Mavi Boncuk |
Alan Richman wanders the streets, bazaars, and waterways, and discovers a city and a dining scene poised to conquer the world
BY ALAN RICHMAN | PHOTOGRAPHS BY JULIEN CAPMEIL
Left: Istanbul glimmering at dusk, as seen from the terrace of the restaurant Leb-i Derya. Right: Eggplant salad, simple and elegant, from the restaurant Borsa.
Where do you wish to dine when night descends?
Paris, perhaps. Not an unreasonable idea, although that means subsequently returning to a hotel room smaller than a Devil's Island prison cell and the next morning awakening to a city whose residents wish you were not so annoyingly different from them.
Let me suggest Istanbul, the most engaging city I know. Turkey isn't what it once was, when the Ottoman Empire grabbed a wedge of Europe, a huge chunk of Asia, and a northerly slice of Africa. But it is undergoing a revival, reasserting itself. Name your nation—Syria, Iran, Israel, even the European Union. Turkey's leaders seem happy to tell the whole lot where to get off.
Not coincidentally, dining in Istanbul gets better all the time. It's not yet ideal. Modern culinary trends clash with Ottoman-era dishes. Islamic prohibitions against pork and bloody rare meat rankle. Yet Istanbul is proof that power and prosperity are precursors to a flourishing cuisine.
No city I know offers more wonderful settings in which to dine. From the rooftop restaurants, which are in abundance, you can look down on edifices that are undeniably heart-wrenching yet remarkably vibrant: Ottoman Empire palaces, soaring mosques, all of them illuminated first by the setting sun, then by floodlights, and finally, and most appropriately, by a crescent moon.
Or you might prefer a table situated along a cobblestone passageway in Sultanahmet, the heart of the old city. I have a preference for the restaurant Balıkçı Sabahattin, where alley cats beg for scraps of your grilled sea bass and white-shirted waiters chase them away with spritzes of bottled water, inflicting momentary terror. (The cats recover swiftly and return.)
I also appreciate a well-set outdoor table only a few feet from the banks of the Bosporus, a strait more impressive than Paris's moody Seine. At Feriye Lokantası you might see small dolphins on a pleasure trip from the Black Sea leap into the air for their own amusement as well as yours. (A confession: I've never observed this, but the woman seated across from me swore she did, and our waiter said that on warm nights, after work, he sometimes went for a dip with them.)
You've heard the expression "location, location, location." Istanbul has it like no other city. Geographically, it is partly in Europe and partly in Asia, a beneficial accident that Turkey leverages to the maximum. Over the course of centuries, everything flowed into Istanbul, especially food. But it has always been the water and the nearness of it that elevates and distinguishes the city.
The allure of the Bosporus is immeasurable. It divides the continents. It connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. And it is more majestic than whatever river lazily flows through whatever city you have until now adored.
Might that be Rome? Lovely place, but to be honest, dead. Rome has a nice history. Istanbul has a more textured one. First it was the focal point of the Roman Empire, then the Byzantine Empire, and finally the Ottoman Empire—pretty much the Triple Crown of sovereignty—and it remains filled with irresistible bits of kingdoms past. Rome has the Coliseum, of course, but it's a skeleton. Istanbul has the Hagia Sophia. It's been burned, looted, disfigured. It looks prehistoric. It feels omnipotent. It has all those mosaics. And it boasts a rather sweet snack bar within its walled grounds.
A quiet moment amid the many cafés and bars that line
Istanbul was founded around 660 b.c. as Byzantium. It became the capital of the Roman Empire by decree of Constantine the Great in the fourth century, grew into the most glorious city in the world under Emperor Justinian, was sacked by crusaders in the thirteenth century, and fell to Turks in the fifteenth.
I came along a mere quarter century ago, yet even then the city seemed to exist in the past. Cars passed over the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosporus, by means of a pontoon bridge built in 1912. Politically, the country had to tolerate a cadre of army generals who occasionally imposed military rule, maybe to stop communism or maybe just to show that they could.
The army was in command on that first trip, in the mid-1980s. When I argued with a taxi driver who had overcharged me, we took our dispute to the highest court of appeals, a soldier with an automatic weapon standing guard on a street corner. He ruled in my favor, and that began my love affair with Istanbul. I fell hard for çöp şiş, roughly translated as "garbage kebab," which consists of skewered lamb scraps and lamb fat, cooked over an open fire. Çöp şiş has remained the only two words of Turkish I know. On that trip I also ate the most perfect street food of my life, deep-fried mussels cooked in a monstrous wok, slipped into soft bread much like a miniature Parker House roll, then slathered with homemade walnut-studded tartar sauce.
