To elevate tradition is no easy task, especially when it’s deeply rooted in history. It takes vision, respect, and plenty of imagination. As I was about to find out, Rüya does exactly that, and so much more.
Tucked away behind a pair of mammoth, iron-hinged wood doors in Dubai’s Grosvenor House, Rüya stands in all her glory, luring you into the airy surroundings by seducing you with her charm. Sumptuous fabrics, dark wood, and subdued lighting are all elements that make up the décor as designed by the Conran Group. A touch of old, a hint of new – Rüya combines the richness of old world luxury with contemporary cool.
Although far removed from the grand bazaar feel of the streets of Istanbul, little pieces of tradition peer from the background.
Don’t get me started on the wrap-around terrace – a rare sight on Dubai’s fine dining scene. I need to keep some things a mystery.
Hostesses swathed in flowing white dresses welcome you at the entrance as servers dressed in traditional Turkish attire work the room with ease.
A wood-fire oven pumps out artisanal bread and Rüya’s acclaimed pides with a smell so intoxicating, it’s worth standing at the sidelines just to get a whiff!
When I first met chef Colin Clague, the mastermind behind Rüya’s creations, I was curious about how this father of two from the Isle of Man, and die-hard Arsenals fan was thrust into the forefront of contemporary Turkish cuisine.
Looking back at his culinary legacy, it was easy to see why. With a career in the kitchen that began at the tender age of 17 (his mother was a caterer), Colin had his first stint in Dubai with the Burj al Arab in 1999 before spending a year in Madrid. Summoned back to London with his then pregnant wife, Colin opened the first ever Zuma in April 2002. He went on to open Zuma Dubai in 2007, and stayed with the restaurant group just shy of ten years. After a little time in Singapore, Colin returned to Dubai to head up Qbara, then to Jean Georges at the Four Seasons before establishing Rüya. It was at Qbara where the Rüya connection started to take shape. “The reason we did this place” says Colin “was because Umut and his father came to Qbara, and no word of a lie, they ate every single dish. They said this is exactly what they want to do, but with Turkish food.”
How Rüya came to be is a story that dates way back before it’s inception in October 2016, when the vision behind taking Turkish cuisine to new heights was just a twinkle in the universe. The fact that the name “Rüya” literally means “dream” is hardly a coincidence. Over a decade ago, founder Umut Ozkanca noticed a gap in the restaurant scene while living abroad. Umut, who hails from the Black Sea, has an impressive culinary background and a strong family legacy as official caterers to the Ottoman Palaces. “I saw that different cuisines like Japanese, Chinese, and Peruvian were evolving,” he recalls “I wanted to do something from my land and put it on an international level, to show the world that our food is not based on kebab and doner. Turkish cuisine is huge and differs from region to region, and sometimes from village to village. It’s a big treasure and we just started digging.”
And did they ever dig!
With a London venue set to open in Mayfair in April 2018, Rüya is spreading its wings. This will be the first time a fine dining restaurant, completely conceptualized and rooted in Dubai, will migrate globally (it’s usually the other way around). Not only is this impressive on it’s own, it also marks a new frontier as modern Turkish cuisine moves into the big leagues of the global culinary circuit.
Anxious to start our cooking session, Colin gave me a tour of the kitchen. Open, lively, and interactive, I couldn’t help but notice the many sous-chefs bustling in the background.
With mise-en-place underway from 10 am until the dark hours of the night, these are the guys that help oil the machine, day in and day out. It takes a village. I was virtually invisible to the sous-chefs who were completely immersed in their tasks, as they bruléed chili peppers, poached whole octopus, and drained roasted eggplant. It’s a tight ship indeed.
Our first dish was a simple beetroot salad, a staple in Turkish cuisine called Firin Pancar. Colin began construction by carefully piping a mousse of goat’s cheese with labneh onto a plate, sprinkling it with fresh black pepper.
Purple and amber fleshed heirloom beets came next. Some roasted to a plump sweetness, while others were thinly shaved on a mandolin – “It’s all about texture,” says Colin. A dressing of olive oil, lemon, garlic, and shallots was given a vigorous shake before making it’s way onto the beets.
Cornbread – a staple from the black sea – was torn and toasted into crunchy croutons. Colin dotted a fresh herb mixture of oregano, parsley, and dill back onto the plate. Just when I thought our dish was done, a fat chunk of frozen goat’s cheese was laid out in front of me. Do we need to let it thaw?
While I questioned the significance of freezing a piece of cheese, Colin grated it with a micro-plane into wispy little strands, piling it into the corner of our dish. It was the final touch to our salad, and marked the perfect start to a decadent afternoon.
With piles of eggplant overtaking the kitchen, it was inevitable that it would somehow sneak its way onto our cutting board. “When you go to Turkey” explains Colin, “half of the fridges in any of the big kitchens are filled with just eggplant.”
As luck would have it, the next dish on the menu, Isli Patlican, was one that made me fall in love with Rüya on my second visit. Eggplant roasted over the charcoal (a must if you want to get that distinct smoked flavor) is blitzed together with walnut and apple vinegar.
Creamy, smooth, and mellow – this is highly addictive stuff! Colin takes our mezze to a whole new level by serving it with crisps made of super-thin eggplant slices, coated with panko and dusted with icing sugar just before frying.
