A Birthday Surprise

Marwell2An unexpected shake-up of carefully choreographed plans found me spending my birthday, not in the south of France with a good friend, but in the country lanes of Hampshire with our older son, on the rim of the South Downs National Park. I was aiming for Winchester, en route to the New Forest, but after trawling the internet for last minute options, we ended up a few of miles out of town, amongst woodland and wintry fields and strangely, most unexpectedly, beside a zoo.

One of the “bespoke” series of hotels that claim never to be “off the peg” or “run of the mill,” the Marwell is certainly an unusual hotel, sitting amongst the trees beside Marwell Wildlife conservation zoo. Built in 1989, it was designed by an architect who had been inspired by a colonial safari lodge “Treetops” in Africa. The rooms are housed in four lodges connected by glassed-in breezeways, and while we may not have been quite amongst the treetops, we were certainly looking out at a stand of deciduous trees and down upon bright clusters of primroses peeking out from under the leafy ground cover. Inside, our room was perfectly comfortable, although the bathroom was a little ‘tired’ (A little sprucing and spring cleaning might be overdue.)

However, jetlagged and dusty, we arrived after lunch, dumped our bags, and decided on a long walk while the daylight lasted, not too bothered by the lack of bathroom allure. Tramping up hill and down dale, briefly lost, then found again, we returned in the dark with muddy shoes and a hearty appetite, but no energy left for our original idea of heading into town to hunt for food. Luckily the Marwell had an attractive dining room and a promising menu full of locally sourced ingredients that I had checked out earlier, just in case.

The dining room was beautiful in daylight, with huge windows and a high, oak-beamed ceiling. Light, airy and spacious, it had become a little frosty on that early Spring evening, so we simply kept our jackets on, as the menu looked as if it might be worth flirting with the chill factor.

Our waitress was a joy. Intelligent and well-informed about the food she was serving, she dealt with our requests in a marwell1capable and friendly manner. We found ourselves at a small table beside the window and – gratefully – beside a low oil heater. The menu was a short set menu, for which we were grateful as neither of us felt up to difficult and lengthy decision-making. Executive chef Phil Yeomans described his menu as ‘English cooking with a modern twist.’ Simple, but interesting, there was definitely a recognizable lean towards British comfort food, albeit with a soupçon more sophistication than your average pub menu.

Shortly after sitting down we were presented with a variety of freshly made rolls. All good, our personal favourite was a neat little number flavoured with sun dried tomatoes. Moments later an amuse bouche arrived: an espresso cup of onion espuma.  Espuma is the Spanish word for foam or froth (think cappuccino, zabaglione or even whipped cream) and this onion espuma was lightly flavoured, warming and, of course, frothy. Espuma has become a firm favourite with trendy restaurants who want to emulate the popular molecular gastronomy or deconstruction techniques favoured by the likes of Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal. Although it was no longer the surprise Blumenthal was out to achieve, it was delicate, delicious and wonderfully warming.

My appetizer deserves only praise. When living in Sydney, we always judged a restaurant on the state of the scallops, and the Marwell passed with flying colours. I would happily have ordered a second round, as my usual anguish with scallops is that no restaurant ever serves more than a mere morsel of these dulcet dainties. (Anyone remember buckets of prawns?) Simply presented, lightly grilled with a delicate sauce, these little wafers of delight were perfectly cooked and slipped down with effortless grace. My son’s pumpkin ravioli was equally well received: a triumph of perfectly cooked fresh pasta filled with a soft pillow of pumpkin.

I am, however, getting a little tired of chefs who provoke me by insisting I eat rare lamb. I love raw fish, and I am happy with rare beef, but I like my lamb well cooked, even a little crisped at the edges, and definitely no bleating. To me, undercooked lamb lacks flavour and texture, and when I ask for medium to well-done, I really wish they wouldn’t assume I am ignorant and serve it rare to almost medium. It might be the fashion at the moment, but it’s not to my taste. Unfortunately for our kind and understanding waitress, it was the third time this had happened to me in as many weeks, so yes, I did risk the wrath of the chef and sent it back to the kitchen for further discussion with the grill.

On the other hand, my son’s pork was a huge success, and it is safe to say not a squeak was left on his plate.

Marwell3Filled almost to overflowing, we were not particularly interested in dessert, but our waitress insisted we sample the honeycomb, which was apparently handmade from the honey of local bees – a peculiar claim, as honeycomb is generally made from golden syrup, bicarbonate of soda and lots of sugar. But I was too tired to think of that until later, so I didn’t query it. And who knows? Maybe this was a special recipe. Anyway it led to a long, cosy discussion about her upcoming travels in Australia, so we nibbled and chatted on in an almost empty dining room until other waiters started to clear the table for breakfast and our pillows called.

PS: If you are interested in the zoo, check out the website. We didn’t make it next door this time, but with a carful of smaller kids than mine, I suspect it would be well worth a visit.

*With thanks to Google Images, coz we were talking too much to remember the camera!


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Purple Yam Comes Home

Purple Yam (52)I first came across Amy Besa in her beautiful coffee table cook book, Memories of Philippine Kitchens. A chance meeting at Enderun, a few emails, and I finally introduced myself properly at a Christmas Fair in New York, where she and her husband Chef Romy Dorotan were showcasing a selection of interesting dishes from their Brooklyn based Filipino restaurant ‘Purple Yam’.

Last weekend we drove down to Manila Bay to see her latest venture, the Malate-based version of Purple Yam. Located in the original Besa family home at 603 Julio Nakpil, down a mind-boggling maze of back streets, it was almost the only house left in a street full of little supermarkets and sari sari stores. “We never abandoned the house,” Amy stated, as we assembled in the snug, upstairs dining room, once her mother’s bedroom. Built in 1949 by architect and artist Enrique Ruiz, it has been beautifully renovated and restored by Lara Fernandez-Barrios and the kitchen expanded into Amy’s own childhood bedroom. The original floor boards were subsequently recycled into attractive side tables.

We had arrived in time for a late brunch. The long dining table – a solid slab of wood (Molave) from Bacolod, Negros Occidental where Amy bought it twenty years ago as an antique piece – had been set for six under a stunning capiz chandelier. The menu, freshly printed, lay on the table to be studied at leisure, later. Meanwhile we heard much about Amy’s family history, the furniture, portraits and paintings that fill the house. Her baptismal godfather and National Artist of the Philippines, had long ago presented the family with a series of paintings, some of which still remain, and take pride of place in the dining rooms.

After a subtle hint from my hungry son, we brought an end to Amy’s fascinating stories and headed in to eat. It felt like an intimate family lunch, as we arranged ourselves in our private dining room. The only other customers – a table of four – were seated next door.

