Eating in Istanbul

Jean-Yves Salabaj

At this crossroads of East and West, the cuisine is as fascinating and complex as the long history. From street food to chic new restaurants, Anya Von Bremzen finds the best dining in Byzantium.

Standing on the Galata Bridge eating a peach, I’m only half looking at the lineup of imperial mosques along the Golden Horn. Instead I’m contemplating my new purchase, which isn’t a gold bracelet from the Grand Bazaar or a kilim—though I certainly need one. What I’ve bought is an apartment, a little place with a beautiful Bosporus view in the neighborhood of Cihangir, Istanbul’s leafy hub of café life. The thought of my acquisition has me in a state of simultaneous gloom and euphoria. Gloom because Turkey’s currency is fluctuating like crazy, be­­cause the prospect of the country’s joining the EU seems real one day and phantasmagoric the next, be­­cause the local Ikea has sold out of the extralong curtain rods I need. Euphoria because to me Istanbul is the most fascinating, most ravishing city on earth, a feeling that hasn’t wavered since I first ate a peach on the Galata Bridge 20 years ago.

Everything one hears about Istanbul is pretty much true. Yes, the Hagia Sophia is big and byzantine, the Grand Bazaar both a treasure trove and a tourist trap. Yes, this metropolis of 12 million people physically and metaphorically straddles Europe and Asia. It is by turns provincial and cosmopolitan, Muslim yet resolutely secular, exhilarating and exasperating. Even the rumors of Istanbul’s transcendent new coolness aren’t vastly exaggerated. Beyond the clichés, though, what keeps luring me back is the texture of everyday life. The ferry ride at dusk as the skies flare cinematically over the minarets. The tulip-shaped glasses at my corner tea garden. The courtly smile of my local pistachio vendor. And the food.

With the endless grills, the subtle spicing, the celebration of yo­­gurt, legumes, and sun-ripened vegetables, Turkish cuisine is the last frontier of healthy Mediterranean cooking. The kebabs and savory pastries called börek alone are reason enough to move here. While Istanbul isn’t the next capital of Spanish-style avant-garde cooking—so fashionable in Europe these days—its hedonistic high society ensures that there are plenty of spots that outglamour anything in Miami Beach or Hong Kong.

It’s a sprawling city, divided into three parts by the Bosporus strait and its offshoot, the Golden Horn (see map with "Istanbul’s Foodscape"). Though many tourists tend to stick close to the Old City—especially the historic Sultanahmet district around Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque—to truly experience Istanbul’s food, you have to go a bit farther afield. Best of all, meals often come framed by views so breathtakingly beautiful, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this city is a mirage.

Searching for Street Food

On my first day back in Istanbul, I enlist my friend Engin Akin to accompany me on a street food tour. A columnist for the Turkish newspaper Vatan, Engin has been my guide to the city’s foodscape for more than a decade. In the mood to do something un­­abashedly touristy before eating, we visit Topkapi Palace, built by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror after he seized Con­stantinople in 1453. Separate buildings house the palace kitchens under domes that bring to mind giant meringues. Ottoman sultans clearly had a se­­rious food fetish: A staff of more than a thousand cooks was organized into guilds, each specializing in a particular item, say, halvah or kebabs. Over six centuries of refinements and codification, the Ottomans developed a culinary culture every bit as sophisticated as that of the Chinese or the French.

But today the Sultanahmet district is not exactly the seat of sophisticated Ottoman dining. What one eats here is köfte, the addictive grilled meatballs that are a staple of millions of working- class lunches. The Hagia Sophia of köfte joints, as it were, is Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi, founded more than 80 years ago and still run by the same family. Packed in behind the old marble tables, everyone orders the meatballs—crusty, springy, and suffused with smoke—served with piyaz, a lemony white-bean salad. To drink, there’s a tart, thin yogurt beverage called ayran. It’s good to be back.

"Turkish cuisine marries palace finesse with rugged nomadic traditions. Think of all the grills, yogurt, and butter," Engin says as her driver whisks us across the Galata Bridge and over the Golden Horn to the port area of Karaköy. Our grail is the shop Karaköy Güllüoglu, renowned for its baklava and börek. These incomparably flaky pastries are fashioned from yufka—phyllo, to the Greeks—a multilayered dough of Turkish nomadic origins rendered perfect and paper-thin by Topkapi chefs. Güllüoglu’s pistachio-infused, not-too-sweet baklava puts the leaden Greek version to shame. A few bites of the buttery spinach börek and we’re off again, heading into the heart of the Beyoglu district.

We stop for a quick lahmacun, the wafer-thin pizza with a smear of spicy ground lamb that’s baked in a woodburning oven. Next we buy simit from a mustachioed street vendor. These dense, chewy bread rings, Istanbul’s most traditional and ubiquitous street snack, are brushed with molasses, encrusted with sesame seeds, and baked to a deep amber tan.

