My 2014 Reading List!

January 5, 2014 in Book Reviews, On Writing, Reviews

books

Finally, I’ve accomplished something I set out to do. 2013 was a big year of reading by my pathetic standards. As a father of two young’ uns working a full-time job plus freelancing on the side and loads of TV shows and movies to watch every night, reading time is hard to come by, but I set a goal to read 20 books last year and I did it, finishing with an overall total of 23.

It was a healthy diet of books for review I received from a trade publication, a lot of sports biographies (went through a binge phase), some recommendations, a few writing manuals and a few bestsellers. They were (in reverse chronological order): And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Housseini, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, 13 Ways to Steal a Bicycle: Theft Law in the Information Age by Stuart P Green, Party Time: Who Runs China and How by Rowan Callick, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Justice by Michael J Sandel, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty, The War for Late Night by Bill Carter, Cybercrime in the Greater China Region by Lennon Yao-chung Chang, Dream Team by Jack McCallum, Inferno by Dan Brown, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, Tokyo Sketches by Peter Hamill, Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott, and Fifty Shades Freed by EL James (I had read the two books in the series the year before).

To avoid disappointment, my goal is to hit 20 books again for 2014, and I’ve already got a preliminary reading list at hand. This year I hope to get to more fiction and classics, and I intend to read a couple of fantasy and horror classics to get myself in the mood for my own fantasy novel. I’ve also dedicated some time to non-fiction as well as spiritual learning by setting aside a few pro-Christian and anti-Christian books, just to balance things out a little. There will likely be more additions as I receive them in the mail for review and other bestsellers and recommendations that come up throughout the year, but for now, this is (in no particular order) my reading list for 2014!

Stoner, John Williams

Simply Christianity, John Dickson

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan

Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman

My Story, Elizabeth Smart

Sycamore Row, John Grisham

Dracula, Bram Stoker

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

All That I Am, Anna Funder

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Magician, Raymond Feist

The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks

Dreams from My Father and/or The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama

Can’t wait to rip into them.

Ling Dong Fang’s famous Taiwanese beef noodle soup (Taipei)

July 23, 2013 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel

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Doesn’t look like much, but this place is nearly always packed out

There are plenty of clean and delicate restaurants in Taiwan, but to really experience the local culture you must get down and dirty with the commoners. Taiwan is also famous for its stewed or braised beef noodle soup. When you put the two elements together, it means you must visit a local beef noodle soup stall/shop.

And there are few beef noodle soup shops in Taipei more popular than Ling Dong Fang (林東芳牛肉麵) – which I assume is the name of the owner/chef).

It’s a place you wouldn’t look at twice if there wasn’t a massive line outside of it during peak hours. There is an open kitchen, a table for the side dishes, and two small tables pressed against the walls allowing a total of about 10 customers. In summer it can get pretty hot in there despite the presence of air conditioners. Due to its size, most of the customers are there to get the takeaway.

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Condiments including chilli sauce, which is supposedly a must-add

What’s so good about Ling Dong Fang? I ordered the best thing they had, the half-tendon, half-beef noodle soup for NT$190 (the large is NT$220), though the full-tendon noodle soup can cost up to NY$250 (for the large).

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The menu

And as you can see, the meat is plentiful and nicely carved, unlike many other local beef noodle soup joints who skimp on those things. I also loved the green onions. The soup is lighter than I expected, and that’s probably what makes it so popular, as traditional soups are often heavy on the salt and MSG. The noodles are excellent, with a handmade texture and the perfect thickness and bite.

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That’s a nice looking bowl of beef noodle soup!

It was a perfectly good bowl of beef noodle soup, but to be honest I can’t say it is the best I’ve had. It’s a matter of opinion.

