Monday, January 28, 2013

Something Different #2

I originally submitted this story fragment to a competition organized by "Reading the Lines: "the Other" in the stories we tell about ourselves," a project funded by UNDP-ACT and run by the Cyprus Association on Books for Young People. Even though it did not make the final cut, I thought I'd share it with you in this second installment of "Something Different."

The perfect first sentence never came easily to Samuel. He spent hours planted on a creaky mahogany stool as inadequate words tumbled onto A4 sheets of scrap paper and his green pen doodled them out of their misery. Instead of crumpling up each failed attempt, pages full of angry scratches, cartoonish faces and repetitive patterns became airplanes (The Moth, The Stealth!) that glided out the only window of his sixth floor studio. Often, Samuel peered over the ledge until his words disappeared behind other soot-laden buildings or dived down like a kamikaze onto the sidewalk below. He then returned to his messy Davenport desk and the stacks of paper waiting to be weighed down by his fickle scribbling. 

Telling people about Candela’s murder only made things harder. His memory of her unveiled itself and drowned out any semblance of a thought process. A humid midnight inside Club “La Venia.” High-heeled women in flowing dresses skipped to the Nuyorican salsa, their partners biting their own lower lips and spinning the girls around like flimsy tops. Cheap watered-down rum and light beer spilled out of plastic tumblers, and the strobe lights raced against the brass section’s trilling. Samuel held Candela close on the dance floor, peppering her chocolate-toned neck with short kisses and naked toes with untrained footsteps. 

Caption to be used as "inspiration."
He creased another page and ventured towards the window. A gust of wind swept the plane (The Arrow, The Dart!) and it spun uncontrollably and darted the roof of a parked white sedan. Part of him believed the city would collect his sophomoric language, recycle it and reward him with a more promising beginning. Samuel imagined garbage men in their fluorescent yellow vests, grey rubber boots and unbecoming smell spearing his aeronautical origami with their paper pick-up sticks and tossing them into the dumpster, a ravenous mouth that opened wide and spat out words threaded together like dense Zardozi embroidery. As the city was cleansed each dawn of its impurities, so too he thought was his inability to move past unlocked. 

Candela and Samuel walked arm in arm, the music’s beat long gone from their bodies but that anxiety that comes with first-time love creeping in as a warm light through cracked blinds. A gang of miscreants, five lanky men with grimy tattoos that rolled from under their tight white t-shirts like sinister clouds, accosted them four blocks away from Samuel’s studio. They heckled Candela, mocking her wide hips, her burnt wheat complexion, the unusual staccato of her pleas. Two of them locked Samuel from his neck and waist and forced him to watch. The skinny bald one with red wire-rimmed glasses and swastikas patched onto his militaristic cargo pants belted out obscenities, smacked Candela across her teary face and tugged at her obsidian, iron-straightened hair. Ad nauseam, he yelled that Candela (The Black Bitch!) did not belong. The other two cackled and joined in on their twisted version of social justice. An unsettling fog moved in as if commandeered by evil. Samuel sobbed and with little fight left in him resigned himself to a life removed from the garrulous Latina he loved. 

With a thick black permanent marker, he spelled out H-A-T-E C-R-I-M-E on the back of an outdated Cantonese take-out menu. Samuel carefully folded the food-stained sheet into an origami balloon (The Balloon!) and set it on the windowsill. One quick flick and the cube disappeared. As a journalist, understanding and deconstructing run-of-the-mill crimes was effortless. Albeit, the sheer hate evinced that moist night latched onto him unexplained—the beasts’ foaming mouths and bloodshot eyes, their song and dance of reproach, that inhumane and senseless attack on difference. The emergency room’s doctors proclaimed Candela dead at four thirty-three a.m. yet Samuel only found out hours later under a haze of painkillers and covered in bulky bloodied bandages.  

Her funeral amassed hordes of distraught people—friends, family, co-workers, salseros and bachateros and former lovers, many of whom entertained the noble but irresponsible idea of playing vigilante for a night and disemboweling Candela’s murderers. The cassocked priest spoke about tolerance and love and forgiveness, and the mourning crowd let out several high-pitched and offbeat Hallelujahs. A collection of medium-sized balloons, each one a different color and marked with single words describing the deceased, took to the sky and slowly floated west. A morose Samuel sat by the closed casket, his scarlet and fern green scarf wrapped clumsily around his neck and a three-day scruff spreading like crab grass across his dislocated jaw. No one heard him mumble that afternoon that his revenge, inspired by the fond remarks he saw vanish behind a few scattered clouds, would take the strange shape of a short story. He missed his old flame, his fiery Candela.   

