Dürüm is the specialty at Basta Street Food Bar, but you won’t find a smoky grill inside this tiny Kadıköy storefront. With its bright turquoise counter, tile-patterned floor, and steel-topped, light-wood stools, Basta looks more like a hip café than a traditional kebab joint.
“One customer came in, sat at the counter, took one look at what we were doing in the kitchen and walked right out,” laughs Kaan Sakarya. The former chef of the highly rated Nicole restaurant in Istanbul, Sakarya opened Basta in April along with colleague Derin Arıbaş. Their aim: applying their fine-dining training to gourmet fast food – specifically dürüm, grilled meat wrapped up inside lavaş flatbread.
What apparently unnerved that dubious diner was the sight of pre-cooked meat being reheated on a flat-top griddle, rather than skewers of raw kebab meat being cooked over coals. Instead of the rump meat typically used in şiş kebab, Basta’s kuzu (lamb) dürüm is filled with rich, fatty lamb belly, cooked low and slow in a steam oven for eight hours to break down the collagen and release the flavors.
The heaviness of the cut is balanced by its accompaniments: harissa, thick yogurt sourced from Konya, fresh herbs and grilled onions. Basta’s chefs tone down their harissa, a spicy staple in Tunisian cuisine, for Turkish palates by using sweet, mild red peppers, roasted and blended with cumin and coriander.
Though the plain lavaş could benefit from the infusion of flavor the best traditional dürümcü give their wraps via a short stint atop the grilling meat, simply putting sauce on a dürüm is a welcome innovation in Turkey, where such quick eats can vary widely in quality, but rarely in concept.
“Street food is a big part of Turkish cuisine – you have your midye [mussels], your lahmacun, your köfte carts – but there’s nothing new in it,” says Arıbaş. “The sandwiches you get at the büfe are still done exactly the same way they were done when I was a kid.”
We’d certainly never tasted anything in Istanbul like Basta’s sucuk dürüm, which pairs homemade lamb “chorizo,” a pleasantly gamey, garlicky, well-spiced sausage dried for just three or four days so it maintains a soft texture, with a light, creamy hummus. Arıbaş learned to prepare a traditional hummus – it has just three ingredients: chickpeas, lemon, and beyaz (white) tahini made from hulled, unroasted sesame seeds – from Syrian chefs he worked with at high-end restaurants in Dubai. The sütlaç on offer for dessert is no standard Turkish rice pudding either; it’s loose and creamy, with ample grains of chewy rice throughout and caramel-coated chopped hazelnuts sprinkled on top. Sakarya modeled it after a version he learned to make at a Paris bistro, where it was served in a big bowl with a wooden spoon in the middle of the table for diners to share.
The two chefs, who are both in their 30s and trained at French culinary institutes, originally dreamed of opening a bistro when they set out on their own – “a small place, maybe 40 covers a night, with gastronomic cooking and wine,” says Sakarya. But they found rents too high, alcohol licenses too hard to obtain and capital too difficult to come by in Istanbul’s struggling economy.
Instead, they’ve applied some of the same techniques and flavors they’d used at their former white-tablecloth establishments to Basta, a move inspired in part by chef-made gourmet fast food Sakarya had sampled in Brussels and Paris.
Hard as it might seem to imagine a humble meat-filled lavaş wrap on a prix-fixe menu, Basta’s kuzu dürüm recipe comes over little-changed from Nicole, where Sakarya plated the lamb belly with the same side ingredients after cooking it sous vide for 22 hours. (The chefs initially tried to use the sous vide technique – cooking vacuum-sealed bags of food in a temperature-controlled water bath – at their new venture as well before switching to the steam oven, which can handle a much higher volume.) The sauce on Basta’s dana (beef) dürüm, its pungent mustardy-ness tamed nicely by additions of honey, powdered ginger and turmeric, at Nicole accompanied beef tongue, rather than slow-cooked ribs.
The chefs say the discipline they learned at cooking school serves them well at Basta, where they and their staff have to make the same dishes – five wraps, a lamb burger with eggplant mayonnaise and grilled onions, two desserts and hummus – day after day with a consistency that customers can depend on.
The seasonal cooking that won Sakarya such acclaim at Nicole, where the tasting menu’s dishes changed every six to eight weeks, hasn’t gone totally by the wayside, however. On weekends, he and Arıbaş experiment with new dishes like young goat meat over rice, a spring specialty; poached eggs with mushrooms; or a fish dürüm made with palamut (bonito), which starts to appear in Istanbul-area fishermen’s nets in early fall. The contents of the vegetarian wrap also change throughout the year. In spring, it featured asparagus; as the weather starts to take on a wintry chill, there are beets with creamy tulum goat’s milk cheese, mixed herbs, and lettuce.
Perhaps the biggest outlet for the chefs’ creativity is their daily salad (günün salatası), a favorite of regular lunchtime customers who work at nearby shops and offices. On the day we visited, the salad was a hearty, healthy mix of buckwheat, carrots, cauliflower, mandalina (mandarin orange), parsley, mint and green onions. “My mother never made salads like that!” Sakarya says. “We go to the market every day, and seeing the produce there gives us an intuition about what to do.”
The relaxed vibe in Basta and the lively streets of the neighborhood around it seem a world away from nearby Bağdat Caddesi, where restaurants and shops are shutting down on a regular basis, as they are across the Bosphorus in Beyoğlu, hard-hit by both economic downturn and security fears. Though today’s Istanbul seems to pose challenging conditions in which to open a new venture, perhaps the timing is just right for more affordable (though not cheap) fare aimed at a broader audience than could ever be found at the fine-dining establishments where Sakarya and Arıbaş built their culinary reputations.
“We probably would have been more willing to open a more sophisticated eatery a few years ago, but in this climate we had no capital to waste trying something that didn’t work out,” Sakarya says. “We knew we had to hit a bulls-eye the first time.”
Though the occasional culinary conservative may beg to differ, we think these affable young chefs have done just that.
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