Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The binge bucket list

My dear friend Yang and I have many common passions: we are both stalwart supporters of the Ateneo Blue Eagles, we have a shared love of bags and shoes, and we are enthusiastic foodies (especially where red meat is concerned!). Last week, we hatched a crazy/brilliant idea to come up with a "binge bucket list" of 10 restaurants we haven't been to, and to try them all before the year ends.

Here's our list (in no particular order):
  1. Masseto
  2. 2nds
  3. Champetre
  4. The Room Upstairs
  5. Le Bistro d'Agathe
  6. Van Gogh is Bipolar
  7. La Tienda
  8. Robot
  9. Korea Garden
  10. Sweet Bella Cafe
As a record of our gastronomic odyssey, I shall write and post reviews of each establishment as we go down (or up) the list. Hopefully we manage to go to all 10, and hopefully we find good eats in all of them, because this endeavor shall require me to put in extra time at the yoga studio, and it better be worth the effort!

Monday, June 27, 2011


Milk tea a.k.a. bubble tea is apparently the latest food craze to hit the Philippines, and just as frozen yogurt stalls mushroomed all over the metro in the last couple of years (Red Mango is still the one to beat in that category, IMHO), vacuum-sealed plastic cups punctured by fat straws are now seen everywhere. This is actually bubble tea's second coming, as it once took the country by storm in the late 90s, during the mad, glorious reign of Zagu and its successor Quickly (many of my college group projects were fueled by scary volumes of Quickly's mixed pudding). Now, over a decade later, there are more sophisticated milk tea drinks for more sophisticated palates-- fewer powder-based, food coloring-enhanced concoctions that cloy (or clog) the throat, and more (supposedly) healthier tea-based beverages with customizable sweetness levels and a variety of add-ons aside from the ubiquitous black tapioca pearls.

Foreign franchises like China's Happy Lemon and Taiwan's Cha Time are currently the darlings of the milk tea party, along with local concept Serenitea. A little over 2 years ago I wrote a review of Serenitea, when it was still fairly new and unknown; now it's practically a household name amongst milk tea junkies. While I love Happy Lemon's novelty drinks (Crispy Cocoa Milk Tea with Brown Sugar Jelly being my favorite), I find Serenitea superior in terms of tea quality (and really, it should be all about the tea), which is why I've always considered it the best milk tea chain
around... until I discovered FruiTea Mix.

FruiTea Mix is located right beside Japanese convenience store and ramen joint Konbini along Connecticut in Greenhills. The first 2 times I bought drinks (Premium Milk Tea and Roasted Milk Tea) from FruiTea Mix, I was satisfied, but not blown away. I remember thinking the quality of the tea rivaled but didn't beat Serenitea's, and I preferred the latter's firmer, less gloopy pearls. But then last week, I tried FruiTea Mix's Jasmine Milk Tea, and with one sip, Serenitea slid to second place. The jasmine flavor was twice as intense as Serenitea's, with the milk enhancing but not overpowering the tea.At 50% sugar level, the pearls provided a touch of sweetness without compromising the taste of the tea. And like I said, it's really all about the tea.

I've also sampled FruiTea Mix's Royal Milk Tea, and the flavor of the earl grey was much more prominent than Serenitea's version. The latest drink I had was the Wintermelon Milk Tea, and though I found it way too sweet (the sugar level can't be adjusted since they use the wintermelon syrup to sweeten), again the tea was still stronger than what's used in Serenitea's own Wintermelon Milk Tea. Based on all the drinks I've sampled so far, I can only presume FruiTea Mix uses either better or more tea. Either way, they offer more value for money. The average prices of their milk teas are P95 for medium and P105 for large, which falls within the same price range as Serenitea's.

Serenitea does still beat FruiTea Mix in one aspect: Serenitea is more generous with their "sinkers" or add-ons (e.g. pearls, jelly, pudding, etc.), and they have more variety. As for quality, FruiTea Mix's pearls are ok, but they're smaller than and not as firm as Serenitea's. FruiTea Mix's "black bricks" (coffee jelly) are chewier than Serenitea's, but nowhere as good as Happy Lemon's brown sugar jelly. A complete list of their add-ons and drinks can be found on the City Delivery website.

