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Seoul, South Korea 10/'11

Unlike most people, I don’t own a TV set — not anymore. I haven’t watched TV in over 4 years, so I became oblivious to the Korean novela wave of ’06-’09. Everyone at dental school was talking about characters that I, apparently, have never even heard of. “Boys Over Flowers” became so predominant at conversations that I just stopped eavesdropping altogether because I couldn’t understand an iota of what they were talking about. That was in 2008.

[photo via cikangkuh.blogspot.com]

Fast forward to 3 years later, my then-Koreanovela-crazy-classmates spotted a promo fare on Cebu Pacific Air for Cebu to Incheon (Seoul). The price? A grand total of PHP3,300 r/t incl. taxes. Since I’m known for being a travel-crazy nut, they naturally invited me. And since the price was too good to pass up, I decided to join in — not knowing what to expect.

Normally, I plan my excursions around places I reaaally want to go to. But when you’re strapped for cash, you can only go so far. As much as it breaks my heart that I can’t travel the entire world just yet, I have learned to prioritize. In this case however, I haven’t even given Seoul (or South Korea for that matter) any prior thought. So much for priorities. We bought the CEB-ICN tickets in February of 2011, for travel in late October 2011.

During that 7-month interval, my travel buddy KC and I combed through Bangkok, Hong Kong, Macau, Beijing, Melbourne and Sydney (in that order). By the end of the combined 2-month excursions, we were exhausted. Jaded, with emptied wallets and maxed out credit cards. We were BROKE and we vowed to go on a year-long travel sabbatical, disregarding the Incheon tickets as well and foregoing the PHP3,300 fare we paid for (much to our resentment). But life has a way of spicing things up when you least expect it.

A month before the departure date for Incheon, the number of people still willing to go to Seoul (out of 9), whittled down to just 3: Rosana, Carlo and Isabel. Sang, in particular, did a lot of convincing to make us change our minds. To cut the story short, I am an invertebrate with a weak backbone. I relented. Two weeks before departure, there were 6 of us willing to give it a go. However, it took another week to get us off our asses for VISA processing. That left us with just ONE week to file AND get our VISAs. Stupid move.

In the end, only 3 people were given VISAs, which unfortunately, did not include the Korean novela fans who planned the trip to begin with. On this note, I shall soon write about the process of applying for a South Korean VISA. Hopefully, no one will have to make the same mistakes we did.

October 25 came and we were off to Incheon via Cebu. Cramped in a relatively small plane (A320) for over 4 hours can feel suffocating. We forgot to book premium seats in advance, so we were left to chance. Luckily, the check-in counter agent at Mactan International Airport gave us 3rd row seats, which was a god-send. I cannot stress this enough: Book a premium seat when traveling international on Cebu Pacific! The additional PHP100-200 fee is so worth it. As usual, complimentary meals were not served on board. Instant noodles, chips, drinks and other snacks were available for sale. All things taken into account, it was a smooth (and cheap!) ride.

We landed at Incheon International Airport at 9:30 p.m. so were right on schedule. But one praning immigration officer (who I think, was a newbie) threw a curveball my way. Let it be known that I have an ugly, oversaturated passport photo that looks fake. Not my fault. Apparently, a whole batch of early 2010 passport photos look as horrid. Anyway, I’m not sure what that damn woman thought wrong of my passport, but she took me to the immigration room for further assessment. One senior officer did the rounds of background checking and that-thing-they-do-with-a-microscope-like-apparatus. After 15 minutes and 8 yawns later (I was sleepy), they finally released me.

We stepped out of the airport to a welcoming gush of cool autumn breeze. Ahhh… I love the smell of winter coming. Bought tickets for the Airport Limousine Bus (KRW10,000 one-way) at a freestanding stall outside the terminal. Then we waited for Bus No. 6015 to take us to Bangrang Hostel, near Chungjeongno Station. The bus ride went smoothly and took about an hour. The driver, in particular was gracious and soft-spoken, like most South Koreans (as we were about to discover). We felt we were in safe hands.

(Because I’m a lousy blogger, I didn’t take pictures. This photo is from someone else’s blog.)

[photo via skippingclouds.blogspot.com]

We passed by the CBD and the first thing that came to mind was: Sydney! Some parts of Seoul looked exactly like Sydney, Australia — with its multi-level roads and mix of old and new buildings — save for the indecipherable signages in Hangul. Even if it was nearing midnight, some yuppies were still milling about the corporate buildings. Interesting. Oh, and they had really nice outfits. Haha.

(Having problems with my SD card, so I am unable to upload some of my own photos at the moment. I shall replace this as soon as I get my SD situation in order.)

[photo via cityviews.net]

At half-past 11p.m., we finally arrived at Bangrang Hostel. Kim, our host, patiently waited for us at the reception area despite an hour delay.

Sidenote: Koreans look so cute and amiable without even trying. See? (No, I’m not turning straight.)

Check-in went without a hitch, then Kim showed us around the front part of the hostel where all the amenities were, including: the common area, computers, kitchen, and TV room.

We then had to go around a hilly block to the adjacent building at the back, to where the guest rooms were located on three floors. This is exactly how our room looked like, although I have yet to upload my own photo of it. Bear with me.

Note: This was our room for the first two days only since we had to change rooms 3 times in 6 days. That’s what we got for not booking early enough. Hah.

[photo via lonelyplanet.com]

KC and I collapsed on the two lower bunk beds (our other roomies had not yet arrived), and called it a night. We were expecting another friend, Momsy, the same time next day. KC, in particular was more giddy than usual and went to bed early (which usually never happens).

