Our Trip to XinJiang: Part 13 of 14

 Day 16:
We woke up in Jiayuguan (嘉峪關) that day, had breakfast and made our way back to Hami, otherwise known as Kumul (哈密) in XinJiang province.  Once again, we only stopped for meals and washroom breaks, travelling 611 kilometers over ten hours.  Hami was a much bigger city than the others we've been to in our previous days.  It actually had a modern four star hotel!  Although it was more than double the price of the previous hotels we stayed in, Kel and I decided to stay a night and enjoy a long, hot shower.  After all, it was still ridiculously cheap compared to North American standards.  The only complaint we had was once again, because its a newer hotel, it was central air.  This meant we didn't have absolute control over the temperature in the room and it was warmer than we'd prefer.

Day 17:
We spent the day in Hami.  After breakfast, we headed out to the Devil City (哈密魔鬼城).  There weren't actually any devils there, but more like rock formations in the Gobi desert.  The reason it was dubbed as the Devil City was the howling sounds that can be heard in the dead of the night.  The Devil City is about 5-10 kilometers in width and has a span of 400 kilometers from the Camel Peak to the Wubao Shaer Lake.  Because it is so vast, we had to pay an entry fee and then drive in as opposed to walking.  We found rock formations within that took the likings of a turtle, a chess piece, and the ruins of an ancient castle.

The giant sea turtle.

The knight chess piece.

Below: We hiked up the fortress ruins for more photo ops!  The view at the top was stunning.

On the way back, we did a quick stop to take pictures at the Border Mound Beacon by Shibaohua (史保華).  There really wasn't much there, but this beacon, so we quickly took some pictures and left.

Next, we headed up to Balikun (巴里坤) to see it's famous grasslands (巴里坤草原), the White Stone Scenic Spot (白石頭風景區) and the Balikun Lake.  Siubo wasn't too enthusiastic about taking us up to Balikun because it was 142 kilometres north of Hami, which is a good three and a half hours to get there.  We were staying the night in Hami, which meant it adds another seven hours of commute time!  He assured us there wasn't anything worth seeing up there.  However, Flora found a picture of the Balikun Lake in one of the travel brochures at the hotel the night before and we were convinced to find it.  In the picture, there was the grasslands around the clear turquoise lake, and in the backdrop there were green trees and snow capped mountains peeking through.

On the way up we stopped at the side of the road for pictures, as we were approaching the mountains and there was a creek running alongside. It was all too beautiful!

And this is when we got up to the Balikun grasslands (巴里坤草原).  Siubo said it was still too early in the season as it will get much greener in another month of so time.  It was such a nice day and on the right there, you can see the little trees they've planted in the field.

We didn't end up taking any pictures, nor did we stop at the White Stone Scenic Spot (白石頭風景區) because it's become highly commercialized with resorts and such.  Siubo agreed that the commercialization of the scenic spot has caused such an eyesore that it's no longer worth going.  On passing by we could only agree, as once again, mankind has destroyed what was once so beautiful purely for the sake of trying to make a few bucks.  Similarly, we never did find the Balikun Lake as framed in the picture.  We saw the Balikun Lake, but it's backdrop was not what was in the brochure.  It's neighbouring lake had that snow capped mountain backdrop, but lacked the grasslands.  We, along with Siubo, was convinced that someone must have photoshopped the two into one picture to use for marketing purposes.  Siubo goes up there many times a year, and says he has never seen all of those characteristics by one lake.

We went the rest of the way up to the Balikun town, but there wasn't much to see there.  It was all very touristy, and not at all what we were looking for.  There was an old wall at one end that was supposed to be a good picture spot.  However, when we approached, a lady tried to sell us counterfeit entry tickets, which left a sour taste in our mouths.  We talked her price down and sent Flora up the wall to see if it was even worth the time or the money for the rest of us to go up.  She reported back saying the pictures seen in the marketing brochures must have been taken from the other side of the wall.  There was no way down the other side unless you scaled it, and it was just barren desert land there.  All in all, we admitted to Siubo, we felt pretty fooled and the few pictures we did take was definitely not worth the seven hour drive.

