Ms Skinnyfat

A Food & Travel Blog from Singapore

The famed Malecon 
Cuba is an enigma that draws people in with its exotic charm and then puzzles, and sometimes annoys them with her ways. Broken things are never quite fixed thoroughly and mended only superficially or ignored. We were left to the conclusion that Cubans are either passionate about something or they are simply uninterested. Honestly, that sounds like a pretty damn good way of living your life, unless you're at the receiving end of that crap.

Prior to leaving for Cuba, we had the stereotypical view that it is all about music, rum, cigars and vintage cars (read my previous post here). Well, it kind of appeared to be so, just like in the movies but without the soundtrack (i take reference from Buena Vista Social Club). However, it's not just that. The stereotype pretty much stays in Habana and the bigger cities and the smaller cities are just like any others in developing/ latin american cities/countries minus the connectivity. Deja vu of India and even Malaysia.
Honestly, i can't tell you how it feels like to be there in Cuba. Nothing beats experiencing it for yourself because we write our own stories. Even after coming back from a trip, you may still develop dimensions/understanding of a place that you didn't before. That's the power of travel. So here is me helping you get there so you can create your own memories. Some background and tips next for your planning consideration.
The busy Paseo de Marti 

Safety and Health
Cuba is generally very safe but like any other country, be vigilant and exercise caution and common sense (e.g. not take quiet dark alleys late night, take drugs and the lots). Strict and prominent policing makes it unwise for people to commit crimes. Police presence is seen and felt in the touristy area of Havana Vieja, but once out of the zone, you hardly see any police on patrol.

Scams however, are prevalent in Havana. Single men or couples asking about the time, tempting you with salsa festivals, cheap cigars, cheap drinks, locals learning English and wanting someone to practise with and the list goes on. Politely decline and walk away. Entertain them a little if you're bored, but don't let them take you for a ride. It kinda sucks because Asians really stand out in Cuba and we're the obvious targets for scams. Watch your belongings as well.
A funky modern pharmacy with a traditional facade in Havana 
Healthcare is well provided for in Cuba and the pharmacies are extremely well stocked (trust me, we checked). In fact, medicine is one of their biggest exports and doctors are held in high esteem there.

Weather
Playa Ancon, Trinidad
Being in the Caribbean, Cuba experiences a moderate average temperature of 21°C in Jan to 27°C in Jul. We enjoyed a cool, dry and sunny break in Cuba in between our wintry NYC trip in Dec 2012. The dry season is from Nov to Apr. Rain comes in from May to Oct with hurricanes causing disturbances in Sep-Oct. Some areas like Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and many others were badly hit by Hurricane Sandy and many homes were destroyed and basic necessities disrupted. Safety and sanitation were on the top of our minds and we had no choice but to reorganize our itinerary. The original plan was to travel east to Baracoa but we had to do a U-turn at Santa Clara.

Getting there
Visa is required for many countries including Singapore and you can apply at the Cuban embassy. The nearest one to Singapore is in Jakarta (O great.) and they insisted that we have to send them our passports (NO WAY!) Many other visa application websites required the same even though it was stated clearly that only a photocopy of your passport. Like no way. and it's not necessary AT ALL. Read the next paragraph carefully.

For tourists, book your air tickets through a travel agency/airline that flies direct to Cuba and they would provide you with tourist card (included in the price of the ticket). We only realized that after all the scrambling and then Air Canada Vacations told us it was already included. Thank god.

It is also possible to buy the tourist card at the airline desk (through the country which you are traveling to Cuba from e.g. France, Canada, Mexico etc). It costs about US$25. If you lost this tourist card, you can get a replacement for another 25CUC (Cuban Convertibles) but i'm not sure about this procedure. Just DON'T LOSE IT. Period.

Also, do not worry that you will be barred from entering US if you have a Cuban chop on your passport. Singaporeans do not require a separate passport unlike if we travel to Israel. In fact, i didn't get any Cuban chop in my passport. It was stamped on the tourist card instead and taken back when we departed Cuba.

Money
Cuba uses 2 currencies- Cuban Convertibles (CUC) for tourists and the Pesos (MN) for the locals. The exchange rate is 1CUC=25MN. Both currencies are only available upon arrival in Cuba. Euros, Pounds and Canadian dollars get you better rates than USD. There is a 10% exchange commission for the first 3 and 20% for USD (the govt has a love hate relationship with US). For easy reference, 1CUC is about 1 Euros after all that double/triple exchange and commission. 

