Idyllwild, California

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IMG_0866 (1)I lived for years in Los Angeles before I first learned about Idyllwild, a steadfast wisp of a town nestled in the forest of the San Jacinto mountains. Angelenos are obsessed with their own coastline, and fascinated by the arid vacation playground of Palm Springs, and even mildly intrigued by the anthropomorphic Joshua Tree National Park. But the forests east of L.A. draw far fewer visitors and I can’t decide if that’s a bonus. It’s allowed towns like Idyllwild to retain a tranquil, folksy feel even in the height of summer vacation season. But of course I’d like even the pokiest café there to succeed, and it floors me to think some lifelong Californians still don’t know Idyllwild. Even after providing the backdrop for an episode of “Transparent”, its potential for buzzy weekend getaway hasn’t lit a match with the L.A. crowd as a whole. I spent a blissful couple of days in July getting re-acquainted with old friends, and Idyllwild was one of them.

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Mountain Mike’s Harley

An apocalyptic carved-wood menagerie welcomes visitors to the heart of town, which is about a quarter-mile in radius and features a pretty, new green space in the middle. Rustic architecture abounds, and proprietors capitalize on the throwback aura with kitsch aplenty. Visitors can shop for locally made food and clothing, souvenirs and bric-a-brac. One stand-out enterprise is Mountain Mike’s. The stock is mostly leather goods crafted by the store’s namesake: a burly-looking, gentle man whose personal style is a study in native Americana—extending even to his motorcycle. The town also offers a movie theater, a few good coffee shops, and enough opportunities to stock up on groceries, although you’ll have to drive down the mountain to Hemet if you want an enormous selection.

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Tommy’s Kitchen is fronted by an al fresco deck and a sign that teased us Thursday visitors with $3 mimosas (available only on weekends). Taking pride of place on their morning/lunchtime menu on any day is the Swiss version of hash browns, rösti. Try it atop roasted vegetables or as a side to an omelette. Idyllwild’s dining options aren’t confined to lazy brunches; there are old-school Mexican restaurants, the “upscale” Gastrognome (if garden gnomes can represent upscale), and the night-lively Idyllwild BrewPub and Idyology. The latter two bring live music to their bar/deck/parking lot. At  Idyology we enjoyed a mellow dinner on the deck and were taken by surprise each time we made a bathroom run inside, squeezing past a lively bluegrass band and their 15 euphoric, dancing fans.

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Tommy’s Kitchen

 

The sprawling tasting room and art gallery of Middle Ridge Winery should not be missed.  Its effusive captain, Chris Johnston, walked us through a first-class tasting of his wines whose grapes he sourced from around California and processed at his Temecula winery. July heat notwithstanding, we swished and swallowed our way through a flight of reds and I was delighted to discover a Pinot Noir that may be my favorite from California.

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Middle Ridge Winery

A mountain experience demands charming mountain accommodations, and there’s no shortage within a short drive of Idyllwild’s center. A-frame houses and log cabins are dotted around the mountainside and listed on the standard vacation rental websites. The Boulder Lodge is just up the hill in Pine Cove and can sleep up to 7 people. Lovers of Frank Lloyd Wright will bask in the outside-inside design of this 1960s-era house: a 15-foot piece of granite rock takes up most of a living-room wall. The original black metal chimney and mighty fireplace sit neatly in front of the boulder: fire and earth allied to bring guests primitive comfort in the most artful way.

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The Boulder Lodge

The exterior of the Boulder Lodge echoes the period of its construction but the old-fashioned mountain charm ends at the doorstep. The owners have created a plush, modern retreat with just the right dose of bohemian homage. Think swish ski chalet rather than Grandpa’s hunting lodge. You can explore the granite landscape of the back yard, push your lung capacity on the nearby hiking trails (6,000 feet above sea level!), then sink onto the daybed overlooking the mountains, and spend a tranquil hour with your laptop or book. At night, the wraparound top deck shows off pink skies that reflect the sunset off of Suicide Rock, a favorite climbing spot.

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There are hiking trails aplenty, winding up through fantastical manzanita trees and lizards lazing on rocks. At this height above sea level it can be tough to catch your breath at times, but the views and utter peace are well worth the effort. The intrepid hiker can aim for the top of the Palm Springs cable car system in just 10 miles.

The happy-go-lucky inhabitants of Idyllwild are a symbiotic blend of old and young, retiree vacationers and hippies. They’ve staked their claim on this part of the world for its timeless allure: a snapshot of another era, or maybe even another planet, where residents gather on fold-out chairs in front of a wooden bear to debate local issues. They wear moccasins. They see shamans. Their mayor is a Golden Retriever named Max. And they’ve solidified their resistance to all the commercial plasticity of that metropolis 100 miles west, opting instead for a hopeful life of small-town good vibes. The vibes may not last forever, but I’ll be back again to try to catch some.