Even now I search for those mussels. They continue to elude me.
Today, Turkey insists on recognition as an international leader, and it's hard to say such influence isn't deserved. While I was passing through Egypt in September, the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdo˘gan, flew into Cairo. He was greeted with the reverence and passion that John Kennedy once attracted. I later met the general manager of Cairo's Kempinski Nile Hotel, who said of the ongoing Egyptian revolution, "If we follow Turkey, we will look like Turkey in ten years. If we don't follow Turkey, in eight months we will look like Palestine."
Lamb shank, ready to be devoured, at Borsa.
The woman, days away from her wedding, wore a tank top with the message SEXY LITTLE BRIDE. Istanbul might be a Muslim city, but clearly ayatollahs aren't running the place. She, her fiancé, a few of their friends, and I were riding up the Bosporus in a restored wooden powerboat, nibbling catered mezes brought on board and drinking rakı, the anise-flavored spirit. They'd invited me for a ride, to be followed by dinner, and they were arguing with pleasure over possible venues. "A few more glasses of rakı and he won't care," I overheard one of them say about me.
As our boat glided past the hundreds of mansions known as yalı that sell for $10 million to $20 million and line the Bosporus, I realized I would not have another chance to dine with people of such affluence. So I selected the restaurant that nicely represented their lifestyle: Borsa, which has a branch at Istinye Park, a mall of high-end brands including Ladurée, the Paris macaron shop.
Eating, I have always believed, is the perfect and perhaps only way for an outsider with limited time to gain knowledge of a foreign country. Rarely has anyone been so thoroughly an outsider: I neither speak nor read Turkish, and I have no friends there. I do know something about Turkish cuisine, though. It's not quite one of the best in the world, but it's close.
That prosperity and stability are essential for a food culture to thrive is inarguable. Look around the region: Israel, which once had the least interesting restaurants on earth, is developing a promising Mediterranean diet entirely its own; Lebanon, historically celebrated for its table, is just starting to restore its culinary reputation after thirty years of war and neglect. Egypt is a disaster politically and economically, and the food there is tragically bad
Turkish dishes are immensely likable for their unrivaled freshness and elegant simplicity. Significantly, countries with first-rate cuisines almost always boast long histories of infatuation with food, and that's certainly true of the Ottoman Turks. Proof can be seen in the paintings of the gaily dressed and overfed sultans and harem women of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. They might well have been the inspiration for the balloons that now float over holiday parades.
There is, however, that high-level culinary dissonance. The modern version of fine dining in Istanbul is straightforward, whereas the palace cooking of the Ottoman Empire was more elaborate. Much of this heritage disappeared in the 1920s, when Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, replaced Ottoman script with a variation of the Latin alphabet. This rendered thousands of recipes handed down from the Ottoman Empire unintelligible, lost in translation. When I first visited Istanbul, the cooking felt repressed. I liked the fish, the vegetables, and the çöp şiş. Not much else impressed me.
Today chefs, restaurateurs, and cookbook authors are attempting to revive the Ottoman-era recipes, most of which are too convoluted for my palate. The best dish I've tasted is breast of chicken stuffed with pistachio-flecked basmati rice and placed on a bed of spinach, the way it's stylishly served at Feriye Lokantası, the dolphin-friendly establishment on the banks of the Bosporus.
Tomato salad topped with walnuts at Borsa.
The meze that we were eating on the powerboat is an essential staple of the Turkish table. It is not, as commonly thought, simply a collection of miscellaneous starters; it is a way of life that incorporates eating, drinking, and socializing. The meze wasn't brought on board because we had to be fed; it was there to promote hospitality and make me feel welcome, which it did.
Kebabs are almost as significant. They are pervasive, but to nonbelievers like me they possess a fatal flaw: Islamic law forbids eating meat that is not drained of blood, and I didn't have a kebab in Turkey prepared any way but well-done. However, I did notice observance of the religious prohibition against pork starting to crumble. The House Hotel Ni¸santa¸sı, where I stayed, served a strapping if imperfect version of eggs Benedict—I imagined the chef shaking with fear as the bacon crisped in his pan.
At Borsa we were seated outdoors, on a deck, under an oversize umbrella, at a huge table covered with a white tablecloth. It was very classy and cool, much like the Hamptons. Yet the food could not have been more traditional.
The first dish was a salad of walnuts, tomatoes, onions, red peppers, and pomegranate juice that I was told originated in the agricultural area near Incirlik Air Base, a NATO facility that my hosts portrayed as an American air base. In Turkey, America remains a fairly neutral presence, as it is not elsewhere in the Middle East. (Diplomatic note: Turkey proudly considers itself an independent political and geographical entity, not a mere component of the Middle East.)
