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Food + Cooking

24 Hours in Istanbul: A Culinary Tour

Published in Gourmet Live 10.12.11
Regina Schrambling highlights the must-visit markets, restaurants, and wine bars in this city that spans two continents and holds countless culinary pleasures

Istanbul is a city best nibbled. Like Mumbai and Hong Kong, it’s more like 17 very different metropolises under one name, so dense and sprawling and diverse you risk total sensory overload. (A population of 13 million is a conservative estimate.) If you try to experience everything, you’ll remember nothing. After visiting a year ago, I went back last July because I realized on the ride to the flight home that I had seen only the tiniest sliver in a full week of trekking through mosques and museums and Princes’ Islands.

Narrow your itinerary to food and wine and you can pack a lot into 24 hours. You will, however, have to make some tough choices. The city straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, and you need at least a taste of each. Plus, Istanbul has so many exceptional eating and shopping and drinking opportunities you have to be selective. Just make sure lamb is on the list. It’s normally among my most hated meats, but in Turkey it’s so fresh and flavorful and cooked so beautifully even I will order it.

The first difficult decision: The Spice Bazaar or the open-air Kadiköy market? The former, built in the 1600s, is one of the most famous food halls in the world; it’s in Sultanahmet (the old city) not far from the dazzling Topkapi Palace and Blue Mosque, on the European side along Cami Meydani Sok. The cavernous space is lined with vendor after vendor after vendor displaying spices and honeys, cured meats and caviar, dried fruits and nuts. Maybe because it felt so touristy, though, my consort and I managed to get out of the “mall” without dropping a single Turkish lira (about 53 cents) and had much more fun walking among the shops in the crowded streets outside, trying and buying cheeses and Turkish delight and pistachio baklava and generally marveling at the array of food.

Or you could jump on a ferry for a quick ride across the Bosphorus Strait to the Kadiköy district, on the Asian side, and spend a splendiferous morning wandering from cheesemonger to fish shop to butcher to baklava baker, pausing to snack along the way. It’s the kind of market you expect in a city like Paris, although the eggs are sold individually from straw-lined crates. The vendors are so friendly you may stop in a shop for a whiff of pickles, get tempted to try one, and be sent on your way with a free cup of fresh lemonade.

With luck, a vendor on the ferry back to the European side will sea-leg through with a stack of simits, sesame-encrusted breads that are a cross between a bagel and a New York street pretzel, for less than 1 TL. They’re excellent for snacking, but you can also tear them up to toss off the back of the boat to attract seagulls like all your fellow ferryers do.

For lunch, the ferry will leave you only a quick walk over the fishermen-lined Galata Bridge and up the Tünel tram to Beyoğlu, the liveliest section of the city. Sultanahmet is where most travel articles suggest basing yourself, but Beyoğlu is where the young Istbanbullus are these days, drawn by cafés and shops and art galleries along and off the main boulevard, Istiklal Caddesi, a moving mass of humanity 18 hours a day. (No car or bus traffic is allowed, but a “Nostalgic Tram” runs through it.)

Meyhanes are the traditional taverns of Istanbul, and Sofyali 9, in Beyoğlu, at Sofyali Sokak 9, is an ideal example. A waiter will bring over a platter of mezes from which you choose four or five: a hot pepper spread, say, plus garlic-yogurt cacik (similar to tzatziki), maybe fresh anchovies and roasted eggplant, all to eat with baskets of sliced baguette. For your main course, try the unadorned grilled lamb or grilled fish with just a squeeze of lemon. (Word to the fish-wise: The lower the price, the more likely the fish is not wild but farmed, and the feed does affect the flavor. Avoid sea bass and sea bream and stick to swordfish and barbounia [red mullet].)

Or you could just wedge your way into Helvetia, a tiny, always-busy café specializing in Turkish home cooking, at General Yazgan Sokak 12, in Beyoğlu (212-245-8780). Order by pointing at various dishes at the counter and they’ll be delivered to a communal table. Meatballs in rich tomato sauce, stewed baby okra, and cauliflower salad strewn with strands of dill are all equivalent to eating at Antatolian Mom’s, at a price not much higher than she would charge.

Or you could take some culture with your lunch. The Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, in the Karaköy neighborhood, has a huge café with a terrace overlooking the Bosphorus and the famous mosque skyline seen in so many paintings (and, too often, a huge cruise ship parked right in front). The menu mixes global accents with Turkish standards, and you can’t go wrong with lamb kebabs or a salad topped with breaded-and-fried cheese. But the Santralistanbul museum is worth a journey. It’s in an old power station a free 20-minute shuttle bus ride away from Taksim Square, and it has three restaurants, the most enchanting of which, Tamirane, has a deck where you can eat a big salad with greens, lentils, chickpeas, and local cheese plus bread with good olive oil while listening to jazz recordings as you drink an excellent Turkish rosé and kittens gambol around your feet.

Those last two details are key. Istanbul is probably the world capital of street cats—they are everywhere, curled up in butcher-shop doorways, playing in parks, napping on restaurant chairs. Every day I would count them, and the total was rarely under 100. They all appear well fed, but many small shops sell dry food loose if you want to treat them.

