March 18, 2013 4

West Balkan trip part 4: Croatia (Dubrovnik)

//// By in Balkans, Croatia, Travel

Dubrovnik
From Mostar we took a bus to return to Croatia and reached the famous Medieval coastal wall city of Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik is the most famous tourist destination of Croatia, hence it’s the most touristy and expensive leg of this trip. Most tourists arrive here via giant cruise ships. At the time we went which is May, there were already 4-5 cruise ships docking nearby everyday. I heard it became unbearable during the peak season in the summer.

View from hill
Here’s a view of the old city from on top of a nearby mountain which is reachable on cable cars. Just like most of the city, the cable cars was destroyed during the 1990s war. It has only reopened in recent years.

Dubrovnik was also the filming locations of the HBO series Game of Throne, particularly all the “King’s Landing” scenes. If you know the story you’ll understand why it’s the perfect location. Now whenever I watch the show it’s fun to be able to recognize the backgrounds.

Celenga ApartmentCelenga ApartmentThere’s no hotel inside the old wall city but there are plenty apartment rentals. I think it’s best to stayed within the walls because it’s charming to stroll around the city at night when all the Cruise shippers are gone. We stayed at Celenga apartment. It is situated on a quiet scenic narrow street located at the center of the city. The location was perfect: close to a dozen of markets, coffee shops and easy access to both gates of Dubrovnik. We could walk to everything.

View from Minceta Fortress
The best sight of Dubrovnik is taking a walk around the walls of the city. The views are simply spectacular!  You get incredible scenic view of both the city and the sea. Here’s a view of the Old city, Lokrum Island and and the Adriatic sea from the Minceta Fortress at the wall.

Fort Lovrijenac
Here’s a view of Fort Lovrijenac from the walls: I love this Fortress which is right outside of the walls of the old city! A lot of tourists miss it but I think it’s worth to visit.

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There’re churches, palace and monasteries (most are converted into museums) inside the wall. The city is pretty small so you can walk from one end to another pretty fast.

Bar on a cliffBuza
There’s a cool bar right outside of the wall by the cliff called Buza and it’s tricky to reach. you have to look for a simple sign that says “cool drinks” and walk through many small narrow streets toward the walls. At some point you’ll see a gate and you go through it, you’ll find yourself to be outside of the wall and the bar is really right by the cliff. The vibe was really great. However the wine we had  were pretty bad.

old city at night
I love to walk around the old city at night. By nightfall most of the cruise shippers disappear and it’s nice to get lost in all the narrow alley and stairways.

oyster for lunchYou can get fresh Oysters at most restaurants in Dubrovnik. Since it is such a tourist oriented city, most of the dining options are boring and overpriced. There’re lots of expensive seafood restaurants, the cheaper options are pizza joint. There was one Bosnian restaurant which is good but it was quite pricey. There’s a vegetarian joint a lot of guidebooks rave about but we found it quite bad.

Dinner at Lucin Kantun
The best meal we had at Dubrovnik is at a homey restuarant call Lucin Kantun. The interior looks like someone’s home with an open kitchen where you can see the chef prepare each dishes. The menu offers lots of small plates as well as main entrees. We opt for trying the small plates so we could try everything.

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Dalmatian ham - really good! I could eat these all day.

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Stuffed squid – one of the best dishes of the night.

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Octopus salad and Grill Beef

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Lamb broshette with honey and Lavender – another favorite of the night.

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Fresh anchovies and Risotto

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Smoke Salmon with caviar

Lucin Kantun
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Lokrum Island
One of the best experience of Dubrovnik is sailing in the Adriatic sea and do Islands hopping. However it was not sailing season yet so we only went to the nearby Lokrum Island, an Island that’s 15 minutes ferry ride away from Dubrovnik.

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The island is absolutely gorgeous! The water is so incredibly blue and clear.

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The Island is filled with Peacocks and boy do they make the most annoying sound! They’re completely unafraid of people and the ones near the cafe area would harrass you for food.

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A beautiful natural pond on the island. It was cool and refreshing to dip our feet into it after a day of hiking. There are several nude beaches on the island too.

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March 14, 2013 3

West Balkan trip part 3: Bosnia Herzegovnia (Sarajevo + Mostar)

//// By in Balkans, Travel

Sarajevo:
I never thought that I would visit Sarajevo one day, the imagery of it being under siege was still quite vivid in my mind from watching the news in the 90s. But alas we chose to include Sarajevo in our itinerary because its fascinating history and crossroad of cultures had us intrigued. On the surface, the capital of Bosnia Herzegovnia, is not an easy city to love. It even had some of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever seen (example 1, example 2). We had a great free walking guide who walked us through the city with lots of insightful information which I highly recommended.