The sugar caramelizes the eggplant, leaving it with a crispy, wafer-like bite. I tasted the crisp on it’s own, it was delicious. Dipped into the eggplant purée, it was divine.
Hopping from one eggplant dish to another, Imam Bayildi (literally translated as the Imam fainted), was one that grabbed my attention. Since olive oil was a precious and expensive commodity during the Ottoman Empire, the copious amount used in this dish was enough to render the Imam unconscious – hence the reason behind the name. Tender rounds of eggplant confit were gently placed on a simple slow-cooked onion and garlicky tomato sauce.
A little more sauce to cover the eggplant, before Chef generously piled on feta cheese. It went under the salamander to melt the cheese before being bruléed with a blowtorch. Serious flame action added a lot of drama here!
A swirl of oregano oil, fresh black pepper, a touch of fried garlic, and pine nuts to garnish. The Imam would definitely approve!
How much of Rüya’s cuisine is actually Turkish? “100 percent” proclaims Colin without an ounce of hesitation. This is a chef who has managed to elevate traditional Arabic and Japanese cuisine to their contemporary forms, and his take on Turkish gastronomy is clearly following suit.
Colin is refreshingly humble when he talks about how he brings his own cooking style into his cuisine “this is about as authentic Turkish as your going to get. We don’t do anything really, we just put it in a nicer bowl and cut it a bit finer.” Somehow, I think there’s a bit more to it than that…
Lakerda, a typical dish of salted bonito is next on our menu. “Traditionally, the fish is salted for about three months,” informs Colin “we can’t wait that long, so basically, we make a brine, soak it for 24 hours, freeze it, and slice it. It’s a very traditional dish.”
He added bits of sous-vide cucumber with the most magnificent concentrated flavor, along with touches of piped tarama made of grain mullet and bottarga.
It seems like every time I cook with a chef they offer me a taste of dried mullet. Note to self, unless you want to know what fish leather tastes like, do not try this unless combined with other flavors. Guys, this isn’t gum!
A few pickled shallots and a bright red plate later, we moved our bonito to the side while we got on with the rest of our meal.
A quick “Spoon” salad gave us a little break from the richness of our food. This simple salad lived up to its name as vegetables chopped in uniform sizes were swirled together with chili, spicy tomato purée and pomegranate.
Served in a beautiful Turkish artisanal bowl, a little chopped pistachio on top added an element of surprise.
Little parcels of ravioli filled with a hand-minced lamb and fresh thyme called Lamb Manti was our first hot dish.
“Traditionally” says Colin “they say that you should be able to get 20 pieces of Manti on a spoon.” Cooked in a subtle lamb stock, tossed in a light tomato sauce and crowned with roasted garlic yogurt, these tiny morsels are delicate, decadent, and ooze artisanal finesse.
A beef short rib of epic proportions was placed in front of me. Cooked for 24 hours in sous-vide – just imagine the tenderness – the rib was coated with baharat spices in a marinade of tomato and brown sugar. It was basted and grilled over an open flame until it reached a slick stickiness – all part of chef’s master plan…
Served on a traditional clay pot with a quenelle of the basting sauce and a spiced Konya chickpea puree, Colin carefully sliced the short rib, keeping its shape intact.
After finishing it off with a lamb stock reduction, I savored my way through the meaty deliciousness. Love at first bite indeed.
When it was time to taste, Colin guided me to the dining room with the graciousness of a fine host. Our table was full, abundant, and rich with color, textures, and taste.
There was a surprise dish of warm Turkish mussels, Midye Dolma, sitting neatly in a row of rock salt, on a handcrafted iron platter with Trojan horses carved on the sides. A stoic and apropos presentation.
While I sat with Colin, our conversation took a turn that went way beyond food and into the memories that shape the people we become.
He spoke about how his great grandfather (in WWI) lost his life on the shores of Galipoli, and how generations later, he found his grave while on a trip to Turkey. It’s somewhat mind-blowing that an English chef with a deep family connection to one of the most historic battles of all time is now the head of a Turkish restaurant. Sometimes life comes full circle in the most surprising ways.
As we wrapped up our afternoon, Colin pulled out a piece of paper that had been tucked away in his wallet.
On it was a note, hand written by an Emirati lady expressing gratitude for Colin’s wonderful cooking. Once a fan of Colin’s cuisine from his days at Qbara, the lady never knew what ever became of her favorite chef. It took just one taste for her to realize that she had finally found him at Rüya. Her note was the ultimate gift of thanks, and an experience that remains close to Colin’s heart. It was at that moment I realized it’s the emotional connections that lie beneath the surface of a truly great chef.
With a cuisine born out of history, memories, and the desire to innovate, Rüya paves a new road to modern Turkish cooking by re-constructing the familiar, by respecting heritage, and by infusing finesse. Elevating tradition has never been so exciting…or so delicious.
Shot on Location at Rüya
Photos by Tara Atkinson
Dress by Herve Léger available at Bloomingdale’s in the Dubai Mall
Jewelry available at Bloomingdale’s in the Dubai Mall
Hair by Mustafa at Polished Salon