The food in Flame has made the 16th floor of Discovery Primea a new favorite destination for lunch and dinner. General manager David Pardo de Ayala’s background as a chef and executive chef Luis Chikiamco’s culinary skills were contributing substantially to the consistent quality of the restaurant in the five-star hotel. The specialty of the house is modern European with Asian influences, making it the likely choice for Lifestyle Asia editor-at-large Cheryl Tiu to hold another Cross Cultures dinner highlighting Turkish haute cuisine. Cheryl promotes understanding among cultures through food, and has mounted several gastronomic events with international food personalities to that end.
Geographically, Europe and Asia meet in Turkey, making the former Ottoman bastion a transcontinental country. History and culture stirs a pot of rich influences, which Chef Maskut Askar translates with a modern touch. The man behind award winning Neolokal was named 2015 Best Chef by Timeout magazine. When Cheryl met him during a trip abroad, she extended an invitation that was supported by Turkish Airlines. Chef Askar flew to Manila from Istanbul bringing some of his ingredients to mix with what was available here. Helming Flame’s kitchen for two nights, he gave a sampling of traditional food re-imagined with innovations he calls Anatolian. It references a region in modern day Turkey’s westernmost peninsula.
Sitting together with Mr. Pardo de Ayala and Mr. Erhan Balaban, the country manager of Turkish Airlines in the Philippines on the first night of the two-day degustation provided an education and an enhanced appreciation of the 10 courses served by Chef Askar. Joining us at the table was Mrs. Dilek Balaban, who was in town to visit her son. While she spoke limited English, her comments translated by Erhan added to the regard for the Turkish chef’s talent and creativeness.
The plated dishes, as these came in succession, were typically part of a Turkish meal, but the presentation and flavors elevated the food to fine dining fare. “He takes something ordinary and makes it extraordinary,” David remarked, as he finished the cold yogurt soup in a demitasse. The Ayran Asi brought together different textures of popped wheat and fresh chickpeas, adding infused oil for good measure. Our Turkish dinner companions recognized the traditional flavor under a Melba toast and nodded their approval.
We had started on bite size amuses-bouches, which were genuinely pleasing to the palate that a second round was requested in half jest. The Kavun-Peynir was a palatable mosaic of thinly sliced melon squares, with cheese, parsley and red sumac, a Middle Eastern spice from flowering plants. Cig-Kofte was a combination of beef and bulgar, a dry, cracked wheat served as meatball, enlivened by spices. The use of the aromatic and the pungent throughout the dinner was a master’s touch. It did not overpower but brought out flavors that touched the palate, leaving a craving for more. By the time the grilled octopus was served, this non-pulpo eater was receptive to trying the Ahtapot Gambilya. It was vanquished completely with the yellow bean paste, salsa and pickled onions, and I don’t normally eat onions.
Gasps and awe greeted the Double Baked Tahini Hummus, which looked liked a miniature landscape of Mesopotamia, with little peaks and spots of green. Chef Askar had brought 16 spices and created the terrain with powdered porcini, beets, mint, cabbage and other spices. Even Mrs. Dilek was impressed by the artful presentation of something she normally prepares at home. It was her reaction throughout the evening. The food was familiar and the essential flavors were there, but treated with added culinary artistry.
A work-related visit to Turkey a few months ago had not been sufficient to provide a working knowledge of the food and everything still tasted new and different. It was pretty much an adventure of new tastes and textures, as it had been during the recent trip to Istanbul.
When the main course of Katmer & Tirit was served, capacities were close to full. Tirit was beef that had been slow-cooked in a rich duck stock and laid between two paper-thin katmer, an Anatolian filo pastry fried in the duck’s fat. The flavors oozed with every bite. From hindsight, it was good that second servings of previous dishes half-jokingly requested earlier did not happen. The portions had been just right to accommodate the gustatory story telling of Turkish food.
Dessert was a sweet finish with of baklava and lokum or Turkish delight with the fragrance of roses in the mouth that brought back happy recollections of the Spice Market in Istanbul. What was new and amazing was the crispy pumpkin in syrup. It appeared like cubes of jelly, firm to the bite with a soft sweetness within. This was a personal favorite that night.
The thought of having Turkish tea was overtaken by the wine provided by Happy Living to accompany the meal. It was a complete experience, nonetheless, shared with fine company leaving nothing to be desired, save possibly another trip to Turkey for more of the same.
Text by Anna Isabel C. Sobrepena
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