3 September 2020
Between the sunny verandah and the promised falafel, mela café was the destined choice for twenty-twenty's rumored last warm day.
Full disclosure: I did not visit the restaurant interiors nor thoroughly read the menu as we were instinctively recommended the veggie mezze to share - precisely what we came for. From what I've been told and a few cuffed-hands looks through the windows, the inside, full of color and mosaic lanterns, could also be a spirited option to escape those dark and bleak winter months on the horizon.
We had to add a table as the plate procession grew and eventually took over. There were enough palm-sized plates for three to fill two café tables (minus the space taken up by our pints, three stacked phones, and crumbled up napkins).
Once the pita arrived, the feasting began. At first, I admired the care put into the bread, thinking to myself, "they even thought about the breeze out here and how valuable warm pitta is." Plunging my hand in the pitta basket, my fingers then mouth were unpleasantly surprised. The bread felt cold to the touch, and once tasted, I realized it was most likely on its last breath of freshness, sourced from a stretchy plastic wrapper.
Pitta, here a divinely edible vessel, has to lead the path into all the plates it will soon be dipped in. The bread basket initiates the meal during the socializing and impatiently waiting part. It is there to disguise hunger or open the appetite, depending on who's eating. Many culinary traditions still expect a basket of bread to crown their tables still empty from dinner plates. In countries with perhaps a more traditional dining mindset, a meal is not a meal without bread on the table. In fast-growing economic hubs, this custom has fallen out as we give way to add-on menus and a price for bread. Everything is an option- seldom do I see the burger+fries combo as default, but the burger and additional french fries are now the norm.
However, many Levantine restaurants haven't renounced bread, as it's not only recognized but honored as a staple food. It lays comfortably in its basket, as substantial as the fork and knife. At mela café, the pitta was extra and cold, no luck there.
The mezze platter for three consisted of around 13 different plates, an equal amount of warm to cold.
Dolmas hold a solid second place after baba ghanoush/mutabbal in my book of Levantine lovers. Three dolmas came in a plate, lathered in oil; the distinction between vine leaf, stuffing, and the oil was hard to make as it all just tasted bbbbblllaaaaanndddd. From a can? No tantalizing flavors between spice and fresh herbs, no love.
Once again, the bread was a disappointing statement that ran out within 1/3 of our dipping. We turned to hands and spoons instead of ordering more.
The warm, sauce rich dishes, in my memory, exist as one. The same base sauce used for all, with the added star ingredient, probably explains it. They all tasted the same, screaming, "we were just reheated" amongst themselves/ to each other.
Avocado- hummus. Even butter and oil work well together, but here the tahini and avocado collab declared only one thing- a new dish on the menu, doing nothing more than following a trend. I understand Norway's infatuation with Mexican food (Taco Fredag!), but those avocados from a land so far could have been put to better use elsewhere. Anywhere.
The samosas. From the warm selection, three beautifully wrapped spiced potato samosas stood out.
The eggplant. Rich and plenty, served with fragrant olive oil lingering on the palate.
The tabbouleh. Fresh and humble, created a nice interval between all the warm, perhaps too heavy plates.
The hummus-classic. Yes, the hummus I have missed ever since I stepped off the plane, the last thing I ate in London in a camel-like preparation. Smooth, creamy, and simple.
Cornucopia- a word I tend to verbigerate- aligns with our experience at mela café. The plates were plenty, though not bountiful. Assorted, though not fresh. Fun and filling, though not memorable.
For a mezze to exist, there needs to be many small snack-sized dishes. The sum of these plates define mezze, and so they need each other to coexist. The beauty lies in the balance and room for play in combinations. When standing together, these baby plates are never too serious. They speckle a table in abstract form and ask to be eaten joyfully, informally, and amongst friends.
Dinner at mela café spoiled us in abundance. In my mind, however, the mezze will soon seize to exist as all those little plates become one.
We dipped the summer goodbye in the most pleasant setting, but I will continue my search for Oslo's best falafel- might end up in someone's house.
We broke lockdown in a basement.
Before the first small dish had even arrived, we were down two pints, blushing from the rush of that lovely thing called social interaction.
In hindsight, this was called for, as I now know, izakayas have two duties. First, to provide alcohol and second and foremost, aid in the booze's soaking up, all under the same dim light roof.
These establishments, perhaps comparable to pubs, invite one to settle in for the night.
Over quarantine, we often reminisced restaurants, listed alongside pubs, parks, and house parties. As the pandemic syndrome began to settle, however, what we missed was hard to pinpoint. The food, of course, but with all the extra time we were gifted, at home, we were eating better than ever—our own creative meals.
Walking towards Izakaya, it all came back.
It was the anticipation, and then the freedom to decide. Getting to pick a table (a choice possibly determining the rest of the evening), picking from the menu, picking whether you can squeeze in/ afford dessert, and mentally picking whether you will be coming back or not.
For me, there is also the extra thrill of knowing I might taste something utterly new * for the first time* and knowing I can sink into my chair and meticulously read the menu, attempting to memorizing combinations (to try at home) while my more food-casual friends keep enjoying the evening.
Any other bright summer day of any other year, I would have questioned the choice of picking a basement as venue, especially given the early sunlit dining hours of Norway, which I am (maybe) slowly adjusting to.
Except this was Summer 2020 and nothing sounded better than stepping down into a cellar for the evening. Cosy enough to call it a home away from home and contrast with the loud energy bouncing from each table. Baby steps.
The walls are covered with Japanese film stills from the 1900s. In between, all the trinkets invite to snoop around- almost hoping for a souvenir shop by the exit. The staff was kind and cool, sincerely offering translations to the dishes for nothing more than a quality eating experience. Some dishes even stuck out in their explantations, with adjectives such as really and pipping, hinting personal preferences.
I love a good indirect recommendation.
Given the emotional circumstances of reuniting with beloved restaurant dining, my experience was spiked with excitement. Therefore, I cannot be critical; instead, I'll share all those things that made dining at Izakaya Oslo something I am looking forward to repeating.
A couple of pints
Shiitake Bataa Ponzu Itame
Being the first time I have ever poked an egg yolk with chopsticks over soba, I now need to thank Izakaya for the life-changing experience.
The whole yolkporn game has changed forever.
The egg coated the noodles instantly, contrasted by the sharp taste of the fresh spring onions.
For the second round, the menu turned into an ouija board as our fingers met on the chijimi, as we unanimously dialled its spirit. The words pancake and cheese listed in the ingredients subtext, promising the soaking up of the countless øls.
We left full of hope, walking out through the bar area where sake is poured, imagining a near future where this small basement will be hot and loud, full of microdacing.
Will come back for
Wakame no Sunomono
More of the same and extra mazemen
Learning about Izakayas from