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A food critic eats her way across Istanbul

From simit to kofte to doner kebab to lokum, the city is stuffed to bursting with fantastic food finds. Here's a platter full of Turkish delights.

August 03, 2013|By S. Irene Virbila

ISTANBUL, Turkey — How much do I love eating in Istanbul? Let me count the ways (and know that the addresses listed below barely skim the possibilities). For the food lover, the city that bridges Europe and Asia, for centuries the ruling city of a great empire, is an irresistible draw. Istanbul is stuffed to bursting with great food at every level, from street carts to posh rooftop restaurants.

You can get fresh-squeezed orange juice on every corner or buy sesame-dusted simit (doughnut-shaped breads) for breakfast from a red and gold street cart. Small mom-and-pop shops specialize in clotted buffalo milk to eat with bread and honey or subtly spiced kofte (meatballs). Young and old line up for doner kebab, reserve a table in a popular lokanta (tavern) or grab a grill-side seat and watch a master perform with skewers of sweetbreads or lamb.

On a recent trip, I opted out of touristy or trendy spots and explored beloved neighborhood restaurants and specialty food shops.

I can't wait to go back. Here are 10 of the highlights from an April visit.

(Since the end of May, Turkey has been in the news for anti-government demonstrations in Istanbul and other cities. Now, demonstrations are sporadic and, in Istanbul, mostly centered on Taksim Square. There and elsewhere in the city life goes on as usual. Restaurants are open and serve both residents and tourists. The State Department's worldwide travel alert issued Friday mentions security issues in the Middle East but does not specifically mention Turkey.)


Semsa Denizsel's farm-to-table restaurant in the posh Nisantasi neighborhood is hands-down my favorite. Her chalkboard lists 14 dishes each day, and you'll want all of them. I could have eaten here every day for the week: I'm still craving globe artichokes from Izmir that were braised in olive oil with rice; her thin, crisp flatbreads topped with greens; soulful soups; thin slices of beef tongue with sultanas, her beautiful desserts — and the crusty loaves she bakes from an Anatolian heirloom wheat that dates back 8,000 years. Downstairs is her takeout boutique. No surprise that she's known as the Alice Waters of Istanbul.

Kantin, 30 Akkavak Sokagi, Nisantasi; 011-90-212-219-3114. Lunch and early dinner. No alcohol. A meal for two about $75.

Asmali Cavit

On a street off Iskeli Caddesi (the European side's main pedestrian shopping street), lined with meyhane (taverns specializing in meze), this one stands out for the fresh, vibrant flavors of each little dish. Plan to stay awhile — that's the point. Order a few cold dishes to start, maybe local cheese, roasted red peppers, braised artichoke or lakerda (cured bonito) and a bottle of raki (Turkey's anise-flavored spirit). Eat a little. Drink a little. Talk a lot. Repeat, ordering warm meze until it's closing time. Don't miss the flash-fried, wafer-thin slices of lamb liver or the calamari. For the real scene, head upstairs, where family and friends sit at long tables covered in myriad dishes. Raki and talk flow. And from time to time, guests squeeze onto a small balcony to have a smoke.

Asmali Cavit, 16/D Asmali Mescit Caddesi, Beyoglu; 011-90-212-292-4950, no website. Be sure to reserve ahead. Meal for two, about $80.


On a Sunday, we took the Metro and then a taxi to Tarabya, an old resort and port along the Bosporus. Our destination: Kiyi, a lovely old-fashioned restaurant with classic, correct service and a well-heeled clientele. The hot and cold meze are outstanding — crimson roasted peppers, baby pickled okra, octopus salad, taramasalata (fish roe spread), fried sand smelt, grilled calamari and crisp phyllo "cigarettes" filled with cheese. Nibbling on this and that, sipping raki, we whiled away the afternoon and finished the feast with a perfectly grilled whole sea bass. Do let your waiter point out the best of the season.

Kiyi, 126 Kefelikoy Caddesi, Tarabya; 011-90-212-262-0002. Meal for two, including raki, about $90.

Ciya Sofrasi

Chef-owner Musa Dagdeviren has done extensive research into historical and regional dishes and serves an astonishing array at his three simple restaurants in Caferaga Mahallesi surrounded by the sprawling Kadikoy market. At Ciya Sofrasi, step up to the counter and choose cold meze, as many as you like: You pay by the weight. Hummus with pickled chile peppers is terrific with flatbread from a wood-burning oven. For a non-Turkish speaker, it can be difficult to figure out what to order. Just point. I had to come back my last night for another kebab, actually two — lamb minced with tail fat and bracketed with either whole spring garlic bulbs or sweet-tart loquat to wrap up in that wonderful flatbread. For dessert? Candied pumpkin with clotted buffalo milk.

Ciya Sofrasi, 48/B Gunesli Bahce Sokak , Caferaga Mahallesi, Kadikoy; 011-90-216-330-1390. Meal for two about $30.

Istanbul food tour with Tuba Satana

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