Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Le Tonkin, Mohamed Sultan, Singapore

One year had passed since my incorporation, and with the annual report out and a fairly healthy-looking balance sheet, it was time to dig a hole in it. Plan A was Italian-Indonesian fusion joint Buko Nero, but getting a reservation there remains impossible and my virtual secretary had pasta coming out her ears anyway, so we opted for Le Tonkin, a recently opened French-Vietnamese place on Mohamed Sultan.

Mohamed Sultan was until recently Singapore‘s cheapest bar district, but it’s now looking somewhat out of sorts, with the crowds packing Clarke Quay instead. Most of the restaurants in the area serve the local Japanese community, and Le Tonkin doesn’t seem to have caught much wind under its sails — the main reason I decided to give it a shot was a glowing review from a French friend.

I’d made reservations for 7 PM, but on this Friday night we found ourselves the only customers inside, although a few other couples filtered in during the next hour, most of whom headed for the outdoor tables in the miniature back garden. Inside, the decor is straight from Moulin Rouge, all scarlet plush, lacquered black wood, crystal chandeliers and gold paint, slightly crossing the line from funky into tastelessness. The kitchen set the tune for the evening with a complimentary amuse-bouche of a crab and cream cheese wonton in raspberry sauce: tasty enough, but not more than the sum of its parts.

Appetizers

We planned to share a Le Tonkin Selection plate of appetizers, but on being warned it was too small, the lady opted for pan-seared foie gras on apple and fig compote. In the event both turned out to be generously sized: the Selection had some fish grilled on sugarcane, nicely flavored with dill (!), another wonton and a fresh sliced-up Vietnamese spring roll, with wholly unnecessary tiny dabs of foie gras and caviar atop each slice to justify the price tag. Her foie gras was generously sized — I’ve seen smaller steaks in Japan — but not well cut (slightly stringy) and seared a bit too fast to my taste, with the inside still raw.

Mains

I picked the house speciality of Cha Ca La Vong, the classic Hanoi dish of fish drizzled in sauce and cooked on a hot plate, served on a bed of bee hoon (rice vermicelli) and topped with oodles of fresh dill. Tasty, but the portion was perhaps a little on the small side. The lady opted for a creamy seafood stew, which I thought would be a recipe of disaster (it’s how chefs like to dispose of leftovers), but nope, it was big and generous, with scallops, shrimp, salmon, the same white fish as my CCLV and even a lobster tail for good measure. The only oddity was that there was no starch (rice, potatoes etc) served along with it, just the stew!

Dessert

And to top it off, we decided to share a vanilla souffle, which came with orange sauce to drizzle over it. It cost a fair bit and took a while to arrive, but it was impressively sufflated and won full marks from the female half of the jury. (Too bland for me.)

Drinks

The restaurant has a reasonably impressive wine selection, with half a dozen reds by the glass but only a few whites, a bit odd considering that they specialize in seafood. The lady had a New Zealand Chardonnay, I had a Chilean Pinot Grigio, which were both on the fruity side but entirely drinkable.

Overall

Overall, it was one of those restaurant experiences where you can’t really find much fault in anything, but end up slightly disappointed just the same. None of the dishes were particularly memorable, the fusion attempts just didn’t work and, at S$180 for two, it wasn’t particularly good value either. I doubt we’ll be back, and given the restaurant’s awkward location, I give it half a year tops before it disappears.

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Soi Lang Suan — Bangkok’s Little Italy

In the heart of Bangkok, just off the Chid Lom Skytrain station, lies a district of Bangkok well known by locals and expats, but that few tourists ever venture to. Between the leafy streets of Lang Suan Rd and Soi Tonson, strategically located between the busy business and shopping areas of Sukhumvit and Silom, is a cluster of serviced apartments, diplomatic residences, local boutiques ? and Thailand’s greatest concentration of Italian restaurants, with at least a dozen competing in the space of a few blocks. And here, “Italian” doesn’t mean “Pizza Hut”: the people living around Lang Suan know their rigatoni from their ravioli, and so do the restaurants. Here’s a tour of a select few.