On 25 July 2018 an arsonist started the Cranston fire in the forests of the San Jacintos. By the next day, the fire had mushroomed and was destroying the area’s iconic Ponderosa pines and any other wildlife in its path. All communities in and around Idyllwild were evacuated and at least five homes perished before the fire was fully contained. The town itself was spared and is back open for business, although the windy, scenic road leading up to it from the desert flatlands is blackened and barren until nature begins another cycle. Show your support for this lovely community by booking a weekend and enjoying everything it has to offer!


Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Out of context: ma vie à Paris

 

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Welcome to my neighborhood: Canal Saint Martin

The boyfriend, the dog, and I moved to Paris on a well-considered whim. Oxymorons aside, the idea was born after a couple of beers in May and we had moved by mid-June. But on this occasion, beer bred an adventure with unarguably sensible aspects. We wanted to leave London and spend less money without putting ourselves out to pasture. Paris may not spring to mind when one considers fiscal responsibility, but it turns out we could rent an Air BnB by the month for less than what we paid in rent alone in South London…with bills included! So we put the wheels in motion and began a 3- to 6-month stint as Parisienne imposters.

I’ve made several big moves before, and delight in seeing what a new environment will reveal about me. Seeing yourself in a different context is an invaluable human experience — like shaking up a box of yourself and seeing what parts slip away through the cracks, and what parts remain as your core. Paris has been no exception, particularly given that I knew only about five words of French before we left. Here are my revelations from the inside, as the grains of me sift down and settle…

I am living in a cliche

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Predictably game-changing cakes from La Pâtisserie Cyril Lignac

This place is seriously as charming as its hype. Any retail chains are scarce and nestled in beautiful buildings, or they’re French and I wouldn’t recognize them as a chain unless someone schooled me. The women are beautiful, with their slouchy tops and artless ponytails and high-heeled open-toes clicking neatly along cobblestoned streets with not the slightest tremor. The pastries are exquisite, and the bread so fresh and airy you could curl up in it and go to sleep. The buildings are stately, ornate, sublime. The city squares are peaceful. The bulldogs are plentiful. The wine is cheap. The language is sensual.

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Le Barboteur, a floating bar on the banks of Quai de Jemmapes

Much more than that, the French are more free than you will ever hope to be. They worship art, sex, leisure, and revolution, and it shows in everything from their hairstyles to their endless cigarettes. Yes, they’re drinking wine every day, but they’re sipping it because there’s plenty and who needs to get drunk when life is this beautiful? (I have not seen a single incident of alcohol-related abuse or disorder yet.) Need another example? Look no further than the cars parking on the street, slamming to and fro as they nestle their way into a parallel position. Their bumpers are bruised, dirty, dented, because they’re used as bumpers. Their doors bear marks in the dust where people leaned on them, rings on the top where they set their drinks. Treating someone else’s car as a coffee table means a culture that acknowledges the transience of material goods. And that, my friends, is true freedom.

I am living in a film

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Take 1: Montmartre, sunrise, on the Rue Saint-Vincent, flanked by the famed Au Lapin Agile cabaret club on the left and Paris’s only working vineyard on the right

Our first apartment was in the center of Montmartre, around the corner from the famed Sacre Couer cathedral, whose bells toll proudly and intermittently throughout the day. This quartier has been the setting for many films (Amelie being the most recently notable) and has the curious condition of being an imitation of itself. Once a magnet for artist and bohemian types who frequented sidewalk cafes and met for creative sessions, it’s now a film-set–like recreation of that environment. You’ve got the unmistakably Parisian sidewalk cafes, and artists selling their works around Place du Terte, and lovely cobblestoned streets with ivy aplenty. But the bohemians are now American tourists, and Chinese, and Italian, and English. And the price of a meal or a drink is nearly twice what you can find elsewhere.

Maybe the cinematic effect works to its credit as well. The architecture is well preserved and there are two acclaimed museums in the area (Musée de Montmartre and Dali Espace). It never feels unsafe, because there are always people around. But I can’t help seeing film scenes everywhere. The first I viewed from a bench at Place Dalida, where I stopped on a walk with the dog. I watched a couple across the road having an emotional scene, arguing, crying, flinging themselves against lampposts and railings, while in the foreground another couple made out passionately. Love and conflict played out in dramatic opposition to each other, with me serving as the sole audience member. At its climax, the upset man slapped his girl and in an instant a dozen “extras” in the area surrounded him, driving him off with their French insults. I nearly cheered.

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Le chien noir goes film noir near Place Dalida

The second cinematic moment happened the next day, to the boyfriend, actually. He was wandering a side street near the Rue des Martyrs when a man stopped him so he could recite a page from the works of Chekhov. Despite the girl giggling at his side, he clearly intended a serious performance, and the boyfriend applauded, receiving a bow in return.

Last week we were having drinks outside a cafe called Le Progres, and a street musician warbled “Venus” in a scratchy baritone while he beat the melody out on his guitar. Playing music publicly takes courage. Playing a Bananarama song with teen-like enthusiasm when you’re about 80 years old and have no voice left warrants a total disregard for the seriousness of life.

