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Go to Istanbul. It Rules!

Istanbul cat man-0426

The week before Christmas we traveled from India to Istanbul, the first stop on the European leg of our trip. But before we left Mumbai, there was some work to be done. We scrubbed off the scent of our last overnight bus, shoved our dingy, Indian traveler clothes in the trash can at the hostel, and went to the Levis store for some skinny jeans so that we didn’t feel like total urchins while dining at flashy restaurants in Istanbul and Spain. I forgot how good it feels to dress up and not be covered in a constant layer of dust!

When we landed in Istanbul, Zach’s cousin Joe welcomed us to his apartment in the center of town, where we indulged in a week of comforts: coffee, a warm bed with fluffy pillows, brunch, bars with atmosphere, street art, high speed wifi, and most of all, cheeseburgers. Visiting Istanbul was the most familiar experience we’ve had in the last 16 months. It was cold, people wore black, no one cared what we were doing, where we were going, and no one was trying to sell us anything. Folks just went about their business and we went about ours.

After so much sightseeing in India, we were a bit torn between Istanbul’s tempting sights or our own, more basic desires like wearing heels and drinking whiskey and going to a drawn out brunch that wastes half the day. The thing is though, you don’t have to choose. Istanbul is a young, modern city steeped in a history that is older than most and is predominantly Islamic, as opposed to most other historically Christian European cities.

In coming to a Muslim country, I was prepared to wear loose fitting, conservative clothes and to be thinking about not offending folks. That may be necessary in rural Turkey, but Istanbul was full of tight jeans and funky leggings. For some, that was jeans with a headscarf. For others, it was lots of layers of long clothing, but in any big city, you will find a variety of fashions influenced by everything from religion to pop culture. There were plenty of indicators, from style of dress to the call to prayer, that we were in a city where Islam is the dominant religion, but that was just one of the many characteristics of the largely secular city. In areas where conservative dress was important, like at a Mosque, there were signs written in English and assistants to help tourists feel comfortable and respect the customs.

We spent a Saturday morning at the organic farmer’s market in Sisli, took the metro home and after dropping our mandarins and olive oil (a half liter bottle for 7 bucks!) off at the apartment, went up the Galata Tower (built in 500 AD) and watched the sun set behind the dozens of minarets that pierce the city’s skyline. We spent a lazy morning Skyping friends, gorged ourselves on a traditional Turkish village breakfast, then had our minds blown by The Basilica Cistern from the 5th century and tasted Turkish wines at one of the city’s newly opened wine bars.

On Christmas Eve morning, I spent the morning at the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam, enjoying a traditional scrub in a gorgeous, renovated Hamam spa. After the exfoliating scrub, you lay in silence on a heated stone in the center of the room and gaze up at the light that comes streaming through the stars carved in the marble domed roof. Now this is the way to experience Islamic architecture. A trip to the Hamam was once a normal activity for Turks, but now is more of a touristy thing to do. A highly recommended touristy thing to do. At 130 Turkish Lira, or about $65, it is one of the more expensive activities in Istanbul, but it is worth every lira.

We lived like kings in Istanbul, a city that feels a bit like a young kid a with an old soul. There are endless historical sights to see, the nightlife is great, and their restaurant scene is well on it’s way. Even though most folks don’t speak English, the city was easy to navigate and people tried to help when we asked them (or had that lost look on our faces). I can’t recommend a trip to Istanbul highly enough.

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Maria’s

Marias

“Sorry, no tonight. Maybe you come tomorrow?”

“Sorry, no lunch today. No shopping yet. My son has motorbike, we only have one.”

“Sorry, no tofu, only tempeh. No pork. You like chicken? You have chicken.”

“Sorry, no more Bintang.”

Maria’s operates by Maria’s rules. It is, after all, her house and her Warung, or shop, here at the end of the main road on Lembongan. As you walk along the one lane, shoddily paved strip that is used as a two way road for motorbikes, pedestrians, chickens and dogs alike, you’ll pass twenty or so Warungs serving a similar menu to that at Maria’s. But none will be as good or as inexpensive and the diners won’t have that giddy smile that you get when you know you’re about to chow down on some delicious food.

