Sunday, January 30, 2011

Enterprise Fish Co. - Crustaceans' Siren Call - dineLA Winter 2011

A few years ago, I convinced my good friend and uber specific red-meat carnivore "Lindyhopper" to branch out from 'turf' to 'surf' - starting with sea bass.  I was so proud of her when she first tried it, and now there's no looking back (ok, so she still won't eat sashimi, but hey, baby steps...).  Anyways, now the carnivore and the marinavore can eat at select seafood venues together, and for dineLA I decided to join her and a group of her friends at Enterprise Fish Co. for their advertised "2lb Live Maine Lobster", as part of a three-course prix fixe for $34!

Located on the far edge of Santa Monica, bordering Venice, Enterprise Fish Co is a standalone on a small side street off of Main.  It's a casual dining space, with a bar and open kitchen, that offers seafood lovers on a budget a relaxed atmosphere to grub -  a bit more upscale than Red Lobster, and much more laid back than McCormick and Schmick's.

Enterprise is a place for a rowdy Happy Hour, which  runs Mondays to Fridays 4-7pm and Sundays 8-10pm at the bar, with specials on well drinks, beer and wine as well as appetizers (including oyster shooters for $1.50!).  All while catching the game, if you are so inclined on big screen TVs above the bar.

We started our meal with a round of cocktails - and I ordered the Lychee Martini ($10) which was good - not too sweet and the lychee was not so subtle that I couldn't taste it (a problem with this drink at a lot of other venues).

And on to the food - the dineLA menu here is the easiest, for our table anyways, we've come across in terms of making our selections.  5 out of 6 of us ordered the same appetizers and entrees.

We all started with the Boston Clam Chowder, which was cup-sized ($4.95 on regular menu), creamy with large chunks of clams - again, not fine dining fare obviously, nor did it dethrone Boudin for me as the king of clam chowder for the masses, but fine for the tier.

That of course was followed by the entree that drew us to the mothership - 2 lb Live Maine Lobster, steamed and split.   This was served with one side item - at our table, we had grilled veggies and Potato Romanesco (mashed and shaped into a ball, then fried on the outside to form a cheesy crust.  Some felt the potatoes were too spicy, but I didn't taste any note was that it was too dry, a bit bland, and mealy).  When I had mentioned to my boss earlier in the week that we were planning this visit, he offered up some insights which I now know ring true.  Being from Maine, he really knows his lobsters - and he shared that though counter-intuitive, it's actually better to order the smaller lobsters - 1.5 lb lobsters are optimum size.  Two pounders are too 'muscular' and their meat is going to be tougher - 1.5 lb is the perfect balance of lots of meat while still having it be soft, juicy, tender and sweet.

And it's possible that it was the size, or just the way Enterprise Fish Co. prepared it, or perhaps I was freshly ruined by the amazing seafood I had just this past holiday in Sabah - there are so many confounding variables - but the meat tasted a bit tough and dry to me.  I'm also a fan of tomalley, and there wasn't that much to be had inside these lobsters' skulls - there wasn't even close to a 1/10th of a forkful.  I am tempted to finally get that live lobster from a Ranch 99 market and cook it myself - sometimes they are on sale for $2.99 per pound, and all the restaurants do is steam it, which I can in theory easily do if I weren't so concerned with hearing the steam exiting through their shells (this particular 2 pounder at Enterprise works out to about $21 with the dineLA deal).  I've become fairly adept at steaming my own live crab, but for some reason haven't been able to graduate to DIY lobster.  Maybe, like my ex's mom who was absolutely adorable, I will apologize to them and thank them for the meal they are providing before putting them in the pot.

The table was split on dessert - so I was able to try a bit of Lindyhopper's Orange & Chocolate Pots de Creme, which is a dineLA special, not offered on the regular menu, and pretty tasty for a casual restaurant.

I had the Enterprise Oreo Mudd Pie ($7.95 on regular menu) and was not so generous with sharing - it was delish (again, for casual dining - everything in context!).  Creamy where it should be creamy, and cookie bits and crust were crunchy as they should be.

All in all, not a bad meal for a casual dinner for larger groups.   I would probably not return for the shellfish at market price, but may come back for oyster shooters at happy hour prices.

One last thing to note:  parking was easy, on that Friday night anyways - I pulled into the public lot directly across from the restaurant and got a metered spot right away.  The meters are 'old-school' though, not the kind that accepts credit cards, so make sure to bring plenty of change.  I think I put in under $1 worth of change for 2.5 hours?  Was in a rush as I was late as usual, so can't remember exactly - but no more than $1 by my rough estimate.  The only drawback is that there is a 3 hour time limit, enforced 24 hours a day - so you couldn't park in one spot the whole night, if you wanted to go bar hopping down Main Street after dinner.  But you could always move it to another one of the many public lots off Neilson Way when time is up.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5 bites
Presentation - 5 bites
Originality - 5 bites
Ambience - 5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 5 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 70%


Enterprise Fish Co.
174 Kinney St., Santa Monica, CA 90405-5302
Ph: 310.392.8366

Twitter (Santa Barbara location):
OpenTable:  Look for reservations

Enterprise Fish Co. on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Firenze Osteria - Fabio Cooking It Up / dineLA Top Chef Style in Studio City!

After a very long work week that had yet to end, on a Thursday night "Miss Sassy" and I decided we needed to refuel at BLT Steak in West Hollywood.  It seemed like a great idea until we hit Barham, the bane of Burbank workers' existence every weekday starting around 6pm.  Inching our way painstakingly in hopes of making it through the less than 2-mile stretch to hit Cahuenga within an hour if we were lucky - we reassessed whether we were willing to go through all this just to get down the hill, only to hit Sunset traffic.   We finally caved to the realization that there was no way we were going to make it in time for the only reservation we were able to get at dinnertime anyway.

Ravenous and agitated, at this point we turned to the closest decent dining venue we could reach within minutes - Firenze Osteria in Studio City, just down the hill from Universal Studios Hollywood. 

We were instantly soothed on arrival, to the relaxed, dark wood dining room with an amber glow and attached energetic-but-not-obnoxiously-rowdy bar, perched at a relatively quiet stretch of Lankershim.  Also loved that the service was fast, warm and friendly from the moment we sat down.

So first things first: we hit the cocktail menu - a long list of options, with many Martini creations by mixologist Jacopo Falleni, spanning several pages.  Ever on the lookout for the new and inventive, my eyes went straight to the Balsamic Martini ($9.50).  Miss Sassy had been there just a few days before, had the Balsamic Martini and loved it - so with that reinforcement - I went for it. 

