the hinata diaries

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Buka Puasa - Cafe Samar and Z'en

A few years ago, I found myself posted to Kuala Lumpur on a project for a government-linked company. The highlight of my day was lunch at the company's staff canteen, a whopping buffet spread piled sky high with pungent curries, crispy fried meats and spicy vegetables. Depending on the day, roti canai or roti jala would be made fresh on the spot, and you know you'll always have a glass of ice cold kopi to wash it all down.

Then Ramadan began, and my haven was no more. Bogged down by tight deadlines and fuzzy from lack of both sleep and nutrition, I quickly started to rue the day I signed up for the project.

Until the buka puasa meals began.

It kicked off with a dinner hosted by the company for its employees, all 2,000 of them, to which we were invited, a sumptuous banquet provided by the same in-house team that caters for staff weddings and the like.
This was quickly followed by dinners organized in turn by the various advisors on the project - in our case, at Top Hat, a beautifully restored colonial bungalow that served Peranakan-European fusion cuisine (top hat is apparently what angmors call pie tees).

Even when lavish, formal dinners weren't in order, it was nice to see everyone set aside time from work to sit down to an evening meal together, Muslims and non-Muslims alike grateful for the day's nourishment.

Since then, while I don't observe the fasting month, I've always had a special nostalgia for buka puasa meals, remembering them as a time to come together with friends, family and loved ones.

And so off Philippe and I set last week to explore the buka puasa festivities on Arab Street. Most restaurants offered buka puasa buffets for $10 a person or even less, and the neighbourhood was buzzing with large families dining together.

We eventually settled on Samar's a la carte menu, where extensive listings of mezze, salads, grills and desserts appear between Free Palestine posters and quotes from the Koran. Our first comment on the menu was that it actually sounded more impressive than any place we ate at in Egypt - could it be we travelled all that way to sample food that was already in our backyard? With high expectations, we ordered a stuffed eggplant, grilled chicken and a cucumber and yoghurt salad to share.

Before the food arrived, we kept our tastebuds amused with drinks - mine an apricot based smoothie and Philippe's a rose milk. Both were delightfully fresh and natural tasting, great for a hot afternoon or, in our case, a stuffy, hazy Monday night.

Our food was less impressive. The kitchen seemed to be very lighthanded when it came to spicing the veggie dishes - our cucumber and yoghurt salad had disproportionately more yoghurt than cucumber, which overwhelmed the scant pieces of mint we would only occasionally come across. Likewise the stuffed eggplant, with its filling of rice, tomatoes and onions, seemed to be more a last minute tossing together of the various ingredients, without a unifying flavour to marry them together. Not awful, but it does leave you with the nagging feeling that anyone could've made this at home.

The grilled chicken, on the other hand, was flavourful and deliciously blackened at first bite. The flip side of that, though, was that the meat was overcooked and dry, making it hard to finish even a mouthful without washing your mouth with water.

The average food didn't seem to deter many diners though - the verandah was packed with students, expats and couples alike even when we left at close to 10pm (this on a Monday night, mind you), and the cafe was easily the busiest on the street. Late night shisha here seems to be a popular option, and the community feel (their loyalty cardholders are called citizens!) is also a draw.

Later on in the week, an evening drinks session led to us stumbling upon Z'en, a Japanese restaurant by UE Square that is probably related to the more established En Bar and Dining around the corner. The tables of red-faced Japanese businessmen was a strong selling point, and the food did not disappoint.

The menu is a good mix of hearty Japanese classics and more delicate appetizers and salads. The three of us shared as starters:

  • Dried swordfish fin
  • Kurobuta pork yakitori
  • Ankimo fish liver
  • Shabu shabu salad (shabu shabu beef in a sesame dressing)
  • Pumpkin grilled with butter
  • Simmered lotus root
  • Grilled eihire
  • Crab cream croquettes

And topped this with a huge seafood hotpot, laden with snow crab legs, salmon, prawns and oysters, to which we added extra udon. The leftover soup was turned into a porridge with the addition of a couple of bowls of rice, which comes with the hotpot.

The food was definitely satisfying - all the ingredients were clearly fresh, delicately prepared and thoughtfully presented, everything one would expect from a proper Japanese dinner.

