Archive for August, 2011

Big — a sequel

August 2011

Once again, doubters, the trip to Buffalo was made bearable because of the food. Which was a good thing because we had to fly rather than take the train because my consort, once again, overbooked himself and fucked us both. (The security kabuki was totally ridiculous — at LGA I actually told the bureaucratic groper “this is bullshit” and was lucky she must have been well-medicated.) We had an over-the-top dinner the first night at the Delaware, with fried calamari wings-style, complete with the hot sauce and the blue cheese dip, plus that great, huge Reuben. Bob, though, made the mistake of ordering something relatively healthful, some take on roast chicken, which was pretty wan. In a bar, order bar food. As always, though, bonus points for Buffalo-size pours for about half what those wines would go for in Manhattan.

(Next day I regretted not noticing the soup of the day at Joe’s Deli, the joint Bob remembered for rye bread when he was a kid, was essentially a liquefied Reuben. Instead I had a decent muffuletta while he gloated with a superior Cubano. Either was enough to feed a small village if not a medium suburb.)

Dinner the next night was cooked by us at the boyhood home and all from the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers’ Market, which was cranking on Saturday morning. We got an insider’s tour and culled outstanding beef, corn, tomatoes, squash, basil, wine and of course that killer White Cow Dairy yogurt. On our own we found the most amazing potatoes; they looked like Yukon Golds but the women selling them said they were a local variety “but just as good.” Holy crap — they were 10 times better when mashed. Christa also snared us a free hefty cinnamon roll from one stand, so we headed to the bakery where it was made, in a hard-knocks neighborhood also home to a really impressive urban farm with greenhouse and tilapia ponds. The Five Points people grind their own grains and, it turns out, have the best idea for iced coffee: make coffee ice cubes, then pour hot coffee over them. It’s pure coffee to the last sip, with no dilution.

We should have stayed at the boyhood home and finished that $40 worth of Niagara wine, but we needed a walk before the monsoon and so set off for the closest bar. Which was right out of Stephen King — locked up, lights off in the dining room, teevee on over the bar and lights on in the kitchen but not a soul in sight. (Maybe this is more a Pacino script.) So we forged on to Torches for a thoroughly unimpressive experience. I mean, really: Bar napkins printed with an ad for a bartending school? When the guy slapping them down needs a refresher course? If you don’t have the hospitality gene, maybe you should live on straight wages.

But we lucked into Sunday brunch at Trattoria Aroma, walking in with no reservation and snaring a table in the bar — who knew it was such a happening place? (I guess everyone who knows $10 includes coffee and a pastry buffet.) And I doubted sandwiches could get any more gargantuan, but the special panino must have had half a steer in the “meatloaf” in it (quotes theirs). Plus it was also loaded with spinach, Fontina and a sunny-side-up egg. Bob’s special pasta looked almost dainty by comparison but was actually a big bowl of good rigatoni with sausage, green and yellow beans and sun-dried tomato pesto, all topped with an oozy egg. Calling Mae West . . .

Over at the Epi Log I noted that the scene at the farmers’ market was almost a parody of the clichés of designer dogs and show babies and shining, happy faces. But as at all markets, the food keeps it real. And that’s how I wound up with half a steer between the bread: I saw Hanova Hills on the menu, and Bob pointed out that that was the same farm that had sold us the outstanding grass-fed beef the day before. We’ve come a long way from the days of esoterically sourced ingredients only on fancy menus. Now what’s good enough for a Ste Alice is accessible even to the woman who was buying corn next to us using food stamps. That corn, BTW, was three for a buck. At Wegmans, ears were five for $2.

Idlewild to Ataturk

August 2011

Istanbul is like New York: You can eat really badly just about anywhere. Our first meal included a dreadful “eggplant pie” and some lentil “patties” at a highly recommended vegetarian restaurant, Zencefil, that was redeemed only by its setting, a garden that could have been in brownstone Brooklyn. Our last lunch was at Cezayir, also in a gorgeous garden, this one complete with kittens sleeping on chairs around us, where the smoked aubergine pastries were, in Bob’s words, “bar food,” and the vegetable ravioli with Gorgonzola sauce were gummy and bland. Luckily, we chose our other stops more carefully.