This was definitely the first time I've ever had balsamic in a cocktail - and I am hooked!  The drink consisted of muddled strawberries, fresh limes, vanilla flavored rum and just a touch of balsamic vinaigrette.  The layers of sweet / tart and citrus mingled nicely with the sweet/acidic flavors of balsamic vinaigrette.  Truly delicious but rich drink - Miss Sassy considered it her pre-meal dessert.
And onto the food - Firenze Osteria, of course, is best known for its part owner and executive chef Fabio Viviani, of Top Chef Season 5 and Top Chef All-Stars fame - neither of which I had tuned in for as much as I'd like.  Maybe a 2-3 episodes here and there - so we were really here just because it was close by, and the food is good for the fairly reasonable price...and a great bonus for me, they are part of dineLA Restaurant Week so I was able to order off their prix fixe menu that night!

Looking over the pastas and mains on the regular menu for future reference - they were pretty standard - but solid for the price and venue proximity.  Miss Sassy opted for a salad and butternut squash ravioli. 

On to the dineLA menu for me:  for the starter, I went with the Gamberoni in Camicia - Jumbo Shrimp stuffed with Gorgonzola, wrapped with Pancetta, over sautéed Garlic Spinach and Herbs and Parmesan Polenta.  The size of the shrimp lived up to its name, and was juicy and fairly fresh tasting.  I would have liked the Gorgonzola to be more pronounced, and salt in the dish overall to be pulled back a bit, but the dish was still tasty with the combination of many of my favorite ingredients.  The only other note was that the polenta was a little congealed, and the spinach salted with a heavy hand, not the best execution.

I was excited to finally get my lamb for my entree - Agnello ai Pistacchi - Herb Encrusted Rack of Lamb, braised Pistachio and Pancetta Cassoulet.  The meat, ordered cooked 'medium', was very tender and juicy.  I also loved the addictively rich (pancetta?) flavors and edamame-like texture of the braised pistachio (with just a little more crunch - first time I've had this as a side).  This dish was a win!

For the finish, I went with the server's recommendation: Flourless Chocolate Cake Served with Vanilla Gelato and Coffee Cream.  This was an unremarkable dessert, though good enough for a prix fixe deal.  The coffee cream added a slight twist to the standard flourless chocolate cake, which was light and fluffy, but would have tasted better if served at a slightly hotter temperature.

All in all, a nice dineLA meal for $34 (plus $9.50 for the cocktail), especially for those who work / live in the Burbank / SFV area.  The dishes were not ground-breaking, mind-blowing works of art, but they were never meant to be - Firenze Osteria is about a good, solid Italian meal in a comfortable environment, there to service the neighborhood.  We left satiated and satisfied, and I made a mental note to add the place to our after-work options close to the office (as apparently many execs from nearby studios did).

In line with Fabio's stated focus on community, Firenze Osteria also invites fans to watch Top Chef with Fabio at the restaurant Wednesdays at 9pm - with complimentary hors d'oeuvres passed round at the bar.  There was signage at every table promoting this!

He also offers Cooking with Fabio classes at both this Lankershim location as well as Cafe Firenze in Moorpark,  sharing his passion for traditional Italian cuisine at $40 per person or $70 per couple - sounds like it could be fun, as much for Fabio's personality / quips as well as the two-course tasting menu offered with the class.  Looking forward to checking that out sometime!

Other plus-es / tips for frugal foodies: Martini Happy Hour daily - $4 martinis from select list, from 5-7pm and 10-11pm at the bar.  Valet is 'only' $4.50, but there are also plenty of open meters on Lankershim (albeit across the street without a crosswalk closeby), and free street parking at Valley Spring Lane.

Update Feb 2011:  Recap of two fun Cooking with Fabio classes I took are here!  dineLA offer extended until 2/28!  Menu is different from the above though - $33 per person, dinner only.  See details at Fabio's blog here

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 98%


Firenze Osteria
4212 Lankershim Blvd, Toluca Lake, CA 91602
Ph: 818.760.7081

OpenTable:  Look for reservations

Firenze Osteria on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 27, 2011

1MB Savvy Saveurs - Serving up Savings & Sweeps Updates Weekly!

Trying something new to help structure my deal posts (thanks, "subliminalrabbit" for the idea!).  Every Thursday, I'll collect food-related offers and sweepstakes of the week in a post I'm going to call '1MB Savvy Saveurs'!

You will only find foodie friendly deals / sweepstakes that I think are interesting or worth checking out. I personally hate time-wasters like 'sign up for a sample of gum', that's not worth the cyberspace it sits on, nor the time it takes to type in your info - you will not see any of those here.

I may occasionally stray to feature a sweepstakes if it's not 100% food focused but amazing - like trips to exotic destinations, or deep discounts off designer threads to fuel your fine-dining wardrobe etc. ;)

Anyways, happy grazing!


  • American Tea Room - White Sale: Use Coupon Code WHITE20 at checkout in-store and online to save 20% on all loose white tea and all white tea pots, tea cups and candles (ends 1/31/11).

  • Saveur Magazine Foodie Giveaway - Grand prize:  Culinary getaway to destination of your choice. Plus, weekly prizes - espresso maker, cookbook and spicerack this week (ends 2/28/11).
This is meant to be an easily digestible report of third party offers - I am not the sponsor nor affiliated in any way with any of the companies listed above - please read offer details / official rules carefully before deciding whether to submit your information.


    To get more mileage for your money everyday - see Get More Bites Outta Your Budget.   Check out my Sweepstakes Page "Win Your Next Bite" - for more foodie promotions!

    Monday, January 24, 2011

    Spago - First Foray in Eons, for dineLA Winter 2011

    It's been years since I'd been to Spago - mainly as it's not really within my price range, and there were so many other restaurants in LA that I still had to try.  Also - though in no other area of my life do I consider myself at all the risk-taker, I find myself appreciating the new, creative and risque in cuisine - where Spago is reliable, classic and safe as a security blanket.

    With that context in mind...when "Foodie Mentor" said she wanted to leverage the dineLA deal for a rare visit to Spago, I signed up to give it another go - $44 was a great deal for a three-course prix fixe there, as entrees normally run around that price on their own (and sweet bread was on the menu).

    Apparently other dineLA fans had the same idea, as many fellow diners (a sea of Asians normally not seen in these parts of Beverly Hills in such numbers!) turned out in droves for the deal.  Most got seated in the patio - I think thanks to Foodie Mentor, we got seated in the more 'proper' dining room inside.

    We started off with a few cocktails - Foodie Mentor had the drink with cranberry and candied ginger, while I had the Canon Cocktail ($16) that had an interesting combination of cucumber, dill and lime.  I was uncharacteristically camera shy and didn't bust out my Canon until later in the meal - so unfortunately did not capture pics of the menus that would enable a more detailed account of our drinks.  

