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Istanbul, from the table

Some of the city's best restaurants boast stunning views. Sip a raki aperitif while you enjoy the sights and Turkey's celebrated cuisine -- traditional dishes and fresh interpretations.

September 21, 2008|Leslie Brenner | Special to The Times

ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Here come the mezes: minted, garlicky yogurt, dusky roasted eggplant salad. A waiter presents them on a huge tray: glistening artichoke crowns, a spread of ground walnuts and sweet red peppers. And wait, how about that beautiful mushroom salad spiked with scallions?

The glow of a late-summer sunset floods the rooftop terrace as couples and families and groups of friends feast on Turkey's version of tapas, sipping from glasses of the milky-looking anise-flavored aperitif called raki, unwinding and talking and enjoying the spectacular view of the Old City. Scores of mosques, with their graceful domes and minarets, light up one after another as the sky turns apricot and rose and purple.

This is Istanbul -- glorious and glittering -- and it's dinner time in a busy kebab house.

The cuisine of Turkey has a reputation among food lovers as being among the world's most compelling, and I've come -- with my favorite cohorts-in-dining, my husband, Thierry, and our 11-year-old son, Wylie -- to see what all the fuss is about. We've long dreamed of visiting Istanbul, and we have only 3 1/2 days, after exploring Turkey's Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, to take in the city. Where to begin? In my view, the best way to soak up culture quickly is at the table.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 25, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Istanbul dining: A Sept. 21 Travel story on dining in Istanbul said the Museum of Modern Art opened in 2005. It opened in 2004. The story also referred to the Golden Horn as a nickname for the city; actually, the Golden Horn is an inlet of the Bosporus that forms the harbor of Istanbul.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 28, 2008 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Istanbul, Turkey: In a Sept. 21 story on dining in Istanbul ("Istanbul, From the Table"), the year in which the Museum of Modern Art opened was incorrect. It opened in 2004, not 2005. The story also incorrectly referred to the Golden Horn as a nickname for the city; actually, the Golden Horn is an inlet of the Bosporus that forms the harbor of Istanbul.

Istanbul's magnificence lies in its history, in the layering of cultures -- Byzantine on top of Hellenic, Islamic on top of Byzantine and then modern on top of all of that.

Built on hills, all rising from the Sea of Marmara, the Golden Horn and the Bosporus, it's a visual city that's all about space and light and shifting horizons. It straddles Europe and Asia literally; the shining waterway through the city known as the Golden Horn separates the two continents. Fortunately for us, there's no better vantage point from which to take it all in than on a restaurant's terrace.

That point hasn't been lost on Istanbul's restaurateurs, and remarkably, some of the best places with the most impressive cooking have the most spectacular views.

Hamdi, one of Istanbul's great traditional kebab houses, on a square in the Old City's Grand Bazaar district, is flanked on one side by Yeni Camii (the Ottoman imperial New Mosque) and fronted by Eminonu Harbor and the Galata Bridge. On two sides of the square is the old Egyptian Spice Bazaar. Olive stands, fruit mongers, tea shops, nut shops and spice merchants compete for attention with colorful wares and beguiling aromas.

Nab a reservation on Hamdi's roof terrace (try for the balcony), as we did when we were here in late July, and dinner is a fabulous show -- especially on a Sunday, as wedding boats shoot off fireworks in the harbor. As the sky turns from periwinkle to midnight blue and the lights of the Old City come up, it's gorgeous.

Start with cold appetizers, or mezes, good with beer or wine, but best with raki, similar to French pastis or Greek ouzo. Then come hot mezes. Hamdi is known for icli kofte -- tasty fried quenelles of bulgur filled with meat. Lahmacun, a thin pizza topped with seasoned lamb and parsley, garlic and hot pepper, is even better

But the kebabs are the star attraction. Be sure to keep some haydari -- thick, garlicky yogurt with dried mint -- on the table. It will cool the palate.

Beyti kebap -- a combination of minced veal and lamb, seasoned with sweet peppers, parsley and garlic -- is served with rice pilaf and a bright little salad of parsley and onions. We order yogurtlu kebap (yogurt kebab), choosing grilled lamb skewers over urfa (half veal, half lamb, minced). It's terrific, served on thick yogurt, with sliced ripe tomatoes.

Fistikli kebap (veal and lamb kebab with pistachios) is a specialty of the house. The idea is to wrap a morsel of it in warm bread that's a cross between a pita and a flour tortilla, adding a bit of grilled tomato and parsley-scallion salad. It's wonderful.


It might be tempting to stick with traditional food in an ancient place with such a rich culinary heritage, but history lives and breathes here, and that makes Istanbul unique. It is ancient but also ultra-modern. Lots of women cover their heads in scarves and hide their bodies in long coats, but others wear shoulder-baring dresses. Turkey yearns to join the European Union, and the city's culture -- with its energetic night life, forward-looking architecture and insatiable thirst for commerce -- announces it loudly and clearly.

In the Karakoy district, next to a grand-looking Baroque 16th century mosque, stands the streamlined 21st century Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, opened in 2005 and already one of the city's most important cultural attractions. A well-presented exhibit in the permanent collection chronicles the history of Turkish modern art, which developed as a result of a decree handed down by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Republic of Turkey's founder and first president. Ataturk decreed that Turkey must modernize, and that included art.

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