The total bill came up to $170, or just a shade over$60 a person, which seemed reasonable for the quality of the food and for the setting - perhaps appropriately for its name, Z'en is designed in a polished, magazine-worthy combination of black tile, glass and metal, complete with dramatic overhead lighting, so you do feel like you're in a more upmarket setting. A glass cellar on the second floor displays hundreds of sake bottles of all shape and form, pity we'd already drunk our fill for the night before coming. Service was also excellent, with exceptionally friendly staff - maybe even too friendly, as their gentle cajoling to add more rice to the leftover hotpot soup resulted in us overeating and feeling painfully stuffed after :)

Now that the pain has subsided though, I'm looking forward to the December monsoons coming around, to gather back here for more of that giant hotpot, and to slowly start making my way through the sake collection.



60 Kandahar Street

T: 6398-0530


205 River Valley Road

#01-75, UE Square

T: 6732-3110

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Eating Paris - one patisserie at a time!

Understatement of the century - Paris is full of designer stuff.

Designer handbags, priced at the equivalent of a month's rent. (I'll get mine in Shenzhen, thank you!)

Designer shoes, scarlet heels stacked to kill. (Ok, these I like, bunions be damned.)

Designer miniature poodles, extravagantly sheared and sized to fit perfectly into said designer handbag. (Ok, so in all my trips to Paris I've never actually seen one of these, but surely they must exist.)

Designer sights, the Eiffel Tower robed in millions of glittering fairy lights. (Infinitely cooler than the Merlion's Evil Laser Beams of Doom.)

Even a designer language - what doesn't sound fabulously snooty when said in French? (Mais oui, ma cherie, tu le sais!)

But, best of all, are its designer boulangerie/patisseries. Pierre Herme, Laduree, Fauchon, Jean-Paul Hevin, Lenotre... loin stirring names that could roll off your tongue and onto the floor, if only your mouth didn't have to be determinedly clamped tight to keep the drool in.

It was thus, with visions of macarons dancing in my head, that I dragged the in-laws on a whirlwind dash across Paris for our second day in town, beginning at Le Bon Marche's Grand Epicerie for a gawk at its supersized pastries, pit-stopping at Poilane to pay homage to shelves of sourdough miches, continuing to Pierre Herme to discover (and tabao) the true meaning of life, and eventually concluding under a leafy tree in the Jardin du Luxembourg to devour said meaning of life, thereby reaching a state of enlightenment (which could only be sustained by a visit to Laduree the next day).


Poilane is probably Paris' best known boulangerie or bakery, founded in 1932 and famed for its solid rounds of sourdough bread called la miche. The tiny store at Rue de Cherche Midi evidently takes great pride in its role in the history of bread making - paper bags are printed with sketches of famous bakers of yore; even its website contains a lengthy discourse on the relationship between bread and culture, a list of global bread museums and celebrity quotes involving bread.

Intimidated by the size of la miche (above, 1.9kg each!), we settled for the more manageable looking brioche, which was nowhere as lauded but very enjoyable. Sweet, moist and crumbly, it was incredibly addictive, and Philippe and I guiltily finished the entire loaf between us as a bedtime snack that night.

Later on, I was told by several friends separately that the real Poilane "to-die-for" special is its apple tart (a French friend adamantly declared it was the best tart she'd ever tasted), which I'd seen on a tray (the bottom on in the picture above in fact) and naively dismissed. Something for me to look forward to next time, but do check it out if you're in the neighbourhood.

Pierre Herme

If you've been lingering around the food blog world for even a short period of time, you will probably have heard of Pierre Herme's lavish chocolate desserts and classic Ispahan. And indeed, at first glance, the Paris store does seem like a mecca for upper crust sugar cravings - well-heeled Parisians and bejeweled Japanese tourists throng the dark metal-and-glass boutique, and the oversized Louis Vuitton shopping bags scattered across the aisle pose serious tripping hazards.

Likewise, Pierre Herme's dessert counter is a runway showcasing miniature works of art, with seasonal specialties organized around themes (we were in time for Automne/Hiver 2006). And, like all luxury, they don't come cheap either, with a single palm-sized pastry typically priced upwards of 8 Euros.

Philippe and I settled for a combination of 3 pastries, amongst them the lauded Ispahan, while his folks purchased a 30-macaroon gift tub for our nieces back in Vesoule.

All 3 pastries were delicate, complex, subtle, rich. The macaron shell of the Ispahan was crisp almost to a fault, the rose petal cream flavourful, yet subtle and light, a quiet, understated backdrop to the tart berries and refreshing lychee.

Conclusion: If a trip to Paris gets you down because of unaffordable yet irresistible haute couture, forget that $5,000 bag or those $2,000 shoes, just head over to Pierre Herme for true luxury at a fraction of the price. Your tummy will thank you for it.

