We generally regard the Grand Bazaar as a place of punishment, a den of aggressive, wolf-like hustlers and innocent, lamb-like tourists wearing novelty fez hats. When we have to go, we like to think of ourselves as members of a prison SWAT team, sent in to search a cell for some specific item – Turkmen jewelry, hamam towels and, once, wedding rings.
But upon entering the gates, we end up feeling more like we’ve stepped into the starring role of a prison film in which our character is walking the line to his cell for the first time, trying not to break down and cry. We keep our eyes on the ground and walk with determination, trying to ignore the taunts and hoots that follow us down the corridor. This is not the sort of atmosphere that encourages culinary exploration and the Bazaar is not a place known for its food (with a few stellar exceptions), but on our last visit we followed a lunch tip from Istanbul Daily Secret to Gülebru Kantin, where we were promised an unusually good döner.
Situated on a corner just inside the Bazaar by the Zincirli Han, Gülebru Kantin is one of those places that most visitors don’t get to. This section of the Bazaar, where mainly gold vendors cluster, is largely off the tourist shopping radar, making it is something of a peaceful backwater. At the center of this calm corner we found Mustafa Keser patiently turning a large döner – a scene that plays out in little snack bars like this one all over the city. In such döner stands, that thrive wherever there is foot traffic, factory-produced meatsicles are thawed and sloppily hacked apart by rookie dönercis. But at Gülebru, Keser (his surname, appropriately, means “cuts”) is slicing his way through his eighteenth year at the spit. His partner, Mehmet Demirbaş, has been preparing the döner and making the sandwiches here at Gülebru for 28 years. That’s the equivalent of consecutive life sentences in the büfe trade, but this is no average büfe. Their döner is produced in-house (fresh cuts of beef are marinated and then assembled on the spit each morning), a process that makes a big difference in quality and taste.
As the charcoal fire (another difference – most döner joints in town switched long ago to gas, which is more economical but produces a less flavorful product) crisps the meat to Keser’s satisfaction, he slices it off in wide, flaky bands and passes it to Demirbaş, who weighs the meat to the gram before loading it into rounds of pita. “Like with gold, gramaj is important here,” Demirbaş said, using a French-sounding word for the weight of the meat. Sandwiches are sold with 50, 70 or 90 grams of succulent döner all weighed out in an oily aluminum cup on Mehmet’s little scale – no tricks. Keser toasts each round of pita, holding it between the smoking coals and the sizzling spitted meat, just close enough to catch the essence of both. Around noon, the first crispy shavings of döner hit the scale and by 5 p.m. Keser has whittled it down to the thickness of a pencil. That’s when they close. It’s a system that has worked for them for decades.
Demirbaş said that 80 percent of his customers are regulars and most do not trifle with the lightweight 50-gram portion as we did. He recommended at least 70 grams to really enjoy the döner. Even in our rather thin sandwich we could appreciate the quality of the meat and the sinful little charred buffers of fat. This might not be the best döner in town, but it is at the top of the sandwich-quality tier and is a refreshingly hassle-free transaction. And hassle-free anything in the Grand Bazaar is something worth celebrating.
Best of all, after a quick bite at Gülebru we made our escape with ease through the gate at Zincirli Han, feeling we’d gotten off light, this time.