Purple Yam (51)Our waiters had already handed out glasses of refreshing homemade ginger beer as we sat down to a fresh, colourful palette of spinach salad, chaperoned by a variety of fruits and two wafer-thin slices of king oyster mushrooms, grilled and smoky and oh-so-delicious that I was tempted to ask for more please, like Oliver Twist. The salad was finished off with a light, bright pomegranate dressing. The waiter passed behind us with a solid chunk of salt from Amy’s ancestral land in Botolan, Zambales, to be grated over the top of our food like parmesan.

Next, two platters of grilled panini arrived, which we quickly decided would be much easier to eat in our hands, as the ciabatta was toasted and crunchy and likely to fly across the table and land in laps other than our own if we used cutlery. The ciabatta has been sourced from local bakery “Staple & Perk” and is quite the best any of us have eaten in Manila. Amy expressed her pride in its natural ingredients and lack of additives.

There were two types of these tasty sandwiches with which to indulge our taste buds. The first was filled with beef tapa, that favourite Filipino breakfast meat of salted, dried beef, which seemed to have been barbecued, going on the wonderful aroma of slightly charred meat arising from the platter. It had been topped with Asiago, a locally made version of a pungent Italian cheese. The second type consisted of pork tocino – again, a much favoured local breakfast dish of cured pork. The cheese was also local, made in the style of a southern Italian variety, Cacciocavallo, a close cousin to Provolone. Both panini had then been seasoned with pickled sugar beets and carrots, to which we were invited to add a hot and tangy salsa of tomato, chilli, green mango and singkama, or Mexican yam. The silence was noisy as we all tucked in.

Purple Yam (44)The following dish was also finger food: lashings of crab claws, prawns and clams totally covered the dark red rice beneath – heirloom varieties of nutty balatinao and lasbakan from the north-western Luzon province of Benguet. This had been cooked pilaf-style with capsicum, and coconut milk, shitake mushrooms and sitao (long beans). Accompanied by a sharp but smooth citrus and butter sawsawan poured liberally over the seafood, we were soon left with only a midden of shells in the centre of the table, and another of used cocktail napkins.

Then it was ‘help-yourself’ to the Halo Halo bar. The uninitiated in our group were wary, but I can say, quite candidly, that this was the best halo halo I have ever experienced. Starting with a range of toppings as wide as any to be found at Smuckers, we had a quick lesson from Pastry chef, Pat, before creating our own. Actually, I took the sample, with everything in it apart from the kitchen sink. This included: a strawberry compote from Baguio; those delightfully crunchy, delightfully named pinipigs or toasted rice grains; a jackfruit jam, and of course, the ubiquitous, immodest ube, or purple yam. Buried beneath an avalanche of shaving ice, and drowned with a splash of creamy caribou milk, my halo halo extraordinaire was finally crowned in an unusual choice of homemade ice-creams: cassia (cinnamon) or sarsi (labelled ‘root beer’); and pandan. The resulting blend of flavours and textures was delicately delicious.

We completed the feast with a large mug of lusty coffee: an organic Arabica from Mount Atok in Benguet.Purple Yam (5)

Much has been done to support local producers at Purple Yam, as we saw from the variety of regional ingredients used to create a truly Filipino flavoured menu with a gentle twist, by a truly hospitable Filipina hostess. Amy tells me that they do change certain aspects of the menus regularly depending on the availability of seafood, organic poultry and local produce. And they are also happy to tailor menus depending on the guests. She also says that as they have a lot of repeat customers, they will change items on the menu so that guests can taste different dishes. So we will certainly visit again, to see what else may be on offer, and to further explore this interesting take on Philippine cuisine.

*With thanks to my One & Only for his photographs.

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The Goose Station: Reinventing Philippine Cuisine

“Of all our senses, taste, such as Nature has created it, remains the one which…gives us the maximum of delight.”  ~ Brillat-Savarin

IMG_2464Last month I had the joy of meeting Rob & Sunshine Pengson at Madrid Fusion Manila (MFM). Rob’s presentation about his role in developing Philippine cuisine and the innovative, ingenious, inspiration behind their showcase Rizal menu was utterly beguiling. Translating cultural narrative into food? I realized that a visit to The Goose Station was long overdue.

The Goose Station was established in the Fort almost as soon as Bonifacio Global City began developing in 2009 (a  new city for a new cuisine?),  the name a satisfying play on ‘degustation.’  At that time, the neighbourhood was largely open grassland. Today the area is swaddled in netting and scaffolding as new buildings rise up almost daily. With ever-changing landmarks, it took a couple of laps before we unexpectedly rounded a corner and spotted the distinctive Goose Station sign with relief. Once inside, we were instantly impressed by the décor. Elegantly intimate, there is plenty of dark wood, a barn-like ceiling of raw beams art and a huge mirror to aggrandize the diminutive dining room. We were taken to a table right in front of the kitchen. This is open to watching diners through a long, narrow serving hatch, framed by attractive wooden shelving stacked haphazardly with a variety of coffee table cook books and ornamental geese. (One The Goose Station (18)
looked more like a penguin, but hey ho, he was friendly enough to pose on our table for photos.) We were comfortable, relaxed, and well looked after by a professional and unobtrusive team of waiters. The scene was set.

When the Goose Station first opened, the menu leaned heavily towards French cuisine. Today, the Pengsons theme is “anything goes”: a cosmopolitan kitchen influenced by tastes and techniques from China, Japan and the Philippines, France, Italy and Spain and even Australia. Unfortunately they are no longer featuring the showcase Rizal menu Rob described so bewitchingly at MFM. Nonetheless, by the time our friends arrived through Friday night traffic, we had delved deeply into the new menu, and were wondering where to begin on a menu over-flowing with tantalizing dishes.

I was sorely tempted by the scallops on the à la carte menu, but Rob kindly let us tweak the tasting menu a tiny bit and there was general delight with everything that arrived on the table. I am a natural grazer, so dining on a banquet of canapés suited me down to the ground. Typically hobbit-sized, small tasting serves never seem enough, yet eight dishes later, we came away amply satisfied. We also found that everyone simultaneously pressed the pause button on the conversation, to ensure that we were truly focused on the food – exactly as it should be when ‘degustation’ means to taste with relish, to savour. Above all, the whole experience was really good fun. So would you like to follow me vicariously through the menu? I promise it will be worth it.

The Goose Station (6)Our first amuse bouche was literally a mouthful: foie gras mousse served on unagi toast and topped with a wafer thin slice of apple.  Unagi is Japanese for freshwater eel. A common ingredient in Japanese cooking, Pengson used it to flavour the spongy, lightly toasted bread.  With an added raindrop of seaweed oil, the delicate flavours of salt and sea contrasted merrily with the rich earthiness of the goose liver.