My final stop on our brief patisserie tour of Paris was Laduree, where Philippe and I had tea with the aptly named Macaloon. Pop round her blog and you'll see, vivid writing and witty turns-of-phrase aside, that this girl is seriously obsessed with her macarons, having eaten her way through practically every designer patisserie in Paris. We met her at the entrance to Printemps, where she stood clutching what I assumed to be innocuous shopping bags, but which were revealed in a fierce whisper to be boxes of rival macarons from Pierre Herme and Sadaharu Aoki. The girl wanted us to do a secret taste test in Laduree itself, with the sole objective of proving to us that, for all their quality, Laduree's macarons do not measure up to Pierre Herme's, the latter's being in her view the best macarons in all Paree. (A digression: this brought back extremely fond memories of the same Macaloon dragging me around New York in the summer of 2000 to sample her obsession at the time: cannoli. Life with Macaloon is a permanent sugar rush.)

One step into the tiny 12-table Laduree salon though was enough to convince us that this was an exercise that would certainly get us thrown out of the store. So we settled down and went about ordering our macarons. From top to bottom: caramel and fleur de sel, mixed berries, orange flower, ginger and lime and raspberry.

And, yes, they were excellent. The golf ball sized macarons were perfectly crisp with the right amount of chew and crumble, the individual flavours vibrant and teasing without being overwhelming. Little explosions of happiness really. If it doesn't get any better than this, I really don't mind (I'm bracing myself for Macaloon's flame mail now).

Macarons aside, Laduree does a wonderful assortment of pastries, drinks and even salads and sandwiches. The quaint salon with its carved wooden chairs looks like something out of a period theatrical piece, but would no doubt thrill anyone who enjoyed playing tea time as a child, and is convenient for resting tired feet and shopped out shoulders. Just try to get there early as much gets sold out by late afternoon.


8, rue du Cherche-Midi

75006 Paris

Pierre Herme

72, rue Bonaparte

75006 Paris

Also at: 185, rue de Vaugirard, 75015 Paris


Various locations - see website

Eating Paris - bistro round-up

(Philippe on the left, power walking through Paris' Palais de Justice. Off to a 3 hour lunch maybe?)

Many people, myself included, often forget that Philippe is French. He's lived in Asia for the last seven years, speaks perfect English, Mandarin and the odd smattering of Singlish, loves Stephen Chow movies and gamely eats at home with one leg propped up, knee bent, on his seat. In many ways, he's more Chinaman than anyone I could've married in Singapore.

I, on the other hand, am far from passing off as a good French wife. My French, while passable, could never make an Alliance Francaise professor weep with joy; neither am I a big fan of the existentialist debates/80s gameshows/corny cop dramas that seem to dominate the programming on TV5, the French TV station. My single display of loyalty to date has been to faithfully wear my Les Bleus jersey to every World Cup match involving the French team. Which, I must declare, took some b*lls when they were up against Brazil and I was severely outnumbered (not to mention mercilessly mocked) by the legions of yellow and green fans.

But on top of my lengthy list of transgressions sits one shameful truth that draws gasps of horrors from every starry-eyed romantic I've ever admitted it to:

I don't like Paris.

For most people, Paris is the soaring spires of Notre Dame or the sweeping view of the Seine, inspiring imaginations of romance and history.

Paris is the laidback urban chic of people-watching sidewalk cafes and weekend markets pregnant with artisanal produce.

Paris is the glitzy, haute couture world of Galeries Lafayette and Louis Vuitton, all sequins and stilettos.

Paris is the dizzy purr of the French language, the meloncholy whisperings of Gainsbourg seducing your ears and making love to your soul.

But for me, Paris is sweltering summers and freezing winters, surly service staff, overpriced menus, depressing subways, neverending strikes and extremely high risk of stepping in dog shit while promenading in new heels.

Such griping has allowed me to avoid visiting France for the last couple of years. But recently, I noticed with horror my smug and long-defended determination beginning to erode, as some old friends gradually chose to call Paris their home, while others jetted back from vacations bubbling with stories and shopping.

So when wifely duties necessitated that I join Philippe on a trip to Paris, I was apprehensive, concerned that I too might fall in love with the very same city that I had feverishly decried to all and sundry.

A week later, and while I can safely say I am still not enamoured with the city, I do have to grudgingly admit that it's got some good things going for it.

In particular, chocolate foie gras.