Air Plane, 63 Lang Suan Rd, tel. +66-2-2524630

When it first opened 15 years ago, Air Plane instantly became the place to be and to be seen for Bangkok’s high-flying society elite, and after a recent renovation is again at the top of its game. Unlike some of the more purist Italian restaurants here, Air Plane is not afraid to mix other influences into its quirky decor, which manages to incorporate reindeer statues and framed Time covers without looking tacky, or its food, which has absorbed some Thai touches but remains Italian at heart. An appetizer of classic beef carpaccio comes in a generously sized portion with shavings of parmesan drizzled with a unique, slightly sweet sauce. Both the spinach ravioli and its tomato-basil sauce are lovingly made by hand, but for a spicy kick, try the Spaghetti “La Mana” with Thai dried fish and lashings of dried red chillies. While not as low as they used to be, prices remain affordable, with most mains clocking in under 300 baht. The restaurant hosts live music performances on weekends, but fear not, the volume is kept low.

Calderazzo, 59 Lang Suan Rd, tel. +66-2-2528108

One of the newer entrants on the Italian dining scene, this popular restaurant is run by Italian-Australian chef Marco Calderazzo. “Our food is southern Italian, from the Campania region”, says Marco, “with very little cream and butter. We use the freshest imported primary produce, cooked to exact time constraints.” The menu changes frequently, but favorite dishes include the hand-rolled Fettucine Calderazzo with oven-baked bell peppers, capers and anchovies, and osso bucco served on saffron risotto. A split-level restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, downstairs packs in the Thai hi-so crowd, while upstairs features an intimate cocktail lounge famous for its wide spread of Italian grappa spirits. Expect to pay at least 1000 baht per head for a full meal here, and that’s assuming you skip the extensive wine list. Alternatively, the recently opened Calderazzo Bistro (map #3), just down the street in the Marriott Mayfair, offers a more casual version of the Calderazzo experience.

Gianni, 34/1 Soi Tonson, tel. +66-2-6522584

Gianni has been at the forefront of fine Italian dining in Bangkok for eleven years, and is often credited with bringing the idea to the city. “Our food is absolutely Italian”, says chef and patron Gianni Favro. “We cook classic food using modern techniques and a bit of southern Italian style: more olive oil and less heavy cream, to fit the tropical climate.” Gianni is very particular about quality — “for us, the food is the most important thing!” — and ingredients are flown in twice weekly directly from Italy. The menu changes every ten days, with specials changing daily, but long-running favorites include their goose liver salad and real buffalo mozzarella. “Most customers just ask me for recommendations,” suggests Gianni, and goes on to wax eloquent about today’s special of tender veal, gently stewed for no less than eighteen hours until it just melts in the mouth. Dinner at Gianni doesn’t come cheap, but “the value for money is far better than in Hong Kong or Singapore”, says Gianni, hinting at one of Bangkok’s best-kept secrets: at lunchtime on weekdays, you can get a three-course meal for only a little over 300 baht.

Pan Pan, 45 Langsuan Rd, tel. +66-2-2527104

A squat building with darkened windows hidden behind a thicket of unruly greenery, Pan Pan doesn’t look like much from the outside, but most evenings it’s packed with locals, mostly Thai, enjoying a cheap Italian treat. The decor inside is unpretentious, with a brick tiled floor, scuffed wooden furniture and creamy yellow walls, but that’s perhaps why it’s the only Italian restaurant in the area that actually looks like a working-class trattoria. The menu is a solid collection of Italian staples, no fusion or Thai touches in sight, with the biggest crowd-puller being their thin-crust pizza baked in a wood-fired oven, with generous toppings and lashings of oozing mozzarella cheese. Prices are very reasonable, with a basic pizza margherita starting at 140 baht and few entrees going over 200. Leave some room for their homemade gelato ice cream.

Originally written for and separately licensed to JetAway, the inflight magazine of JetStar Asia.

Soi Ari — A Visit to Millionaire’s Lane

Most Bangkok visitors heading north on the Skytrain make a beeline for the Weekend Market at the end of the line, but next time, stop two stations before at Ari. Also known by the Thais as “Millionaire’s Lane”, the sois of this quiet residential district hide some of the most opulent mansions in the capital — and some of the quirkiest hotels, restaurants and boutiques in town.

