After an awful 2016 punctuated by bomb attacks and a failed coup attempt, Istanbulites were clinging to the desperate hope that tensions would ease in the new year. Then, shortly after bottles had been popped and toasts had been made, news suddenly poured in that the city’s ritziest nightclub had been sprayed with bullets in a shocking and tragic attack that claimed the lives of 39 people.
Though the year started off with the kind of bang I wasn’t expecting, things have calmed down in 2017. This has afforded Istanbulites the opportunity to spend less time worried about their own personal safety and more time focused on the still-troubling political situation that clouds Turkey today.
Scores of journalists and opposition politicians languish in jail and the state of emergency declaration imposed following last year’s coup attempt remains in place. President Erdoğan’s controversial referendum package passed in the backdrop of fraud allegations, the lira dropped to nearly 4 to the dollar while inflation and unemployment remained high, and relations between the U.S. and Turkey took a turn for the worse, resulting in an unprecedented mutual visa blockade, creating endless headaches for Turks and Americans who regularly spend time in each other’s countries.
Needless to say, I continue to take refuge in good food and drink as a buffer zone from the chaos, while acknowledging that things could be much worse. “May our worst days be like this,” goes a popular Turkish saying that is uttered before clinking rakı glasses and enjoying a nice spread of meze. I’ve found myself saying this cautiously at Asır, a classic meyhane located on the fringes of the Tarlabaşı neighborhood. Beyoğlu’s diminished popularity and a decline in tourists have resulted in nights when I’m one of the only customers at Asır, though that doesn’t prevent me from admiring the nostalgia-laden wicker walls and excellent meze. Meze master Ali Usta isn’t reinventing the wheel, but he does offer a consistently delicious and fresh selection of classic mezes like haydari and fava. Established in 1948 by Niko Taş, who comes from a family of Greek meyhaneciler, Asır has navigated through decades of bumpy waters, remaining a reliable place to talk through one’s troubles.
Way out on the eastern fringes of the city in the Pendik district lies Lipa, a different kind of meyhane and one of my most exciting discoveries of the year. The neighborhood of Sapanbağları is home to a large community of Bosnian Muslims from the Balkan region of Sandzak, a predominantly Bosnian Muslim region now split across modern-day Serbia and Montenegro (known as Sancak in Turkish) and where owner Ibrahim Türkoğlu and his family emigrated from decades earlier. Lipa has been serving fantastic Sandzak-style mezes and köfte since the 1980s, and has become a rowdy neighborhood favorite that is packed nearly every day of the week.
Soka is a splendid meze of picked peppers embedded in a dollop of savory kaymak that is actually imported directly from Sandzak, while strips of füme et (dried, smoked beef) are a wonderful accompaniment to cold draft beer and shots of plum rakija, a libation that’s tough to come by on this side of the Bulgarian border. Pendik may be a hop, skip and several jumps away from your comfort zone but as I’ve come to learn, stepping outside of mine rarely fails to disappoint.
A backstreet in my beloved neighborhood of Kurtuluş is home to Ben-u Sen, a no-frills one-room restaurant serving some of the best home cooking money can buy. Not that one needs much on hand, as portions are generous and prices are low. Nuray Güzel, a 65-year-old Armenian from the southeastern city of Diyarbakır, appreciates spice-heavy, rich cuisine and cooks it with endless love and expertise. I’d daresay she whips up the best kuru fasulye around, and her tavuk çorbası and içli köfte find their way to my plate frequently.
Güzel works long hours six days a week to feed the neighborhood, and it’s not because she has to, but because she genuinely cherishes her craft, loves her neighbors and wants us all to enjoy the flavors that none of us could ever match in our own kitchens.
A few minutes over in Osmanbey, Mahir Lokantası has made an impact on a busy commercial district sorely lacking in appealing eats. Brothers Mahir and Uğur Nazlıcan filled an enormous void when they set up shop, providing area office employees with the option to avoid the utterly boring döner and börek joints that line the main street. While I initially came for Mahir’s adventurous menu that consists of regional specialties from all over the country (which are all cooked to perfection), I keep coming back for the lahmacun, which I have controversially declared to be the best in the city. Using only the best kıyma in conjunction with a perfect spice blend, it’s almost impossible to resist stopping in for some when I’m passing through.
More recently, the brothers opened a kebab restaurant directly across the street, and the expert touch imparted on their acılı kıyma kebabı (more commonly known as Adana) or Mardin kebabı result in these succulent skewers coming in several cuts above the offerings at nearby grill houses. It can be hard to find a table at the main restaurant during lunch, but in the evening you might have the place to yourself, though the daily offerings may be long gone. No need to despair, lahmacun is served until closing time.
Similarly superb handiwork is on display front and center at an old favorite, Tarlabaşı’s Öz Develi Pide Salonu. Over the summer I returned to find its specialty, the cıvıklı, as good as ever. Nimbly kneaded together and deftly whisked in and out of the oven by Hacı Ahmet Beşparmak (whose surname appropriately translates to “five fingers”), this pide is a light affair with a thin crust under lean morsels of beef surrounded by chopped green peppers and tomatoes. The absence of a thick layer of bubbly cheese and butter that adorns many pides makes the cıvıklı a sensible meal that fills one with inspiration rather than guilt. I like to live dangerously and spike mine with spicy grilled peppers and pul biber (red pepper flakes).
Beşparmak’s hometown is the restaurant’s namesake, the snowy town of Develi, which sits below the imposing Mount Erciyes in Central Anatolia’s Kayseri province, itself a culinary heavyweight. Normally made with lamb, Beşparmak’s version instead features beef, which is better suited to Istanbul’s humid climate. It certainly doesn’t suffer for it. Pide is available all over the city in a multitude of configurations, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find one this delicious that isn’t also nap-inducing.
I’ve developed a knack for exploring the city’s overlooked outer districts, where I’ve found no shortage of fantastic food worth taking three metros to get my hands on. Bağcılar isn’t high on the list of places most Istanbulites would want to go for a bite to eat, and is more synonymous with urban sprawl than excellent eateries. But tucked away deep in the district is a diamond in the rough serving Bitlis-style büryan kebabı (lamb or baby goat charcoal-roasted in a belowground tandoori oven).
Cahit Kulu hails from the province of Bitlis, and his büryan is the best, according to fellow Bitlis native and restaurateur Sabri Yürek, who insisted to my friend and food writer Anya von Bremzen that Kulu’s establishment, Kulu Büryan Kebabı Salonu, is far superior to the popular Siirt-style büryan joints in Fatih’s famed Kadınlar Pazarı. Anya tipped me off and we found ourselves all heading out to Bağcılar one morning to get our hands on what turned out to be some of the most exquisite, delicious meat I’ve ever had. Don’t be ashamed if you find yourselves asking for a second plate of the divinely salty, fatty parts. That’s just what we did and there were no regrets.
As 2017 comes to a close, I’m not seduced by the notion that things will magically improve in the new year. But I am hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, comforted by the fact that Istanbul still delights and amazes me with a stunning array of culinary treasures. After years of exploring the city, I’ve conceded that I could never possibly discover them all, and that makes things that much more exciting. And as long as the political situation remains tense and uncertain, my desire to indulge in the finer things the city has to offer only grows.