My high point was a late lunch at Tamirane, one of the cafes at the outstanding Santralistanbul, the modern art museum in a former power plant that makes DIA look like “Art.” I sat outside on the deck with good jazz on the sound system, kittens running wild in a hammock and around my table, a glass of typically good Turkish rosé and a satisfying salad of greens, lentils, chickpeas, cucumbers and cheese. All of which were perfect fortification for the three-floor show of abstract paintings, each more impressive than the last. A slide show of the aged artists at work was projected on the ground floor to Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, and the melody wafted through the building to mingle with the call to prayer. It was the most moving experience since Cesar Manrique’s Jameos del Agua on Lanzarote.

But our lunch at Baba, one of the fish restaurants at the end of our boat ride up the Bosporus, was pretty wonderful, too, at a table overlooking a mass of fish in super-clear water. I chose mullet from the display on ice at the entryway but was also tantalized by blowfish, which the waiter said could be baked with tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese, and it turned out to be superb as well. We also shared fresh anchovies with no fishiness and a chunky, lively spread of tomatoes, peppers and onions, plus a huge portion of typically sweet and juicy watermelon. Just as we were congratulating ourselves again for choosing the best restaurant (farthest from the dock, most sophisticated), a waiter jumped up on the railing with a flag to wave at the cruise ship heading into port. And we realized we were in the same place we had laughed at on our way in.

That night we stopped for a glass of rosé outside at the House Cafe near the hotel and got total contempt from the waiter for not ordering food; he went on to ignore us, so we flagged down a manager to order a second round plus meat, cheese and spinach mini pides. While we were finishing those, I noticed the name on the tiny cafe across the street: Helvetia, which had been recommended just that afternoon as one of the best places in town because it specializes in home cooking. So we paid the tab, without alerting the asshole waiter he had not charged for that second round, and headed over to choose from a counter spread with at least a dozen dishes. Cauliflower salad with great hanks of dill was the best, but the stewed okra ranked at least above average and the meatballs made me want to eat more than I needed. The server misunderstood and delivered two portions of all of those, but the tab still came to about what the rosé cost.

We saved the best for last, though, and emailed for a reservation at what I’d read was the impossible dream: Lokanta Maya. The winsome young chef trained in New York and is making a name for reinterpreting Turkish classics without gouging and without a view. If I was not blown away, it was only because we had had a knockout dinner the night before. Her legume salad was excellent, a cross between tabbouleh and panzanella, with grains and greens and cheese and bread crisps. Her samphire appetizer was overcooked, though, to the point that the sea beans had lost both their crunch and their singular salinity, but crunchy bread crumbs dispersed throughout added texture and taste. Her signature courgette fritters, unfortunately, had Bob blurting on first forkful: “These are like something you made that failed.” And they were soggy on the inside, to the point that he thought maybe bechamel was involved. But the dipping sauce with them was almost like yogurt-dill gelato. The chef described the “lamb shish” so lyrically, particularly the potato puree with it (walnuts, herbs), that I insisted we order it as well as the caramelized sea bass with fig that was calling Bob’s name. He thought the meat was too similar to what we’d eaten on the road, but the potatoes made me realize how much you can add to the experience with anything to break the starchy/creamy monotony. And the sweet, crisp skin on the fish compensated for both the tired lettuce in the salad alongside it and the flavor-free fig. Extra points for the chef coming to say goodbye as we left, though. She’ll do fine without a view and a gouge.

Strangers on a bus

August 2011

I spent weeks online before trekking to Turkish Air, trying to settle on somewhere to go after Istanbul with the six days Bob had tacked on after his workshop, after his three weeks on the road teaching three other workshops. My head was spinning from so many suggestions from friends, neighbors, strangers, websites, to the point that I just got on the plane thinking we could play it by ear, since flights seemed to be cheap and open and hotels seemed available everywhere. And I had already decided we would spend one extra day in Istanbul to let Bob rest a bit when two young women behind me on the shuttle to Santralistanbul tapped me on the shoulder and tried to ask a question. I thought they were Russian, and all of us were struggling to communicate when one of them asked: “Do you speak English?” Turns out they were Turkish, home from London and Paris, and as we talked they finally asked me the one question that made me focus: “What do you want to see? Ruins? Museums? The beach? Tiny towns?”

I’ll take tiny towns, Leyla! We were already leaning toward Sirince, in Anatolia, where good friends had just stayed. But she mentioned her family’s hometown, which she said used to be a tiny fishing village but is now one of the most popular places on the Aegean for Turks. And that’s where we settled for our last night before heading back to Istanbul.

