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Eating out in Istanbul

May 8, 2011

Hagia SophiaBitterly 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.

Balikci Sabahattin

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

Banyan OrtakoyFor 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

HazazluThe 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

Ice cream seller and goods in the spice soukMore 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

Pomegranate juice stallWe 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!).

Food sellers on the streetStopping 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.

Dolamdes machine

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).

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  1. May 8, 2011 1:29 pm

    I’ve never seen dolmades machine, very interesting!
    Haven’t you eaten baklava there? And are the cats really so numerous? This makes me shiver(I have an unbearable fear of cats).

    • May 8, 2011 2:10 pm

      Can you believe it – I didn’t eat any baklava! No room.

  2. Tara Rogers permalink
    May 8, 2011 1:53 pm

    Oh, Sally – I lived so vicariously through your post – just gorgeous. Istanbul is the most wonderful city – some delicious food, many wonderful sights and a glorious meld of rustic and sophisticated.
    Thanks for bringing memories alive.

  3. May 8, 2011 2:05 pm

    Wow, what a beautiful post and photos…brought back lovely memories. As for dolmades, we call them koupepia in Cyprus – no need for a machine. Will certainly take note of these places for my next visit.

    • May 8, 2011 2:09 pm

      The recipe I usually use is my M-i-laws which is from Cyprus but I didn’t know they were called koupepia. I have hand-rolled hundreds in my time!

  4. May 8, 2011 2:41 pm

    Delicious food trip pics! An informative guide if I holiday there 🙂

  5. May 8, 2011 4:34 pm

    These photos and your descriptions make me want to book my tickets now! Lovely. What are your thoughts about taking kids?

    • May 8, 2011 5:17 pm

      I’ve taken my girls to many places since they were little including Jordan, Egypt, Libya and Rome. They do give a groan now when I mention the words ‘walking tour’ but we’ve had some great trips together. As teens I know they’d love the Grand Bazaar.
      I wasn’t really looking at the city through child-friendly perspective but I’m sure there are many things even little ones would like if you pace it right – from going down into the Cistern (low lighting, reflections, spooky) to eating from street vendors to the stalls selling all sorts of bits and pieces. You could do a boat trip on the Bosphorus, ride on the tram and there is a nice park for letting off steam. How old are your children?

  6. May 8, 2011 5:35 pm

    What a wonderful weekend you had! I would so much love to visit Turkey one day to see all the beautiful sights and to try its cuisine. Maybe one day. 🙂

  7. May 9, 2011 9:21 am

    I am soooo jealous! That picture of lamb wrapped in aubergine and melty cheese has got me so excited and sad and craving all at once…I fell in love with Turkey when I went there too, we’d stuffed up on the pides and lahmacuns and baklava when we were there, though regrettably less so on seafood. Did you have a chance to try the typical Turkish breakfast, eggs, cheese, honey and all the other awesomeness of the world first thing in the morning?

  8. May 9, 2011 9:44 am

    The honey was excellent – a huge slab of honeycomb on the breakfast buffet. I did try that goats cheese (that comes wrapped in the skin) which was excellent. Menemen was my favourite eggy breakfast. I want to go back now!

  9. May 9, 2011 9:56 am

    Thanks for sharing this, Sally, it felt like I took a little trip myself 🙂

  10. May 9, 2011 1:09 pm

    What a lovely pictorial. You make us feel as though we were there!

  11. May 9, 2011 4:48 pm

    wow a stunning post and lovely pics

  12. May 9, 2011 5:49 pm

    Wow – great trip! But you didn’t make it to Topaz….?

    • May 10, 2011 7:55 am

      Alas no – good excuse to make a return visit.

  13. May 12, 2011 4:10 pm

    You just shamed me into getting my Istanbul post up this week. Istanbul is probably my favorite city on the planet– I’ve been 5 times and it never gets old. Your and my posts do not overlap at all — evidence that this city has so many incredible things to offer!

  14. May 14, 2011 1:15 pm

    Fascinating post! Fancy finding Singapore noodles in Turkey! Did you like the icecream? I always find it a bit too chewy…

  15. May 14, 2011 7:01 pm

    Oh, oh, oh. My heart is a flutter. The mere mention of the spice bazaar gives me hope….and then discourages me with 5000 stores! It looks like you had a great time, I’m glad you ‘got away and had a break’!

  16. May 21, 2011 10:33 pm

    i have ALWAYS wanted to visit istanbul ! i have wanted to visit turkey forever ! but we have not taken a holiday in ages !! its my next TO-GO destination 😀

  17. May 23, 2011 4:06 pm

    Looks like a lovely experience Sally. Definitely a place I would like to visit.

  18. May 24, 2011 11:06 am

    Hi Sally,
    Looks like you really enjoyed Istanbul and thanks for sharing with such a great post.


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