Editor’s note: We’re sad to report that Pandeli is now closed. This guest review by Nicolas Nicolaides, an Istanbul-born Greek and Ph.D. student in history who moved to Athens as a child, offers a personal look at a famous Istanbul-Greek culinary landmark and its Athens outpost.
The Istanbul Greeks (aka Constantinopolitans) have some obsessions when it comes to food, and my grandma was no exception in that regard. Like every Istanbulite transplanted to Athens, she would do her research, taking advice from family and friends in order to find food that would satisfy her high standards – i.e. the way it tasted in Istanbul. For example, Grandma was very fond of meringue cookies and she knew that the best in Athens were to be found at Varsos. She wouldn’t compromise on anything else, so even though Varsos was 12 miles from where we lived, Grandma and I would make an excursion two or three times a year from our largely Constantinopolitan neighborhood of Phaleron to Kifisia (aka Kephisia) to get her precious meringue cookies. I would be rewarded with a couple scoops of ice cream or a creamy rice pudding while Grandma took her coffee on the famous patisserie’s patio.
More recently, I found myself making the same trip from Phaleron to Kifisia to visit another culinary legend: Pandeli. Though its presence in Athens goes back to only 2003, the restaurant has a long history, tracing its roots back to the shores of the Bosphorus, where it has long been one of Istanbul’s most iconic restaurants. The life of its founder, Pandeli Çobanoğlu, is the classic rags-to-riches success story. Pandeli came to Istanbul from Niğde, a small town in Cappadocia, and worked at lokantas and restaurants before setting out on his own in 1911. His first venture was a tiny, hole-in-the-wall joint in an old Ottoman han (caravanserai), where Pandeli served up Turkish classics such as nohutlu pilav (rice with chickpeas) to tradesmen working nearby. He eventually opened a sit-down restaurant in the Eminönü district, where many of the dishes he served were his own creations.
News of Pandeli’s culinary merits spread fast and legions of Istanbulites became his loyal clientele. But despite his fame as a culinary standard-bearer, Pandeli kept his restaurant a lunch-only establishment, open only from noon to 3 p.m. Sadly, the venue was completely destroyed during the 1955 anti-Greek riots in Istanbul, and the disillusioned restaurateur was on the verge of abandoning his culinary career. But high-ranking government officials, including the mayor and governor of Istanbul, stepped in and offered him a new venue at the Mısır Çarşısı (Egyptian Spice Bazaar). The space, which dates back to the 17th century, exudes elegance, with walls covered with turquoise tiles and Baccarat chandeliers hanging from its domed ceilings. After Pandeli’s death, his son, Christos Çobanoğlu, gave up a career in medicine to run the restaurant. (Today, however, Pandeli is an institution renowned more for its old-school ambiance and history than for its food.)
Sophia Çobanoğlu, Christos’ daughter, has vague memories of her grandfather as a patriarchal Anatolian figure who commanded great respect from his family, and who had an almost obsessive dedication to serving good-quality food. “He was always the first at the Balık Pazarı, Istanbul’s fish market, where a daily fish auction was held, so that he could source the finest fish for his restaurant,” she said. And although Pandeli never cooked at home, he would always buy the finest ingredients for his family. “Occasionally my grandfather would send home a lamb’s brain that he had purchased at the market a few hours ago from a lamb that was slaughtered the same day,” Sophia recalled. Sophia and her brother Paris were forced to leave Turkey when their mother, a Greek from the island of Cephalonia, was deported in 1965 along with other Greek nationals residing in Istanbul because of the Cyprus dispute. After that, her father traveled back and forth from Athens to Istanbul to manage Pandeli.
The task of carrying on the family’s century-old culinary legacy has now fallen to Paris and Sophia, who, after pursuing long and successful careers in medicine and engineering (respectively), decided to open a Pandeli in Athens in 2003. In order to make the dishes as close as possible to the original, food products such as yufka (paper-thin phyllo dough), pastırma (spicy, dried, aged beef) and lakerda are imported from Turkey. The kitchen staff were sent to the Istanbul Pandeli to learn how to make the dishes and were further trained by Christos himself, who – though now retired – still regularly visits both restaurants to oversee things.
The Athenian Pandeli offers all the traditional Turkish mezes, such as crispy böreks and smoky eggplant purée, as well a range of kebabs – among them Adana kebab, İskender kebab and yoğurtlu pideli kebap (kebab with yogurt, served over flatbread) – made with top-quality minced meat. And then there are the Pandeli classics, including kağıtta levrek, or sea bass baked in parchment paper, and the patlıcanlı börek (eggplant pastry), which were created by Pandeli himself. “My grandfather’s greatest talent was in using traditional cooking techniques and local ingredients in a completely new and original way, to invent his very own dishes,” commented Sophia. A must-try is the ayvalı kuzu (“lamb with quince”), lamb baked with molasses, quinces, dried apricots and prunes – a dish that in fact dates back to the Byzantine era. The desserts are also very good, so we recommend saving space for a creamy kazandibi or an ekmek tatlısı (a type of bread pudding) – also brought in from Turkey – along with some Turkish coffee with a thick layer of froth on top.
Though on the pricey side, the Athenian Pandeli is certainly worth a visit – indeed, it’s one of the best Turkish restaurants in the city. Pandeli’s descendants have worked hard to recreate the atmosphere of the original Pandeli, with a dome imitating the one in the Spice Market, a Baccarat chandelier and walls decorated with Ottoman floral motifs and turquoise tiles like those in the Istanbul restaurant. So hop on the metro to Kifisia, stroll around while admiring the neighborhood’s stately mansions of a bygone era, and enjoy a meal or a decadent dessert at Pandeli. It’s an excursion that even a Constantinopolitan grandma would approve of.