How to Eat Well in Istanbul

How to Eat Well in Istanbul

Zubin Schroff
Zubin Schroff
Turkey's largest city is the ultimate culinary crossroads, a food lover's great adventure

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.

Sultan's Pantry
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.

Bosporus Breezes
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.

Best Meat
"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.

High Life with a View
If one could eat views, Istanbul-- with its dialogue of shore and strait, its magical skyline boosted by rocketlike minarets, its nighttime glimmer of water traffic-- would offer the world's most sumptuous banquet. But even in a city where panoramic restaurants are as ubiquitous as kebab dives, Ulus 29 redefines tip-top dining.

The restaurant is announced by a steep driveway lined with luxury German sedans. This glassed-in semicircular space offers a wide-angle view of the two Bosporus bridges. Ulus is buzzing with first dates, company banquets, diplomatic dinners-- and that's on a weeknight. But then, the proprietor, Metin Fadillioglu, is the grand vizier of Istanbul high life.

The setting, designed by his wife, Zeynep, deftly reprises this Eurasian city: lush, mismatched upholstery and crisp white linens; nooks and crannies garnished with Orientalist Neoclassical objets; mosque lanterns cheek by jowl with trendy lamps from London. Zeynep's eye for detail runs in the family: her cousin is London-based fashion designer Rifat Ozbek.

"Panoramic dining experience" is, of course, a code phrase for lousy food. I hold my breath as we order. Whew . . . our choices don't embarrass the view.

The best offerings come from the traditional Turkish firin (oven) that dominates the space: lahmacun, a thin crackle of dough with a spicy meat topping, and puffy sesame bread. The classic cigar-shaped börek is reinvented with an airy shrimp filling. Purslane salad in thick yogurt dressing is a prescription for long life. And for cosmopolitan palates, the Continental portion of the menu offers a very Californian scallop-and-green-bean salad, a delicious quail cake on mashed potatoes with an olive sauce, and a rare lamb loin with a potato gratin.

Mother's Own
The mere mention of "mother's cooking" is enough to make a grown Turkish man cry. Can't swing an invitation to a four-hour lunch en famille?Head for Karabiber (Turkish for "black pepper"), a café off Istiklal where groups of women-- all well-known cooks in their communities-- take turns wooing patrons with motherly regional meals. And your baklava will taste even sweeter when you discover that Karabiber is run by Turkey's Foundation for the Support of Women's Labor.

Half-expecting a soup kitchen, we are surprised to find a small, sleek café with olive-green walls and marble tables. The daily menu is only in Turkish, but don't let it faze you. Just point, smile, nod. The rice filling in our pepper dolma is a triumph of the subtly sweet seasoning emblematic of Turkish cuisine. Another dolma-- rehydrated dried eggplant rolled around rice and braised in its own juices-- has a lingering flavor with a hot-pepper kick. Here köfte come in two guises: mercimek köfte, delicious cold "sausages" of red lentils, bulgur, and herbs; and içli köfte, torpedo-shaped bulgur casings with a juicy explosion of lamb and walnuts.

The cooks emerge from the downstairs kitchen, beaming shyly over a cargo of food. We scoop up every last grain of büryan, cold rice laced with dried wild mint and delicate shreds of chicken. It's so good I almost weep-- with my mouth full.

Where Raki Reigns
Before Atatürk secularized Turkey in the 1920's, bans on alcohol were sporadic, a whim of this or that sultan. Just to be safe, the sale of liquor was entrusted to Istanbul's Greeks. It was they who established the original meyhanes, watering holes where mezes and fish are mere excuses for round after round of raki.

In pursuit of raki-- and excuses-- we arrange to join our friends Murat, Fikret, and Ferda for a night out on Nevizade Sokak, a boisterous street in the Balik Pazar in Beyoglu.

Fending off persistent waiters tugging at our sleeves in front of look-alike meyhanes, shoeshine boys darting at our feet, and girls pushing big, thorny flowers at our noses, we finally hook up with our crew at Boncuk, a meyhane known for its Armenian specialties. Immediately, the waiter carts trayfuls of eastern Mediterranean bounty to our table. Topik (a cinnamony Armenian pâté of chickpeas, tahini, and potatoes), is followed by kislik (bulgur patties flavored with pomegranate). Then a hail of hot mezes. Fish balls, buttery slices of sautéed liver, and gorgeous börek oozing with cheese. The best lands last: sensational snapper kebabs.

The theater of Nevizade works up to a Felliniesque circus. A motley quartet of gypsies cranks out background music for a legion of vendors peddling everything you never wanted-- big balloons containing baby balloons, hideous plastic model ships, raffle tickets for live lobsters. Not tempted by a poster of Dracula (actually, it's Kemal Atatürk)?Just bark "Hayir," no.

Aha . . . here comes the Edith Piaf of Balik Pazari, grinning Madame Anit. An Armenian blood-pressure-taker turned singer, she poured her life savings into an accordion but couldn't afford music lessons. We tip her not to play. Amid this happy bedlam we bump into a local legend, American writer-historian John Freely, whose guides to Istanbul we've clutched during all our trips. He recommends his favorite Istanbul restaurant-- Karismasen, which translates as "mind your own business."

Eggplant Ecstasy
Heads aching, we spend the next morning intoxicated by the carpets at the Textile Museum, then take a short taksi ride from the Old City to Fatih, Istanbul's Fundamentalist stronghold. What brings us to this traffic-choked neighborhood of boxy apartment blocks?The promise of exceptional Ottoman cooking. Enough said. From the street, Hünkar, our mecca, looks uninspiring. Inside are two rooms: one with lettuce-green walls, the other quite drab. The regulars, who clearly equate good food with no-frills surroundings, gravitate toward the second.

