Ray McVinnie meets the hospitality veterans dishing up authentic Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean fare.
Two Kiwi women — Clare Hindmarsh and Michelle Arsan — get together with Turkish men Zeki Kizilata and Ali Arsan. The Turks come from the part of that country that faces the islands of Chios and Lesbos, one of them owns a beautiful Turkish wooden boat that he takes cruising around the Greek islands. (The men in this part of the world are also the ones who sit in the coffeehouses discussing food all day.)
The four have embraced the eastern Mediterranean tradition of true hospitality to all guests and they all have plenty of experience running eateries in New Zealand (think Caravanserai, which opened in 1989 and the Mezze Bar (1992), not to mention Tasca and Carmen Jones), so their hospo pedigree is immaculate.
This brings me to Lokānta, which is the Turkish word for a local eating establishment, not necessarily flash, its reputation defined by the quality of its food, which is traditional household cookery. The sort of food Clare would have eaten on her extensive travels through Turkey (the experience changed her life!) and the sort of food Zeki and Ali (above, from left) were brought up with and what they eat when they return home.
Asian restaurants have been selling us good unadorned household food for decades. To Europeans it seems exotic, because it is so different to Western food. But it is only relatively recently that we have been able to visit European restaurants and eat the same sort of food.
Some people don’t get the food at Lokānta, thinking of it in terms of the European food that has become mainstream. Forget about that and appreciate its menu as ethnic Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean food. This is the food Zeki watched his mother and aunts cook (always outside on a fire, and it had to be good because everyone was very critical) for the farm workers on their property in Turkey. This is generous Mediterranean food with clear robust flavours and no unnecessary garnish.
Though you might have tasted menu items like tzatziki before, if it features on the Lokānta menu it is the real thing. Not that all the food is every day, there are choices such as wedding chicken — a special occasion dish of whole roasted baby chicken stuffed with rice, pistachios, carrots and currants, served with saffron jus — the sort of dish you would eat at an Aegean wedding.
The baklava is given a modern twist and stuffed with nuts and coconut, served on its end like a diagonal-cut sushi roll with fresh oranges and housemade crystallised orange peel. Last time I was there they served the best, lightest revani (yoghurt and semolina syrup cake) that I have ever tasted.
They do a great small plate of chicken morsels with a very traditional creamy sauce of ground walnuts. This is the sort of European food I could only read of when I was a young chef.
Perhaps what I really love about Lokānta, which ties in with good food and generous hospitality, is that there is no pretention about the food or the place. I go there not because I want to get something weird and wonderful, but because I can be assured of a good dinner. Take your tastebuds, and your friends, to the eastern Mediterranean and have dinner at Lokānta. Put everything into the middle of the table and share it. Excellent.
Ray McVinnie – Bite magazine