Istanbul's Old City Pt 1: Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia
We just returned from Istanbul where everything we have heard and read about is true: Istanbul is beautiful. After we got done with the "mandatory" tourist attractions in the Old City referred to as the Sultanahmet area, we spent most of our time in the other neighborhoods, especially Beyoğlu (bey-yoh-loo) where we stayed, and discovered more and more about the city until we realized that there is so much deeper one can dig into the many layers of this city. It rained most of the days we were there and though it wasn't pouring rain, it was just one of those wet days where it was irritating enough when walking on the streets that you might want to use an umbrella. The Sultanahmet area is where the historical attractions congregate (Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, etc) and they are so close in proximity to one another that on a wet day, it was easy to just let ourselves wander into each of them and immerse ourselves in it. Damp weather or not, it did not take the essence of the city away from us. This is the first of the many posts to come and in true spirit of our physical visit, the first few posts will be on these historical attractions followed by our further discovery of the city itself.

The Hagia Sophia (aya-sophia) is really quite a marvel. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was originally built as a church during the Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman Empire who later conquered Turkey converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque. When Turkey officially became a secular country, this structure was then turned into a museum. To date, Hagia Sophia is considered as having one of the greatest Byzantile-style architecture.

12 lambs representing the 12 apostles

One of the elements of Hagia Sophia that I find the most beautiful is the juxtaposition of Christianity and Islam within its great walls. Given its history of having been first a church and then a mosque, artwork bearing Christian images were kept even after the building was converted into an Islamic house of worship. Today we see Christian and Islam elements and motifs existing side-by-side and together they create awe. This isn't something we see often today, if at all.

Artwork depicting Virgin Mary with the child Jesus and a plaque with Arabic words.

To get up to the mezzanine level, walk through the dim passageways that will bring you up after multiple turns. Yes it brings you closer to the ceilings with faded artwork that carry much history but it's also where fine mosaic artwork are on display.

Photography tips: tripods are not allowed into the Hagia Sophia. All visitors must have their bags go through a scan and if they find a tripod in your bag, you will need to check that in and collect it on your way out. Prior to our visit, I've read reviews where some visitors have brought in their gorillapod or monopod without the scanning machine detecting it. We brought our gorillapod along and figured that if we had to check it in, it wasn't a big deal. The scan machines are smarter these days it seems and of course it detected our gorillapod. At the end of our visit, we realized that we could make do without it and still get pretty good shots. There are many columns inside the Hagia Sophia that you can use as a stability support for your arm when you take the pictures. Crank up the ISO as well and you will be more than fine. Go early to avoid the busloads of tourists.

Istanbul's Old City Pt II: Sultanahmet Mosque
Istanbul's Old City Pt III: Yerebatan Cistern, Divan Yolu




One of the best things about being able to return San Francisco again and again (even if it's just for a weekend getaway) is that we can make our way through our bucket list of top restaurants in the city. We made advance dinner reservations for Nopa last year but decided to cancel it from having had too much decadent food from the prior days at Saison and Kappa. Yes, such feelings do exist-- there is such a thing as having enough of good food.

Several weeks leading to our recent trip to San Francisco, we were at Bavette's in Chicago having dinner and in conversation with the restaurant manager who is very well aware of T and my food preferences, she recommended us Nopa and State Bird Provisions. She then added, Make advance reservations. Nopa then made it back to the top of our list to try. We were already too late for dinner reservations at Nopa as there weren't any availability left. No luck for State Bird Provisions either. Nopa opens for brunch and we settled for a late brunch reservation there.

The high wooden ceiling at Nopa makes the space look airy. Large window panels surround the walls allowing plenty of sunlight into the room. For those without reservations, it might be possible to get seated at the wooden communal table on a first-come-first-serve basis.

If you're a fan of Scotch like T, get the Supernova cocktail that is made with Ardberg that comes with a little peatiness in flavor. Cava is added to the drink which makes it bubbly. The cocktail is smooth and not overly strong which makes it a perfect drink for brunch.

The butter basted farm egg dish is so much more than its name suggests. The rosemary braised romano beans are tender yet maintaining its shape and texture, likening to in between flattened green beans and shishito peppers. Biting into the silky and smooth roasted corn chickpea fritter, it feels like I am eating deep fried tofu squares.

In true T fashion who likes his burger without a bun (his reason is that so he has space to finish the fries), he went with his usual route with the grass fed hamburger. He let me try just a bite of his burger and my, it was packed with flavor. The usual suspects of a burger accompaniment include a whole slice of raw onion or relish in a form of chopped pickled vegetables. Nopa finds a way to bridge the two common options by pickling the whole onion slices in tact. Dipping the fries into the red pepper feta dip makes a great excuse to finish the fries.

The custard french toast, most popular item on the brunch menu, comes with an option of a full or half order. The half order comes with a slice of french toast but don't let that fool you. A slice will fill you up. You will have enough food, our server says to us after we place our orders. The toast is thoroughly penetrated with custard yet without a hint of sogginess. We cut into the toast and take a bite through the charred crispy edges and sink our teeth into the moist french toast inside. With the perfect level of mild sweetness, you don't need a strong dose of maple syrup if you choose to be religiously careful about your sugar intake. And yet if you choose to indulge in more maple syrup, the texture of the custard french toast is light enough with extra room for sopping up the maple syrup. The poached Arkansas black apples and maple butter help the custard french toast compete for decadence.

We will return for their dinner menu, oh yes, but not without an advance reservation. And then it will be good times and good food.

If heading to Nopa from downtown, the easiest way via public transportation is to take the MUNI #20 which is about a 20-min ride.

560 Divisadero Street
San Francisco, CA 94117 

2012 Michelin Bib Gourmand
2011 Michelin Bib Gourmand 
2010 Michelin Bib Gourmand
2008 7X7 Magazine Eat + Drink Award: Best Late Night
2007 7X7 Magazine Eat + Drink Award: Best Newcomer
2006 San Francisco Chronicle Top 10 Restaurants


Next: Kyoto kaiseki

Food transformed into delicate intricacies. Food prepared in artful form yet approachable. Kaiseki (otherwise known as Kyoto's haute cuisine), as interpreted by the team at Next.

Corn husk tea

Chestnut, apple, white miso, hay aroma
Japanese maple forest

Sashimi, shiso, tamari

Abalone, cucumber, red sea grapes

Anago, maple dashi, shimeji mushroom

Matsuke chawanmushi, pine

Ayu, wasabi leaf, cured yolk

Chrysanthemum, eggplant, shiso leaf

Soup, rice, pickle, rare beef

Persimmon, yuba, emperor II

Warabi mochi, toasted soy

953 West Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607

2012 James Beard Award Best New Restaurant
2012 James Beard Nominee Best Rising Star Chef, Dave Beran
2011 Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People, Grant Achatz
2011 TimeOut Magazine 5 Stars for Next
2011 3 Michelin Stars Chef, Grant Achatz
2008 James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef, Grant Achatz
2007 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes, Grant Achatz
2003 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef, Grant Achatz
2002 Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef, Grant Achatz