Just a small bit of the daily catch from the Black Sea, as
sold at one of the local markets.
Our second course, lahmacun (also known as Turkish pizza), consisted of herbs and chopped lamb atop flatbread; I ate it often on this trip, but no version was nearly as savory and crunchy as Borsa's. Baked eggplant, cooked with onions, tomatoes, and green peppers, was smoky and sweet and so spectacular my eyes watered with happiness, but I pretty much had the identical reaction to every variation on eggplant in Istanbul. Next came a peasant dish native to farmers near the Black Sea; it was made from corn flour, cheese, and yogurt. Turks are addicted to yogurt.
About when I was starting to think this dinner might be memorable, out came the overcooked meats. It probably says a lot about my despair when I say that the most tempting meat dish was the Roasted Bony Lamb Shank, which was, at least, tender.
The people dining with me were not looking toward Islam for relief from corporeal woes. So when we chatted about the possibility of a religious revolution and subsequent rule by Islamic law occurring in Turkey, they insisted it could not happen. "It is a great question, one we talk about all the time," one of them said. I pointed out that they were outnumbered by millions of other potential voters, the rural poor who have moved to Istanbul. "Turkey simply cannot be a country like Iran," one of them added. "Turks do not know Islam as a political model."
They noted that the language of Turkey is not Arabic. They pointed to the intense consumer culture in their country. So many malls. So many Starbucks. So many reasons not to embrace radical Islam. One woman told me that young Turks had become seduced by the idea of walking around carrying their coffee in take-out cups. Junk food, an American export, apparently helps, too. "Junk food is kind of joyful in Turkey," she added. A few days later, happy to check it out, I had the so-called Ottoman Meal at Burger Turk. The lamb patty was average, the slices of tomato in my sandwich excellent, and the fellow at the counter tried mightily to upgrade me to a one-liter Coke. The reputation of Americans for consuming vast quantities of sweetened beverages apparently has spread worldwide.
Since I first started traveling to Istanbul, my favorite restaurant has remained Balıkçı Sabahattin, located in that cobblestone passageway in the old city. The restaurant is easily found by asking directions from almost anyone, since the locals all know of it. They will direct you there after insisting they know a fish restaurant just as good that costs much less. They are mistaken; no grilled fish in Istanbul is better.
The restaurant, I was told, now accommodates about 200 diners, although I have no idea where. I've always eaten at one of the tables that line the alley. It's not quite level, but the slant isn't so dramatic that your stuffed grape leaves will roll off your plate. Overhead is a grape arbor. Alongside the tables are potted fig trees. Other pots hold radishes, garlic bulbs, even watermelons. The tables are oversize, the waiters attired rather formally. Have the meze, in particular the smoked eggplant, which is miraculous, and the whole snapper on the bone, masterfully grilled. The snapper is even better than the fillet of sea bass, which everybody but me prefers.
The first days of my visit to Istanbul came during Ramadan, and two women took me with them to break their fast at Hamdi, a well-regarded kebab restaurant. An American who joined us said she was uneasy at the notion of attending a dinner to celebrate religious traditions she perceived as alien. She was edgy as we entered—"intimidated," she later admitted.
Our table was on the top floor, which is partially outdoors and was entirely filled with those breaking the fast. My personal concern was less spiritual than hers: Smoking was permitted in the space, since it was technically open to the night air. A license to smoke is not to be taken lightly in Turkey. Indeed, the fellow sitting at the table closest to me didn't put out his cigarette during the meal; actually, he rarely took it from his mouth.
I had braced myself for lessons in orthodoxy, but they did not materialize. One of the women, a 33-year-old lecturer in international relations, explained how the Westernization that has defined Turkey for the past quarter century was in the process of ending as her country became more independent from the United States and Europe and more involved strategically throughout the region. Her friend, less academically inclined, regaled us with stories of the Turkish obsession with yogurt. She admitted that she had badly upset her hosts in Italy by putting yogurt on her pasta.
The view from our table included well-lit mosques displaying proverbs written out in lights and strung between minarets. It's a religious indulgence the secular government permits only during Ramadan. The uneasy American admired these expressions of devoutness, sensing their spirituality. The sayings closest to us read "There is no God but Allah" and "Love each other and be loved."
The 400-year-old Blue Mosque. (Unlike the grounds of
the city's other architectural marvel, the Hagia Sophia,
it has no snack bar.)