Latin Bridge
As noted before, here’s the Latin Bridge where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and lead to the start of WWI. The museum near the bridge used to be a cafe and it was where Gavrilo Princip, the shooter, was eating before he pulled the trigger.

Marshall Tito StreetSarajevo Roses
Sarajevo is unfortunately surrounded by high forested mountains. The main street of Sarajevo: Marshall Tito Street, used to be the most dangerous place to be during the Bosnian War as it’s an easy target from snipers who situated on the hills during the siege. Here’s a good map illustrated it. There are many memorials on the street and you see lots of Sarajevo roses: concrete scar of mortal shell explosion which resulted in one or more death, was filled with red resin.

Bombed out buildingEternal FlameBombed out buildings covered in bullet holes are still visible everywhere. The eternal flame is a memorial to the victims and military of WWII against the Nazi.

Monsieur catMonsieur cat I was delighted to find M. Chat (Monsieur Chat) on two different buildings! For those who’re familiar with the great late Filmmaker Chris Marker, he used this graffiti cat as a narrative symbol for his film essay.  More can be found around Sarajevo but we didn’t have time to look for them.

Pigeon Square at Turkish Quarter
The Old Turkish quarter in Sarajevo would make you feel like you’re in the Middle East instead of the Balkans. If we didn’t go to Turkey the year before we probably would have found the Turkish quarter to be more intriguing. Afterall it’s hard to compete with to the amazing Bazaars and Mosques at Istanbul.

We had great meals at the Turkish quarter. We randomly pick places to eat within the quarter and the food were all delicious! For example:
cevapi  cevapi
SarmaSarma: Rice and meat wrapped in grape leaves with yogurt
Bosnian food really provides a much needed palette break from all the pasta and seafood dishes that dominates Croatian and Slovenian cuisines.

Bosnian Coffee
Bosnian Coffee is very similar to Turkish coffee. Though the sweet treat is not the good Turkish delight like you would get at Turkey.

zlatna ribicazlatna ribicaAfter dinner, we went to a quirky Gothic bar + cafe call Zlatna Ribica. It’s truly one of its kind. Visual overloaded would perfectly describe the place. It’s completely filled with antiques, quirky objects, old books, photos, toys paintings…etc. The menu are “hidden” in all these old story books lying around. There’re small TVs showing static TV programs from the past. The bathroom was also something, it’s hard to describe in words, you have to be there to see it yourself!

Zlatna Ribica
Kaptol 5, 71000 Sarajevo
+387 33 215 369

Mostar:
View from the bridge
Next day, we took a 3 hour bus journey from Sarajevo to Mostar, a scenic Medieval town that’s known for  beautiful Islamic architecture. As soon as we arrived, the beautiful scenery took my breath away. The old town definitely had strong Ottoman Empire’s influences instead of the Austria’s.

Old Bridge
Here’s the beautiful  Old Bridge, one of the stars of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. It stood for 427 years until it was utterly destroyed during the Bosnian war. It was reconstructed and reopened in 2004.

IMG_5406Needle point Tito!
Saw an awesome Needle point Tito in one of the shop! It’s not for sale though, which is too bad.

bombed out building
Scars of war are highly visible in the immediate area surrounds the bridge. There are still many bombed out buildings and facade covered in bullet holes. You can see more here, here and here.

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March 14, 2013 6

West Balkan trip part 2: Slovenia (Bled + Ljubljana)

//// By in Balkans, Slovenia, Travel

We spent two days at Slovenia, one day at Lake Bled and one at the capital Ljubljana.

A former member of the socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,  Slovenia was the first of the six regions to gain independence. It’s also one of the first former-communist countries to join the Eurozone. The vibe here definitely felt more affluent than the other three former Yugoslavia republics (Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Montenegro) we visited.

Bled:

Bled CastleBled IslandSurrounded by the Julian Alps, Lake Bled and the surrounding area are breathtakingly beautiful! The castle on the hill made it even more fairy tale-like picturesque. We took the hard (dumb) way to climb up to the castle though, it was quite tiring. There’s a natural small island in the middle of Lake Bled where a church is built. It’s only accessible by hand row boats.

