Sunday, 26 February 2012

On location: Istanbul

Meat-heavy meze and kebabs: I had to admit, although the sights of Istanbul captured my imagination, the sustenance didn't really have the same effect. I was certainly looking forward to touring Topkapi Palace, getting snap happy in the Hagia Sophia and taking a ferry across the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia, but the prospect of finding enough pescetarian-friendly fodder for 3 days was decidedly daunting.

The guidebooks did little to allay my fears; the Guardian fared better: thanks to its helpful 'top 10' guides, I discovered the Istanbul Eats bloggers and their tips for dining in the city. Vegetarian food barely got a mention, but fish restaurants seemed plentiful, and I learned that intrepid diners can fill up on a sandwich stuffed with the grilled catch of the day down by Galata Bridge, which is packed full of fishermen from dawn until dusk. Thankfully, Turkey's most cosmopolitan city seems to be cottoning on to serving meat-free fare, partly in order to cash in on the tourist trade. I was also pleased to note the availability of vegetarian options in the city's meyhanes (traditional restaurants specialising in meze).

The Blue Mosque

A rare find in the tourist haven of Sultanahmet (where the palace, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are all located), Rumeli is a restaurant free of tiresome touts. It doesn't need any: it's simple menu of well-prepared Turkish and international dishes speaks for itself. The setting is cosy and intimate, with exposed brick walls and an open fire offering some welcome respite from the February chill. My vegetable kebab (17 TL) turned out to be a plate of various grilled vegetables and rice, while A's shish kebab (26 TL) at least featured a stick to hold it together, conforming to our expectations of a kebab. Both were delicious and reasonably-priced for the area, although the meat was significantly more than the vegetarian dish. We we also served a complimentary basket of bread and some olives.

Vegetable kebab

Rumeli is at Ticarethane Sokak 8, Sultanahmet. Open daily.

Topkapi Palace

A lokanta is where spending-savvy Turks choose to lunch. With a counter filled with constantly replenished hot dishes, customers at these budget restauants choose by sight from the meat, fish and vegetable dishes on offer, which are then served to them at their table. Frills are minimal at Sefa, although this Sultanahmet spot was a cut above some we saw. We were reassured by the fact that we were the only tourists dining as we tucked into our plates of admittedly rather lethargic-looking lunch. Appearances were deceptive: all my vegetarian dishes were simple but flavoursome, with the garlicky mushrooms and spinach served with yoghurt particularly good. A well-priced way to fill up at lunch time (50 TL for 2 including drinks).

Sefa is at Nuruosmaniye Caddesi 17, Sultanahmet.

Apple tea

Fürreya Galata Balikcisi

Under the gaze of the Galata Tower in gritty but trendy Beyoglu, Fürreya Galata Balikcisi is a pocket-sized dream- providing you like fish, that is. The petite restaurant is modern and welcoming, with a short, well-priced menu of fresh fish and salads. We opted for the fish wraps (9TL) and a Mediterranean salad (9TL); both were light and tasty. The fish was flaky and perfectly-cooked, encased in flatbread and was well-complemented by some caramelised onions.

Fürreya Galata Balikcisi is at Serdar-i Ekram Sokak 2, Beyoglu.

View from Beyoglu

Krependeki Imroz

Apparently an evening in one of the meyhanes (meze restaurants) on Nevizade Sokak is a quintessential Istanbul experience. Squeezing through the hubbub of this Beyoglu backstreet early on a Sunday evening, I could see that these establishments aren't short on atmosphere: almost all were packed. We grabbed a table at Krependeki Imroz and were soon greeted by a grinning waiter brandishing a tray of bite-sized portions, covered in clingfilm. Our confusion gave way to comprehension: we were supposed to choose from this 3D menu. Unfortunately, most of the items on the tray weren't sufficiently discernible, so we asked for a print menu instead. We opted for 6 fish and vegetarian meze between 2: the calamari, vine leaves and borek were all hits, the fava bean mush less so. It may have been traditional, but its texture wasn't exactly appealing to our uninitiated palates. Portions were quite generous, making it a good value dinner.