At the Skytrain station, take exit 3 and turn at the first left into Phahonyothin Soi 7, better known as Soi Ari. The first block is taken up by the frenetic Ari Market, a veritable gallery of street eats worth an article in itself, but today we’ll just plow straight through the often crowded sidewalks. Soon, shortly after you cross past Soi Ari 1 (just keep going straight), the bustle disappears and, after a few upmarket boutiques selling Thai handicrafts and antiques, you’ll arrive at the unmistakable neon pink monolith of Reflections. Without a doubt the most famous Ari landmark, this wacky hotel-restaurant-bar-shop complex only opened in 2004, but it has already been written up in the New York Times and Newsweek, and regularly stages fashion shoots where Thailand’s top models strut their stuff. Every room in the hotel has been designed by a different artist, with over-the-top themes ranging from disco balls (room 201) and a maharajah’s harem (407) to a day at the beach, complete with sand, hammock and a palm tree (404), and they can be yours for a night starting from 2850 baht. PR Manager Kanchana Pimthon says, “We hope to inspire some ideas for guests to add more colors for their lives, such as hanging more paintings in their house for a better, more creative look and more artistic surroundings.” Next to the hotel is the equally zany Reflections restaurant, which serves up a wide menu of Thai, Chinese and Japanese favorites and, at night, often hosts live bands and other performances to draw in Ari’s fashionista set. In fact, the restaurant predates the hotel by a year, and its runaway success was what inspired the Reflections team to expand. If you fall in love with a particular piece of pop art — say, a fuzzy purple Buddha statue or their trademark mutant teddy bears — you can probably bring it home from the gift shop.

In the lobby of the Reflections hotel Isaan food at Som Tam Bangkok

Across the street from Reflections are a few more interesting shops. Ari Bar, or maybe that should be “Aaari babar” like the sign says, is a quiet neighborhood bar with an eclectic selection of music and drinks. Deli House, a few doors down, serves freshly baked European-style pastries as well as a daily selection of German meals like sausages with mashed potatoes and beer sauce. But perhaps the best eating option lurks just behind Reflections in Soi Ari 2, where behind a thicket of greenery you’ll find a small white house hosting Som Tum Bangkok. True to the name, the first page of this little restaurant’s menu is dedicated to the papaya salad som tum in its many versions, but there is a wide range of northeastern Thai (Isaan) favorites like minced pork salad (larb) and grilled chicken to go alone with it. Complete your order with a little handwoven basket of sticky rice and a cooling glass of sweet, milky, orange Thai iced tea, and dig in — but remember to ask for less spicy if you can’t handle the heat! You don’t need to be a millionaire to order either: they have an English menu, and a full meal here won’t cost you more than 300 baht for two.

From here on, the shops peter out and Ari shows its residential colors. The tall, elaborate wrought-iron fences painted with gold lining the road on both sides often hide gigantic houses with Romanesque columns and Mercedeses parked in the driveway, but some gates are so high that you can only wonder at the splendour that lurks within. If you’re not in a hurry, walk along the soi past hip nightspot dbaa until you reach the next main road, then turn left twice to double back into Ari Soi 1. Halfway down the road you’ll find the oddly named Banana Family Park, which is not a fruit-themed playground, but a hip spa and restaurant complex. The leafy Coffee Garden here provides some welcome air-conditioned relief from the heat, not to mention a variety of caffeinated beverages (from 35 baht) that puts Starbucks to shame.

Thai VIP Mercedes Mansion in Ari

A few more steps brings you back into the Ari Market and to your right, you’ll see the Skytrain station beckoning on the other side of a narrow passageway. Stop by the row of stalls lining the way to pick up a few bags of munchies to bring home. “The rich, they’re not like you and me”, said F. Scott Fitzgerald, but at least in Bangkok they seem to like the same things the rest of us do.

Originally written/photographed for and separately licensed to JetAway, the inflight magazine of JetStar Asia.

 

RTW2007: Bangkok part 2, wherein our juggling journalist is hard at work enjoying free spa treatments, finding out how Thai millionaires live and gorging himself with four Italian meals in one weekend.

I was supposed to arrive at Bangkok about an hour before my friend Z, but due to the take-off delay got there only 15 minutes before, and as the plane parkedwaaaaaaaaay at the other end (why does TG discriminate against itself like this? they did the same in Don Muang too!) I ended up catching her — literally — just before Immigration.

