The brothers Altu and Erol Aslan, who operate the Yeni Melek corner store on Ayhan Işık Sokak in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu neighborhood, have a legitimate complaint against their next-door neighbor, Tarihi Kalkanoğlu Pilavcısı. The shop – morning, noon and night – really does reek of butter. For those unfamiliar with the preferred cooking agent of the eastern Black Sea, where the neighbor in question hails from, this isn’t the sort of bland whitish grease that comes from the Land o’ Lakes; it’s a funky yellow mass that is bused in from the villages around Trabzon in unmarked buckets like contraband. When it’s browned, a distinct stank slips through floorboards, saturating a city block. Any time spent in the environs of Kalkanoğlu will leave a scent on your sweater more telling than lipstick on the collar.
And as sweater weather approaches, we begin to hunger for a filling lunch of beans and rice, setting aside our loyalty to the Aslan brothers and their tepid cans of Efes beer and gofret (chocolate wafer) bars.
“The butter in the summer, after the cows have been in the yayla [highland pastures], is even more flavorful,” said Erman Kalkanoğlu, the fifth generation of this pilav-making dynasty. He was sitting at a table in the cramped dining room of the restaurant, a swatch of vibrant, almost tribal-looking Trabzon kutnu fabric on the wall and the printed story of his forefathers who made pilav for the sultans hanging overhead. Between the glass tabletop and another Trabzon cloth underneath were trapped little messages from admirers of the beans and rice. Lighting in from the countryside for the city just three years ago, the Kalkanoğlu family business has quickly set up two parallel universes in this small space, providing a heady bite of the homeland for the Trabzon diaspora (“I miss Trabzon so much,” wrote Selim) and a rewarding chance discovery for the hungry wanderer of Beyoğlu’s backstreets (Christina scribbled: “Plus delicieux!”).
When going out for beans, we often skip the greasy rice to save room for the extra half-portion option at the end. But here, our interest is pulled in the three directions of the combo meal plate – between a distinct pilav, radiant beans and some of the best beef kavurma we know of.
In the cooler of any corner store in town, including the one next door, is a log of kavurma, beef rendered and preserved in its own fat, looking much like headcheese in a plastic tube. Kavurma is almost always found in this cheap though delectable factory-meat format, which couldn’t be farther from the genuine article. At Kalkanoğlu the kavurma stood in a shredded mass looking like pulled pork too fine to be insulted with a bun. It had the clean, direct flavors of salt, butter and good beef and was fine enough on its own but better draped over some rice.
About that pilav: Hüseyin Kalkanoğlu, laboring over a steaming pot down in the kitchen, said, “We’ve never shared our family recipe and I never will with anyone but my son.” He did admit that, unlike almost all pilavcı, he doesn’t sauté the rice first. He boils it straight in a stock of beef bones enriched with drippings from the kavurma pot, making an end result every bit as delicious and delicate as the famous İskilip dolması pilav, a wedding dish that’s also cooked in a rich, bone-flavored soup. Whereas most pilav is lopped up in spoonfuls, here is one you might want to, and can, savor grain by grain.
Finally, there were the beans, which looked like a garnish next to the monumental pilav and kavurma. Small, white, of the thin-skinned İspir-type and in a thick red gravy, the beans here are better than most around town but they lack some little bit of the artistry we’ve come to appreciate at Fasuli or Hüsrev, where the smooth and creamy beans are juxtaposed with a ragu-like gravy, each a canvas for the other’s distinct character. Kalkanoğlu’s beans are more of a stodgy monolith – the beans and sauce all basically one, bonded by a generous lashing of musky Trabzon butter, pooling up around the top in a familiar glaze. Take a whiff and dig in. That’s the stuff dreams and formal complaints are made of. Without it, remember, this would be nothing more than a small hill of beans.