Lake Bohinj
The nearby Lake Bohinj  is really gorgeous too.

Ljubljana:

Dragonold town Ljubljana
The Capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana felt like a smaller, less goth version of Prague to me. Slovenia was under Austrian’s Hapsburg Empire rule for a long time so all the architectures in Old town Ljubljana felt very “Hapsburg-y”. Just like Prague, the old town area felt very quaint and almost too cute at places. Overall there’s not a lot to see in old town, you can see all the sights within hours. It’s more about just strolling around and hang out in cafes and relax.

Gornjj street and Hercules Fountain
A picturesque street Call Gornji which has some of the best restaurants and bars in town.

SpajzaSpajza
On Gornji street, we went to one of the best restaurants we had in this trip: Spajza. It’s a cute Slovenian restaurant where the interior feels like someone’s home. There’s a pretty patio in the back. However, within 10 minutes of this photo was taken, heavy rain poured down and all of us had to grab out plates and move inside.

IMG_5164Slovenian Ham
amuse bouche and Slovenian Ham – it’s similar to Prociustto. Very good!

Zlikrofi
Zlikrofi: pasta stuffed with cheese, bacon and chives with meat sauce. A traditional Slovenian dish, it’s a dish that perfectly taste like both Italian and Austrian/Eastern European. It was very delicious.

Squid ink risotto
Squid ink risotto: Best one we had at the trip! Fresh tasting and very umami.

Špajza Restaurant
28 Gornji, Ljubljana 1000, Slovenia

Cream cake
Another specialty of Slovenia is the Kremsnita, which means cream cake.  A vanilla and custard cream dessert. We had one at a cute cafe call Zvezda right by the Congress Square.  A good treat to have during coffee break!

If you ventured off the old town area of Ljubljana, you immediate see a very different side of the city. For example:
Metelkova MestoMetelkova Mesto
Metelkova Mesto: An ex-army garrison taken over by squatters and became a complex of art spaces, bars and clubs. A huge contrast from the quaint old town. It’s quite a sight of its own. You can see more pictures here.

In fact the more we venture off the quaint old town, the more graffiti you see all over. It’s kind of out of control at some places. There’re some nice “street art” ones but most of them are ugly. We spotted some Neo Nazi ones too.

Back to the old town, again on Gornji Street:

Pri Zelenem ZajcuAbsinthe
We found a small cute Absinthe Bar call Pri Zelenem Zajcu (At the Green Rabbit). I like the vibe a lot, it’s chill and there’s a cozy backroom where you can sit comfortably.


Pri Zelenem Zajcu

Rožna ul. 3, Ljubljana 1000, Slovenia

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March 13, 2013 0

West Balkan Trip Part 1: Overview

//// By in Balkans, Croatia, Slovenia

It’s been almost a year since my trip to the West Balkans where we visited four countries: Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. That’s 4 out of the 6 countries that were used to be known as Yugoslavia. Since a new trip + the 3rd season of Game of Throne is coming up soon, I figured it’s really time to blogged about my trip, for record sake at least!

St Mark's ChurchFor our two weeks trip, we started at Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. As a former member of the Hapsburg Empire, Zagreb reminded me a lot of Prague but far less polished, quirky and gentrified. Austrian influences are visible everywhere. There are lots of gorgeous old buildings that’re waiting to be fixed up and converted into nice boutique hotels and businesses. However since it’s a city that’s still under the radar for most tourists so most businesses cater to locals.

courtyard and CastleFrom Zagreb, we took a train to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Slovenia is a Euro zone country so the price gone up significantly. Just like Zagreb, it was under Austrian rule for awhile. It reminded me of Prague even more, especially the quirky public art. The old town area is almost too cute and looks very quintessential “europe”. However we spotted quite a number of neo-Nazi graffiti here and there.  I’ll elaborate more in a separate entry.

Latin Bridge From Ljubljana, We flew to Sarajevo, the Capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Drastically different from the cute Ljubljana, Sarajevo would not be on most people’s “beautiful city list”. In fact they have some of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever seen. However, it is a fascinating city due to its history and the mixture of cultures/ religion. Ex: The bridge in the picture above is where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and thus WWI started. The scars of the 1990s Bosnian war are also highly visible everywhere. We also had some of the best food in Sarajevo as there’re lots of Turkish influence in Bosnian cuisine. I’ll go into more details in a separate entry.