Tourists can only exchange for CUC at the banks but you can exchange that again for MN at the local money changers (Cadecas). That's when we felt a lot richer because 1 CUC can get us a rather decent meal of sandwich and rice for the 2 of us. SCORE. The locals accept any form of money as long as it's 1.Cuban and 2. It's real.
Huge Cuban Pressed Sandwich for 10MN
Accommodation
The best places to stay at in Cuba are the Casa Particulars (private homestays) but they aren't the easiest to book (especially on short notice or for 1 night stays). The locals open their homes to tourists for some extra cash and in exchange you get a safe and cosy home with authentic Cuban meals  thrown in for cheap.
A typical living room in a Cuban home/casa 
The 2 websites that I would recommend are Cuba-Junky and B&B Vinales. I did most of my booking using the latter and their recommended casa did not disappoint me. Prices range from 20CUC (low season) to 25/30CUC (high season). This is way cheaper than the hotels in Havana which absolutely ripped us off at 80 Euros a night. Hotel Los Frailes was the worst with some screw up with the agent and we ended up paying 110 Euros a night. What pissed me even more was that it wasn't even my top choice hotel.  
To avoid that situation, just book the casas in advance. The more established ones will not screw you over and situations like over booking will not happen. For hotels, i noticed that the final booking always goes through Cuba Travel Network so you might as well just use their site to check the prices. For 1 night stay, it'll be easier getting a hotel room.

Food
What sort of food blogger am i if i do not at least give you a preview to the food that we had in Cuba. Home cooked Cuban meals (also served in restaurants) included the following- Salad, Rice (with or without beans) with choice of meat (chicken/pork mostly) or seafood (fish, shrimp, lobster), Cuban Roots (kinda tapioca-like, less starchy than potatoes) and then desserts (always desserts). One thing to bear in mind is that they are always huge in portions and impossible to finish (at least for us).
Grilled Lobster at Casa in Trinidad 
Cordon Bleu at El Alba, Santa Clara 
Our best meals were served in the casas that we lived in. Yuda makes the best lobster dish in Trinidad and they are HUGE. We only paid 8CUC for a 4 course lobster dinner which also included coffee/tea. Needless to say, we ate at home every night. In Santa Clara, visit Hostal Florida Center for a good lobster and camarones set. My Cordon Bleu at El Alba (a Peso restaurant) was less than 2CUC and was fabulous as well.
Sundae with choice of biscuit, cake and syrup
I don't think everyone can beat the Cubans in terms of their passion for ice cream (not even the Italians). Coppelia, the nationalized ice cream chain, is practically in  every city. Just follow the queues and you'll be at the cavernous structure in no time. The ice cream is by no chance good but for an 8 cents Euros sundae, you shouldn't be complaining. It's artificial, very sweet and it melts in no time but it's an experience that you've got to try. The first time we did in Havana, we paid 2CUC and subsequently we found the peso queue. Remember, you only pay that kinda money for imported ice cream such as Nestle.

Oh and the Cubans don't just stop at 1 Sundae (or 2 for S), they do like 5 sundaes each and they pack the unfinished ones home. Yes the melted ones and all. Amazeballs.
That's what we call a well stocked bar/supermarket
Drinks can be bought on the cheap, never more than 3CUC for a strong (or poisonous) Mojito or Pina Colada. Or visit the liquor store and knock yourself out with the crazy selection of rum and all.

Getting around
We usually do car rentals for our trips so that it'll be easier to visit the various cities and that also gives us more flexibility in our schedule. However, i would advise against that for Cuba. The roads are no good and signs are absent along the way. Forget about 3G because data roaming will kill your bank account. You'd be lucky to even get Wi-Fi. GPS isn't allowed into the country unless you smuggle them in.
Your best bet? Buses for intercity transfers. Viazul provides reliable and comfortable bus travel. Buses are new (and from China). The schedules are available online and the buses come on time as well. Online booking was suspended for a while but resumed before we flew so we got all our tickets beforehand. Prices are in USD (surprise!) and you pay online.
The first experience at the bus station was chaotic with no signs or clear indication of our bus' arrival/departure. They have a ridiculous system of attending to passengers (or not) so go early with your reservation printout and exchange for another ticket to board the bus. Soft copies are not accepted (yes they were very stubborn). Tag your bags at the bag counter (show them your boarding ticket) before leaving them under the bus. Do not pay more than 1CUC for 2 bags (it's a rip off really). You will experience the first time traveler anxiety but good news is, once you get past the first time, you'll be breezing in and out of the station like a pro.