Summer Projects: The Fence

When we bought our house two years ago, what attracted us a lot was the big yard with the huge trees.  You can't get yards this size, nor trees this big in the new subdivisions.  Looking out onto our backyard gave me a sense of serenity, almost like we're out of the city.  The trees would block the view of the neighbouring house behind us and offer shade for the house in the summer, a real energy saver.  

 However, what this also meant was that we didn't have a back fence to the yard.  At first this didn't seem like an issue, since we couldn't see our back neighbour anyways, but that's when winter came along and we realized we would be needing that fence.  All the leaves were gone, and there was only one coniferous standing alone in the yard.  We could now see our neighbour clear as day, as well as all the junk he dumps in this backyard!  They heated their house with a wooden stove, which meant there were piles and piles of wood laying about, along with random children's toys, a picnic table, barrels... you name it, he's got it!

So this year, seeing as we weren't as tied down renovating the interior of our house, we've decided to put up a fence.  Kel's found that one of the bigger trees in the back was actually dead and hollowing out, so that was our target.  He started the project by clearing the random shrubs and baby trees in the back and then one weekend, with the help of his brother and father, went up the tree to cut it down piece by piece.

He started by going up a ladder, then went shimmying up part of the tree.  His brother had a harness so they strapped Kel in, while he belayed him from the ground, in case he should fall.  Watching him climb up was quite a feat.  Kel wasn't exactly wearing climbing shoes, so there was no grip.  They ended up having to pulley up some boards and an impact gun for him to nail some steps onto the tree.

Below: Kel climbing the tree, while Ken belayed him from the ground and some of the crap visible in our neighbour's yard.

 When Kel finally got to the arc of the tree, they pulley-ed up the chainsaw all revved up, but with the safety on, for him to saw down the trunk!  I got a close up of him below sawing down the branch.  They did this section by section until it was just the stump on the ground.

I swear the branches didn't look that big before, but after it was sawed down, each branch was easily over 20 feet.  I was glad that none of the falling branches hit my garden!  Below you can see the neighbour coming over to collect firewood.  He was pretty much around the entire time watching the show, and waiting for wood.

Throughout the summer, Kel's been putting up our fence piece by piece.  Sometimes Erica would come over and nail in a couple boards, too.  Below, you can see the finished product: our fence as it stands today.

Bunfest 2011

I went to Bunfest 2011 today!  Last year, it was held in a community centre in Mississauga, and we got there late so there weren't a lot of visitors around.  This year, it was at the Bob Rumball Centre in Toronto, a lot closer to home!  We had originally wanted to go at 11AM right when it starts, but I had to work last minute and Kel had picked up a project, so instead I went after work instead.  When I got there, there were still lots of people and lots of bunnies!  After paying for admission, I was met with a bun on a harness with his owner hopping up the stairs!  What a way to start my Bunfest 2011 visit!  Everywhere around, there were bunnies in their carrier bags, bunnies stretching out in the bunny lounge, and bunnies in their playpen waiting to be adopted.  I even saw a bunny riding around in a wagon!

In one of the playpens, I met Pika, a Flemish Giant!  She weighed in at 15lbs and was absolutely adorable.  Her owner showed us how much she loves butt rubs and would return the favour with kisses!  Her owner told us she loves running around the house and is never too shy to show it.  With her size, she's anything but quiet! Makes me wonder how high her binkies get!  When her owner picked her up, she was easily longer than his torso, and he's not a small guy!

Bunfest 2011 turned into a shopping spree for all things Kingsley.  I brought home two 2lb bags of fresh hay, some willow tree leaves and twigs, various treats for our lovable boy, and a willow tunnel, ball, and an "In case of emergency, please rescue our bunnies" decal!

Below, you can see Kingsley playing with his new willow ball.