I'm surprised FruiTea Mix is always empty whenever we pass by, and I hope it gets a larger following soon, because it would be a pity if it closes given that it's actually as good, if not better, than Serenitea. So to all you milk tea addicts out there, especially those who fancy themselves tea connoisseurs, give FruiTea Mix a try, and see how it matches up against the rest and the best of the milk tea shops.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lowlights from the Lantern

I confess I'm not familiar with the whole Green Lantern comic mythology, but I strongly suspect the recently released film adaptation didn't do it justice, considering the richness of the source material. Overall, it felt like Green Lantern was given a very shallow treatment, from the opening "once upon a time" voice narration all the way down to the fast and flimsy way in which the villain was dispatched. More critically, as an origins movie, it failed in its primary purpose to give a clear picture of not only how a superhero came to be, but also WHY.

Sadly, even after an hour and 45 minutes of Ryan Reynolds making puppy dog eyes at Blake Lively and the camera, the movie doesn't satisfactorily explain why of all the people on Earth, Hal Jordan was chosen to become a Green Lantern (because Bruce Wayne was already busy being Batman?). Hal's characterization follows the formula of reckless rogue with a heart of gold, but his mandatory moment of redemption isn't clearly defined. What exactly prompts his transformation from irresponsible lout to noble hero?
There appears to be no trigger, no catalyst, even after he spends the first half of the film struggling with the psychological scars left by the death of his father, a hometown hero who perished in an accident. Not even his relationship with co-pilot and the boss' daughter Carol Ferris seems substantial enough to inspire the sudden change of heart. One minute Hal's telling the Green Lantern Corps he's not up to the task, the next he's already manned up and pleading the Guardians of the Universe to help him save his planet from the fear-feeding entity Parallax.

From start to finish, the whole plot feels disjointed, even choppy. There's a sweet but totally superfluous scene at Hal's nephew's birthday party. There's the obligatory too-short training sequence where Hal goes through GLC boot camp, supervised by Tomar-Re and Kilowog. There's the implied history-- and flimsy establishment of a love triangle-- among Hal, Carol and meek-turned-mad scientist Hector Hammond. There's Hammond's unshown abduction of Carol, and oh look, there's Hal just knowing to show up in the exact hangar where Hammond is keeping her hostage. There's Parallax wreaking the minimum required amount of havoc in downtown Coast City, before Hal quickly (too quickly) leads him away. Green Lantern is one of those movies that attempt to mask weak writing with flashy special effects, but just like a lame superhero disguise, it doesn't fool everyone.

Furthermore, the film suffers from the limited acting prowess of its two stars. Unlike Chris Hemsworth, whose blinding screen presence helped distract from some of Thor's flaws, Ryan Reynolds has the charisma but not the command to hold Green Lantern together. Strangely, I was more impressed by his turn as Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine-- there his douchey comicality was tempered by the sinister nature of his character, and he worked the wiseass role well. As Hal Jordan though, Reynolds lacks the grit and emotional depth to make the character believable or sympathetic. He's the buddy you want to knock back a few beers with, not the badass hero you look up to. Is he amusing? Yes. Amazing? Not by a long shot.

As for Reynolds' leading lady, for someone named Blake Lively, she strikes me as oddly... sedate. No question, she makes for a gorgeous damsel in distress, but this graduate of the Jessica Biel school of acting is certainly not credible as a skilled fighter pilot, nor a savvy business executive. I get the need to cast eye candy for the predominantly male target audience, but someone with a little more spunk would have been better suited as Carol Ferris, and might have been able to draw out a stronger performance from Reynolds.

So much more the pity that the rest of the cast is so damn talented. The always brilliant Peter Sarsgaard is a standout as Hector Hammond; an unrecognizable Mark Strong is perfection as Sinestro, a leading member of the GLC; Tim Robbins' prodigious range is wasted in the role of Senator Hammond, Hector's father; and the distinct voices of Geoffrey Rush and Michael Clarke Duncan bring life to the CGI characters of Tomar-Re and Kilowog, respectively. That Geoffrey Rush's mellifluous diction conveys more drama than Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively put together says a lot about the deficiencies of the 2 leads.

