It wasn’t quite as dramatic as Meg Ryan’s big moment at Katz’s Deli in When Harry Met Sally, but a low-register, guttural moan of pleasure was detected from our table when we tasted the shredded celery root in yogurt, a house specialty meze at Çukur Meyhane. And we weren’t faking it.
We stop into scores of meyhanes, or traditional Turkish tavernas, and eat more yogurt mezes than we care to report, all for the sake of finding that one masterful meze among the goopy masses. Most mezes in Istanbul are fine, but very few can be considered orgasmic.
Çukur Meyhane, a small, slightly shabby, basement meyhane in Beyoğlu’s Galatasaray area, certainly does not look like the kind of place with any shining stars on the menu. On one of our very first visits, the floor seemed to be covered in a mixture of sawdust, table scraps and some cigarette ash. The tiny open kitchen occupies one corner, while the VIP table – where a group of old-timers can be found watching horse races on TV, scratching at racing forms, cursing and cheering – takes up a slightly larger area. A good bit of the other half of the room is home to a giant ornamental wooden beer barrel. Meanwhile, the overworked guy in jeans and a hoodie taking orders looks more like the bass player in a jam band than a waiter. In short, food does not appear to be the priority here.
But that’s a grave misunderstanding: at Çukur, it’s all about the food (and, well, maybe a bit of rakı). Çukur’s chops came through with our first bite of that cold spread of garlicky strained yogurt loaded with celery root and purslane, topped with a barely detectable drizzle of olive oil and – perhaps in a nod to the old-timers – what seemed to us to be flax seeds. Spread on a piece of freshly toasted bread, this dish transports the taste buds to a winter garden wonderland where earthy root vegetables rule the roost. This meze alone was enough to ensure that we would be returning.
But there’s more from the cold side of the appetizer menu. A small meze of charred red peppers with crushed walnuts – evoking both spicy and smoky tones – offered the perfect response to that rapturous yogurt. And two frequently played-out meyhane staples – patlıcan salatası, a smoky purée of eggplant, and soslu patlıcan, cubes of fried eggplant in a tangy tomato sauce – were expertly made and reminded us just why they are such classics. In fact, while we were deliberating over what to eat, a diner seated at the next table came over and insisted that we order both, posthaste. And then there was the restaurant’s ciğer, or liver. Sliced into thin strips that are lightly fried and then dusted with red pepper, this ciğer was exceptionally smooth in texture and mellow in flavor, with none of the “livery” taste usually associated with the dish. If we’re not mistaken, it, too, brought out another moan of pleasure at our table.
The meyhane serves up other classics, such as grilled lamb chops and köfte (meatballs). But of greater interest to us, the folks at Çukur have – somewhat unusually – figured out how to grill Black Sea sardines, or hamsi! Long considered a lost cause by grill men for their tendency to slip through the grill and into the coals, hamsi are usually fried or baked. At Çukur they throw caution to the wind and work about ten of these little squirmy fish onto a skewer and bookend them with tomato and pepper. Hamsi is agreeable in just about any form, but fresh off the grill, the fish’s characteristic smack of the Black Sea is even more pronounced. Side by side, hamsi and ciğer are a perfect pairing: a poor man’s surf and turf.
While we were moaning about the mezes, we saw a table of fellow diners eating what looked to be a very good rendition of kabak tatlısı, a dessert made out of oven-roasted pumpkin. But alas, when the time came for our sweet fix, all that was left in the kitchen was a plate of sliced fresh fruit. We vowed that on our next visit, we would arrive a little earlier, or spend a little less time getting all hot and bothered over that first meze.
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