Editor’s note: In the latest installment of our recurring feature First Stop, we asked chef and food writer Anissa Helou where she heads first for food when she arrives in Istanbul. Helou is the author of many cookbooks, including Lebanese Cuisine, Mediterranean Street Food, Savory Baking from the Mediterranean and The Fifth Quarter and has also written for publications such as the Observer Food Monthly, FT Weekend, the Times Magazine and Food & Wine. She has been featured on numerous radio and TV programs in the U.S. and U.K.
The first place I would go to is Özkonak, in Cihangir. It works for both lunch and afternoon tea, which is when I would be arriving. It has the best tavuk göğsü (chicken breast pudding) in town, at least as far as I am concerned, as well as a limited selection of delicious dishes made with seasonal ingredients. And it is next to a fabulous pickles merchant. Pickles are big in Turkey.
It is a neighborhood café/restaurant or esnaf lokantası (meaning restaurant of the working people), as it is known out there. The food in the lokantas is displayed in large metal trays and kept in hot cabinets for customers to see what’s being served on the day – a great system for those who don’t speak the language. Some have sad displays, with greasy trays and wizened pieces of meat and vegetables that have been sitting in the heat for far too long, but at Özkonak, the display is incredibly appetizing, and it makes me want to try everything.
But I go there primarily for the tavuk göğsü, an intriguing sweet milk pudding made with very finely shredded chicken breast. It is served plain or caramelized on one side, in which case it is known as kazandibi. I actually like the caramelized version better – it is one of my all-time favorite sweets. I love its stretchy texture and the odd bite of chicken “threads” but without any of its flavor.
As for the food, it is always seasonal, and in the spring they have the most sensational artichoke hearts cooked in olive oil with diced potatoes, carrots, fava beans and fresh dill. They also have classics such as succulent lamb shanks served on a velvety eggplant purée (hünkar beğendi). And the atmosphere is as relaxed as the neighborhood, and very friendly. The old owner, who is permanently stationed by the door, either sitting at a small table or standing by it, greets everyone with a large smile. (Make friends with the owner. He is charming and generous and will likely throw in a treat if he likes you and recognizes you.) His clientele is made up of locals, some enjoying a leisurely meal, others a quick bite and others simply a pudding.
My friend Hande Bozdoğan, who owns and runs the Istanbul Culinary Institute, took me there because she knew I loved kazandibi, and since then it has been a must-go-to-place whenever I visit the city. Fortunately, it is very near Hande’s flat.
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