Chocolate foie gras with fleur de sel and crushed cocoa beans, served with toast and salad. Who could say no?

The dish is one of many toast and salad combinations available at Delicabar, on the second floor of Le Bon Marche.

Le Bon Marche is typically considered the queen of Paris' grands magasins for its endless designer boutiques and "did I die and go to heaven" basement food emporium, and Delicabar is a worthy extension of the store's laidback, effortless chic.

The cafe is liberally splashed with fun swaths of fuchsia and lime green, waitstaff are surprisingly friendly despite their Prada bitch uniforms, and the lunchtime crowd is a cheery mix of haute couture tourists peeking out from behind skyhigh shopping bags and execs frantically loosening silk ties. The food is light and a riot of colours - flaky pastry, crisp salad leaves, scarlet tomatoes, hunks of cheese. Ooh, and a range of Mariage Freres teas, their woody, intoxicating aromas adding the final touch on the "I could seriously get used to this" musings that invariably arise.

While I was pleasantly surprised to find out that light lunches can exist in the land of 3 course, 2 hour weekday lunches, dinner turned out to be an entirely different matter.

To celebrate our first family get together (family being Philippe, me and his parents) in 9 months, we decided to dine at Chez Leon, a Bib Gourmand recipient not far from our Montmartre hotel. Bib Gourmand, I learnt, is a title issued by the Michelin Guide, the same guide that endows the famous (or infamous) 1-, 2-, 3-star rating. The Bib Gourmand award is for more downmarket establishments - bistros and brasseries mainly - where you can have a good meal without having to (a) waitlist for 6 months, (b) get dolled up with mommy's jewels or (c) sell a kidney to finance said meal.

Dinner at Chez Leon was a hearty affair. My starter of crab and celery was a whopping mound of Hard Rock Cafe-sized proportions, and the moat of mayonnaise that encircled it did little to help me get past more than half the serving. Jelat!

Likewise, my main dish of lentils and ecrevisses with truffle vinaigrette stood as living (ok, not quite living) testament to the law of diminishing marginal utility, beginning at amazing and rapidly declining to "please take that away from me before I throw up".

The two dishes would have been wonderful as standalone main courses, but the unfortunately combination of two creamy, seafood-based, slightly tart and incredibly heavy plates was a bad choice on my part. That said, the ingredients were undoubtedly fresh, the preparation meticulous and the flavours complex, so I could definitely understand how Chez Leon came to earn its Bib Gourmand title.

Dessert, on the other hand, proved a wonderful fit with the meal - the incredibly sour, cold and crunchy combination of pears in red wine and cassis jolted me back to life and had me in a gobbling frenzy. Heck, if just the thought of the dish causes your salivary glands to immediately fire on all engines even a month after eating it, it must be good, right? :)

Last bistro of the trip was something we stumbled on while waiting for a friend at Place de Clichy. It being a late Saturday morning, the neighbourhood was filled with scenes of weekend langour - babies in strollers, dogs on leashes, newspapers and coffees - yet La Bourgogne was pulsing with an energy of its own. Large groups of friends boisterously relaying the week's experiences, clusters of anxious couples clamouring for an empty table, waiters marching purposefully forward with laden trays... even the pigeons pacing the overhead beams seemed nervous with anticipation.

After a 15 minute wait, our turn came!

Starter was a mountainous salad of leeks in mustard vinaigrette, which is quite possibly my favourite French dish of all time. Nothing groundbreaking, but oh so good. Main was braised beef cheek, tender and comforting, but perhaps a little too hearty for the early days of autumn.

So yep, Paris has some good things going for it, especially when it comes to eating out. But for all the cosy brasseries, flashy bistros and quirky cafes, give me a good French patisserie any time! And that is the subject of another post entirely... that should be up next week :) See you then!

Monday, October 02, 2006

Istanbul round-up

One last post about our 3 day stay in Istanbul and I'll finally be done with summer holiday posting, so bear with me a little longer :) Will try to keep this post long on pictures and short on words. P.S. Had some problem with aligning photos, so apologies if some of the layout comes out a bit wonky.

I must admit, prior to the trip, I'd approached the thought of Istanbul warily, occasionally prodding our Time Out Istanbul guide with a stick from the sofa in case it jumped up and bit me.

This caution began from reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as a child, where Turkish delight, a candy that I'd never previously heard of and whose name gave no insight whatsoever as to its shape, taste or form, took on sinister proportions, its power to entrance so strong that it could sever the bonds of family and lead to the downfall of entire kingdoms.