Winding down, we stop at Mado, opposite the Lycée Galata­saray, once Turkey’s Eton. This smart café with locations all over town specializes in ice cream thickened with salep, a powder milled from wild orchid bulbs grown in the Anatolian mountains. It gives the ice cream, made without cream or eggs, its exotically elastic texture. Mado’s flavors are almost surreally vivid. Licking on our cones, we stroll on, arguing about which is best: pistachio, sour cherry, or mulberry. The word salep, Engin informs me, comes from the Arabic term for "fox testicles."

Beyoglu: 21st-century Istanbul

Much has been said about the rampant gentrification of Beyoglu, formerly Pera, the European quarter first settled by Genovese traders. Back in the 19th century, Istiklal Caddesi, the district’s thronged pedestrian thoroughfare, was a glamorous cosmopolitan boulevard known as the Grande Rue de Pera. Once flanked with cafés, embassies, and Parisian-style arcades, the street has recently been repaved with ungainly slabs of granite, while its weathered pâtisseries and old i dives are yielding to latte pushers and international chains. A few hours on Istiklal can be an exercise in hüzün, the melancholy yearning for a crumbling past that pervades Nobel Prize–winning novelist Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City. Still, the district is home to some of the city’s most stylish and sophisticated restaurants.

Typifying Beyoglu’s thrust into the globalized future is 360 Istanbul, a restaurant-cum-club that resembles a postindustrial glass house set atop a 19th-century building overlooking the Bosporus. At the stoves is the indecently handsome South African chef-owner Mike Norman, whose menu—tandoori chicken pizza, beef carpaccio, zucchini blossom dolmas—is as giddily international as the crowd.

Some of the fickle Turkish beau monders who couldn’t get enough of 360 when it opened three years ago have since migrated to Mikla, owned by Mehmet Gürs, the lanky charismatic grand vizier of Istanbul’s restaurant scene. Following the success of his previous ventures, Lokanta and NuTeras, which jump-started the revitalization of the downtrodden Tepebasi Boulevard near Istiklal, Gürs opened Mikla on the 17th floor of the Marmara Pera hotel in 2005. The 38-year-old Gürs, who has a Finnish mother and a Turkish architect father, grew up shuffling between Stockholm and Istanbul. ("We celebrated bayram with a Turkish feast and Christmas with pig’s feet and moose roast," he recalls.) In 1994, after graduating from John­son & Wales, he settled in Turkey, bringing with him a flair for Scandinavian design and a sharp minimalist cooking style that defines his nine restaurants.

Mikla is his masterpiece, commanding Istanbul’s most breath­tak­ing panorama from its glassy perch. Striped marble, dark wood, and Alvar Aalto chairs set the scene for food that fuses Turkish ingredients with Gürs’s Nordic penchant for raw fish and smoky-salty flavors. There’s a luminously fresh sea bass carpaccio sprinkled with salmon eggs, lemon, and dill. Hamsi, anchovies from the Black Sea, are ingeniously laminated onto gossamer slices of toast and highlighted with a lemony foam. Gürs’s shank of grass-fed Turkish lamb is slowly cooked to a melting tenderness and accented with lingonberries. Still, it’s hard to concentrate on the plates when the domes and minarets of the Old City are glowing below and you can play Name That Landmark. Far left? The stubby tower of Topkapi Palace. To its right? The eternal Hagia Sophia. Looming over it all is the swelling vision of the Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul’s masterpiece by Mimar Sinan, the Michelangelo of Ottoman architects.

Asian Spice: Crossing to Kadikoy

Too few Americans bother to make the trip across the Bosporus to Istanbul’s Asian side. Bourgeois Turks, meanwhile, find little reason to go to the Old City unless they wish to have curtains made on the clamorous alleys of Mahmud Pasa or visit a certain goldsmith inside the Grand Bazaar. My own treks to Asia usually revolve around meals at Ciya, the most intriguing restaurant in the folksy Kadiköy quarter.

Getting there by the hulking public ferry is part of the thrill. Un­­ceremoniously, I elbow my way to the open upper deck and accept a glass of çay (tea) from a vendor. For the next 20 minutes I’m sailing to Byzantium. As the boat casts off, Süleymaniye’s cascading domes rise behind and the conical-capped Galata Tower swings into view on the Beyoglu side. Soon the Topkapi Palace assembles itself and the profile of the Blue Mosque joins in as the twilight sky turns a dazzling orange behind it. We sail to the sounds of seagulls squawking and the muezzins’ echoing calls to prayer. It’s the most magical public-transport experience you can have for less than a buck, plus 30 cents for the tea.

