On the fringes of the Caucasus in Turkey’s easternmost corner, Kars may be the most architecturally unique city in the country. This is primarily due to the austere yet awe-inspiring Baltic-style black stone buildings built by the Russian empire more than a century ago, when it ruled the region. With a mixed population of Turks, Kurds and Azerbaijanis, and the stark visual influence of its Russian and Armenian past, may it be no surprise that this small city presents more than the sum of its parts when it comes to cuisine, and has more to offer than the cheese and honey it is noted for nationwide.
Well-known as the last stop on the iconic day-long Eastern Express train route, and for the nearby majestic ruins of the ancient Armenian city of Ani, Kars is blanketed by snow in the winter and features unpredictably chaotic weather in the summer – at least during our last visit this August, where it was warm and sharply sunny one moment, with thunderstorms and marble-sized pellets of hail pouring from the sky the next. Arriving in the early afternoon and narrowly escaping the violent hailstorm while on the bus from the airport, we quickly settled in at our hotel in a smartly-restored 19th-century Russian building on the northern edge of town. We made haste to snag a late lunch at Tortum Cağ Kebap.
Perhaps Turkey’s perfect cut of meat, cağ kebap hails from the neighboring region of Erzurum, of which Tortum is a district. Cağ comes from the Armenian and Georgian word for metal skewer, another indication of the transcultural nature of this part of the country. On a spit like döner, but roasted horizontally rather than vertically, cağ kebab is lamb marinated in salt, pepper and onion cooked in the foreground of wooden flames as it is rotated. Individual skewers are then cut from the massive meat cylinder while still on the rare side, then transferred to a smaller charcoal cooking station where they are finished off perfectly and served alongside paper-thin lavaş flatbread, yogurt, pickled peppers, acılı ezme (pepper spread), sliced onions and a salad of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers doused in lemon.
The meat was sumptuous, reasonably fatty and salty with none of the gamy scent of lamb; we polished off five skewers effortlessly. The friendly family running the place hailed not from Erzurum but rather the province of Ardahan to Kars’ north, and it easily ranks among the most succulent çag kebap in our experience (albeit these were in Istanbul and Ankara). This superior form of döner can be enjoyed around the country – as long as it is cooked to perfection in the hands of the right usta.
For supper, we stopped at a Kars classic that we dined at during our first visit to the city in 2016, Hanımeli. Another family-run restaurant with rustic décor and a menu influenced by the broader region, we ordered revan köfte, an Azerbaijani dish consisting of a flavorful fist-sized meatball loaded with herbs and spices, balanced by a sour cherry in the dead center. (Careful, it has a pit!) It comes in a light broth alongside huge hunks of boiled potatoes and a small plate of short-cut noodles and lentils that we dunked in the broth afterward. We hoped for some of the excellent Georgian wine Hanımeli served during our first meal five years ago, but settled for a nice glass of red produced by Turkey’s dwindling Assyrian community in the southeastern province of Mardin.
With a mixed population of Turks, Kurds and Azerbaijanis, and the stark visual influence of its Russian and Armenian past, may it be no surprise that this small city presents more than the sum of its parts when it comes to cuisine, and has more to offer than the cheese and honey it is noted for nationwide.
After a light breakfast the next day, we set off in search of another Kars specialty, and perhaps the heartiest stew we’ve encountered: piti. Sliced squares of flatbread are covered in a turmeric-laced bath of chickpeas and a hunk of mutton still on the bone, yet in danger of falling off at first touch. We ambled over to the gritty market-area part of town, where everything from produce to building equipment is sold on dusty streets. We dipped into Serhat Lokantası, an esnaf lokantasi (tradesmen’s restaurant) packed to the gills with older men on their lunch break. They were fresh out of piti, but pointed us in the direction of another restaurant and pledged to save us a portion the next day. (We couldn’t make it, but felt obligated to give a shout out to the thoughtful proprietor).
Just around the corner at Yeniçağ Lokantası, a smaller joint with a similar setting, we quickly tucked into our piti as soon as the waiter poured the chickpeas and mutton over the flatbread, the foundation of this formidable stew. We (easily) separated meat from bone and devoured our portion, fighting the urge to dunk chunks of crispy fresh bread into the bowl.
Several years ago, the popularity of the Eastern Express exploded all at once, rapidly becoming a trend among young Turkish people documenting the long journey through Anatolia, posting photos and videos on Youtube and Instagram. That brought some much-needed cash into Kars, which is still more run-down than it should be given its rich collection of beautiful historic buildings. However, elegant new restaurants, buzzing cafes and ongoing restoration projects sponsored by the EU have helped spruce up the city. In GastroKars, the city has gotten the venue it deserves. Despite its clunky moniker, the restaurant and its carefully-selected, elegant décor, is the closest thing in town to a meyhane. In addition to a variety of mezes and local specialties, the GastroKars menu offers a number of Russian dishes, an ode to the city’s heritage.
We started with a buoyant, refreshingly flavorful salad of cubed beets with cabbage and peas dyed cranberry red from swimming in the purple juices. Alongside came soft cheese dipped in flour and lightly fried, a plate of pickles and Ali Nazik, a meze consisting of yogurt infused with smoked eggplant and garlic. We were blown away by this otherwise simple dish because of the standout yogurt, perhaps the best we’ve ever had – truly a shining accolade in a country that can stake claim in the title for the world’s yogurt ambassador. This dairy dream came from the nearby village of Boğatepe, which sources the best of the eski kaşar (aged cheddar) that Kars is most famous for in the country. If a pool was filled with this yogurt, we would dive in and inhale. Initially full from the appetizers, as we sipped glass after glass of rakı, our appetite crept back to the table. Though disappointed to learn that Chicken Kyiv was not available, we ordered a chicken schnitzel fried to perfection and served with a half-baked potato encrusted with a healthy layer of slightly-charred cheese.
Before heading to the airport, we went back to Tortum Cağ Kebap just after noon. The usta was careful to explain that since the hulking kebab had just started cooking, the outer layers would be a bit tougher and saltier, adding that some people prefer it that way. It was just as delicious, and we finished off three skewers with ease. With some time to spare, we walked around the center of town and admired the fabulous architecture of Kars, stylistically unmatched elsewhere in Turkey, before hopping into a cab and flying back to the country’s other northern corner, charmed by the city and nourished by its culinary delights.
*Note: Readers familiar with Turkey may be aware that baked kaz (goose) is the city’s most famous dish. It is also the most expensive item on any menu in town, and on previous visits we have been underwhelmed by its presentation in the city’s more well-known restaurants. If you are curious about goose while in Kars, we recommend trying it in the home of a local.
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Published on September 14, 2021