November 2007


For starters, good food in Istanbul does not come cheap. In fact, it is just about as affordable as New York or Paris and only slightly more affordable than London, but hey, with the British pound the way it is, its not difficult being cheaper than London’s. But after the initial shock, Pak and I quickly settled down and started eating, and found that with its abundance of fresh produce and seafood, Istanbul is a great place to eat very very well. Here are a few favorites:

simit

Simits are the breakfast of choice in Turkey, where they are as ubiquitous as the pretzels one finds on New York sidewalks. Unlike the pretzels however, these are actually edible and purchased by locals as well as foreigners, and not just a tourist trap. Simits look like the thinner version of a sesame seed bagel, my bagel of choice, and taste like it too, which explains why I like it so much.

iman bayildi

Eggplant’s my favorite vegetable, and wow do the Turkish know how to cook eggplant! According to certain reports found on the internet, the Ottoman cooks knew how to make upwards of 200 different eggplant dishes. I had at least half a dozen, and the dishes I tried, from the smoky puree supporting a lamb stew at Rumeli, to the origami-like fried eggplant and pastry packet at Giritli were all very good. I had my favorite on the first day, where fresh of the plane, hungry and jet-lagged, Pak and I descended upon the plate of Iman Bayildi, a cold eggplant dish stuffed with onions, tomato and garlic, and then poached in olive oil. So smooth and tasty it made the Iman (and us) swoon.  

meze

We could’ve made meals out of the meze platters at the kebab specialist Hamdi, and almost did at the awesome seafood palace Giritli. There, we had, at one point 18 small plates of various cold appetizers, including beans, eggplant, pepper, cod roe, mushrooms, fish, yogurt crowding our table to the point that it was getting difficult to spot the tablecloth underneath those plates. If we hadn’t saved space for the next 3 courses that followed the mezes, we would have been in deep trouble.  Toasty and crusty baked bread accompanied the mezes, and we tore away happily, only to marginally regret our actions the day after.

kofte revelation

We had a revelation while eating meatballs at Tarihi Selim Usta Koftecisi on Divan Yolu. Meatballs do not need to be perfectly spherical and still taste incredible! The menu at the no-nonsense kofte house is pathetically narrow, with the signature meatballs and lamb shish as entrees, 2 types of salads for appetizers and 2 desserts. Practically everyone gets the meatballs, served straight off a charcoal grill and that is a good thing, for the lamb shish pales in comparison. The fingers of meat glisten from a little oil and burst into meaty juiciness when bitten. The meat is redolent of spices and a slight appealing gaminess. Subsequently we had kofte on the overnight Pammukale Ekspresi, and while not as good, was an admirable attempt from a train kitchen.

fish

Walking across Galata Bridge from Beyoglu to Eminonu, we saw dozens of enthusiastic anglers trying to catch fish. Instead of catching our own dinner, we opted on the last 2 nights to visit well known fish restaurants instead. We ate like royalty at Giritli, were 85 YTL gave us a 4 course dinner made up of 20+ distinct appetizers and very fresh fish cooked in the most unadorned manner. The fish at Boncuk on the following night was as simply cooked and just as fresh. Pakshun’s grilled bluefish had a very nice char, was shining with natural fish oil and had the most delicate flesh while my white fish filets tasted as sweet as fish can be.

Besides all these, we had our fill of dessert, from squares of baklava positively dripping with honey, the creamiest puddings and the stickiest icecream, and gawked at the abundance of fresh and dried fruits at markets. We downed cups of sweet strong tea and got our pension host at Pamukkale to buy a bag of aromatic apple tea that Pak fell in love with. We ate homecooked meals in the pensions, and shared a meal Orient Express style on the train’s dining car. We were overwhelmed by the variety of lokum, spices and candy at the Spice Market and of course had to buy some goodies back. By the end of the trip, we were heavier and our wallets were lighter, but the experiences and our education in Turkish cuisine more than made up for it!

 

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mado kesme icecream

The Turkish like their desserts, and while not traditionally ice-cream season, it was not difficult to find in Istanbul. What differentiates Turkish ice-cream from its gelato and regular ice-cream brethren is its chewiness and thickness, courtesy of salep and mastic gum that gives it is texture. The kesme dondurma at Mado, a popular ice-cream chain in Istanbul (we counted 4 in one afternoon, 2 in the very quaint seaside village of Ortakoy) is so hard that metal cutlery were needed to chip away at the ice cream blocks. The uber-elastic ice-cream had a consistency akin to thick caramel and we chewed away for the first few seconds as the seemingly heat-resistant treat yielded and melted in our mouths. Besides the velvet texture, the flavors were also intense, particularly the earthy, almost savory nut flavors such as walnut, pistachio and hazelnut.  For some reason though, vanilla does not taste like vanilla both times we tried, so the white colored ice-cream flavor might just be lost in translation somewhere between the ice-cream counter and our mouths. Besides ice-cream, the small intensely sweet turkish pastries were also out in full force at Mado, and judging from our one pistachio pastry, just as good.

