I was such a pleasure and honour to meet the renowned Dutch chef Rudolf Van Nunen on Friday evening in his Tuti Restaurant at the Mamara Hotel. Invited by Enjoy Istanbul’s Marc Guillet, who appeared at the top of the escalator with impeccable timing (like a scene from a black and white movie), we were escorted into a private dining room with a floor to ceiling view of the wine cave.
As introductions were made the waiters started bringing out little bowls of goodies to surround our placemat. Chef Van Nunen commenced his explanations starting with the Kalamata flour and the hand-pressed olive oil sourced from outside Izmir.
Meanwhile, the first wine of the evening was poured; a 2010 Vinkara Narince with a clear lemony colour and a fragrant fruity bouquet. The initial sip was crisp and light and subsequent tastes indicated a very well balanced wine.
Back to these little bowls of goodies. From left to right sat the Hawaiian black salt, Fleur de sel from France, Smokey salt from Denmark (incredible smokiness) and Rose salt from France. With each explanation, the stories of salt production and usage of salt in cooking was revealed. These details filled in the gaps as to why sea salt is difficult to find in Turkey and why I had to bring back a kilogram of pink Himalayan sea salt during my recent trip to Australia. The philosophy of its use here explains why Turkish people grab for the table salt and sprinkle it with abundance over their meal.
When the waiters entered with the appetiser plate it really screamed ‘Food Art’, a magnificent display of mini portions to ‘wet our whistles’ and for our taste receptors to explore. As if this wasn’t enough, freshly baked ‘potato bread’ (the recipe originating from Bolo) was presented to us. Think… a crispy crust and soft yet ‘meaty’ texture beneath, delightful! Couple this with the hand pressed olive oil poured over the Kalamata flour and together a match was created.
Two of the starters stood out for me. The Levanten cheese with cranberries took me back to the discovery I made a couple of Christmases ago in Prague with Mont D’Or (French cheese) and cranberries. This combination of Çanakkale cheese, fruit and walnuts was a delightful mélange of ingredients; creamy, and when a cranberry burst open a slight sweetness followed with the finishing crunch of the walnut. Smeared onto the fresh focaccia bread seasoned with rosemary and thyme the textural ingenuity was complete.
The terrine although visually enticing, was a little lack lustre taste wise. The beef cheek was of the most interest to me; the contrast of textures between the green beans and the beef was lovely. The Jerusalem artichoke, a relatively unknown flavour to me, was stuffed with an olive oil cream which did modify the vegetable’s strong powerful taste.
The final morsel; the blue cheese stuffed date with a solo pomegranate perched on top. In the mouth, the strong blue cheese punch with the sweetness of the date transformed into a delicate balance of flavours, a fine example of food pairing and food chemistry at it’s best!
Unfortunately for me, the taste of the Red Mullet ‘iskenderun’ Shrimp Timbale didn’t quite measure up to its stunning appearance. The quinoa and cucumber compote with the red bell pepper essence was delicious however I detected a hint of familiar chemical taste that infiltrate the fish. This came from the shrimp, (the most amazing looking prawn I have seen since moving to Istanbul) which was a little floury in taste.
Many people often perceive salads as meal fillers or the ‘warm-up act to the main event’. However, many of us have learned to expect surprises from a salad, as they often steal the limelight from the other dishes. The mandoline sliced root vegetable salad lightly dressed with rice vinegar and garnished with the most incredibly tasty chives was no exception. This salad didn’t quite steal the limelight from the upcoming main dish but it stood its own ground, with the additions of pickled turnip and celeriac leaves making it ‘pop’ and creating a worthy taste combination.
Out came the red, a Vinkara 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah. This wine, from Denizli spent one year in oak and was 14 months in age. From the strong legs, you could see the high alcohol content (14.5%.) The nose, although I sensed a little bitterness, followed with the usual suspects of blackberries, currants and a touch of pepper associated with the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah varietals. A lovely pairing with the main dish.
When the duck arrived it was WOW time. This Duck Duo ‘jo jo’ confidently sat on the plate boasting it’s flavour unabashedly. As I tasted the magret de canard with the rhubarb purée, the tenderness of the meat and silkiness of the fruit was a welcomed match. The fois gras with quince was simply ‘melt in your mouth buttery loveliness’ but when dipped in the Speculoos crumbs, on the Chef’s suggestion (their origin from the Netherlands not Belgium as I had first thought) what a combination! A follow up bite of the sweet potato crisps, voila! A masterpiece!
The appearance of the sweet wine, the Vinkara Tatlıca Karecik Karası 2011 was like the ‘fanfare’ of trumpeters playing to mark the entrance of the dessert Rendez-vous. A triumph of creation, the majestic cone of 74% bitter chocolate stood proudly with two blue sugar birds flying atop. As I moved my plate to take a closer look at the dessert samples, I quickly grabbed my chocolate cone before it fell, revealing beneath it hazelnut mousse with a gold leaf garnished nut. Airy and smooth in texture, the parfait was actually, pure hazelnut in taste. These nuts don’t really surprise, as their taste is unique and not easily dressed up or disguised (why would you want to disguise them?)
As I began savouring the rest of the desserts from the front to the back of the plate, the passionfruit mousse was the next stop. Although not usually a fan of passionfruit, this light and fluffy creation was not too strong in fruit flavour and the touch of framboise coulis topped with the mint sugar art, cut through the passionfruit creating a pleasant combination. The mandarin cheesecake atop the brownie was subtle in flavour and blended well with the base.
Next the lime stone pumpkin was up for inspection. Turkish people love their pumpkin desserts, Americans love their pumpkin pie, but as an Australian it is hard to forget about this vegetable, roasted in the oven or on the BBQ splashed with olive oil and freshly ground sea salt and pepper, accompanying the Sunday roast. The lime distracted me from the pumpkin taste a little but I guess my taste receptors can’t forget my roots.
It’s quite ironic that the last morsel was the least appealing to me on paper. When a spoonful of this ‘milky baba’ hit my mouth the soft milky smoothness was nothing short of ‘out of this world’. Gentle, understated, light and fresh milky cake made from full cream buffalo milk. What a surprise it was to like the moist cake-like dessert that never took my fancy too much when my father used to cook warm saucy cake puddings during my childhood.
With so much to describe about the dessert, I didn’t mention the dessert wine. This sweet wine was lighter in texture than most Turkish dessert wines I have tasted and didn’t overpower the array of treasures on the plate. And as if he didn’t have enough to do, we also found out that Chef Rudolf created the pop-up refresher towels that are completely natural, from the materials used to the liquid inside.
Throughout the whole dinner, Chef Van Nunen wowed us with his stories of how to find the best produce in Turkey. From Izmir, Ankara to Bolu and the Aegean Sea, I’m always amazed at the resources a top chef has access to and I felt very fortunate to have been able to taste the jewels of such journeys and share in his foodie knowledge.
What an outstanding food journey to excite my taste buds and reboot my own creative foodie brain for some Foodie Frolicking to come.
Thanks to Marc for organising this incredible meeting with Chef Rudolf. And of course, thanks to the staff of the Marmara Hotel. But the biggest thanks goes to the Executive Chef, whose dedication to searching for and using the freshest of the fresh ingredients, is the secret behind the myriad of taste explosions he creates.
Unleash your inner foodie!