Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Italian, by way of Iran, in Westwood: Cafe Glacé Persian Pizza

Even though I've lived among Iranians all my life here in Los Angeles, my trip to Turkey made me think about my relationship to my culture in a whole host of new ways.  Neighboring Iran, it's the closest I've ever been to my native country since I was a baby, and there were so many things that felt familiar, so many experiences that pulled me back to tiny moments from my childhood, which for the first time had context.  Meanwhile, being around plenty of Iranians who were actually there from Iran, who didn't have have 'hyphen American' tacked on to their nationality, gave me a taste of how out-of-touch I am with Iran today.  Then, two amazing conversations I had there in Persian, one with an Afghan who left his country for Turkey as a child, and one with a young Iranian guy who'd only been in Turkey a few months, had such a strong effect on me that I'm still trying to process exactly why, especially considering my own relationship with Iranian-Americans here at home has always been a little tenuous.  All the while though, I wasn't in Iran, I was in Turkey, and as comfortable and familiar as it felt, there was the constant reminder that I was very much a foreigner in this land: Turkish is a language with which I'm completely unfamiliar.

Amid all this ruminating and cultural confusion, a trip to a restaurant in Westwood's 'Tehrangeles' quarter called Cafe Glacé -- a phrase that fills me with nostalgia -- that serves something called Persian pizza -- a concept I didn't know existed -- fits right in.  I've waxed sentimental about Persian cuisine (all over this blog, for one thing) for ages. But what I know of it is what came with us to the United States over 30 years ago: the food cooked at home, the traditional dishes of rice, heady spices, tangy fruits, and grilled meats passed down from mother to daughter in humble family kitchens.

Friends, there is a major gap in my knowledge of Iranian cuisine.  I'm behind the times.  How could I possibly know about modern Iranian street food?  Evidently, pizza places are a common occurence in cities like Tehran and especially Shiraz.  And, like in the United States, pizza in Iran has taken on an identity of its own, a far cry from its Italian roots.  (Side note: why does everyone appropriate -- and bastardize -- Italian food?  I had "spaghetti" in Tokyo that was dressed with corn, octopus, cream sauce, and seaweed.  All in one dish.  Wha?  Side note to side note:  The fork-twirling skills of the clientele at said Tokyo spaghetti joint, accustomed to eating with chopsticks, put me to serious shame.)

The pizza I tried tonight had no sauce.  It was personal-sized, on a thin but soft and substantial crust.  The toppings, pretty much chosen for me, included chopped green peppers and tomatoes, thin slices of mushroom, and meat in the form of chopped kalbas and discs of saucise (baloney and hot dog, respectively), and were packed in to the very edges of the crust.  All of this was topped with a layer of cheese, then browned fast and at high temperature, resulting in vegetables that stayed bright and just barely cooked under a puffy layer of crisp browned cheese.  Evidently the Tehran cool kids squirt these guys generously with ketchup and ranch dressing -- bizarre to me, but I must admit, it works.  Persian pizza is not the high cuisine of the shahs, but you know what?  It's really satisfying.
What else are the cool kids in Iran eating these days?  Well, if the menu at Cafe Glacé is any indication, they enjoy chips o paneer, potato chips topped with melted mozzarella cheese (and more ketchup and ranch, obvs); and carrot juice floats, two scoops of vanilla ice cream in a tall glass with carrot juice poured over.  Freshly squeezed juices, along with a handful of French-bread sandwiches -- hot dog, salad olivieh (a mayonnaise-laden salad of chicken, potatoes, and pickles), and kotlet (fried patties of ground meat and potatoes) -- round out the list, along with the namesake dessert: a float of ice cream in a tall glass of milky iced coffee, walking the line between milkshake and affogato.
I really wanted to try the bizarro carrot juice and ice cream combo, but the heavy entrees left room only for tea and a shared zoulbia.  We sipped and took in the scene all around us:  tables of young Iranians -- some with veils, some with dreads -- collectively burning their tongues on sizzling-hot cheese and commenting cattily on the cosmetic surgery choices of every hot new JLo-esque Persian pop starlet crooning in highly produced music videos on the flatscreen behind the counter.  As soon as I got into my car, I put on my favorite Persian pop, too.  Shahram Shabpareh's Diyar, Persian pop circa 1980.

