Perhaps it’s the proximity of the waters of the Golden Horn or the weathered wood interior, but we get a distinctly maritime feeling at Köfteci Arnavut, a tiny köfte joint in the historic Balat neighborhood. The members of the İştay family, who opened the place in 1947, seem to think the same thing, running the place with ship-shape efficiency.
Ali, the nearly-octogenarian father, constantly sweeps the floor and wipes down the Formica-topped tables, like a sailor dutifully swabbing the decks. Daughter Mine, meanwhile, stands by the front door, issuing clipped, urgent orders to the hustling grill master and waiters, as if she were the captain of a tanker navigating particularly treacherous waters.
Of course, we’re talking köfte here – and in Turkey, grilled meatballs are serious business. In Istanbul, as in other Turkish cities, every neighborhood has several small restaurants serving köfte, usually for a demanding lunch crowd that doesn’t forgive any missteps or badly prepared food. With so many köfte restaurants competing against each other, how does one place distinguish itself from the others? In our experience, the truly winning places eschew the traditional köfte, which is log-shaped and slightly chewy, in favor of something more patty-like.
At Köfteci Arnavut, the final product is a very tasty and unusually thin, square-shaped patty that reminds us of American-style country sausage, which is cooked on a charcoal grill until it is slightly crispy around the edges. Along with köfte, the restaurant serves piyaz, the cold white bean salad that is the traditional accompaniment to the meatballs. There is also a small assortment of soups and cooked dishes, such as chickpea stew and Arnavut Ciğeri, or Albanian-style liver – small cubes of fried lamb’s liver.
What also distinguishes Köfteci Arnavut from other meatball purveyors is its location right at the entrance to Balat, one of our favorite places in Istanbul for a walk. Balat was once a primarily Jewish and Greek enclave (there are a few functioning synagogues and churches still left in the area) and parts of the neighborhood feel preserved in time. The narrow streets are lined with small, Ottoman-era buildings, many of which have been renovated in recent years as part of a UNESCO project.
Köfteci Arnavut, on the other hand, seems to have fallen outside of UNESCO’s purview – indeed, the small, two-story brick building the restaurant calls home looks like it could use some restoration of its own. The interior, though spick and span thanks to owner Ali’s constant sweeping and wiping, is similarly well worn. Still, as the top-notch köfte and dedicated service show, the restaurant has set a course that needs little improvement.