Taken from my cameraNext day we took a bus and spent a day at Mostar, a beautiful medieval town locates at southwest of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The bus ride through Bosnia’s country side was breathtaking. Mostar is one of the most beautiful and picturesque places I’ve been to. Its beauty made the devastating destruction during the 1990s Bosnian war even more heartbreaking. In fact many of the surrounding area of the bridge are still in ruins or covered in bullet holes.

View from Minceta Fortress
From Mostar, we took a bus return to Croatia to the famous coastal old city of Dubrovnik. For Game of Throne fans, Dubrovnik is also known as “King’s landing”, it was also used as the film location for most Daenerys’s scenes. You get why Dubrovnik is so famous as soon as you see it for yourself, the beautiful wall city with lots of Venetian influences sit next to the blue Adriatic ocean is really quite amazing! It also got bombed the shit out of during the Bosnian war but the scars were fixed up well. More detail report in a separate entry.

Bay of Kotor
One of the days we’re at Dubrovnik we did an excursion to the nearby Kotor, Montenegro. It was a weird trip as the Croatian driver who drove us clearly hates Montenegro, perhaps due to the Bosnian war? Once we asked him to stop at a town for breakfast because we’re starving, he responded: “Why do you want to go there? There’s nothing there. My friend was tortured horribly in that town.”  Ok nevermind! The whole trip he anti-recommended us to most of the sights: “oh it’s nothing to see there, it’s not worth to go there…etc etc”. Perhaps due to his attitude, my impression of Kotor isn’t that good either. It’s an old wall city similar to Dubrovnik but a lot more run down and much less pretty. The top sight is actually the walls up on the hill. On our drive back, our driver perked up finally and told us how he was the driver for the cast of Game of Thrones. He showed us pictures on his phone where he’s photographed with Peter Dinkage and the actor of “Sandor”. He also said Emilia Clark is a very nice girl. Apparently all the local big and tall guys became extras for the TV show too.

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After Dubrovnik, we took a northbound bus to Split, an ancient Roman coastal city in Croatia. By this point we’re pretty tired of “old wall city by the ocean” but Split is interesting in a different way than Dubrovnik. It’s much less touristy and there are a lot more businesses cater to locals. The vibe is also a lot more youthful and you see a lot more local young people hang out at night, thus more cool bars and places to hang out. There’s not much to do there as most people use it as a launching point for the nearby islands. Next day we flew back to Zagreb and Jon proceed to an amazing culinary adventure at the Istrian peninsula of Croatia while I return home.

In hindsight, we packed in a bit too much on the first half of the trip so we both felt fatigue towards the end. It also took a lot of planning to figure out all the transportation and connections. It isn’t the easiest to track down reliable bus schedule in general so we missed some buses here and there which was tiring also, but I guess that’s part of the joy of traveling.

Other general impressions:
-The Balkans really love Cafes! So many cafes everywhere and they seems to have lots of time to hang out there too.

-Croatian and Slovenian cuisine taste like somewhere in between Italian and Austria.

-Squid ink Pasta is everywhere and no matter how tasty it is, you get tired of it pretty fast. I learn that too much umami flavors is not a good thing.

-Felt like almost everyone speaks English there.

-Like many former communists countries, customer services could be lacking.

-The radio on the buses, Taxi and bars seems to play nothing but American pop songs. Whenever we turned on the TV, American TV shows were on. The only time we heard local music was at the bus from Sarajevo to Mostar.

-There seems to be a lack of control regarding Graffiti in Zagreb and Ljubljana.

-Scars of war is still visible, especially in Bosnia.

More detail reports next and report of the best restaurants we had!

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January 27, 2013 0

Wolvesmouth (Underground dining)

//// By in Favorite Food Entries, Food: Los Angeles

Foodies in LA are familiar with Craig Thorton and his amazing underground dining club Wolvesmouth. It was written up in magazines including the New Yorker . To join you have to sign up their mailing list for upcoming dinners notifications, usually about twice a month. You sent in request for the desire dates and they would randomly pick guests. There’s no fix price for the dinner which usually came in from 9 to 12 courses. You “donate” however you feel like as it’s not an actual business.

I’ve join Wolvesmouth’s mailing list way back in 2010 as soon as I heard about it from a friend and have been sending requests since. More than 2 years have past and I had never gotten in. After awhile I started to doubt if I would get in at all, especially seeing so many other food bloggers being able to go to the dinners again and again. Chances seem slimmer after the New Yorker article came out.