Fava beans: no, ta

Krependeki Imroz is at Nevizade Sokak 16, Beyoglu.

Street food

If you're eating on the run or trying to save your lira, street food is where its at. Almost every corner has some sort of edible offering; kebab stalls huddle around any kind of transport hub and carts selling corn on the cob and Turkish pretzels speckle the streets. It was well worth parting with a couple of lira for some corn, which I elegantly devoured while waiting for a tram; one lira for a sesame-covered pretzel-meets-bread roll was also money well spent. Hungover and hungry in Uskudar on the Asian side of the city, a kebab stall saw us right: A's doner kebab was better than a greasy English offering, and my rice with chickpeas was just the carb hit I needed. We didn't get the chance to test out any of the grilled fish on offer by the water's edge, but it certainly smelled good. A makeshift barbecue in a backstreet may not sound like the best place to sample the catch of the day, but judging by the number of locals tucking in, it might well be.

You can read more about my Istanbul experiences here on my travel blog Tales of a Brit Abroad.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Recipe: Borek

I mentioned in my review of Bodrum that their borek weren't as good as the tasty pastries created by my friend Sarah McMillan. Luckily for you, she's happy to share the recipe. Believe me, if they turn out like hers you won't be disappointed...

Sarah's a marketing manager from 9-5, and a make-up artist and keen cook outside of working hours. She recently started the food blog Food=Love, where she regularly shares her easy-to-emulate recipes.


I've  visited Turkey a number of times and I love Turkish food: it's just so fresh and tasty.

One of my favourite appetizers has to be Sigara Boregi or Borek, which are cigar-shaped filo pastries filled with feta cheese.

To make borek, you need:

3 sheets filo pastry

1 block of feta cheese, crumbled
small bunch parsley, finely chopped
Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
Pinch of oregano (optional)

1/2 saucepan of sunflower oil for frying
1 small bowl of water

How to make borek:

Mix all of the filling ingredients in a bowl.

Place the three sheets of filo on top of each other vertically and cut in half from top to bottom. Then cut from one of the top corners to a bottom corner diagonally across to make 12 triangles of filo pastry. Cover the pastry with a damp tea towel until ready to use or else it will dry up and become difficult to roll.
Put one heaped teaspoonful of filling along the long side edge of each triangle of pastry. Then fold the two end corners in and roll up the triangle. Wet the open end with a little water from your bowl and press it closed. Be careful not to overfill or they will explode when frying!
Repeat until you've rolled all the sheets into cigar shapes.

Heat up the sunflower oil on the hob in a pan on a high heat. A good way to check if the oil is hot enough is to put a small piece of filo into the oil. If it starts to sizzle, then it's ready.
Turn the heat down to medium. Fry about 3 borek at a time (depending on the size of your pan) and fry the borek until they are a light golden colour. When they are done, use a slotted metal spoon to remove them and place them on a paper towel to soak up any extra oil.

Serve warm with houmous and salad as a light snack or alone as an appetizer.

Photo: Flickr/brododaktula

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Trichy Dosa

 UPDATE: As of July 2012, Trichy Dosa is now Sherpa Nepalese.

Poppadoms, curry, rice, naan bread: standard Indian fare. Dosa and idly? If you live in the UK, probably not so much. Since the opening of Trichy Dosa in late 2011, these staples of South Indian food can now be found on the Cowley Road, so there's no excuse to limit your repertoire.

I first encountered a dosa in Malaysia. The large, thin savoury pancake didn't say 'Indian food' to me so much as it said 'smear me with nutella and devour me like Lent starts tomorrow'. (Well, to be honest, it didn't say anything - it was a pancake). Devour it I did though, dipped in the sauces it came with. And it was love at first bite: for the rest of my stay, a dosa a day was an essential requirement. Served solo or filled with vegetables, cheese or meat, these pancakes made of rice batter and black lentils are simple yet delicious if done well. Needless to say, I was pretty excited at the prospect of a visit to Trichy Dosa.

