OK, yes, I know. Those of you who speak Turkish know, güle güle is how to say good bye by the person staying behind, and alas, I was the one leaving and should say: hoşça kal, but I love the musicality of this farewell and use it all the time now. This will be my final post about our trip to Istanbul….although I plan to play with several recipes over the coming weeks that are inspired by the many delightful tastes we had along the way. Our dear friend Aziz went out of his way to introduce me to chefs and restauranteurs so I’d be able to appreciate the scope and variety of Istanbul’s culinary world, try new things, and bring some of the sunshine-laden flavors back to my own kitchen. Experiences like these reinvigorate my passion for food! I met the Jamie Oliver of Istanbul who’s got his own microbrewery and is working on a plan to improve lunches in the Turkish public schools. And the lovely Aliye Turgay,owner of Fenix, a very chichi Asian-Mediterranean fusion restaurant where the beautiful people swing their hips to the music her husband spins on decks by the bar. It was an evening of food, fashion and fabulousness I wasn’t expecting in Istanbul.
For our final night out, my dear husband begged the hostess at Yeni Lokanta to give us a table (his skills of persuasion are second to none). Everyone we encountered said this was the place we had to go for fine food in Istanbul. Unlike Mikla, which some suggested bastardizes Turkish cuisine, Yeni Lokanta has been praised for serving not just another fusion cuisine, but instead rethinking what Turkish cuisine is all together, and creating something new, but undeniably recognizable. I couldn’t wait.
Starting with a vodka cocktail spiked with red chilli flakes (I’d had enough raki for a lifetime) they brought us what is perhaps my favorite hummus ever (must remember to try the little cucumber salad as a crunchy garnish) and a gorgeous amber-colored smoked butter for the bread. A scan of the menu confirmed this would be a wonderful way to say goodbye to Istanbul. Strawberry and artichoke salad – dotted with yoghurt and mint leaves. Olive oil braised bass with zucchini and red onion salad – delicately poached fish under ribbons of vegetables with smoked tamarind. Next we ordered the hot mezze selection: fried zucchini flowers stuffed with herby yoghurt, koftas with grilled vegetables, and best of all, manti, the traditionally meat-filled Turkish dumpling which Chef Civan Er turns on its head and fills with dried eggplant. In the process of reconstituting the eggplant, he achieves a meaty texture for his filling and then adds a hint of spice and pomegranate molasses to play on the eggplant’s smoky flavor. These perfect little dumplings swim in the classic salted lebneh (yoghurt) sauce dotted with more spice and fresh mint. For main courses we chose the short ribs and perhaps the most divine grilled octopus I’ve ever tried – paired with a purslane and smoked eggplant salad – it was summer on a plate. Finally desserts of chocolate mosaic (another Turkish classic Chef Er has refined) with caramel and bananas and the most marvellous of all, muhallebeli kadayıf kızartması, isli dondurma ve bal. Essentially, a frozen milk custard coated with finely shredded pastry and deep fried. This is served alongside a smoked water buffalo milk ice cream and drizzled with honey – a hot, cold, crunchy, soft, sweet, salty explosion of joy.
Chef Er came to our table at the end of dinner (yes, Aziz did that), shy, but pleased we enjoyed his food. I told him his meal had inspired me in so many ways: the eggplant, the hummus, the octopus, the fresh salad accompaniments. Like I’ve said before, part of what I love so much about cooking is that I never stop learning. Each meal out or trip to the market is an opportunity to broaden my horizons. I learned that kofta (their oblong meatballs) are so much better when they have a little crunch in them from a grain mixed in. Cheese-filled borek should be eaten with powdered sugar for breakfast with tea. Clotted cream tastes so much better when mixed with honey. Zucchini fritters are the way forward….and my fried zucchini blossoms will be revisited (by the way they can only harvest them before the sun is high in the sky otherwise the flowers close tight and can’t be stuffed). Melon and feta chunks are the perfect accompaniment to raki. Five cups a day of Turkish coffee is necessary. If you make your pizzas boat-shaped more can fit in your oven at the same time.
Saturday morning I sat on the balcony of our friend’s apartment and watched as more cruise ships sailed into harbor, in a funk about our flight home that afternoon. We had a very traditional Turkish breakfast at a table between two parked cars at Van Kavalti Evi and then wandered through the antique shops and reclamation yards of Cihangir. Some freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and a snack of crispy borek while sitting on plastic stools surrounded by local teenagers plotting their Saturday nights, and suddenly it was time to go. The flavors of Istanbul still dancing in my mouth and forever etched in my mind as our taxi careened through traffic, disco music streaming from the cassette player.