I’ve been nibbling on my box of Bebek-bought marzipan over the past couple of days trying to figure out where to go next on our Istanbul adventure (for the record I’ve eaten half of it). All the while I’ve been struck at how quickly the magic of a holiday fades back in the day-to-day grind of life. The Turkish people were so warm (as was the weather) that within our six days there, shopkeepers and bartenders and waiters in the lovely Cihangir neighborhood we stayed in, waved hello as we walked past their establishments. One particular favorite was a cafe called 21 where we spent hours sitting at its little tables in the sun, drinking tea and coffee, eating little plates of mezze, and refreshing raki served with free snacks of green sour plums, cucumber slices, olives, nuts. The owner often sent over a glass of raki on-the-house and our regular waiter offered us coffee as a gift from him when we were just passing by (this NEVER happens in London). Quickly we became part of the group of regulars, nodding hello to many as they came to grab a quick bite, a glass of beer, while the stray cats of the neighborhood wandered in and out of the place with wild abandon.
By day three, after exploring the Bosphorus and the Asian side markets in Kadikoy, we thought it time to hit the big sights. The minarets of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia beckoned from our apartment’s balcony, but with ginormous cruise ships pulling into the harbor daily, we were fearful of the amount of tourists we might be up against for a closer look. We did make it to the Blue Mosque, standing in a long line to take off our shoes and pass inspection to make certain we were covered properly. Once back outside, wandering along the garden paths to Hagia Sophia, we were swept up into crowds of other tourists who were following umbrellas held high by their tour guides. Parents seemed oblivious to the din created by their children playing plastic instruments bought from street vendors, and without much discussion we quickly escaped from the mass and decided that Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace would be better viewed during the off-season.
The streets leading to the nearby Grand Bazaar weren’t much relief. We charged ahead determined to eat an early lunch to fortify ourselves before a serious afternoon of haggling at the market. Nar Lokanta, on the fifth floor of what I can only describe as the most exclusive department store I’ve ever seen, was a haven of peace after our brief attempt at sightseeing. We were seated on the large balcony, shaded by trees and licked by a cool breeze. The lunch of delightful Turkish and Ottoman style food was the perfect antidote to what had been a disappointing morning. Zucchini flower dolmas (served cold and stuffed with a delicately spiced rice filling), cold eggplant salad, perfect pyramids of meat filled manti (Turkish dumplings) swimming in a yoghurt and tomato sauce, and a pide – pizza. Everything was simple and elegant and tasty, topped off with a silver stand full of Turkish delight and marzipan to accompany our coffee and send us on our way.
We let ourselves get lost in the maze of the Grand Bazaar that afternoon, bought a kilim from Sisko Osman and drank more coffee along the way. After a quick tram ride home, while contemplating where to have dinner that night over raki at 21, Aziz managed to get us a table at Mikla. This was the one restaurant I kept reading about in every food guide to Istanbul, which intrigued me no end. It’s owned by Mehmet Gurs, a Turkish-Finnish chef, who is trying for the first Michelin starred restaurant in the city and it is located on the top floor of the Mamara Pera Hotel with jaw-dropping views of the vast metropolis below. A top tip (from Aziz of course) is to visit the rooftop bar before dinner and watch the sun set and admire the chic crowd of locals as they sip cocktails and seem to remain as in awe of the view of their city as we newbies were. While many of our local friends seemed hesitant to recommend Mikla as they didn’t think it was a true representation of traditional Turkish cuisine, what Chef Gurs is doing with the magnificent ingredients native to Turkey is fantastic. There is a slight nordic overtone to the food, but the tastes reflect the sunny, warm native cuisine – a delightful match.
I’ll allow the photos of our meal, with the details of each dish in the caption, do the talking, but it was a delicious and beautiful meal full of surprises – a heady mix of old and new. We asked our waiter to pair our dishes with local Turkish wines (which are absolutely delicious, by the way) and happily devoured each gorgeous plate of food. The lights of Istanbul slowly started to twinkle as the sun finally set – it was perfect. I think that Michelin star should be granted post haste! It was an excellent day of eating and shopping – and with a foodie tour of the old bazaar scheduled for the next day, the adventures just kept coming. I can’t wait to tell you more.