Another blank sheet of paper challenged Samuel to tarnish it. Too many paper cuts and green pen marks competed with wrinkles and fingerprints for open space along his weary hands. He brushed aside the sheets and pens with his forearm and dropped his tired head on the desk for a minute. After what seemed like years, Samuel picked up the antique typewriter that reposed atop three hardbound novels and tip-tapped its loose keys: “The perfect first sentence never came easily to Samuel…”

Friday, January 18, 2013

Love At First Bite

It was love at first bite. Raw fish—it was either salmon, tuna or yellowtail—mounted on a thumb of sticky rice and dipped in the traditional wasabi and soy sauce mixture. Many people shun away from the uncooked seafood, some disturbed by its slippery texture and fishy smell, others simply nauseated by the mere idea. For me, however, there was no turning back once that initial morsel hit my molars and slivered down my throat at the ripe young age of seventeen. Since that day, wherever my travels lead me, I have kept eyes, ears and taste buds open for high-quality Japanese food, particularly nigiri sushi, sashimi and maki rolls.  

Eventually, a different kind of love landed me on The Rock and my search for good Japanese food hit a rough patch as restaurant after restaurant, primarily in Nicosia, failed to excite my palate. Then one evening almost five years ago my luck changed, and I visited Larnaca’s Nippon, to this day, in my humble opinion as a cultural-anthropologist-cum-wine-blogger, the best Japanese restaurant on the island.

After not having eaten there since 2009, I decided to stop by earlier this year to (hopefully) confirm my staunch belief in the joint. As usual, Gil Panayiotou, restaurateur and mastermind behind the popular eatery, welcomed our party with a wide grin, cracking a few jokes and lightening the mood as we were led to our table. There is nothing remarkable about the space; white minimalism and some colored fluorescent lighting define its décor. A long sushi bar with high stools anchors the h-shaped room and black tables, which are somewhat uncomfortably close to one another, occupy the remainder of the place. Then again, this is all trivial since what truly matters is the food and its inventiveness. 

We kicked off the meal with a bottle of 2011 Domaine Vlassides White, a Xynisteri and Sauvignon Blanc blend that was crisp and citrusy with a pleasant herbal component but not as complex and aromatic as the 2010 vintage. A few sips certainly got us in the mood to tackle the extensive menu, chock-full of salads, soups, tataki, makimono, appetizers, temaki, nigiri sushi, sashimi, gunkan maki and cooked specials. For those patrons who are either lazy, inexperienced, indecisive or just plain confused by the wide array of options, Gil is more than happy to hear their likes and dislikes and design a somewhat pricey meal based on their preferences. Even though he offered to help us out, this time around our party took to the menu like crazed bibliophiles, diligently working our way through the list and jotting down the reference number for each selected dish to avoid delays when ordering.

By night’s end, our stuffed party of five had sampled twenty-nine different dishes. Vegetable tempura, perfectly battered and fried and surprisingly diverse and light, served as our appetizer alongside a few bowls of salted edamame and tasty miso soup. The sashimi—salmon, tuna, sea bass and yellow tail—was ultra-fresh and dissolved in our mouths, while the Shake & Tuna (thin slices of raw tuna and salmon in a ponzu sauce, vinegar, ginger, soy and spring onion) had a nice kick thanks to the savory acidity of the soy sauce and vinegar. Gil treated us to an unbelievable seafood carpaccio drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and topped with parmesan flakes and fresh basil, a dish he proudly said is a staple chez lui.  The makimono rolls—we ordered eight different types—were, for the most part, creative and properly balanced. We particularly enjoyed the Kani (fresh blue fin crab with black caviar and sweet soy), which had a wonderful briny accent thanks to the caviar, and the Yawakarakai’s (soft-shell crab, mango, cucumber, teriyaki sauce, lettuce and crispy flakes) sugary crunchiness. Additionally, the spicy tuna rolls—a standard at most Japanese restaurants—was uplifted by a lovely and creamy spicy mayonnaise. The Suzuki Cilantro (breaded sea bass, white wine, sweet chili sauce, ginger, coriander and spring onion) took basic fish fingers to a whole different realm, balancing sweet and spicy to perfection, while the Razor Clams with ginger onion leeks and coriander were pops of spiced sea water in our mouths. Ironically enough, despite my adoration for raw seafood, the highlight was the cooked dish Gindara—miso marinated black cod grilled with mirin, sake and soy sauce was flaky, buttery in texture and complexly sweet, worth every penny despite the small portion and hefty price tag of almost thirty Euros. 

Yes, there are a few disadvantages to the establishment. Of the dishes we sampled, our party disliked the scallop tails with fresh chili, coriander and masago sauce, mainly because the tails had a processed food-like consistency and rather tame flavor despite the delicious sauce. Also, I personally felt that the prawns tempura, avocado and salmon in the Angel makimono roll were overwhelmed by the cream cheese’s richness. Furthermore, the restaurant is on the expensive side—for a good meal with wine, expect to pay anywhere between thirty to sixty Euro per person—and the atmosphere feels somewhat cramped. At the end of the day, however, none of these detract from the culinary experience to be had at Nippon, something that certainly explains why so many people from Nicosia drive south to satiate their desire for food from the land of the rising sun.

Whine On The Rocks Rating: 5 out of 5 Sparkling Spatulas

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Oh You Pretty Thing!

