June 30, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Istanbul: Kebabs, Kebaps, and Louis Vuitton

Between meals, our global team of journalists explores Istanbul. Photo: Steven Richter
Between meals, our global team of journalists explores Istanbul. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s been not quite ten years since we stayed in an old wooden house on the Asian side of Istanbul looking out at its thrilling skyline.  How it has changed, grown, swallowed up its suburbs, planted luxury malls, precious shopping enclaves and hotels (a second Four Seasons, the first W in Europe). Between the old Grand Bazaar and the spice market half a mile down the hill toward the Bosporus, women, young and old, in minis, tank tops and flip flops march alongside other women, old and young, hidden inside long coats, wearing thick stockings, closed shoes and head scarves, all totally unself-conscious.  I sit sipping fresh squeezed orange juice waiting for our guide to find us, mesmerized by this parade of contrast. Given a world where everyone carries a cell phone or two, and mine armed with its Turkish Sim card, I know we’re not lost in this swarm of determined locals.

        Tourists trip by in a Beyoglu square as dozens of men kneel on prayer rugs near the Pera Palace Hotel of Agatha Christie fame, scaffolding-wrapped in restoration. We spent a night in her small and airless room in 1999 with her books locked inside a small glass-fronted cupboard. “Why didn’t we ask for the Jacqueline Kennedy room?” the Road Food Warrior had wondered.  “I bet that’s air conditioned.”

Ece Aksoy does fresh peaches cooked to a gel at “9”. Photo: Steven Richter

        Now we are headed for lunch nearby at 9: Ece Aksoy, where Ms. Aksoy, a sturdy figure in pigtails waits in welcome at her “small, beautiful, dare we say, magnificent restaurant,” as her cunning brochure puts it in English and Turkish. We sit opposite our guide, Baris Taspinar (sounds like Barish), sharp and cute with his Bernadette Peters curls, sharing “It Snowed on Tomatoes” – a platter of not quite the ultimate summer tomato, but still wonderfully refreshing - with olive oil, white onion slivers and a blizzard of feta.

Our guide loves black-eyed peas. Photo: Steven Richter

        From my tall stool I can watch Ece herself chopping and directing in the kitchen. She strides back and forth, delivering platters.  Baris loves black-eyed peas with parsley, onion and a few limp strands of long bean. The grilled pie plate has enough herb, cheese and mincemeat filled filo-dough packages for three to share and both lamb meatball dishes are juicy and vibrant with flavor: meatballs cooked Ottoman style in a copper-covered dish with butter, tomatoes and pepper and the street vendor version with caramelized onion, grilled tomatoes and peppers under a big roof of toasted bread. Only the so-called macaroni is a folly – I had to have it of course, especially because the menu boasts, “We can even cook your favorite dish of Mom’s.”  Alas, Saralee, my Velveeta Mom, would not recognize the limp and water-logged farfalle with tomato, basil and feta.       

A band welcomes us to Turkey outside the Topkapi Museum. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Steven and I have been whisked here for a week as guests of Istanbul, surprised to find ourselves in a group of 45 journalists, mostly European – from Britain, France, Finland, Norway, Poland, Switzerland, Greece, Israel, a food writer from Madrid, a lifestyle writer from Barcelona, others from China, Japan and Dubai, and our instant pal, a sidekick from Brooklyn, writing for the trade in Travel Weekly. We are here to preview and love, it is fervently hoped, “Istanbul: European Cultural City 2010.” A band has been hired to welcome us outside the Topkapi Museum. It will be eight days of cherry and melon juice, pistachio-studded kebaps, eggplant to make the emir faint, and Jean-Georges’ spicy chicken wings at the new W Hotel.

The moon rises, the bridge glitters at Sunset on a hill over the Bosporus.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Cocooned in luxury at the Swissötel, with its $40 buffet breakfast on a terrace overlooking the Bosporus, a team of efficient but impressively gentle wranglers move us from one great monument to the next, orchestrating
The scent of “truffle” oil is powerful at Sunset Grill.  Photo: Steven Richter
sumptuous breakfasts (imagine fruits, meats, corn flakes, noodle pudding, omelets to order and eleven kinds of olives).  Al fresco lunches go on for hours and dinners stretch toward midnight with a full moon that miraculously never wanes from rooftop and hillsides as we’re taken from the hottest nightclubs to an island in the middle of the Bosporus with a Harry-Belafonte-inspired crooner singing “Day-O.”

        Our first night it’s Sunset Grill and Bar, sprawled across a hillside overlooking the river under big white umbrellas, a tourist catchall, but drawing affluent local romantics too – a couple perch on lawn chairs, communing over sushi. With the lights – and fireworks - of Asian Istanbul stretching beyond the horizon and rotating colors outlining the bridge, we are served carpaccio of beef, overwhelmed with balsamic and truffle oil, followed by a stuffed crêpe, then a salad, edible beef filet and chocolate cake – a lineup of no particular nationality but better than expected.

        Still, these huge orchestrated meals are not a way to review a restaurant. And so much time is lost busing us all over town.  Sadly, traffic is strangled, so much worse than I remember. A tunnel under the river designed to divert bridge chaos has been halted by the discovery of 32 sunken ships.