We didn’t get served the first time we went. The bar was full, the power was out on the whole island and they weren’t taking any more customers. So, just as they suggested, we came back the next day. Again, the bar was full, but we ate inside. When I say inside, I mean inside the house, which also doubles as the dining room. We met up with a friend who had just ordered. “Hope you’re not hungry, because it’s going to be awhile,” she told us. We had a laugh and ordered a round of Bintangs, which a nine year old looking girl brought to us from the household refrigerator in the corner of the room. I laugh a little to myself every time a kid brings me a beer and it happens every other day.

We waited two hours for our food that night. Not an onion was chopped beforehand; everything was cooked to order. One appetizer came before our food, one came with a main course, and all of the main courses came at different times. Our friend who was there before us got her food last, but none of that mattered. You eat when your food is hot, offer bites to those still waiting and suffering from food envy and just hope you’re not the last one to get your plate.

I expected the mie goreng (friend noodles with veggies and egg) to be greasy and the sweet and sour sauce to be sticky and kind of gross, but nothing here is anything except exactly how it should be. It is no problem that there’s no tofu or no pork because everything is good. You eat whatever they suggest and when there is no Bintang, you just run across the street to the mini market, buy a round there, and bring it back. No problem.

Dinner for two (appetizers, mains and two beers each) was $12 USD. Unbeatable.

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Restaurant Review: MoVida

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Even though we’re traveling on a tight budget, it’s still important to splash out once in a while on something we love to do. For some people maybe that’s a new outfit, a night out dancing, or a tattoo. For us, its eating. On our recent detour to Melbourne that meant eating at MoVida.

A few friends in New Zealand praised Frank Camorra’s restaurant up and down for inventive, delicious food. The days preceding our reservation were filled with building anticipation, like the days approaching Christmas or a birthday when we were kids. These are the moments that make breaking the budget worthwhile.

The food is served tapas style, so we knew we’d have a chance to try a lot of new and interesting dishes. The problem, sometimes, with tapas restaurants, is that the multitude of choices and flavors produce a disconnected and ugly contrast. To avoid this, we left ourselves in the hands of our waiter, with whom we immediately connected.

“What are your favorites?” Christina asked.

“Oh, I love that question. Awesome.” And he ran us through five or six options.

“Great, those sound good.”

“Cool, but…you’ve got three really rich dishes in a row here. I’d maybe swap out one of these for something lighter to break things up a bit. Maybe seafood?”

“Sounds good.” And later on, “can you help us with wine to match our courses?” Christina asked.

And I said something I never thought I’d say: “I’m kind of curious about sherry.”

“Oh, awesome. I was hoping you’d say that,” our server said.

At a friend’s house the week before, we mentioned we’d be going to a well-regarded Spanish tapas restaurant.

“Do they have sherry?” Our friend Steve said. He’s worked in the beverage industry, so he knows his booze.

“I don’t know, and I’m not sure if I care,” I said. Sherry was for old people and came in jugs, or so I thought.

“You should.” Steve fished out a bottle of Manzanilla from his liquor cabinet. “Here, try this.” I tried it and was impressed, but not blown away. The flavor was intense and unusual. The biting tang and sharp acidity were so different from other beverages in the class I didn’t know what to think, but I knew it wasn’t for me…yet.

Last night, everything changed. First, our server recommended the anchovy with smoked tomato sorbet to for our first course, and with it, a sherry (of course). Our trust in Steve and our trust in the server, and maybe a bit of curiosity won out.

It was perfect. The sharp tang of the dry sherry cut through the savory anchovy, while extremely salty fish was tempered by the strong flavor of the liquid. It was as if a key were fitting into a lock on both sets of flavors, opening each other to a new world of tastes. I’ll never look back. I’m a sherry convert.

It’s not often that a beverage and a food jive so well that they transform each other. It’s even rarer that a food and beverage pairing opens your eyes to ingredients you hadn’t enjoyed in the past. Our first course at MoVida in Melbourne on Sunday did both, partly because we left ourselves open to trying new things and our server led us down the right path. Good servers can immediately read customers for certain preferences. And good customers communicate their preferences clearly.

