Having just visited the fascinating city of Istanbul, I was especially sad to learn about the earthquake in Turkey this week. Between me asking people questions about food, and James attracting curiosity with the bağlama instrument he bought, we had so many warm and surprising exchanges with people there. As I review the memorable places where we ate, I’m thinking of those people, and the amazing cuisine that has evolved from their particular geographical place in the world.
The day before I got to Istanbul, I heard from the Rome-based food historian and sommelier Katie Parla, who has a healthy obsession with Istanbul. She shared her favorite restaurant picks with me, some of which are described below. If you’re going to Istanbul, check out her full list of beloved Istanbul restaurants.
Asmalimescit Caddesi No. 16/D. Neighborhood: Beyoglu
I celebrated my birthday at this warm, inviting meyhane in the lively Beyoğlu neighborhood. A meyhane is a casual restaurant that serves mezze, or small plates, and wine. We ate upstairs, and chose from the large selection of cold dishes. I went over to the glass case and pointed. I had no idea what I was ordering, but it all looked good and fresh, and turned out to be delicious, most memorably the poached fish in lemon juice and olive oil. We also had hot food, including kebabs. We ate every bite. As at most Turkish restaurants, there were many options on the menu for the one vegetarian in our group. For my birthday, the staff brought me a small chocolate cake and my Persian friends sang me “happy birthday” in Farsi! The next day Asmali Cavit got a big write-up in the New York Times, but thanks to Katie Parla’s recommendation we beat the crowds.
Prof. K. Ismail Gurkan Caddesi No: 14. Neighborhood: Sultanahmet. Lunch and dinner
This is a great place to know about in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, where most restaurants are overpriced tourist traps. The owner watched over every detail of our meal, and was really friendly (except when the Turkish women’s volleyball team game was on television, then he was in another world). We had Turkish-style hummus, which is very thick, almost like peanut butter. This is the first place where I tasted ezme, the salty, tangy, bright red tomato and pepper dip that is served everywhere, but varies highly in quality. It’s excellent here. The pan-fried sardines and fish kebabs were everything I hoped for. Our meal came with a simple but addictive sauce of olive oil, minced garlic, and fresh parsley leaves.
Tarihi Karaköy Balikcisi
Tersane Cad. Kardeşim Sok. No:45/A. Neighborhood: Karaköy. Monday through Friday, lunch only
We went here on our way to the excellent Istanbul Biennial at the Istanbul Modern museum. This place is right on the docks, in what is apparently the wholesale hardware district. Lost, we walked by endless equipment displays trying to find it, and had to ask directions of more than one guy covered in machine grease. All of a sudden, we came upon a pretty little oasis, and a very gracious and nattily dressed host beckoned us into an unassuming doorway. We were ushered up to the second floor, which overlooks the water. Locals in business suits ate lunch around us. Our waiter brought a platter of raw fish, and pointed to each one, explaining how it was prepared and how much each dish cost. We chose a fish kebab, fish soup, and salad. Everything was exquisite.
Caferaga Mah. Güneslibahce Sk. No:43. neighborhood: Kadiköy. Open all day for lunch and dinner
You must go here if you visit Istanbul. It’s on the Asian side of the city, a dreamy half-hour ferry ride away from the European side. You walk through the crowded streets of the outdoor fish market to get here, until you reach a block that is all restaurants, three of which are owned by Çiya. It doesn’t matter which one you go to, they all have the same menu. We went to the original Çiya, where just inside the door there is a salad bar on one side and a hot buffet on the other. Levant, the friendly host who sports a neat silver pageboy, took me through the entire buffet, explaining each dish in good English. You serve yourself, then they weigh your plate and give you the price. On the hot side, a cook dishes up stews and stuffed vegetables. Çiya specializes in keeping Turkey’s culinary history alive, and embraces the flavor combinations of traditional and regional cuisine. Everything we had here was interesting and beautiful, and the restaurant was packed with Istanbullus, or city dwellers. We went back twice. Of the many excellent dishes I sampled, the two that stand out are the lamb, quince, and chestnut soup, and ceviz tatlısı, whole candied walnuts in their shells served alongside sweet mallow.
Kadırga Meydanı 143 Kadırga. Neighborhood: Çemberlitaş. 7am-10.30pm
I fell in love with this hole-in-the-wall lokanta, a tradesmen’s restaurant where locals go to get fast and fresh food served cafeteria-style at cheap prices. We stumbled upon this place because it’s two blocks from where we stayed in Çemberlitaş, the neighborhood just west of touristy Sultanahmet. Surprisingly, other travelers have found it too, as the restaurant gets a big thumbs-up from Lonely Planet. Not knowing the words in Turkish, we pointed to the dishes we wanted. We got a hearty meal that was very Persian: rice cooked with barberries and dill, spinach with yogurt, chicken with tomatoes, and a carton of the ever-present Ayran, the salty yogurt drink known as doogh in Iran. To finish, we had tea, served with whole cloves to freshen the breath. We came back here a few times, and had a friendly — albeit limited due to language — chat with the owner. Go early in the day, when the food is fresh and they have everything on the menu.