The second dish could equally well have served as dessert. The generous serve of crab and caviar parfait arrived in a glass dish settled on a bed of grey pebbles. Thick and velvety as pannacotta, and just as smooth, it was interwoven with the subtle flavours of white asparagus, sea urchin – the foie gras of the Philippines – and yuzu, a sour, yellow citrus fruit like a small, wrinkled grapefruit, second cousin to the kaffir lime, visiting from East Asia. The crab meat topping was so fresh it could have walked out of the waves and onto our plates. The sea urchin, of which I have always been rather wary, tonight found a new admirer.

The next to arrive at the feast was a smoky oyster tempura served in a beautiful shallow shell, like a pearl, and topped with a maple-bacon marmalade. I am fascinated by this north American product, notorious in the Philippines now, and happy to be blended into cupcakes, swirled through ice-cream, poured on pancakes or served with fried eggs. The tempura batter was unexpectedly dark and heavy – we were reminded more of Indian samosas than light, crunchy Japanese tempura – but enjoyed it nonetheless, the batter providing a gentle crunch to accompany the soft, warm,
The Goose Station (15)moist oyster.

The deconstructed burrata salad that followed was both colourful and entertaining. The prima donna of this dish was, of course, the burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream, unusually soft and smooth, almost a curd. Like Carmen Miranda, it was bedecked in cherry tomatoes, the most beautifully ripe and luscious strawberries orange and walnuts, with a feathery spray of bright purple sorrel flower. Like a paint palette, the side of the deep black bowl was smeared with a bloody streak of beetroot gel, through which I ran a spoonful of burrata to delightful effect.

Our solitary but jumbo-sized scallop came in one of those roughly attractive Pinatubo pottery bowls, glazed with volcanic ash. Sweet potato and an apple and pear coleslaw added sweet and tart to the firm, ever-so-slightly salty scallop, which was large enough to share out in nibble-sized pieces.

On a square, matt-black slate tile lay a soft, round tortilla, on which sunbathed three squares of fried pork belly, seasoned with cilantro, hoisin sauce and cucumber: a moreish Filipino version of the popular Peking duck pancakes.
The Goose Station (17)Wrapped up, it was easily devoured in three mouthfuls, comfort food at its finest.

Our final savoury dish was a simple but truly cosmopolitan combination of English mash, Aussie-grown Japanese-style wagyu beef and a sprinkling of dehydrated caviar powder (looking like pepper but tasting salty), a kind donation from one of the Spanish chefs who dropped in last week for MFM.  Perfectly cooked in a bag, then grilled, our knives cut through the thick chunks of beef as if they were butter, and the meat was tender as the night.

Let’s have a break before dessert, and have a quick glance at the backdrop to this captivating menu. In the nineteenth century, Georges Auguste Escoffier took that sophisticated, somewhat pretentious French cuisine. He simplified its techniques, modernized its traditions and made it accessible to the world. Rob and Sunshine Pengson have taken a simple, home-based comfort-food cooking style into the realms of fine dining, likewise creating a modern, internationally accessible Philippine cuisine, to be appreciated by those of us who did not grow up with adobe, kinilaw and sinigang. They have managed to enhance the traditional, familiar flavours – the gustatory memory – of the Philippines, at the same time highlighting the fact that Philippine cuisine is a fusion of Filipino, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese and American influences thanks to a long The Goose Station (14)colonial heritage. And they have made eating a fascinating adventure.

The last mouthful was a surprising, refreshing, deconstructed calamansi tart. Reminiscent of the lemon meringue pie, it consisted of a pastiche of tastes and textures: from the small shards of softly melting honeycomb to the crunch of tiny pilli nuts: from the ice-cold, creamy coconut sorbet to the puddles of tart calamansi curd, with just enough sweetness to finish the evening on a high note… and the realization that, like Winston Churchill, “my tastes are simple: I am easily satisfied with the best.”

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Sashimi: a Japanese Cooking Philiosophy

sushiAs a rule, the philosophy of cooking aims at the creation of new tastes that do not exist naturally… but Japanese cooking methods are antithetical to this philosophy. The ideal of Japanese cooking is to retain the natural tastes of food with the minimum of artificial processes. Thus sashimi… can be viewed as a representative product of the Japanese cooking philosophy. The basic concept of fish preparation in Japan is suggested by the following proverb: “Eat it raw first of all, then grill it, and boil it as the last resort.”

 ~ Michael Booth, Sushi & Beyond

Japan is a nation of islands, so, as in the Philippines, fish has always been a staple of the Japanese diet. In the seas around Japan, the fishing has, until recently, been plentiful. Sadly, poor fisheries management and severe over-fishing in the past century has caused a drop in the volume of catches and a subsequent hike in prices. Yet fish continues to be popular here, at any price.

Raw fish is served in many different countries. Since the beginning of time, the Filipinos have made kinilaw, which is similar to Peruvian ceviche. The French eat poisson cru, while the Italians prefer carpaccio or pesce crudo, and the Scandanavian gravadlax is delightful with vodka. The Fijians, Tongans and Tahitians like it with coconut milk, the Catalans, Koreans and Thais prefer it in a salad. The Japanese created sashimi.

Sashimi has been a favoured delicacy in Japan since the 17th century. In the Japanese cook’s bible “Japanese Cooking: a Simple Art,” Shizuo Tsuji describes sashimi as ‘the best loved food in Japan… [and] unbearably exotic.’ Fish – only the best quality – is the most popular meat for sashimi, but horse meat or chicken are also used. Sliced into bite-sized pieces, it is then dipped in soy sauce or smeared with wasabi. It may also be garnished with pickled ginger, a perilla leaf, like mint, or shredded daikon, the Asian white radish that appears in many Japanese dishes in a variety of forms.

Just about any seafood can be used to make sashimi, although the most popular fish are salmon and tuna, largely due to affordability and availability. But in Kochi, a largely rural island to the south of Osaka, the local specialty is katsuo, or bonito.

Katsuo is a plump, charcoal-coloured fish shaped like a torpedo, averaging the size of a man’s arm, fingertip to elbow.Kochi (5)It is closely related to the tuna, but smaller and faster. Dried, fermented, and smoked, it becomes katsuobushi. Katsuobushi flakes are umami dense and a key ingredient in dashi, the base stock that is the cornerstone of Japanese cooking. Served as sashimi, it is, quite simply, perfection.

On my first night in Kochi, we gathered at an intimate sashimi bar in a narrow back street. The katsuo launched the meal, and we leaned across the bar to watch it being prepared. Seared briefly on the outside, it was then sliced into small steaks that were easily airlifted to the lips with chopsticks, via a nugget of wasabe.

