“I don’t want to die, because I just can’t get enough of Istanbul,” proclaims Mari Esgici, chef and owner of Marinee Kaburga, a small, cozy restaurant specializing in beef kaburga (ribs) and brisket that is a delightful addition to the Kurtuluş neighborhood’s culinary patchwork. Hailing from an Armenian family with roots in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır, Mari came to Istanbul in 1980 as a child and has seen a great deal of the City. In the process, she has become a vital part of its culinary scene, in no small part due to her larger-than-life personality.
It would be an understatement to say that Mari is a character, her intense vibes radiate from the kitchen and you know exactly where you stand with the chef. She has a sharp tongue and the energy of a roadrunner, and she sports a signature bright red bandanna that only makes her blue eyes even more piercing.
Mari’s former meyhane Mekan was a beloved spot in Beyoğlu when it was open between 2007 and 2015. Serving home-cooked comfort food at lunch and an impressive array of meze in the evening, Mekan became something of a clubhouse for its regulars, a motley crew that included celebrities such as Şener Şen, perhaps the greatest and most-influential Turkish actor who is still with us. On our first visit to Marinee, we spotted Şen in the corner table right by the kitchen, dressed casually in a Volcom baseball cap and hoodie. We were starstruck, but the doyen actor also just happens to be an old friend of Mari’s and was popping in for dinner.
The menu is limited (consisting chiefly of kaburga, as well as brisket, burgers and grilled liver), but it is bursting with flavor. We don’t waste any time, ordering portions of brisket and ribs straightaway. Each are the tender, succulent, triumphant work of a master. Due to being slow-cooked for hours, the meat cascades off the rib when prodded with a fork. It’s expertly-marinated, and the presentation on the bone alongside the sides is as comforting as it is impressive. We somehow feel guilty, as if we do not deserve such a feast. (Later, perhaps to assuage this guilt, we included Marinee Kaburga on our 2021 list of Best Bites in Istanbul.)
With our already high expectations that the meat would be excellent exceeded, our attention turned to the straightforward brilliance of the yellow potatoes (lightly baked with a salsa roja – an elegant, lively pepper-based red sauce) and a simple salad of arugula and parsley in a cherry liqueur sauce that had our taste buds dancing like no one was watching. It is also impossible not to devour every bit of an equally tantalizing carrot salad served alongside crunchy pickled okra. With little room for dessert, we nevertheless quickly cleaned plates of mouthwatering kabak tatlısı (tender pumpkin topped with tahini sauce) and sütlaç (rice pudding).
We don’t waste any time, ordering portions of brisket and ribs straightaway. Each are the tender, succulent, triumphant work of a master.
Chef Mari is having nothing of the rock star treatment that celebrity chefs are often showered with. She says she believes that what a cook and what a garbage collector does for work aren’t very different, and that the value of the latter is not appreciated. She certainly doesn’t mince words or try to romanticize her craft. “Up until today, everything I’ve done has been successful, but I don’t like the words ‘with love,’ I see my job as my duty,” Mari says. Another thing that really drives her up the wall is a persistent trend of the past few decades that glorifies Greek and Armenian meyhane culture, even if none of the owners or staff have Greek or Armenian roots. Mari recoils when recalling that she heard someone who wasn’t Greek say they were going to open a “Greek meyhane” on Eşref Efendi Sokak in Kurtuluş.
It’s clear Mari is a particular person. Highlighting this, she tells us how she is judgmental of the smell of bad coffee or oil. This discerning palate is perhaps a result of her first job in the restaurant industry, at a coffee shop called Myott in Ortaköy that was once run by another Diyarbakır Armenian named Rafi. In terms of oil, this sensory sensitivity has caused her to denounce deep-frying, and she refuses to serve French fries. During our conversation, we do not dare play devil’s advocate on the part of fries – and her take on potatoes would wallop any argument we could present anyway.
Either way, Mari’s particular approach pays off when it comes to her cooking. On another trip, we pop in to try her burger (as hard as it is to pass up the kaburga). It is grilled up perfectly medium by chef İlhan. He and front of the house man, Emre, are the only other two at the helm of Marinee, and they have been friends and partners with the chef for years. We can’t resist ordering the burger with cheese, but would go without the next time in order to more fully appreciate the practically delicate, fine ground beef. On the side, we are thrilled to find the same potatoes, carrot salad and pickles.
Another item on the short menu is the renowned yaprak ciğer (thinly sliced grilled liver) that graced the menu at Mekan. Mari’s former meyhane had braved the storm during a difficult period for the Beyoğlu district, including the controversial seizure of outdoor tables and chairs in 2011 that dealt a disastrous blow to the entertainment and culinary hub. In fact, it was the banal mechanism of gentrification that forced Mekan’s closure after the owner sold the valuable historic building in which it was housed.
But Mari pressed on. The chef had a number of far-flung stints that took her to the US, Europe and Northern Iraq. She learned how to slow-cook ribs and brisket from another experienced colleague in a Spanish village. Ultimately, she returned to the city to which her heart belongs, and opened a fantastic restaurant that captured ours in one bite.