the first and only restaurant to make the Perrier Top 50 restaurants that takes no reservations. It ranks 31st. This is quite an accolade when you consider how many famous chefs there are in the world.

As Dad wanted to try the noodles with ginger and scallion, they went to the Momofuku Noodle Bar after having their starters in the Ssäm Bar. The place was not very well sign-posted and instead of entering the Noodle Bar when they saw the Momofuku sign, they went into Momofuku Ko, which was a tiny place and very quiet with only a few customers in there. Momofuku Ko, takes reservations online 6 days in advance and serve 2 fried chickens. And this is a Michelin 2-star restaurant. They were kindly told that the Noodle Bar was just next door and the restaurant was full.

When they entered the Noodle Bar, it was a completely different ambience. The whole place was buzzing with people and there was a 15-20 minute wait for seats at the bar. They ordered a sashimi and the noodle with ginger and scallion. The sashimi was fresh and the condiments refreshing. The noodle was cooked to just the right tension and still piping hot from the open kitchen. It tasted just like 薑蔥撈麵. If you use the ginger-scallion sauce from the best Hainanese Chicken rice store in Singapore, you might not be able to tell the difference. Such a simple dish, but the execution made all the difference.

Christmas in New York

Other than the most famous X'mas tree, New York has many other signs to remind you that Christmas is coming. These are just some of the photos we like.

1. A huge Christmas Stick
2, 3. New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg getting an earful from Rabbi Shmuel Butman after the lighting of the largest Chanukah Menorah in the world
4. Christmas Party at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), one of the finest modern art museum in the world
5. Angels near Rockefeller Center
6. Environmentally friendly snowman made from recycled clothes, found in SOHO

Magnolia Bakery and Cup Cakes

"Ah, this is the cake shop featured in Sex and the City", Mum said enthusiastically like a kid when they walked past the Magnolia Bakery shop in 6th Avenue near 49th Street. But then it was late at night, the shop was closed and all they could see were paper boxes stuffed in between the entrance doors.

So dad bought two cup cakes from the shop which reputedly started the "cupcake craze" back to the hotel the following night, just before the shop closed its doors for the night. One white chocolate and a chocolate mousse. Both of them were a bit wary before eating the cupcake, because the cream looked rather heavy on top. The cream was lighter than it looked and the cupcakes were tasty. But then not sure if it's good enough to start a "craze".

This probably the most filmed cupcake shop in the world, featured in TV shows like Saturday Night Live and Spin City and movies like Sex and the City, Prime and Devils Wear Prada.

Every time they see cupcakes being sold, they always remember this conversation which happened in an elevator in Horizon Plaza in Hong Kong.

Mum - Hey darling, is that that the shop where you like the cupcakes?

Little Girl - No, no!! Those are horrible. They are fake.

Time Square Shooting

Bright, animated advertisements can be see every big cities in the world, Shibuya in Tokyo, Piccadilly Circus in London, but Time Square in Midtown Manhattan has more brighter, larger signs. These signs probably attract more eyeballs than anywhere else in the world. In fact, the LED billboard can be so lucrative that in the case of One Time Square, the whole building is left vacant with the exception of the retail floors below in order to show case the huge LED display that can be rented by the hour for as much as US$10,000 per hour. (In fact the building right across Sogo in Causeway Bay in Hong Kong is emulating a similar model.)

So what's worth blogging about here other than the photos?

The morning after these photos were taken, an incident of a gun fight happened right at the same place where the photos were taken. Shots were fired and the 25-year old gunman was shot down by plain-clothes police. It happened when the area was packed with tourists and the man was peddling illegal counterfeit items. The man failed to do more damage only because the semi-automatic MAC10 was jammed after firing 2 shots.

It's just too easy to get a powerful gun in the US.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Second Biggest Apple in the Big Apple

Surely no good thing could come from a broken computer.

The first night when they arrived in New York, dad realized that the Macbook wouldn't start despite trying to restart, hard reset, reset PRAM, reset SMC and well just about everything other than smashing the computer. Without the computer for the rest of the trip meant no cheap international calls through Skype and couldn't check up on us. So dad went to the Apple store nearest to the hotel they were staying in Fifth Avenue.

Mum and dad went to the exact same store 2 years ago again just before X'mas. The building looked like an ice cube with the ubiquitous Apple logo inside and glass-slab spiral stair case going to the basement where the main shopping area was located. Dad asked the first assistant he saw about what he should do with his broken computer and got directed to the "Genius Bar", an area where a bench full of Apple technicians attend to different issues. He went and made a reservation to see one of the technicians using the computer in front. The next slot was only 10 minutes later. Lucky day!!

His turn came. The technician asked what's the issue and soon started plugging away. There was no question about if the computer was still under warranty etc. While the store-computer was doing the diagnostics on the Macbook, Dad chit-chat away with the technicians, about things like the iPhoto 09 feature of facial recognition and if the software could ID dogs' faces (apparently it might be able to given some training, maybe bribe it with some treats will do the trick). Everything was very relax and professional. All the while, the store-computer was humming away with the diagnostics. After about 10-15 mins, the disk recovery was complete and the Macbook was back in working order. Apparently, boot sectors of the hard disk were corrupted during the previous shut down.

The store was very spacious. All the latest Apple products were there in copious quantity and people were encouraged to try them, iPods, iPhones, iMac and Macbook. The store run hourly workshops explaining a particular concept and how Apple hardware / software could fit into the scheme. Dad listened to a workshop on digital audio, which was quite interesting.

This store used to be the biggest Apple store in the US before a new store in Boston took its place last year. The biggest in the world is currently the one in Regent Street, London. This store maybe the highest grossing Fifth Avenue retailer according to Bloomberg. Anyway, it's a damn good shopping experience!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Finally, mum and dad are back

"Where are you?" Mum and dad were never home at night.

Luckily, granddad came over from Singapore to look after us with the maid, so we still got our daily walks and of course most importantly our breakfast and dinner. But still it's not quite the same when our parents not home. You can imagine our excitement and joy when we saw them back at the door with the suitcases full of things. Surely they bought something back for us!!

New York, Munich, Nuremberg, Frankfurt and London - So many places so little time
They started in New York and then Europe afterward. The trip just got colder by the day!! Lets share some of their pictures and stories here.

Festive New York near Rockefeller Center with the world's most famous X'mas tree (first set up in 1931 and celebrated since 1933, this year it was lit on 8 Dec) and the ice skating rink sponsored by the once almost bankrupted Citigroup. Mum did think about trying to ice-skate for the first time in her life but alas good food got the better of her.