    I was also sad that I didn't get a clean shot of the tuna cornettes ($6 each) - an off-menu item we got to taste thanks to Foodie Mentor's informative contacts.  These cornettes were basically a scoop of tuna tartare, in cones made with a sweet crunchy wafer that had fragrant black sesame baked in, topped with bonito flakes.  Though the lowest-priced item of the night, these tuna cornettes were easily the richest in flavor.  In a place that looked like a time capsule for 80s/90s decadence, with its somewhat staid decor featuring loud-colored ceramics, these cornettes were small beacons of a more sophisticated present day, befitting of a fine dining venue, beckoning us 'back to the future'.  I could have eaten a dozen of these cones in one sitting.

    After a few wistful glances at the regular (cost prohibitive) menu, we quickly moved on to the dineLA insert, which differed slightly from the menu posted on the site.  The advertised lamb, which we had both been looking forward to, was missing.  In its place were short ribs.

    An additional entree was available for a supplement of $15 - New York Steak with baked bone marrow and chanterelle mushrooms.  I was very tempted by the marrow and mushroom combo, but knowing I still had quite a few dineLA meals at other venues to try, refrained from overextending my budget.

    Luckily, the starter I was excited about was still available - Sautéed Veal Sweet Bread with Mache Salad, Onion Pastilla and Orange Gastrique.  The sweet bread was fried to a nice thin crisp on the outside, smooth and chewy inside, with the citrus cutting through its earthy flavors nicely.  I liked this dish well enough, but it didn't set my synapses and taste buds hurtling through time and space (in a good way) like the restaurant's decor did (in a not so good way).

    Foodie Mentor had the Dungeness Crab Raviolini, Chervil and Basil Scented Shellfish Broth - this was light in texture and rich in flavor - a solid starter.

    For the main, in lieu of the MIA lamb, I went with the Medallions of Bacon Wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Roasted Brussels sprouts, Puree of Parsnips and Potato-Herb Croquettes.  The pork lived up to its name - it was incredibly tender and juicy, falling away easily with a flick of the knife.  However, I could not taste the bacon at all, and the pork itself did not have much flavor.  The croquettes were a little too soft, where I had anticipated the shell to be crisp. 
    Foodie Mentor ordered up the braised short rib, which was also amazingly tender and juicy, but again could have used a flavor defibrillator.

    The desserts by Sherry Yard were a second highlight of the evening.  I got the Lemon Lemon Lemon: lemon sabayon on lemon cake with a scoop of lemon ice cream, topped by a huge wafer.  Light and refreshing after the heavier dishes preceding.

    Foodie Mentor got the Sticky Toffee Pudding, which I loved and wish I had ordered as well - the pudding was more like a cake, light and not at all like the one I had at The Gorbals, which was difficult to eat - with the toffee congealing against my teeth with every spoonful.

    As we walked out into the night, I was glad that we had visited during dineLA (not at full, mortgage-sized price), scored the first of three dines that would earn me a $20 statement credit on Amex, Foodie Mentor racked up some OpenTable points, and we saved $8 on valet that went towards the awesome tuna cones.   And I left satisfied that it would be a very long time before I would possibly feel the need to return for another visit.

    *Parking tip:  Since we went on a Sunday night, I was able to get street parking easily on Crescent Dr., just one short block over from Spago.  If you can't find meter parking, or if visiting on a weeknight during dineLA, there are $5 public lots at the Montage hotel across the street on Canon Drive, and on Crescent Drive by Whole Foods Market.

    On a 7 point scale:
    Flavor - 5 bites
    Presentation - 5.5 bites
    Originality - 5 bites
    Ambience - 5 stars
    Service - 6 stars
    Overall experience - 5.5 bites
    Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
    Probability of return visit - 50%


    Spago Beverly Hills
    176 North Canon Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210
    Ph: 310.385.0880

    OpenTable:  Look for reservations

    Spago Beverly Hills on Urbanspoon

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    dineLA - Ready, Set, Go!

    dineLA Winter 2011 - with its mammoth list of nearly 300 participating restaurants - officially kicks off this Sunday, January 23rd!  It's like second Christmas for foodies on a budget - with some of the cities' most delectable dining spots offering up three-coursers in neatly wrapped prix fixe packages (some even stepping it up with supplements like upgrades for / additional entrees or wine pairings for a nominal price).

    Everyone has their own criteria for what they consider a good deal - but use your own discretion when making your selections, as some places simply offer items already on their menu sometimes at the same total cost as if you ordered a la carte - and some places that normally offer haute cuisine may dole out  'chicken of the day' type entrees just to meet the lower price points.  (Personally, nothing bores me faster than 'beef or chicken' menus!)

    Luckily the majority offer mouth-watering dishes at a great price.  Though being the budget foodie, I always look for ways to double or triple dip to get even more mileage for your money.

    Below are just a few easy ways, all free to sign-up (please see each website for full details):
    • Register with OpenTable and make your reservations through their site.  Then, when you check in at the restaurant, you will earn points towards a gift certificate that you can use at any participating OpenTable restaurant (e.g. 2,000 points earns a $20 certificate!)
    • Use a credit card that offers a rewards program:
      •  American Express:  Register your card with dineLA, then dine out three or more times at participating restaurants from during dineLA (spend $21 minimum each meal) to get a $20 statement credit.  Also, register with Amex's iDine program, then use your card to pay and you will automatically get up to 15% off your bill at participating restaurants year-round (this offer STACKS on top of the $20 statement credit!).  See my deal alert page for details. 
      • Obviously, don't forget to use any credit card attached to an airline, like Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa, which will earn you miles for every dollar you spend during dineLA or any other time.
    • College students / folks repaying college loans:  Register a credit card with, and sign up for their dining program.  Cross reference their database with your selected dineLA restaurants (e.g. Enoteca Drago, Petrossian, The Olive Kitchen + Bar) then dine at those places and pay with your registered credit card to automatically get up to 8% of your bill back, that you can use to pay down your student loan debt!
    • United Mileage Plus members:  register a credit card with their dining program, to get up to 5 miles per dollar spent on your meals, dineLA or year round! 
    • Westfield Century City Dining Rewards:  Bring your receipts from restaurants and eateries at the mall including those at the dining terrace to the mall concierge, within 7 days of your meal, for registration.  Once you accumulate $500 worth in spending on food at the mall, you will get a $25 gift card to the mall.  This is a program you can participate in year round, but if you dine at  Obika Mozzarella Bar or RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen during dineLA, be sure to submit your receipts so that your dollars will further count towards a gift card!
    • Dine on the Sundays, when street parking is free in most neighborhoods,  to save on valet costs - especially areas where valet costs are typically high like Beverly Hills and West Hollywood.
        Please do share if you have any other tips!  Bon appetit!

        P.S. - So many dineLA restaurants, so little time?  Check to see if your favorites are offering dineLA menus outside of the advertised dates!  Locanda Veneta, for example, is also offering their dineLA menu on Saturday 1/29 even though that's not an official dineLA date!