Green Lantern fell short in many aspects, but I welcome the prospect of a sequel (stay for a bit midway through the ending credits for the promise of a second GL movie) if only because I would love to see more of the other GLC members in action, as well as their dynamic with Hal Jordan. And now that the origins are out of the way, I can only hope the writers of the next film would be able to come up with a more coherent and interesting screenplay. Because I think it's too late to wish the casting director had gone with Bradley Cooper instead.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The real score

Last weekend, our national basketball team dubbed Smart Gilas (are we the only country in the world whose team has a corporate sponsor's name attached?) lost their 2 final games in the FIBA Asia Champions Cup, winding up with a disappointing 4th place finish. During the same weekend, our national football team, the much-ballyhooed Azkals, was defeated by the UFL All-Stars in a friendly match, mere weeks before the Azkals are set to face Sri Lanka in the World Cup qualifiers. Needless to say, it was not a good weekend for Philippine sports.

On Tuesday, the Philippine Star put up an online poll asking "With its recent performance in the FIBA Asia Champions Cup, do you think Smart Gilas can make it to the 2012 London Olympics?" Seriously, should that even be asked? They didn't even place 3rd in a tournament featuring only minor Asian teams (powerhouse China did not compete, nor did Japan and Korea). Realistically, logically, based on empirical evidence, Gilas stands a snowball's chance in hell to qualify for the Olympics (sorry Chris Tiu). But of course the Philippine media, like a bunch of delusional sports fans, blithely refuses to admit it, or even consider it. Instead of doing their jobs as sports journalists to report objectively, analyze what went wrong, and provide constructive criticism, they pepper their pieces with plaudits (deserved or undeserved), make excuses for vanquished national athletes, and sour-grape when results don't go our country's way.

Perhaps these journalists think they are helping our players by being kind and supportive instead of kicking them when they're already down. I think this mentality is actually detrimental to the development of Philippine sports as a whole. It's one thing to be optimistic and encouraging, but it's quite another to be in denial and turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of not only our athletes and coaches, but also the sports programs and governing sports bodies of our country. Moreover, it does not help to set unrealistic expectations (the Olympics! the World Cup!) when our national teams are still struggling to get their act together in so many ways. But no, the media creates all this hype and lets the public believe that our teams are way better than they really are, practically invincible. This gets everyone's hopes up-- even the athletes themselves get carried away by the hype-- and when the rude awakening hits them, the media jumps to the defensive and comes up with alibis or commence finger-pointing.

It's a sad, destructive cycle, made sadder because some of our athletes do have the potential to excel in international competitions. But the "support" they're getting from the media is hampering them from maximizing their potential. It is not right to perpetually focus on the positives and gloss over the negatives. Sometimes a pat on the back won't work when what's really needed is a friendly shove in the right direction.

Joaquin "Quinito" Henson is a prime example of what's wrong with Philippine sports journalism. Heralded as "The Dean" of Philippine sports (read: he's an insufferable know-it-all), the man knows his stuff. But he also tends to spew BS that deviates from the meat of the matter. Take his column in the Philippine Star yesterday. Reviewing Gilas' performance in their last 2 FIBA Asia Champions Cup games, he pretty much blamed the first loss on bad officiating (always a favorite fallback of Filipino sports writers), and the second loss he attributed to Gilas' "lack of energy" (another favorite). However, it was his last line that made me really roll my eyes:

Gilas didn’t win the Champions Cup crown but it earned the respect of the Asian basketball community as a serious contender once more for regional supremacy.

The funny thing is, Henson's piece was titled, "Missing the point", and it seems he was the one who missed the point entirely. Earning the respect of our opponents is all well and good, but let's not kid ourselves, winning games is what counts. Manny Pangilinan isn't funding Gilas so they can be "respected" by other countries, he's investing in them so they can BEAT other countries. A sharp businessman like MVP doesn't just throw money down the drain; he believes this is a team that has the potential to win, and he and the rest of the country shouldn't be content with "respect". When our national teams don't win, when they FAIL, it should be regarded as exactly that, a LOSS. Full accountability and acknowledgment of failure are essential in order to move forward and grow-- no excuses, no sugarcoating. By touting Gilas as "a serious contender... for regional supremacy" after 2 losses, Henson is patronizing them, and pandering to a basketball-crazy nation with delusions of hoops grandeur.