        A local friend leads us from lamb stew on exquisitely rich eggplant puree and burned milk pudding flavored with chicken at the classic Hunkar to a pasaje a few blocks away lined with hip cafes and boutiques for fresh lemonade with peppermint and a taste of “savage village noodles” at a place called Asssk.

This fine meze platter is on the menu at the new 1897.  Photo: Steven Richter

         I’m eating my way through lists of favorites from Andrew Finkel, restaurant critic for the magazine Cornucopia (an accessory in most luxury hotel rooms) and Selin Rozanes, a passionate gourmand who does cooking classes in her home (www.turkishflavours.com). With her we discover restaurants refining Turkish classics. It quickly became dark and difficult to see what we were eating under the awning of our garden table at 1897, the newest restaurant of the Konyali group, dating back to a simple 16 seat diner started by Ahmet Doyuran, who began work in Izmir at the age of eleven as a scullion to a master chef from Crete. The sleek and starkly lit restaurant is empty as the place has not yet been discovered. The few guests are settled in the garden, with its thick stone walls and original trees that belonged to the houses that are now W and a lineup of sleek shops. T-shirts (for guys) and tatoos (for babes) is the dress of the city's golden youth. Selin and our hosts, her uncle and his wife, have asked for a tasting.

Our host chooses a lush wine for a dark night in the garden of 1897. Photo: Steven Richter

         I am so rude.  “Perhaps we could have two tastings so I can sample more food?”

        The dinner goes on for hours. Most of it is delicious, beginning with a lemony stinging nettle soup and a plate of meze – stuffed mackerel, a tightly rolled vine leaf with sour cherries, a mini stuffed eggplant (the ubiquitous iman bayaldi), artichoke puree with favas, smoked meat, chicken salad with walnuts, and more.  A small triangle of game-stuffed pasta and the house’s special Konyah pasta with yogurt and grilled tomato sauce follow.  After a leisurely tour of soups and hot and cold starters, another large platter of entree samples arrives. Best is the sweetly caramelized four-hour-cooked lamb with fresh and dried fruits, but even lemon-marinated chicken pieces with honey, apricot and almond surprises. Orange baklava is the hit of a fine dessert array. Would the house do a similar, perhaps trimmed down, tasting for you?  I hope so.  Ask for “Banu Konyali” and say I suggested it.

        I can’t get over the number of luxury boutiques and restaurants that have sprung up in this quarter, making a “V” around the new W Hotel, some a second or third outlet in Istanbul.

        “Who is shopping at Gucci and Marc Jacobs, Bottega Veneta and Jimmy Choo?” I ask.

        “There are plenty of nouveaux riches,” I’m told.

        “Even if they only get one customer a day spending a few thousand lira, it is enough,” a globe-trotting socialite assures me.

        She is wearing fabulous leopard-spotted flats.  I tell her I love her shoes.

        “Christian Louboutin,” she replies. 

Petunias and lanterns without candles in Spice Market’s garden. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s no problem to get a table on the terrace of Jean-Georges’ Spice Market at W our last night. The Turkish soccer team is playing
Savoring lukewarm noodles. Photo: Steven Richter.
Germany in Switzerland and the city is glued to its TV sets. Turkey’s best players are idled by injury and suspensions for alleged dirty deeds, it seems, but Baris has not given up hope.  “You never know for sure. We have a saying in Turkey: The ball is round.”

        The menu is scary for a penny pincher like me: $80 lobster and $43 sea bass. I just can’t bring myself to order a $20 Margarita. I know that Jean-Georges and his team were here coaching the Spice Market team. The servers are agreeable, smiling through their incomprehension but only one seems to speak English – and not well enough. Still the kitchen is doing quite well.  It doesn’t live up to our Spice Market on its best days, but the dipping sauce is surprisingly true and the spicy chicken wings are defiantly torrid. I decide to go for broke on that Margarita. “Because I’m worth it,” I tell Steven. He grins approval.   “Without salt,” I tell the waiter. Alas, the glass comes rimmed with salt.

        “It’s ginger salt,” the waiter offers.

        The maitre d’ whisks it away for a wipedown.

        Due to yet another misunderstanding the lamb shank and our chili garlic egg noodles with overcooked shrimp arrive tepid.  Not bad for noodles but death to fatty lamb. Alas, the tequila, if there was any in the drink, fails to kick in. (At Zarela’s I’m always sloshed half way through a Margarita.) Istanbul has its nocturnal nomads and they’re flocking to Spice Market. But like ours, they’re fickle.  As the saying goes: “The ball is round.”

***

Istanbul addresses

9: Ece. Aksoy Asmalmescit Oteller Sokak # 9. Tepebasi/Beyoglu 011 90 212 243 82 34

Sunset Grill & Bar. Adnan Saygun Caddesi 011 90 212 287 03 58

Hünkar. Mim Kemal Caddesi 21. Nisantasi. 011 90 212 225 46 65

Asssk Café. Muallim Naci Caddesi 170 A, Kurucesme 011 90-212-265 4734

1897. Süleyman Seba Caddesi 46 Akaretler/Besiktas. 011 90 212 227 4243

W Istanbul Spice Market.  Süleyman Seba Caddesi 22 Akaretler/Besiktas 011 90 212 381 2121

 

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