Dinner by Heston

Inside the beautifully historic building of the Mandarin Oriental hotel is the restaurant Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. The restaurant is very modern which makes it quite the anti thesis to the hotel it is located in. Mandarin Oriental's facade is so grand and you are really reminded that you are in London while entering the timeless building. Once you enter the restaurant, timelessness gives way to modernity. The large kitchen is separated by ceiling-to-floor glass walls and offers a view of what goes on inside. The wall of the wine cellar is also made of glass from ceiling to floor and showcases the restaurant's vast wine collection.

Everyone who comes here must try the signature meat fruit which is foie gras and chicken liver encased in mandarin jelly. When presented at the table, it looks just like a mandarin fruit. Slice it into half and you will see the foie gras and chicken liver inside. We smear the meat fruit onto toast, take a bite, and discover that it is the smoothest and silkiest foie gras and chicken liver we've had. The thin layer of mandarin jelly on the outside is not tangy but adds a slight hint of flavor to balance out the richness of the meat fruit inside.

Meat fruit
Meat fruit

All things considered, the £39 3-course lunch is quite a deal at this one Michelin star restaurant by Heston Blumental. And, we get to look out at the vast Hyde Park from the dining room, while enjoying the view of casual walkers, runners, and the occasional policemen mounted on horses. The entree of dressed snails with parsley puree, parsnips, beets, and red wine juice has a clean and light taste but with a little less dressing, the flavor of the snails will stand out more. The main course of roasted quail is prepared with cabbage, onion, and smoked chestnut. The meat is absolutely tender and probably one of the most tender quails I've had.

Dressed snails

Roasted quail

My dining partner aka my sister decide on similar entrees and and main courses but for dessert, we opt for one of each from the two given choices. The millionaire tart comes in the form of an olive oil shortbread topped with a layer of chocolate ganache and sprinkled with edible gold chocolate crunch. The ganache is chocolatey enough without being too intense and with the vanilla ice-cream, they come together nicely. The orange buttered loaf is a refreshing end to the meal with its citrus hints. The butter sponge cake loaf is crisp on the outside and spongy on the inside, served with mandarin sorbet.

Millionaire tart

Orange buttered loaf

Solid meal, yes, but not phenomenal and by all means not mind blowing-- I imagine everything of Heston Blumental to be close to mind blowing.....hah! To be fair, Heston is not the executive chef at this restaurant. He helms the kitchen at his three Michelin star restaurant, The Fat Duck. The prix fixe lunch is a great value and if you consider the price, its one Michelin star rating, and the fact that it is a Heston Blumenthal restaurant, a visit to this place is a pretty good deal. Will I return? Probably yes, to try their ala carte menu during dinner time.

Dinner by Heston
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park
66 Knightsbridge
London SW1X 7LA

2012 1-Michelin Star
2013 1-Michelin Star


Notting Hill


Back in March, I found myself in London again. This time I flew solo while T remained Stateside. I had a great, great excuse to return to London for another visit: to do a sisterly catchup with my sister, who lives Down Under and was spending a couple of months in London for work purposes. My first day back in London I already had plans to make a visit to Notting Hill. "You haven't been to Notting Hill yet?", I asked my sister before I left Chicago for London. That was an incentive for us to stroll together the streets of this charming neighborhood. Admittedly, I really wanted to return to Notthing Hill for two reasons: 1) To get red velvet cupcakes from Hummingbird Bakery which I've heard much about. On my previous visit to London, I made T go with me to this cupcake shop only to find that it had already closed for the day. So this time I made the red velvet cupcake purchase happen. 2) As a treat for T who was Stateside, I promised him two Paul Smith ties from the flagship Westbourne House.


As much as Notting Hill is in any tourist guidebook, it still is very much a residential area which has not lost its local charm. Londoners visit the shops, pubs, and restaurants housed in Victorian architecture from the outside. Along the curved Portobello Road, the facade of the stores is eclectic and painted with blue, yellow, green, or red. There are cookbook shops, local designer stores, and more quaint shops. Veer off Portobello Road and get onto Westbourne Grove and Blenheim Crescent for more store surprises consisting of fashionable boutiques and food stores. At the end of the walk along the curved Portobello Road, there is Golborne Road where locals get their fix of Portuguese and Moroccan food at many old school restaurants along this street. For more upscale and chic boutiques in Notting Hill, Ledbury Road is where they're at.



