A slow-braised rib of beef wrapped in yufka pastry, served on chilli lime yoghurt with smoked paprika oil
I have suffered these long years from a split gastronomic personality. One of my selves seeks out Istanbul restaurants that have a practised understanding of the demands of their genre – the tastier bean, the more artfully grilled kebab, the flakier baklava. But then there is an alternative psyche in search of that rare establishment ready to turn tradition on its head. My head turns one way and then the other. Do I go opt for authenticity or the shock of the new? To make matters worse, a third personality has come along with little patience for the other two.
Zucchini flowers stuffed with tulum and lor cheese and pesto infused with orange oil
It made its appearance during a visit to Dokuz Ondokuz, a comfortable but not over-fussy sort of brasserie in the upper-crust neighbourhood of Suadiye. It is right off Bağdat Caddesi, on the Anatolian side of the city, a thoroughfare full of fancy shops but not really tourists, which means it is spared another sort of schizophrenia afflicting restaurants elsewhere in the city that feel obliged to serve ‘Turkish’ food to customers visiting from abroad but in a sufficiently novel way as to keep the palates of a local clientele amused. The challenge Dokuz Ondokuz does face head-on, however, is fighting off the copycat standardisation of the scores of eateries nearby. It does this through originality, a dash of personality and a dose of flair. And it has led me to reconsider whether the real dichotomy of an Istanbul evening out is not between effortless craft and tortured inspiration, foreign or Turkish, old or new, but between restaurants in awe of a corporate algorithm calculating what customers want to eat, and those where the chef is cooking what he or she loves and understands. In terms of offal, it’s the difference between brain and heart.
Dokuz Ondokuz, you will have gathered, belongs in the latter camp. There are many attractive qualities – elegance of an unpretentious sort (bare chestnut tables in what in summer turns into an open-air conservatory) but mainly a deep respect for what goes on the plate. And while I may mock those places which are concept-led, there is a concept of sorts. The name (which translates as ‘9-19’) refers to an all-day menu– you can get a bite or a three course meal and brunch at weekends)- but there is nothing formulaic about the fare.
What I find interesting is that the chef, Fatih Demirci, is operating within the borders of his own traditions but at the same time those traditions are complex. His father owned a bakery in Hatay near the Syrian border. Ergo, there has to be humous as one of the starters, albeit made with a particularly nutty, well-rounded tahin from that region that is not cloying or over-powering. But there is also a small photo of Paul Bocuse discretely mounted on the wall which signifies – well hard to say exactly: a sense of purpose, a sense of pride, maybe aspiration?
Dokuz Ondokuz's open kitchen
But originally, Demirci’s family came from the Black Sea town of Çamlıhemşin, famous for a pre-World War One generation who found work in Russia as of pastry chefs but who were forced back to Turkey after the Revolution and, of course, brought their skills home with them (Those who had flourrished in Crimea retired to the famous wooden mansions of the Storm valley in their winter holidays – see Cornucopia 12 – Ed). It so happens that my first night in Istanbul was spent at the Tarabya Hotel in 1967 where, I learn, his grandfather was the dessert chef and must have made the ‘English cake’ – a lemony sponge – my mother so adored. Profiteroles were a treat I remember from my Istanbul boyhood, even though they were, flaccid bits of dough with stodgy insides, covered in a thick, dark sauce that didn’t taste of chocolate. At Dokuz Ondokuz profiteroles are crispy, filled with a light crème pâtissiere and deep chocolate sauce – a different species altogether.
Dokuz Ondokuz prides itself on home made sausages and charcuterie
The restaurant is part of the Nezih food empire which includes The Istanbul Butcher, a nearby emporium where the cutlets are displayed with slightly more panache than the tierras at Harry Winston. So, while there are salads and strong vegetarian starters at Dokuz Ondokuz (including fried courgette flowers, filled with walnut and different cheeses on a bed of orange oil infused pesto), meat is the thing. Demirci makes his own charcuterie, including Bosnian-styled smoked beef, an excellent beef mortadella and very tasty merguez. The sauerkraut has a touch of sweetness which while not revolutionary is a pleasing detail The quick turnover means that the charcuterie, freshly made, is relatively low in salt.
Lamb Karsky- a modern presentation of an old favourite.
An unusual main course, or at least one I had never had before was a warm pancetta of lamb leg meat rolled in belly and slowly smoked – all serve on a bed of mustard mashed potatoes with marinated cucumbers. Another treat from my Istanbul youth was lamb Karsky – the chargrilled, boneless cut from the saddle – which we would eat with matchstick potatoes at Süreyya’s – the famed Russian restaurant perched on top of the BP station in Bebek. It reappears at Dokuz Ondokuz accompanied by ‘chicken feet’ – a local variety of tiny wild mushrooms. It was Paul Bocuse who said that an architect covers mistakes with ivy, a doctor with earth and a cook with sauce (‘and says it is a new recipe’). Here the meat speaks for itself adorned at most with a long simmered demi-glace.
There is a long list of cocktails – a subject on which I claim no particular expertise – but also an interesting selection of wines. I had a very attractive, full-flavoured glass of Hippokrates, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Petit Verdot made by 7Bilgiler, based near Izmir. And we sampled an Eastern varietal called Kösetevek, produced by a winery called Kuzeybağ, that had lots of red fruit and very suitable for the food Dokuz Ondokuz serves. 7Bilgiler is a state-of the art project of a local eye doctor; Kuzeybağ is the work of a cloth cap donning Elaziğ farmer. Innovation vs tradition? Modernity vs authenticity? Nah! Just people doing what they like to do best.
Kazım Özalp Sokak No:16-18A, Suadiye/KADIKÖY
0530 624 89 19