And Turkish wines are almost reason enough to book a flight to Istanbul. This is a 90-percent-plus Muslim country, but the cities are surprisingly secular. And winemaking is a growing and serious business; you can taste varieties well beyond Chardonnay and Merlot. Kavaklıdere is a good producer poured almost everywhere. (You will, however, also have to ward off Sex on the Beach in meyhanes these days; cocktails seem more common than Raki, the old anise-flavored alcohol.)

Wherever you land for lunch, take your caffeine somewhere else. Turkish coffee has the reputation, but Turkish tea, called çay, is the singular drink, served in a special little glass, with a sharpness that needs just a touch of sugar to mellow. You can indulge in any tree-shaded tea garden, but a better stop is at Ara Café, owned by legendary photographer Ara Güler, at Tosbağa Sokak 8 off Istiklal Caddesi (212-245-4105). The walls are hung with his black-and-white work and the decor is like a Turkish antiques shop (antiques, in this case, meaning from the late 1900s—not so long ago for this ancient city).

If you want to do some shopping later, stroll through the backstreets below the Galata Tower. Sadullah Çekmece, a ceramics studio at Serdar-I Ekrem Sokak 38/1, sells unique bowls and plates, with very contemporary designs. Stop in any small grocery and pick up some chocolate studded with pistachios; local candy bars make better token gifts than Turkish delight, which is worth tasting but really doesn’t translate back home. Then take a break at Sensus, at Buyukhendek Caddesi 5, a wine and cheese shop/café with no fewer than 300 Turkish wines on offer—sit at the counter or a table and try a flight of four for 20 TL.

For dinner, there are almost more possibilities than cats. But I’d go with a simple choice: east or west.

If you’re up for a cab and then a ferry, head to Ismet Baba, at Çarşi Caddesi 96, in Üsküdar, on the Asian side, for a classic fish-centric Turkish spread along with a gorgeous view of the Bosphorus Bridge. You can start with mezes like eggplant puree, potato borek, smoked fish, fried lamb liver, fried calamari, sea beans with garlic, and wedges of local cheeses, then move on to swordfish kebabs and end with watermelon and halvah for dessert.

But if you want to stay closer in, walk to Zubeyir, just off Istiklal Caddesi on the European side, for a meat orgy to remember. You can sit right next to the open fire and watch as kebabs of minced lamb are threaded onto skewers and grilled to charred succulence along with lamb ribs, to be teamed with a parsley-onion salad dusted with sumac. Mezes are excellent—gigante beans, spinach with garlic, yogurt-cucumber-tomato-spread—as is the herb flatbread. The staff could not be happier to serve you, from the maître d’ to the grill jockey himself (one more enticement for Turkey: Americans are relative rarities and treated like valued visitors).

One of the partners in the outstanding Istanbul Eats blog recommended Zubeyir as we spent an afternoon exploring Turkish cheeses for an ill-fated article, and I can vouch for his reviews. For all its history, Istanbul is hurtling toward modernity, and I was amused by how often locals heard I was a food writer and recommended restaurants with higher-than-Manhattan prices and bordering-on-molecular cuisine I could eat back home.

I’ve saved breakfast for last so we could talk about where to wake up to it. I’m hoping to get back to Istanbul again just to see what is on offer in the top-floor lounge at the hyper-designed House Hotel, back in Beyoğlu at Salhane Sokak 1, the gorgeous one in a converted mansion in a gentrifying district where the shower was in a cylindrical Plexiglas stall alongside the bed. Our flight home was so early we had to settle for only (superb) espresso from the machine in the room.

But I can vouch for both the rooms with views and the groaning board at the sleek Richmond Hotel on Istiklal Caddesi 227. (Wireless connection? Not so much.) A typical Turkish breakfast is just bread, cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, and olives. But here you can fill big plates with all that plus pastries; dried and fresh fruits; yogurt (plain and with fruit); eggs scrambled with peppers and tomatoes from a gueridon; meats; and much more.

And we only strolled through it a couple of times, but the Pera Palace Hotel, at Meşrutiyet Caddesi 52, where Agatha Christie famously wrote Murder on the Orient Express, has reopened after an absolutely dazzling restoration. The floor housing the new Agatha restaurant is almost a food museum, with vintage menus posted on the walls and antique plates in display case. Then, right down the street is the Pera Museum, a jewel box with a casually elegant café where you could have a glass of rosé and a snack. And a couple of doors down from that is the Istanbul Culinary Institute, where you could have a meal or even take a class. And a few blocks over is another market street lined with fish restaurants and spice shops…

By next summer, at the rate Istanbul is changing, there will be even more. I have to go back.

Regina Schrambling is a longtime food writer in New York City best known for her acerbic Web site, Gastropoda.com. She is a former deputy editor of the New York Times Dining section who now writes for outlets ranging from Plate to Endless Vacation, and also blogs at Epicurious.com. She recently wrote about Dr. Bugs and Homeboy Industries for Gourmet Live.