Archive for August, 2011

Remember London by its fish – Roka

I was about to skip dinner (the full English breakfast lasted for a whole day!) when I discovered two highly rated Asian restaurants were within 5 minutes’ walk from my hotel. One of them is Chinese. The other Japanese. As my trip back to Shanghai is only a few weeks away, Japanese became an obvious choice.

And Roka did not disappoint. The restaurant was full on a Wednesday night. The center of the restaurant was the open kitchen. Sitting at the counter facing the kitchen, I could feel the excitement seeing fire jumping up on the grill and hearing the energetic chefs (5 of them, plus one coordinating the orders) acknowledging each order called out to them.

I ordered four small dishes to test – otoro for the fish quality, jumbo sweet shrimp sashimi with caviar for a treat, spinach with sesame dressing for the tradition, and home made tofu with water melon (a new item on the menu) for innovation.

Otoro came out as some of the best I had ever had, so was the ebi. Spinach was a totally surprise. Instead of boiled, the raw spinach leaves were stacked up in the center of the plate, surrounded by strings of carrot and shreds of daikon, spread on was the sesame dressing and the real sesame seeds. The cold tofu was soft in a broth with mixture of watermelon juice and sesame oil, served together with cherry tomatoes, green onions, water melon pieces, and surprisingly, thin slices of hot pepper. The whole meal’s taste was clean, yet interesting in a subtle way. One had to pay attention to taste the intricate flavors.

To complete the experience, the counter was made from raw wood, polished but with original wood pattern showing. And the ceramics were master pieces.

Thank you London, for the unique experience.

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Breakfast in Istanbul is not boring

People here seem to take breakfast seriously. Instead of grabbing and going, it is more a sitting down, drinking a cup of tea, reading newspaper, and having a chat type.

Turkish tea is definitely a popular breakfast drink, while in my observation coffee is more enjoyed in the afternoon. There is also a local yogurt drink with a slight taste of saltiness.

Pastry choices for breakfast are plenty. The local bagel topped with sesame seeds, also sold as snack through the day, is toasted with cheese. Baklava stuffed with minced meat or spinach is also common. The unusual breakfast, for a foreign, is what they called the breakfast plate – cucumber, tomato, olives, and cheese. My local colleague told me he could hardly imagine a breakfast without olive or cheese.

My breakfast at the hostel in the Sultanahmet district was nothing fancy, but largely enhanced by the view from the breakfast room :).

the Ramadan dinner

On the second day of our arrival in Istanbul, my college and I were recommended to dine in a well known Turkish restaurant Devali. The restaurant offered a set menu, serving many dishes of traditional Turkish food. It is located on the water front in the Kalamis marina. We arrived about ten minutes before eight, and the restaurant was half full. We were lucky to get a table on the outside deck, looking over docked sailing boats and a beautiful sunset. When we sat down, the appetizers were already placed on the table – bread, olives, tomato paste, dates, salads. All delicious looking. We immediately  started eating, and quickly realized no other customers were touching the food on their tables. Everyone was just chatting. The situation was even more awkward as we were the only two Asians there! Puzzled, we looked around but couldn’t stop munching on the delicious food.

Then, a few minutes past eight, the sun sunk below the horizon. As if a silent order was given, everyone started eating. The restaurant suddenly fell silent. Dishes were brought out one after another. Almost twenty minutes later, people looked up from their food, lit a cigarette, sat back in their chairs, and started chatting again. Dishes kept on arriving at our table. The full meal lasted almost three hours, completed with Turkish coffee or tea.

We related our experiences to our Turkish colleagues the next day. And only then realized we arrived during the last week of Ramadan. I sure hope we did not offend anyone in the restaurant!

little did I know, about Turkey

Such as: Turkey is the fourth largest Facebook country in the world, and tulip originated from this country. I also did not know about Turkish food. During the past four days, I’ve gone through a culinary fast course. And I am in love with tastes.

Day 1 – Ciya

This restaurant, located in a busy alleyway in the Kadikoy area (Asia side), was small and crowded. There was no menu. Food was displayed in the cafeteria style near the entrance.  Most waiters did not speak English. So it took us a while to find out how to order. Appetizers were self-served and weighted by the plate. Main course can be chosen in half or full portion, and brought to the table after being ordered at the counter. The restaurant was buzzing with activities. Under the seemingly crazy business, guests were greeted, seated, attended to, and served.

The food looked simple, but had flavors I had never tasted before. There was a pickled vegetable dish so unique that I could not recall anything tasted similar. I asked the waitress for the name. She was not sure. A few minutes later the manager came and explained the dish. It was made from a bush unique to the region, grown in soil irrigated by both fresh and salt water. I told him I was impressed by his knowledge. He simply said that understanding food was his job.

I could feel this place was filled with such love for not fancy but just good food. I didn’t want to leave even after finishing everything on the table. Just as I was wondering what else to taste, I saw Lahmacun, a thin crust topped with minced meat, and knew I just got to have one. It did not disappoint.

Coming out of the restaurant, we ran into a corner shop where Baklava glowed in warm light behind the glass window. Four pieces cost less than $3. Tasty, juicy, fresh, and deadly sweet ;).

After the desert, my colleague and I walked toward the water front in the cool summer breeze. On the street, a few teenagers stood around a mussel stand, eating, talking and joking with the stand owner. The stand owner, a boy with a shy smile, noticed my curiosity and camera lens, handed me one mussel. The mussel was stuffed with rice and spice, cooked in its own shell. I offered him one lira but he refused to take my money for just a single try. When I insisted, he gestured me to give the money to the teenagers, and went on handing me the biggest mussel he had.

We told our first self-guided food experience to our local colleagues next day. They beamed with happiness in knowing we had really enjoyed their native taste.