The next day, our kind hosts drove us up into the mountains for fresh air and edifying scenery. On the return journey we stopped at a small and much-favoured local fish shop to buy a whole katsuo for dinner. We watched, fascinated, as the fishmonger carved off fins and head in swift, sure movements with what was obviously a bitingly sharp blade.

Sashimi sounds like such a simple dish. Slices of raw, unadorned fish on a plate. That can’t be too difficult, surely? Yet it takes time to perfect the skill of preparing sashimi properly.

Kochi (66)Sashimi knives are high maintenance tools that must be sharpened daily to ensure that the single beveled edge is always razor sharp. And the chef or fishmonger must be well versed in the texture of the fish he is dissecting, the way the muscles lie, and the thickness of the slice that best complements the fish and its flavour.

Swiftly skinned, deboned and filleted, our fish was packed on ice into a polystyrene box with a bag of left-over bits to make our own dashi. Then we headed home to create sashimi par excellence, or Katsuo no Tataki. This is a speciality of Kochi Prefecture. Apparently the late Spring catch (hatsu-gatsuo) was once considered so desirable that a popular saying suggested a man would trade his wife for a soupçon of katsuo. We have missed the Spring migration, but have made it in time for the modori gastuo, or the coming home for the winter, the fish meaty and succulent.

Smoked over a sweet-smelling rice straw fire in a barbecue in the driveway, and seared briefly in the leaping flames, the katsuo was then submerged in a large bowl of ice. (This will rapidly arrest the cooking process, and ensure the fish remains raw on the inside.) Once it had cooled, our chef sliced the fish carefully, gently, smoothly into small fillets, rather thicker than traditional sashimi, before arranging it them a wide, deep bowl with a ponzu sauce of citrus and sake. Garnished with ginger and radish sprouts and topped with a raw egg, Katsuo no Tataki is truly exotic. Truly heavenly. Perhaps it’s lucky I don’t have a wife to give away. How about a husband?

As seen in “Chop Soy” issue 2, 2015.

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Simple Joys

Mode Gakuen Cocoon TowerTokyo. A shopper’s wonderland. My friends are green with envy at my good luck. Sadly, I am not a woman who lives to shop. Basement food halls, malls and department stores make my eyes blur with panic. Too much stuff. Too many choices. So, heartily tired of concrete, traffic and effulgent electric lighting, I follow my nose through the narrow back streets of Shinjuku and Shibuya to the Meiji-Jingu Shrine. Ducking across a railway line between convoys of commuter trains, I round a corner, and bump into a dazzling vision of deep green foliage.

Yes, really. Hidden backstage, behind towering high-rises and roads crowded with those snub-nosed little Everywagons, is Yoyogi Park; 250 improbable acres of high-rise trees, a mere 100,000 of them, planted back in 1920 to honour the memory of Emperor Meiji and his wife, the Empress Shoken, who died in the early years of the 20th century. Emperor Meiji came to the throne in 1867 and was instrumental in modernizing Japan. While he was opening doors to the west that had been kept firmly locked for centuries, his wife was also being busy and important, promoting both the education of women and national welfare.

Shinto, the original Japanese religion, values a sincere heart and harmony with nature. This preferred state of mind is amply reflected in the extensive woodland of Yoyogi Park, where it is hard to feel anything but serene. Once saplings, donated from all over the globe, those same trees now shade the forest pathways from lofty heights.

Despite the hotel manager’s anxiety that it would take me hours to walk here –  it would be much better if I were to Yoyogi Park (10)
catch the train three stops – I have skibbled down the hill and under the vast Shinto arch (a torii) in less than half anhour. And suddenly, like Alice through the looking glass, I am immersed in a new world, a muted world of dappled green. While the trains keep up their urgent background hum, now the air is filled with bird noises and the steady crunch of gravel under my feet. Majestic trees arch overhead in a glorious leafy canopy. Elderly gardeners maintain the tidiness of the forest floor with long necked brooms that they sweep like scythes across the broad gravel paths, making small, neat mounds of recalcitrant leaves that will be scooped into bucket-shaped baskets. I imagine this will be a huge job in November, when the torrential downfall of autumn leaves might threaten to overwhelm, but today it seems a fairly peaceful, part-time occupation.
Yoyogi Park (3)Wandering aimlessly, I reach a fork in the road, and another vast wooden arch, marking the entrance to the shrine. A sign to Kiyomasa’s Well tempts me off the highway and through the little wooden gate beneath the trees. A road to fairyland? Almost. This is the Inner Garden, designed by the Emperor as a tranquil retreat for his wife. There is an entry fee of 500 yen, but it is worth it to follow the narrow, winding paths to a large pond surrounded by thick foliage and full of koi carp and water lilies, reminiscent of Monet’s garden. Oak trees drip acorns onto the paths. Dainty St Andrew’s Cross spiders weave intricate webs amongst the undergrowth. Fragile and lowly ferns kowtow to the stately elegance of the trees. A gardener kneels in a muddy flower bed, planting irises in a broad brimmed hat. Photographers wait patiently by the spring for spiritual serenity or that special moment with capricious nature, while I capture that moment when an enchanting, sparrow-sized bird steals a peanut from my palm, its tiny feet, delicate as Japanese characters, clinging briefly to my fingers.

But I am hungry, and the quiet garden is filling up with a sudden torrent of tourists. I wander off to look for lunch, and find an airy, empty restaurant on the edge of the park, where I am offered an autumn feast, a glorified bento box, that Japanese lunch box of both beauty and convenience.

Arranged alluringly on a tray, is an assortment of eye-catching bowls and platters. Some of the dishes are a mystery, but I must take my chances, as no one speaks enough English to explain. I somehow survive my ignorance, and enjoy making some new acquaintances. There is a clear broth which I leave till last – not miso, my waiter corrects me shortly, but won’t elaborate on what it is – and a bowl of rice dotted with cubes of an unknown yellow fruit, or possibly a vegetable. A large blue egg cup offers up a teaspoon of sardines garnished with tiny pink and purple petals that tastes unexpectedly like the Baltic rollmop of my childhood. A cooked prawn cuddles up to a piece of grilled salmon on a pillow of boiled daikon, or Asian radish, of which I am growing inordinately fond. Two enormous, plum-sized red grapes are so ripe they taste drunk, and they are topped whimsically with a tiny amber maple leaf.