Our newly made Israeli friends used the Transtur service which is also quite good. We've also seen British tourists on that as well.
If you are more adventurous or on a budget and if you know Spanish, you could travel like the locals do in truck buses. A backpacker that we met said that these standing tickets costs a couple of Cuban Pesos.
My pseudo backpacking experience
To sum it all up, Cuba is not a place for everyone and it will scare the hell out of you if you're an amateur traveler (those who go on packaged tours are in this category btw). The tips here should help a little with the anxiety issues. Sadly there they weren't available to me when i was doing my planning (but we survived!). Feel free to drop me a message if you have questions on Cuba or if i have left out any important sections. If you're looking for an adventure, consider Cuba before the US embargo lifts and the destruction of the simple life. 
Where am i gonna be spending this weekend? At Savour 2013 of course. I can think of no better way to relax and unwind other than sampling over 60 international culinary masterpieces in 1 location. Expect signature dishes from the world's top 100 ranked restaurants, many of which i love and truly enjoyed.
Looking forward to the cooking demonstrations at the Gourmet Village where one can interact with the Michelin star chefs, enjoy great food, pick up culinary tips and get tipsy with wine/cognac/whisky at appreciation workshops! -HIC-

On top of that, FIJI Water is organizing The Great FIJI Water Race, as part of Savour 2013. The race is a fun initiative by FIJI Water to engage participants in an exciting Amazing-Race style discovery of Savour 2013.

The winner of The Great FIJI Water Race will walk away with the grand prize of $1,000 cash and one year’s supply of FIJI Water. To vie for the grand prize, contest hopefuls need to complete five tasks and three optional bonus tasks to earn the most points in the shortest amount of time. Anyone can take part in this race so long as you are attending Savour. Simply visit any of the Key Task or Bonus Task stations to pick up a score card- Tuck Lee, Cake Over Heels, Balzac Brasserie and Barilla.

The race will be held this Saturday, 13 April 2013 from 12 to 4pm. For more information on The Great FIJI Water Race, visit the FIJI Singapore Facebook page.

Tickets are running fast for Savour so grab your tickets now if you still haven't. See you there and may the odds be ever in your favor!
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Was sent some customised chocolates by the nice folks at Cocoa B. These guys do a unique chocolate concept where you can create your own chocolate bars online. 
I heard that they do exotic flavors and hence i made use of this chance to try out some interesting combinations. 
First, pick the chocolate bar flavor. There are 2 sizes, 50g ($3.90) and 100g ($7.50). Choose from White, Milk and Dark. I love the milk and dark chocolate and i think the texture of their chocolates are really dandy. They taste rich without being too heavy and it's easy to finish a bar in no time (S would do that). 
Next,  select your toppings from 5 categories. A maximum of 5 could be selected, any more and there wouldn't be space for the toppings. I was really excited about having bacon in my chocolate. Imagine that smoky and savory flavor in bitter dark chocolate. I threw in chili flakes from the herbs category as well.  To give it some crunch and sweetness, i balanced my bar with some raisins, almonds and pumpkin seeds. 
Doesn't it look pretty? I shared this bar with my colleagues and everyone loved it (with the exception of T mama). The flavors were exactly what i expected it to be- a light touch of spiciness, a hint of savory crunch and then mellowed sweetness of the raisins. YUMS. Other interesting toppings include ikan bilis, chicken floss, garlic, cajun spice and more. Let your creativity fly.
My White chocolate bar was a little more oriental and sweet. Cranberries, dried longan, pumpkin seeds, wolfberries and apricots peppered this one. Decorate them with gummy bears, heart and/or rainbow sprinkles or even a 'Happy Birthday' or 'I Love You' chocolate plaque. They are quite the perfect gifts for friends/lovers with a sweet tooth. :)
Don't quite know how to design your own bars? Check out Cocoa B's creations. There are 11 to choose from. 