I am woman

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La femme on La Seine

Seems redundant, je sais, but I’ve spent the past eight years in England, where men would rather burn their eyes with hot pokers than gaze at you meaningfully on the street. (Unless it’s midnight and the pub’s closing, obvs.) Their deference is as alienating as it is sweet. I was used to the overt appreciation of Homo Americanus…an attitude the Parisian men match, and then some.

Suddenly I notice men noticing me…often just a neutral look, but they don’t immediately look away. They look, they absorb, they judge. And only once have I felt uncomfortable, but even an inappropriate gesture seemed a mere miscalculation on his part. In general, the Parisian man is polite but bold, unafraid of rejection, even embracing it when it comes…making us both into a melodramatic spectacle: Look at the woman turning me down, ‘ere in the street, in front of you all! She breaks my ‘eart! Men flirt with me walking the dog, selling me things, even checking my passport to board the Eurostar. I have no interest in these men, but I want to shake their hand just for trying, just for being men, and being brave.

Becoming a femme fatale

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I spent 15 minutes on this “hairstyle”

The Frenchwoman’s quintessential style is something I didn’t realize I’ve been aiming at my whole life. I’m high maintenance posing as low maintenance, and that fits perfectly with the look: a bit messy but inherently clean, casual but well-considered. Join me in my quest for Paris style!

  • Don’t look perfectly made up, like a Southern debutante. Some great advice I heard from a Frenchwoman is “Make up the eyes, or the lips. Not both.”
  • Buy fewer clothes that cost more. Your smaller wardrobe will then always have something well made that looks great.
  • Borrow from the boys. Turning a masculine item on its head is what French women do best.
  • Wear heels. I can’t do this, for orthopedic reasons, and it’s devastating.
  • Wear your hair back, or up, but make sure it’s slightly untidy.

I am speechless

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His French is slightly worse than mine

That guy who made the inappropriate gesture? He deserved something. An eye roll at least, or a sharp manners check at most. But beyond lacking the language to deliver a perfunctory reprimand, I also can’t determine what cultural reaction to display, in that situation and many others. I’m reading a book on Paris culture, but there’s a lot of ground uncovered, and most of it can be chalked up to the mere peu of French I’ve grasped so far.

We’ve moved to the decidedly less touristy neighborhood of Canal Saint Martin. Amazingly, we can still live day to day speaking Franglais, but without formal lessons we’ll never leap the biggest hurdle: handling conflict in French. Case in point occurred when two girls hogged the single bathroom at Chez Prune. I went to knock on the door to encourage their ejection, then stopped short. I didn’t know how to verbally express such a thing. And I would have returned a blank stare to whatever sassy French response they may have thrown back at me. I have become passive by default. I didn’t even know I had it in me.

This is another undoing of eight years in England; I became confident in confrontation over those years—not because I enjoy it but because I got such great results. The English hate confrontation, and meet it with apologies…affected, maybe, but they backed down enough times that I began to invite confrontation, so hot was the fire of my ego. Cutting in front of me in the Tesco queue? Allow me to call attention to it, and regain my rightful place. Making too much noise in the cinema? I am American, hear me aggressively admonish.

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My running route, Parc des Buttes Chaumont

In my Parisian world, I am an ineffective communicator. My speech, when I do dare to speak, is quiet, halting, often accompanied by an expression meant to convey “I’m really trying but I’m aware I make little sense and am hoping you’ll just pretend to laugh with me rather than at me.” And they do laugh, as I try to order another beer or see the wine list (carte du vin, not vin du carte!). I say merci when I should say bonjour, and vice-versa. I apply an overly articulate style in my French delivery, which everyone will agree is pretty much the antithesis of beautiful, lilting, flowing-like-wine French. And I’ve even been known to flee a bathroom cubicle with lightning speed, aware that I could not explain to the next girl waiting that there was no toilet paper.

At best I am annoyingly, passively polite; at worst, I am cold (at least I can get away with it here!). But most of the time, I am just really confusing/ed. I encourage you to remain in one country once you decide to embrace a language, because flitting back and forth across the English Channel once a week means I regularly thank and greet Londoners in French, lending myself an air of haute pretension I definitely do not intend. And after we spent a week in Italy, I was literally left speechless upon return to London, then Paris, staring at waiters, trying to remember which country I was in and what language they expected to come out of my mouth. I could laugh this off if it didn’t actually seem to be affecting my English skills; recently I ordered a tagliatelle in a London restaurant and finished by telling the waitress “You’re welcome”.

Lessons learned

The written rules are made to be broken in Paris: don’t walk your dog in the park, don’t drink from glasses canalside, don’t jump the turnstile at the Metro station. It’s the unwritten ones you should pay attention to:

  • IMG_6297Try to speak some French, if only at first. However crude, it’s appreciated and shows you don’t presume everyone speaks your language.
  • Don’t take pictures with bystanders in them; the French are classy enough to care if they’re in the background of your vapid selfie.
  • Don’t suggest the French are wrong; if there’s a mix-up, imply it’s the result of accident rather than personal error to avoid insulting them.
  • Show up 20 minutes late for any social engagement.
  • Order your drink before your food.
  • Don’t expect to buy/receive rounds of drinks with Parisiennes. Pay for your own.
  • If you don’t get what you want, look for le système D (Plan D). Turn on the charm and be persistent; there may be a way to win you hadn’t considered.

