The story starts with two successful business executives, dreaming of a drastic change in their lives. They turn to what they love, eating, and find a gaping hole in Istanbul’s restaurant scene. Until just a few years ago, you’d know where this story was heading – a research trip to Naples or Bangkok, followed by the opening of a limp pasta restaurant in the environs of İstinye Park or some other upscale shopping mall. But not this time.
The heroes of our story set their sights on the city of Izmir and its offal-laden cuisine. Izmir folk love kelle söğüş (boiled sheep’s head, served cold) and kelle tandır (a roasted version). While in Istanbul these specialties are largely a novelty, in the busy downtown markets of Izmir you’re more likely to come across kelle than kebab. Your friends from Izmir will never post a photo of a sheep’s head on their Facebook page with a freaked-out-looking emoticon because, to them, tucking into a sheep’s head lunch is just everyday business as usual. And, in Istanbul, it seems, the Izmir way of lunch could be catching on.
Witness the success of Baba Söğüş, the Izmir-inspired organ specialist that opened its doors on a lively street in the Beşiktaş market one year ago. As Diana Yener, one of the restaurant’s partners, told us: “In Istanbul, organs had slowly left the table. But now it’s coming back. Everything ‘new’ has been done. So now we’re looking back at the old tastes we had lost.”
Yener, previously a regional manager for a major electronics company, is not alone in her organ love. We’ve lately noticed more chefs rolling up their sleeves when it comes to serving innards, notably Şemsa Denizsel of the well-regarded Kantin, who in springtime has an incredible kokoreç – lamb intestines wrapped around sweetbreads and grilled over charcoal – on her menu. But at Baba Söğüş there is no dabbling. The only things non-organ on the menu are Fanta and mercimek çorbası (lentil soup). Along with those, there are tripe soup and trotter soup. The Izmir-style söğüş dürüm combines a heap of thinly sliced bits of boiled and chilled sheep’s head parts, including tongue, cheek and brain, with fresh parsley, onions and plenty of cumin. To keep the gargantuan wrap from going open-faced, a rubber band is employed, but a fan belt might have been better suited to the task. The kelle söğüş is sourced from a famous sheep’s head purveyor, Çukur Ciğercisi in Istanbul’s Kurtuluş neighborhood, a bastion of old-fashioned food shops. There’s kokoreç, shipped in from a workshop in Izmir that makes a version preferred for its flavor and leanness. All sorts of grilled miscellany – from spleen to heart to sweetbreads – are also on offer. On the fried side, there’s sheep’s brain tempura, as well as an elaboration all their own, breaded and pan-fried ram’s testicles.
The kokoreç is better than average, served on crispy wedges of lavaş. We look forward to the day when kokoreç is made in-house and cooked fresh, rather than the current industry standard of freezing, shipping, thawing and grilling, but this one at Baba Söğüş will tide us over until the second coming. Grilled uykuluk (sweetbreads), springy and smoky, were never better. The fried brains were comparable to the only other version we’ve had in Istanbul, at a meyhane in Beylerbeyi (but who’s traveling to Beylerbeyi for fried brains?). The söğüş dürüm, the signature dish here, was so good it might even win over the heart of a homesick İzmirli.
In the Turkish tradition, organ-meat specialists usually deal in a single cooking technique of one or maybe two products, and in Istanbul, great variety in this sector is not too common. So a late-night sweetbread hankering might result in a cab down to the Golden Horn district of Sütlüce. If you are hungry for kelle in Ümraniye you might have to fight bridge traffic to get to Beyoğlu before you come face-to-face with your kelle. Baba Söğüş’s inclusion of nearly every organ cooked every which way is remarkable.
After having previously worked our way through the classics, we couldn’t resist ordering the standout, beef cheeks, on a subsequent visit. We’d been balking on this order until now. This is the lobster of the menu, in that it’s sold by weight, which is comparatively expensive, and you can’t order half a cheek. So, for the sake of research, we agreed to a 600-gram cheek at 115 TL. The guy behind the counter asked if we were sure, perhaps sizing us up as a flight risk.
We sat at our tiny table, waiting for this $40 hunk of cow face. Hovering all around us were groups of customers jostling to pay, all splitting their bills in several complicated ways, all hoisting credit cards, much to the waiter’s distress. A kid huffing glue stumbled in, demanding soup, while his partner panhandled the tables out front.
The man behind the counter threatened, “Don’t make me yell at you!”
“You gypsy dog!” the kid slurred, pulling the plastic bag away from his mouth for a moment. It was filled with something limoncello-colored that seemed to pack courage.
“I’ll beat you, get lost!”
“Gypsy dog!” The kid wailed and was then shuffled out by a waiter.
Had we made a mistake? Had we ordered the Dungeness crab at an eggroll stand? How could we possibly enjoy $40 worth of lunch in this scenario? The last time we spent $40 on lunch there was wine involved. Should we get up and quietly disappear into Beşiktaş market?
Our order finally arrived, and what a beauty it was, like a thick, fat-rimmed brisket. Our focus returned. On the outside, a golden crackle of fat gave way to tender, long-grained burgundy meat within. As slow-roasted beef cheeks do, this one pulled apart with little effort into manageable stringy piles. The fat had mostly melted and saturated the meat, lending a richness that we cut by rolling up little wraps with chewy, fresh lavaş. It was as delicious as any bistro beef cheek we’ve ever had.
Baba Söğüş, squeezed between a butcher’s shop and a soccer bar, is busy from lunchtime until after the market’s numerous drinking establishments close. It’s only a year old but seems to have caught on fast. We heard that Vedat Milor, the Charlie Rose of the Turkish culinary scene, has already been here to film for his television show. That’s good news for Baba Söğüş.
We asked Diana what was next. Surely a chain? Something more upscale?
She shrugged and laughed, heading up to work in the kitchen. For now, she’s just living out her dream. A dream that, in our opinion, is far more dreamy than any pizza or pad Thai we’ve encountered in Istanbul.