We made the most of the Easter break by spending 5 days in Istanbul. Over recent years it has slowly climbed up my 'must visit' places list; more and more people have come back raving about the food. Apparently there's also some nice stuff to see. I made a spreadsheet to make sure we weren't left stranded with nowhere recommended to eat; call me a control freak, but I wasn't taking any chances. I was armed with an overwhelming list.
We did pretty well.
Breakfast on our first day was a short walk away from our Air B n B apartment, in Beyoglu. Van Kahavaltı Evi was busy by 10am and we nabbed their last table. They're famed for their breakfast spreads, and we pointed at the most lavish-looking, at 20 lira a head. Dishes started coming out thick and fast and soon there wasn't much table to be seen. Sweet nut pastes, Nutella and jams sat side by side with boiled eggs, a muhammara-like dip, cheese and a huge plate of tomatoes and cucumbers. Olives were plentiful, as was the bread and the discovery of the trip was made here; kaymak with honey. Kaymak is like clotted cream, made with buffalo milk and it was absolutely glorious with a big glob of comb-flecked honey spread thickly onto bread. We ate and ate and ate, drinking never-ending tea until we couldn't eat anymore.
Van Kahavaltı Evi, Defterdar Yokuşu No: 52.A, Cihangir
Once we were bitten by the kaymak bug, we had to have more. We headed to Beşiktaş in search of Beşiktaş Kaymaci but it was not to be found. A man sipping tea watched us bemusedly as we wandered past him several times, our noses to our phone maps and he led us to our destination, confusingly named Pando. A tiny place, run by an elderly husband and wife team, our hearts were stolen by them as they toddled about the place serving customers and brushing breadcrumbs off each other.
A plate of kaymak and honey with bread will set you back only 4 Lira (around £1.50). The honey was sweeter and more familiar compared to the pine-scented one we'd had previously. We went through two bread baskets slathering it on in satisfied silence.
We couldn't stop at just this, and a plate of cheese, tomato and cucumbers fortified our breakfast, along with a dish of buttery baked eggs with spicy Turkish sausage. If I could breakfast like this every day I'd be a happy (morbidly obese) woman.
Pando Kaymak, Koyici Meydani Sokak, Sinanpaşa Mahallesi, Beşiktaş
Menemen is a classic Turkish dish, one often had for breakfast so we had to get stuck in. Lades means 'wishbone' in Turkish and they're famous for their puddings made with chicken breast, but we were there to get some spicy eggs in us. Served in a swelteringly hot pan, eggs are scrambled with tomatoes, mild green chillis and spices, along with the sucuk (that Turkish sausage again) option that we went for. Huge baguette-like loaves soaked it all up and we may have followed this with some more kaymak.
We spent a full day over in Sultanahmet doing all the touristy things like Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cisterns. Don't be fooled by how nice Topkapi Palace (above) looked, for it was pure hell; roughly a million children were inside, and queues to see anything worth seeing were in abundance. Feeling thoroughly frazzled, we headed for sustenance in the tourist centre of Istanbul. The difficulty, much like finding something decent to eat in Leicester Square, faced us but the spreadsheet saved the day.
Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi is a straightforward kind of place. The smell of an open charcoal grill makes your mouth water when you enter, and we were led to a table upstairs. A menu was proffered with only two options; kofte, or lamb shish. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), the kofte were made with beef. Dense and slightly bouncy, they were well flavoured from the charcoal grill. The chilli sauce was not particularly spicy but totally addictive and the salads, dressed simply with lemon juice and olive oil, set us up for a light lunch nicely. In an area where men outside restaurants call out to you to entice you in, this place was a solid haven of calm.
Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi, Divanyolu Caddesi 12, Sultanahmet
The sun came out and we spent a balmy day on ferries going up and down the Bosphorous, our sun-deprived faces slowly glowing red. We snacked on fish sandwiches at Eminonu; at 5 Lira they were quite the bargain. Barbecued mackerel fillets are stuffed into bread, while young boys hawk cups of pickles to accompany them. Rather alarmingly people all around us were sipping the pickle juice, so we gave it a go. That stuff is SALTY. I'm not sure how they manage it really.
After our 6th glass of tea in Karakoy we decided on a little lunch. Tables were set out by the water, seagulls squawking overhead.
I'm not sure there is a more blissful time to be had than eating freshly grilled seafood in the sunshine by the water. A glass of white wine would have completed the scene but we bravely soldiered on with water. The four of us ate handsomely for 85 Lira - less than £10 a head. We liked our waiter being straight with us - "this, this and this - all frozen" he said, jabbing at the pictures on the menu. "This. This is fresh and caught here. This? Caught in the Aegean." Decisions easily made.
Under the Galata Bridge with the fish market on your right, walk to the end of the market and it's the last place serving food with tables and chairs by the water.
Feeling a little over-fed - I know, imagine - we stuck to a simple lunch for one of our days. Fasuli is certainly not fancy but they are well known for their signature bean dish. Fat white beans are cooked in a tomato sauce with the barest hint of meat, and these were the most wonderful, comforting baked beans. And rice! Delicious buttery rice. I was a bit breaded out by this point, having had it 3 times a day. We observed a lone man next to us demolish a dish of beans, to then be served another dish of rice and beans. Down the hatch in less than 15 minutes.
Fasuli (various branches but we went to this one), Muradiye Cd No:35, Fatih
And so onto dinners. Are you still with me?
