High Life: Eating out in Constantinople
Updated: Aug 30, 2019
Despite Turks being associated with kebab culture in Europe – and much of the world thanks to the antics of Salt Bae (AKA Nusret Gokce) on social media – in general Constantinople’s seafood (mentioned by Strabo, no less) and meyhanes (wine houses i.e. taverns) are more satisfying than its grills.
In the past, tuna and swordfish filled the photo-frames of proud fishermen (who crowd Galata Bridge and other crossings like ants on an ice-lolly) but nowadays – with more than 40,000 vessels passing the straits each year – it’s more about mackerel (uskumru), red mullet (barbun), bonito (palamut), wahoo (torik), bluefish (lufer) and anchovies (hamsi).
It must be said, my “low-life” chum Hillpaul has the easier task (see his column next week). If there’s a species of eatery in which Constantinople specialises, it’s little dives like Ahırkapı Balıkçısı (despite its location in Sultanahmet – a dining blackhole compared to the supernova of Beyoglu), traditional digs like Balat Sahil Restoran (Fatih) or culinary wizards such as Emin Usta: the Mario-look-alike (complete with Luigi-esque assistant) who turns fish on a grill-cart next to Karakoy waterfront.
Even Constantinople’s fallen angels (like Balıkçı Sabahattin, whose prices have shot up to such an extent since its listing in the New York Times a decade ago that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion its portly owner is simply fleecing his flock) of the genre are better than most cities’ mainstream gigs.
It’s my task, however, to add a touch of glamour to the imperial city: to throw tepid meze aside, lob freshly-baked simit at bystanders’ heads, scoff at the Neanderthals tipping back raki or Efes and smirk at the buyukanne’s traditional dishes. Instead of pretending this humble fare is authentic and wonderful, I’ll jab a finger towards the light of nouvelle cuisine, prepared mostly by chefs who’ve spent time abroad only to return and play with their Turkish repertoire.
Having said that, some of these slick new joints can let style trump quality. An old trap considering how many seafood restaurants along the Bosporus still allow profits to trump ingredients – reducing them to little more than status haunts. Or, worse, let Turkish flair dissolve into the giant vat of amorphous “international” bistro fare. Which is why it’s necessary to cherry-pick the following…
Iranian-born chef Sarah Tabrizi established this brick-lined bolthole in 2013 and six years on it’s still necessary to book ahead. From the kitchen she sends traditional meze alongside more adventurous plates with Persian, Syrian and Levantine influences. Try the octopus with harissa and palamut (bonito) baked in paper with Tabrizi’s signature dudi (smoked rice) or, if you like to mix your sweet and savoury, hit the goats cheese ice-cream and olive cake.
Formerly Ca’d’Oro, Neolakal opened in 2014 with a sleek refurb by local architects Aslihan Demirtas. Pitched at London prices, situated in what was previously the Ottoman Bank and catering to the creative set who flock to SALT Galata (as well as anniversary diners), its main features include an all-Turkish wine-list and suspended staircase. If costs leave wallets feeling light, they’re mostly justified by views that take in Sultanahmet’s domes and minarets, as well as Maksut Askar’s Cimcim shrimp mucer mucver (a modern take on a traditional Turkish fritter). Other treats include pan-fried liver with pickled plums, as well as grilled octopus and sage. Let’s be honest though. If there’s a drawback, it’s less the cost than the fact service can feel a bit stiff and awkward.
Most Turks will admit Nusret is overrated. So if you’re bored of fish and dreaming of kofte, make the trek to Armutlu, one of Istanbul’s several squatter districts. Butcher-turned restauranteur Emre Mermer originally set up a wholesale cold-storage depot in the area but quickly changed his mind and converted the warehouse into a butcher’s shop. The growing demand for his local beef and lamb in turn prompted him to turn Dukkan into a steakhouse that continues to enchant folk with its mix of air-dried and fresh-cuts of meat grilled in the middle of the restaurant.
Civan Er is among the latest crop of young chefs – along with Murat Deniz Temel of Alancha – championing New Anatolian cuisine. After several years at the ground-breaking Changa, which inspired a culinary movement based on updating traditional dishes in 1999, he opened Yeni Lokanta (meaning “new tavern”) in 2013 and just recently a branch called Yeni in Soho. The menu showcases dishes like bulgar salad and sour cherries dressed with sumac molasses and kadajiki (bread pudding) custard fritters with smoked buffalo milk ice cream in a tremendously tall room filled with turquoise tiles and green pendant lamps.
I once rented an apartment in Cihangir, a tight-knit area that draws a steady stream of “creatives”. Located mid-way between the antiques of Cukurcuma, the galleries of Karakoy and the teeming backstreets of Istikal Caddesi, Journey Lounge is one of the most laid-back and achingly hip in the neighbourhood. Watch out for the tourist crowds though as it’s located only a minute away from Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. In general, if people dislike the place it’s more because too little effort is put into service or zhuzhing up the food to fit European expectations.
Mikla, on top of the Marmara Pera Hotel, is a haunt of fashionable society as well as foodies. Perhaps the chic roof terrace with swimming pool helps. Settle in with a cocktail and play spot the mosque, or thumb through the menu of Turkish-Swedish chef Mehmet Gurs who uses contemporary techniques to reinvent Anatolian cuisine. One of the first chefs to return from the US to change Constantinople’s food scene in 1996, the stand-out dish is tarhana (a traditional soup), octopus, camel sucuk (sausage) and isot (Turkish chili pepper).
Mangerie (or Café Privato)
Upmarket Bebek (on the Bosporus in the Besiktas area) is brimming with cafes full of ladies who lunch. And the market here is a little bit like London’s Soho inasmuch as new places sprout and wither on the shortest of life-cycles. Mangerie, tucked away on the upper floor of an otherwise drab building in the centre of the district, is undoubtedly the finest of the bunch. Sample the balik ekmek (grilled fillet of seabass in cornbread), a variant of an Istanbul street-food classic, or head over to Café Privato in Galata for a more traditional kahvaltasi (village breakfast).