Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Swissôtel Istanbul Gaja Restaurant + Perfume = "The Nose meets The Chef"

Dear readers,

My first venture into the world of food and wine started about 20+ years ago when I worked in the Establishment Services Division at American Express in NYC. During the five years of my tenure in the ES Division, I was very fortunate and had a chance to visit some of the best restaurants in the city and expand my knowledge of different cuisines and the wonderful world of wines! Before returning to Istanbul in 1995 after living in NYC for 30 years, I got hooked on California wines and Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill, De Niro's Nobu, Tribeca Grill, Boom, Johnney's Fish Grill were on the top of my very long list of the wonderful restaurants to go to in the Big Apple. On the other hand, I still haven't forgotten the tastes of the burgers at McCann's, the Irish Coffee and home cooking dishes at McFadden's or the delicious grilled reuben sandwiches at the many Deli's around town as well as the one served at the a la carte restaurant at our American Express offices at the World Financial Center!

These are wonderful memories that will stay with me forever. After moving to Istanbul, I started to extensively travel to Paris which is my favorite city in the world... Here, I started to learn about French wines and French cuisine and I was in tenth heaven! The best duck I've ever had was definitely at D'Argent... the best service and fine dining experience at Pierre Gagnaire... the best oysters at La Dome and Bofinger... Alaine Ducasse's Aux Lyonnaise, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Market are some other favorites... I can actually go on and on. Also, for all-day or  "trendy" type dining, I also do love to go to L'Avenue, Costes, La Societe (all Costes group restaurants) as well as Les Deux Magots (great omelets, quiches) and Cafe de Flores for people watching and champagne!

On the other hand, the wining and dining scene was kind of weak when I first returned to Istanbul, but talk about "you've come a long way baby" Istanbul has truly come a long way and now has many excellent restaurants and chefs (Turkish and foreign).

I do have a habit of having long intros to my posts, but that's me! I always like to add a personal touch and do also have a tale or two to share before getting down to brass tacks! It is my blog and I want to share a piece of myself with my readers as well!

So, last week when I received the above invitation from the Swissôtel's PR company I was totally intrigued and immediately accepted the invitation because besides everything else, I am a major fan of the Gaja restaurant's Executive Chef William Mahi (see my post on a dinner I had at Gaja last year when he first arrived) and through the years, the Swissôtel's General Manager Gerhard Struger, Marketing and PR Director Yeşim Doğukan and Yasemin Kerimoğlu Uçar (also a member of the Marketing Department) have become a part of my extended family because of all the wonderful moments and meals we've shared together!

This event was organized in cooperation with La Déesse, Turkey's first "design perfume boutique" with two branches in Nişantaşı and where select brands of perfurmes such as Maison Francis Kurkdijian, Keiko Mecheri, Miller Harris and much more (visit their website for more details) are sold. When it comes to perfume, I'm not very adventurous and have been using the same perfume for years! I don't use perfume according to my moods so once I get fixated on a certain perfume... that's it for me until I feel it's time to switch and I haven't gotten that feeling yet! Just in case you are wondering, I use Kenzo's Flowers eau du parfum. So, for this reason, I hadn't heard about La Déesse before, but will visit their shop on my next visit to Nişantaşı. 

With great enthusiasm I promptly arrived at Gaja at 7:30pm totally not knowing what to expect and what kind of relationship there was between perfume and food! The first surprise was that no alcohol or any other type of beverages except for water or club soda would be served with our meal! My first reaction as well as some of the other guests was "what no wine!" After our first shock wore off and being adults of course we went with the flow! However, this did not stop some of the guests (including me) from having a cocktail at the bar while we waited for everyone to arrive!

We then moved over to the private dining room at Gaja to begin our journey! Our "hosts" for the evening were Executive Chef William Mahi's creative and innovative dishes and an explanation of all the dishes and how they were developed and created by Vedat Ozan, a perfumer or fragrance specialist. Besides being a professional perfumer, Mr. Ozan is also a photographer and instructor at Bilgi University. He is currently in the process of completing a four volume book titled "Kokular" (Scents) and also gives classes on the subject at  workshops.

I'm not quite sure to explain this in a short and sweet way, but basically the whole concept of the dishes incorporated different scents (figs, mango, cucumber, lemon, anise, rose) used to make perfumes. Does this make sense? For example, before each dish was served, we were given out a perfurmed scented stick with the scent in question from a particular brand of perfume. The reason why no alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages were served was so that they wouldn't mask the taste of the scents in the food...

The menu ....

included a 5-course dinner and dessert and the following were the goodies we had...

Duck Liver * confit * opera * apple marmalade * honey * caramel * figs (top)
Scallops * fish roe * Jerusalem artichokes * coco * mango (bottom)
Lobster * cannelloni * tomato x 3 * goat cheese * cucumber (left)
Sea bass * olive oil * pistachio * lemon * eucalyptus (top right)
Lamb * roasted * vegetables * butter * sauce * anise (bottom right)
Simply called Rose (rose water scented sherbet, chocolate and crıspy strawberry chips)
Except for not being a "lamb" lover and any dish that includes rose water, as always William's dishes were excellent! My particular favorite was the duck liver which was incredible!

Yes... it was definitely a different experience and I did find it very informative and I'm happy to have had the opportunity to be part of a different type of culinary experience, but I must admit... in the long run... nothing beats a great meal with good friends and a bottle or two of excellent wine!

I would like to thank La Déesse and the Swissôtel team for inviting me. It was a pleasure making new acquaintances and seeing old-time good friends!

William Mahi, Vildan (Dani) Yahni, Artun Ünsal (journalist & writer), Gerhard Struger, Yeşim Doğukan, Yasemin Kerimoğlu Uçar (left to right)

Footnote: After I posted this article, I realized I left out two details. First, we were told not to apply perfume before coming to the dinner either  and after our "alcohol free" dinner, we were served champagne! (January 31)

I would like to add a final note - or rather a plug for Gaja Restaurant! During the winter months Gaja is located on the 14th floor of the hotel and moves to the terrace for the summer. For a truly fine dining experience with excellent food, superior service and a magnificent view with a sublime ambiance, Gaja is definitely worth a visit. Is it expensive? Yes... but it is definitely worth it and what great restaurant isn't expensive?

Gaja Restaurant view from the restaurant's balcony

Bosphorus Bridge View from Gaja Restaurant

View from Gaja Restaurant

 Stay well!

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