Special Discount
For my dear readers only, use the code 'MSSKINNYFAT' to get a 15% off the 100g bar creation! The code will last till 24 Apr 2014. Now go forth and create your own bars. ;)

Cocoa B.
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I've been desperate to travel following my Melbourne getaway in February and i guess my desperation was picked up by the lovely folks at Orchard Hotel, who treated me to a staycation in their refurbished Premier Rooms.

The hotel underwent a full refurbishment in their Claymore Wing back in end 2011. As you can see, the room is elegantly decorated with grey, white and brown pieces. Lovely king size bed that was great to roll around on and possibly have a pillow fight with the 10 different types of pillows on their pillow menu. I do feel quite like the princess in my pillowy fortress (yes i built myself one).
 
Each room boasts sleek audio and visual equipment which include: iPhone and iPod connectivity adaptive radio (doesn't work for iPhone5). You could easily link your laptop to the 40" TV which would be helpful considering the lack of good cable channels in the room. :( Where's TLC and AXN when you need them right?

The bathroom features a drop-in shower stall and sunken long bath which came without bubble bath (i forgot to bring mine boo). Nice touch with the loofah mitts and mouthwash though. And the sweet scent of lilies in the room (happens to be my favorite too)!
Pool view from the room which made me long for the sun even more. The dreary weather kept me in bed till dinner. Didn't even feel like going shopping though Orchard Road is just right in front of the hotel. Boo. More rolling around in bed till dinner with my darling J at the Orchard Cafe. For $64++ (daily), feast on their dinner buffet which includes the following.
We were rather impressed with Orchard CafĂ©’s Dinner buffet which was recently updated by Executive Chef Taki. Even if you don't fancy the other dishes, feasting on the premium Live Alaskan Crabs, freshly shucked oysters, cold Tiger Prawns and sashimi is good enough. 
A little leg joint that is longer than my face. :) Love how sweet the crab legs are. Alaskan crabs are my absolute favorite because they are so easy to eat. My other favorite is the succulent tiger prawns that are so umami. The oysters weren't too shady as well though i thought it a little salty. The Australian ones were creamier and more substantial than the delicate French ones. 
We started off with seafood and decided that was going to be it. Very good and buttery salmon, hamachi and tako sashimi. The pork knuckles and prime rib carving failed to impress due to the dryness. The roast duck however satisfied my meat craving. 
The Laksa and Mee Rebus were unexpectedly good. Perhaps it's because we didn't expect an international buffet to do local delicacies well. 
My other favorite? The cheese section. Rather decent cheeses that were left untouched. Imagine my happiness. 
I stopped with the food after all that seafood and started on desserts. Quite a wide selection of desserts here. I enjoyed their mango cake, bread pudding and couldn't stop munching on chocolate coated marshmallows. J loves the Durian Pengat which was really good with ice cream and chopped almonds. 

Orchard Hotel may not be the best place for a staycation as there is really nothing much to do around the hotel other than shopping at Orchard Road. The general environment also made me feel like i'm in a Bangkok hotel but i must say that the new rooms are really comfortable and equivalent of some 4-5* chains. Nevertheless, it makes a good place dinner, be it the seafood buffet at Orchard Cafe or at the award winning Hua Ting.

For tourists who want to be right in the action of town, this mid range hotel will show you a side of Orchard Road that you never expect (interesting nightlife just right next tower). The Thai Club (Aura) at the basement seems quite exciting as well. J has plans for some hen party already (i hope it's not mine). The lobby and connecting shopping arcade did reminded me of some Bangkok hotels.

Thanks to Orchard Hotel for the lovely staycation and awesome dinner at Orchard Cafe. 

Orchard Hotel Singapore
442 Orchard Road, Singapore 238879
Telephone : +65 6734 7766
Reservations : +65 6734 8595


Mon-Sat Lunch Buffet- $46
Sun Brunch- $68
Daily Dinner Buffet- $64

I'm always wary of fusion food because many restaurants in Singapore don't do them well. Luckily for us, there's LP+Tetsu, starring Michelin-starred Laurent Peugeot (of Le Charlemagne) and Tetsuya Yoshida (of Tetsu), to provide us with their modern twist on French-Japanese food.