8/10

Details:

Ling Dong Fang Beef Noodle Soup (林東芳牛肉麵)

Address: No. 274, Sec 2. Bade Road, Taipei

Phone: (02) 2752-2556

Hours: Mon-Sat 11:00am – 5:00am

MRT: Zhongxiao Fuxing, Exit 1

Sabatini Cucina (Taipei)

July 17, 2013 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel

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I have searched long and hard for Taipei’s best Italian restaurant, and I think I may have found it with Sabatini Cucina, which we fortunately spotted during a recent trip to the obstetrician. Apart from one glaring weakness — the absence of pizza — I think the restaurant holds its own against any Italian joint I’ve sampled in Taiwan.

The restaurant has two floors and bookings are recommended. There is a wine and dessert bar along the side and a semi-open kitchen in the back. The seats are comfortable and the ambience is first class.

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Price-wise it is at the slightly higher end (we’re talking about NT$500-1000+ per head, depending on what you get) but still significantly cheaper than a lot of the fine dining options.

You can check out the menu in the website link below, but generally they have an assortment of appetisers, soups and salads, main courses (steak, fish, poultry, etc) as well as pastas and risottos, specials, and of course, desserts. They also have a lunch menu where it’s a main course, a soup, a salad, dessert and coffee for the price of the main plus NT$150.

On this day, our first visit, we ordered an eggplant starter (essentially an eggplant lasagne), a mushroom soup, house bread, and two pasta main courses — a lobster fettuccine (garlic and olive oil) and a black truffle cream sauce linguine. We will definitely be back to try the other mains and the risottos.

Here are the food pics. I was so excited I forgot to take a photo of the soup. But you can pretty much guess what porcini mushroom soup looks like. It tasted awesome.

The eggplant came in a different dish but they separated it onto serving plates, which is why the portions look a little small. But trust me, it’s delicious.

The mains are both specials and they are exquisite. I preferred to lobster because the truffle sauce was a little too heavy for my liking but the missus preferred it the other way around.

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Free condiments including salsa, anchovies and olives

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House bread

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Eggplant appetizer

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Lobster pasta

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Black truffle cream sauce pasta

Last but not least the dessert. We ordered the ice cream, which sounds ordinary but turned out to be one of the best desserts I’ve had in ages. The caramelised nuts inside the ice cream are simply divine.

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Dessert!

In all, it was an amazing experience. Top it off with excellent service and what you have is one of Taipei’s best Italian experiences.

9.5/10

Details:

Sabatini Cucina

Website: http://www.sabatinicucina.com.tw/

Address: No. 84, Sec 2, Chang An East Road, Taipei

Phone: (02) 2512 1585

Hours: 12:00-14:30 (lunch), 18:00-22:30 (dinner)

Taco Tora: the best takoyaki in Kyoto!

April 30, 2013 in Best Of, Food, Japan, Reviews, Travel

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Taco Tora (Shichijo store)

In my humble opinion, takoyaki is one of the greatest foods in the world. According to Wikipedia, it is a “ball-shaped Japanese snack made of a wheat flour-based batter and cooked in a special takoyaki pan” and usually filled with octopus. I first fell in love with it while reading ろくでなしBLUES (translated in English as Rover Blues), possibly my favourite manga of all time.

rokudenashi

I have tried many takoyaki places in Japan (Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo) and in my opinion the best place to have this delectable dish, by far, is Taco Tora, which has, as far as I know, three stores in Kyoto.

Back in the day (2002), I always visited the store in Kyoto’s Kamishichiken district, on Imadegawa, which was a long bike ride but well worth it whenever I am craving for a post-dinner snack. Last month, however, I tried out the Shichijo store for the first time because it’s closer to the hotel I was staying at near Kyoto Station.

The two stores, amazingly, look almost identical, from the layout down to the decor. I felt right at home. Here is the wall poster with the phone number, address (in Japanese) and opening hours. For those who cannot see the fine print, they are open from 5pm to midnight.

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So what makes their takoyaki so good? See pictures below first.

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They don’t look particularly special, but they are. At 600 yen for 8 balls, that’s neither cheap nor expensive, but there are several things that do set the takoyaki from Taco Tora apart from other joints.