Alacati did not look promising, especially when the innkeeper sent us to a huge, expensive fish restaurant, empty at midday, and Bob volunteered: “I just remembered how much I hate beach towns.” I kept saying “fishing village, fishing village.” And that evening it turned magical. The hotel was perfect, with a great shower, flowers everywhere, a huge old fig tree in the garden, and it took us just minutes to walk into the heart of the town, where endless cafes had tables set out and shops were crowded.

The innkeeper’s husband suggested Trip Advisor’s top restaurant, Asma Yapragi, and called ahead to say “Bob is coming,” so we got a nice table on the street for dinner. The owner ushered us in to see what she and her team had cooked that day, set out on a huge table, from which we chose fried squash blossoms stuffed with cheese, a pea puree, Swiss chard baked with bechamel and topped with yogurt, a crunchy artichoke-pasta gratin and amazing zucchini ribbons braised with garlic and onion, followed by lamb that had been roasted for five hours with garlic and rosemary and was teamed with rice pilaf. All of it just reinforced how awful Turkish food is in New York. Aside from the good bottle of Turkish rosé, and the low bill, we could have been eating in Provence.

Next morning the innkeeper had her staff serve us breakfast early before the flight back from Izmir: a choice of 10 jams made by her husband (we tried nectarine, fig, orange and a local cherry one), local wheat bread, cheeses, olives, tomatoes, red peppers, arugula and two types of cucumbers, one round, the other elongated. And we had the Turkish egg casserole, scrambled with tomatoes, peppers and onions, which finally made me understand what the slop on the Richmond Hotel’s otherwise-outstanding buffet was meant to be.

I had also read about an amazing chocolate-chestnut cake at Kose Kahve, but when we found the place it was not to be seen; instead Bob chose the mastic-fig tart. Which could have been a heavily frosted cake from Wegmans for all the fig and mastic taste/texture it had. Worse, with two Turkish teas, we paid 18TL, about $10. A better deal was the crumbly, intensely flavored mastic cookie we split from a 1941 bakery we passed, for 1TL. I can still taste it. And in a good way.

Under the Turkish sun

August 2011

Friends who had stayed there advised us Nisanyan House in Sirince would be “formally informal,” but we loved it, starting with the elderflower drink on arrival, served outside near the fountain laid with fresh flowers every morning. Our first room was huge, with a glassed-in tub/shower room, but even when we moved to a smaller one we woke up to the gorgeous view of the village sprawled below us. Breakfast was always an elaborate affair: preserves, cheeses, breads, fruit, eggs, cucumbers and tomatoes, olives etc. The one day we asked for a late-afternoon snack the kitchen rustled up a superb salad with cheese and purslane and tomatoes, plus a cheese plate, with Turkish white, to eat outside with the resident cat begging and posing. A gaggle of geese hung out in the parking lot, and a working donkey passed through morning and night. And the staff was superb, even the members whose English was about equal to our Turkish.

The only weak link was dinner. You have to order well in advance, so when you sit down the kitchen is ready, and if you’ve already had a late-afternoon snack you might not want that huge lamb shank that sounded so good earlier on. At least Bob’s shank was worth it, with succulent meat and flavor that didn’t taste too gamy even to me. The rice-cheese pilaf with it was also excellent. But I stupidly ordered a vegetable stew described as “mommy style,” and it was a mess of overcooked potatoes, carrots, mushrooms and zucchini in watery brodo with zero flavor and the eye appeal of upchuck. No wonder we got in a stupid argument. Our choice of meze was also misguided; the zucchini blossoms and pepper stuffed with rice were bland and mushy. Wine prices seemed out of line, too; I had to remind Bob we wouldn’t spend $50 on a bottle in New York.

Next night we happily trekked back down into the village, where we’d had a decent-enough little repast of salad, mezes and sweet wine at Artemis our first evening. Good old Trip Advisor rated Ocakbasi highly, and the setting would have made up for any lame food: tables out on a terrace right above the cheesy market with the usual views of the village. But the only thing lame was the “Turkish pancake,” which was more a Turkish quesadilla, and an anemic one at that. Roasted peppers were world-class, smoky roasted eggplant just as great, as was a green salad made with crunchy perfect vegetables. With a bottle of Turkish rosé served half a bottle at a time, it was well worth the walk down and back up the winding steps past goats and cats and old people on their stoops. It might not be “Italy with an edge,” but Sirince is a hot destination for good reason. It’s just most seductive after dark or from above.