When documenting my travels for this blog, I don’t usually start with the food enjoyed on each trip. But it’s not every day I go to Istanbul and feast on all manner of Turkish delights. This was my very first trip to Turkey, although I had previously sampled the cuisine (in Shanghai, of all places). As soon as I announced my travel plans, I received loads of Istanbul restaurant recommendations from friends and fellow bloggers and tried to follow as many as I could.
We began each day with a hearty breakfast courtesy of our wonderful hotel: yogurt, fruit preserves, fresh and dried fruit, nuts, olives, cheese, eggs, roasted vegetables, cakes…the list goes on.
You might think we wouldn’t need lunch after such a feast, but you’d be wrong. Endless walking and sightseeing creates quite an appetite! It’s a good thing, too, because one of our best meals was a light lunch at Asitane, a highly recommended restaurant near the Chora Church Museum. Asitane specializes in Ottoman cuisine, using centuries-old recipes from the kitchens of former sultans. The menu even lists the date each dish was first prepared for the palace.
We started with a platter of assorted dips that included a hummus spiced with cinnamon and currants, created circa 1469. Even tastier was the 19th-century version of cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, onions and chestnuts. Currants and chestnuts were also used to season a delicious bulgur pilaf from 1469. The star of the meal was the “fatty apron” kebab – savory lamb and beef meatballs wrapped in caul fat – made from an 18th-century recipe. Dessert turned out to be the most unusual dish, a milk pudding from 1539 flavored with saffron and honey. As a parting gift, the ladies received a jar of quince preserves and a necklace charm. This was a classy touch we’d see repeated at restaurants throughout the week.
We delved further into Ottoman cuisine at Matbah, an elegant restaurant near the Aya Sofya that also claims to use royal recipes. The meal began with a free glass of pomegranate sherbet, a digestif popular with the sultans, and continued with several warm meze. The best of these were ispanakh piruhi, delectable spinach ravioli with tulum cheese and walnuts, and balh gemichi boregi, or sailor’s pastry with honey, a mouthwatering fried cheese pie.
Of the main dishes sampled, the goose kebab was so fantastic it has clouded my memory of all the others. Succulent roasted goose meat was encased in a delicate filo pouch, along with a currant, pine nut and almond pilaf. While touring the Topkapi Palace kitchens, I read that poultry was only served to the highest ranking members of the royal household, and this dish certainly made me feel like a queen. It’s probably the best thing I ate the entire trip. Matbah’s parting gift was a lovely necklace charm.
The only miss was the “pumpkin dessert,” which turned out to be a whole boiled sweet potato topped with honey and nuts. Definitely not what I was expecting. The baklava and stuffed quince are much better choices.
After a full day of shopping at the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, we headed to Hamdi Restaurant, which boasts views of the Golden Horn and above average food. The only criticism I have is that a member of the waitstaff hovered by our table throughout the meal, making us feel rushed. I’d understand this on a clear summer night when tables are in high demand, but not in winter during a raging snowstorm. The saving grace was the baklava, but no parting gift here.
We went to lunch at Cihannuma Restaurant on our second day in town solely to enjoy what turned out to be a spectacular 360-degree view of Istanbul. We were resigned to mediocre food in trade, but fortunately that wasn’t the case. Of course, it’s hard to go wrong with grilled lamb and roasted eggplant!
We stumbled into Pasazade during (another) raging snowstorm and placed our orders minutes before the power went out. The back-up generators switched on and the waiters never missed a beat, serving up a hearty portion of hummus topped with minced meat and vegetables in due course. I was hungry for something a little different and picked a winner in the terkib-i cesidiye, lamb in a sauce of apples, dried apricots, walnuts, and honey over couscous. The combination of flavors and textures was dynamite!
Last, but certainly not least, is Aloran. I chose this restaurant based on its excellent TripAdvisor reviews and close proximity to our hotel, but returned twice more for the tasty food and superb service. We were waited on each time by Apo, a charismatic man with near-perfect English. When we ordered the house specialty, the testy kebab – lamb stewed in a clay plot with tomatoes, peppers, onion, and garlic – Apo broke the pot open with a flaming sword and more than a little flair.
Other dishes we enjoyed include haydari, a creamy yogurt and herb spread, yaprak sarma, Aloran’s lemony stuffed grape leaves, manti, fried Turkish ravioli, and the “sultan’s favorite,” lamb served atop a decadent puree of eggplant, potato and cheese.
Which of these dishes would you most like to try? Do you have a favorite Istanbul restaurant that I missed?
Asitane Address: Derviş Ali Mh., Kariye Cami Sokak No:6, Fatih, Istanbul Turkey Pricing: Dishes range from 16-42 TRY (7-18 USD) Matbah Address: Cankurtaran Mh., Caferiye Sokak No.2, Istanbul, Turkey Pricing: Dishes range from 16-56 TRY (7-24 USD) Hamdi Restaurant Address: Rüstem Paşa Mh., Kalçin Sokak No.17, Fatih, Istanbul Turkey Pricing: Dishes range from 15-38 TRY (6-16 USD) Cihannuma Restaurant Address: And Hotel, Yerebatan Cad., No.18, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey Pricing: Dishes range from 15-47 TRY (6-20 USD) Pasazade Address: Hoca Paşa Mh., İbni Kemal Caddesi No.5, Istanbul, Turkey Pricing: Dishes range from 15-35 TRY (6-15 USD) Aloran Cafe & Restaurant Address: Cankurtaran Mah. Akbiyik Cad. Adliye Sok. No.11, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey Pricing: Dishes range from 8-38 TRY (3-16 USD)