We ate a huge multicourse meal in ninety minutes, making us one of the slowest groups in the room. Turks eat fast, and in this case with good reason: They were starving. The lecturer offered a more nuanced explanation: "In Istanbul, life is fast; we cannot spend the time. Here is not like Spain, Greece, and Italy." After we left the restaurant, the now dazzled American woman said, "There was something so spiritual about the dinner, all of us together, like we were in a church. And we ate at the moment of sunset, which was uplifting, joyful. I was shocked to feel so in touch."
As is my nature, I had paid too much attention to the culinary and not enough to the ceremonial aspects of our meal. I am not unaffected by Islam. I might not even be neutral. But I never feel anything but happiness while in Turkey, and I considered the illuminated expressions of brotherhood to be sincere. It's the overcooked kebabs that got to me.
At Hamdi, I only liked the ones containing chopped meat. The chunks of skewered lamb or veal were barely palatable, whereas the kebabs made with ground veal and lamb were marginally juicy, like a well-prepared meat loaf. I particularly liked those that had a combination of the two meats and were accented with pistachios or spiced with a mix of sweet peppers, paprika, and black pepper. Other than the American woman's wholehearted approval of Islamic ritual, nothing about the meal surprised me more.
Istanbul isn't just one city but a metropolis of water, connected by ferries to islands and—if you plan wisely—multiple food opportunities. I made two such voyages. One took several hours and brought me to the island of Burgazada in the Sea of Marmara. The other was brief, an excursion across the Bosporus to the Asian side of Istanbul and the district of Kadıköy. The trip had much in common with a subway ride through Manhattan. The machines dispensing tokens rejected my bills, and I desperately begged change in coins from passersby. And the ferry was inhabited by hawkers not much different from those who haunt New York's transit system. On this trip, I was educated in vegetable peelers. The hawkers energetically sent potato skins flying.
Fresh grouper at Mikla, simply prepared.
After reaching Kadıköy, I happened by chance to wander into a long, narrow market street while in search of the restaurant Çiya, known for its authentic rustic dishes. The street, unfettered by signage, turned out to be Güne¸slibahçe, where the restaurant is located. On sale here were eggs with yolks as golden as the threads on a sultan's caftan—each vendor had a few eggs cracked open and displayed in their shells. I also encountered baked skulls, hot, fragrant, and steaming. I caught the eye of a butcher and nodded, my way of asking what they were. He said what I expected, only more colorfully. "Baaaa," he bleated. I also stopped at a baklava shop, where I bought a small sack of those preposterously sweet and luscious pastries—Güne¸slibahçe Street seemed to have everything. Turkish baklava is the finest confection to emerge from the holy trinity of nuts, phyllo, and honey. Still, it's sweet, insanely so. If you wish your baklava less sweet, head for Beirut.
The mezes at Çiya were basic, flavorsome, and sold by weight. The hot dishes were served steam-table-style, but they were ambitious enough that I'm certain they would have been wonderful if made to order. I pointed to a concoction that turned out to be rice, chicken, and almonds stuffed into a pastry shell, baked in a cup, then turned over onto a plate, in essence a poultry upside-down cake. It was cold. It would have been superb had it been warm.
My second journey, the one to Burgazada, was to meet a married couple introduced to me by friends in New York. She is a Turk. He is an American. They had picked this island for our rendezvous because of its serenity, which is not insignificant in Istanbul, thought to have a population approaching 17 million. My only mistake was taking the trip on a busy Friday, when the ferry was packed and I had to protect my standing-room spot next to the rail against all challengers, at one point using my leg to block a small boy trying to squirm into my territory. (Hey, I'm from New York.)
Our lunch was at the restaurant Yasemin, where we sat a few feet from the Sea of Marmara and ate grilled octopus mixed with stuffed green olives; fried clams the equal of those I've had in Ipswich; and sensationally crunchy torpedo-shaped börek with a cheese filling. I'd been seeking these since my arrival. Börek (fried pastries) are a Turkish staple that are stuffed with any number of fillings, but Yasemin's were precisely the kind I find most satisfying. With them we drank a soda called Muslim Up, which is simultaneously intended to combat Western imperialism and to promote Palestinian causes. It made me belch.
The woman advanced a theory, not original to her, that the salvation of Islamic relations with the Western world was possible, thanks to economics. I was reminded of something the lecturer at Hamdi restaurant had said: "If China can have communist capitalism, why can't Turkey develop Islamic capitalism?"
She told me that young Muslims wished to prosper in business and use the money to aid their community. "So many want mansions as well as turning the world Islamic," she said. She claimed that this market-driven neo-Islamic movement coincided with the compassionate conservatism of America's Republican Party. I assured her she was wrong, since America's Republicans don't want to share their wealth with anyone.
