Istanbul’s Kadıköy district on the city’s Asian side has long been billed as a calmer, more laid-back alternative to some of its swarming, chaotic European counterparts, and it seems everyone’s figured that out by now. Though the rocks that straddle a long stretch of winding, serene shoreline still make for one of the most relaxing hangout places in the city, the pedestrian Mühürdar Caddesi running through the heart of Kadıköy is choked with foot traffic on the weekends, while a staggering number of bars and coffee shops have appeared on the scene within the past two to three years.
In the district’s affluent, picturesque borough of Moda, where rents get higher as one approaches the Marmara Sea coast, these new establishments are rapidly altering the classic character of the neighborhood, as espresso bars replace tuhafiyeler (haberdasheries) and sahaflar (used bookstores) close down to make way for Irish pubs and burger joints.
But on the neighborhood’s main street, which snakes its way to the shore, a tiny restaurant bustles with customers hell-bent on getting their hands on excellent döner. Open since 1991, Korkmaz Büfe serves what some insist is the city’s best, and it tends to run out quickly.
Dönerci Osman Kuri rebuffed our first attempt at a chat during the tail end of one busy Saturday lunch rush, but said he would consider sharing his secrets if we came back in the evening. “If you can find me,” he added rather ominously, accelerating our already piqued interest. By the time we returned, the döner was long gone and Kuri had thoroughly scrubbed the apparatus upon which it gently rotates.
The 42-year old Kuri, who hails from the Black Sea province of Rize, has manned the döner at Korkmaz Büfe for 15 years, after previously working in the kitchen of a bar at the marina in the city’s European seaside district of Bakırköy.
Kuri gets up at the crack of dawn and purchases his cuts from Yalçındağ, a butcher shop that has been open in different locations since 1938 and is currently located nearby in Kadıköy’s fish market. He cuts the meat himself, marinates it in a simple mix of milk, onions and salt, and packs on the fillets one by one on the döner stand, which starts turning by 11 a.m. On busy days, the döner is gone by 3:30 (Korkmaz serves köfte, tost and the like after they run out of döner). Kuri and another mustachioed gentleman can be found slicing away daily with the utmost care and precision. They are the masters of their craft and take it quite seriously, neglecting their own well-being in the process. “My eyes don’t see so well. I need to go to an optometrist but I’ve got no time!” Kuri lamented.
Though “delicate” and “graceful” may not be the first words that come to mind when we’re waxing poetic on döner, Kuri’s masterpiece at Korkmaz Büfe deserves them. We’ve been rebuked for putting mayonnaise on ours, and this exceptional meat should indeed shine on its own sans sauce of any kind, in a half loaf of bread with tomatoes, reasonably soggy French fries (an indisputable requirement for döner in Turkey) and sliced green peppers.
Squeezed in on a street with more new cafés than can be counted on two sets of hands, Korkmaz Büfe enjoys its status as a neighborhood institution and, thankfully, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But Kuri isn’t happy about the rapid changes in the area. “The opening of the metro ruined this place. You can’t find the old Moda anymore,” he said, referring to the transit line that opened in 2012 and probably helped the district’s popularity, in the process contributing to the swelling rents.
“That requires learning, and I’m too old now,” Kuri said when we asked him if he ever thought about switching sectors. We’re relieved that he plans to keep doing what he does so well, ensuring a modicum of authenticity and character in a neighborhood in danger of losing both.