Although my grandfather likes to remind me at restaurants that you “can’t eat atmosphere,” Istanbul has a pretty good one. My lunchmate, Kellen, likened the decorations to those in his Russian grandmother’s apartment, a remarkably high compliment (although perhaps not the one Istanbul was going for given that it’s a Turkish restaurant.) Antique lamps and tapestries furnished the cozy space, and a warm greeting from the wait-staff made me feel like I was in someone else’s very welcoming home.
A small loaf of bread lightly brushed with oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds started our series of plates. It was so warm and delicious that about half of it was gone before we received the accompanying dips. The Patllcan salata, otherwise known as babaganoush, was substantial enough to eat alone with a fork, which we did. It was creamy, and heavy on the garlic. The Nohut Ezme, otherwise dubbed hummus, boasted a lighter flavor and thinner consistency, which necessitated the bread as its vehicle. These two spreads were a nice introduction to the Turkish feast to follow, and also nice to keep at the table — their milder flavors provided a respite from the strong spices later in the meal.
If you go to Istanbul, you have to order a limonata, or you risk losing the restaurant’s full, eccentric experience. I probably would never have ordered what the menu called “a Turkish style home made lemonade, made fresh by kneading a mixture of whole lemons and sugar until a sweet zesty paste is created, then thinning with cold water.” Fortunately, though, my lunchmate did. The drink tasted like tart, somewhat bitter lemonade, a perfect accompaniment to the richness of the appetizers.
The sigara borek, up next, was bound to be good: a wonderful fried bread with cheese inside. The “layers of thin dough and stuffed with feta cheese, parsley and egg” delivered indeed. Although the feta rendered the appetizer a tad too salty, the limonata balanced out the almost briny aftertaste.
The main event was the chicken kebab — these are the move. We received a plate of four different kebabs, called the Karisik Izgara Kebab, but the chicken kebabs were by far the best. Simply grilled, served with rice, they were light and filling. In fact, I wish that I had eaten a few less of these to save room for more baklava. But we’ll get to that.
The other meats were well-spiced, and complimented by the raw vegetables alongside which they were served. The lamb kebab had the consistency of a meatball and was a bit too strong for my liking. But the variety of the plate would serve a group well, and made the kebabs perfect for sharing.
And now to the baklava, which boasted layers upon layers of greatness. Not overly sweet, with a pleasant combination of textures from the nuts, syrup and phyllo, this was a winning way to round out the meal.
Istanbul is definitely a great place to dine with a group. The small plates, meant to be shared, could even provide topics of conversation if you’re eating with people you don’t know! Trying not to butcher the pronunciation of menu items is a fun game, as is guessing what a “Künefe” is. Also, the owner, Murat Firidin, asked that I mention the live belly dancing shows that he hosts weekly. So, if the kebabs weren’t a good enough reason to go…