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In the bustling, dense, cosmopolitan neighborhood of Kurtuluş, the potential for discovery seems endless, as compelling stories and flavors lie behind unsuspecting doors. One of CB’s tour guides and fellow urban explorer Benoit Hanquet recently tipped us off to a hidden gem, a place that, from the outside, is a totally nondescript, signless café that we have passed by hundreds of times over the years without ever noticing.

Located next to a popular pizza place on the corner of Baruthane Avenue and Eşref Efendi Street, a buzzing area where a handful of bars, meyhanes, restaurants and cafés have popped up over the past few years, Özlem Cafe represents a nod to the neighborhood’s past while offering an atmosphere and menu that distinguishes it from similar establishments.

A kıraathane is a specific type of coffeehouse with centuries of history dating back to when coffee first reached the Ottoman empire. Today, the term mostly refers to a category of bare-bones, fluorescent-light powered cafés with circular tables where men socialize, read newspapers, play cards, backgammon, or Okey, Turkey’s flagship tile-based game. The clacking and crackling sound of Okey tiles being mixed on the table echoes into the streets and can be heard around any corner in Istanbul.

There are thousands of such cafés throughout the city and they serve as an important socializing space for men, particularly those who are unemployed or retired. It is rare to see women hanging out or playing games in these spaces, but in Kurtuluş we’ve noticed mixed crowds for years at Lale, a kıraathane a few streets over, and saw the same thing during our visit to Özlem Cafe. To be certain, it still a mostly-male setting, but everyone is welcome and there are other factors that set Özlem apart, namely its simple yet delicious menu specialties, all lovingly crafted by 50-year-old Burhan Kabalak.

An Armenian from Diyarbakır who moved to Istanbul with his father and eight brothers and sisters when he was a toddler, Kabalak has had a knack for cooking since he was a child. He took over Özlem Cafe in 2008, and proceeded to spruce it up during the pandemic when it was forced to temporarily close. Amid the typical circular tables, tea glasses, and rattling sounds of Okey, there is a portrait of Audrey Hepburn on the wall next to a vase with long feathers. In the corner of the room lies a comfy nook with cushioned seating and a framed picture with a bird perched on a branch below an empty cage. Not exactly your classic kıraathane décor.

We are eager to talk about Kabalak’s specialties, which include menemen, a dish of lightly-scrambled eggs cooked over chopped tomatoes and green peppers to which he adds high-quality Coşkun sucuk (spiced beef sausage), melted kaşar cheese and spicy red pepper flakes, grilled sandwiches stuffed with kavurma (braised lamb) and a special handmade lemonade meticulously crafted with seven different fruits. Beforehand, however, we chat about the roots and deep connection that Kabalak shares with Diyarbakır, despite having left at such a young age.

“I’m in love with Diyarbakır. I love it very much. If I close down [the café] or hand it over to someone else, I want to spent the rest of my life in Diyarbakır,” Kabalak said.

Kabalak’s father was an expert builder of water wells in the region before leaving for Istanbul after relatives had made the same move. Kabalak and his siblings didn’t want their father to work anymore when they got to the city, so the younger generation took on a variety of jobs.

“My father was like an atlas,” he said, attesting to his knowledge of the region and its cities. This evidently impacted Burhan’s deep ties to his homeland though he has spent nearly his entire life in Istanbul. When the elder Kabalak passed away, he was buried in Diyarbakır. Kabalak makes sure to visit every couple of years and stays in his ancestral city for two weeks at a time.

Though Kabalak himself is not much of a coffee drinker, he insists on showing us how he prepares Turkish coffee, asserting that most people don’t do so properly. He emphasizes that a low flame and cold water are the secrets to a proper cup, and snags a small cezve from the wall, which was handmade decades ago by an Armenian coppersmith.

“This is culture, this is civilization,” he says, pointing at the handmade copper pots used for making coffee, while pushing two larger, factory-produced stainless steel cezves out of view.

He dunks two hefty teaspoons of coffee into the pot, opens an ice-cold bottle of water and adds a small amount, brews it slowly to a boil, then deftly pours it in quick successive spurts in order to ensure a thick layer of foam. Despite the cup’s tiny circumference, we can count dozens of glistening bubbles on top.

“When I’m working, I’m putting my heart and my conscience into it, and when I’m making food I’m doing it fondly. I love people, the environment, and nature, and I don’t like money. People down on their luck come in and I treat them to sandwiches and tea,” Kabalak says.

Apart from expertly-brewed coffee and tea, his menemen is among the best around. He cooks it slowly and surely, serving it piping hot with fresh crusty bread on the side, the same he uses for his grill-pressed sandwiches. We love ours with a touch of spiciness from the sucuk, kaşar cheese – this is how Kabalak automatically prepares the sandwiches, though one can order according to their liking.

Without a doubt, the most unique thing that Kabalak makes is his lemonade, a recipe he learned from a friend who formerly ran a patisserie (which in Istanbul commonly serve homemade lemonade on tap).

“It’s very difficult to make. I use apples, sour plums, grapefruits, oranges, lemons, peaches and apricots. It takes three hours to make, but I do it with love. When I’m making the lemonade I’m talking with it, I’m speaking with the oranges,” Kabalak says, adding that he also occasionally chats with the flowers at the entrance of the cafe. The fruits are all hand-pressed through a sieve before the mixture is cooled, and it is truly a laborious task, which is why it is unlikely one will find lemonade like this elsewhere.

The lemonade is delicious and refreshing, not too acidic and nor sweet but with a harmonious flavor as the multiple fruits complement each other smoothly. It’s the perfect beverage for a sticky, scorching summer day in Istanbul.

During our visits to Özlem Cafe, we’ve noticed the employees of some of our other favorite spots in the neighborhood who come here as patrons, enjoying a game and a few glasses of tea before their shifts. Kabalak also points out that many of his regulars are also his Armenian relatives. We may have passed by Özlem Cafe for years, but we’re happy to have discovered it while Kabalak still enthusiastically cranks out his special lemonade and menemen and before he goes through with his dream to retire and move back to Diyarbakır.

Published on August 03, 2023

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