IMG_6038Even as I continue to be seduced by this city, I’m grappling with the melancholia of having to leave it in one week. I’ve never felt nostalgic for something before it’s actually in the past. I’ve spent six months completely out of context, forever an outsider, but have started to see myself as more than a background player. I suppose that means I’ll be back, but next time I’ll be speaking French.


Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

 

 

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Gaziantep, Turkey: tasting heritage

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn impressive Byzantine-era castle rises above Turkey’s southern city of Gaziantep. Circling the base of the hill it sits upon, you can feel the weight of the country’s history represented by this single, immense structure, defying the bright blue sky behind it. The Turks defended their city against the French, Italians and English during the Turkish War of Independence in the 1920s, losing 6,361 people. Once known simply as Antep (City of Kings),  after the war the city added “Gazi” to its name, meaning warrior. This castle, originally a Roman tower built 5,000 or 6,000 years ago, was the centre of the city’s valiant defence against attackers, and stands as an impressive reminder of hometown heroes.

Local pride runs strong throughout Gaziantep, and not just for its bravery under attack. This smallish major city (2 million people) was recently declared a UNESCO Creative City in the category of gastronomy. Claiming more than 300 unique dishes, Gaziantep can proudly say it’s an integral pinpoint on the foodie map of Turkey. Some of these local dishes have names recognisable to your average visitor to Turkey, but Gaziantep puts its own spin on each one of them, arguably improving them through its vast oeuvre of spices, ancient techniques and agricultural bounty. My quest on a four-day trip? To let my tastebuds find out what all the fuss is about. The bonus? A lovely glimpse of a city rich with cultural offerings across the board. This plucky little city outshines gastro-hubs like Istanbul and Bodrum for eleven reasons (and then some)…

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Terebinth menengiç (pistachio coffee)

1. On first glance, Tahmis Kahvesi could be one of the many cafes in any Turkish city, or even the Middle East. When I visited, fragrant cherry-flavoured smoke pillowed out of shisha pipes, old people in headscarves played backgammon, lute music prevailed. But the outlier of this familiar tableau was the coffee, which is not coffee at all but ground pistachios with milk—creamy, nutty, and totally unique. It’s only found in Gaziantep, one of many delicious secrets this city holds. The great thinkers of Gaziantep used to gather in the garden of this very cafe to discuss the big issues of their time. Looking around, I wondered if the tradition continued. If so, they were hashing out the refugee crisis and the city’s five-year-long efforts to help Syrians. But they may very well have been talking food, as central as it is to their culture.

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2. Pistachios are the “edible emeralds” lining the treasure chest that is Gaziantep cuisine. This city produces 65% of the country’s crop, just outside the city. Their variety is grafted from the wild terebinth pistachio—smaller and slimmer than other varieties, with purplish coats and vivid green meat. The nuts’ sweetness and dense flavour makes them obvious additions to candies, desserts and ice creams—plus that incredible “coffee”, terebinth menengiç. But this star player also underpins a whole host of savoury dishes, and can stand on its own as a snack.

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Fresh trays of baklava from İmam Çağdaş

3. Where there are pistachios, there had better be baklava. Gaziantep is its birthplace, and the dessert takes centre stage at every special occasion, but pops up at almost any meal and all over the city, even in bus terminals. In Gaziantep master bakers use durum wheat from the Harran Valley and early-harvest pistachios, and cook the baklava in stone ovens. Techniques are passed down to apprentices in a respected, ancient tradition, such as at İmam Çağdaş restaurant, where they’ve been turning out exceptional trays of the stuff for 125 years. In three cavernous rooms above the restaurant, old men toil alongside boys at large metal counters, flogging phyllo dough amid swirling clouds of flour, the whole production blanketed in a dreamy haze. Each tray gets 20 to 40 layers of dough, ground pistachios and an oil mixture, plus cream for a truly decadent variety. The takeaway version is drier, to last longer, but the kind served at İmam Çağdaş is probably one of the best things your mouth will ever receive: a complicated parcel of dripping wet layers with varying textures and richly complex flavours, thanks to the efforts of 50 floury men.

 

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Breakfast spread

4. Like its baklava, Gaziantep’s cuisine is layered, multi-enriched and old school. The city has emerged out of an incredible history spanning the Palaeolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Hittite, Mitani, Assyrian, Persian, Alexandrian, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Seljuk, Turkish-Islamic and Ottoman civilizations. Techniques and recipes have sifted down through the ages, leaving behind a near-perfect collection of about 300 dishes that are considered unique even within Turkey. Given its geographic position, Arab and Syrian influences are discernible, and recipes showcase the grains of Mesopotamia, fruits and vegetables of the Mediterranean, and spices of Asia. Although characteristically Turkish in its reliance on meat, Gaziantep gives almost equal billing to regional fruits and vegetables for colour and nuance. ‘Nouveau’ and ‘fusion’ aren’t part of the vocabulary. The city’s restaurant menus feature popular staples that date back to ancient times. Kebabs, stews, pastries and flatbread pizzas may seem like a limited offering to an outsider, but within that oeuvre lie hundreds of subcategories, divided by method of cooking and by choice of spices and sour ingredients that distinguish their colour, aroma and strength of flavour.

