Istanbul is the most unique city that I have ever visited. The infrastructure is sophisticated and modern yet historic, the people pious yet liberal, and the city both European and Asian. Waking up to sunlight refracting off of century old mosques and palaces overlooking the Bosporus is a sight of unmatched beauty. However, the city was reminiscent of New York as it was quite detached and fast-paced. Maybe I naively expected a Griswold family vacation, but ultimately I did get what I went for – a glimpse into authentic Turkish cuisine ranging from high-end recreations of feasts from the Ottoman era all the way to informal dining establishments and late night street food.
Tatbak for the best Lahmacun
Lahmacun has been a staple in my family since I can remember. The dish is colloquially known as “Armenian/Turkish Pizza” in the U.S. but hails from Syria originally. It is a flatbread with ground meat and spices that you eat with fresh parsley, lemon juice, tomatoes, onions, and sumac. My family is originally from Waltham, Massachusetts, a town with a neighboring Armenian influence. It was there where we were first introduced to Lahmacun, which was locally made at the neighborhood Armenian bakery – Sevan Bakery (still open to this day). While you can get multiple interpretations of Lahmacun throughout Istanbul, my favorite was at Tatbak. The bread was crispy and warm, the meat evenly distributed and lightly seasoned. The contrast of the fresh vegetables and herbs and the mildly sour ground sumac was an experience that I would recommend to anyone passing through. Also make sure to try the Ayran (a Turkish yogurt drink) – think drinkable plain yogurt with carbonation. Yes, it is an acquired taste but authentic nonetheless. Tatbak makes theirs in-house so if you only try Ayran once, make sure it’s here.
Sultanahmet Köftecisi “Selim Usta”
Kebabs are for better or worse an archetypical component of Turkish cuisine. The doner kebab has the uncanny ability to unite all of us around the world from New York to London to Wellington. Most cities have some sort of Middle Eastern contingent and thankfully a solid kebab shop – mobile or otherwise – is usually in tow, especially for those of us who occasionally find ourselves hungry circa 3am after a night of revelry. I’ve been trying to watch my hyperboles but Sultanhamet Köftecisi near Topkapi Palace has the best grilled meatballs that I have ever eaten in my life. They are so good that copycats have sprung up all around Istanbul – even right next door! Make sure you go to the one by Selim Usta.
Bebek Balikcisi for Meze aka Tapas
Anyone who has read any of my blog posts will know that my favorite cuisine is that from the Basque region. Cities such as San Sebastián and Roses are the birthplaces of modernist cuisine – the latter home to Ferran Adria’s now defunct El Bulli, the iconic restaurant that brought forth molecular gastronomy to the masses. What I love most about Basque and Spanish cuisine is Tapas – what is known in the Mediterranean and Middle East as Mezze: a myriad of small plates, and the method of choice for those of us with a fear of commitment. Bebek Balikcisi is an upscale seafood restaurant in Bebek, a town that holds the best views of the Bosporus as well as many posh nightclubs and bars. The food was indeed fantastic: freshly grilled Kalkan (Turbot) caught just hours earlier in the Black Sea, roasted marinated eggplant, hummus, tzatziki, white beans in harissa, fish eggs and strained yogurt, marinated sardines, and deep fried whole smelt with lemon juice and rock salt. The history of the Ottoman Empire could be found on this one table. A perfect accompaniment to the meal was the Turkish drink Raki – a close comp to Uzo from Greece, Pernod from France, and Sambuca from Italy. Turks take their Raki seriously and I was told that the Raki of choice is Yesil Efe, unfortunately, I typically pass on the stuff. I have a feeling that it could be used as fuel for the Delorean in Back to the Future. One word of caution for those who try this restaurant, while delicious, it is extremely expensive. Keep your eye on the tab!
Borsa for high-end Ottoman and decor
Another high-end restaurant in Istanbul specializing in Ottoman cuisine. I received mixed reviews prior to my visit. To one of my Turkish friends, it was his favorite restaurant in the world and to another, it was a stuck-up restaurant for old business men. After trying it for myself, I too have come away with mixed feelings. The ambiance of the restaurant is stunning – I can only imagine how beautiful it would be during a summer afternoon when the balcony offers close views of the Bosporus. The service was a bit rough but the food held several bright spots. Borsa’s version of Lahmacun – Findik Lahmacun – was fantastic and different from Tatbak’s in that there was tomato in the meat mixture prior to baking. The warm dolmas (grape leaves), stuffed with veal and lemon cream sauce, were delicious and the Kuzu Incik (lamb shank) which was cooked twice to attain a crispy skin and a ‘fall of the bone’ tenderness was a preparation that I want to emulate in my own kitchen. However, this is simply a beautiful restaurant – if you don’t eat here, at least swing by for a drink on the terrace if the weather is nice.
Hamdi, pre-order the testi
Hamdi is a restaurant that has been around for over 50 years. The cuisine is from Urfa – a city located in the Southeast of Turkey. The restaurant sits perched atop a tall building near the historical sites, which affords its diners views of the Golden Horn and Galata Tower among others. Unfortunately, I was unable to try the marquis dish at Hamdi, the Testi Kebabi, a beef kebab cooked for 6 hours in a tile pot over hot coals. You need to order this one day in advance if interested. However, I was able to try something new. The Fistikli Kebab was a lamb kebab with minced pistachios, which added a texture and sweetness to the kebab. Quite a mysterious pair but it does work wonderfully. The star of the show however, was the Baklava. The construction was analogous to that of the French mille-feuille, a favorite childhood pastry of mine also known as the “Napoleon”. Hundreds of gossamer thin sheets of Phyllo dough soaked in honey with ground pistachio culminate in a soft, flaky, and warm pastry fit for royalty. What we missed on the elevator up to the top floor, which housed the restaurant, was the in-house bakery that specializes in Baklava.
Kizilkayalar for the soaking wet burger
Taksim square is the heart of modern Istanbul. The main street that stems from the square is called Istiklal and is much like La Rambla in Barcelona – adorned with shops, hotels, bars, and restaurants as well as hidden alcoves that provide shelter to the quixotic writers and artists of the city. However, my favorite part of Taksim square isn’t romantic, it is in fact quite lowbrow. Kizilkayalar is a unique late night specialty in Istanbul. It is a whole hamburger that is cooked in a sweet tomato based sauced. What you get is a soaking wet burger that looks like it was dropped in a pitcher of beer. My Turkish friend Yusuf put it best, “Just try it – you will not be disappointed”.
While I don’t think I will return to Istanbul again, I look forward to traveling to the other regions of Turkey – Aegean, Black Sea, Anatolian, and Mediterranean. However, I strongly suggest that everyone visit Istanbul at least once. The history, the architecture, and the culture create an enriching experience and the food is pretty damn good too.