Outside of Kristal Ocakbaşı, a small grill joint tucked away on a side street in the Pangaltı neighborhood, Obama sat greeting the regulars who streamed in to watch a soccer game while feasting on kebab. “What’s the news, Obama?” asked one man with shoulder-length white hair. “Selam aleykum, Obama,” said another. One woman patted him on the head and baby talked to him, calling him by the affectionate nickname “Obiş.” Though we’d never heard such fond regard for the American president, Obama – the tanker-sized street dog of Eşref Efendi Sokak – took it in stride, yawning lazily. It was just another Monday night among his adoring constituents.
Even for newcomers to the scene, the congenial atmosphere of this informal meat-eating clubhouse is hard to miss. Residents heading home with their shopping bags stopped in, watched a bit of the soccer game, nodded to the grill master and headed on. Waiters sat down with customers. One customer reached over and lit a cigarette from the red embers of the grill, as if he were in his own backyard. This sort of atmosphere is an essential element for a neighborhood institution, be it a teahouse or a dive bar, but it is the grilled meat of Kristal that can draw a crowd from far beyond the confines of residential Pangaltı.
“There are many good ocakbaşı” – grill houses – “where you go but after five times you are bored with the meat. Here you can come ten times and still be excited about the meat,” said Aysun Hanım, a regular at Kristal and a resident of Eşref Efendi. That is because of the work of Osman Şahin, the grill master since the restaurant opened in 1995. Hailing from the kebab heartland of Gaziantep, he was groomed to be an usta since the age of 12, when he started an apprenticeship. Though he has a number of eccentric kebabs in his repertoire (“I made apricot kebab here once and my customers thought I was joking”), Kristal’s regulars like their meat pure, unadulterated and reliable. “I’ve been with my butcher for 30 years. I only buy the curly-haired sheep of Thrace. I don’t put anything in the marinade, just salt and olive oil,” Osman explained. The heat of the oak charcoal fire and Osman’s mastery take care of the rest.
Our meal began with the pleasant surprise of charred potatoes in their skin – an amuse-bouche à la Osman Usta. We followed that with the simple pleasure of tulum peynir, a funky high-fat goat’s milk cheese ripened in a goatskin, and rich butter loaded into little pieces torn from a piping hot, puffy pide. The gavurdağı salatası, a tangy tomato and parsley salad, and patlıcan salatası, a grilled eggplant spread – both cold meze standards – were fine but a mere distraction from Osman’s plump lamb chops, which were nearly falling off of the bone. In contrast, the kaburga, lamb ribs, were charred nubs of salty meat bonded to the bone by a flavorful crust of fat, a delight to gnaw clean. With so much textural variety in these two bone-in cuts, we could see what has held Aysun Hanım’s attention over so many meals here.
The patlıcan kebab, thick cuts of eggplant separating bumpers of ground lamb liberally mixed with kuyruk, or lamb tail fat, was also perfectly prepared. Peeling the charred skin of the eggplant revealed tender pale flesh that we were able to spread across a piece of flatbread with the gentle nudge of a fork. Over the eggplant went the meat, which crumbled with ease. The resulting dürüm, or wrap, was a spectacular smoky finish to an excellent meal.
In that hazy, sated moment we leaned back and watched Obama hop for a lamb chop, delighting our waiter as he did it. As we took the scene in, we wondered: If the President back inside the Beltway knew of such primal bliss, wouldn’t he gladly trade places with his namesake on Eşref Efendi Sokak?
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