After landing, I cross the street and veer into a buoyant mercantile hub, where the aroma of roasting coffee mingles with that of briny grape leaves. Ciya, which sits on a market street, is actually a mini empire: two kebab places and the cafeteria-style Ciya Sofrasi, where diners help themselves to cold snacks, then order hot specials dished out from bubbling pots. The mischievous fortyish owner, Musa Dagdeviren, is a chef as well as publisher of a Turkish food and culture magazine. He serves up regional specialties such as tiny meatballs in sour cherry sauce; a lemony salad of mastic leaves; and dried eggplant dolmas with a rice filling sweet and sour from pomegranate molasses. At the larger of Ciya’s two kebab places—be sure to book on the rooftop terrace—the braziers turn out beautifully marbled cylinders of minced lamb grilled with loquat, quince, or spring onions. I like to end with the tahinli ekmek, a paper-thin disk of dough flash-baked with tahini and sugar. I’m amazed this brilliant dessert pizza idea has never occurred to Wolfgang Puck.

On the Banks of the Bosporus

Come warm weather, locals flock to the Bosporus with the determination of migrating birds. This narrow, 19-mile-long strait, stretching from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea and separating Europe from Asia, just might be the world’s most adored and fully utilized body of water. Locals wax rhapsodic about its hilly green shores and vigorous breezes. They love the genteel villages lined with wooden waterfront mansions called yalilar, some of them freshly painted, others in a state of romantic decay. And they’ll invariably recommend that you spend a languorous weekend morning at one of the outdoor cafés near the Rumeli Hisari Fortress, erected in 1452 by Mehmed the Conqueror as he plotted the siege of Constantinople. If you’re coming from Sultanahmet, it’s a beautiful half-hour taxi ride along the Bosporus.

I usually gravitate to Kale Cay Bahçesi, which serves an exemplary Turkish breakfast of feta, olives, crunchy cucumbers, slender green peppers, simit, and jam. Over endless glasses of tea, I take in the Bosporus promenade, where suntanned men fish, couples nuzzle, chic twentysomethings in dashing sunglasses and designer headscarves loll about alongside tattooed beauties with bare midriffs. Ignoring warnings about treacherous currents and boat traffic, small boys leap into the steely waters. Giant freighters glide up and down. It’s easy to sit and stare forever.

Another ritual here is eating fish at the waterside restau­rants. For outsiders, it’s hard to understand why locals maintain such fierce loyalty to a particular fish house, say, Kiyi or Iskele. The menus are fairly identical. Small dishes, or meze, such as smoky eggplant spread, feta with melon, and buttery lakerda (cured bonito), give way to fried calamari and warm eggplant with yogurt. It’s all washed down with raki, the anise-scented Turkish spirit. Then pick your catch—mackerel, sea bass, bluefish—fried or grilled.

Busy by day, the road along the strait is bumper-to-bumper on warm summer nights as Istanbul’s jeunesse dorée inch their Mercedes convertibles toward waterside nightspots. The traffic comes to a lurching standstill at Reina, whose valets are blamed for notorious bottlenecks. Reina is actually a bazaar of six restaurants that morph into one giant after-hours club. Inside, the open-air space is breezy and sultry, filled with decorative-looking people ogling each other in the glint of a vast chandelier.

Those who come here to eat book at Kösebasi. Some ten years ago the owner of the original Kösebasi in the Levent district had the smart idea of serving ur-traditional eastern Turkish kebabs on white tablecloths in modern surroundings. It was a huge success, spawning an army of imitators and a chain of Kösebasi restaurants. Ordering is a no-brainer. First, let the waiters mosaic your table with plates of spicy dips, mini lahmacun, and herbaceous chopped salads with tangy pomegranate. Then move on to the signature dish, çop sis, small tender lamb cubes marinated in a recipe that is more zealously guarded than the formula for Coca-Cola. Sprinkle with spices, wrap in lavash bread, plop it in your mouth, and savor the scene. As soon as the blaring Anatolian pop starts up, flee.

Truly Turkish in Nisantasi

When Istanbul residents are not eating kebabs or grilled fish or sushi at glamorous spots, they pine for their mother’s stews and stuffed vegetables, lamenting how difficult it is to find good home cooking at restaurants that aren’t outright dives. Hünkar, tucked away on a side street in the chic shopping neighborhood of Nisantasi, is an exception. Foreigners love the place because owner Feridun Ugümü—imagine a Turkish Zero Mostel—personally guides them through the cold meze case and the display of tender braises and stews. The moneyed Nisantasi locals go for Hünkar’s cosmopolitan ambience. With dark wainscoting, red lanterns, and piles of fruit by the entrance, this could be a bistro in Buenos Aires or Zürich. That is, until you taste the handmade manti (thimble-size meat dumplings) under a tart cloak of yogurt; the Hünkar begendi, a velvety warm eggplant purée enriched with milk and cheese; or a stunning fresh anchovy pilaf studded with currants and pine nuts. And it would be reckless to pass on dessert, perhaps sütlü kadayif, a crunchy shredded wheat nest with a walnut heart framed by a delicate milk sauce. Very Ottoman.