This visit, though, was work. I was on assignment, or more specifically three of them: review the Amari Watergate hotel, with a focus on its new spa; write an article about Ari, my favorite neighborhood, and eat at as many Italian restaurants as possible in Soi Langsuan. (I know, it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.) I’d actually spent the better part of three months at the Amari a few years ago, and it was still a very good hotel, albeit in a mildly awkward location. Recently renovated, the Executive Lounge continues to have the best breakfast views in town, and I’m reliably informed that the spa was pretty good too. As for Ari and Italian chow, I’ll let my stories speak for themselves:

And that, as they say, was that: another 30251 miles in economy class notched on my belt, with surprisingly little pain at that. Picking your long flights carefully helps, and having a laptop with insane battery performance helps even more. Next time, it might be time to up the tempo a little and try flying around the world on low-cost carriers.

TG925 MUC-BKK A340-600 seat 31J

With the exception of Frankfurt, whose biggest failing is its extreme popularity (and which isn’t that bad in my book either), I’ve always found German airports a pleasure to use and my maiden visit to MUC, and its recently launched “Star Alliance all under one wing” Terminal 2 at that, was no exception. It’s hardly an exciting airport, but there’s glass, steel and big signage everywhere. Passport control to leave Schengen took about 10 seconds, the lady checking passports not even bothering to interrupt her conversation with her cubiclemate, and once out of the EU I beelined for the Senator Lounge.

A major plus for LH lounges has always been their spread of food, and today MUC held the banner high: today there was a choice of half a dozen salads, an array of cold cuts and cheeses, Bayerische leberkase (which means liver cheese, looks like meatloaf, and bears a disturbing resemblance to Finnish sausages tastewise), various breads and soft pretzels, crispy dessert concoctions, and a full bar including two kinds of beer on tap. The downside, though, is the wireless internet, which they (or, rather, T-Mobile) are just giving away at 8 euros per hour. Would it kill them to, say, drop one of the salad dressings and use the money saved to free up the net? But at least they have comfy seats with built-in power plugs, so I could wait out the projected 15-min delay for my flight and recharge my iPod as I did so.

Of course, once at the gate it wasn’t a 15-min delay (it never is, is it?), but closer to an hour’s wait. I’d been glad to see from the outside that the plane we were about to board was smallish, but had four engines: in other words, it was the somewhat uneconomical but long-range and, most importantly, brand new A340. At BCN, they’d already confirmed that I had an exit row, but after walking past some delicious-looking business class pods that caused me to (almost) feel a pang of regret at not paying US$750 to upgrade, I was surprised to find that my seemingly unpropitious row number was, in fact, the first row in Y and an exit row bulkhead at that, with oodles of space. I’d even begun to hope that the neighboring seat might be empty as well… but moments before the doors were closed, the huge guy I’d seen already at the gate resting his arms on his own stomach plopped down next to me. He offered to swap his window with his aisle, which I obviously rejected — and for once I thanked the big, chunky, inflexible divider between us, which kept him from spilling onto me. I did feel a little sorry for the guy though: he was way too big to open up the table or even reach the in-seat controller, so he just sat there for the entire flight, staring at the route map.

Speaking of route maps, the ThaiVision variant on this is one of the spiffiest in-flight entertainment systems I’ve seen to date anywhere. Not only was there a huge spread of movies and music (I watched “Last King of Scotland”), but they finally had an updated, interactive version of Skymap, including goodies like half a dozen views to choose from and live navigation data. Alas, the interface for it was a little buggy, with the zoom and move buttons working only sporadically. (8 hours into the flight, I figured it out: pressing and holdingthe Channel up/down buttons zoom in and out. But the program still crashes and hangs sporadically.)

 

LH4481 BCN-MUC A320-200 seat 5D

And then back to The Prat. Once through check-in and security, the airside shopping mall side of things seems quite modern, if sadly lacking in mailboxes. Fortunately, the kind lady at the (well-hidden) Info desk promised to take care of my postcards, and I could devote myself to eating olives in the Spanair lounge. Alas, these pickled globules were pretty much the highlight, as there was no wifi, only a few power-equipped PC spaces and not much in the way of available seating. Somebody earlier on FT praised the lounge as being of one of the few to still use announcements, but I’m not sure what’s to celebrate: I’ll take a nice quiet monitor of flight status info over trilingual (Catalan, English, Spanish) announcements of every Spanair flight to some corner of the peninsula.

A momentous flight: as my qualification period for KrisFlyer started on 1 May, this is the first one I’m putting on my KF account instead of SAS. Lufthansa made a pretty good pitch for themselves though: it was just a 2-hour flight, but I wazs positively surprised to receive a free sandwich, a chocobanana granola bar thingy, a drink, and refills on each to boot. See, SAS? This is what you should be doing too.

