Gypsy mackerel and fresh walnuts are in season when I arrive in Istanbul. As my plane rattles along the runway I flash back to the most bewitching meal of my life: breakfast on an Istanbul commuter ferry. A single cucumber and a fistful of olives. Dense, chewy bread rings slathered with salty cheese. Sweet black tea. Perhaps it was the Bosporus breeze, or that fabled skyline doused in pink light. I remember being intoxicated with pleasure-- savoring Byzantium, picnic in hand.
That was more than a decade ago. I've returned several times since, and, I have to confess, it's not the mythical ocher glow of Hagia Sophia, or even the thrill of plucking a perfect kilim from the mercantile bowels of the Covered Bazaar that lures me back. No, it's the Istanbul of that sweet tea, sipped from a tulip glass in the sensuous shade of a çay bahçesi (tea garden); harborside lunches of silvery fish; the infectious aromas of grilling; the ambrosial sweetness of Anatolian melons. It's the dozen-leaf pastries in fragrant syrup-- and the thousand and one secrets of Ottoman seasoning.
Actually, the Ottoman cult of the kitchen bordered on the absurd. When Sultan Mehmed II, called Fatih (the Conqueror), erected the Topkapi Palace shortly after plundering Christian Constantinople in 1453, he equipped it with a domed kitchen so vast you could mistake it for the imperial mosque. And that from a man famous for dining solo! At the height of the empire, separate battalions of cooks were assigned to kebabs and pilafs, to pancakes, candies, and drinks-- plus a small battery for each of the six varieties of halvah. Sauces were plotted as though they were conquests; janissaries-- the sultan's elite troops-- discussed state matters around a stewpot, or kazgan; and imperial chefs rose to become viziers.
The Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1923. But Turkish dedication to the wealth of its cuisine lives on, in unassuming neighborhood restaurants, epic kebab houses, rickety waterfront fish shacks, and glamorous dining rooms overlooking the Bosporus. To the traveler with an appetite for Mediterranean flavors, Istanbul, where Europe ends and Asia begins, offers a last great adventure.
Exhausted after a 10-hour flight, I sentence myself to the luxury of the Four Seasons, a former prison recently reborn as an exquisite small hotel just steps from the Hagia Sophia. My friend John is due to arrive later that night.
A sweet voice on the telephone: "Anya, dear! Do you need Bosporus air?My driver can pick you up at seven." It's Engin, a local food critic I met recently in Crete. Throughout our weeklong stay, she will tend to us with unflagging zeal-- Turkish hospitality personified.
Of course I need Bosporus air.
Forty minutes of screeches, hoots, and jolts take me to Bebek-- a genteel neighborhood of tilting wooden villas and fashionable open-air cafés, home to patrician businessmen and foreign diplomats. At the restaurant Yeni Bebek, Engin greets me with gifts and kisses and speeches on Turkish cuisine. We sit on a creaky terrace right on the water, grazing on fried calamari and eggplant dips, and sipping raki, an aniseed-flavored firewater. A stately waiter anoints the grilled fish-- small, delicate gypsy mackerel (technically, baby bonito) and lüfer, a rich bluefish from the Black Sea-- with reverential trickles of olive oil. Engin chuckles. "For centuries we've been cooking with olive oil, but what did it take for us to notice it?A vogue for Italian food!"
A Walk Around Beyoglu
The next morning John and I meet our friend Ferda for a spin around her stomping ground, old Pera, or present-day Beyoglu (pronounced bea-ho-loo). This former European quarter, with its weathered grand hotels and resplendent ex-embassies, gradually took on a sleazy cast. Then in 1990, its main boulevard, Istiklal, was closed to traffic, cleaned up, and transformed into a pulsating thoroughfare. Now you can shop for expensive scarves at Vakko, Istanbul's answer to Barneys; dive into a murky alley for sheep-knuckle soup; collect 19th-century prints from one of many antique shops; then bob to techno at an after-hours club.
The heartbeat of Beyoglu is Balik Pazar, a cacophonous market stuffed with everything edible, and some things that don't quite look it. While the Spice Bazaar in the Old City is pure Ottoman Stamboul, Balik Pazar and the famous Çiçek Pasaji, an arcade fashioned on Parisian models, are relics of turn-of-the-century cosmopolitan Constantinople.