 

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5. Gaziantep’s markets and bazaars, or hans, are as charming as they are useful, offering ubiquitous items in a vibrant, non-pressured shopping environment. Colourful piles of mostly dried ingredients get weighed out from tall tubs, and sun-dried vegetables hang from awnings – peppers, aubergines, squash, fuzzy cucumbers – ready to be rehydrated, stuffed and roasted as side dishes. There are also pyramids of the ubiquitous Turkish delight and some less-familiar treats: bright-green cylinders of ground pistachios and honey, and Şira, which look like sticky, amber-coloured seedpods—they’re nuts tied on a string and dipped in a grape juice–wheat starch mixture for drying. Typically, locals shop for their main meal in the morning, moving from butcher to grocer to baker, informing each what they intend to make. The shopkeeper doles out the appropriate amount of ingredients, some already prepared with spices. The integral nature of this practice means grocers, butchers and bakers are always found next to each other, making shopping an integrated experience that benefits everyone.

 

img_44606. Wood-fired ovens have endured throughout the ages without losing popularity. They lend a savoury, smoky quality that beautifully complements regional sun-dried ingredients, pastries and breads. Gaziantep lays claim to several breeds of flatbread, known to most of us as pides. They’re fired in wood ovens, then served hot or cold alongside stews, soups and other dishes. Many home kitchens have such ovens, but if you need a large or special one for a particular dish, chances are your baker will fire his up for you.

7. Kebabs are the cornerstone of Turkish gastronomy, and here the default is local hallik lamb, with mutton, beef and chicken playing understudy. After careful calculation of the fat-to-meat ratio, it’s sliced or ground into chunks, then the Gaziantep factor comes into play: marinades add a umami punch with white truffle, loquat or garlic. If it’s minced, the meat might also be mixed with bulgur, garlic or mint. Then it’s skewered alongside artichokes, tomatoes, aubergine, onions, garlic, plums or apples before being fired on a grill over oak charcoal. The custom is to fold a flatbread around the skewer to nudge the meat off, then top it all with parsley, mint, tomatoes, peppers, ground sumac and ground sweet pepper. It may look like your Western-style kebab, but all those local flavours and home-grown additions make it taste like fire and freshness dancing the tango.

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Outside one of the city’s popular kebab shops

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Yuvarlama soup

8. All that meat can tax your digestive system, which is where yoghurt and its probiotic properties can save the day. It’s the main component of a tart but satisfying drink, ayran — the perfect accompaniment to a rough-and-tumble lunchtime kebab or a multi-course banquet. Yoghurt is also a critical enhancement to many Gaziantep stews and soups, its tang countered by fresh spring produce, herbed butters and meat. A much-loved example is yuvarlama, a labour-intensive dish of lamb chunks, chickpeas and tiny, delicate dumplings in a yoghurty stew flavoured with mint and pepper. If you’re used to only having yoghurt with breakfast, take a page from the Gaziantep playbook and your cooking will reach a whole new level.

 

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Chef working the zirh

9. Lahmacun is the local version of a flat, streamlined pizza. Pizza isn’t uncommon in Turkey, but Gaziantep leaves its mark by making it with fresh garlic instead of onion. It’s finely chopped with minced meat, other seasonal vegetables (parsley, tomatoes, peppers), pepper paste, and sometimes cumin. A curved knife known as a zirh helps the chef work it all into the consistency of a pate, before adding salt and red pepper. A very thin layer of the mixture is patted over an equally thin circle of dough and slid into the wood-fired oven on a long board. As with a kebab, you can roll parsley and other salad embellishments into a lahmacun and achieve what’s surely the best of all possible worlds: a pizza-salad-burrito.

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Lahmacun fresh from the oven at Sirvan restaurant

img_432510. A popular local breakfast option is arguably a dessert. Katmer is made with wheat dough that’s flattened and heaped with cream, pistachios, sugar and butter…a sort of Danish pastry on steroids. It’s folded into a square-foot parcel, and fired for 5 to 6 minutes in a wood oven for crispy, gooey results. Traditionally, a groom’s parents deliver katmer to a bride on her wedding night, but locals can enjoy it daily (cholesterol count notwithstanding) at a few bakeries. An unpretentious and seriously authentic operation takes place at Metanet Lokantasi, a family-run business that’s been perfecting katmer for 130 years, rivalling any French patisserie for speed and efficiency.