        Wednesday, January 19, 2011

        Sweepstakes alert! Bravo TV Top Chef All-Stars Watch to Win Sweepstakes

        Tune-in each week to get the Quickfire Code, go to the sweepstakes site to enter it, or texting the correct code to the number announced during the episode.

        Grand prize: (1) grand prize winner will get dinner cooked by the winner of Top Chef All-Stars for you and 9 friends

        End date: January 27, 2011 at 12:00 AM (PT)

        For each Weekly Code: LIMIT OF TWENTY (20) ENTRIES total per person consisting of no more than 10 entries by text and up to 20 online, for a total of no more than 20 entries. Open only to persons who, at the time of entry, are permanent, legal residents of, and physically present in the 48 contiguous United States or the District of Columbia (excluding Alaska, Hawaii, and all U.S. territories and possessions) and who are 18 years of age or older and of age of majority in state of residence. See Official Rules for details.

        Check out my Sweepstakes Page "Win Your Next Bite" - for more foodie promotions!

        Monday, January 17, 2011

        1MB Travels: Hong Kong: Dining with Royalty: Prince Restaurant & Dragon King Restaurant

        Having covered off on some great mid-tier restaurants like Pak Loh Chiu Chow and CHE's Cantonese in Hong Kong, I wanted next to share some of the fine dining meals we had at the more modern, upscale venues.  Two of these we actually visited on one day: the aptly named royal pair were Prince Restaurant (for lunch) and Dragon King Restaurant (for dinner).

        Prince Restaurant is located at the upper floors of the shopping center at Lee Gardens, a complex developed below office towers.

        In the U.S., malls or office buildings are probably the LAST places you would expect to find upscale dining with food that isn't designed for more than utilitarian sustenance.  There have been notable exceptions in recent years (e.g. Westfield Century City / Santa Monica Place) which is exciting, but for the most part those types of venues would not be at the top of most food-lovers' lists of destinations for a great dining experience.

        I'm grateful for the emergence of places like Obika Mozzarella Bar, for decent dining when I'm already at the mall, but personally would not plan a whole evening around a meal there.

        Hong Kong on the other hand is as dense with skyscrapers, if not more, than New York, and with the crunch for space - and the strategic advantage of being based in high traffic areas - it completely makes sense there for fine dining venues to be located in shopping centers / office buildings (in addition to hotels).

        And Prince Restaurant offers a luxurious and modern setting with a spacious dining room done in soothing mochas and greens, and non-traditional, sleek booths adorned with crystal chandeliers.

        We started off with an amuse bouche of sliced guavas sprinkled with plum salt.  The sweet / saltiness of the plum salt provided a mouthwatering counterbalance to the sweet / tartness of the guava slices, and was a simple and elegant way to wake up the majority of your taste buds in anticipation of the meal.

        This is one that's easy to replicate back home, as long as I can find an Asian market that sells this salt.
        Our appetizer was one of the most delicious salads I have ever had.  And one I've never seen before - sounds like it's a Prince specialty.  It didn't involve any greens at all, but consisted of small logs of eggplant steamed just enough to be tender to the bite, but still firm enough to retain structure.  The veggies were then served cold with "Japanese Sesame Sauce".  I don't know what is in this sauce besides sesame and cream - but in combination with the tender but slightly crunchy eggplant - the dish was like a drug that triggered addiction on contact.  Two weeks later, I still dream about it and need to go back to Prince soon to get my fix.

        Next up was a traditional Chinese dish - Crispy Skin Roast Pork Belly - but well executed here and provides our protein dish, so we added it to our order to round out the meal. 

        Other traditional dim sum items, each with one new added ingredient, that we ordered were:  Baked Egg Tarts with Birds' Nest (HK$25 ~US$3 per piece) and Baked Diced Goose Pastries (HK$30 ~US$4 per piece).  While the egg tarts were great, the Baked Diced Goose Pastries is Prince's one glitch this meal - the goose pieces were dry and a bit bland.
        At our server's recommendation, we also tried the Black Truffle with King Prawn (HK$98 ~US$13) which came beautifully plated.  The truffle was made into a sauce of consistency somewhere between broth and cream, and drizzled over the prawn and plate.  The prawn was incredibly fresh, tender and sweet, and served at the perfect heat to release the fragrant aromas of the truffle - the smell is intoxicating even as the server approached the table.  You might say $13 is a bit excessive for a single prawn, but the dish was worth it (and there is no sales tax charged in Hong Kong). 
        Next up was another Prince Restaurant specialty, Steamed Whole Abalone Dumpling (HK$48 ~US$6).  I know I often overuse the word 'amazing', but I don't think I have many occasions to use the word 'perfect' - and this dish was Perfect.  The Abalone was perfectly shaped, perfectly cooked at the right level of tenderness, perfectly flavored, and the dumpling was perfectly designed to encapsulate all the rich flavors of the abalone in a single bite, all cushioned with a bun to sponge up the juices so that the flavors can linger on your tongue just a little bit longer.  I loved that each dumpling came in its own individual steamer - bonus points for presentation!

        We finished off our lunch with Pumpkin Fried Glutinous Rice Cakes, which was a new take on a traditional dessert ("Leen Gao" or new year's cake"), adding in pumpkin to the classic dough, forming into a shell and filling it with lotus seed paste.  These cakes were fried perfectly for a lightly crisp topping giving way to a soft, hot and chewy rice dough shell, that revealed the subtly sweet lotus seed paste with each bite.

        All in all, lunch at Prince was one of my favorite meals on this trip - and next time I go back to Hong Kong I'm hopping in a taxi to Prince Restaurant straight from the airport.
        On a 7 point scale:
        Flavor - 6.5 bites
        Presentation - 6.5 bites
        Originality - 6 bites
        Ambience - 6 stars
        Service - 6 stars
        Overall experience - 6.5 bites
        Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
        Probability of return visit - 100%

        Click link for review of dinner at Dragon King Restaurant


        Hong Kong

        Prince Restaurant
        5th Floor, The Lee Garden, 33 Hysan Ave., Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
        Ph: 852-2577-4888

        Dragon King Restaurant
        12/F World Trade Center, 280 Gloucester Road, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
        Ph: 852-2895-2288 

        Saturday, January 15, 2011

        Sweepstake alert! Live the M Life (Win Custom Las Vegas Experience - and meals at Craftsteak?!)

        Enter for a chance to win a 'choose your own adventure' style Las Vegas experience courtesy of MGM Resorts - including comped meals at any restaurant within any of the resorts listed within their family of hotels (including MGM Grand and Bellagio...can you say Craftsteak!?!) and shows.