Cafe Glacé is at 1441 Westwood Blvd., about 5 blocks south of Wilshire.
The Los Angeles Times writes about Cafe Glacé

Monday, August 29, 2011

Summer Vacation: Ceviche Tostada at Mariscos Sinaloa

When I came back from Turkey, I still had a few glorious days of vacation to do whatever I want:  namely, drive around and enjoy sunny Los Angeles, unfettered by the restrictions of a nine-to-five, getting home in time to fall into intense death-like slumber at weird hours of the day.  One morning, I had an errand to run in Highland Park (OK, said errand was to take advantage of this vacation time to finally go to Galco's Soda Pop Stop, a fascinating little shop with a million different bottles of soda from around the world.  I went to get this limited edition reissue (can a soda be reissued?) of an old Highland Park cream soda.  It was good.), and quickly realized I needed lunch.
Yelp iPhone app to the rescue, I discovered amazing Mariscos Sinaloa.  A reminder of how easy it is to find excellent, cheap Mexican food in this city if you just step out of the hipster vortex a little (and bring your Yelp app).  Their shrimp ceviche tostada, at about $3.50, was so fresh and bright:  a pretty giant mound of tangy shrimp, tomatoes, chopped onions and cilantro (I know.  I used to hate it, too.  It actually grew on me) piled on a crisp tostada.  Perfect lunch on a sunny LA summer vacation day.

Mariscos Sinaloa is at 5633 York Blvd. in Highland Park
Galco's is at 5702 York Blvd.

Friday, August 26, 2011

what can i say?

totally planning to write last night. scheduled it in for days, had even made tea.  there would be fascinating stories about our istanbul food tour, and how i've brought turkish eating home.  but then comes a "wanna meet for a glass of wine?" IM.  so i went to covell, and had some rare fancy rosé: 10 cases in the whole US, and 2 of them are at covell. the unicorn of rosés.

i mean...it's summer!  can you blame me?

back with real stuff soon, i promise!

thanks to Robert S. Donovan for the photo

Sunday, August 21, 2011

my sister's house

There is always a basket filled with a variety of teabags in my sister's kitchen.
My brother-in-law Ray doesn't mind that I use his "Ray" mug, even though it says "Ray" on it.  It's from Hawaii.  It's my favorite. 

There is a giant glass apothecary jar in the cabinet filled with Cheerios, are there are situations like this happening on the wall.

These are good things when you have jetlag and are up at 5 o'clock in the morning.

When the kids finally wake up, they snuggle with you and let you hang out with their toes.

It's a cozy kind of place.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Turkey: We Should Probably Start With Breakfast

So, back in town to LA and happy to report gratitude is back in droves.  And not just in a all-my-limbs-intact, able-to-pay-the-bills kind of way, but, and I fear jinxing it, feeling actually lucky.  In the random-person-offers-me-boat-ride-to-perfect-mediterranean-bay-for-no-reason kind of way.  Like, that actually happened.  So many things happened on this trip, it was so packed with moments, chance meetings with interesting people, instant connections, incredible coincidences, that they all piled on top of each other, so densely that I'm overwhelmed with the task of processing it all.  But one thing was consistent and easy to report from our trip to Turkey:  breakfast.  It was the same every day, and every day it was heaven.  So, let's start at the beginning.  Let's talk about breakfast.