 

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This local restaurant turns out 500 katmer a day

11. Love it or leave it, offal lends a distinct element to many Gaziantepian dishes. Popular choices include stuffed intestines, known as mumbar, as well as gahırdak, which is minced sheep tail, roasted and drained of fat to form a dry pulp used in pastries and soup. Even breakfast doesn’t escape this wild-card ingredient: beyran çorbasi is a pungent, spicy mutton stew simmered overnight and then topped with fried rice, crushed garlic and red-hot peppers. Similarly gut-bracing is kelle paça, another garlicky breakfast soup made of sheep’s head and feet. If the smell of these breakfast sucker-punches doesn’t get you out of bed, you’re probably in the wrong city.

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Gaziantep street vendor

Special thanks to the Turkish Tourism Board and London’s Turkish Culture and Information Office for making this story possible, as well as Aynur Tattersall

Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Delta Diner, Wisconsin

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diner shot“The Center of the Middle of Nowhere” is where we turned up for brunch in northern Wisconsin on a Tuesday morning. Along a forested stretch of highway a converted 1940s train car was packed with locals and a few of us the hostess affectionately identified as “newbies”. Lake Superior is only about 25 miles away, and some visitors pass through this area en route to their lake cabin or campsite. “Popular” is a relative term in such a remote setting, but Delta Diner could at least be described as bustling that day, and it’s safe to say this hole in the wall is putting the tiny non-town of Delta on the Midwestern foodie map.

diner shot 3My dad moved to the wilderness about 50 miles from here, and his neighbor tipped him off about it. The diner’s gotten some outside attention after word-of-mouth made its way to the press rooms. They even have a website, where you can buy your Delta Diner merch and find out about the Burger Monday policy. (Burgers are not served Tuesday through Sunday!) I wish I had discovered this place, or that it was maybe a dream I had, but it’s for real and I would be doing Wisconsin itself a disservice to keep quiet about it. Beer and cheese curds alone do not a state tourism campaign make.

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The kitchen was bustling, so we ordered some shakes while we waited, and the waitress came by to “walk us through” the menu. She was friendly and casual, leaning against the wall after she was finished to explain how they treat their staff. Tips are factored into the total bill and each employee is paid a higher wage accordingly. They have interns. They believe in nurturing the personal growth of their staff. Did we have any questions about that? She took her time, and she seemed to genuinely care. How long has it been since I left the Midwest, that this seeemed like a novelty?

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PBLT with fries

Center nowhereThe menu varies a little with each passing day, but the “blue plate” specials that day were Norwegian pancakes, french toast stuffed with mascarpone cheese, bacon-eggs-toast, a cheeseburger omelette (big points for upping the American ante), The Big Boy, Pedro’s Mex Benny, a breakfast “sammich”, and The Lucky Denny. Their standard menu also offered sandwiches — the PBLT, grilled cheese or deli meats, as well as deep-fried mac-n-cheese, onion rings and fries. Also, delightfully, mimosas are on the drinks menu next to beer, wine and the requisite malts and shakes.

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Stuffed french toast

The food arrived within about 20 minutes and was consumed within 10. There wasn’t a bad choice on our table, and where the chefs sought to mix up the traditional diner menu, they succeeded in spades. The pancakes came with a pat of vanilla-bourbon butter. My PBLT was enriched with battered local perch and rugged fries, all predictably hearty but balanced with strikingly fresh veggies.  And if you think a cheeseburger omelette is pushing the envelope, you did not behold my sister’s Pedro’s Mex Benny: a Mexican variation on eggs Benedict that boasted green chili cornbread, softly poached eggs, chipotle peppers and chorizo. All framed by a serving of toast that, frankly, could have been a meal on its own.

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Pedro’s Mex Benny

Delta Diner pushes the kitsch buttons in its design, all bright and retro, and pushes them hard. This is exactly the place you want to show your friend from another country, or even another state. But those who turn a blind eye to cultural nostalgia will still walk away with a full stomach and vivid memories of imaginative, intensely flavored dishes. This kind of food reminds us of our American heritage while acknowledging that we’ve moved beyond bland and canned. It was a privilege, in this case, to be stuck in the middle of nowhere.

14385 County Highway H, Delta, WI 54856, www.deltadiner.com


Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Shoryu, London

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You can’t throw a gyoza in London these days without hitting an East Asian eatery, to my extreme delight. Gone are the days when you had to muscle past tourists in Chinatown to get your noodle on. Shoryu now occupies a valid place in this burgeoning field. On a frigid winter’s day I visited the Kingly Court branch of this small chain.

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A gong resonated to my left as I entered a lively atmosphere. The gong marks anyone entering or exiting, meaning it sounds roughly every 20 seconds at lunchtime — a solemn tone balanced by laughter and dishes clattering. A chattering group of waitresses broke off conversation to greet me in Japanese, and I was shown to a stool by a wooden counter.

This ground-level branch has an open kitchen and attached dining room that extends past the counter seating to a second dining room. Having not yet been to Japan, I wondered whether the cafes there are as sexy and inviting as those in London – all blond wood and mood lighting. The boyfriend assures me they are not, at least in Tokyo, where he frequented flourescently bright, acoustically aggressive places focused solely on eating, ambience be damned. Lucky London, with our appreciation of zen dining.