Fine dining it is supposed to be, as evident from their no shorts and slippers policy (they should be banned everywhere other than in coffee shops) but the modern environment felt pretty relaxed. The friendly staff were attentive and accommodating to my photography needs and the plates were subsequently placed under the light after they noticed me shifting things around to get a better shot. Brownie points +1.

We did the 6 course Simply LP+Tetsu menu ($98) and the 7 course Wander and Savour menu ($138). What i love about LP+Tetsu is that they really honor what fusion cuisine is about. Each dish was carefully crafted, bearing in mind the different flavors and how they could complement each other to bring out the best taste and sensations. This is present in every dish that we tried and i was thoroughly impressed with the level of detail. Here are some dishes from the night.

Amuse Bouche- Savory filled jelly balls on cracker. From left to right- Sesame with daikon, corn and green pea. S thought it weird to have savory flavors presented in a dessert looking form but i quite enjoyed them. The savory Panna Cotta in a porcelain egg was nothing french other than the texture and the flavors were all nihon. 
Love the french breads with a touch of nori in the olive oil, served with matcha salt on the side. 
We were told to compare the flavor of the Duck Foie Gras Hydromel (Honey Wine) Tube when eaten with the lollipop of grilled almond and then with the biscotti slice. I was surprised at the different pairing as they enhanced different dimensions of the foie gras.
Duck Foie Gras in Shabu Shabu Style- Cassis Pearl, Jelly Translucent and Emulsion Cassis. Salty briny broth with popping candies that reminded me of Jaan, even the bowl it was served in. 
My favorite dish of the night, the Saint Jacques- a confit scallop with assorted mushrooms. Maitake, shimeji, black trompette, eringi were used and accompanied with truffle Vinaigrette and snow. The snow was amazing with marshmallow-like texture that disintegrated like clouds in the mouth. 
Bamboo clams seem to be the favorite shell fish these days or maybe i've just been having too much of them. This slow cooked version with sake and white wine miso sat well with this palate. 
The 63 Degree Organic Egg served with the raw and crispy Amai Ebi failed to impress. I've been spoilt by Julien and how he handles his eggs (read review of Jaan here). Sunshiny orange egg yolk no doubt but flavors were lacking and the ebi was alien to the plate. 
We weren't too impressed with their meat dishes. From Simply, the Roasted Lamb Loin rolled in Juniper Berries powder was a mix of blandness in flavors and then the overpowering herby taste of the berries.

The Milk Veal Tenderloin was also quite meh. I thought the stuffed Momotaru Tomato with green tea emulsion served on top fared better than the meat.

For both dishes, the use of shallots and onion jam also took the attention away from the meat, try as i might not to eat them. Made the mistake of a little taste and i couldn't taste the meat properly after. 
The cheeses had all my attention. I loved the Epoisses de Bourgogne, a supposedly strong cheese (which was quite alright for me) from Burgundy that was mixed with raisins, wrapped in a pastry skin and deep fried. The presentation resembled the Japanese fried tofu but had a creamier and crispier texture. Another perfect sweet and savory dish. 
The "Croque Monsieur" uses Cheese Saint Marcelin with Mascarpone. There's light pungent and bitter taste at the start which gives way to a sweet ending but i guess the taste kinda grows on you after a while (only if you love cheese). The dehydrated pear was delish however. 
Had way too many desserts. There was the palate cleanser which was a ume sorbet, followed by a matcha crumble on mangosteen ice cream and then our 2 desserts. Snow at Mont Blanc in orange jelly, Jasmine petals, Meringue Snow Kinako. I think snow anything is awesome. Give me snow in my food from now on!
Dinner concluded with the sweet version of the jelly balls this time-Apple martini, sesame peanut and lychee peach. The liquid was less viscous this time and i almost killed myself when the first one exploded in my mouth. S liked these but i preferred the savory ones. 

So do i like LP+Tetsu? Absolutely. The food is fun and well designed and prepared. Some hits and misses but generally good. Satisfaction level was on the whole about the same as Jaan minus the view and atmosphere. If there's one fusion restaurant that you should go to in Singapore, LP+Tetsu is it. 
Bring your date here if she's fun and experimental and not all that into the fancy schmancy. Just try to stop her from gobbling down the fighting fishes on display. ;)
LP+Tetsu
#03-18 Tanglin Mall, 163 Tanglin Road
Tel: +65 6836 3112
Daily: 11.30am – 2.20pm; 6 – 10.30pm