The first time we went to Istanbul, we did it all wrong, committed all the classic tourist mistakes. We stayed in a middle of a tourist trap, did no research before the trip, relied on unreliable guidebooks. In our brief defence, the trip was a bit of a last minute decision, but still, I’m not proud. We enjoyed the sights, but found that above all we wanted to be in the more interesting parts of the city, and spent a lot of time outside Sultanhamet. We loved Üsküdar most. Overall, we had a reasonably good time, but got hassled in touristy places and were above all somewhat disappointed with the food we found. We thought the food would be better, easier to find. It’s rarely like that, though, of course.
This time, I did it all right. I did the research, choose accommodation strategically, and took time to explore the areas I that grabbed my attention when they did. I had a fantastic time. Istanbul turned out to be one of those cities where you need to dig below the surface to discover its true charms. It’s not surprising though, given its tourist appeal; I’m embarrassed at our past naivety.
Here are a few of my delicious notes from my September trip to Istanbul. With thanks to these excellent sources of information and inspiration: Delicious Istanbul, Eating Asia and Istanbul Eats.
For best Turkish coffee in Istanbul
Address: Olivia Gecidi No: 1/A, Beyoglu (off Istikal Caddesi)
Don’t leave the best till last, like I did. I was kicking myself for it because Manda Batmaz surely make the best Turkish coffee I’ve had in Istanbul. Strong, flavourful, thick enough to stand a water buffalo on it, as its name says. It really was that good. I speak as someone who grew up with Turkish coffee (this is what we drink at home in Croatia), and loves nothing more than a cup of thick, strong, good coffee. And this stuff is better than good! So go early and come back often!
Modern Turkish cooking with exciting flavours and superb execution
http://www.lokantamaya.com/ – Address: Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa Mh., Kemankeş Cd No:35, Beyoğlu, Turkey – Phone:+90 212 252 6884. Booking recommended.
My first meal in Istanbul was a fantastic dinner at Lokanta Maya, a Modern Turkish restaurant run by a young female chef Didem Senol. The food was fantastic, with bright, exciting flavours, and executed superbly.
STARTER: cheese and herb börek.
Crispy, warm and fresh, it was a delicious start to my Istanbul trip.
MAIN: Caramelized sea bass with sautéed chard and fig.
This was simply stunning, every element perfectly cooked and utterly delicious. The chard, the fish, the fig – all simply perfect. Might be the best think I ate in Istanbul this trip.
DESSERT: mastic pudding with sour cherry sauce.
Mastic was a new flavour to me, and I was not entirely sure about the grainy texture of the pudding. I didn’t think I’d finish it, but it grew on me with each spoonful, and in the end I enjoyed it a lot.
I had Turkish coffee with my dessert here, too, but it was nothing special at all. Spare yourself the caffeine, and go to Manda Batmaz instead (see above)! Like in many other places around Istanbul, this version was paled into insignificance in comparison to the glorious offering at Manda Batmaz.
I loved my meat at Maya so much I came back again for lunch another day. I wanted a light lunch so had just a couple of starters.
At the start of the meal, I was brought excellent bread and muhammara, spiced roasted red pepper and walnut dip with a good olive oil. Both the bread and the dip were incredibly good, and on the house!
I choose mücver and grilled sardines. Mücver are the Turkish courgette and feta fritters, and came with a thick Turkish yoghurt mixed with cardamom. It must be popular, as the restaurant as the recipe written out on one of the mirrors. In Turkish though, so I couldn’t copy it out. The fritters were good, but not earth-shattering. I would have preferred a slightly fresher sour note in the yoghurt dip. I thought its thickness a little cloying. The sardines on the other hand, were simply perfect! They managed to taste of the grill and the sea at the same time, and brought memories of eating fresh grilled sardines at home on Dalmatia. I was totally wowed. They alone were worth the trip to the restaurant.
For lunch: mucver and grilled sardines on toast
For truly fantastic kebabs
http://www.lokantamaya.com/ – Address: Beyoğlu, Turkey – Phone:+90 . Booking recommended.
Kebabs are iconic Turkish food, dating from their nomadic past, and always popular. A good kebab is a thing of beauty, requiring skill to make and to cook, as well as choosing the correct meat, or combination of meats. (I know, as I’ve tried making it at the Sapanca workshop.) It would be a crying shame to come to Istanbul and not have a good one. And in Zubeyir, you can certainly find that. Both food and service at Zubeyir were exceptional.
This is a well established and very popular restaurant, so booking is recommended. I tried to book late, but they squeezed me in, and were very kind and friendly to me, hospitable and charming. I was dining on my own, but they made me feel incredibly welcome.
