Thursday, 6 December 2012

Istanbul Take Two

After we'd seen The Master, we went into Otantik, an eatery on Istiklal St, and ordered potato dumplings and some kind of braised lamb and vegetables to share. We'd had a satisfying hot lunch at an unpretentious little restaurant (pictured above) around the corner from the Pera Museum, but we were up for a snack. While we were waiting for our food to arrive, Alex, who doesn't normally bother with conversation-fillers, surprised me by asking what the highlight of our week in Istanbul had been. I'm hopeless at thinking on my feet, and I waffled. "How can I say just one thing? What I like is just being here, and seeing how the city unfolds itself more each day." Ever the over-reacher. I turned the question on him, as he must have hoped I would and, without missing a beat, he said, "The food." Yes, of course, the food!   

Simit seller on Galata Bridge
At first we didn't put much effort into finding places to eat in Istanbul. You could say we had other fish to fry, but what's equally true is that we had low expectations. We didn't have the best introduction to Turkish food. Summer "restaurants" along Turkey's southern Aegean coast, including those in Marmaris, offered a generic Europeanised menu to holidaymakers. The odd restaurant would tease us with a delicious meze - on the beach at Keci Buku we ate a fava bean puree with pomegranate sauce which was scrumptious, but when we returned with Barb and Andy 10 days later it wasn't on the menu. Sadly, the best food we've eaten in our four months here has come from Enki's galley. How could you fail with the spectacular produce available at the weekly pazar (market)? But as for restaurants, we'd all but given up on finding interesting food in Turkey.... 

Fast food Turkish style on Istiklal St

That was partly why we rented an "apartment" in Istanbul i.e. a small room with a kitchenette. We filled up on boiled eggs and toast for breakfast, snacked on simits (dry doughy sesame buns with a hole in the middle) and bought fresh orange or pomegranate juice from street stalls during the day. On our first evenings, we stopped by the local version of a 7-11 and bought chicken noodle packet soup,  bread (bad, white bread sold all over Turkey in such places), tomatoes and a bottle of red Turkish wine. Then we headed "home" to get warm and put up our tired feet.  In Istanbul we did this. Shame!

Eventually, we came to our senses. We needed to find something good to eat. Istiklal St seemed to be cheek-by-jowl fast food joints, not Maccas or Burger King (though they exist) but places which feed the crowds quickly. Turkish fast food means pides, doners, kebaps, mantis (like ravioli). Throw in mezes to start and "puddings" to finish, and you've pretty much got it.
On Tuesday night we headed down Istiklal St again, this time with a recommendation in hand for a place which served dishes from the Black Sea region. No alcohol served at Hayvore, and the lighting isn't designed to have you linger, but we lapped up lovely stewy vege dishes and delectable soupy meat, fluffy rice, good bread (finally). Comfort food. We ordered too much, thought we'd need a doggy bag, but of course, the plates were clean when we left. The next evening we passed a shop selling a take-away version of the same robust food. No more Knorrs soup for us.

Comfort food - artichoke and vegetables, baked beans, kofte (meatballs) and potatoes, salad.
Not before time, I remembered Caroline's email. "Most important info re Istanbul is to eat as often as you can at Ciya Sofrasi," she had written to me at the end of October. Caroline can be trusted to know the best place in any town to do just about anything you want to do, but food is a particular specialty of hers. I looked up Ciya Sofrasi in the Lonely Planet. It was on the Asian side of Istanbul at Kadikoy. In fact, it was just around the corner from the best market street we've yet come across in Turkey. Foodie street!

Getting to Kadikoy is as straightforwards as catching a commuter ferry to Manly from Circular Quay, except that the traffic on the Bosphorus makes Sydney Harbour look like a backwater. Not just the ferries, but the number of ships steaming back and forth between the Black Sea through to the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean beyond is incredible. I had no idea.

Ciya Sofrasi - one of three Ciya restaurants in the same street in Kadikoy, their kitchens all overseen by the chef Musa Dagdeviren - is absolutely the best place we've eaten in Turkey. People say it's the best restaurant in Istanbul. I can't vouch for that, but if you want to check out the adoration on the web start here.

We didn't realise when we walked into Ciya Sofrasi - which is really a glorified cafeteria, with shared tables, and a self-service meze bar, and again no alcohol - that it had attracted the attention of the New Yorker, amongst other food fashion-watching publications. We had no problem getting a table mid-week for lunch. The service was welcoming, and efficient. No snobbery here (try getting a table at the Istanbul Modern "cafe" however, and you're suddenly aware of how little gold you're wearing). Our waiter took what seemed like real pleasure in sharing the deliciousness of what the kitchen had produced that day. After a plate of tangy wild greenery and other variations on familiar meze (priced by weight), I chose four small dishes from the big canteen-size pots of vegetable and meat stews, and Alex ordered a chicken kebap. To share, of course. The best was whole roasted garlic in a creamy sauce. But also the baked beans flaked through with meat. And there was an amazing leek dish, another with small sausages....some with deep rich sauces, others light and subtle, all far and away the most yummy things we'd eaten in months.

Here's our first meal, minus our shared dessert of goat's milk icecream (one scoop plain and the other fig).

We came back a couple of days later. It wasn't something we needed to discuss though it meant we missed some of the "sights". But you know what? For us this year, there's always Istanbul. We're going to go back. Not just to eat, though certainly to do that too. We will stop over on our way back to Sydney in late January, and again on our way back to Marmaris in mid-March.

We won't be staying in an apartment next time. We've got a lot of eating to catch up on.

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