But the plat de résistance is a lacquered box of tempura. And here I must use my imagination. Apparently, I am informed curtly, the spray of wheat is edible. My waiter isn’t rude, just a little embarrassed by his lack of English.Yoyogi Park (16)
Goodness knows why, as it’s easily better than my non-existent Japanese.  The wheat grains having partially ‘popped’ in the oil so it looks like a corsage of puffed wheat. It is crispy, but the fine stems lodge between my teeth and dig into my gums. This pretty piece might be better on a lapel after all. The mushrooms, however are moreish, and I wish there were. More. I crunch through them happily. I don’t know their names, but they are those long stemmed white ones that grow in clusters like pins on a pincushion. Google says enoki or possibly shimeji, but cooking tips don’t include tempura, so I assume the chef is being creative, and it works. A scattering of maple leaves lightly coated in tempura are so small I feel guilty about eating them, it’s like swallowing those diminutive quails eggs. I am only slightly discomfited, however, before they disappear down my throat with as much substance as fairy floss. The final mouthful is an indefinable piece of foliage that might be mushrooms or could be a branch of some unknown shrubbery, but tempura waves its magic wand and wraps whatever-it-may-be in crunchy, crispy, mouth-filling deliciousness.

And I am done. And I emerge, reluctantly, from my sensual haven into the surreal world of futuristic, fantastical Tokyo.

* First published in Chop Soy Issue 2, April 2015

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Seducing the Soup

ottoman-cuisineTurkey, like the Philippines, is located at a geographical and cultural crossroads between east and west, right on the cusp of Europe and Asia. Turkish cuisine is a synthesis of centuries of cultural and culinary fusion: a patchwork of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences that have created a mouth-watering menu. While spending a couple of weeks eating our way through Istanbul, I thought it might be fun to learn how to make some of the dishes in which we were so enthusiastically indulging.

Eveline Zoutendijk opened Istanbul’s first Turkish cooking school in 2002. Cooking is her passion and it is her pleasure to introduce travelers to the tastes and textures of Turkish cuisine. Fow a while, Eveline told me, she held the only casual cooking class in Istanbul, but gradually the idea spread, and now a quick trip to Google will turn up any number of alternative classes across the city.

Tucked away down a cobbled street behind the Blue Mosque,  Cooking Alaturka consists of a dining room and a small but efficient kitchen. The restaurant is bright, colourful and cosy, with a maximum of eleven tables for guests.  Last week,  the kitchen contained seven excited students quite comfortably: our family of four; an American lady travelling solo from Africa, and a couple of young men from Taipei.  Head chef, Feyzi, assisted Eveline in teaching the class, his brand of 200 (2)cheeky humour the perfect counterbalance for Eveline’s attention to detail and firm control of the the kitchen. We washed our hands, wrapped ourselves in aprons, and set to work to create a four course dinner, orchestrated by Eveline and Feyzi, and featuring many local, seasonal ingredients.

Our first task was to prepare the eggplants for the main dish, Karniyarik or ‘stuffed belly eggplant’. These were neither the long, pencil thin eggplants we know in the Philippines, not the fat-bellied Buddha-shaped Aussie ones, but an in-between size, glossy and gently curvaceous. We were shown how to trim the stalk and peel three strips of purple skin from the vegetable before basting them in oil and tucking them into the oven for 30-40 minutes.

Then we limbered up to chop and slice enormous volumes of onion and peppers, runner beans, tomatoes and garlic. We all had a go at wielding the two-handed curved kitchen knife – a ridiculously large mezzaluna – perfect for chopping up your worst enemy or mountain of onions a la Julia Childs. Later we would also use it to annihilate the herbs.

Once we had all our ingredients prepared, we began to assemble the dishes. First, Yayla corbasi, a ‘meadow soup’ favoured by the goatherds and shepherds when they head up to higher summer pastures with their flocks like Heidi and her grandfather. Eveline described ‘layers of flavour’ as we combined yoghurt and egg yolks with cumin and flour in a bowl. A freshly made lamb stock simmered on the stove, to which we added rice – al dente – ‘for texture’ and dried mint and chilli flakes for flavour. The liaison of dairy and flour was then blended slowly into the stock, the yoghurt providing a smooth finish, tangy and refreshing. Feyzi gave me the task of stirring the soup, curling the spoon slowly smoothly, seductively, through the liquid to prevent the rice sticking to the bottom.

193Imam bayildi is a traditional Ottoman dish of stuffed eggplant. The name means “the priest fainted” based on the tale of a newly married Turkish religious leader, whose wife’s cooking caused him to swoon with pleasure. It is a variation of another popular Ottoman dish, Karnıyarık, which is eggplant stuffed to the gunnels with a mix of tomatoes and onions, minced beef and lamb. Rich and filling, it is a favoured winter comfort food. And, like adobo, every Turkish mother makes the best karniyarik.

To accompany the eggplant was a cracked wheat or bulgur pilaf. Bulgur is a native staple in Anatolia, the larger, eastern part of Turkey, once known as Asia Minor. Bulgur or burghul wheat is far more traditional and tastier than the imported rice of modern times, with a nutty flavour, popular in kisir (a Turkish version of tabouleh) and pilaf. Mixed with the last of the onions, peppers and tomato paste, the result is a traditional Turkish pilaf. Interesting as it was to taste, we found it rather a heavy accompaniment to an already hearty main course. An unadorned green salad, we felt, would have better balanced the red-blooded flavours of the karniyarik.

Kabak mueveri is a popular Turkish mezze, but as Eveline handed out the job of grating a pile of zucchini (courgette), I saw, from the corner of my eye, our sons’ lips start to curl. Zucchini, the boys think, is great to grow in the veggie patch, but  not wildly popular on our dinner table, even when heavily disguised in a vegetable pasta sauce. I groaned inwardly.

Creating these small, bite-sized fritters involved a tutorial on the correct way to grate a courgette, before we mixed  in a local feta style cheese (beyaz peynir), eggs, flour, herbs and chilli. The mixture was then fried into patties in a heavy frying pan. The results were simply delicious and much to my joy, I may be able to reintroduce those infamous courgettes to our dinner table, albeit in a slightly different format. Eveline served it with a modest garlic yoghurt dip. Personally, I would probably embellish this with cucumber, dill and a splash of lemon juice to create a slightly more sophisticated tzatziki – but then I wanted to adorn every dish I tasted in Turkey with tzatziki, as it is definitely one of my favourites.

So, we had soup, an appetizer, and a main course ready to go. Dessert anyone?

The dessert Eveline had chosen was great fun to make: dried figs stuffed with walnuts and cooked in a light sugar 187syrup, or incir tathsi. (Turkish can be hard enough to pronounce sober, imagine saying that after a bottle of wine!) Dried fruits and nuts are traditionally served at Turkish festivals and celebrations, and are now exported around the world.

Turkey has a reputation for terribly sweet and syrupy snacks, such as baklava. I was pleasantly surprised to find the local version of these popular pastries not nearly as sickly as their Filipino or Australian counterparts. Likewise, I expected these amuses bouches of fruit and nut to be too saccharine for my taste, and yet it was not so. The sugar syrup was neatly tempered with lemon juice, lemon zest and cloves, the scent of which hung enticingly in the air. (Eveline’s notes suggested that the sweetness can be further subdued with the tannic addition of bay leaves or Turkish tea.) We all got childishly giggly as we attempted to stuff the walnut halves carefully through the small slits we had made in the bellies of the figs, desperate not to tear a broad gash through which the nuts could fall out. We then had to close the wound and gently massage the fig into the shape of a small spinning top.

