Eating out in Istanbul
Bitterly cold weather, hundreds of well-fed cats (and dogs) roaming the streets and a profusion of tulips. I was prepared for none of these things when I escaped for a weekend in Istanbul with a group of girl friends at the start of May. But I was prepared for eating some fantastic food. Choosing where to eat was out of my hands as one of the group arranged everything (she’d lived in Turkey). All I had to do was point my feet in the right direction and turn up in a series of stunning locations.
In the car from the airport we looked with consternation at the heavy coats people were wearing out on the streets and true enough we all wrapped up in every layer we had to venture out into the city. It was a shock after Dubai but a novelty too. Our first stop was Alaturka where Eveline Zoutendijk (who is Dutch) has a beautiful Turkish restaurant and cooking school. The scents were wonderful in this cosy but bright little place but fully booked so she directed us to Balikci Sabahattin tucked away at the end of some tumble-down wooden houses by the railway line. There were pumpkins outside, and lemons inside and at one point a couple of sheep wandered through. We sat in the bright conservatory and ate the freshest, flakiest white sea bass, simply cooked served with bread and salads and a vegetable which was a bit like samphire. Our first encounter with Turkish wine was surprisingly OK – no prize winners but drinkable. What a great start to our trip.
Cooking Alaturka, Akbiyik Caddesi 72a, Sultanahmet Tel: (+90) 212 458 59 19
Balikci Sabahattin (+90) 212 458 18 24
For the evening we hopped on the tram from Sultanahmet to Kabatas and took a taxi to Ortakoy. Food stands and other interesting stalls lined the streets down to the waterside. We reached Banyan down a narrow street, climbed some stairs to be greeted by a huge open log burning fire and a glass-sided, open-ended dream of a restaurant. With views extending right along the Bosphorus and down onto the Ortakoy mosque quite honestly they could have served us anything. It was an Asian fusion menu and while not extremely spicy the sharing platter of satay, dumplings, samosas and tempura shrimp was the perfect partner for our fresh pomegranate martinis. Green chicken curry, Singapore noodles and more fabulous sea bass followed but our lengthy stay watching the lights change colour over the bridge and mosque from possibly the coolest bar in the world make this a little hazy.
Ortakoy Banyan Restaurant Muallim Naci Cad.Salhane Sk. No 3 Tel: (212) 259 90 60 70
The Grand Bazaar of over 5000 shops is a retail challenge which was well-met by the Olympic-standard shoppers in our group who spent hours haggling over carpets, pots, trays, bags, jewellery and leather jackets. As the shops shut for midday prayer we found a table in front of the entrance to Havuzlu by a little marble fountain. You order by pointing to trays at a counter inside (among other enthusiastic and jostling diners) while the chefs empty and rearrange the dishes at lightening speed. Somehow we made our choices and were brought a selection. Dish of the day was lamb in a lightly spiced orange sauce with hazelnuts, dried apricots and figs served with that Turkish speciality that KP is so fond of – creamy, smooth mashed potato. A lamb cutlet wrapped in grilled aubergine topped with a white slightly cheesey sauce was meltingly good too. The kebab was grilled meat doused in a tomato sauce with chips on top. An aubergine salad similar to mutabal but more creamy and without tahini was refreshingly good and the simple tomato and cucumber salad was doused in just the right amount of seasoning and lemon juice. Straightforward Turkish food at its best.
Havuzlu Tel: (+90) 212 527 33 46
More shopping via the spice souk, a wander over the bridge and up the steep lanes to the Galata Tower, a few drinks in a bar overlooking the square with picturesque ancient trams gliding in and out and we had worked up an appetite for dinner. Sadly my camera battery had died by the time we reached Leb-i Derya in the Richmond Hotel so I’ll just have to describe yet another stunning view of the Bosphorus. The sun was just setting casting a pink rosy glow over the matchbox houses to the left. The water stretched out ahead, deep blue, with the coast curving round to the right displaying another huge and grand mosque (not really sure which one). The interior is pared down, smart and elegant with an air of being the place to hang out. The food was perhaps slightly overcomplicated. Our mixed sharing starters included a superb fava bean dip and one of smashed chickpeas both very moreish. But the main courses tried too hard. My sea bass fillet with chard came with the former wrapped in the latter in beehive shapes. However the service was excellent, the Turkish wine flowed once more and we wandered home, through the thronging streets of Taksim, replete and very happy.
Leb-i Derya Richmond Tel: (+) 90 212 252 54 60
The shopping hounds and culture hounds split up the next day. I’m the latter and with the sun shining and temperatures rising spent a really fascinating day seeing the Hagia Sophia, Cistern, Topkapi Palace and Blue Mosque. Our guide took us to a restaurant where people were queuing outside but after she had a quick exchange with the doorman and some people left we were herded in and up a flight of narrow stairs, and another, and another. The staff had walkie talkies to keep the place running like clockwork. There was a menu but the place was full of Turkish families and they were all eating the same – which we ordered too – kofta with rice, salad and spicy pepper sauce. We ordered helwa to finish. It’s not a bit like halva more like a solid, grainy, set milk pudding sweetened with honey. It was pretty bland but strangely addictive. Strangely they serve no hot drinks.
Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftescisi – Tel: (+90) 212 520 06 66
We walked down to Eminönü, for our coffee and sat at a cafe in the sunshine at the back of the spice souk and new mosque (actually building commenced in 1597) a fabulous vantage point for riveting people watching (including the purchasing of leeches for medicinal purposes – eeuw!).
Stopping on our way back up the hill for a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice we looked up and saw that the highest rooftop restaurant was at our own hotel which had opened up the top floor due to the sunshine. Once installed at the Seven Hills Hotel with a cold beer we watched the sun descend over the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and the Bosphorus. The light changed every minute making it more and more beautiful (see first picture). Fireworks appeared over the water as if they were put on solely for our entertainment.
I ask for some succulent-looking white fish cooked on the bone and which I saw the waiter serve earlier and carefully fillet – and some big chips. We get talked into a mixed fish plate – it isn’t that great but the chips are very good. The waiter knows he’s sold us a dud and goes from friendly and charming to ellusive. The temperature dips and we are offered blankets – the food is irrelevant as we savour this fantastic viewpoint and we are nearly the last to leave the rooftop.
In the morning we order menemen – a dish of fresh tomatoes, mild green chillies, spring onions and scrambled eggs, sizzling in a clay dish fresh from the oven. The mediocre food of the night before is forgiven as we look over the sparkling Bosphorus. The hotel has been a good choice for service, comfort, cleanliness and, above all, location.
Other edible notes from Istanbul
The thing I wish I had bought – a dolmades machine.
All ice-cream sellers where the same costume and constantly dig at the ice-cream with a big rod.
We didn’t find the source of the best Turkish Delight. It certainly wasn’t in the spice souk – beware.
We travelled Fly Dubai from Dubai to Istanbul. With a four-hour flight time and one hour time difference it was easily done in a long-weekend and on a low t0 medium budget (excluding retail therapy).