My own favorite Turkish dish is one of the simplest, never mind its tongue-twisting name, zeytinyagli (zey-tihn-yah-lih). It’s a wondrous silken veggie confit in which broad beans, arti­chokes, and celery root are braised for an eternity in olive oil and a secret pinch of sugar that teases out their natural sweetness. It’ll forever ruin your appetite for al dente green beans.

Every place in town serves decent olive oil braises, but those by Bogaziçi Borsa (in Harbiye, adjacent to Nisantasi) are in a league of their own. So is its red bean pilaki—a tomatoey Armenian stew cooked for 12 hours—and the deeply satisfying keskek, a kind of creamy wheat berry risotto with shreds of lamb. This big, handsomely modern place was conceived by restaurateur Rasim Ozkanca because he, too, pined for great Turkish home cooking. His authentic regional menu is laced with a strong preservationist streak and a good deal of ingredient fetishism. That crumbly, stinky Tulum cheese is from a special maker in the city of Erzincan; the pomegranate syrup is produced in Mardin; the fish is caught in the cold Black Sea, where they’re fattest. Esoteric sweet wines made from sour cherries or Turkish Calkarasi grapes complete the meal. Ozkanca’s son Umut, who trained in the States, presides over the creative Mediterranean fusion menu at Loft, downstairs from Borsa. His clubby, on-the-scene sister, Bahar, runs the smart restaurant at the Istanbul Modern museum near my home.

Here, overlooking the Bosporus and the Hagia Sophia, I can have trendy salads and sandwiches alongside manti and stuffed purple cabbage that taste just like Mom’s. It’s perfect, especially after a day of haranguing contractors and comparing faucets at hellish hardware emporiums for my new apartment. As I eat, gloom gives way to euphoria.

Istanbul’s Foodscape

The easiest way to get around this sprawling city is by taxi, though if you’re heading across to the Asian side or up the Bosporus, ferry rides can be magical—especially at sunset. Fares are cheap, but be sure to have your concierge write down directions. Of course, Istanbul is a magnificent place to wander on foot, making occasional stops for çay (tea) at the ubiquitous tea houses. At better restaurants, at least some English is typically spoken and English menus are often available. Perhaps the two most invaluable Turkish words to learn are tesekkür ederim, or thank you.

360 Istanbul

Dinner, $200. 311 Istiklal Cad., Misir Apartments, Eighth Fl., Beyoglu; 90-212/251-1042; 360istanbul.com

Bogazici Borsa/Loft

Dinner, $200. Darülbedai Cad., Istanbul Convention Center, Harbiye; 90-212/232-4201, borsarestaurants.com; 90-212/ 219-6384, loftrestbar.com

Ciya

Dinner, $40. 48/B Güneslibahçe Sok., Caferga Mahallesi, Kadiköy; 90-216/336-3013; ciya.com.tr

Hunkar

Dinner, $100. 21 Mim Kemal Öke Cad., Nisantasi; 90-212/ 225-4665

Kale Cay Bahcesi

Breakfast, $25. 36 Yahya Kemal Cad., Rumeli Hisari; 90-212/257-5578

Karakoy Gulluoglu

Börek, from $5 per pound. 29 Rihtim Cad., Karaköy; 90-212/293-0910; gulluoglu.biz

Kosebasi at Reina

Dinner, $110. 44 Muallim Naci Cad., Ortaköy; 90-212/258-0683; kosebasi.com.tr

Mado

Ice cream, $6 per pound. 186/2 Istiklal Cad., Beyoglu; 90-212/244-1781; mado.com.tr

Mikla

Dinner, $125. The Marmara Pera, 167/185 Mesrutiyet Cad., Tepebasi; 90-212/293-5656; istanbulyi.com

Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi

Lunch, $35. 12 Divanyolu Cad., Sultanahmet; 90-212/520-0566

Local Drink

Turkey’s national spirit, the addictive anise-scented raki, is similar to Greek ouzo or French pastis. Distilled from grapes, it turns milky when mixed with water. Turks consider it the perfect accom-paniment to meze, kebabs, or grilled fish. Since the state monopoly ended a few years ago, raki selection and quality have increased dramatically. Our favorite brand is Efe. It’s ideally served with one part raki to two parts water, over a few ice cubes. Before drinking, it is customary to offer the toast Serefe! (To your honor).