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.
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."
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.
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.