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Sunday, June 30, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Even a sultan would approve


No matter their relative prowess on the soccer field, there can be no disputing which of the nations that reached the semifinal of the World Cup would deserve to be champions, were the title decided on culinary merit alone. With all respect to the gastronomy of Germany, Brazil and South Korea, none can rival the range and subtlety found in the finest Turkish cooking.

News photo
Harem in Gaienmae gives fine Turkish cuisine the sophisticated treatment that it deserves.
News photo

This may not be immediately obvious here in Tokyo, since most of our Turkish restaurants have tended to position themselves at the lower end of the spectrum, producing simple home cooking that is straightforward and satisfying but without great elaboration. But now, since Harem opened in Gaienmae toward the end of last year, we have a chance to sample the culture and cuisine of Turkey at a rather higher level of sophistication.

You can tell at a glance that Harem is not just another "ethnic" eatery. There are no maps or tourist office posters on the wall, no hubble-bubble pipes and other paraphernalia, and absolutely no belly dancing. Likewise they have shunned the over-the-top "Aladdin's Cave" approach to interior decor, preferring instead a chic, restrained aesthetic.

Bands of tile work run parallel with the ceiling; an arrangement of ceramic plates adorns one corner, and some patinated brocade textiles hang from another wall. Stylish leather chairs upholstered in striking designs are drawn up at simple dark-wood tables. The lighting is so subtle you hardly notice that the ceiling is painted turquoise.

The drinks list provides further evidence that Harem is several cuts above the average. Elsewhere the usual choice is between beer and raki, that anise-imbued cousin of ouzo and pastis. Here, though, the drink of choice is wine -- not standard Turkish plonk but a good selection of South African bottles designed to enhance your meal rather than merely wash it down. Our Cederberg Pinotage (4,500 yen) worked perfectly, especially with the later meat courses.

There are two ways to tackle a Turkish meal. You can treat it as you would a European cuisine, with everyone choosing their own meal separately, progressing from soup or hors d'oeuvre through main dish to dessert. But you are far better advised to do it the Oriental way, which is to order a selection of appetizers, a salad and some light cold dishes, then a couple of main courses, dividing everything up between all present.

This works especially well if you can muster up a group of four or more, since the menu at Harem has such a wide variety and it's tempting to try everything. But even if you are dining a deux, it is always more satisfying -- and fun -- to share the whole experience.

Start with a plate of meze appetizers, to nibble on with your first drinks. Try the creamy eggplant dip (patlican ezme), the spinach with yogurt (ispanak tarator) or the excellent hummus. Better still, order one of their mixed plates (karisik meze), giving you a choice of three or four appetizers along with a slice or two of beyaz peynir, a Turkish white cheese resembling feta but not as salty.

With your taste buds up to speed now, you should explore some of the other cold dishes. They have a range of salads, and dolma, of course -- tomatoes and green peppers stuffed with a mixture of cooked rice and plenty of pine nuts, seasoned with mint and other herbs. But do not fail to try the baked eggplant dish known as imam bayildi. Harem's version of this trademark Turkish dish -- the name literally means "the imam fainted" (from pleasure, of course) -- is one of the best we have tasted, with plenty of herbs and neither too oily nor oversalted.

Alongside this you will want a couple of rounds of ekmek, puffed-up pita-style bread sprinkled with aromatic sesame seeds. Or, if you crave greater sustenance, they offer several different styles of pide-- calzone-style breads stuffed with cheese, spinach, mushrooms or minced lamb.

All the above could easily be enough to form a simple meal in itself, especially if you are vegetarian. But that would mean missing out on the very core of the menu, the main dishes of fish, chicken and meat. Grilled, baked or simmered (Turkey has some wonderful stews), these are substantial enough to split between two. There are shish kebabs of mutton, chicken or tuna, as well as a wonderful Adana Sis, juicy patties of minced beef and lamb mixed with aromatic herbs and grilled on skewers. Order a mixed plate (from 2,500 yen) for a selection of the above.

Even tastier is the preparation known as hunkar begendi ("his majesty's favorite"). Slices of lamb are cooked down with tomato sauce, then served on a thick puree of hot eggplant into which plenty of cheese and herbs have been blended. As the name implies, this is indeed the kind of rich fare that would satisfy even a sultan.

At this point you may feel like little more than some of their smooth, bitter coffee or a small glass of cay (tea). But if you can find the room, Harem has a good selection of desserts, notably a creamy, cinnamon-enhanced rice pudding and densely sweet cubes of oozing baklava.

Harem
Aoyama Bianca Bldg. B1, 3-1-26 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; (03) 5786-2929
Open:11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (weekdays only) and 6-11 p.m.
Close:Sunday and holidays
Nearest stations: Gaienmae (Ginza Line)
How to get there:From Gaienmae Station go down to Bell Commons and turn right up Gaien Nishi-dori and walk for a couple of minutes. You will see the entrance and steps leading down to Harem on the left side of the street. Shortly after the police box.
What works: Subtle flavors and sophisticated ambience.
What doesn't:Don't let the name put you off
Number of seats: 48
BGM: Folksy progressing to jazzier beats later on, all with those insinuating Levantine motifs.
Price per head:Lunch menu from 760 yen; figure around 3,500 yen for dinner (without drinks); 10 percent service charge added.
Drinks:Cocktails 700 yen; beer 600 yen; wine from 600 yen/glass, 2,500 yen/bottle.
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Turkish/Japanese/English menu; English spoken.
Reservations: Advisable



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