Turks are very serious about breakfast, and every place you stay will include "Traditional Turkish Breakfast" in your room rate.  There were definitely variations, but the basics are this:

- Bread.  Typically, crusty slices from a French-style loaf, though we happily got wheat bread on some occasions.
 - Tomatoes.  The tomatoes we had during this trip were consistently delicious.
 - Cucumbers.
 - Olives.  Usually black, slightly shriveled, and very salty.  Sometimes green ones too.
 - Cheese.  Usually beyaz peynir, Turkish "white cheese", but sometimes you get a selection.
 - Butter.
 - Honey or jam.
 - Tea.  Lots of it.  Turkish çay is poured quite strong, and is usually served in tiny narrow-waisted glasses. 

At our hostel in Istanbul, breakfast was served at the bar on the rooftop terrace. 

Every day the tomatoes were perfect.  Every day we sat at this table.

The view to our left looked like this.

One of the most awesome things we did on this trip was a day-long food tour with Istanbul Eats.  I can't recommend it highly enough, and it will get its own post here soon.  But in the meantime, we started the day with breakfast -- traditional Turkish breakfast, of course -- at an old local spot in the dreamy Cihangir neighborhood called Özkonak.  It's known for a sweet pudding that secretly houses finely shredded chicken breast, but for us, they laid out a perfect breakfast spread.

Here we discovered something new:  kaymak.  (Note, it's the one next to the tomato and cucumber plate in the photo above.)  It's an amazingly delicious dairy product similar to clotted cream.  It's very rich, and has that complex creamy taste that you simply will not find in American dairy products.  Spread some on a bite of bread, top with honey, swoon.  Oh, kaymak.

We also met menemen, an egg dish with a sauce of tomatoes and mild green peppers.  Similar to the shakshuka we know and love from Israel and the rest of the Middle East, it has an equally adorable name.

And then there's sucuk (pronounced "soo-JOOK".  'C' is pronounced like 'j' in Turkish.  Just accept it now, so we can move on).   Heavily spiced, fatty, garlicky beef sausage.  I couldn't get enough of it. (PS I want these little handled pans in my life!)

The next day was Sunday, and our new Istanbulite friend Evren, whom we had met Thursday night, graciously invited us to breakfast on the Bosphorus.  She is a woman with great love for her beautiful city, and wanted to make sure we experience its tradition of laid-back Sunday breakfast on the waterfront.  We went to a place called Sade Kahve ("Plain Coffee") in the Bebek neighborhood: a colorful spot, all outdoors, under a tent, across the street from the beautiful Bosphorus Strait.  The spread was so dreamy: all the basics were there, including beloved kaymak (thank God), this time drenched in honey; as well as a couple extra cheeses, and a new variety of cold cut.  The vegetables were a little fancier, as they included long mild green peppers and fresh parsley.  Here, we ordered eggs with sucuk, and they came fried together in a copper pot, runny yolks perfect for sopping up with bread.  A serious highlight that you can bet will be gracing my LA kitchen (not that it'd ever taste the same... sigh).

After Istanbul, we went to Kapadokya (Cappadocia if you prefer.  The Turkish way is easier to spell, so I'm sticking with it.), a magical desert with crazy rock formations called fairy chimneys (!!) which have been carved into cave homes and monasteries, underground cities, and ancient cathedrals over the centuries.  We were extremely lucky to stay at the Kismet Cave House, a small and homey guest house with beautiful rooms furnished with the work of local artisans, and rustic farm breakfast on the terrace every morning.

Tiny apples and apricots were clearly from someone's tree.

Homemade yogurt sat in a clay pot.

And beside it, a glass and wood box held honey, complete with honeycomb.  It hardened like candy the second you pulled some out from the box.

On the first morning, Shukru, the sweet Afghan guy who worked there every day and who spoke to me in Persian with his cute Afghani accent, came around with French toast for all.

On the second day, we got the most amazing treat of all:  fresh cream that came from the cow of Faruk, the hotel's owner, that very morning.  I can't believe I had this experience.  It kind of makes my heart swell.  And my God, it was one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted.
Oh, and tea!  Always tea.  The Turkish word for breakfast is kahvalti, which means "before coffee".  With breakfast, you have tea.  After breakfast, maybe some coffee (then again, maybe more tea).  At best, it comes in these tiny, curvy glasses, the sexiest bit of glassware I've ever seen. 