I’ll never look at sherry (or anchovies!) the same way again.

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Our Vision: Bringing Food to People and People to Food

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“What are you going to to when you go home?” is a question we hear with some frequency. It usually follows “are you ever going home?” Don’t worry, moms and dads, the answer is “yes.”

We do plan to return to the US, and our plans for when that time comes are still taking shape. Now we call on you, fair readers, to poke and prod and hopefully, make helpful suggestions to our plan.

A few months ago we publicly announced that we’re interested in starting a farm, but that’s pretty vague. Farms vary wildly in size and purpose; there’s everything from the small self-sufficiency holding to the massive corporate behemoth. Where do we want to fall on that spectrum? What do we want to grow?

We certainly want to be larger than the very small guys. We want to be as self-sufficient as possible, but we also want to live off this endeavor and buy things that we can’t produce: coffee, chocolate, entertainment. Maybe we’ll make our own honey and beer, but we want the flexibility to buy stuff: gadgets, books, or The Meaning of Life (with free shipping!) on eBay. We haven’t gone completely off the deep end.

And we definitely want to be smaller than the big guys. We don’t want row crops or a concentrated feeding operation. We don’t want to poison the earth with herbicides and suck the nutrients completely out of the ground.

So now that you’ve got a pretty good idea what we don’t want, maybe what we do want will make more sense. We want a diversity of vegetables, fruit trees, and animals. We love pork so pigs are pretty much guaranteed. Their ability to consume a lot of farm by-products is also a plus. These kiwis have taught me a lot about the value and ease of sheep, though they are “dumb as,” in the vernacular. The farm-raised lamb chops, which are probably the juiciest cut of meat I’ve ever tasted, didn’t hurt. Goats are smart and efficient at turning grass into milk, but cows cut down on the labor involved in harvesting that milk. So we’re still up in the air in the dairy department. Chickens, ducks, and guinea fowl are also very likely in our future. Geese and their midnight honking are definitely not. So we’re going to produce a lot of different stuff. What are we going to do with it all?

At first, we’ll sell at markets and add value with prepared foods: spreads, sauces, etc. We’ll need a licensed commercial kitchen to keep Johnny Law off our backs, but we’re hoping to rent a space for food preparation until we can build our own.

Ultimately, we want to open a full service restaurant on the property. We’ll operate as a casual cafe for breakfast and lunch, with wifi access and delicious coffee, baked goods, and a small menu of simple food. For the dinner service we’ll move up market to a slightly fancier version of the same. Our dining room will be a place you wouldn’t mind taking your kids at 6 o’clock or a date at 8. Prices will be accessible and again, the menu would be limited. And of course, we’ll supply as much of the food served as possible from the farm. We’ll welcome patrons to take a walk around and see where the pork chop that they’re about to eat rooted for nuts, or pick an apple off that tree with heavily laden branches for a snack before their meal. We’ll bring food to people and bring people to food. Our vision is for a welcoming place that inspires the community and makes people excited to spend time there, be it on a date or just to swing by for some eggs.

Further down the line, we’ll incorporate education. We’ll host a small army of WWOOFers, welcome school groups, and offer courses to the public. We’ll have an internship/apprentice program and bring our products to underserved markets.

Finding the right place for this will be difficult. We think that a 20-30 acre plot of land will be small enough to be manageable at first, while giving us room to grow as we get better at this farming thing. Climate and length of growing season are factors to consider, but we’re prepared to use greenhouses and tall tunnels to artificially lengthen the season. Annual precipitation and access to water are huge factors, and we’d rather consistent rain than committing to constantly moving irrigation around.

We need a community that would be excited about supporting a farm-to-table restaurant, but doesn’t already have lots of great options in that category. We need a location that’s accessible for the walk-up cafe crowd, but also a significant chunk of land to do our growing. For our own sanity, we need outdoor recreation close by; we’re avid rock climbers, hikers, and cyclists. We’d like to be within a few hours of an international airport, so we can get out and welcome visitors without too much hassle. We want the perfect spot, and, I think, this will be the most difficult part of this endeavor. Or at least the first most difficult part.

