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Old favourites and new attractions: Andrew Finkel samples Istanbul’s best meyhanes. Photographs by Simon Wheeler
Istanbul is a city which worships good food, but where there is no real pantheon of celebrity chefs. In part, this is because its chomping classes see their next meal as the result of effortless craft rather than tortured inspiration. They seek not so much the unique, but the familiar executed that little bit better than anyone else. If this makes Istanbul sound conservative, it is not. It is less resistant to innovation than able to absorb it so quickly that what seemed novel on Monday is humdrum by the end of the week. The restaurant gurus are not the chefs but the proprietors who set the trends. They break in new styles, open establishments, then shut them again with the ruthless drive of a post-rider.
Just occasionally Istanbul produces not so much a kitchen celebrity as an anti-hero like Refik Arslan, who has nursed a glass of rakı and a bit of white cheese at the establishment that has borne his name for the some fifty years. His gravel voice and grumpy temperament are as much a feature of the Beyoğlu back streets as the leaning tower is of Pisa. Paunchy intellectuals go there to smoke and drink and harangue their friends; followers of fashion go there on a night off just to be themselves; a new generation comes to re-invent their own tradition of cosmopolitan life; and the odd New York Times correspondent turns up to report on what is truly authentic about a Turkish evening out. No one, I suspect, goes there for the food, any more than anyone goes to the Pig and Whistle because their draught lager is more luxuriously carbonated than the Dog and Duck’s.
Refik is a meyhane – culturally related to a pub, since it is hard to imagine sitting there without drinking, but, as it is equally unthinkable to drink without food, a restaurant as well. Main courses are perfunctory and often you don’t get that far. Mezes are the heart of the meal. In the old days, Refik explains, he would serve a “rakı platter” – a small bottle with a tray of seven different types of starters. Now you pick and choose the hors d’oeuvres yourself. And there is no need to reach out to sample the sauce on your partner’s plate, since the whole point is to share dishes. Everyone is an expert: the talk – “Try some of this aubergine” or “The liver is not as good as next door” – means that the standard of meyhane cuisine never dips far below the norm.
Not everyone holds Refik to be the primus inter pares of Istanbul meyhane. Everyone has their favourite, chosen for a particular dish or, more likely, because they expect to bump into their friends. If there is a similarity about the fare, it is not just because news travels fast through the narrow streets but because most of the meyhanes are related: Yakup of Yakup 2 fame is Refik’s brother; the proprietor of Saki used to be the head waiter at Asır; while the owner of Asır used to be the head waiter of his own establishment before the old Greek proprietor died. It is one long culinary soap opera. As for Refik himself, he started off working at the age of fourteen for “Papa” Fischer, opposite the British embassy, and is still proud of his rarely tested skill in producing the perfect, very un-meyhane-like Schnitzel.
There were appreciative oohs and ahs as the food circulated the other night at Akbaba – a new establishment in the attractive open-aired passageway directly across from Tünel. The “vulture” referred to in the name of the restaurant was the title of Turkey’s most famous humour magazine, founded even before Refik. To up sales in its final years, the magazine resorted to risqué caricatures on the cover, and these adorn the walls, providing all the sauce the restaurant needs. The tastes are sharp and fresh and include good topik – a chickpea paté with a tahin and onion centre – and crisp gül böreği – a pastry rosette. Akbaba is decorated in a pleasing Thonet-chaired retro style, with only the bright halogen lighting to remind you of the actual year. This is probably better than having the whole room antiqued and the entirely acceptable converse of leaving a corner of a restored historical building in its original state.