        Grand prizes:
        GRAND PRIZE #1: Build Your Own Las Vegas Experience #1:
        - Two nights in a suite at one of the following resorts: ARIA, Bellagio, MGM Grand,
        Mandalay Bay or The Mirage
        - Two days of lunch and dinner at the restaurant of your choice at any of the above
        - One Spa treatment for you and your guest from any of these resort spas
        - Two VIP seats to two of the following Cirque Du Soleil shows: VIVA ELVIS!; "O";
        The Beatles LOVE or Ka, or Disney's THE LION KING.

        GRAND PRIZE #2: Build Your Own Las Vegas Experience #2:
        - Two nights in a deluxe room at one of the following resorts: Monte Carlo, NYNY,
        Luxor, or Excalibur
        - Breakfast, lunch and dinner for two from the restaurant of your choice for two
        - Two complimentary passes to three of the following attractions: Titanic or Bodies
        "The Exhibit"; Shark Reef Aquarium; Adventure Dome; Siegfreid and Roy's Secret
        Garden & Dolphin Habitat
        - Two premium seats to one of the following shows: Cirque Du Soleil's Zumanity or
        Criss Angel Believe; Tournament of Kings Dinner Show; or Jabbawockeez

        PLUS Weekly prize packages to be won - see full offerings here:

        Enter here:

        End date: March 28, 2011 11:59 p.m. ET 

        Limit one (1) entry per person per day. Open only to legal residents of the fifty (50) United States (and the District of Columbia) and Canada (excluding Quebec) who are at least twenty-one (21) years old at the time of entry.See Official Rules for details.


        Check out my Sweepstakes Page "Win Your Next Bite" - for more foodie promotions!

        Friday, January 14, 2011

        1MB Travels: Hong Kong: Pak Loh Chiu Chow Restaurant

        Much as I love my friends, foodie or not, when one says they "really like Chinese food" and gives Panda Express as an example, it makes me really, really, really sad.  I may be completely biased as I consider myself lucky to have grown up with it, and know that 'real' Chinese food does not consist of 'item combo' plates of battered meat that look like they could glow in the dark, or single-note stir-fries, but a nearly limitless feast on an ever-spinning lazy susan of wide-ranging ingredients, unique flavor profiles and regional preparations.

        That is why I love Hong Kong - all kinds of regional cuisines running the gamut from haute to homey are a snap of the chopsticks away, that are either not easily accessible or not well done in the U.S.  One of my favorite cuisines is Chiu Chow for its beautifully simple but flavorful dishes.  In my last visit to HK, I was introduced to Pak Loh Chiu Chow Restaurant 百樂潮州 in Causeway Bay, its entrance half hidden in a recessed hallway in an office building.

        The only visible sign of the restaurant from the street is a butcher window, that at any standard Chinese restaurant would have marinated chickens, ducks and/or barbecue pork hanging from the racks, but at Pak Loh has whole crabs dangling by their claws.  This is as cold crab is a famous Chiu Chow dish, as possibly the only traditional Chinese cuisine that serves the crustacean cold.
        The inside of the restaurant is no frills, unlike the latest western style Chinese restaurants with ostentatious interior design and locations at the top of highrises - but it is clean and comfortable.

        Chiu Chow meals always start with a serving of tiny cups of 'Kung Fu Tea' - literally just enough for one mouthful.  I'm told these 'shots' have at least twice the caffeine of normal teas, but have never investigated - it's a little more bitter than regular Chinese teas served at restaurants, and definitely wakes you (and your taste buds?) up before the feast.

        We started off with Lo Shui Sliced Goose ("Soyed Goose Slices" on the menu, HK$150 ~$19) 鹵水鹅片.  "Lo Shui" is a type of soy based marinade and a Chiu Chow signature preparation for all kinds of meats.  The goose slices at Pak Loh were tender, and the saltiness well balanced with the sweet & sour dipping sauce (not the Panda Express kind, but a clear, liquid sauce).
        Next up is a childhood favorite - Omelette with baby oysters 香煎蠔仔烙.  The name is pretty much self explanatory. This dish is a bit about contrasts - the omelette is fried to a crisp on the outside, which sandwiches the creamy oysters in every bite.  Pak Loh's version was fine, but not as incredible as I've had at other places, mainly because the oysters did not retain their structure, and was sort of an amorphous, gelatinous spread inside the egg.

        There is a Chiu Chow dish that I had as a kid, that I had not been able to find in the U.S., which up until Pak Loh I had mistakenly believed to be stir fried bone marrow (which led to the disappointment with American/Italian preparations like roasted bone marrow, which is not the same consistency at all).  The Chinese name is "quat shui" 脊髓- the first word means "bone".  In fear of mad cow disease, my parents had warned me away from this dish in recent years.  However, on this visit I had a huge craving for it and absolutely had to have it before I left.  So my mom kindly relented and ordered up a dish that was named on the menu as Stewed Abalone with...*drum roll*...Boned Goose Web and Cow's Spinal Cord (HK$118 ~US$15) 鹅掌脊髓.  Yep, big revelation that surprised even my parents.  In terms of consistency, cow spinal cord sort of feels like gnocchi, but a bit firmer and more chewy, without the separation of shell and filling, and tube-shaped.  I haven't found anything else that tastes and feels like this - so although the thought of what it is may be a little appalling, since I grew up with this dish and like the taste and feel, it didn't bother me.  Boneless goose web (which I'd never had) functioned the same as the baby corn and mushrooms, to offset the tender chewy pieces with crunch.

        Another childhood favorite is "Tong Cho Mein" ("Fried Crispy E-fu Noodles served with Sugar and Vinegar" on menu, HK$88 ~US$11) 乾煎糖醋麵.  This is like a pancake of thin egg noodles pan-fried on both sides to a beautiful golden brown, which you then season with vinegar and sugar - and is a shining example of sweet and sour done right.  Every mouthful is a combination of crispy, chewy, light crunch from the granulated sugar that lends sweetness to the savory noodles, and vinegar to hydrate the mix and provide a burst of sour to counterbalance the sweet.

        Simple, yet deliciously designed layers of flavor and texture.

        We finished off the meal with 'Crystal Baos' ("Steamed Sweet Crystal Dumplings" on menu, HK$24 ~US$3) 水晶包 - another Chiu Chow signature dish, so named for the transparent mochi-like dough wrapped surrounding lotus seed paste.  In this case, two types of lotus seed paste are served up - red and white.  At Pak Loh the crystal bao dough was perfectly chewy, and the paste was smooth and served at just the right right temperature - hot but not enough to scorch the roof of your mouth.

        All in all, a lovely family dinner.  As expected at the end of a Chiu Chow meal, the same tea served at the beginning is also offered at the end (the better to wake you up from food coma, because you WILL overeat) before stepping out into the night. 

