Last week I went to Istanbul with Mr. Porker. Prior to my trip I’d gotten mixed reviews of Turkish food. Some of my friends told me it was amazing and fresh and wonderful, while others said they just weren’t a fan. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, but given Istanbul’s location and size I had high hopes, so off we went.
The biggest problem to me it seems, is not so much that there isn’t any good Turkish food, but more so how do you actually find it.
Istanbul is huge. I thought London was big (and Amsterdam is a joke, but that’s another story altogether) but with estimated population of anywhere between 17.5 and 22 million residents, Istanbul takes the cake. It’s also a high contrast city, from all mod cons, to some of the worst poverty I’ve ever seen, to violently oppressed protests occurring right next to people out for a late night stroll and people leaning back in quiet jazz café’s. So while one back alley may offer the nicest spots with the best food and the friendliest service, another alley may offer you a completely different experience (insert prejudice here).
And travel guides hardly help. I remember once, my mother and I were excited to discover a fish restaurant in our travel guide for Berlin, only to end up at a location for a fast food fish joint. And so it goes with the Rough Guide for Istanbul. The food they recommend was okay, but most of the time, it stopped there or quite a ways short of it.
All the meze you need
Mr. Porker had gotten some pro-tips from one of his more travelled friends, so for our first breakfast we trekked all the way from the old city to somewhere halfway up a mountain in Beyoğlu, sweat pouring down our backs, for a crazy ass breakfast of quite literally everything at Van Kahvalti Evi. The spread cost us 20 lire each and consisted of a basket of bread, unlimited tea and a vast array of small plates containing everything from fresh sliced tomatoes and cucumber, to a variety of cheeses, to Nutella on to eggs and olives and meats and everything in between. It was amazing, and it’s only now that I’m back that I’m wondering if we were really supposed to try and finish the lot.
Mistakes were made
Late risers at best, we didn’t have to eat again until later that night. So I took the Rough Guide up on their advice and we made it all the way down to the wrong side of town, memorizing the city upside down in our heads and ending up catching a cab back to the restaurant we had planned to go.
Balik ekmek, sorely disappointing fish sandwich
Now this, dear reader, is the point where you need to take heed. Our dear cab driver informed us that the area we were going to was very very busy at this time of night and he knew a much better place. Alarm bells should’ve started ringing when he whipped out a laminated flyer to this far better (“The best, my friend”) restaurant in another part of town, ‘only’ a three minute drive away. Ten minutes later he drops us off. We take the elevator up to an empty, depressing looking restaurant with a vaguely threatening atmosphere. We look at one another in doubt, but before we know it they break out a bunch of meze and we end up ordering whichever fish our waiter recommended to us. Once we’re left by ourselves I remember one of the scams I read about online. If a menu is laminated and has prices written over it in marker, odds are you’re getting ripped off. I realise we have made our order from a menu that didn’t even have any prices on it and decide to check in the other laminated menu. The mark up is insane. The atmosphere is eerie and I start feeling sick.
I am blessed with a better half who does not like to waste times on things he does not like, so we decided to offer to just pay as long as we got to leave. We end up paying 70 euro for a bag of mediocre fried fish. We get a discount because it’s all the money we have on us. Bailing from the restaurant, we discover we’re on the verge of nowhere and make our way back to Beyoğlu, where we are too late to get anything decent to eat but just in time to stroll down Istiklal, and see the crowd in front of us suddenly turning into a wave of screaming fear that was coming right for us. It’s times like that you learn whether you have good instincts or not. Ours turn out to be in good working order, so we make a shift turn, run as fast as we can and dip into a side street to safety, ending our adventures for day one.
We did a lot better after that, though we still managed to get ripped off a bunch of times. I recommend you read up an all Istanbul scams a few days prior to your trip, so you have them all fresh in your head and don’t fall for them like I did, while thinking “Hmm… I think I read about this somewhere…” and getting my ass handed to me on a platter several times.
On with the food!
We did manage to make it to the restaurant I had picked out the first night. Antakya Restaurant & Cafe is located in an alley across from the Blue Mosque and serves a variety of fairly standard but well executed things that you’d expect in Turkey. We had a variety of heavenly dolma, before moving on to mixed kebab and lamb cutlets in eggplant. The köfte with pistachios was especially amazing. Everything else was what you’d expect of well grilled meats, not too exciting, but not bad either. Across the road from Antakya you have Mozaik Restaurant, where the menu is slightly less standard and possibly a little better executed.
