Baruthane Avenue perpendicularly ascends from the beginning of Dolapdere Avenue, a mysterious valley of shady night clubs, hotels and auto repair shops. It passes through our dear neighborhood of Kurtuluş, at one point intersecting with its main street and continuing on in a more commercial character.
The first few blocks of Baruthane are lined with a smattering of restaurants, barbers, television repair shops and dry cleaners, though in recent years a flurry of third-wave coffee shops and bars has arrived on the street. While this is a positive development for the young adults that patronize these establishments, there is the inevitable concern that their proliferation will cause a spike in rents and tarnish the quaint character of this beloved neighborhood.
It is for this reason that we were thrilled to see a new establishment open up on Baruthane that reflects the classic small-business character that makes this area so special. Köy Börek is run by Abdullah Kral, a cheerful 53-year-old teddy bear of a man who makes some of the most delicious börek we’ve ever had – and we’ve had a lot. (Kral means king in Turkish, and we are prepared to crown Abdullah bey the king of börek.)
Börek is a savory pastry prepared with thin sheets of a phyllo-like dough and stuffed with either spiced ground beef, spinach, potato, cheese or a combination thereof. On any main street in Istanbul it’s easy to come across half a dozen shops selling the flaky goodness, and Kurtuluş is no exception. But more often than not, these börek shops can be mediocre and indistinguishable from the innumerable establishments throughout the city. At these underwhelming spots, the dough often dominates the paltry filling and some places let their börek rest on a heated stainless-steel counter, ensuring it stays warm and making it unpleasantly brittle in the process.
This is not the case at Köy Börek, where Abdullah bakes small trays fresh daily, preparing some 14 different kinds of börek. There is the Adana su böreği, which – instead of small crumbles of cheese often found in standard su böreği (boiled börek) – is made with lavish layers of kaşar cheese from Hatay, the same kind used in the legendary regional dessert künefe. Abdullah’s versions all come with that splendid melty cheese and either minced meat, spinach or mushroom. All are excellent, though the mushroom is both rare and divine. Then there is the Boşnak böreği, Bosnian-style börek, that is baked in a large spiral or in smaller spherical morsels. Abdullah’s is of the latter variety, and the kıymalı (minced meat) version is rich with ample chunks of beef nestled within the dough.
“I don’t eat to live, I live to eat,” Abdullah bey says matter-of-factly. This is a labor of love, the product of a gastronomic hobby that he has maintained since his teenage years. Hailing from the city of Bursa, he later studied economics and worked for decades in the textile industry, which enabled him to travel across the world and experience the cuisines of Latin America. He has since retired and is due to receive his pension soon; the shop keeps him busy in the meantime. Previously operating out of a larger storefront in the neighboring Feriköy, business was slow, so Abdullah moved to Kurtuluş, in a tiny, cozy two-story location wedged in between a butcher and a fishmonger. Word has started to get around, and sometimes his trays sell out early.
“When people tell me that what I make is great, it fills me with joy,” Abdullah says. Everything he makes is indeed great, but the king’s crowning achievement is his spectacular keşiş böreği. Keşiş is the Turkish word for monk, while Keşiş Dağı (Monk Mountain) was the old name for Bursa’s iconic Uludağ (Great Mountain), owing to the monasteries that were once there during the Byzantine times. According to Abdullah, keşiş böreği was among the foods purchased by monks while they made their way to the monastery for a retreat into seclusion. Traditionally prepared with dried, smoked meat (which is currently very expensive in Turkey), Abdullah makes a vegetarian version with a mixture of eggplant, red onions, sweet red peppers and mild green peppers. The result is a smoky, almost meaty flavor that has us shaking our heads in disbelief at its herbivore-friendly status.
If that wasn’t enough, also available is an excellent, fantastically fresh and delicate yaprak sarma, stuffed grape leaves, that Abdullah and his wife roll nearly as thin as cigarettes, as well as baklava and a rotating cast of desserts that can be difficult to find outside of Bursa.
“This is a very interesting area with a complex mosaic of people. Those who live here pay close attention to quality and eat with great gusto,” he says, adding that they demand a consistent high standard that can be difficult to maintain. We don’t doubt that Abdullah has what it takes.
Around the corner from Köy Börek on the intersection of Baruthane Avenue and Türkbeyi Street is a stretch of ivy that hangs proudly over the road, growing over a laundry line and connecting the apartments on either side. As the weather gets nicer, the ivy grows greener and thicker, and it is a serene, pleasant fixture of the neighborhood. We hope Abdullah also continues to stick around to become one as well, even after he receives his pension.