        On a 7 point scale:
        Flavor - 6 bites
        Presentation - 5 bites
        Originality - 5 bites
        Ambience - 5 stars
        Service - 6 stars
        Overall experience - 5.5 bites
        Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
        Probability of return visit - 90%


        Hong Kong
        Pak Loh Chiu Chow Restaurant 百樂潮州
        G/F 23-25 Hyson Ave., Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
        Ph: 852-2576-8886


        Sunday, January 9, 2011

        1MB Travels: Hong Kong: CHE'S Cantonese Restaurant

        Now that I've had time to get over jet lag, I'm feeling a little bit more my Type A self and itching to be productive again.  First on my list - sharing all the amazing eats I had in Hong Kong!  I had also spent Christmas vacation in HK last year, but prior to that I hadn't spent any meaningful time in the city that evolves at the speed of light for many years, so didn't know where to begin!  Luckily, as my parents don't cook, they basically eat out every meal and had lots of recommendations at least for family friendly places.  We ate out every meal while I was back - yes, life was rough for a few weeks - NOT! It was a dream vacation for a foodie!

        In trying to process it all, I am having a hard time deciding where to start in terms of posts!  I think I will start with CHE'S Cantonese Restaurant, opened by long time local celebrity Che Yuan Yuan's family, as it's a place that's not too well known even to locals. 
        My uncle had a client that introduced him to the place, hidden away on the fourth floor of an office building in Wan Chai, and he's been hooked ever since.  Celebrity ventures in the culinary world are often at risk of having its status as a star-driven vehicle overshadow its credibility as a legitimate culinary destination - it is typically perceived as 'guilty until proven innocent' of hype that is not necessarily merited by the quality of its food offerings (e.g. Planet Hollywood, Beso Las Vegas etc.).  However, CHE'S truly stands out in a class of its own from the start - its creative menu and flavors are so impressive that its fans really go for the food.  The celebrity connection becomes a bonus, "gravy" on top of it being a great place to eat - and on the night we were there, local superstar Ekin Cheng and a mix of old timey and more recent singers and actresses I didn't know were there to attend a birthday party in the private room.

        Once upon a time, back in high school (yes I am totally dating myself now) - like every other school girl in Hong Kong, I fantasized about marrying Ekin Cheng, tall, looking brooding and rebellious with his long hair yet funny and an upstanding, good guy your mom would love.  All of a sudden I felt like a teen again when he walked in mere feet from us!

        *Ahem* but, so like I said, at CHE'S the food comes first.  There are lots of great dishes that I had never had in all my years of eating Cantonese food, and that certainly are not easily accessible in the U.S.

        The first item to arrive is Pig's Lung Soup with Lean Pork and Vegetables - Chinese people believe that eating specific parts of animals will nourish the corresponding part of the human body.  So Pig's Lung is supposed to be good for your lungs, or respiratory system.  The broth was incredibly clear and grease free, no strange flavors - and I thought it was a good way to start the meal.
        The next dish was one of my favorites - Port Wine Barrel Oyster Stew.  The oysters were infused with port wine, battered and lightly fried, then stewed in a barrel of port wine sauce.  I love anything cooked in wine, for the amazingly rich flavors that only get better over time - and this dish delivered on taste, as well as incredible texture with a crispy/crunchy exterior (this texture reminded me of orange chicken, but much more sophisticated), giving way to a revelation of creamy, silky yet still structured oysters inside.
        As my dad does not like seafood (I know, blasphemy!) - we had a few meat dishes on hand for him, the first of which was Braised Flank Steak.  This was a well executed classic, with the meat perfectly marinated and melt-in-your-mouth soft.

        Our second meat dish was Crispy Skin Chicken - another well executed classic, with skin perfectly crisp and meat juicy with just the right amount of fat.

        Up next was my second favorite dish of the night, Crab with Shaoxing Wine and Steamed Egg Whites (see a theme / pattern emerging here...? Seafood + wine = good food in the One More Bite Encyclopedia).  The wine made this dish amazingly flavorful - though the alcohol was a little too strong for those at the table who didn't drink - and it was a stroke of genius to steam the crab with egg whites, which caught all the intense flavors from the crab and the wine, and made for a great enhancer for steamed rice.  You could scoop the egg white onto rice to add flavor to the grains, and made for a great pairing with the crab to eat along with it.

        For our not-so-token veggie, we had Snow Pea Sprouts in Superior Broth, lovely savory/sweet crunchy greens steamed in chicken broth.  Simply delish!

        For dessert, we started out with a CHE'S specialty - Crispy Barbecue Pork Buns.  BBQ Pork Buns, of course, are a dim sum staple and not a groundbreaking new invention - however, no other restaurant I had been to had thought to shape it into a ball, and add a crispy shell all the way around (some restaurants serve it 'Pineapple Bun' style, with a crispy slightly sweet layer that's lumpy, resembling a pineapple, just on top).  CHE'S bbq pork buns are served piping hot, seemingly fresh out of the oven, with the shell a smooth, perfect golden brown all the way around, crunchy with just the slightest bit of sweetness - contrasting beautifully with the smooth flow of bbq pork in a delicious sweet/savory sauce inside.  The spherical shape ensured that we got an even mouthful of crispy shell, bread, and bbq pork in every bite.  The plate had arrived with more buns, but I couldn't hold everyone back long enough for me to take a photo, so I was only able to capture an image of a solitary bun on my own plate.

        A second dessert we could not resist, based on the Chinese name, was the Yin Yang Sesame Dough Balls ("Yin Yang Ma Sa Ji" - which sounds like "Yin Yang Massage").  The name came from the main ingredients in the dish - black and white sesame paste, stuffed into fried dough balls rolled in sesame.  I know I almost criminally over-use the word "amazing" - but there is truly no other way to describe these freshly fried balls of awesomeness.
        Well aware of my incurable sweet tooth, my family ordered two more desserts for me to taste - "Almond Tea", a classic Cantonese dessert that is basically a white almond soup served hot, which is supposed to be nourishing to the complexion, and Coconut Pudding with real chunks of fresh young coconut inside.

        All in all, one of my favorite meals on this trip - not because I got to see my childhood idol, but because I got to see my childhood idol and got to taste and learn about some totally new dishes.
        [Can't wait til I have time to find a decent Cantonese cookbook so I can figure out how / what other seafoods I can make with port and Shaoxing wine!!!]

        CHE'S will most definitely be on my request list for the next time I visit.

        On a 7 point scale:
        Flavor - 6 bites
        Presentation - 5.5 bites
        Originality - 6 bites
        Ambience - 5.5 stars
        Service - 6 stars

        Overall experience - 6 bites
        Price - $$ (2 bite marks)

        Probability of return visit - 100%

        Hong Kong

        CHE'S Cantonese Restaurant
        4/F, The Broadway, 54-62 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong

        Ph: 852-2528-1123

        Saturday, January 8, 2011

        Deal alert! dineLA offer for American Express cardholders: $20 credit. Also join idine for up to 15% back on meals through 2012!