I unleash years of cravings for Istanbul food in Beyoglu's clamorous side streets. At Hüsseyinin we join gaggles of shadowy men for straight-off-the-grill meatballs, or köfte. A search for su börek-- a lasagna-like wonder of dough stacks and salty cheese-- lands us in Lades. With spick-and-span tiles, hunched-up old regulars, and daily specials ordered from bubbling pots in the kitchen, it's an archetypal lokanta, or family-run restaurant. At Babane, a cute new café down the block, a pair of women decked out in folkloric gear squat on raised platforms to knead, roll, and fold dough into gözleme, marvelous turnovers stuffed with spinach, potato, or cheese.
Ferda takes us to her own eggnog-yellow café, Zencefil (ginger), which specializes in vegetables. After spending some years in Montreal, Ferda introduced Istanbul residents to quiche ("First they spat, then they came back for seconds"). We're too full to eat, so we return another day for big bowls of Aegean tomato soup accompanied by herb-flecked bread, black-eyed-pea salad with pomegranate dressing, eggplant börek, and a great baked pear stuffed with a plum. At the next table, lipstick mavens sip ginger lemonade, absorbed in Turkish Marie Claire. It could be London or Paris, but then that's what Beyoglu has always aspired to.
"Five years ago, kebabs were considered plebeian, now they're all the rage," an Istanbul friend insists. I believe it when Engin and her husband, Nuri, invite us to dinner with an airline president, a hotelier, and a shipping-magnate couple with his and hers fleets. The place?Develi, a modest kebab house that threads legendary skewers, in the quaint lower-middle-class neighborhood of Samatya.
Develi has all the charm of a departures lounge in a third-world airport: bright lights, bare walls, commotion. Its five floors are jam-packed with turbaned clerics, clerks in crumpled suits, and endlessly extending families rubbing shoulders with Japanese tourists and platinum-card-holding CEO's.
The mezes (hors d'oeuvres) are wonderful, from tabbouleh-like frig ("made with wheat harvested when it's still milky and dried over charcoal smoke," Engin explains) to a beguiling sweet-and-sour concoction of mashed tomatoes and pomegranate molasses. But it's Develi köfte we're after-- meatballs of lamb painstakingly ground by hand and grilled to succulent perfection. We try pistachio köfte, smoky pillows punctured by nuts; çig köfte, spicy raw lamb wrapped in lettuce; onion köfte; sesame köfte; and ali nazik, köfte sizzled with paprika-hued butter and served on a bed of thick yogurt. Each meatball is a short essay in texture.
I sigh. After this mincemeat epiphany, burgers are ruined forever.
Looking for Perfect Fish
Eating fish on the Bosporus-- a narrow strait that separates Europe from Asia, connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara-- is a quintessential Istanbul pleasure, but trying to find the right place can be downright maddening. Restaurant recommendations are as abundant as carpet shops, and they usually go something like this: "Definitely try X. The waiters are sweet, the atmosphere precious; we've eaten there forever. But the food . . . " A shrug. Of course, there is the glamorous Körfez, where honeymooning John F. Kennedy Jr. feted his bride. But bookings are hard to come by, even though locals dismiss it as touristy.
A cheaper and more diverting option is to take a sightseeing ferry from Eminönü, where the Golden Horn begins, to the last stop, Anadolu Kavagi-- a village on Istanbul's Asian side suffused with the smell of frying mussels and grilling fish. We lunch at Yosun, which looks out on a tangle of water taxis, fishermen's dinghies, ferries, and yachts festooned with wriggling garlands of mischievous boys. The fish is simple and fresh, and nothing special, so we keep looking.
We finally catch up with our gilled Holy Grail-- a perfect sea bass, moist, charred, and pearlescent-- at Feriye, a smart waterside restaurant in the arty neighborhood of Ortaköy. Even with its view of the ornate Ortaköy mosque, Feriye feels like a Santa Monica brasserie. But it won't for much longer. Vedat Basaran, the ambitious impresario behind Istanbul's current Ottoman revival, plans to convert the restaurant (his 29th) into a temple of imperial gastronomy. To prove the gravity of his intentions, he tips a dusty pile of cookbooks onto our table. "Rare editions . . . in Arabic, English, Old Ottoman . . ." We sneeze, grin respectfully, then tuck back into our fish.