Oh give me lamb lots of lamb…
It’s Ramadan right now so the area surrounding the Blue Mosque was packed with people waiting for iftar to begin. This is how we spotted Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi, which had a huge line of locals waiting for their iftar meals. We took a mental note to come back during the day and promptly fucked up when we returned to the Sultanahmet area later in the week, and decided to have ‘breakfast’ at the ‘legendary’ (but horribly shitty and evil evil evil) Pudding Shop instead. Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi was our saviour, offering an amazing köfte sandwich for only 8 lire. Half of what the Pudding Shop had charged us seconds before for a boiled egg, a few slices of cucumber, tomato and a handful of containers of butter, ham and off-brand Nutella.
The rest of our trip was equally mixed bag. We found a really nice bar that also serves fairly good food through a friend. Urban Cafe is tucked away in an alley behind Istiklal. Their terrace takes up most of the broad alley, which is covered in graffiti and vine leaves. It’s great to spend a long evening having drinks with friends, but we came back a few nights later and had some pretty decent stuff to nosh on too.
Milk pudding goodness, photograph courtesy of Mr. Porker
Our favorite haunt for a bit of a breather on the madness that is Istiklal was Ada Cafe, where the staff is friendly and the frozens are good. A frozen is like a fancy slushy (beware of brain freeze) and apparently they are huge in Istanbul. You can get them in amazing flavors like mango and melon, I miss them dearly already. The food at Ada is maybe a little bit too low-brow America-inspired, but we only tried a mixed starter plate so I can’t really judge. Also right off Istiklal is Ara Cafe, owned by one of the world’s finest photographers Ara Güler. I didn’t think the staff there was particularly helpful, but the milk pudding with hazelnuts and goat milk ice cream, the home made ginger beer (oh god, the home made ginger beer!) and the relaxed vibe (despite being around the corner from chanting protesters) really made up for it.
Hold your enemies close
I had a disappointing burger at burger square in Kadakoy. In Istanbul for some reason, a lot of businesses like to be close to their competitors. So the street down from Istiklal near Tünel is lined with music shops, while the buildings blocking the view to Istanbul Modern are all filled with nargile spots. Kadakoy has a distinctly nineties feel and is filled with tattoo parlors that offer roughly the same quality. Which is where we also found burger square. Three hippish looking burger spots, all on the same intersection. We opted for Burger House, which looked the most legit. I made the mistake of ordering a small burger, which drowned on a regular sized bun. It was supposed to have café de paris sauce, but it didn’t. I am confident that, had it been bigger and had the sauce actually been there, it would’ve been a pretty good burger.
Salvation from mixed-bag eating came on the day-before-last of our trip in the form of the nifty little Istanbul Eats pocket book, which is a lot easier to navigate than their website. At under 15 lire it made our final days in Istanbul our best. The first night, we hit up Mekan in one of the many side streets of Istiklal. We shared an array of amazing meze for around 20 lire each, with (to our minds anyway) very enjoyable 90s triphop playing overhead.
Heaven is a place on earth and it’s called Giritli
I died and went to heaven
Our final day we decided to splurge on another recommendation from Istanbul Eats. We only had the afternoon left and decided to enjoy an all inclusive set menu at Giritli, right beneath the Aya Sofia and Blue Mosque. It’s one of the smaller listings in Istanbul Eats, but the recommendation was glowing and the theme was fish. My Porker-sense was tingling. For 50 euro a head (unlimited drinks included) we were barraged with around 15 cold meze, which were literally, each and every one of them, amazing. I don’t know if I can ever have another garbanzo bean again, without it depressing me. The array of cold meze were followed by the best calamaris I have ever tasted, flanked only by the best grilled octopus leg I’ve ever had, alongside a börek which made me question whether I’d died and gone to heaven or not, filled with cheese, eggplant and prawns. Then we had our choice for mains and I went with these amazing, grilled to perfection sardines wrapped in vine leaves. All this was followed up by a nice small dessert. As if we had room for any more.
And so when we left Istanbul I was finally convinced, there is such a thing as good Turkish food, you just have to know where to look.
You can view the rest of the photos I took on Flickr.