As LH crews tend to do, I was spoken to in German, but as the questions were on the level of “Kase oder Schinke?” I obliged and tried to Deutsch them right back. Counting SMSes, this means I’ve used five languages — English, Spanish, German, Finnish and Japanese — today. Hooray for multilingualism!

 

RTW2007: Barcelona, wherein our anchovy-eating adventurer goggles at Gaudi, tucks into tapas and clumsily clobbers Catalan.

I’ll start with a confession: before this trip, I had never visited Barcelona before, and in fact the entirety of my Spanish experience was limited to a visit to Madrid almost 20 years ago. Plan A was Dubai, cancelled on account of intolerably hot weather this time of year, but despite everybody I talked to urging me to visit Barcelona my impression prior to visiting had, somehow, been largely negative: dirty, crumbling, expensive, full of scams and ripoffs, and above all filled with ravenous pickpockets. A friend of mine had originally been so taken with the city than he moved there for a year, only to come back halfway through cursing at perfidious locals who robbed him and his apartment on countless occasions. What terrors awaited this blond boy?

Touchdown at the delightfully named El Prat was uneventful, with the plane rolling past the ghostly construction site of the enormous new south wing before parking at a bus bay next to lots of other bizarro low-cost carriers. Bags took over half an hour to show up, but there was still half an hour to midnight left when they did and I grabbed the Aerobus to the city.

Barcelona’s hotels seemed packed the week I was there (only much later did I realize that it was the week before the F1 race) and the place I picked after extensive deliberation, Hotel del Comte, seemed to get top marks for everything except one: everybody who had 3rd-party booking there had problems. Alas, their own website was saying full, so I secured some cheap rooms at lastminute.com… and arrived at the lobby just after midnight to find that they had no record of my reservation. Fortunately, they did had a room available after all, and when I got in my jaw dropped. I’d paid barely 70 euros a night, which got me a just-renovated room with flat panel LCD, spotless glass and marble bathroom, free wifi and views out onto a trendy bit of L’Eixample, 50 meters from the Metro stop and a 10-minute stroll to Placa Catalunya.

Dragon opposite la Boqueria Facade of Casa Batllo House on la Rambla

The next morning was a perfect day, around 25 deg C and sunny, and as I went out on a stroll I fell in love. A bocadillo de tortilla de patatas (potato omelette sandwich: sounds weird, tastes great) for breakfast, some juice from the absurdly cheap grocery to wash it down and then a ramble down La Rambla, which is quite possibly the prettiest pedestrian boulevard I’ve ever seen anywhere. The architecture in Barcelona is gorgeous, but it’s not pompously overboard in parts or incredibly grimy in parts like Paris, and the whole Modernist Gaudi-Miro aesthetic gives it all a delightfully whimsical feel. Add in some fresh sea breezes, the crazy array of street performers and that carefree Hispanic spirit where everybody jaywalks when there are no cars coming, and you’ve got a city that’s a pleasure to explore.

Sagrada Familia, perennially under construction Gracies at the Sagrada Familia

I spent my first day on the Gaudi trail, starting with the mildly anticlimactic Sagrada Familia, which is surely the world’s most popular and expensive construction site. It’s been going on for 125 years now and projections are saying it’ll take another 20 years at least, which just seems kind of ridiculous: it’s big, but it’s not that big, and Vegas casinos ten times the size are thrown up every few years. Then again, Vegas casinos aren’t working based on the reconstructed scribbles of a famously loopy architect who died 80 years ago and whose drawings were more visions than architecturally tested computer models…

More to my liking was Casa Batllo, which would surely be one of the world’s more interesting apartments to live in, but the 16.50e they wanted for a peek inside was a bit too steep for my taste. La Pedrera (aka Casa Mila), on the other hand, was hosting a free exhibition on music in the Third Reich, which made a good excuse to take a quick look inside and confirm that Gaudi knew how to design interiors as well. And finally, the next morning, I made a sweaty hike up to Parc Guell, which I shared with half the tourists in Barcelona. This theme seemed to continue at the Miro museum, where over half the visitors seemed to be elementary school kids running around — enough to ruin a better museum, and Miro, never one of my favorite artists, wasn’t much improved by it.