First of all, their takoyaki balls are huge. Twice as big as ones you will find at night market stalls in Taiwan and some of the stalls at Sydney’s Friday night Chinatown markets. Second, and most importantly, the outside is amazingly crispy. Incomparably crispy. So many takoyaki places, even in Osaka, where they are supposed to be famous, have outsides that are soft and soggy and not worthy of your money. Taco Tora is the real deal. Super crunchy on the outside, moist and flavoursome on the inside. The tako is not just some little piece you can barely get your teeth around — they are huge and chewy.

The sauce is also surprisingly good, even though it is plain. Most places top off takoyaki balls with some type of dark okonomiyaki-style sauce (which is similar to Worcestershire) and mayo, but Taco Tora just has the dark sauce without the mayo. Now I love mayo, but it is perfectly fine without it here. Their sauce just seems tangier. The dried bonito flakes are of course the cherry on top.

Just writing about this makes me hungry. Do yourself a favour and try it out if you are ever in Kyoto. The unfortunate thing is that none of the stores are particularly close to train or subway stations (though I believe there may be bus stops nearby). You might just have to catch a cab.

Details

Taco Tora

Shichijo store (open till midnight): 20-18, Nishikyogoku, Daimon town , Ukyo-ku, Kyoto (京都府京都市右京区西京極大門町20-18)

Main store (open till 2am): Intersection of Kitaooji and Takano, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto (京都府京都市左京区北大路高野交差点上ル西側)

Kamishichiken store (open till 1am): Imadegawadori Nanahonmatsu Nishi Iru Kamigyō-Ku, Kyoto (京都府京都市上京区今出川通七本松西入真盛町726-40)

Kyo Kinana: sublime Japanese ice cream desserts (Kyoto)

April 29, 2013 in Food, Japan, Reviews, Travel

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Look for Kyo Kinana — because it’s worth it!

Kyoto is known for its green tea and desserts, and most people who go there tend to visit Tsujiri, which is an awesome place but not that special any more because franchises have spread to overseas locations such as Taiwan. So on my most recent visit to Kyoto in March we decided to check out Kyo Kinana, a heavenly ice cream dessert shop tucked away in one of the alleys in the Gion district.

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The counter and waiting area on level 1

The shop looks really inconspicuous but is probably not hard to find especially when the queues often extend out into the street. We were really lucky to only have two groups ahead of us on a weekday afternoon, as by the time we finished there were about six groups queuing up in the level 1 waiting area.

The seating area is on level 2. We quickly ordered two desserts. The first is the Berry Berry Parfait (1050 yen), which has yogurt, raspberries and blueberries along with ice cream flavours such as green tea and black sesame. The second is just a plain ice cream trio of three flavours. Both come with quality free hot tea.

Check it out.

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Berry Berry Parfait

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Three flavours of ice cream: black sugar syrup, soybean and green tea!

I am no ice cream expert, but the ice cream at Kyo Kinana are some of the best I’ve had. There’s more cream than ice, giving it a wonderful texture, and the flavours are sweet and thick, but not overpowering. The ingredients are fresh (and apparently hand-picked by the picky owner) and the ice cream is made fresh, usually on the day. What’s there not to like?

If you’re in Kyoto and walking around in Gion, Kyo Kinana is one place I would definitely recommend for a short break.

Note: downstairs there are tubs of ice cream you can purchase for takeaway (350 yen each), but of course it’s preferable to sit down and eat in the shop if you can. There are also other takeaway items such as cookies, jam and tea.

Details

Kyo Kinana

Japanese website: http://www.kyo-kinana.com/index.htm

Address: 570-119 Minamigawa Gionmachi, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City, 605-0074

Map (Japanese): http://www.kyo-kinana.com/gionkinana/access.htm

Phone: 075 525 8300

Hours: 11:00-19:00

 
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