Labour Day Weekend in New York City: Nougatine at Jean-Georges

On our last day in New York City, we hit up Nougatine at Jean-Georges for lunch before making our way back home.  I had originally booked for Jean-Georges, but there was some kind of mix up with the reservation desk as they've penned me down for Nougatine.  I only realized this mistake when they called to confirm and by then it was too late to make a change.  Jean-Georges was full until 2:30pm. Bleh.  Ah wells, Nougatine it is.  Nougatine had the lunch prix fixe menu, which wasn't a bad deal.  For $32, you can get an appetizer, entree and a dessert, so that's what we went for.

For my first course, I decided to supplement a couple bucks to get an appetizer that was off the prix fixe: Foie gras brulee, slow-roasted strawberries and aged balsamic vinegar.  I had originally wanted to try the Foie gras brulee at Jean Georges which came with the pineapple-meyer lemon jam, but this will have to suffice.  I was pleasantly surprised at how light the roasted strawberries complimented the dish.  The top was seared crispy, and when I applied pressure to cut into it, bits of the foie gras would bubble up through the crust! Joy!  In the cross section, I found the roasted strawberries nested in the foie gras which was the other surprise.  All in all, I think the berries really lightened up the entire dish, making it suitable as a lunch item.

This was Kel's appetizer: Tuna tartare, avocado, spicy radish, ginger marinade.  I didn't get to try any (just as he didn't get to try my brulee) as we weren't sitting next to each other during this meal, but he told me it was wonderful.  In particular, he thought the ginger marinade was a nice and unique touch.

My entree: Slowly cooked skate, eggplant, pepper ragout.  I thought the skate was made really well, just tender and not overcooked.  Each piece of the wing flaked off nicely.  Wasn't a big fan of the ragout though.  I expected the fresh pepper taste, but it came out to be pickled pepper.  A little sour for my taste on an entree.

Kel's entree: Slowly cooked salmon, with sauteed potatoes, black olive and passion fruit.  As you can see, the salmon was a good sized portion, not what we expected.  And it was sitting on a bed of spinach, which was on top of the potatoes.  Kel said the overall dish was good, but he thought the spinach was slightly over done, a bit chewy.  What can I say, the man's picky about his greens!

Kel's cousin's entree: Sauteed red snapper, spaghetti squash, sesame broth and chili oil.  No complaints here.  She said the flavours melded very well together.
We ended our meal with the warm chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream, which once again, put us over the top, but hey, who can complain about too much chocolate, especially when it's oozing out the centre? :)

Labour Day Weekend in New York City: Momofuku Noodle Bar

Another place we visited was the Momofuku Noodle Bar!  Of all the Momofuku locations only the Momofuku Ko allowed for reservations online and it is a known fact that they book out under ten minutes of opening.  Each Momofuku location has a different theme and offers a different menu.  We were told the Momofuku Noodle Bar is a must, if we haven't been to the other locations, so that is where we ventured.  Indeed, when we got there, the restaurant was packed to the brim with people waiting for tables inside and out.  What's more interesting was that it seemed like it was the only place on the block that was busy at all!  We ended up waiting close to an hour for our table, but did not regret it.

Our kimchi jar came out first.  Kel loves kimchi so getting it was a must!  Their kimchi was more crispy than our usual experience and the jar it came in was too cute.  Kel wanted to bring it home!  Above that, you can see Kel opening up our first of three tamales.

We ordered three tamales, one of each kind offered: the pork kimchi, chicken mole verde, and the jalapeño qeso.  They arrived in three cute packages, with their authentic leaf wrappers.  Unwrapping each was like opening a present on Christmas Day. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but you get the idea.

The one dissected in front on my plate there, is the chicken mole verde.  "Mole verde" simply means green sauce.  We didn't find them as exciting as we'd hoped.  Passable, but not something we'd crave.  Maybe we're just not big on tamales.

They offered three types of buns there: shrimp, pork, and oyster.  We ordered the pork bun since that was Wallace's favourite.  Besides pork, it also had shiitake mushrooms and cucumbers, dressed in scallions and hoisin sauce.  As anticipated, these were delish!

We also ordered their smoked chicken wings, but I didn't take a picture of them as they looked like normal chicken wings on a plate with some scallions sprinkled on top.  The wings were good, but can't say they were spectacular or the best wings I've had.  Wallace mentioned that in the Momofuku cookbook, these wings takes a whole day's effort to make.  We deemed them not quite worth the work entailed.