I’ve had a mixed portion of shish and Adana kebab as recommended by my waiter, with an aubergine and a roasted pepper and yoghurt salads. The salads came with really delicious flatbreads, and kebabs were accompanied with an onion, sumac and parsley salad. I don’t normally like raw onion, but this was fantastic. The kebabs themselves were magnificent. The shish in particular was beautifully cooked, a touch pink and very juicy.
The temple of baklava, the queen of Turkish pastries
http://www.karakoygulluoglu.com/ – Address: 171 Mumhane Street, 34420 Karaköy, Istanbul (main shop).
Güllüoğlu is one of the best baklava shop in town. Whenever I walked past it, it’s always been full, whether of locals having portions of börek and baklava or tourists coming for the taste of that queen of Turkish pastries, with layers of crisp pastry with nuts in between, richly syrupy but crispy, insanely delicious. I don’t normally go for sugary sweets, but in Istanbul, I develop a dangerous addiction to baklava. There’s a lot more than sugar to it. The flavours are rich but subtle, the textures of soft and crunchy nuts and crispy pastry, bewitching.
Come to Gulluoglu for a lunch of börek and baklava like I did, or for a tasty snack at any time of day or evening. The thing to do is to make your way to one of the three areas selling drinks, böreks and baklava, and make your choices. You’ll be given a piece of paper with the prices at each, after which you go to the till and make your payments. Then take your food to one of the tables and enjoy. I had a great lunch of börek and ayran (salty yoghurt drink that is perfect with börek), and baklava and Turkish tea. Such a treat.
Before you leave Istanbul, come back here for a box of these delicious sweets to take home. They’ll pack them in a nice box for you, which makes it perfect for travel.
For sunset dinners on the terrace and delicious food, a great dining option in Sultanhamet and open on a Sunday
http://www.imbatrestaurant.com/ - Address: Hoca Paşa Mh., Hüdavendigar Cd No:36, 34120 Istanbul – Phone: +90 212 520 7191. Booking recommended, ask for a terrace seat.
I can confirm that Imbat, not far from the Sirkeci train station, is indeed a good option for the diners in Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s historic peninsula. Especially if it’s a Sunday, and many other places are closed, and you’re staying in the area, like I did.
I had a delicious and relaxing meal at the Imbat terrace, sipping a glass of very good Turkish white wine (I don’t recall the name), watching the sunset over Galata, and happily snapping away at the scenery and at my food. Next to me were sat a very friendly elderly English couple, and we chatted happily at times. A perfect balance between solitude and company, warmth and chance encounters. They even very generously shared their dessert platter with me.
As a welcome, we were treated to some beautiful muhammara and bread. My starter was Aegean manti (bottom left in the photo below), dumplings with yogurt and tomato sauce, flavoured with fresh butter, and what I thought was dried basil. This was the only low point in my meal; I found the pastry a dumplings a little tough and not quite as tasty as they could be. However, the rest of the meal was fantastic. I had lamb kofte with spinach stew for the main course (bottom right in the photo below), and both the stew and the kofte were simply fantastic. The kofte were tender and juicy, aromatic and with a slight grilled flavour, and the spinach was delicious. I really enjoyed them both.
I nearly turned down the dessert, because I was so full, but could not resist having a bite to try things out. I’m so glad I did. The dessert consisted of poppy seed and sesame sekerpare (button-shaped pastries soaked in syrup), burma kadayif (pastry shreds with pistachio), rosewater ice-cream and the unexpected treasure: the grape molasses (pekmez) pudding. To my surprise, the pudding was my absolute favourite, so incredibly delicious that I could not stop eating it! It was a blessing that my companions didn’t want any. I must find the recipe! If anyone knows it, please drop me a line. I’ll be eternally grateful!
Mavi Halic Pidecisi
For a delicious snack or budget lunch nearish to the Spice Market
Address: Mavi Halic Pidecisi, Kutucular Caddesi. No. 28, Eminönü.
Come to Mavi Halic Pidecisi for a fantastic, cheap lunch after wandering the nearby Spice Market and the even more interesting Eminönü market. Pide is a type of Turkish flatbread shaped like a long boat, and stuffed with all kind of goodies: meat (normally lam, cheese, vegetables, sujuk (spicy sausage), etc. Luckily, I did not have to choose between toppings, as the friendly owner made me a mixed special on the spot! You can see it in the photo above.
I spent a happy hour or so watching the owner work, trying to communicate, and regretting I couldn’t speak Turkish. I wanted to ask him about the dough he worked so expertly and sensitively, I admired his beautiful marbled workspace and his oven. In between smiles and gestures, and with a tiny amount of Turkish words with a good helping of international English (e.g. website / Internet) I managed to explain that I learnt of him from Olga’s blog; he seemed delighted and was very warmly welcoming.
After all that, needless to say, I can’t wait to go back to Istanbul and Turkey in general. But stay tuned, I have some more Turkey stories in the pipeline.
Istanbul eats elsewhere