Thursday, December 8, 2011

Gaja: Restaurant supreme at the Swissôtel The Bosphorus, Istanbul!

Dear readers,

I hate to start off on a negative note, but if the truth be told, hotel restaurants have gotten a bad rap for the longest time!

Most residents of a city do not prefer to go to lunch or dinner at hotel restaurants because they think that 1) they are too sterile; 2) full of just tourists; 3) a good place for a formal business meeting; and 4) they are expensive!

There are some truths to the above, however, many hotel restaurants in Istanbul have a come a long way in the past 10 years and have made wonderful strides to attract a wider audience of diners.

In fact, hotels with several restaurants have either hired a separate Executive Chef for their premieur restaurant or in some cases - like at the Marmara Pera Hotel in Tepebaşı, have turned over the management of their main restaurant to an outside restauranteur and the fine dining Mikla restaurant has been wowing diners from around the world for years.

But, this is not our subject at hand! I will be writing about a hotel restaurant - managed by the hotel that has been getting critical acclaim from locals ever since it opened: Gaja Restaurant at the Swissôtel, The Bosphorus Istanbul Hotel.

The Swissôtel The Bosphorus Istanbul Hotel is located on a hilltop in Maçka offering a magnificent view of the Bosphorus. To get to Gaja, once you enter the hotel, make a right at the "edible" Gingerbread House (erected to celebrate the holidays) and head towards the elevators in this wing and press the button for the 14th floor.

Gingerbread House in hotel lobby

Gaja is located on the 14th floor of the Swissôtel during the fall/winter months and then moves to the 16th terrace around the end of May when the weather gets nicer:both offer superb views of the Bosphorus and surroundings...

Gaja Restaurant/Swissôtel The Bosphorus, Istanbul
Needless to say, Gaja is a fine dining restaurant and I was first "introduced" to Gaja when Gerhard Strugher - General Manager and Yeşim Doğukan, Director of Marketing & PR invited me along with several food writers/journalists when they first opened for a tasting.

Then, the Executive Chef was Murat Karaduman and even though a Turk, he had spent most of his life living abroad and came to Istanbul from Portugal. To this day, I remember the excellent meal we had that night!

As is common with Executive Chefs at hotels, after a certain period of time, they transfer to other hotel properties or sometimes decide to leave the hospitality industry and move on to the restaurant industry.

After Chef Karaduman departed - (he decided to stay in Istanbul and has been the Executive Chef of X Restaurant & Bar atop the Istanbul Culture & Arts Foundation building in Şişhane), we were then introduced to James Wilkins.

Before joining the Gaja Restaurant, the UK born Chef Wilkins was the Executive Chef at the Michel Bras restaurant in Toya, Japan. Before that, he worked at many 1 and 3 michelin star restaurants in London and France (3 michelin star Michel Bras in France; 1 michelin star The Green House and The Orrery in London, etc.).

Once again "our group" was invited to Gaja several times to taste Chef Wilkins wonderful dishes.

Then we got word several months ago that Chef Wilkins had moved on and that a new Executive Chef was coming on board!

With great anticipation,we waited for the day that he would arrive, settle in and be ready to show and impress us with his talents in the kitchen!

A couple of weeks ago I received an email to say that that the 'day' had arrived! Our group was invited to a special dinner on December 7th(yesterday) prepared by Executive Chef William Mahi! Chef Mahi is from the Basque region in France. He ventured into the culinary world in 1996 and worked up the ranks in the culinary world by working at numerous restaurants throughout France before going "international". He wa at the Le Vendôme Restaurant at the Intercontinental in Beirut, Lebanon  and between 2008 - 2010, he worked at the KEE Shanghai and Lan Club Shanghai in China and before coming to the Swissôtel, he was at the Mahi Restaurant in Luxemburg. Welcome to Istanbul Chef Mahi! I'm sure you will enjoy your tenure here! I know we will!

The picture of the chef below was taken at the end of the evening, so don't think he was hanging out with us during dinner - he was too busy working miracles in the kitchen!

Executive Chef William Mahi
Unfortunately, after a few weeks of mild weather in Istanbul, yesterday was quite cold and raining heavily! But, the weather couldn't hold me back from going to Gaja!

We started gathering at the bar at around 7:30pm where we were offered flutes of Ruinart champagne. Besides Gerhard and Yeşim, the hotel's Operations Manager Christian, Kiraz PR Agency's Yeşim Aksoy along with food writers/journalists Artun Ünsal (Posta Newspaper), Figen Batur (Hürriyet Newspaper), Müge Akgün (Radikal Newspaper) and Zeyno Gürses Dolay (founder, website) were in attendance. Our normal "group of attendees" does have a few more members, but unfortunately they couldn't join us because they were travelling.

We then moved to our table to start our journey of the 8 + 1 course menu specially prepared for us and paired with wines! I say "specially" for us because not all of the selections we had are on Gaja's menu, but it was a way for the chef to show us his different styles and techniques.

In short, Chef Mahi, as far as I'm concerned (I don't want to talk for everyone, but I do know they too felt the same) is an excellent chef! The emphasis of the menu he prepared included a variety of seafood, which is something I always prefer. Even though the servings might appear small (as they are in most fine dining restaurants!), they were so hearty that by the end of the meal I thought I would burst! I've been to other tastings at lots of different venues like this before, but have not felt the same way. So, I can say Chef Mahi cooks "good old wholesome and rustic food"! I guess it is all in the ingredients and how they are used!