The restaurant itself is unremarkable; a plain Jane making no mark on the design scale. The leather-backed chairs are decent, but the lack of tablecloths cheapened their look somewhat. The neutral effect inspired by the bland decor was cancelled out by another type of decoration, though: decorations of the Christmas variety. Yes, at the beginning of February, tinsel still adorned Trichy Dosa's walls. Epiphany rules may not apply here, but for me it suggested a lack of care and lent an oddly unseasonal air.

The waiter's warm greeting appeased me a little, but once we got stuck into the menu we were lost. Rather than ordering a thali plate of mini-portions of different dishes (from £8), our group of 3 wanted to test out a range of dosa and idly (steamed 'savoury cakes', according to Wikipedia). Given the low prices of the dosa (from £3 for a plain pancake to £5 for a chef's special), we weren't sure whether they were meant to be ordered alone or as accompaniments. Most didn't seem to have fillings, so we assumed the latter. In addition to thali and dosa, there were also vegetarian and meat curries, idly, rice and breads on offer, as well as a range of starters. As South Indian food isn't common to the UK, an overview and some ordering guidelines on the menu would probably help: we overheard other groups musing similar thoughts. With some help from our waiter, we opted for 3 different dosas (onion, paneer and lamb), 2 curries (chef's special vegetable and chicken chettinadu) and some idly (jasmine, out of curiosity). Fortunately the wine list proved more familiar territory: a bottle of decent house white set us back just £10.95.

After a reasonable wait, our dishes arrived. For a moment I thought I'd stepped back in time and found myself in my school dining hall circa 2000. Served on huge white plastic trays reminiscent of school dinner trays, the presentation of the dosa isn't going to win any prizes. Although inelegant and cumbersome, the trays are fairly practical, with different compartments for dipping sauces. Eating did provide some logistical problems though - did we eat our curry with the dosa? Did we decant it from the dish onto the tray? When it comes to South Indian food, we were all clearly novices. So we did what any novice should do and got stuck in.

The paneer dosa (£3.50, unfortunately not photographed) most closely resembled the lightly crispy slices of heaven I'd polished off in Kuala Lumpur. Filled with Indian cheese, it was light and tasty. The other two dosa were made from coarser semolina batter, and were much 'flatter' and heavier. Our unanimous preference was for the paneer dosa: the onion and lamb dropped out of their respective dosa too easily, making eating them a bit of a messy experience (although our technique was no doubt partly responsible). N pointed out that it wasn't exactly 'date food'. The chicken curry (£6) was well-received by N and S; its creamy sauce well-spiced. I was less enamoured of my vegetarian option (£6), which was more sauce than vegetable content, although the addition of some paneer did help to win me round. The portions were also a little on the small side. Despite this, we still struggled to finish: the dosa were huge, and the idly (4 for £4.50) were also sizeable. These puffy, glutinous cakes are difficult to describe but I'd recommend trying them: the texture was a delight, even if the jasmine flavour wasn't really discernible.

Like our selection of dishes, my thoughts on Trichy Dosa are mixed. I think our experience would have been enhanced by knowing what to order: if any of your friends know their South Indian food, it might be as well to consult them before visiting. Although for the purposes of a review I wanted to sample a variety of dishes, I can't help but wonder whether a thali plate would have been a safer bet for a first visit. Our food was cheap and filling, but it failed to rekindle my daily desire for dosa. Which, wallet and waistline considered, is probably a good thing. I think it's great that Oxford has a South Indian restaurant though (Dosa Park on Park End Street falls into the fast food category). For this reason, Trichy Dosa's a welcome addition to Oxford's dining scene, and if you've never tried South Indian food, I'd recommend a visit. Just be sure to seek some ordering advice.

Verdict: 6

Trichy Dosa is at 209 Cowley Road, OX4 1XF. Tel: 01865 241493. Take away also available (delivery or collection)

Friday, 10 February 2012

Brasserie Blanc

When someone says Raymond Blanc and Oxford in the same sentence, your first thought is probably Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons. But let's face it, most of our budgets don't stretch to the two Michelin starred delights on offer at his swanky countryside restaurant. Fortunately for those of more modest means, Jericho's Brasserie Blanc offers a chance to sample the top French chef's cooking without needing prior consent from your bank manager.