        As if the list of nearly 300 of some of LA's best/most intriguing restaurants, offering three-course prix fixe meals from $16-$44, in the upcoming dineLA Restaurant Week weren't enough to whip us food lovers up into a frenzy...

         (AND it's really a dream come true for foodies on a budget for TWO weeks, 1/23-1/28 and 1/30-2/4)

        American Express has partnered with dineLA to offer Amex cardmembers a $20 statement credit for those who dine out three times or more at any participating restaurant during dineLA, using the same card.  All you need to do is register your card for the promotion between now and February 4th, and spend $21 or more at each of the three dineLA meals!

        The registration page just went live today!  Registration is limited to the first 5000 enrollees, so register now !

        Check out list of participating restaurants and/or to make reservations here:

        Get the latest news:
        On iPhone (web app):
        On Twitter:


        Notes: check out the site for full details, terms and conditions, but some quick things to note: You may only register one Card for this offer, and must use the same registered Card for each transaction. Prepaid / Corporate Cards, and ExpressPay transactions, are not eligible.  Limit one statement credit per Cardmember.

        While you are at the Amex site, also check out their other dining rewards offers. The most enticing one to me is iDine - a program that lets you earn up to 15% back at 10,000+ restaurants nationwide from now through 2012.

        What you have to do: register your Amex card, dine at a participating restaurant, then complete a quick online survey and you will get a percentage of each bill back as an American Express Reward Card.  The more you dine within a year, the higher the percentage you can earn, up to 15%!  Once your benefits build up to at least $20, you will be sent an American Express Reward Card.

        And there's a bonus: Use your registered card within 45 days of joining to get $5 toward your first Reward Card!

        Register now and get full details at:

        For latest updates on participating iDine restaurants & deals:
        Get the iPhone app:
        Follow on Twitter:

        Triple dip:  On top of all this, cardholders who have the Starwood Amex may also be able to earn Starwood points for their purchases!  (I have an email out to Amex on this to confirm the triple dipping - stay tuned!)

        Looking forward to eating up a storm in a few weeks!

        Bon appetit!

        Thursday, January 6, 2011

        Sweepstakes alert! Win dineLA for a Year!

        Ok people - this is one of my favorite sweepstakes as a foodie on a budget - lets you check out a year's worth of some of the best / most intriguing restaurants in LA (approx value $2600). Good luck!

        Grand prize: Fifty-two (52) $50 gift cards from select Winter 2011 dineLA Restaurant Week participating restaurants.
        Enter here:

        End date: February 4, 2011

        Limit one (1) entry per person/per email address. Open to legal resident of the US or DC age of majority or older. See Official Rules for details.


        Check out my Sweepstakes Page "Win Your Next Bite" - for more foodie promotions!

        Wednesday, January 5, 2011

        Sweepstakes Alert! Eat Your Way SF 2 LA - Win Ultimate Culinary Road Trip 1/27-2/1

        Enter for a chance to win a "culinary experience" road trip down the coast of California from San Francisco to Los Angeles, driving in sponsor's Acura TSX Sport Wagon - including stops in scenic Monterey and Santa Barbara, and meals at Citizen Cake in SF, and SimonLA, BLD and The Foundry in LA.  They've also thrown in spa treatments along the way and a shopping spree at The Beverly Center!

        Grand prize: 4-day trip from SF to LA "to enjoy not only the breathtaking views, but also some of the best food and wine the region has to offer."

        Winner and guest must be able to travel 1/27-2/1.

        End date: January 17, 2011 at 11:59 p.m. PST
         Limit one (1) entry per person per day. Open to legal residents of California who are at least twenty-one (21) years old at the time of entry. See Official Rules for details.

        Check out my Sweepstakes Page "Win Your Next Bite" - for more foodie promotions!

        Lobsta Truck - Rollin' New England Style

        With probably 20 dining reviews banked in my head from all the incredible stops on my Sabah/Hong Kong trip this holiday, waiting for fingers to unload to keyboard - I still can't help but take a short detour to post about Lobsta Truck.

        After an incredible vacation packed with culinary adventure, featuring the freshest of seafood and dishes starring exotic ingredients, I was in denial about the return to the mundane with my first day back at work. Then I realized that Lobsta Truck was going to be in the neighborhood around my office at lunch!

        As its name indicates, Lobsta Truck's focus is on lobster - the only food truck out in Los Angeles thus far to build its menu around this delectable crustacean, and most exciting of all, lobster freshly flown in from New England, just like the fresh split top rolls they sit in.

        When we got to the truck about a half hour into its service, there was a line down the block, and it didn't seem to be moving.  But everyone in line did not appear agitated - as if they knew the rolls would be worth the wait.

        It took us about 35 minutes in the queue before we got to place our order, but we didn't mind once we took one look at the food (although, good thing it was so close to the office - so that we could take the rolls back to work to eat since we will have spent our whole lunch hour driving/parking and waiting). 

        I got a Lobsta Roll ($11) and a Crab Roll ($9) - originally intending to keep the Crab Roll in the fridge for dinner.  You can order the rolls with either butter or mayo - so I picked one for each - butter with the lobster and mayo for the crab.  Both were incredible - not only were they stuffed with really big chunks of meat that tasted fresh from the ocean, juicy and sweet, but the bread was also the perfect weight and fluffiness, and perfectly toasted on the outside to add a great crispy crust with each bite. The butter was skillfully controlled to avoid overflow - and I am happy to report that the roll did not in any way feel greasy or heavy at all, but tasted fresh and light. Our only note was that the roll was fairly small (barely longer than my hand), so that it would probably take at least 2 rolls for the average diner to get full.  I ended up gulping down the crab roll as well at lunch, as much because its freshness was irresistible, as that I found I was not really full after the Lobsta Roll.  But otherwise, the seafood was of incredible quality unexpected for a food truck.

        I had also wanted to try the New England Clam Chowder ($3.50 cup / $6 pint) as well, but they were sold out before we even got to the order window! 

        My co-worker got a Lobsta Roll and loved it - not bad for his first food truck experience!  I also grabbed a Freshly Squeezed Lemonade, a good deal at $2 for a roughly 'grande' size cup - a brilliant pairing with the seafood rolls and for the health-conscious, much better than soda.  Other bottle beverages spotted at the truck include Izze sparkling fruit drinks, root beer and bottled water.

        All told, though a bit on the pricey side for a 'mobile' lunch, considering that it's $11 for big chunks of freshly flown in New England lobster and the lovely feeling that gave us of being highrollers - splurging on lobster at an office lunch -  it's a welcome indulgence for this diner.  Can't wait to try the Clam Chowder as well. 

        Hope Lobsta Truck rolls into our neighborhood more often!