Parc Guell Spiral at Casa Gaudi

One of the more depressing findings of the Spanish-speaking portions of this trip is that my command of the language is far rustier than I’d thought. Written Spanish I’m more or less OK with, although reading Cervantes in the original like I used to would be pushing it, but understanding spoken Spanish is more of a challenge, especially when lisped with a Castellano accent, and speaking it back an even tougher proposition.

In Barcelona, of course, things are made a bit more interesting yet by the local language being not Spanish, but Catalan, a mutant offshoot that sounds very much like Spanish and French mixed together. For example, “departure” is Salida in Spanish and Sortie in French, but Sortida in Catalan. The obvious Romance-ness of Catalan does make it fairly comprehensible (“processant nova informacio”, announced the Metro when trains were delayed by a few minutes), especially once you work out the weird Esperanto-ey spelling where x is “sh” and tg is “kh”, and ad slogans like “sempre fais el que sento” are perfectly comprehensible when you pretend it’s mostly mispelled Spanish (sempre siempre = always, el que = lo que = that which, sento = siento = feels) with the odd French word thrown in (fais = does). And there are great place names too: Prat! Dot! Gorg!

Being the linguistics nut I am, I find the present European trend to promote previously suppressed dialects in official contexts an endless fount of amusement, but from a more practical point of view it all seems like a terrible waste of time and energy. As you can easily verify by consulting the usage instructions or disclaimers for any pan-European product, Europe’s already got more than enough languages, without people attempting to revive ones like Gaelic and Breton that already had one foot in the grave. Speak whatever kind of gobbledegook you like at home, but learn English, mmmkay?

Idle bitching aside, English worked pretty well most of the time (usually better than my attempts at Spanish, which were taken in good humor), and the food was great, at least if you can deal with Iberian scheduling (good luck finding a restaurant open for dinner before 9 PM). I steered well clear of tourist haunts and instead fed myself at the markets and the daily under-10-euro sets of cheap little neighborhood restaurants, which netted me sublime jamon serrano (air-dried ham) sandwiches, big boxes of macedonia (fruit salad) for a few euros a throw, some mighty good cheap paella, stupendous freshly grilled anchovies and a couple of mediocre gazpachos. At La Perinaca, purveyor of stupendous anchovies right across the street from my hotel, the 9-euro dinner menu even included half a liter of rather drinkable Catalan wine. Leave the tapas for the tourists!

Next

KF847 HEL-BCN MD-90 seat 1C

Not many changes at HEL were visible, but lots are afoot. The Helsinki Hilton Airport will open in another few months, work on the expansion of the non-Schengen wing is well underway, and even the long-awaited rail link is nudging forward and might start construction next year, for theoretical completion in 2013.

Check-in was quick and painless, security was neither — with only one point open, there was a long queue, and for the first time on this trip, I even had to remove my laptop from its protective padding. Once on the other side, with last-minute souvenir duties taken care of (reindeer meat? check. Moomin toy? check.) I headed for the SAS lounge, where I was positively surprised to find an approximation of real food in the form of meatballs and potato salad, plus free wireless. Alas, the meatballs were still frozen on the inside, but you get what you pay for…

More MD-90s, this time in Blue1 colors. It’s a four-hour flight to BCN and the only service that doesn’t cost money (yet?) is using the bathroom. Those salads were looking and those pizzas were smelling surprisingly good, but most of my fellow passengers seemed to stick to liquid refreshments. (Counting the number of glasses on his table, the hardy fellow in Seat 1H was up to 7 Jack & cokes before two hours were up.)

I can’t remember the last time I’ve caught myself staring at an SAS group flight attendant’s shapely … — but then again, I can’t remember the last time I flew an SAS flight where the average age of the crew was below 60. This is evidently one of the advantages of running sister airlines that don’t have to hire legacy staff.

 

RTW2007: Helsinki, wherein our carnivorous crusader wrassles with smoky elk, bear balls and Ukrainian transvestites.

A week full of bear meatballs, smoked elk, blood sausage, juniper schnapps and a solitary surprisingly decent veggie tortilla later it was time to escape the Eurovision 2007 hype building to a fever pitch — the semifinals would be held the day after I left, and you couldn’t swing a sequined tutu in central Helsinki without hitting three people, at least one of whom would be a Ukrainian crossdresser, showing off their Eurovision tags.

(Yeah, that’s it. If you want to actually read about Helsinki, you could do worse than check out a previous visit.)