Later on in life, my imaginings of Turkey involved burly mustachioed men in tiny towels, plotting all manner of dishonourable transactions through the dense steam of cavernous tiled baths.

The real Istanbul (or perhaps the Istanbul outside the bathhouse - I eventually didn't visit one) turned out to be nothing of the sort. Roads between the major historical and tourist sights are paved with cobblestones and sheltered by broad, leafy trees; multi-hued, picturesque guesthouses offer comfortable, if not luxurious, abodes, and restaurants advertise an almost endless variety of fresh seafood. Infinitely more Seville than Slovakia.

An apple tree on the street, just like that! If it weren't for all those Hao GongMing (Good Citizen) classes we took in school, I would definitely have run away with a stolen apple or two. Incidentally, Hao GongMing class also taught me how many squares of toilet paper would be sufficient per trip (e-mail me if you want to know the answer), and to run with a pair of scissors with the blade pointing to yourself - so if you trip you only kill yourself and don't inadvertedly wound others.

View of the Blue Mosque from our hotel's breakfast terrace

As with most holidays in recent memory, the trip quickly became about the food. We breezed through the beautiful and impressive Sultanahment Palace, sped through the admittedly sexy underground waterways, and flew through the world reknown Grand Bazaar in a matter of a couple of hours, and only really slowed down when, in the neighbourhood around the Grand Bazaar, we found ourselves confronted by the smells and sounds of street food. With a kindly proprietor beckoning like this, who could resist, no?

First stop was for lahmacun, a kind of mutton pizza where chunks of grilled lamb mince met a generous sprinkling of fresh parsley on a thin and crispy pita base. Add a squeeze of lemon, and it's just perfect.

Our appetites whetted and courage bolstered, we then ventured to try some mussels being sold by a random uncle on the sidewalk. Here's the "thank God I had my hepatitis shot before coming" mussel tank:

Turns out the mussels have been removed from the shell, cooked, then stuffed back into the shells with a mound of saffron rice. 1 Euro is all it takes to get Mussel Uncle to open one of these babies up for you. These were really yummy - the subtle brininess of the mussels soothed by the cool, delicately spiced rice.

After a bit more of the requisite tourist photo taking and earnest guidebook consulting, we settled on dinner in the Kumkapi neighbourhood.

A brisk 10 minute walk from the major sights of Sultanahmet, Kumkapi is a laidback quarter encompassing 4 or 5 streets just off the coast. Fresh seafood, alfresco dining, fairy lights and the robust music of wandering minstrels is standard fare here. We tried to be a bit scientific about it and scoured the streets for the restaurant that seems to be most occupied by locals, but gave up after a while and eventually chose the one with the prettiest lights - Restaurant Neyzen :)

Most of the establishments appear to offer similar menus - after being seated, a large platter containing all the day's appetizers is laid out in front of you, leaving you to order via the extremely tourist friendly point-and-grab technique. These salads would typically contain tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, melons, cured fish, calamari and cheese in various combinations.

You then supplement your starters with a choice (or several choices) of grilled fish. Small fish, big fish, medium size fish... whichever catches your fancy or looks the least threatening.

Day 2 and more food was on the agenda! We boarded the ferry to the Asian shore of the Bosphorus to check out the weekend food market in the Sakerci neighbourhood - it's considered less expensive and more expansive than markets on the European side of the city. Plus, after all our travelling up to that point, it was almost reassuring to be back on Asian shores again :)

Asia sweet Asia!

First stop was the fruit stall, where we succumbed to temptation (that was quick!) and bought a box of strawberries for immediate consumption, and a carton of fresh figs to be handcarried back home. This endeavour actually brought out our best charade skills, as we tried painfully to enact the request "Can you please give us firmer figs as we are BOARDING A PLANE... CARRY... NO EAT TODAY, EAT TOMORROW... HARD GOOD SOFT BAD..."

After that harrowing experience, we went to explore the rest of the market, precious box of figs in hand and lips already stained pink with strawberry juice.

Here's the fish section - the "before" to last night's "after" dinner.

Olives of sufficient quantity and variety to make me consider requesting a relocation to Turkey...

Stallholders enjoying a morning chat while hand peeling the leaves and shells of macademia nuts (insert nut joke with homesexual innuendos here).

A local bakery - words cannot describe how good the smell coming out of this place was.

And something you don't see everyday, the neighbourhood honeycomb store!