Each fig was then placed carefully into a large, shallow pan of syrup, stems up, to spin gently like Whirling Dervishes around the pan. A couple of gentle flips and they were ready to be served, topped with grated coconut and ground pistachios. It was a fitting finale to a wonderful meal, although I would love to have tried the kaymak, or heavy Turkish cream that Eveline mentioned in the recipe.

034Our meal was accompanied by some interesting local wines, and finished off with a lesson on how to make Turkish coffee, which apparently, like those Whirling Dervishes, has been labelled an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Turkey by UNESCO. The result was milder than Italian espresso, but also quite gritty, and was served with a small cube of Turkish Delight, to which I am now totally addicted. Nothing like the rose-flavoured, chocolate coated Fry’s Turkish Delight of our childhood, these Ottoman morsels of Bergamot jelly and nuts, dusted with icing sugar can be found in the Spice Market in endless variety. We were, finally, replete, and with all our newfound wisdom and a list of recipes, we wandered home.

* With thanks to Cooking Ataturka website for the picture of an Ottoman kitchen, and to my One & Only for managing to chop and take photograph at the same time!

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“There is Hell Waiting Here”*

The sandstone Sphynx bares its chest like a beacon above Anzac Cove.
Bleak, grey, weeping seas, diluted with the blood of thousands,
Johnnies and Mehmets both.
No beaches worth their salt, nowhere to land,
the King’s young allies culled by well-placed snipers,
like gulls cherry-picking chips.
Boats adrift on a current too strong to fight,
as the crouching boy-soldiers they carry towards certain death.
A battlefield spread thick with blood and bodies,
now a manicured lawn where daffodils, not poppies,
mark starkly simple graves on this remote Turkish shoreline.
Blood-red, high-rise seating clambers recklessly up the dunes
to honour the centenary of an ill-fated landing,
an ill-fated war-within-a-war.
A statue of a Turkish soldier in boots with turned-up toes
carries another gently in his arms:
a young digger, wounded, bleeding, delivered from no-man’s land
by a compassionate enemy wielding a white handkerchief.
A memorial, a pine tree, a speech, a soldier who ‘probably lies here’.
Sons, husbands, lovers, brothers, fathers, boys,
spend two hundred and forty days in hell-on-earth.
Victims, all, of a war of young men, a war of old men.
Sacrifices on the altar of nationalism and greed.
A Turkish officer bestows tender words of comfort
on grieving mothers weeping on a distant shore.
Remember, remember with rosemary and wreaths and heart-felt prayers:
Lord give peace to the world. Don’t waste our men again…
Yet we will all come to rest in the bosom of Mother Earth in the end.

*the title is a quote from C.A. McAnulty, an Australian soldier killed at Lone Pine, above ANZAC Cove, August 1915, the poem is mine.


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The Whirling Dervishes

dervish.3A different city. A different dance. Not London but Istanbul. Not Sadler’s Wells but the Galata Mevlevihanesi. Not a ballet, but a timeless, hypnotic ritual dance created by Persian poet, prophet, philosopher and mystic, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi.

The Mevlevi Order was founded in his name in the thirteenth century, and became a well-established Sufi Order during the Ottoman Empire. It followed Rumi’s radical teachings that dance and chanting could induce a trance-like state and bring the dancers closer to God and perfection. This dance, the Sema, symbolizes the cyclical journey to spiritual maturity and perfection through love.

In April 1841 a young Hans Christian Anderson visited Istanbul and described the whirling dervishes performance in almost exactly the same way that it might be described today, almost two hundred years later. Nothing appears to have changed. So faithful is this performance to the tradition of centuries that it was proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005.

The Galata Mevlevihanesi lurks at the lower end of the pedestrian mall Istiklal Caddesi, en route to the Galata Tower in Taksim. Once it would have boasted spectacular views of Istanbul in every direction, now it is hemmed in by tourist shops and cafes, embassies, hotels and tram lines. The museum is open daily, except on Mondays, but the Dervishes perform only on Sunday evenings.

We have stood in the queue for half an hour, clutching the tickets we bought mid-afternoon, waiting for the signal to enter the hall. Luckily it is a cool, dry day. Finally we are moving, and we duck through the front gate, down a narrow alley past the 19th century Halet Efendi Mausoleum and into a wide, paved courtyard. To the left is a Dervish cemetery, with tall, narrow gravestones, some topped with dervish cone hats or turbans, most decorated with Arabic script. To the right there are several layers of terraces, patios and pocket-handkerchief sized lawns: a secret garden hidden behind the busy pedestrian thoroughfare, quiet and peaceful, mostly inhabited by fat cats.

The Dervish Lodge was originally built in the 15th century. It has been rebuilt and renovated over the centuries dervish hall
thanks to fire, earthquake and old age. It was re-opened as a museum in 1975. From the outside, the Lodge is an unprepossessing white, wooden building, three or four storeys high, but once inside, we are surprised to find an octagonal shaped dance floor, the Semahane encircled by casual seating at ground level and overlooked by a screened mezzanine floor. We sit down facing the front doors, almost barreled over by a herd of camera-clutching tourists determined to claim the front row. As they pose noisily for “selfies” we admire the hall.  The walls and high ceiling of the hall are decorated in trompe d’oeil and the pillars are painted to look like marble. (Upstairs, in the museum, we later discover a display describing how this marbling effect is achieved.}

Gradually, the musicians gather above us, on a balcony overlooking the hall like a mediaeval minstrel’s gallery. They are wearing the traditional white dervish robes and the conical hats, shaped like large thimbles or spools of cotton, and they clutch an array of instruments, including the ney (flute) and the kudum (drum), the halile (cymbal) and the rebap ( tiny fiddle), none of which I have heard till now.

The ceremony begins with solo chanting from the gallery, reminiscent of the intoning of Christian psalms, with that same hypnotic droning and dipping, unexpectedly punctuated with ear-catching glottal stops. Our pamphlet says this is a eulogy to the Prophet, who represents love. The second part consists of a steady drum beat, with the rattling sound of a snare. This is followed by an improvisation on the ‘ney’ or Turkish flute that represents the breath of God.