Our main course, the momofuku ramen, with pork belly, pork shoulder, and poached egg!  This might look like a normal ramen, but the toppings were not ordinary!  The poached egg resembles that of a hard-boiled egg, but upon closer inspection, we found that it was incredibly soft!  Even the whites was incredibly silky.  The pork shoulder was pulled pork, and the pork belly was even more fatty than expected, melting like butter on the tongue.

We ended our meal with some lemon flavoured soft-serve and were quite surprised to find basil bits at the bottom.  It was a nice touch.  We left carrying our bellies. :)

Labour Day Weekend in New York City: Lady M Confections

While in New York City, we had a chance to check out Lady M Confections and were we glad we did!  We wanted to dine in and had to wait a couple minutes for a table, but it was well worth it!

Here's a picture of the boys sitting out front playing on their phones, waiting for a table.  I swear, this picture wasn't posed.  They just happened to be sitting the same way!

The cakes available that day displayed behind the glass from the front, they had the Lady M® Mille Crêpes, Marron Mille Crêpes, Strawberry Shortcake, Gâteau aux Marrons, Green Tea Mousse cake, Gateau Nuage, Checkers, Tarte Au Citron, Strawberry Mille Feuille, and Banana Mille Feuille. They also had individual cakes available as well! Nom nom nom!

A close up of their signature Lady M® Mille Crêpes.  Constructed of more than twenty paper thin, hand-made crêpes layered with light and creamy vanilla custard!

What we ended up ordering, clockwise from the top, and individual Mont Blanc, chocolate croissant, Checkers, and the Lady M® Mille Crêpes!

A close up shot of our slice of Lady M® Mille Crêpes.  We unanimously agreed that this is by far the best cake ever!  I generally don't like custard, but the vanilla custard in the Mille Crêpes was absolutely divine.  As well, even though I knew that there's more than twenty paper thin crêpes, before I bit into it I doubt that I'd be able to tell, but I was!  The texture was absolutely wonderful!  It's too bad they didn't have any dry ice, otherwise, we'd definitely bring some home.

Our slice of Checkers cake. A chocolate and vanilla sponge cake woven into the pattern of a checkerboard with a thin layer of fresh cream, covered with dark chocolate ganache.  Yum!  Checkers was good, but beside the Mille Crêpes it paled in comparison.  I have to admit its not quite fair to compare the two, but all in all, we had an awesome time at Lady M's!

Labour Day Weekend in New York City: WD-50 Tasting Menu

This Labour Day Weekend, we went on a road trip down to New York City for some good shopping and of course, good eats!  Our first meal in the city was a late dinner reservation at WD-50 for some molecular gastronomy.  Since we were late in confirming our trip, I didn't get around to making reservations until Thursday afternoon, which meant we were dining at 10PM!  This at first sounded really late for dinner, but the fact of the matter is, we were shopping the entire day at Woodbury Commons and didn't make it into the city until 8:30PM.  By then, we just wanted to check into the hotel and freshen up before dinner, so the 10PM reservation actually worked out great.  We knew we wanted to have their tasting menu beforehand and worried that we'd be too tired to enjoy the twelve course meal at such a late hour.  Luckily, they were able to keep us pleasantly on our toes for the entire duration leaving us all very much satisfied.

The menu at WD-50.  I thought the usage of a pair of lips as the front cover was very suiting for what lies ahead.

From our table, we could see into the kitchen where the chefs were busy running around preparing each dish.  The kitchen looked so spotless!

Instead of a basket of bread, we were given these to snack on before the first course arrived.  They were paper thin and reminded me of sesame snaps, but much more addictive!

The September tasting menu at WD-50. Nom nom nom!

Our first course: Poached oyster, celery, caper, vodka, lemon.  It was a nice amuse-bouche with the vodka warming up our belly.  At first glance, I thought this would be a cold dish, but the oyster was still warm and the thin strings of celery added a nice touch.  See the little white/clear ovals the oyster is resting on? It's actually vodka lemon beads.

