The backstreets of Istanbul’s Osmanbey quarter are loaded with fabric shops, while the adjacent thoroughfare of Halaskargazi Avenue is a busy shopping area lined with chain clothing stores and hotels. Come here for a cheap shiny suit, but don’t expect to find rewarding culinary adventures, as most of the area’s restaurants offer fast food that manages to be both overpriced and underwhelming.
Given all that, we were thrilled when Mahir Lokantası rolled onto the scene in 2015, bringing to the table a fine-tuned rotating menu featuring daily regional specialties from every corner of Turkey.
“We make a variety of dishes from the Black Sea region, the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts and Eastern and Central Anatolia,” Mahir Nazlıcan, the restaurant’s namesake and head chef, told us.
Nazlıcan and his brother, Uğur, trace their roots to the southeastern province of Diyarbakır, and cooking runs in the family. That’s why it doesn’t come as a surprise that the love and care they pour into their dishes resembles the affection and devotion good parents have for their child.
Among the staples of the menu are Antep yuvalama, which features miniature meatballs and chickpeas swimming in an exquisite yogurt-broth pool. The mumbar dolması is surprisingly light and approachable even though it is stuffed intestines, and the papaz yahnisi is tempting, with a flavorful dialogue taking place between shallots, cubed morsels of beef and a blend of spices.
Though we’ve loved everything we’ve tried at Mahir Lokantası, the oven-baked specialties are what we dream about. We’ve spent more time than we’d like to admit wondering how the lahmacun, baked flatbread smeared with a layer of spiced ground beef, can be so perfectly crispy, chewy and spice-infused. We would go as far as to say that it’s the best we’ve had in the city, and we’re prepared to back up what many might interpret to be a controversial or even blasphemous claim.
“The secret of our lahmacun is the meat, and we try to use only the best,” said Nazlıcan when we implored him for his special technique.
“Cheap lahmacun should not be eaten,” he said dismissively, referring to the places that sell theirs for as little as TL 3 a piece. “That’s how much it costs to make ours,” he added. One disc at Mahir Lokantası is TL 6.50 (less than US$2) and is worth every kuruş.
The mixture deftly spread on the dough includes onions, tomatoes, green peppers and spices. We recommend ordering the spicy version, which packs a modicum of heat but backs down quickly. Spread out a few sprigs of fresh parsley, squeeze a few drops of lemon, roll it up and thank us later.
For those with a sweet tooth, we’d recommend the irmik helvası, a pyramid-like structure of semolina built around a mound of vanilla ice cream.
Our chat with Nazlıcan occurred about an hour after the lunch rush had died down. The restaurant was nearly packed to the gills with tradesmen and working professionals in the area, who have quickly embraced its exciting menu. The warm, easygoing Nazlıcan arrives at eight in the morning to oversee operations in the kitchen and sticks around to mingle with his customers throughout the day.
The brothers recently opened a kebab restaurant across the street, and we haven’t had a chance to stop by since we’re still under the spell of their lahmacun. That said, we’d wager that their Adana and tavuk şiş could compete with the best around.
Nazlıcan and his skilled staff – which includes expert chefs, bakers and a superb, charming front-of-the-house crew – view their trade as a work in progress, and the chef is not content to rest on his laurels despite the quick success of Mahir Lokantası.
“We are constantly researching, and getting recipes from our mothers,” Nazlıcan said. That’s more than enough to keep us coming back.