Such is the state of sports journalism in our country today. Even relatively straightforward news pieces like this Inquirer article on the Azkals sneak in something for "pampalubag loob" like this absurd soundbite from the Azkals' coach:

“Some players in the defensive line didn’t have their best day,” Weiss said. “It may sound ridiculous but I think we clearly dominated the match.”


Let's not cushion the blow of defeat with all that "they gained experience" "they showed improvement" "they tried their best" crap. Both Gilas and the Azkals lost because they still lack experience. They lost because they need MORE improvement. They lost because their best isn't good enough. So we should stop coddling them with platitudes and consolations and start urging them to train harder, adjust their strategies, and hone their skills. Yes, we should cheer them on, we should be proud of their accomplishments, we should support them in their efforts. But loyalty should never be blind. Besides, these are grown men representing our country, not little boys playing in a Milo basketball or football clinic. They are tough enough to face defeat, and afterward they can handle the heat. The media who are so quick to help them lick their wounds actually diss them by NOT giving them a hard time. Treat them like warriors, not wusses, and we'll see how far they can really go.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

It takes two

There's something about a great guy duo that generates more power than even the most electric romantic pair. Maybe it's the intensity from the interplay between 2 male egos, or the comedic possibilities of a double dose of testosterone-- whatever the reason, it's why buddy flicks tend to do so well at the box office, and why we see even the most macho of audiences embracing the fairly recent phenomenon of the "bromance".

While X-Men: First Class shies away from a full-blown bromance between its two male protagonists, it is fueled and propelled by the terrific chemistry between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Magnus Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), better known as Professor X and Magneto, respectively. The movie tells the dramatic albeit inaccurate (purist comic geeks around the world are probably apoplectic with rage) back story of how the mutant superhero group the X-Men got started, centering on
Charles and Erik's friendship and their eventual parting of ways. McAvoy and Fassbender inhabit their roles with an admirable commitment, almost an unnecessary solemnity, and infuse them with both pathos and humor. It also doesn't hurt that they're both easy on the eyes, and look awfully good decked out in suits, strutting around the country recruiting their fellow mutants. Any X-Men fan worth his salt could tell you Professor X and Magneto have always had a special relationship, always delicately teetering between comradeship and conflict, but firmly grounded on mutual respect and fondness. McAvoy and Fassbender successfully bring this interesting dynamic to life, and it is the most enjoyable aspect of an otherwise so-so film adaptation.

The screenplay is the biggest disappointment: the plot is overly ambitious yet underdeveloped (the X-Men averted the Cuban missile crisis, really?!?), the dialogue often felt stilted, there are too many lame cliches for comfort, and there is little material for tremendous acting talents like McAvoy and Fassbender to work with. The weak writing is most evident when delivered by equally weak actors, especially the vapid January Jones (whom I actually preferred in Emma Frost's diamond form so I wouldn't have to see her gorgeous but frustratingly vacant face). Actually the writing does work for someone: the wonderful Kevin Bacon, thoroughly having a blast playing the baddie and evidently relishing each trite one-liner his character, Sebastian Shaw/Schmidt, utters. What can I say, Bacon and cheese really do go together. All puns aside, Bacon makes a convincing villain, and makes the bad script work for him. He's THAT good.

Unfortunately the same can't be said of the rest of the cast. T
he actors who play the motley group of young mutants assembled by Charles and Erik are forgettable, and even Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence is surprisingly blah as Mystique. Rose Byrne is a letdown as Moira MacTaggert-- not only is there no effort to essay a Scottish accent, she is totally not credible as a tough CIA agent. Moreover, there are no sparks between her and James McAvoy (c'mon, how hard can it be to look smitten by someone who looks like James McAvoy?), and more than once I found myself wishing they had either cast someone else, or done away with the character completely. I willingly overlooked the poor supporting cast though, not only due to the McAvoy-Fassbender tandem, but also because there are a couple of smartly placed cameos (no spoilers here) that more than made up for it.

As far as prequels go, X-Men: First Class does an adequate job of setting up the premise for the previous 3 X-Men films, although it fails to surpass them in terms of entertainment value (well, maybe not the third X-Men movie, that kinda sucked). But it's really the Charles and Erik show, and while I will stop short of saying McAvoy and Fassbender are better than the formidable combination of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, they certainly make an impressively powerful-- and damn good-looking-- pair.