        On a 7 point scale:
        Flavor - 6 bites
        Presentation - 6 bites
        Originality - 5.5 bites
        Ambience - 5 stars
        Service - 5 stars
        Overall experience - 6 bites
        Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
        Probability of return visit - 100%


        Lobsta Truck
        All over Los Angeles - see Twitter for updates

        Lobsta Truck on Urbanspoon

        Tuesday, January 4, 2011

        1MB Travels: Sabah, Malaysia Adventures

        Now that I've covered the priority reports on good eats during our family vacation, wanted to share some other cool things we did while at Sabah.

        Day 1: With our tour package, we get a 2.5 hour massage / spa treatment in Kota Kinabalu. Most people save this for the end of the trip when they are tired from water activities, sightseeing etc. and need the after sun treatment. We went up front, as we were exhausted from work! After the awesome massage, we headed with the group to Borneo Wildlife Preserve in Beaufort (about a 1.5-2 hour drive outside Kota Kinabalu).

        After we were served snacks - mainly fried fruit like bananas that seem like they have been sitting out too long - we set out on a small boat in search of the famed Proboscis Monkeys that are unique to Borneo, and on the endangered list.

        Not sure why we were expecting to be able to see the monkeys close-up, I think in our minds there was going to be a portion of the tour that would be walking through the preserve and being potentially in close range to the animals - but in reality of course as they are endangered, we stayed in the boat the whole time, and though we did see several monkeys - they were swinging from the treetops so we could barely see their silhouettes.

        The below was about as close as we got to seeing their faces:
        Photo taken at gift shop at hotel
        It was still fun though, and entertaining to see the kids on the tour go bananas whenever they spotted a monkey (and were able to identify the butt color of each one via zoom lens or binoculars). 

        Thanks to the tour guide's sharp vision, we were also able to see a lizard up close - they pulled the boat right into the brush so we were just maybe 15 feet away from it!   At first our fellow passengers joked it's probably a plastic prop placed there for dramatic effect, but then as if on cue, the lizard stuck its head up and posed for photos.

        At around dusk, we docked back at the 'lodge' (which feels a little like the Blue Bayou at Disneyland with the lights up) for dinner before heading out to see the fireflies.

        Dinner was served buffet style with picnic style tables in the 'lodge', and included local veggies, coconut rice, and small crabs.  It was billed as 'private dining' but was of the quality you would expect at a place whose primary function is not food service, but wildlife preservation.  Though the beef short rib soup was a standout - very clean broth that's rich in flavor and made fragrant with lemongrass.  But if we were to go on this tour again I would definitely try to eat beforehand.

        The fireflies tour was great - we basically went down the river in the dark, and periodically the tour guide would shine a huge spotlight on a tree that he suspects houses many fireflies, and for a brief moment we would question whether they are there - then seconds later, pinpoints of light burst into life all over the tree, so that it looks like lights on a Christmas tree - except the lights move around to create a magical, shimmery effect.  Again it was too bad we couldn't see them up close, and no photo opps with this one either - but kind of a fun thing to do in conjunction with other activities at the preserve (we decided we wouldn't have wanted to drive all the way just for the fireflies).

        Day 2:  We also checked out the waterfront markets in Kota Kinabalu's city center. From produce stands to sellers of everything you can make out of coconut, to dried seafood and no-label secret recipe hot sauce at Central Market to handmade bags and accessories and anything you can bead, crochet or build out of shells at the Craft Market - this is ideal for anyone looking for local foods / goods and interactions.

        While some vendors are more open and will happily pose for photos, others do not welcome photography at their booths - we just played it by ear and erred on the side of asking for permission before snapping pics (or captured photos quickly and discreetly).

        Where we ended up buying the most souvenirs was at the Wawasan Plaza shopping mall near Api-Api center.  There were stalls selling everything a tourist would want to bring home as gifts - hand-dyed sarongs, Kota Kinabalu tees, monkey-themed gifts, all kinds of keychains and charms, crocheted seashell 'windchimes' and much more.  At one store, I scored 5 sarongs for RM100 or about $32 US!
        Day 3: Our tour package offered an add-on for a snorkeling excursion, but it required meeting up at 7am for a 2 hour ride out to the ferry before another hour or so ride to the island, and we just weren't up for it, especially as I was the only one who would be snorkeling. 

        The good news is, we discovered when wandering around Sutera Harbour Resort that they have a professional water activities agency on-site called Sea Quest, and among other offerings they run boats out to three islands at nearby Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park throughout the day, and will rent you the appropriate equipment from beach mats to snorkel / diving gear.  The most awesome thing?  There were boats leaving as late as 11:30am, 12:30pm and into the afternoon - they leave straight from the Marina Club in the resort, it's a 15 minute ride, and they take walk-ins.  The total cost for one person to go to Mamutik Island with boat fare and full snorkel gear rentals was RM80 or about $26 US (inclusive of entry fee into the park).  As a hotel guest at the Sutera you can also get a 'loaner' towel from the booth steps away from the Sea Quest counter.  So convenient!  Granted, the variety of marine life and quality of the snorkeling/diving experience at the Tunku Abdul Tahman Marine Park will not compare to that of Semporna, one of the Top 10 dive sites in the world - but it also doesn't take an hour plane ride and boat ride either - and is ideal for families looking for short half day excursions with minimal travel time.

        The beach on Mamutik island was beautiful - though the picnic areas further back are a bit too densely populated, the beach itself was great.  Sea Quest provided transportation and gear, but leaves you alone to enjoy the water as you like (there isn't a guided tour for snorkeling), which is perfect for us. 

        We were already excited, at the pier to be able to see huge schools of fish swimming below (hard to see in this picture with my point and shoot...but you can roughly see their numbers and visibility up near the top right corner).

        With Sea Quest, you book a spot on the return trip as well before you depart, but can change it if you like - just head to the pier to let their staff know 20 minutes prior to the originally scheduled departure time.  Love the flexibility!

        (You can also use the 'island hopper' deal to check out two of the three islands in one day - the boat stops by each island anyways like a shuttle.  Next time we would like to try Manukan, which seems a little more resort like than Mamutik.)

        After exhausting work by or in the water (i.e. snorkeling or swinging in the hammock, beach-side) all day, and feasting on the freshest creatures from the sea - it was great to cool down with a Super Ice-Cream Potong. There were tropical fruit flavors, of course, plus some flavors unusual for ice cream, like avocado, yam and sweet corn.  Before tasting these frozen treats, I expected to like sweet corn the least - it didn't sound like something that would make a delicious ice cream flavor - but with that set-up, I'm sure you've guessed by now - yes, sweet corn turned out to be my favorite flavor of the bunch.

        And those were some of the highlights of our trip!

        All in all, loved Sabah for all that it had to offer - and there's so much more that we didn't see - hope that we will have a chance to go back again!


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