Our last stop before going back to Istanbul was Olimpos, a little vacation village consisting of a single valley leading through evergreen forest to the Mediterranean.  The valley is lined with 'pensions', modest hotels usually consisting of wooden bungalows to sleep in, and a big open-air common area for meals, drinks, and hanging out.  We stayed at the Orange Pansiyon, a cozy spot that felt like Turkish working-class family summer camp to us.  So, here's traditional Turkish breakfast, summer-camp style.

Look familiar?

Breakfast at Orange means tea for the masses. Sometimes, Turkish tea is not about daintiness: this contraption allows three big teapots to steep over boiling water, (similar to Persian-style tea), and a little spout on the side allows you dilute your tea with said boiling water to the strength of tea you desire.
And fifteen photos later, that's breakfast! Guys, processing this trip is gonna take a while.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

On getting your gratitude back

I was having a conversation in my head last night, that I planned to have with my traveling companion -- an old good friend -- when I saw her: "what do you hope to get out of this trip?"  As soon as the thought came, I turned it around on myself.

This post is more for me than you.  These thoughts were so good, I didn't want them to just fly away.  I'm putting it in writing to hold myself accountable.  I want this trip to be about getting my gratitude back.  

In 2003, I traveled to Greece, and to this day I still think it's my favorite place I've ever been to.  Our days were simple and amazing.  After breakfast in our modest hotel room of market-bought bread, jam, and the most amazing apple juice I've ever had, we'd spend most mornings on a bus to a beach -- one day a red-sand one we'd have to hike down to, the next day a quiet white-sand shore with warm water and perfect waves.  We'd spend the day at the beach, then bus it back to Mykonos town in the afternoon.  I remember on one bus ride back through empty, rural parts of the island, I found myself ignoring the conversations going on around me, and staring out the window.  As I quietly looked out at the small, sleepy towns, the simple but beautiful white and blue buildings, I realized how lucky I was.  As I wrote in my travel journal on that day, "I am so grateful for my amazing life."

These days, I've been spinning.  Between the ups and downs of work and the ups and downs of life, not to mention an ever-present internet that manages to fill every spare moment with the addictive anticipation that comes with refresh-refresh-refresh, sometimes those thoughts of gratitude -- even though I know deep down they are true -- don't quite stick.  I love being the grateful, amazed version of me, though. 

I'm excited to be going to a place where I really don't know what to expect.  I'm excited to be pulled out of a world whose daily details I have totally mastered, and be thrown into the polar opposite of that stagnancy:  new streets, new language, new everything.  I do think that our accommodations and plans will lead to encounters with a broad set of people, and this I have the highest hopes for:  nothing really gets me buzzing like that first conversational connection with someone interesting.

So, that's my hope, the raw ingredients are there, but I don't think I can force it.  My plan is to be as open as I can be -- eyes, heart, and mind -- take everything in, and make sure I have some quiet time to let it all sink in and do its magic.  When I come back, who knows, maybe I'll be a changed person.  More likely though, I'll be the 'me' I've been all along, grateful for my amazing life.

Monday, August 01, 2011


Galata Bridge...
Friends!  I am overjoyed to report that I will be going to Turkey this week.  I'm not sure what to expect, but I'd like to think that some things that fill my trip will will be hot summer nights spent on rooftop bars overlooking the sea, beach time in a dream world that encompasses not just my beloved Mediterranean, but also the Aegean Sea, the Sea of Marmara, and the Black Sea, an exotic crossroads of Middle Eastern and European cultures, with a bit of Ottoman opulence thrown in, a world of warm and very kind people, and a place where, gloriously, food is taken very, very seriously.

I intend to come back with a brain and heart shifted by new experiences -- I kind of need that.   I couldn't be more excited for this trip, and can't wait to share pictures and stories with you when I come back!  Until then, hoşçakal!

Thanks to Kıvanç Niş for the beautiful photo.