11 November 2009

Harem Cafe, Manners Mall

Apologies for not having blogged lately - but I promise it's not because I've been lazy! I've been keeping myself very busy with several new commitments, and before that, E and I went on a spontaneous camping trip to the middle of nowhere, which I highly recommend if you're too short on cash to take a holiday to a tropical island, but still want to get away from cellphones, internet, civilisation... total peaceful bliss.

We weren't feeling very peaceful or blissful upon our return, though; the long drive back had left us tired, cranky, and most of all, hungry, as long drives back from the middle of nowhere are inclined to do. And in light of the fact that E was about to leave Wellington for a couple months at his parents' house, we headed to one of his favourite Turkish restaurants, Harem in Manners Mall.

The first thing you notice upon entering is this rather striking grotto-like staircase that leads to Harem's upstairs dining room.

Stalagtites hang from the ceiling, illuminated by colourful lights... this definitely isn't your average restaurant entryway.

Inside, the dining room is less cave-like but just as whimsically decorated, with stained glass, stone walls, and little nooks and crannies housing various objects.

Upon being seated, E and I were surprised with some complimentary garlic bread (menu price $6.50). I'm not sure if this is a usual practice at dinnertime, since we usually go to Harem for lunch, but our grumbling stomachs appreciated the gesture. A divinely chewy Turkish bread (which also forms the base for Harem's Turkish pizzas), slathered with garlic butter - I had forgotten how good garlic bread can be.

Since we were extra hungry, we ordered sigara boregi ($10) to start, not quite sure what we would be getting. These crispy fried filo rolls looked a little like spring rolls, but the filling was entirely different - herbs, feta and mozzarella melted together to form a mild but comfortingly creamy, oozy interior.

E ordered the kusbasili pizza ($17.50), an oblong pide, or Turkish pizza, with a supple, airy crust topped with seasoned lamb, tomato, red onion, capsicum and herbs.

The crust had that chewy, crispy consistency you find on the best Italian woodfired pizzas, but was thicker and more substantial. The topping was delicately flavoured, not overpowered by cheeese and sauce like some pizzas can be. E declared it the best pizza in Wellington (I'll probably stick to my Italian favourites but Harem's pide is definitely among my top 5).

Wanting to try something different-sounding, I ordered kabak boregi($19.50), shredded pumpkin and mozzarella cheeses sandwiched between layers of filo pastry, served with salad and sweet chilli sauce. It wasn't bad - but compared to other dishes I've had at Harem I think it lacked the fresh, made-to-order quality of, say, the pizzas or our entree. The filo crust wasn't particularly crispy, but rather soft and chewy. In the grand scheme of things, it was still entirely palatable, but I probably wouldn't order it next time.

Despite the slight disappointment, I still enjoyed my meal, and have had enough fantastic meals there in the past that it didn't tarnish my opinion of Harem. The breads and pizzas are hard to beat, and the atmosphere feels like something out of a fairy tale. Service has always been prompt and friendly, though I've only really been there at off-peak times so don't know what it's like, say, on a Saturday night. Overall, it's a special little place. Recommended.


Harem Cafe and Meze Bar
1F, 90 Manners Mall
(04) 499 9771

Open for lunch (11:30am-3pm) and dinner (5pm-late)

03 November 2009

Koriental Restaurant, Mt Victoria

It had been a while since I'd had Korean food, so when I spotted Koriental Korean and Chinese Restaurant on Majoribanks St, I made a mental note to try it as soon as possible. The opportunity came last Saturday, with E and I needing a quick, filling meal prior to the night's Halloween festivities. (yes, I celebrated Halloween, dressed up as Hunter S Thompson!)

We were ravenous, so a starter of jin man doo (steamed pork dumplings, $6) was in order.

This would probably fall more under the "Chinese" than Korean category, but even though I was after Korean food it's very rare for me to pass up dumplings.

These were succulent and tender, the wrapper steamed to a toothsome chewiness and the pork and chive filling juicy and flavourful. Definitely a good start - we devoured them in no time.

E had the go choo zha-jiang ($12), which was a bowl of homemade noodles served with a surprisingly full bowl of pork in a spicy black bean sauce on the side.

Again, this seemed to be another Chinese-influenced dish. The bits of diced pork hidden in the sauce were reminiscent of Chinese BBQ pork, though they were very small and almost indiscernible. The noodles, made on-site, were an excellent vehicle for the thick, black bean sauce.

E deliberately chose the spicy option (there are milder ones), since he is a bit of a chilli fiend - but this was especially hot, judging by the beads of sweat on his brow (I could hardly handle a small bite). He explained, though, that it was a manageable heat - not the kind that creeps up on you until you can't take it anymore, but one that burns quickly, then recedes, allowing you to keep eating without too much pain.

I had the hot-pot bibimbap ($13), which arrived in a sizzling stone dish. A mix of thinly sliced beef, vegetables and rice were served in a colourful arrangement, topped with a half-cooked egg.

"Have you had bibimbap before?" our waiter asked politely. I was familiar with the concept of stirring everything together just before eating so that the egg gets cooked against the hot stone and the ingredients get coated in the spicy chilli sauce. I was glad he asked, though, since people who haven't tried this dish might not be aware of the technique involved.

The sesame-chilli sauce here was different to other sauces I've had with bibimbap, though my experience with Korean food isn't too extensive. I loved the nuttiness of the sesame, and the chilli wasn't all that fiery, so I greedily squirted more sauce from the bottle provided on the side.

When mixed together against the hot stone, the egg sort of disappeared into the medley of ingredients, the vegetables cooked down, and the rice got that half-crispy, half-chewy texture I love. Kind of like a DIY fried rice, and the bowl kept my food warm until the very last bite. I'll definitely be getting this again.

Of course, a Korean meal wouldn't be complete without kimchi and other assorted side dishes. Koriental's kimchi was cool and refreshing - I thought it was one of the less spicy, less pungent kimchis I've had. As far as fermented foods go, kimchi is probably one of the easiest to start with, and it complements Korean food so well.

I'm guessing at names here, but I'm pretty sure the dish above is gamja jorim (potato cooked in sweet soy sauce). The chunks of potato were sweet and savoury, having absorbed much of the soy sauce, and were coated in an almost-velvety glaze. The sugar and starch were great for relieving some of the spiciness of the other dishes.

Another side dish we received was miyeok muchim, a seaweed salad seasoned with vinegar and sesame seeds. Its flavours were quite mild, and another welcome respite from the searing heat of E's noodles.

I'm not too sure what this last one was called, but it was some sort of soy-braised fish cake. Thin slices of fried fish cake seemed to have been braised in a sweet soy sauce similar to the one used for the potatoes. The fish cake was chewy and had absorbed lots of flavour - delicious!

Although it was my first time dining at Koriental, I'll probably go back. It's pretty good value - $12 or $13 will get you a filling meal, with an array of free side dishes, and if you're in a big group there seem to be large "family-size" dishes that can be shared for $30-$40. Service was a little slow, but the sole waiter who pretty much was the front-of-house managed to be genuinely friendly and polite even when obviously busy. Plus, it gave us time to stare out the window at the legions of witches, ghouls and rockstars heading up Majoribanks St for a spot of trick-or-treating. Whoever said New Zealand doesn't do Halloween? Perhaps times are changing :)

RATING: 3.5/5

Koriental Korean and Chinese Restaurant
17-19 Majoribanks St
Mt Victoria
(04) 801-6866