I will quickly run through the meal we had without boring you too much and then give you more detailed information on the White Truffle Festival and Gaja's new menu. Sorry for the quality of some of the pictures - there wasn't enough light and all the plates were white - but you'll still get the idea!

The reason I said 8 +1 course is that we were served a surprise course!

Soft boiled egg with white truffles
This dish was incredibly delicious! Who knew what you could do with a simple soft boiled egg by just flavoring it with white truffles and herbs & spices!

This course and the following 3 courses were served accompained with white wine from France/ Pouilly Fumé, Goulaine - 2008.

Mushroom consommé with white truffles
Noix de Saint-Jacques (sea scallops) with hazelnut butter & chestnuts
Baby Calamari San Sebastian
You know, just writing about the meal I had last night is making the juices in my mouth runneth over again!!!! Everything was so good...

Interestingly, it took 4 days to prepare the mushroom consommé - it was slow cooked and reduced to finally attain its final texture and flavors! It was surprisingly light and seasoned perfectly.

On the other hand, the sea scallops were prepared by just throwing them on a hot pan for a couple of seconds! On the menu they called this process "snacking", but I couldn't confirm this terminology, but suffice to say it was so so moist and just melted in our mouths! I can say the same for the baby calamari - it too just melted in our mouths! If calamari is not cooked properly it can be very tough - that wasn't a problem with this dish.

The following two dishes were served with wine from Italy - Rossj-Bass, Langhe, Gaja, 2009

Poached half lobster with oil oil powder
Risotto "Piémonte' Style

I honestly enjoyed every single course offered us (this might not be the case at all tastings), however, my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE was the poached half lobster and as if I hadn't already eaten alot, I wanted to say "more, more!" The "white stuff" you see next to the lobster is powdered or confectionery olive oil - who would have thought! And, the little tube of olive oil is so that you can inject some olive oil into the lobster before eating! The lobster was perfectly cooked! The risotto was prepared flavored with calamari and topped with white truffles. You only slightly got the flavor of the calamari which was interesting! The risotto was served on a bed of red wine sauce.

The following dish was served with red wine from Chile - 1865 Carmenere, 2002

Roasted Turbot with white truffles, cannelloni beans & mushroom
Personally, I am not a big fan of turbot, however, it is in season and one of the most popular fish in Turkey. I had a bad experience with turbot years ago and I was a little hesitant about tasting this dish. However, I didn't have anything to fear! Also, instead of white wine, we were served red wine and the pairing was excellent. The mushroom was very soft and tasty and the cannelloni beans were cooked al dente (so don't think they are undercooked if you order this dish if it is on the menu!)

Our final dish before dessert was served with a red wine from Italy - Barolo, Falletto, Bruno Glascosa, 2003

Turkish Beef Tenderloin served with a spoon!
Chef Mahi called this dish "Turkish" Beef Tenderloin served with a spoon because the meat is local and you eat it with a spoon! Yes, you read me correctly! The meat was slow cooked for 24 hours and it was so moist that you don't need a knife and fork and can just dig in with a spoon! It was served with a side of herbed mashed potatoes which I included in the shot by holding it in my hand so that you can see it - it wasn't served on the plate with the pot.

The last and final dish of our dinner extraordinaire was served with Moet & Chandon Nectar Imperial champagne.

Istanbul by Night
Chef Mahi calls this dish "Istanbul by Night". It includes coffee ice cream served with pieces of chocolate wafers with melted chocolate stuffed between the wafers! It was heavenly and surprisingly very light! The reason I am saying chocolate "wafers" and not chocolate pieces is because it wasn't "just" chocolate and tasted like a wafer! It was interesting how this was accomplished, but that's why I'm not a chef and he is!

It was a lovely evening... we then made a quick trip to the kitchen... took some pictures and also met the "others" behind the scenes and thanked everyone for this very pleasant evening in good company...

Gaja kitchen

Executive Chef William Mahi, Figen Batur, Müge Akgün, Vildan (Dani) Yahni (left to right)

I guess you won't be surprised that I highly recommend Gaja Restaurant! So, if you want to treat yourself to an excellent meal in a sublime atmosphere  with an excellent view with superb and efficient service headed by Restaurant Manager Osman Cebe and his team, make sure to make a reservation! Yes, it is expensive, but what fine dining restaurant isn't? At least you'll get your money's worth!

About the White Truffles Festival..

Until December 15th, a special set menu under the heading "Tartufi di Alba" is available at Gaja Restaurant. The 7 course meal is 315 TL/person and 575 TL/person paired with wines. Prices include VAT.

About Gaja's new menu...

 Undoubtedly, a new chef means a new menu! I think from the above you got an idea of Chef Mahi's style...he has been at Gaja Restaurant since October and the menu selections includes a variety of seafood and meat dishes. Besides some of the fish dishes I mentioned above, some other goodies include but are not limited to Goose Liver Terrine and Baked Lamb Shank. Let the rest be a surprise!

The following has nothing to do with my write up on Gaja... but I do want to take a minute to plug my other blog! It's called LOL:Life of Luka and it includes the escapades of Luka... my 14 month old maltese terrier. The blog is fairly new, I haven't had a chance to interview him that often right now, but will be making a new post shortly. He does have lots of ideas, but his mother is too busy to write about them right now. So, if you haven't had a chance, please visit: I'm sure he will be thrilled and get motivated to write!

 Keep well!