Mado Dondurma (multiple locations in Istanbul and other Turkish cities)

http://www.mado.com.tr/

harakiri

Taking the 11.15am bus to Mitsuwa, a Japanese hypermart just across the water in Edgewater, I was on a mission to witness a performance that involved a few good men and a giant bluefin tuna. And, of course, to participate in the eating of said fish. And contrary to popular belief, the decimation of a 400+ pound bluefin tuna was not gory nor strange. It was a fish that was being dissected after all, and we know that fish, unless it was Nemo, could hardly be called cute. Also, the entire demonstration was devoid of blood and any ritualistic ceremonies that could have mystified the process.  In fact, the fishmen, with their no-nonsense attitude methodically broke down the entire fish with such economy of movement that the entire process took less than an hour, from fish to sushi. The most exciting moment came when the head fish-cutter hopped onto the table with a thin, long blade and performed harakiri on the fish. After that, it was almost anticlimatic, if not for the excited crowd taking pictures, chattering animatedly and reaching over for slabs of toro fuelling the carnival-like atmosphere.

sushi

I joined the line for sushi, a veritable steal at $9 for 7 pieces. The platter includes 3 pieces of maguro, 3 chutoro and 1 pale pink slice of otoro, well marbled and buttery soft. Just the otoro would have cost one about $10 per piece in Manhattan. Despite the fact that this was industrial sushi and should not be compared to the likes of Sushi Yasuda or other sushi palaces of $100+ omakases, the fish was of the freshest, barely off the bone quality, and molded into sushi by sushi chefs frenetically turning out pieces in order to meet the demand. Ok, there were concessions to be made, like tubed wasabi, packaged soy sauce and the near impossible task to find a table in the packed food court. But after finding a seat and digest some luscious fish, I found myself congratulating my decision to make it out to New Jersey.

Mitsuwa Marketplace, New Jersey

595 River Road, Edgewater, NJ 07020

http://www.mitsuwanj.com

tafu - maccha latte

Tafu: I’ll admit it, the first drink I had at Tafu was the “shiny slim”. How could the name “shiny slim” not appeal to me, a distant hope that by drinking the tea, fats will miraculously fall off my frame, while my hair exudes health and glossiness? Even if that was not the case though, I will still be back at Tafu in a heartbeat for that aromatic genmaicha, with its brown rice and green tea mixture emitting a nutty smell, a delicate bitterness and fresh grassy taste. An at $2.50 a pop, its probably a good substitute for my bad cappuccino at Starbucks. On a return trip I tried an iced matcha latte that was refreshing but a tad too sweet. Service in this take-out only Japanese tea shop is slow but attentive given how each cup of tea is brewed to order and given time to steep. And sweet were the samples of the tea-centric desserts, in particular the richly flavored tea-spiked cheesecakes, but it might be a while before I muster up $4.50 for a sliver.

eileen’s pumpkin cheesecake

A personal cheesecake at Eileen’s Special Cheesecake is the perfect afternoon treat after a failed attempt to visit the Docomodake exhibition. Located on the fringe of soho and chinatown on cleveland place (possibly the shortest street in the neighborhood), Eileen’s is unapologetically old-fashioned, with Eileen herself serving at the counter and addressing me as sweetie. I chose a mini pumpkin cheesecake befitting of the season and dug into the softened cheesecake that was not too sweet and redolent of earthy pumpkin flavors. The cake was not as heavy as the ones from cheesecake factory or Juniors, meaning one could eat more before feeling sick. The loosely packed graham crust was fresh and buttery, and also far better than Junior’s cheesecake’s sponge cake base.