"I love Notting Hill!", my sister later tells me.


Practical Tips for Tokyo


1. Mostly orderly and non-chaotic crowd you will meet

The city of Tokyo has a population of over 13 million people; the Greater Tokyo Area's population is over 35 million making it the largest metropolis in the world. It may sound like Tokyo-ites live a frantic life but in fact it is far from that. At rush hour, train stations and streets are filled with hundreds of people everyday but at all times the society is extremely courteous, orderly, and incredibly honest. There is no need to worry being amidst the crowd and the city is very safe. There is a longstanding joke that if you accidentally left your bag on the train and returned to retrieve it, chances are your bag will still be there. The entire city has an unspoken system that is respected by everyone. Always walk to your right when going up and down the stairs at train stations. Be considerate and always keep to your right if you are standing on the escalator. These apply even during crazy rush hour. Note that it is a little different in the Kansai region (Kyoto, Osaka) where you keep to your left instead on the stairs/escalator.

Shibuya Crossing

2. Understand the train systems

Tokyo's network of trains is very complex and also the most sophisticated in the world. The trains are extremely reliable, on-time, and efficient. Understand how the system works and once you do, it is very navigable. After all, this is what keeps the world-class metropolis running so efficiently everyday. In the words of T, "Japan is a well-oiled machine." The network coverage is incredible and will take you to almost anywhere in the city. Even visitors and tourists seldom find themselves needing to ride a taxi (and taxi rides are expensive in Tokyo). Don't worry if you don't speak Japanese as every train station has excellent English signage for directions.

JR Yamanote Line

3. GPS and data coverage

When visiting Tokyo (or anywhere in Japan for that matter), it is highly recommended to get data coverage (prepaid data sim card) on your smartphone or iPad. You can order the prepaid sim online and it will be delivered to your hotel; just collect it at time of check-in (we used b-mobile and found it reliable). Most of the streets in Tokyo are not named. The address system in Tokyo has 3 numbers; each street, block, and building is assigned its own number. The building is numbered according to how old it is which means that Building No.5 may not necessarily be next to Building No.6. The easiest way to locate an address is to type it into Google Maps and let the GPS from your smartphone or iPad take you there. Data coverage comes in very handy especially when you are trying to get to a particular restaurant with the address in hand. This brings me to the next point...


4. Koban 

At many corners of the street, there is a koban (police box). If you have difficulty locating a particular address (locals get confused too, even taxi drivers at times!), go up to the blue police box and ask for directions. Locals frequently approach the koban for directions too. Thanks to our friend Keiko-san in Chicago who provided us this invaluable tip when we first told her that we were going to visit Japan.

Imperial Palace

5. Getting from NRT to Tokyo

Perhaps the most frequently asked question is how to get from the airport to central Tokyo. If flying into Narita (NRT), the Narita Express (NEX) train is the most efficient, reliable, convenient, and quick way to get from NRT to central Tokyo. The Keisei Skyliner train also connects you from NRT to central Tokyo though we've only taken the NEX. Trains leave the airport frequently and you will be in central Tokyo in ~50 mins. The Limo Bus runs from the airport to different hotels in central Tokyo and takes up to 60-90 mins depending on traffic and where your hotel is located. Avoid taking a taxi as it will cost ~US$200 from NRT to central Tokyo-- you will also very likely be sitting in traffic.

Narita Express (NEX)

5. Where to stay in Tokyo

This is probably the second most frequently asked question. There is more than one "downtown" in Tokyo and each area/district has its own "downtown". Regardless of where you end up staying, you will eventually have to take the train to get to different places which you will very likely visit as a tourist (per Tip #2, Tokyo is very well accessible by the train network). Therefore, there isn't really one "main" or "best" area to stay in Tokyo since each area is an attraction in itself. Where you end up staying will end up being a matter of personal preference, budget, etc. Some popular areas to visit and stay include Shinjuku (entertainment, financial district), Shibuya (younger vibe), and Ginza (upscale shopping, dining).


5. Learn useful Japanese phrases

Considering Tokyo as a major metropolis, it is surprising that not many people here speak much English. However, the Japanese are always helpful and will try their best to understand and help you. That said, learning some useful Japanese phrases will help you go a long way-- it did for us. Knowing how to speak some useful/practical Japanese phrases also shows that you care about learning about their culture when visiting their country.