Then the dancers, or dervishes, plod solemnly and silently into the hall in single file, each dressed in a tall, conical, camel-coloured hat and wrapped in a large black cloak, arms crossed over their chests as if in strait jackets. Slowly, ceremoniously, each dervish bows respectfully to the senior dervish or sheikh, then to each other, circling the room to kneel in a row at one side of the hall, on sheep’s wool rugs, bowing their heads so their hats tip the floor. Then they slowly, silently remove their capes. Beneath the cape is a short, white jacket and a wide, white skirt tied with a thick black sash.

Whirling dervishesAt last the whirling begins. To whirl is defined as turning in rapid circles. Remember that dizzy twirling as a youngster, pirouetting furiously, as fast as you could, until you collapsed on the grass in a heap, your head, eyes and stomach spinning sickeningly, gleefully? Not so this controlled, stately rotation. As the dervishes take to the floor, solemnly, almost pompously, each dervish bows to the sheikh and then to each other. Gradually they move out into the middle of the floor, one at a time, and begin to orbit gently around the central figure, the sheikh, who is purportedly the channel to divine grace.  It is a steady, sedate revolution on the left foot, all heads tipped to the left, arms raised to the sky, eyes closed. And so they turn, turn, turn, repetitive, unfaltering, each remaining fixed on his own spot, “their skirts [standing] in the air like a funnel around them” (Hans Andersen), not hectically like spinning tops but steadily pivoting, like cogs in a rhythmic machine. As the dervishes twirl and bow, I have memories of Fantasia’s dancing mushrooms. My eyes droop, my head nods, as the dancers seek to achieve a meditative and spiritual state. When they stop, there is no swaying or tipping over. Everyone is steady as a rock. Except me, who jerks awake, alerted by the sudden silence. They peel off the floor, bowing again in orderly fashion, to don their cloaks and assume their positions at the side of the hall.

The last part of the ceremony is a reading from the Qur’an. Then the sheikh leads the dancers from the hall, each bowing to the audience as they leave.

The performance, once a private religious rite, has become a public tourist attraction since the new Turkish Republicdervish.2 dissolved this Muslim sect in 1925, and is allowed to continue as such. Reading reviews later that day, it is amusing to note that I was not the only one to anticipate a more frenetic display of local folk dancing. Many, who had obviously not done their homework, were both scathing and bored. Although it was not what I expected, I was nonetheless fascinated by the discipline, the skill and the profound symbolism of the ritual. In fact I was so riveted as to be almost oblivious to the superfluity of keen photographers in the audience. But I will happily echo one reviewer, who advises spectators to “abandon your camera and open your senses,” in order to concentrate properly on this int
riguing ceremony. It may not be everyone’s method of achieving God’s grace, but it obviously works for these disciplined, devoted Turkish gentlemen.

*With thanks to Google Images for the photos and sketches.

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Recapturing the Ballet

downloadBallet classes began when I was seven years old. I loved them.  The teacher placed me in the back row where my lack of co-ordination and heaviness of foot wouldn’t distract the star pupils at the front. I was completely unaware of the slur on my talent. As far as I was concerned I was destined to be Pavlova, Markova and Margot Fonteyn rolled into one. In my imagination, I was poised, graceful, lissome and supple. In reality, I wasn’t. Eventually the penny dropped, but in the meantime I was oblivious of my own lack of prowess or mother’s muffled giggles from the parental perch in the back corner.

Occasionally, when I watch a truly glorious ballet, I am still that seven year old on the brink of stardom.

Last night I went to Sadler’s Wells to see the Northern Ballet dance The Great Gatsby. It was sublime. And I, of course, sat in my mythical bubble feeling every bit as ethereal, elegant and diaphanous as those light-as-a-feather, lithe and fragile ballerinas with their pointed toes, pirouettes and effortless arabesques.

If you have ever read the book or seen the movie (with either Robert Redford or Leonardo), you should see the ballet. Choreographer David Nixon captures the mood of the Roaring 20s perfectly: the post-war frivolity, self-indulgence and glamour of the Lost Generation, and that entrancing, seductive, unrealistic American dream of insatiable wealth and success. And of course he also manages to capture, quite brilliantly, the essence of the novel: Gatby’s obsession, not for wealth, but for Daisy Buchanan; of an elusive dream of love and happiness; of the soul-destroying reality of a harsh world. It seems the perfect tale to weave into dance, and the only wonder is that it hasn’t been done before.

The score was written specially for this production by composer and jazz pianist Sir Richard Rodney Bennett CBE.Gatsby.3 Completed just before his death in 2012, it follows the story line with effortless style and exciting flashes of jazz, excellently performed by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia.

Jerome Kaplan’s sets are simple but effective, inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper – perhaps with particular reference to the artist’s ‘window’ sketches and carefully calculated compositions – to create an ephemeral world of lust and fantasy, and enhance the deep sense of human isolation.  (Although some rather unfortunate door banging was an unnecessary teaspoon of mundanity to undermine the fairy floss.)

Nixon and his team haves created a gem of a ballet. The Great Gatsby is a complex tale of convoluted relationships, but Nixon unravels the knots so the audience can follow the plot with relative ease. The dancers portray their characters through dance with more three-dimensionality than the actors ever managed, and the costumes, apparently inspired by Chanel, help to depict the loose, liberal, flighty era of the 1920s.

All this, and Sadler’s Wells too!

I read and adored Noel Streatfield’s “Ballet Shoes” as a child, and more pertinently, the Sadler’s Wells series by Lorna Hill. I have long been devoted to the legend of Sadler’s Wells without ever having been there, so this was a much anticipated first, and I was bouncing with excitement, like a five year old at a birthday party.

Gatsby.2Sadler’s Wells is named for both its creator, Richard Sadler, who opened a music house on the Clerkenwell site in 1683, and for the medicinal springs discovered on the site. The current theatre is the sixth on the site since 1683 and is renowned as one of the world’s leading dance venues.

The first performances of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, with its all-male cast of swans – remember Billy Elliott? – took place here in November 1995. Three years later, the latest reincarnation of Sadler’s Wells was opened, reputedly bigger and better than all its predecessors.

Possibly a more informed audience would be more critical, but this amateur ballet lover was riveted to the stage from beginning to end. The electric adaptation of this iconic talehas me quite overcome, and overly effusive with adjectives. I just wish there had been some way of boxing it and taking it home to love forever, but it, too, is ephemeral, insubstantial, and impossible to possess. Sadly.

*With thanks to my dear friend Julia for such a very special treat, and to Google Images for access to the pictures.

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An Aubergine Anniversary

Aubergine (30)Aubergine is French for eggplant. The word aubergine comes from the Catalan albergínia, and the Arabic al-bādhinjān. An aubergine is a vegetable, that firm, smooth, shiny, pendular vegetable that soaks up olive oil like a sponge or grills into a smushy, smoky babaganoush. Aubergine is also a colour: a deep purply-black that occurs rarely in nature, a princely, rich and luxurious colour that I first saw in a tulip bed in Holland Park.

