ISTANBUL — You're stepping off the Orient Express here, just the way you dreamed you would do one day. Just the way, in fact, Agatha Christie and Winston Churchill did. Your baggage is whisked into a cab (usually not of your choosing) and you're off to one of the few international hotels where most foreigners generally light. But that's not where dining is best.
The best dining in Istanbul is where the natives go. I'm talking about the handful or so fine modern-day restaurants, catering to the fun and food-loving social elite.
I'm also talking about the numerous small, out-of-town, inexpensive fish restaurants where the food is great and the fish is so fresh it fairly swims onto your plate. You'll also find at these humble places the same artistocratic crowd, draped in Russian furs and the latest suedes from Milan. They, as we, seem to be caught up in fickle food madness, hopping from one latest restaurant to another.
Dining in Istanbul often is picturesque because so much of it is done outdoors or overlooking the incredibly beautiful waters and skyline.
Istanbul straddles two continents--Asia and Europe--separated by a narrow straight called the Bosporus, which empties at one end into the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara via the Golden Horn.
Blue and Gold
In a way the city reminds you of a languishing female stretched out on a divan by a stream. It's very much a feminine city, with its graceful, ancient domed and minaretted skyline winding its way around the azure blue Golden Horn and Bosporus.
Even in Turkey one can taste the affects of modern Western affluence and influence . Nouvelle cuisine, for instance, has made inroads at the Samdans, (Samdans are the upscale restaurants frequented by the aristocracy), co-owner Celal Capa expresses his sensitivity to the Western influences on the Turkish dining scene.
"If you want a true Turkish meal, go to a Turkish home. What we do here is the nouvelle idea--an interpretation, really, of Turkish and Western dishes. In Istanbul the ambiance is by far more important than the meal," Capa said.
And after an evening at the Park Samdan, a lively spot where the modern decor and colors were so avant-garde that it shocked the locals, we saw what Capa meant. The new breed social diner would rather meet than eat.
So don't be alarmed when you try the Park Samdan, on Mim Kemal Oke Caddesi 18; the disco restaurant Samdan Etiler, at Nispetiye Caddesi 30; the summer villa restaurant called Sabanci Korusu, at Baglar Sokak 57 Yenikoy, or the Samdan Bar at Vali Konage No. 63, behind the clothing boutique.
There you will find familiar continental items such as saumon fume , carpacio, crepes, fettuccine and frog legs. Even American iceberg lettuce, now imported from the United States and something new for Turkey, appears on the menu these days as a gober salata, which, translated, means "American green."
Somewhere on the menu at Park Samdan you'll find Turkish dishes such as Cerkez tavugu (chicken in walnut sauce), imam bayaldi (onion-stuffed eggplant) or doner kebap (same as shwarma), yogurtlu kebap (lamb with yogurt) or sis kebap (skewered lamb), but they will have been prepared with a slightly nouvelle twist. A home cook just might balk, in fact.
But we did have a truly authentic soup made with tripe called paca corbasi , as a late night hangover cure, much like Mexican menudo, which we were surprised to find at Park Samdan.
A full-course meal at any of the Samdans is expensive for Istanbul--about $20 per person with beverage, usually one of the Turkish red or white wines which, I must say, weren't all that bad, if you enjoy rough and ready wines. We thought the white Kavaklidere was finer than most.
Along the same lines are the Ziya's, restaurants owned by a former wrestler who spent some time in New York as a maitre d' before returning to his native Istanbul, where he opened two of the latest hot spots where the local aristocracy love to be seen.
I like the bar upstairs better than the restaurant downstairs at the Ziya at Mustafa Kemal Oke Cadessi 21. But it is certainly one of the places to keep in mind if you are in Istanbul for several days.
Another not-to-miss upscale spot claiming Turko-Franco cuisine is Divan restaurant in the Divan Hotel on Cumhuriyet Caddesi 2. We had an outstanding meal along with a trio ensemble doing a fairly good job with Strauss waltzes.
I shall go back for two things: the dried caviar that is much like beef jerky--chewy, dry and flavorfully salty, which I have yet to find in Los Angeles--and lamb stew over pureed eggplant, which I shall never forget. Both extraordinary.
At the Divan pub downstairs, a sort of cafe where the white-collar locals stop for quick lunch, there is doner kebab that matches the best, the locals tell us. Doner kebab, vertically barbecued lamb on a spit, is said to have been invented by the Turks.