Our second course: Everything bagel, smoked salmon threads, crispy cream cheese.  When it first arrived at our table, we thought the miniature bagel was really cute.  Upon turning it over, we saw that the underside of the bagel was creamy, like someone had already put the cream cheese spread on this tiny bagel.  Biting into it, we realized, this bagel was melting!  It had the consistency of ice cream!  With the smoked salmon dusting, the crispy cream cheese and tiny red onion circles, it filled our mouths with a familiar flavour yet unbelievable texture.

Our third course of the evening: Foie-lafel.  Doesn't it look quaint?  A tiny pita bread, with melt in your mouth foie gras balls dusted with chickpea bits.  And its got the tabouli and shredded lettuce to go with it! Yummmmy!

Our fifth course: Poached egg in the shell, pumpernickel, caesar dressing, bean sprouts.  Yes, you guessed it, the egg shell is actually edible.  It is made of brown sugar, but looks and breaks just like an egg shell would on your plate.  The egg is poached easy so it mixes well with the caesar dressing to add an extra bit of decadence to the sauce.  I thought the parsley added a nice touch, but our friend Wallace who's not a parsley fan would beg to differ.

Our sixth course: King oyster "udon", sweetbreads, banana-molasses, pickled ginger.  We had our reserves when this came to the table.  Personally, I don't like bananas, but I wouldn't indicate that to the restaurant staff for fear it would take from the experience.  Afterall, the whole point of a tasting menu is to trust your chef.  This dish worked out really well, in that they really did slice the King oyster mushrooms to the thickness and length of flat udon noodles, and I thought the pickled ginger and banana-molasses worked really well with it.  The banana taste was barely on your tongue, although for our non ginger fan Wallace, he'd prefer it less gingery.  The added green was a nice touch to offset the sauce as well.  We were pleasantly surprised that the sweetbread had a bit of bounce to them and not your usual soft mush.

Our seventh course: Tai snapper, onion tart, coffee, asian pear.  We thought the coffee-walnut crumb and the bits of cucumber and pear added an interesting touch to the half cooked snapper.  The slight fishiness of the snapper evened out with the onion tart.  Now if only I can figure out how to make that onion tart...

The eighth course of the evening: Quail, nasturtium yogurt, turnip, nutmeg.  The rounds of quail were tender as can be.  We couldn't help but wonder where they got such a big, thick, round piece of meat for such a tiny bird.  The fried turnip was a little strong, but the yogurt was good to even it out, as well as bring out the taste of the quail.

Our ninth course: Lamb loin, 'red beans & rice', chayote squash.  Once again, it was the most tender and juicy piece of lamb I've tasted thus far.  Can you guess where the rice portion of this meal is?  The two crisps!  Now it may seem that rice crisps could be very commonly had, but these crisps actually tasted like fresh steamed rice, but crunchy!  Added to the dish, it provided a nice change of texture with the beans.

Our tenth course: Black sesame, yuzu, mango, popcorn.  This was an interesting bit with the popcorn.  The white clouds are the yuzu and the orange at the bottom of the bowl is the mango puree.

Our eleventh course: Apricot, buckwheat, rhubarb, green tea.  The bigger orange round at the bottom is the apricot jelly, topped with the gobs of green tea mousse.  The pink cubes on the two sides are the rhubarb, and the big brown blob is the buckwheat lying on buckwheat specks.  I'm not too big on rhubarb so I skipped some of that.  The buckwheat was interesting though, because none of us actually knew what to expect, but it helped neutralize the slightly sour apricot.

Our twelfth course: Soft chocolate, beet, long pepper, ricotta.  This dish was a nice touch to top off our evening.  We wondered how the beet would fit in with a dessert dish, but it didn't taste too strong due to its consistency.  The ricotta and pepper helped lessen the richness of the soft chocolate so we were able to finish the dish.  But hey, I'm sure if the boys thought the chocolate was too rich, they didn't need to ask me twice for help!

Our meal ended with rice krispie treats and a ball of lemoniness with a crunchy shell. :) ahhhh need I say more?