market table

Market Table is less than 2 months old, but it already feels like a Village fixture. Performing double duty as both a neighborhood fancypants grocery store and a restaurant, one can buy a vacuum packed meal home (just heat and serve) if the wait is unbearable. By 7.30pm on Saturday, walk-in waits averaged 2 hours, so it was fortunate that I had a reservation, and even managed to wrangle 2 additional seats to my party. Whilst Dolly and I waited for our expanded table and her friends, the chef saw me dangling forlornly on the lone bar stool in the grocery section, took pity and approached us with house cured gravlax wrapped around 4 tiny pretzel sticks as a pre-dinner snack. Crunchy, slightly salty, a little chewy, this washed down well with my pinot noir. The menu is small and focused on American comfort food and traditional sounding dishes were so well done you could not accuse them of being boring. We shared a fried calamari appetizer where the batter was light and the calamari fresh. But it was the battered lemon slices that was maintained its citrusy but slightly bitter bite and pungent anchovy fillets thrown in the mix that caught me off-guard in a great way. Roasted chicken was simply but perfectly cooked with the skin nice and crisp while the meat retained its juices. The sweet potato dice with aromatic maple butter and toasted hazelnuts is a great side and has a high chance of featuring at our upcoming Thanksgiving dinner should I manage to recreate it. With efficient and affable service, expansive floorlength windows looking out on a great Village streetscape, reasonable prices and good food that won’t shock but similarly wouldn’t bore one to tears, go make a reservation soon before Market Table truly becomes impossible to get into.

Tafu (569 Lexington Ave, on 51st St), www.tafuny.com

Eileen’s Special Cheesecake (17 Cleveland Pl), www.eileenscheesecake.com

Market Table (54th Carmine St, at Bedford), www.markettablenyc.com

It is an Asian belief that you can supplement what you lack with what you eat. If you lack iron, you eat liver; on the eve of an exam, your grandma makes you a soup with pig’s brain. If when the ladies feel their skin becoming saggy, even if only by one extra millimeter, they would stock up on collagen rich food such as bird’s nest. With that as a backdrop, it didn’t surprise us that the thirty or so seats at Hakata Tonton, a newly opened Japanese restaurant specializing in the very collagen and protein rich pig trotters (aka tonsoku) were filled with a largely female clientele.

salt grilled tonsoku

What surprised Gerrie and our friend Robert was the scope of the trotter-centric menu, ranging from the simply grilled to flights of fancies such as a tonsoku ratatouille and a porky millefeuille. Who knew there was so many ways to present gelatinous pig’s feet? And for the uninitiated, pork trotters do not taste very different from the other cuts of pork except for a higher skin-meat ratio. With pork belly being de rigeur in the New York food scene, pig’s trotters could potentially be pretty well accepted too.  

shumai

For our first meal, we played safe and were rewarded with a few very successful dishes. Our favorites were a simple salt-grilled dish, with nary a drop of sauce to disguise the rich meaty flavor of the meat that falls of the bone. A stewed dish with Japanese sweet potatoes, minced daikon and the requisite trotters was slightly sweet and very comforting. Perhaps our only ordering misstep were the overstuffed shumais that looking vaguely horrific, with a little toe nail sticking out of each dumpling but badly needing salt and a different wrapping. Pig’s skin while providing great texture was too chewy and oily.

hot pot

The main event was the special hot pot that mixed Korean flavors with tonsoku. The red stew was slightly sweet with a spicy kick, and piled high with spinach, 2 types of mushroom, tomato and goji berries gave a reassuring impression that it indeed was very healthy. The pork melted in your mouth while the soup’s consistency thickened as the skin slowly dissolved in the bubbly hot pot. Can’t finish the stew? That’s not a problem as the kitchen then brings the pot with its remainders back, adds rice, chives and some other ingredients onto the sizzling stone plate, and serves bibimbap cooked to your level of desired doneness. Impatience and gluttony led to us dishing the rice whilst it was still a little wet and lacking in the fragrant bits of rice leftover in ricepots that we so coveted. At the end of the meal, we were trying our darndest to scrape up those rice bits to little success. That’ll teach us to wait next time.

More surprises awaited post-meal. A not too happy one was the fact that not only do they charge for tea (which in their defence they did inform me), but each small cup of tea cost $4, including each refill. That bumped up the tea fee to $16, much more than any one dish (besides the hot pot) that we ordered. But all was forgiven when we walked out of the restaurant to find our server waiting for us outside with a PEZ dispenser to give us each one piece of candy in lieu of mints, and an sealed envelope that contained a business card and a quarter to reimburse the person who made the reservation. It was one of strangest after-dinner gift I’ve ever gotten for sure. So in the end, we’re left uncertain if our skin will get a bouncy boost from all that collagen, but we would be back for more of that lovely pork and more PEZ!   

 Hakata Tonton

61 Grove St (bet Bleecker and 7th Ave South)

http://www.tontonnyc.com