"In Turkey we have two million eggplant dishes!" proprietor Feridun Ðgümü announces with a straight face. We nod doubtfully, so as proof he offers us three.

Braised eggplant with a meat filling glistens attractively with olive oil and melts in the mouth like a cream puff. It's amazing. The patlican kebap, grilled eggplant slices wrapped around cubes of charred lamb, is lean and chewy. Begendi blends smoky roasted eggplant with milk and cheese into a silky purée. One vegetable, such different tastes-- clearly, eggplant is the little black dress of Ottoman cooking.

After recovering from our eggplant-induced delirium, we feast on manti, thimble-size dumplings in yogurt sauce; okra and chickpea stew; and hamsi pilaf, intriguing anchovy rice that is a Black Sea specialty. For dessert, figs with kaymak (clotted cream), and a warm semolina halvah redolent of cinnamon.

That night I dream I'm being attacked by an army of eggplants in Ottoman costumes. Millions of them.

Çiragan Palace
Now that tourists have finally discovered Istanbul, the city seems to be under siege. The Four Seasons grants us four nights, but then we must move on-- the hotel is booked, as are eight other places we try. By a stroke of luck we find a cancellation at the Çiragan Palace Kempinski Hotel, former residence of the last Ottoman sovereigns, right on the European shore of the Bosporus.

We take our last meal in Tugra, the hotel's palatial Ottoman restaurant. Though the weather is chilly, we sit out on the lofty, balustraded terrace. In the background young girls in flowing dresses pluck sweetly on dulcimer-like instruments. After a week of nonstop Turkish bonhomie it feels strange to dine À deux. Asia twinkles across the strait, and we stare sadly at the Russian tanker that hasn't moved in days. "Surprise!" Engin and her friend Sedat explode onto the terrace with laughter and farewell gifts.

Always a tough judge of Ottoman cooking, Engin scrutinizes our meal like a sultan eyeing his troops. She okays the mezes-- delicious dips and a trio of flaky böreks with different fillings-- and keeps plunging her fork approvingly into a parcel of charred vine leaves stuffed with slices of pastirma (cured spiced beef), an outburst of aromatic, tangy flavors. "Green manti?" she scoffs. But it's a good idea, a cross between Turkish dumplings and spinach gnocchi, swimming in spiced yogurt sauce. The only disappointment-- boring slices of lamb loin with rice and grilled vegetables-- is magnanimously forgiven upon the arrival of Turkish bread pudding ringed by stewed sour cherries and topped by halvah minarets.

At the next table, Japanese tourists dote on their tulip-shaped glasses of sweet Turkish tea. They snap Polaroids, and the flashes of light add one more shimmer to the glittering Bosporus nightscape.

With its magical minarets and bazaars, traffic and grit, and glitzy Eurasian high life, Istanbul is a hallucinatory experience. The richness of its cuisine contributes to the thrill. While there's no shortage of transnational dining-- California cooking is now the rage-- it's worth seeking out traditional Turkish cuisine at the establishments listed below. Even the street food in Istanbul is incredibly safe. For the best open-air, panoramic dining, go between April and October. Taxis are fun and cheap, so don't be restricted to your hotel's neighborhood. And don't forget to count your change-- because of high inflation even small notes represent millions of Turkish liras.

Four Seasons 1 Tevkifhane Sokak, Sultanahmet; 90-212/638-8200, fax 90-212/ 638-8210; doubles from $250. A sumptuous small hotel filled with Ottoman objects and smack in the middle of the Old City. The roof terrace has a stunning view of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
Çiragan Palace Hotel Kempinski 84 Çiragan Caddesi, Besiktas; 90-212/258-3377, fax 90-212/259-6686; doubles from $225. Right on the Bosporus, this bustling hotel combines an extravagantly decorated old palace with a modern hotel building. Lush grounds, a swimming pool, large rooms, plus great antiques and jewelry shops. Ask for a room with a sea view.

Yeni Bebek 123 Cevdetpasa Caddesi, Bebek; 90-212/263-3447; dinner for two $45.
Hüsseyinin 11 Kurabiye Sokak, Beyoglu; delicious k–fte about $1.30 a portion.
Lades 14 Ahududu Sokak, Beyoglu; 90-212/251-3203; lunch for two $13; no credit cards.
Babane 2 Sadri Alisik Sokak, Beyoglu; great g–zleme (filled turnovers) about $1.50 each.
Zencefil 3 Kurabiye Sokak, Beyoglu; 90-212/244-4082; lunch for two $20.
Develi 7 Gümüsyüzük Sokak, Samatya; 90-212/529-0833; dinner for two $35.
Yosun 1 Iskele Meydani, Anadolu Kavagi; 90-212/320-2148; lunch for two $25.
Feriye Lokantasi 124 Çiragan Caddesi, Ortak–y; 90-212/227-2216; lunch for two $45.
Ulus 29 Ulus Parki, 1 Kireçhane Sokak at Adnan Saygun Caddesi, Ulus; 90-212/265-6181; dinner for two $70.
Karabiber 3 General Yazgan Sokak, Tünel, Beyoglu; 90-212/251-9085; lunch for two about $15; no credit cards; lunch only.
Boncuk Balik Pazar, 19 Nevizade Sokak, Beyoglu; 90-212/243 1219; dinner for two $25; no credit cards.
Hünkar 21 Akdeniz Caddesi, Fatih; 90-212/631-5944; lunch for two $18; no credit cards.
Tugra Çiragan Palace Hotel, 84 Çiragan Caddesi, Besiktas; 90-212/258-3377; dinner for two $65.

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