Wolvesmouth dining 2 weeks ago dinners were announced and I sent in my requests out of habit. Viola, I got in, Finally! ^O^

The dinner is held at the Chef’s loft at Downtown LA. It’s BYOB. There were about 16 guests total and we all sat at a communal table.  The vibe was causal and friendly. Craig and his team prepare the dinner at the nearby kitchen that’s no different from most kitchen in most newer apartments.

Wolvesmouth dining
1st course: Venison – beet blackberry, cauliflower puree, hen of the woods, beets, blueberry meringue

Didn’t expect to start with something so rich like venison for first course, but it actually worked well to whet your appetite. The pairing of the ingredients is interesting and fantastic (you’ll hear me repeat this a lot for the rest of the entry), the multiple flavors went so well together. It’s fresh and bold. I also like the bloody and seemingly gory presentation.  One of the best dishes of the night.

Wolvesmouth dining
2nd course: Tuna – Squid ink yuzu kosho tofu creme, ponzu snap pea, green onion, wasabi pea, sesame,mizuna

Can’t go wrong with raw tuna and ponzu sauce. The Squid ink yuzu kosho tofu creme gave a nice umami-ness to the dish. The snap pea were a nice touch too. Light and fresh.

Wolvesmouth dining
3rd course: delicata squash- cabbage, coffee cocoa, candied peanut, cabbage, red cabbage, yogurt, carrot

This dish was one of the most memorable of the night for me. The roasted squash was delicious but it tasted exceptional when paired with the other stuff on the plate: the coffee cocoa powder gave a nice earth nutty flavor and aroma and the coffee lime yogurt add a touch of acidity.  One of the top dishes of the night!

Wolvesmouth dining
4th course: skate – cashew garlic puree, preserved lemon, broccoli, lime

A solid fish course, but it’s not as interesting as the others. Yet I enjoyed it nonetheless. The cashew garlic puree was great.

Wolvesmouth dining
5th course: Lobster – pork belly, radish, green apple, pineapple, sweet potato flakes, grapefruits

This dish was probably my favorite of the night. The pork belly was amazing! Paired with lobster reduction, it’s so tender and melt in your mouth. The lobster fritters were delicious. The fruitty sides and radish gave a nice acidic and refreshing balance to the meat.

Wolvesmouth dining
6th course: Rabbit – harrisa, celery root remoulade, brussels, crepe, fig

The previous course was so amazing that this one became a little pale in comparison. I did enjoy the rabbit meatballs and I love the harrisa (Morocaan hot pepper sauce) and remoulade. I’m not sure the crepe add that much to the dish though.

Wolvesmouth dining
7th course: Quail – cucumber juice, pickled green tomato, fried green tomato, mustard greens, buttermilk peppercorn

I was getting full here so I’m glad we’re near the end. The fried skin of the quail was nicely crisp. I like the fried green tomatos. Overall it’s probably the least interesting dish of the entire meal,  but it’s still a solid dish.

Wolvesmouth dining

8th course: Chocolate tofu mousse, banana puree, pistachio cake, frozen dried banana

We got two dessert courses. Hard to go wrong with the combo of chocolate, banana and pistachios. The frozen dried banana tasted like banana ice-cream. Light and not too sweet.

Wolvesmouth dining

9th course: Black sesame cake – citrus curd, pop rocks, black sesame parfait, mandarin

I always love black sesame dessert and always wonder why you don’t see them more often in restaurants here. It has a nice aroma that goes so well with sugar. The black sesame cake and parfait are both very good and works so well with the acidic citrus curd and mandarin slices. Love the sprinkles of pop rocks!

Wolvesmouth dining It was a very very satisfying meal from start to finish. I’m really glad to finally be able to taste Craig’s inventive menu.  Good thing I didn’t give up! At the end of the meal they handed out Chinese red envelopes for donation. You placed it inside this alligator jaw that’s at the center of the table. Considering how much you usually pay at restaurant for multi-course dinner, I figure that’s how you pay according. The New yorker article mentioned guests paid an average of $90 for the dinner, I say it’s definitely worth the price or even more. Usually Craig and his team break even for these events.

There are rumors that a Wolvesmouth restaurant will open somewhere in downtown. But I don’t think it’ll be the same because the wider public would be less interested in these kind of dishes.

I highly recommend getting on their mailing list. There’re actually many guests got chosen on their first requests. Lucky them!

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