I hope you can see that we’ve thought about this a lot, and also that we’ve got a long way to go. We have a solid idea of what we want, but really don’t know anything at all about achieving it. So we need your help. Comment, email, text, Facebook, smoke signal, or carrier pigeon us your thoughts, advice, reservations, whatever.

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Restaurant Review: Fleur’s Place

Fleur's Place

We were running late, as usual, and didn’t have a lot of time to search around town for the restaurant. Fortunately, when the address you’re looking for is “Fleur’s Place, The Old Jetty, Moeraki, New Zealand” you can be pretty sure that there’s not much else in town.

Moeraki is on a tiny peninsula jutting into the vast Pacific Ocean, and on its lone, weather-beaten pier rests Fleur’s Place, a corrugated tin clubhouse that doubles as a destination dining experience. The once-bustling pier was where Moeraki competed with, and ultimately lost to, its northern neighbor Oamaru as the shipping hub for the area.

We learned of this hidden little gem a few months ago, when someone handed Chrstina a copy of Fleur Sullivan’s autobiography. One of New Zealand’s most well-known and influential chefs, she rose to national fame managing Oliver’s, an innovative restaurant and lodge in Central Otago. After reading her book and learning about her new concept: seafood straight from the boat to plates; her restaurant in Moeraki quickly rose to the top of our to-do list.

Like the rest of New Zealand, Fleur’s Place is casual, welcoming, and a little rough around the edges. The aesthetic is best illustrated by the array of mismatched teacups and saucers perched on the bar: what was once precious is now a little absurd. And the parallels here to other high-end cooking are almost too easy. As gourmet food has veered further and further toward molecular gastronomy and farther from its, well, bread and butter: delicious, fresh ingredients; it’s become a caricature. I’d rather ultra-fresh ingredients than foams any day. And most of all, that’s what Fleur’s Place hammered home: sometimes it’s not about complicated recipes or processes, but sourcing excellent, locally produced ingredients and getting out of the way.

While the menu has its share of classics and old standbys, we never considered anything but the fresh fish for which Fleur’s Place is famous. The seafood chowder was thick and heavy on shellfish that tasted like they’d hopped off the rocks and into the pot. New Zealand’s famous green-lipped mussels, cockles, and clams were the stars of the rich, tomato-based soup, slicing through with savory meatiness.

The day’s catch was blue cod, brill, sole, tarakuhi, and moki. Cod is somewhat of a workhorse fish, used frequently for the popular and ubiquitous fried fish and chips, so it wasn’t the obvious choice for a nice meal out. But just because something is common (and commonly done badly) doesn’t mean it can’t be delicious. And it turned out to be the perfect example of the point: use good ingredients and get out of the way.
A year ago, I never would have lobbied for a whole fish versus fillets. The sight and thought of the fish head staring back at me and the prospect of picking through tons of little bones to get every last bit of flesh off the skeleton would have directed me elsewhere. But not anymore. Through our experiences traveling (butchering, fishing, dealing with carcasses) I’m far more comfortable staring down a whole fish and digging the delicious medallions of meat out of his/her cheeks. Plus, filleting a fish leaves a lot of delicious meat on the bone. I’ll happily deal with a few bones if it means having enough left over (after completely over-eating) for fish tacos the next day. Bring it on.

Grilled and doused in a caper berry (not to be confused with their little brothers, capers) and almond brown butter, it was decadent but not excessive. The proportions of ingredients were exact, allowing the fish to stand on its own, complimented (but not dominated) by the salty caper berries and crunchy almond slices. And why else would you go to a seafood restaurant than to eat fish that tastes like fish? Too often a plate of butter is substituted for decent, fresh seafood. Not at Fleur’s.

Covert Laundry

Maybe its the rustic setting, or the fish gutting station outside the kitchen door, or the dish towels hanging to dry  in the sun just beyond the view of diners, but Fleur’s has authenticity bursting from its seams. Don’t come to be entertained by tricks of the kitchen, come for the freshest fish imaginable and simple, skilled preparation.

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