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Shoryu specialises in tonkotsu ramen from the Hakata district of Fukuoka, which didn’t strike me as wildly different from other ramens I’ve tasted except the noodles were straight, rather than curly.

They take 12 hours to fine-tune the signature opaque, pork-based broth and their diligence has earned a legion of fans, considering the attention on social media. Breaking with convention, I tried their “white natural” vegetarian version, made with tonyu soy milk, miso, konbu and shiitake broth, atsuage fried tofu, kikurage mushrooms, spring onion, menma bamboo shoots and nori seaweed. On that freezing February day, it had life-giving properties.

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Pork buns are an obvious choice these days, so I went for the Shoryu chicken from bun options that also included tiger prawn tempura, halloumi-mushroom and Wagyu beef. Diehards would miss the pork, but I’m not a huge fan and the key ingredient was there: a light, spongey bun that came stamped with Shoryu’s logo. In it was nestled tangy soy-marinated chicken karaage (translation: deep fried). There’s a long list of other sides, including fishcakes, whitebait, onigiri and tofu.

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The counter was a good choice for a lone diner and her laptop, but there’s a palpable air of conviviality in the restaurant. Maybe it was the warmth exuded through feng shui. Maybe it was the pervasive sound of the gong and cries of Japanese welcome. In any case, I suddenly wished I had brought a friend to share this experience.

I look forward to taking in an hour on Shoryu’s terrace this summer, but ultimately this is exotic winter comfort food, something you can never have too much of in England.

G3-5 Kingly Court, London W1B 5PJ, www.shoryuramen.com


Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Opso, London

exteriorI like being the first one of my party to arrive for dinner. On a cold February night this gave me the chance to get a good first look at the modern Greek tapas joint that is Opso. I craved comfort after getting lost outside Regent’s Park tube station, but walking into the sexy bar area I felt a bit underdressed and began self-consciously peeling off layers. I appreciate the urban style of such a bar — hidden lighting features, bearded bartenders, a grid of steel pipes balancing stemware and bottles — but on this occasion I sought cosiness. Glancing at the dining room beyond, I found it: brown paper table coverings and wicker, farmhouse chairs. In this corner of Marylebone, it seems, I had found an urban-pastoral mash-up (with a touch of dirty take-away…but I’ll get to that).

My friend arrived and I handed her a glass of the bubbly the chalkboard advertised that night: NV Amalia Tselepos Brut. We headed to the comfort zone. About half of the dining room featured small tables, with a communal, high table at the center. interior

I’m surprised whenever a waitress asks me if I’ve ever had tapas (“Do you know how it works?” “Are you OK with sharing?”), but then I remember to savour the now: modern-day London, with its scores of small plates and global cuisine. One could share every meal for 365 days, and never have to face another shepherd’s pie. The only real question is how many dishes will satisfy two people, and here the answer was five. So we ordered seven.

Classic spanakopita came first, a handmade pie with spinach and feta that we ordered almost out of obligation to Greek society, but — holy Acropolis — did it deliver. Sourdough bread cubes came with a sort of Greek hummus: yellow fava-bean spread from Santorini, topped with crispy capers and red onion.

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Spanakopita and sourdough bread cubes with yellow fava-bean spread

The healthy option arrived next: Dakos salad, in another sublime example of what any of us would consider quintessential Greek food: cherry tomatoes, olive oil rusks, organic capers, Kalamata olives, and lovely, ultra-smooth mature feta cheese. Behind the salad lurked the sin: fried Metsovone cheese, inconspicuously perched on a slab of slate. A tight shell of breadcrumbs concealed a small cylinder of smoked cheese, the likes of which I may never erase from memory. Smear it with homemade rhubarb jam and it’s easy to forget you don’t even have bread or crackers. You’re just forking it in with abandon, molten bite after molten bite.

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Fried Metsovone cheese with rhubarb jam

Here’s where the dirty take-away factor dropped in: our next two plates weren’t actually plates. The arrival of small fast-food boxes made me look at my watch with alarm, before I processed the situation. It’s the mash-up aesthetic again: mixing casual street-food style into our otherwise elegant meal. Dinner had gone from traditional to trendy in one beat, but I couldn’t find fault with either. Although it did leave me wondering if Opso’s having a bit of an identity crisis, trying to be all things to all diners. Some questions should just be ignored for the sake of beautiful flavour.

The first box revealed our soutzoukaki hot dog;  personally, I would never disrespect such a delicacy with the term “hot dog”, but I think I’ve visited too many American ballparks. This was a grilled beef shortrib patty with a traditional tomato-cumin sauce in a tahini brioche bun.  The second boxed item was a salmon burger with tomato jam and aioli mayo in a striking squid-ink bun. We shared both tapas, but probably should have ordered one each.