Imperial Palace

6. Eating and drinking are not done while walking and on trains

Eating and drinking while walking the streets are not considered good etiquette in the Japanese culture. Vending machines are everywhere and be sure to finish up your drink before walking away. Otherwise, you will not find a trashcan to dispose your bottle or can. Don't drink and eat on the train.

Vending machines

7. Shinkansen

With the exception of the shinkansen (bullet train), passengers can and often eat on the train during the long distance journey e.g. from Tokyo to Kyoto. Bento boxes are sold at train stations and on the platforms. There will be someone pushing a food cart on the train as well. Food sold on the train can actually taste good. Only in Japan, perhaps. Besides bento boxes, another popular snack is katsu sando (fried breaded pork cutlet sandwich).

Bento box
Katsu sando

10. Riding the shinkansen (bullet train) and the JR Pass

Riding the shinkansen is one of those must-do things unique to Japan. The trains travel at tremendous speed and is the fastest and most convenient way to travel between different cities in Japan. The long distance trains depart every few minutes, giving it a frequency of commuter-style trains. They're quiet, reliable, and fast. It is extremely accurate to say that the shinkansen is very much on-time. If you have a ticket for the 9:01am train, get on the 9:01am train and not the 8:57am nor the 9:05am train. There are two types of class: Green car and Ordinary car. Think of Green car as the "business class" seats of the shinkansen. For most people, the Ordinary car is more than good enough. In fact, seats and leg space in the Ordinary car are much better than United Airlines' Economy Plus! Only available to non-residents of Japan, the JR Pass is a good and economical way for unlimited travel on the shinkansen between cities and JR-operated trains within Tokyo. The general rule of thumb is that tickets for a return journey between Tokyo and Kyoto cost as much as the 7-day JR Pass so if that is part of your itinerary, consider getting the JR Pass. The pass can be used on the Narita Express as well (see Tip #5).

Front of the shinkansen

Ordinary car

12. Skyline view

Another popular question is where can one view the Tokyo skyline. There are several buildings with observatory decks, such as the popular Tokyo Skytree, and they all require an admission fee. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is another popular spot and the best thing going for it is that it is free to go up to the observation deck on the 45th floor. On a clear day, you will be able to view Mt Fuji. Best time of visit is at sunset. We literally saw the sun gradually going down behind Mt Fuji and it was incredible.

View from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
Mt Fuji

13. Depachika

Food halls at the Japanese departmental stores are nothing like those you've seen in other countries. A visit to a depachika will easily impress any visitor with the wide range of foods including onigiri (triangular rice snacks with filling), fish cakes, meat buns, grilled fish, tonkatsu (fried breaded pork cutlet), cakes, pastries, bread, and many more. The depachika is where you can see what the Japanese eat everyday. The food quality is very good and this is where housewives visit everyday to buy food for their homes. Evening times at the depachika get especially busy. Buy some food and enjoy them at a nearby park or at the hotel. The depachika at Mitsukoshi in Ginza, Takashimaya and Isetan in Shinjuku are the more popular ones.

Onigiri (rice snacks)
Fish cakes

14. No tipping

Tipping is not practised in Japan and is not part of the culture. Visitors from the U.S. especially are so used to tipping but in Japan, you just don't. No tipping the taxi driver (rounding up to the nearest yen is fine), server, or porter.

Tokyo Tower

15. Tokyo is expensive: Myth or not?

Tokyo has the reputation for being the most expensive city in the world but truth be told, we find that it is very comparable to other major cities in the world such as London and New York in terms of food and hotel costs. In fact, we find that traveling in Melbourne and Sydney are more expensive. It is possible to eat cheap in Tokyo and still get very good food for the price. It is not uncommon to find a piping hot bowl of delicious udon at 600yen (~US$6). Michelin-rated restaurants in Tokyo are on the higher end of pricing but again, the price is nothing that you would not expect from London and New York.

Most importantly, take in what this world class city in a world class country has to offer-- the graciousness of the people, the level of care and detail that is put into the food, the beautiful temples and shrines, etc. Modern skyscrapers and historic temples, modern world-class restaurants and traditional hole-in-the-wall restaurants co-exist with each other. This is Tokyo.

Note: This list is by no means a complete guide and if there's any other suggested practical tips, please add to the list.