The magic of Seoul has begun.

NEXT UP: Doing the rounds at Itaewon, Dongdaemun and Hongdae = HERE.

 

Earlier this year, my friend KC and I had THE time of our gastronomic lives at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. Supposedly the number one restaurant in Asia, according to the 09/10 Miele Guide.

It’s no secret that we are extreme foodies – gourmands to be precise. We’d scrimp on everything but food, which explains why we always run out of cash at the end of every trip — and why the Robuchon dinner was planned for our last day in Hong Kong.

Finding the place was easy enough, albeit a bit daunting for two young adults (hell, we’re not even out of school yet). The entrance is a carpeted hallway with black marble  walls, which led us to an elevator to the 4th floor, where Robuchon is located. The maitre d’ was gracious, and we were quickly seated at the bar, which was adjacent to the open kitchen. Since we made reservations on the same day, we ran out of proper tables and were resigned to taking bar-side seats. However, this proved to be a blessing because then we had the privilege of front-row seats to the kitchen action of Executive Chef Michel del Burgo and his crew.

[photo via winebuzz.hk]

We were the youngest among the diverse mix of yuppies, expats and high-class escorts with their sugar daddies (one of which was obviously a Filipina who kept glancing at us while fidgeting in her seat). Entertainingly enough, we were seated beside two gay men seemingly on their first date. Sweet. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to take a picture. Pffft.

A complimentary assortment of breads was served while the menus were presented: À la Carte or Degustation for HKD680 per person, excluding drinks. Needless to say, we picked the latter.

First course: Amuse-bouche of Pumpkin with Bacon-infused Foam. Rich pumpkin base with a light but flavorful bacon foam. Nice tease. A good start. 7/10

KC’s Second Course: White French Asparagus with Sea Urchin in Hollandaise Sauce. The asparagus was well-cooked, but the accompanying hollandaise was a bit bland. The sea Urchin topping was flavorful but didn’t actually compliment the asparagus. Gold foil bits were a nice touch. 4/10

My Second Course: Creamy Spelt Risotto with Escargots in Southern France Flavors. By far, the BEST risotto I have tasted, with just the right texture – not too mushy nor too dry. The snails were chewy and meaty, cooked just right. The flavors blended so richly, I have no words for it. This dish won me over with the first spoonful. 10/10

Third Course: Caramelized and Truffled Turnips Veloute on a Bed of Foie Gras Set Cream. More than a chowder but less than gumbo, is how I would describe this. It has a more robust flavor than the risotto, but lacks texture. If I hadn’t had the risotto before this, I probably would’ve enjoyed it more. Flavor overload, I guess. 8/10

Fourth Course: Broccoli Cream Soup Flavored with Nutmeg and Bacon. Foamy and light with subtle flavors – the perfect foil to previous courses. A half-time break for the taste buds. 7/10

KC’s Fifth Course: Braised “Vallegrain” Pork Belly with Caramelized Roscoff Onions and Black Truffle. I would describe this as a (much) glorified lechon kawali-slash-adobo hybrid. Crisp on the outside, juicy meat on the inside that melts in your mouth. No stringy pork here. Perfection all the way. The glazed black truffle reduction was an excellent compliment to the meat. Can’t say anything bad about it. 10/10

My Fifth Course: Pan-Fried Scallops on a Bed of Shiitake Mushrooms and Ratte Potato. The scallops were fresh and well-cooked, but an otherwise ordinary dish compared to the pork belly. The shiitake mushroom and potato stir-fry tasted like something I could’ve made myself. Well-executed, but not outstanding. 6/10

Sixth Course: Selection of Fine Imported Cheeses. I’m not an expert on fromages, but I love certain types of hard and blue cheeses. I wouldn’t know what a good selection is, however, so I’ll pass on rating this one. It’s interesting though, that one of the cheeses tasted like Durian (a fruit which is unique to a few countries in SEA). The name escapes me now, but I’ve tasted that cheese only twice in my life. The first time in my hometown of Davao City, Philippines and the second time at Robuchon in Hong Kong. Odd. Could they have gotten the cheese from Davao? Hmmm…

KC’s Seventh Course: Creamy Guanaja Chocolate, Cocoa Sorbet, Chocolate Crisps and Caramelized Nuts. Contrary to most people, I am not a chocolate lover – but I enjoyed this dessert. Well, not that it means much anyway since I’m not a die-hard fan of desserts either. Haha. Simply put, anything that’s not too sweet and stays true to its organic flavors is good enough in my book. 8/10

My Seventh Course: Passionfruit, Grapefruit and Roasted Pineapple Medley with Grilled Sesame Wafers in ‘Alfonso’ Mango Coulis. Now THIS is my kind of dessert. Light and refreshing, bursting with organic flavors. To some, the bitterness of the grapefruit may be a contrasting off-put to the other fruits, but that’s just how I like it. I’ve tasted better though. 8/10

Eighth Course: Complimentary Macarons, Madeleines, Chocolate Ganache, Gummy Squares, Easter Egg Candies and Gold-Coated Crispy Chocolate Nonpareils. Let me just say: BEST macarons everrr. The goodies were as delicious as they were eye-candy. KC enjoyed the chocolate ganache the most and actually asked for a second serving (no surprise there). Haha.

Complimentary tea and coffee capped one of the most memorable meals of my life.

An hour later, KC puked in an MTR full of people, on our way back to the hostel. Oh, the shame.

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