We were finishing a sea bream, grilled to such succulence I had lost track of everything except the wonder of fish, when the owner of the restaurant asked if we'd like coffee or tea. "Coffee," I said. "Very well," he replied, "but you will not make your ferry back if you have coffee. If you want to wait for the next boat, I'll be happy to give you coffee." I ran for the boat. I really don't think much of boiled Turkish coffee anyway. (Yes, the coffee in Paris is better.)
Back on the European side, I went to visit the only person I knew in Istanbul, a carpet dealer with a small shop behind the Blue Mosque. On previous visits, I would be followed everywhere by men shilling for carpet dealers. They would offer to guide me to the only honest salesman in the city, who happened to be their brother or their uncle. On this trip, it didn't happen, not once.
The meze spread at Balıkçı Sabahattin, featuring eggplant salad.
The mystery deepened when the dealer near the Blue Mosque seemed less pleased to see me than in the old days. He said he was thinking of closing down because people like me had stopped buying. He was selling no more than one carpet a month to Americans. I was my usual helpful self. I explained to him that we Americans were no longer buying rugs for our homes because we no longer had homes; they were all in foreclosure.
That night I visited the most highly publicized restaurant in the city, 360 Istanbul, which is located atop a once grand apartment building and offers this promise on its website: "Coupled with an ingeniously engineered and extensive wine menu, you can rest assured that we will have the perfect combination of wine and dish to achieve a gastronomic orgasm." You won't find semisexual stimulation like that in many Muslim countries. I ordered a drink called the Sultan's Aphrodisiac—note the continuation of the theme—so sweet it should have been named the Sultan's Diabetic Coma.
Our table was a good one. From it I could see the Topkapı Palace, the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the ferry docks, everything that makes Istanbul unparalleled. The menu consisted of a little of this and a little of that, dishes from a multitude of countries. I had a zucchini-flower dolma so heavy I wasn't certain our flimsy table could bear its weight, underdone noncrispy Crispy Duck Spring Rolls, carpaccio-topped pizza with a crust so soggy it might as well not have been cooked, and then, finally, Short Rib of Beef "Love Me Tender." The meat was caramelized on the inside yet magically crunchy on the outside, the only succulent beef I ate in Istanbul. With menus as haphazard as this one, the odds are decent that one dish might turn out to be delicious, but the chances are not good that you can guess which one it will be.
Such a collection of global comfort food is, I fear, becoming a worldwide restaurant trend. I think of it as neo-Continental cuisine, familiar food intended to appeal to tourists distrustful of the food in the countries they're visiting. In essence, it's bar food that's moved up in class.
Much more promising to me was the presence of a genuine celebrity chef in Istanbul. Mehmet Gürs has a Turkish father and a Finnish-Swedish mother and grew up in both Istanbul and Stockholm. I knew he was the real thing when I phoned his restaurant, Mikla, located on the eighteenth floor of the Marmara Pera Hotel, and learned he was away at a Scandinavian food conference with other celebrity chefs.
Mikla was the loftiest restaurant I tried, by any definition. Gürs has labeled his cooking the "new Anatolian cuisine," Anatolia being the major land mass of Turkey. It turned out to be among the best in Istanbul. And the top-of-the-mountain views from the restaurant were exceeded only by those offered at the restaurant's small chic bar located one floor above. With scenic outlooks, every floor counts.
My table—this was the only restaurant where I'd identified myself beforehand—was the most spectacular in the house. It was glass-enclosed and reminded me of an infinity swimming pool or a flying carpet. It seemed to hover unsupported in space. I ate raw grouper, bright and cool, sliced thin and topped with chopped Kalamata olives, chives, lemon juice, and olive oil, a thoroughly modern and vivid Scandinavian-Mediterranean preparation; mild anchovies encased fossil-style in crisps, reminiscent of a dish from Copenhagen's Noma; grilled grouper with all manner of vegetables, eight or nine of them, each cooked separately and differently, a triumph of kitchen technique and effort; and slow-cooked lamb shoulder, possibly prepared sous vide, accompanied by an exotic pesto. Elements of it were familiar—I'd tasted pomegranate molasses, a Middle East staple, before. But prunes? This was prune pesto spiked with pomegranate molasses, something entirely new.
I asked Gürs's assistant for the number of the table where I dined so I could request it on my next visit, but she said it was like an unlisted telephone number, not given out. I did not despair. In Istanbul, you need not dine at an uninteresting table, because you can always find a restaurant that will offer you a wonderful one.
Alan Richman is a GQ correspondent.