turkish


6:22 pm – The seamless order is in. Lily, Brian and I wait eagerly for our dinner from Ali Baba, scheduled to be delivered within 50 mins.

7:15 pm – I call Ali Baba and ask about our food, our order that has not arrived. The lady sounds hassled and said “We are very busy, it should be there in 20 mins.” Ok. we wait.

7:35 pm – Brian calls. “It will be there in 5 mins” the person on the other side of the conversation assured.

7:50 pm – Still waiting. Lily vows “Its the last time we order from Ali Baba”. I agree.

7.51 pm – I wail across the intracompany messenging system. “What if its delicious? Oh no… does that mean I can’t order from there anymore?” Lily replies. “Maybe if its good, you can give it a second chance.”

7.59 pm – My phone rings. The delivery man is waiting in the lobby. Finally. We pick it up and I start unpacking my meal on my paper-strewn cubicle. I dig in. The patlican salatasi is not quite smoky enough, not quite pureed. But the manti was gorgeous. Peanut M&M sized dumplings are chewy and full of juicy minced lamb. The dumplings swim in a yogurt sauce flavored with paprika and dill, that was creamy and rich instead of thin and characterless. The sauce is tangy and refreshing and breaks the monotony of the dumplings. I sop the sauce up with a half circle of turkish bread. I even contemplate spooning the sauce like soup into my mouth. It was that tasty.

 Phew… thank goodness Lily decided to give them a second chance!

Ali Baba Turkish Cuisine

212 E34th St (Bet 2nd & 3rd Aves)

www.alibabaturkishcuisine.com   

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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!

 

While in training, Tyler told me about Beyoglu and praised the place to the skies. In fact, he bestowed it his golden “thumbs up”. Very high praise indeed. Unfortunately Beyoglu is on the Upper East Side and I live in Hell’s Kitchen. The distance outweighed my appetite for turkish delights and so I remained stuck in midtown. A trip to Chinatown and a chance meeting with Tyler and his wife at Yeah Shanghai- another great recommendation he had made earlier and which I had fallen in love with – reminded me that this is a man with impeccable taste in food. To disregard his recommendation on Beyoglu would be a big mistake.
Finally, nine long months after the glowing recommendation was given, I took the subway 40 blocks up to 81st and 3rd withYanru and Andreea in tow to try out some authentic Turkish food. Man, was I dumb to have taken so long to get there. In short, the food was fantastic, servings were generous, the service very warm and the check very kind to the wallet!
Beyoglu is apparently very popular among Upper East-Siders and when we got there around 7, it was pretty packed already. Not an easy feat, given the plethora of food choices in the vicinity. Thankfully New Yorkers eat late. There wasn’t any room left on the first floor, which was decorated in mediterranean style, with orange walls and blue tiles all around, so we were ushered to the dining room on the second floor. The room on the second floor was decorated like a cross between a provincial french dining room and the reincarnation of an italian restaurant and felt a little incongruous with the 1st floor and the turkish music playing softly in the background. But that was soon forgiven and forgotten when the food arrived.
I remembered Tyler telling me to order from the appetizer menu because he liked it best, so we decided to split a mezze plate and share a kebab amongst us girls. There was plenty to go around and with yummy bread flowing freely from the kitchen into our mouths, we didn’t even manage to finish all the food. The lamb and beef kebab we had was well spiced and well cooked, but since I’m not a big meat eater, I thought it was above average but not by much. The mezze plate however, was insanely tasty. We had stuffed grape leaves, hummus, baba ghanoush, ezme (a spicy diced salad), tabbouleh, sauteed spinach and home made yogurt and all were excellently made. The yogurt was thick and tangy, the hummus and baba ghanoush creamy and smoky and were excellent foils to the sharper tastes of the salad and the very lemony and extremely yummy tabbouleh.

Mezze plate (LHS), Kebab (RHS) looks the same, yah?

Yanru declared it “the best tabbouleh I’ve ever eaten” And the bread is home made and warm and we could not stop tearing more bread to dip into the various appetizers. We had tried to be civilized and used spoons to scoop the spreads into individual plates in the beginning, but hygiene really plays second fiddle to easy access to good food in this case =) I was fairly certain we mopped up every bit of food on that plate. It was that good. I guess it was lucky that both the Singaporeans and the Romanian had no issues with double dipping =p We ate almond pudding after that, which was a fair but not awe-inspiring rice pudding specked with slivers of almond, bringing the feasting to a rich and decadent end.
Besides the food, service was also relatively attentive and our server was very helpful at explaining the dishes and making recommendations. During dinner we complained that the a/c was a little too strong to the server and she promptly remedied it by turning it down a little. She did this despite the fact that the room was packed and she was busying serving other table, which made us very appreciative and subsequently bigger tippers.
I may have been slow getting there, but I will definitely be back!

Beyoglu, 1431 3rd Ave (81st St)