The lighting is suitably dingy at Despina, an authentically hoary meyhane away from Beyoğlu in the old Greek district of Kurtuluş. Time and the meze tray stand still here, but a pair of sharp eyes at our table, with vision heightened by drink, noted that that the rough-textured stucco walls were probably an innovative attempt to look old. Despina is now famous not for the food but for an argument between three middle-aged men which resulted in the one whose manhood was in question drawing a revolver and shooting dead the other two. He then wanted to kill himself but was talked out of it by the police – all live on national television. Having seen the gore of Tarantino films, it did occur to me that the incident, now some time ago, may have been the reason for redecorating the walls. There was nothing life-threatening about our dinner there, with the possible exception of a small band of musicians who circulate from table to table, strumming mournfully and encouraging you to break into song. I would recommend the sautéed meat for main course, but the fried anchovies were flavourful – as, of course, was the mood.
So where does that leave 360 – a newcomer to Beyoğlu and very much not a meyhane, but not what I expected either? It is the work of Mike Norman, a former executive chef at the Çırağan and a partner in the now defunct Chefs – a restaurant which tried to get its clientele to focus on the food on their plate rather than who was sitting at the table on the far side of the room. Chefs helped raise the bar on what a well-run kitchen was all about, but the sorry truth is that the top end of the Istanbul scene is still ruled by fashion, not by loyalty. Restaurants draw from a relatively small client base – the locusts who swarm to the latest spot and strip it bare before moving on.
Norman’s 360 takes its name from the extraordinary roof-top bird’s-eye view from one Beyoğlu’s most elegant apartment blocks. The restaurant is a glass cage from which you can see every corner of the city. It had not officially opened the night we had dinner there, and it may be unfair to compare the uncertainty of the service to the drill of the meyhanes at street level below, rehearsed over decades. The menu, too, was a little bit indecisive. There was sea bass in a potato crust, peppery wok-seared ostrich breast, lamb with an over-floury beğendi (aubergine purée) and even beef with Chinese noodles. Those who cherish the memory of Chefs for its puddings may be disappointed. The unlikely-sounding cappuccino tira mi su was tasty, with an element of surprise, but on the whole the desserts were indelicate and too sweet.
After trying to build a gastronomic edifice at Chefs, Norman has leaned the other way. He has created a wonderful space, but it is something of a marquee, where everything can change. The interesting thing about 360 is that it has, at the front of the menu, a notion of modern mezes. They are not designed to astonish: a bit of fried Cypriot helim cheese with a sweetish sauce, falafel – and the squid with a hard, almost chicken-nugget-type crust was a little bit bland. Celeriac, braised with olive oil and brightened up with orange, deserves praise. They are there as a tribute to a style of eating.
Despite its provenance, 360 is not overly expensive for a formal evening out. We paid a similar sort of bill at Dilara’s Abra Cadabra – twee-sounding but not the most twee on ultra-twee Fransız Sokağı, or French Street. This is a set of steps running down from Beyoğlu to Çukurcuma that has become a sort of restaurant alley. As a tribute to the French embassy, which helped pay for its restoration, the establishments have names like Gitane, Point Virgule and even Ooh La La. The food at Dilara’s is not twee, however, and not even French. The owner did not buy into French Street but converted her own house into a restaurant. Her card gives the address defiantly as the original name of the street – the anti-imperial Cezayir (or Algeria) Street.
The meal had the attractive quality of good dinner-party food. What regional influences it has are Black Sea, but the menu is a reflection of what’s on sale at the market that day. I had a pheasant – braised in wine then baked – intricately garnished with pickled wild mushrooms and a sort of chipped potato. The pork ribs were not Southern-style but marinated in apple and prune and charcoal-smoked. Dessert arrived unbidden, a thin sheet of white chocolate mixed with poppy seed, to be dipped in a fruit and chilli sauce. There was good bread and of course mezes to begin with. Raw clams, spiced with ginger and balanced on a bed of salt, were memorable, and not something you will ever find at Refik.
The börek has an extensive place in Turkey’s culinary repertoire, and the choice of fillings is infinite. From cheese to spicy ground meat or suateéd meat cubes with nuts and raisins; from chicken or turkey to fish and lentils; from offal such as brain or tripe to vegetables – the list is almost endless.
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