'If the Manoir is a delicate waltz then the Brasseries are a Can Can,' says the man himself of his nine restaurants located across the south of England. I can only hope that nobody reading Mr Blanc's description visits any of his outposts hoping for frilly-skirted girls and raucous Moulin Rouge-style debauchery. They'll probably be mightily disappointed to discover a civilized yet buzzing modern restaurant that's far more classy than brassy. As you might expect, it's not the cheapest place to eat in Oxford, but thanks to its excellently-priced set menu, it's a realistic dining option for everyone.

Arriving at 7.30 on Friday evening, our party of 3 were welcomed and seated quickly. The restaurant was almost full, but the staff were efficient and polite throughout. We were offered both the à la carte and 'dine with wine' set menus: I was impressed that the latter was still on offer at such a busy time. Although the price increases from £11.50 for 2 courses or £13.95 for 3 to £14 for 2 and £16.45 for 3 after 7pm, the prix fixe menu offers an excellent opportunity to try more than one course without busting your budget. The options aren't too shabby either; no limp offerings that push you towards the main menu here. There's a meat, fish and vegetarian option for both the starter and main, plus a choice of three desserts. My mum (not the easiest lady to impress) shunned the à la carte choices in favour of onion soup followed by smoked haddock risotto from the set menu, while my grandma and I branched out in favour of a confit chicken terrine and a cheese soufflé respectively, with beef stroganoff and a special of pan-fried haddock for our main courses.

We were served some warm fresh bread (served with both butter and an olive oil/balsamic vinegar combo) to nibble while we waited for our starters. All were well-presented and well-received, my only criticism was that my cheese soufflé was perhaps on the small side given its £7.60 price tag. The flavour of the smoked Lyburn cheese was spot on though, and the consistency of the souffle was perfectly airy. I was less keen on the accompanying celery, but the tiny chunks of apple and lettuce were a decent complement. The other two generations of Turner/Ramsbottom (yep, you read that right) women were similarly impressed with their starters, and I was pleased to note that the set menu portion was no smaller than the à la carte starters.

Things only improved when the main courses appeared. My grandma's beef stroganoff (£12.20) was suitably close to the best one she ever ate (sometime in the seventies) and has been trying to match ever since, although the generous portion ultimately defeated her. I had no such trouble polishing off my special of pan-fried North Atlantic haddock served atop creamy mash potato (£14.50). It had a gorgeous pesto crust on top of a sliver of delicately crisp skin - I normally shudder at the thought of fish skin, but this was worth savouring rather than shunning. My mum's smoked haddock risotto was served with a poached egg perched atop the creamy rice, and again the portion size was equal to the à la carte options. I'm not normally a fan of smoked fish, but the taste was delicate and pretty close to divine: I'm not ashamed to admit I devoured her leftovers. At the risk of sounding excessively greedy, I ordered a dessert (in the name of research, of course): 4 scoops of sorbet, 2 raspberry and 2 lemon, presented between flaky palmier biscuits. Not just any old sorbet then - the Raymond Blanc touch was still decidedly present.

There may not have been a can can but there was definitely plenty of flair on show at Brasserie Blanc. The food was almost faultless, and the service great. The only drawback is the price - unless you order from the excellent set menu, dining here is a touch more expensive than most other Oxford restaurants, especially when the cost of wine is factored in. However, given the cost and availability of the 'dine with wine' menu (to which a glass of wine can be added from £1.95) and the quality of the cuisine, I can't complain. If you're celebrating something or just looking for a smart spot to dine, you can't go wrong with Brasserie Blanc. Just don't expect any dancing.

Verdict. 9.5

Brasserie Blanc is at 71-72 Walton Street, OX2 6AG. Reservations recommended at weekends. Tel: 01865 510999.

I'll be talking about budget dining in Oxfordshire on Jo Thoenes's afternoon show on BBC Radio Oxford today (10 February) from just after 1pm. I'll be covering more restaurants that offer great value set menus. You can listen live or for up to one week afterwards here. If you have any suggestions, please do contact the show here.
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