On the night we arrived it absolutely pissed it down, much to our dismay. Rivers of water flowed down the streets as we tried to navigate, shivering and hungry, ever-so-slightly cranky. To be honest if I'd been the owner of a restaurant and us four bedraggleds had wandered in sopping, I might have turned us away too but Asmali Cavit was probably genuinely fully booked. So we made a reservation for the night after.
We decided to try out some raki with our mezze. Drunk long, the water making it milky and cloudy in appearance, it's aniseed flavour was, uhm, not to my taste (AWFUL) but I managed to force it down. For somewhere that was recommended from several different sources, it was actually my least favourite of the meals we had. Everything was fine, but nothing more than fine. Grilled anchovies (above) were pretty delicious, but for the amount we paid (which really was only £20 a head) and the effort we went to to eat there, I left feeling a bit deflated.
Asmali Cavit, Asmalımescit Caddesi 16/D, Beyoğlu
By contrast, my favourite meal was at Zubeyir Ocakbasi. A big charcoal pit fills the room on the ground floor with seats around it and when we went in I strode towards it excitedly, only to be asked by the manager rather worriedly whether we had a reservation. We put on our best "please feed me" puppy dog eyes and were led to a table, promising we'd return it 90 minutes later.
Like everywhere else that offered mezze, a trolley was wheeled out for us to pick what we would like. I looked dubious when my friend picked the pumpkin and chickpea dip but it was excellent; like a sweeter humus. An aubergine dip was served warm and was pure smoky deliciousness - instead of being mashed into a smooth dip like some baba ganoush I've had, this was chopped into scoopable chunks. Our waiter insisted on my friend tasting the ezme salad (chopped very finely) which was a winning tactic, as it sealed the deal. Spicy and dressed liberally with pomegranate molasses, it was the best of its kind we'd had.
Of the mains, 'Special cut lamb chops' had the bone attached but the meat unravelled like a ribbon. Lamb ribs had been grilled so that the fat was crispy but not too rich, the meat underneath tender, and chicken wings were crispy and generous. Considering we'd had a lahmucun 'snack' which was basically another meal an hour previously, we hoofed everything up with ease. We paid about £10 a head without booze to retire to our apartment to roll around with bloated stomachs, groaning. The lahmacun had snuck up on us.
Of the more casual dining places, Hayvore is well known for serving Black Sea specialities. The restaurant is lit brightly and all the dishes are displayed in a glass cabinet at the front of the restaurant. Once seated, we were invited to go and choose what we wanted. The hamsi pilav (above) was recommended and it was certainly unusual; underneath the anchovies is spiced rice flavoured with dill and with sweet currants lurking within. I loved the sweet savoury aspect; the other half of the table did not. Dolmades (top) were filled with minced meat instead of the usual rice, and again a roasted aubergine dish was tops. They also served beans and it's quite possible that these were better than Fasuli's - richer, more buttery and I could have been happy with these alone. We ordered some pides which were pure overkill.
Hayvore, Turnacibasi Sokak 4, Beyoglu
Of course, one can't leave Turkey without sampling the doner kebab. Much abused over here, our 'elephant legs' shaved off into a pitta to be devoured after a night's boozing is nothing like what we had in Istanbul. Kasap Osman is reportedly one of the best, though you wouldn't know it to look at it. The street it is on is full of kebab places, each one (including this) with people touting for you to eat with them.
You can order your doner meat by weight and we found 150gr each to be quite sufficient as we also had salads, dishes of beans (yes, another addiction) and dips. The meat was expertly sliced, some crispy, some soft. It had none of that gaminess you can sometimes get from doners in the UK - instead it was slightly fatty, tender and flavoursome. Why it's served with 4 flaccid chips I don't know. The waiting staff were very sweet, gifting us cacik (a yoghurt, mint and cucumber dip) as well as baked milk and rice pudding desserts topped with pistachios that almost tipped us over the edge. As the call to prayer sang out across the city, we were sitting outside and managed to get a sly glimpse in the mosque opposite of young men gathering with their Imam.
Kasap Osman, Hocapaşa Sokak 22, Sirkeci
Other snacks we had were, as previously mentioned, lahmacun. Almost a meal itself and absurdly cheap:
We got pretty into our Börek;
This Su böreği (water Börek) was described to us as 'macaroni cheese!'. Ordered by weight, sheets of dough are boiled and layered with feta cheese to make a warm, comforting snack.
I'm not sure what type of Börek this was, but it was crispy and soft layers of pastry, slightly salty, that came with a sachet of icing sugar to dust over it. With a strong glass of tea it was a balanced breakfast. Yup.
I loved Istanbul. I don't feel like I've even scratched the surface of it; we didn't spend much time on the Asia side, for example, which is all the more reason to go back.
- Buying an Istanbulkart (much like a pay-as-you-go Oyster) was invaluable - you can buy one and share it in a group (provided you're travelling together, of course) and it's accepted on almost all transport aside from a couple of ferries. We got pretty familiar with the transport system and only had to get a taxi once.
- Don't get into taxis unless they put their meter on, or they'll try and rip you off
- Booze prices vary wildly. We stayed in the Beyoglu area and some bars charged 12 lira for a small bottle of beer, while others charged 7 for a pint.
- Unless you have a strong constitution, Asmalimescit Caddesi is totally mental on a Friday or Saturday night. Scarily crowded.
The link to my geeky spreadsheet is HERE. It is ordered by area, and I've highlighted in bold the places we visited.
With thanks to Eating Asia, Katie Parla and Istanbul Eats for being wonderful resources.