Unless you believe a couple KEOs, a loaded tray of grilled meats and a bottomless appetite constitute the epitome of gourmet, haute cuisine is hard to come by in Nicosia. Only a handful of local restaurants possess the creativity, refinement and technique to produce truly innovative and hedonistic food, and none of them are better than No Reservations.

Center stage at No Reservations
After strapping a sleepy Little Miss Despot to her crib and letting the babysitters in on her head-swaying fondness for David Bowie's "Oh You Pretty Things" in case of emergency, The Wife, Ph.D., and I marked our first night out in what seemed like centuries with a visit to Chef Martino Speciale's restaurant. Housed on Stasinou 16 only a few meters away from the D'Avila Bastion, the high-end eatery is sparsely yet tastefully decorated and seats about thirty patrons. All eyes though land on the rectangular cream-colored bar and kitchen in the middle of the room that serves as culinary laboratory for Chef Speciale and his team. The tasting menu is fixed, a unique practice for a gourmet establishment on The Rock, and ch-ch-changes every two weeks based on seasonality and availability of fresh ingredients. Diners may opt for fifteen (35 Euros), twelve (30 Euros) or five (20 Euros) tasting dishes, and the hunky-dory wine list focuses on Italy—the 2008 La Braccesca Vino Nobile di Montepulciano for us that evening—with a few other Old and New World selections.

If I had to pick one word to describe our fifteen-course meal, subtlety comes to mind. The most successful dishes were balanced, delicate and artfully presented. We kicked off with a crunchy fried mozzarella ball that sat like a little egg on a nest of spinach chiffonade with smoked pepper. The potato-stuffed tortelloni with broccoli and Taleggio cheese that followed melted in my mouth, and the simple homemade orecchiette with shrimp and a tomato-chestnut broth was something your nonna would prepare on a cold night yet rather refined. Likewise, the seared scallop with pancetta and a cream of peas, as well as the foie gras terrine with figs and olives, were perfectly executed, while the five mini desserts, spearheaded by the luscious flavors found in the chocolate lava cake, amaretto ice cream and pistachio crème brûlée, were a fitting culmination to a local gourmand's dream of something—anything—different in The Rock's capital.

Dessert anyone?
Other components of the meal, I thought, would have benefited from some slight tweaking. While matched with a vibrant, aromatic truffle oil foam, the porcini mushroom strudel was too doughy and overwhelmed its stuffing's inviting earthiness. The polenta and cod cakes with stewed garbanzo beans called for a dash of acidity and some textural contrast to brighten the dish. Furthermore, the veal cheek, albeit tender and tasty, was plopped next to the turkey with rosemary-infused stuffing and seasonal vegetables instead of being served separately, something that would have prevented the muddling of each creation's fine flavors. Finally, and of crucial importance to an amateur wine aficionado like myself, this style of meal screams for a wine tasting menu (say, two whites, two reds and a dessert wine) to complement the courses and their well-thought-out progression.

Despite these minor hiccups, I crave a return visit to No Reservations to see what sort of brave new culinary tricks Chef Speciale has up his sleeves. Next time, though, I hope to drag along the temperamental Little Miss Despot—stroller, rattles, Ziggy Stardust action figure, polka-dot tights, drool and all—to introduce her to Nicosia's most refined restaurant and give the valiant babysitters a well-deserved rest.

Whine On The Rocks Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Sparkling Spatulas

Monday, January 7, 2013

Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa

I'll be the first to admit I am wrong.

About a year and a half ago, I reviewed Silver Star, one of Nicosia's favorite wine bars and awarded it only 3 out of 5 Sparkling Spatulas. At the time, I disliked its carelessly decorated interior and limited wine selection for a bar owned by a cava located across the street. On my next visit a few months ago, though, things couldn't have shone brighter. With The Wife, Ph.D., horizontal on our red couch thanks to Little Miss Despot's nine-month synchronized swimming training for the 2032 Summer Olympics, My Zolpidem Supplier and I sat on the stools outside and had a Malbec-fueled rager for the ages.

Silver Star—its outdoor patio in particular—shines as a happy hour haunt. That evening we drank our livers to the ground, suited men and women, students and artists shared the narrow sidewalk, bottles of fine wine and stacked yet carefully selected local and imported cheese and charcuterie platters. The menu includes about twenty-five options by the glass and a note informing the dissatisfied, fickle or greedy like myself that the cava's wines are available for consumption at only a 10 Euro surcharge on their retail price, a practice I applaud. Likewise, DJs spin down-tempo electronic music that add a cool vibe to the sidewalk seating, and the service is friendly yet professional.

At the end of the night, after picking a bottle of 2008 Kir Yianni Ramnista Xinomavro as our nightcap—in retrospect, a grave mistake that sent me on a path not unlike that of an early-rising two-month pregnant woman—I introduced myself and this blog to Silver Star's owner. Fueled by the bottles of 2010 Amalaya Red and 2009 Colome Malbec we had earlier imbibed, I apologized for my—unbeknownst to him—mediocre review and complimented them for the few yet crucial improvements that have elevated the joint's overall quality.

Whine On The Rocks' (Revised) Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Sparkling Spatulas