Lunch was at a cafe in the same neighbourhood - its perky outdoor patio appearing like a mirage almost as soon as the market stalls ended. Philippe had a shish kebab with fries, grilled peppers and rice, while I opted for a combination of items from the self-serve salad bar:

Most of my items were cold salads involving what seemed to be local wild vegetables, herbs or even some sort of bracken, together with eggplant and grape leaves stuffed with rice. The salads were all strongly seasoned with alternating combinations of parsley, onions, lemon juice and tomatoes, and were exceptionally refreshing on a hot summer day.

Dessert was a slice of melon pickled in sugar syrup and topped crushed nuts (feel free to continue on earlier nut joke here), plus a gooey slice of pistachio baklava.

Our visit to Sakerci ended with what turned out to be an extremely long stay at the local patisserie - Cafe Erol, where we ordered enough boxes of baklava and multi-coloured Turkish delight to feed both our offices, families, all our friends, plus a couple hundred more people (cos you never know who might come to visit right? Might as well be prepared!) I'm sure you'll understand how irresistible they were though after seeing the next few pictures (I went a bit snap happy with the camera as you can tell) - it's really the candy store dreams are made of!

How cute are those little baby sweets? Presumably they're for sending out when celebrating the birth of a child (they come in a blue boy's version too) as opposed to being for satisfying some kind of depraved cannibalistic craving.

A brief stop back at the hotel to deposit our various treasures, and we were off again for more eating, this time along the bustling pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal Caddesi.

First stop was an unscheduled one - we first noticed the crowds of people filing into this cafe, then the numerous frame awards on display on the window, and finally the mounds of chocolate slathered choux that seem to be the only item this store sells. In my book, any eating establishment that can survive on the sale of one product only (see: Singapore hawker stalls) has to be pretty damned good.

We weren't disappointed. The chocolate sauce was dark and silky, the custard cool and firm. Definitely one of the eating highlights of our trip, and we found it ourselves! (Self-congratulatory pat on back)

Perhaps as a result of our new found overconfidence, our next stop didn't turn out to be quite so successful. Don't get me wrong, it was definitely an experience and worth visiting, but maybe we could've been a little more circumspect in our choice of dessert. This stop was Cafe Saray, a brightly lit, bustling cafe filled to the brim with mouthwatering mountains of solid sugar.

Philippe opted for a savoury dish - a slice of the macaroni and cheese pie in the above photo.

I forgot the name of our desserts, but I opted for the brown-skinned roll you can see in the top left hand corner of the menu photo (and also the same corner of the display shelf photo). It was one of those desserts that I'd sold my heart to the minute I set my eyes on it, and nothing was going to get in my way from having it. All the same, to make conversation with our server, I casually asked what it was made of. He replied with a grin "chicken ice-cream, Turkish specialty". My eyes grew wide with horror as Philippe had a good, gut-busting laugh.

"He's obviously making fun of you, and you fell for it! You're such a tourist bwahaha!"

Feeling a bit sheepish, I silently dug my spoon into the ice-cream topped plate of confectionery. It turned out pretty good at first bite - creamy, the sweet vanilla ice-cream contrasting nicely again the savoury chicken flavour.

Hang on, did I say chicken???


Turned out the brown "skin" of the roll was none other than chicken floss - gossamer thin strands of dried chicken meat, the same way you'd get pork floss or fish floss. There also seemed to be some chicken floss in the cream cheese-like filling itself, as telltale strands continually appeared on spoon or plate.

Needless to say, after about 4 mouthfuls, the dish went from exotic surprise to just plain weird, and our stay at Cafe Saray came quickly to an end.

Dinner, unfortunately, didn't leave me with much to report. The restaurants of Istiklal Caddesi essentially serve the same type of food as Kumkapi, albeit in a buzzing New York bar street setting. But after a couple of days of very fulfilling and non-stop dining, we weren't in a position to complain.

All in, I'd highly recommend Turkey for anyone looking for a slightly more exotic European holiday. Istanbul is good for 3 or 4 days, and the country's numerous islands and historical sights are only a short flight or bus ride away. People are friendly, food and lodging are inexpensive, and the monuments are some of the most impressive you'll find anyway. Oh, and did I mention the food was good?

A couple of parting shots: kids concentrating hard on a game of chess in the neighbourhood of our hotel, and a view of the ceiling of the Blue Mosque, whose tiles gave the mosque its moniker, through the iron frame of one of its chandeliers.

Now I'm depressed 'cos the end of summer holiday blogging means I have to acknowledge that summer holidays are over, a fact I've been in denial over for a couple of months now :)