Princely, rich and luxurious indeed was our anniversary dinner at the fine dining French restaurant ‘Aubergine’ in Bonifacio Global City on Friday night. It was a long-postponed gift from a special friend, and I was really looking forward to it. Happily, I was able to book on line, which was much in its favour, and saved me all the hassle of having to repeatedly and ineffectually spell our name over the phone.

Reviews on ‘Aubergine’ are generally mixed. The unjustifiable prices and the inconsistency of quality and service are its loudest criticisms, while others rave about the attention to detail and outstanding food. I had been once before for lunch, and remember thinking it was “awesome”, but let’s face it, was far too occupied catching up with an old friend to notice our meal in any great detail. The One & Only was quietly concerned that this “awesome” restaurant sat above McDonalds on 32nd Avenue, which certainly didn’t sound like the most salubrious of locations.

Aubergine (9)Nor had the evening got off to a flying start. We were running late and I was just a wee bit stressed. Eventually, unable to find a taxi on a typically frantic Friday night in Manila, we unwillingly braved the madcap traffic on EDSA. Luckily, despite our misgivings, we arrived only 10 minutes late and even fluked a car park only metres from the front door. As we entered, we were instantly met with warm smiles and ushered into a cozy, comfy booth that was blissfully, discretely private from the other diners. Leaning back into the deep banquettes, we felt the stress drift away, and suddenly all boded well for the romantic evening we had been anticipating.

The first page of the wine list was labelled Private Selection, and looked dauntingly pricy. However, relaxed and happy, we took our time, and pottered lazily through the pages, meandering across the wine regions of Europe and South America, South Africa and New Zealand, before settling on a reasonably priced Australian wine: a full-bodied, fruity Woodstock Shiraz from McLaren Vale. Commenting on the classy wine glasses, we sipped slowly and decadently before reaching for the menu.

Here, we found that many dishes offered three ‘tastings’ like a mini degustation menu, such as a selection of upmarket ‘surf and turf’ – that traditional Australian pub offering of generous red meat and fish combos –  an appetizer with three styles of tuna, and a main course medley of seafood. Duck also played a significant role with an emphasis on foie gras, which was bound to keep me sated with joy.

I was initially wary of the fact that all the meat had been imported from the faraway fields and forests, streams and seas of the US, Australia and Scandinavia, and therefore had presumably arrived in frozen form in the kitchen. I need Aubergine (16)not have worried. Everything we ate was enough to stop the clocks while we focused on the flavours and textures waxing lyrical on our tongues.

My “French duck foie gras and duck breast delight” consisted of a lightly pan seared, melt-in-the-mouth slice of duck foie gras on a nest of apple-celeriac puree, a smoked duck breast accessorized with mango lightly marinated in Port, and salad greens in a raspberry dressing. The piece de resistance was indubitably the duck fois gras terrine – a thick creamy almost-dessert draped in a sash of calvados jelly.

The One & Only chose a beautifully presented trio of Yellow fin tuna: mouth-watering tuna tartar; a wee Rubix cube of tuna encrusted in thickly ground black pepper and lightly seared, and a slice of raw tuna marinated in soy and honey. These were accompanied by an amazing assortment: a zesty mango and papaya relish, avocado, marinatedAubergine (18) shiitake mushrooms and salad greens in a sesame and ginger dressing.

I then paused for breath while the One and Only enjoyed a surprisingly light and moreish cream of pumpkin soup, texturted with bacon flakes and roasted walnuts.

I had read a few reviews commenting on the arrogant service at Aubergine, but I found our servers very sweet and attentive. My only complaint was that they hovered a little too closely. After the third waiter in as many minutes leant in to pour more wine into glasses already half filled, I had to move the bottle out of their reach and ask them politely to drop in less frequently, as we were trying to enjoy a romantic anniversary dinner. After that, they politely kept their distance, except when needed – and we were delighted when one had the forethought to ask if we would like a fifteen minute break before they brought our main courses.

So we gratefully did not rush on to the main courses, but with true elegance, sat back and mused over a scoop of banana sorbet to cleanse the palate.  I will say, however, that while it was overflowing with fresh banana flavour, it was a little heavy for a true palate cleanser.

After a lengthy discussion earlier in the evening, we had ordered beef and lamb respectively, although both choices were far more sophisticated and creative than the average meat and three veg.

Aubergine (27)My 3-way Australian lamb was  beautifully presented, and came in many parts. The first was a sous-vide lamb shoulder confit. I am ashamed to admit I had no idea what that meant. Later I discovered – thanks to an article entitled “what the hell is confit?” – that confit is, in short, slow cooked, tenderized meat (often poultry) cooked and stored in a preserving liquid, usually fat, invented in South Western France. The word confit (pronounced “kon-fee”) comes from the French confire, which simply means to preserve. The preserving liquid had created a thin layer of fat over the meat, and to be honest, tasted like nothing more than a heavy, rather tough German sausage, with about as much flavour.  A roast lamb loin passed muster, however, as the meat fell apart beneath my fork like osso bucco. This was followed by a perfectly grilled lamb chop, of which  I could cheerfully have eaten a whole dish. There was also a wide variety of side dishes. These included an artichoke cous cous dressed up like a large California roll and a grilled polenta that I, surprisingly, loved, never having found polenta very inspiring. There was also a spoonful of dense, rich ratatouille and a flightier papaya salsa. That French women don’t get fat must be a modern myth. On a diet like this I would be the shape of a giant California roll in the blink of an eye.

As all good couples celebrating over two decades of marriage, ordering separate dishes only meant more to share. Aubergine (23)And of course I am writing the review, so it is part of the job to try everything. (Although I promise I didn’t get greedy, it was only a taste.) Served in a sumptuous Port wine jus, the slow cooked veal cheeks almost dissolved on the tongue they were so tender. The braised and barbecued (or barbecued and braised) Angas beef short rib was also deeply flavourful and delicious. The oxtail ravioli, on the other hand, was surprisingly light on flavour, but a good balance for the rest. With sides of potato mousseline (French for creamed spuds), grilled Portobello mushrooms and glazed carrots, no one would be leaving the table in search of a top up!

Sadly, that excluded dessert as well, but it didn’t stop me gloating over the dessert menu, and I am definitely going back for a serve of soufflé scented with Grand Marnier, not to mention the other half dozen items on the menu that I had to vote out in the first round. And I can only hope that the second performance will be as good as the first.

All in all, with a few very minor discrepancies, we had a lovely evening, and I was very impressed when the staff followed up with an email to thank us for choosing Aubergine. Most satisfactory and encouraging. Keep up the good work, Aubergine.

*With thanks to my One & Only for all the wonderful years of sharing food – and photos! 

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