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You know when you forget you’ve over-ordered and you’re kicking back, digesting, when suddenly you’re staring at a steaming pile of noodles? That is when I advise you to ignore the wheel of hot cheese you’ve already consumed and draw upon your inner strength. The pastitsio noodle box (yes, another box) sheltered traditional hylopites pasta, with slow-cooked pulled beef cheek dripping in a tomato-and-beschamel sauce. To be fair, it was much like dessert, having a certain sweet quality, and I have no regrets about skipping the official last course.
Opso also has a basement floor, with more of the same vibe, and on a Tuesday night neither dining room felt too crowded. After paying the bill I took a quick trip to the loo, only to return and find the waitress waiting beside my friend at our table, to let us know the next party had arrived. We had pre-agreed to relinquish our table after 1.5 hours, and were still well within this range, so it would have been nice to leave with a bit more dignity. Still, we were fed, we were warm, and we knew the way back to the station. I maintain: no regrets.

Opso: 10 Paddington St, W1U 5QL, Marylebone, London, http://opso.co.uk


Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

25hours hotel, Vienna

muralexteriorVienna in January is for the über-hardy or slightly mad. I’m from Minnesota (hardy), but not a fan of frozen eyelashes. My Viennese survival plan was to wander the streets just long enough to feel the icy burn, then spend the rest of the time indoors. Thawing. Nibbling. Alternating between tea and beer.

To cap off 3×10-hour days of this nature, the boyfriend and I were seeking cozy, laid-back quarters. Circus theme optional. But hey! Bonus! The 25hours hotel chain applies various themes to its 8 branches, and took a light hand branding its Museumsquartier, Vienna hotel with big-top style: Yes on whimsical furniture and colourful, dramatic accents, but No on live monkeys wearing vests. I’m all for a playful theme, but I don’t need clowns in the lobby, that sort of thing.

doorWhat I do need, apparently, is 25 ways to tell housekeeping to make up my room or not (via door tags, eg “Please place aspirin in front of the door, and leave”). Other needs were met with free WiFi, a loaner bike-messenger bag, and a quirky minibar. Besides these and a few other creature comforts, the hotel adopts a minimalist approach. As in many hip hotels that post-dated 2005, a spare aesthetic means edgy style but low cost. Here, simple metal racks replaced a wardrobe, crates replaced end tables, and a stuffed elephant toy…actually, I have no idea.

clothes rackBrushed concrete floors lent urban cool without sacrificing cosiness. The room heated up quickly and felt much like a winter-proof den when we drew the floor-to-ceiling velvet curtains over our windowed wall. The room had plenty of dance space and the bathroom could have held a disco floor of its own. It was skylit and covered in slate tile that produced a Zen-like echo under the rainfall shower. The large, refillable toiletry bottles encouraged savings: plastic, costs, kleptomania.

bathroomDownstairs, the lobby lounge presented relaxing corners and playful resources: a bench swing, a photo booth, an internet kiosk plastered with posters. Front-desk staffers spoke impeccable English, demonstrating efficiency and casual cheer, whether giving directions or manning the corner shop next to the desk, which sells travel-related ephemera and outrageous socks (4, please!). But possibly the best things these happy Austrians were peddling were free: bikes and car rides. A bike in January was fundamentally contrary to my self-preservation instincts, but a free ride in a Mini? The answer to every cold tourist’s prayers. The hotel has a partnership with Mini so a simple phone call from the front desk gets you a tiny chariot, on the house.

lobby2At the back of the lobby is an Italian restaurant, of sorts—1500 foodmakers—more zealous staff members, more urban-chic, and some really good pasta and pizza choices. (Though I was much more taken with the gnocchi than the white pizza.) In the summer guests can also eat at the hotel’s burger truck out front, overlooking a city park.

lobbyOne of the only aspects of the hotel we couldn’t fully enjoy, being warm-blooded mammals, was a long terrace lining the 8th-floor, glass-fronted bar. Token city architecture can be admired from it, from Rathaus (city hall) to the Hofburg museums. And inside…what a bar! Impeccable cocktails, creamy Austrian beers, and a zeitgeisty soundtrack had stylish locals draped all over the low-riding sofas alongside hotel guests. Even on a Monday the bar was still half full at last call (1 am).

We were happy Brits abroad by the time we checked out of 25hours hotel. We’d seen cool stuff, we hadn’t incurred frostbite, and we’d discovered accommodations that squeezed extra fun into our itinerary, even if we chose to simply laze in bed, under the ringleader’s smirk.

25hours Hotel Vienna at MuseumsQuartier, Lerchenfelder Straße 1-3, 1070 Vienna, http://www.25hours-hotels.com

REMEMBER:

  • Minimalism means you’ll have to bring your own corkscrews and travel adaptors (or ask to borrow them at the front desk)
  • There’s no room service, so pay attention to the restaurant’s hours
  • The nearest U-Bahn stop is only a block away: Volkstheater

FORGET:

  • You won’t find a gym, but the hotel does offer yoga sessions (and meeting rooms)
  • The restaurant doesn’t offer a full Italian menu; it’s almost totally pasta and pizza
  • There are no tea/coffeemakers in the rooms

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society