Thursday, 11 October 2012

Where we ate in Istanbul. What we found.

I have seen travel sites quote Turkish cuisine as number 3 in the world after French and ‘Chinese’. After this trip I am not sure what they are on about. What is a fact is that you get decent fare at a good price, and the further you go away from the tourist haunts, the better the value. But that is tough to do when you are there to see the stuff that interests tourists. So I hope the following is of help to maximise value experience. I have place my very personal value score in square parentheses [out of 10] all scores benchmarked to our local favourite and not comparable outside of Istanbul.

I have another view resultant from our trip. If a restaurant has touts outside who shove menus in front of you, think twice. There must be a reason that they are not drawing customers by reputation.

Dejavu - Mehmet Murat Street, Sirkeci  [Score – 7]
[#25 on TripAdvisor (TA) in Oct 2012. Was #1 in early Sept] Just uphill from Hudavendigar Caddesi - the tram street.
For a start, as we approached the tout got ready to block my passage with his outstretched menu. Annoying!! In my world, that is not the hallmark of a good restaurant, even in Istanbul. Sure the staff are innovative with their street theatre, but for that I could go to a show.

In terms of Value, I differ from many posters. Value means a high quality price ratio. Let us examine that. The quality? Yes, the food was tasty, well-prepared, but pretty much standard Istanbul fare. Nothing innovative; nothing subtle, and more Arabic than Ottoman. And the price? A few benchmark dishes such as lamb kebabs and sea bass were the same price as at fancier restaurants, or even more. The beer was the most expensive that I had on the entire trip. The wine I judge to be 20 TL more expensive than similar quality wines in the neighbourhood.

So putting all of this together, when it comes to value in terms of quality/price, I am sorry, but Dejavu just doesn't cut the value mustard. I get the impression that it started as a fun and lively standard eatery that became popular because of location and its theatre, and that the prices were then steadily cranked up.

I would not recommend this as my Sultanahmed favourite, far prefering Pasazade across the road.

Hafiz Mustafa 1864 - Hobyar Mahallesi Hamidiye Caddesi, Sirkeci [Score 8] - Straight across the corner from the Sirkeci tram stop
[#1 on TA Oct 2012] This would not be my choice of the best eating place in Istanbul. In fact it is not really a restaurant, more of a pastry shop.

We ended up having a snack-lunch at the 'other' HM near the Spice market. Besides all the baklava variants, candies fruit and Turkish delights, they also do a variety of börek (baked or fried phyllo turnovers). All were excellent especially the feta 'water börek' which was also unusual.

But when it came to the baklava I found it simply over-the-top sweet compared to others that I have sampled, while the lokum (Turkish delight) was more firm than that which I prefer, which is for instance like that of the Koska brand from the shop next door up Ankara Caddesi.

Imbat Restaurant - Orient Express hotel, Hudavendigar Caddesi No:24, Hocapasa Mh.,  Sirkeci [Score 6] 
[#4 on TA in Oct 2012] I would rather try this team’s other restaurant – Pasazade. - on the 'tram street'
The view from the top
This was a disappointment and does not deserve to be at TA #4 for Istanbul. Sure the view is great, but you can't eat that. We had met a Scots couple the night before looking at the menu on the street. "Looking to go here?" I asked. "No, we have just been and were checking the prices again. Hard to believe them given the poor quality". Stupidly we chose not to listen.

The salad was fine (photo right), perhaps even excellent; not with slimy lettuce as the Scots had experienced. The sea bass was a small portion, filleted. It was perfectly cooked, if pricey. The veal was awful - grey, dry and tasting boiled. Seems like avoiding the lamb as the Scots and other posters had advised, had led me from the frying pan into the fire.

There are so many other places where dining need not be a game of chance, so I would not return.

Pasazade Restaurant Ottoman Cuisine - Ibn-i Kemal Caddesi 5/A, Sirkeçi, [Score 10]
[#5 on TA in Oct 2012] Run by the same management as Imbat. Diagonally opposite Dejavu.
There are literally hundreds of restaurants in the Hocapasa/Sirkeçi area of the Old Town, but most of them serve the same standard stuff with an Arabic slant; the endless kebaps and koftes and sea bass/bream. Pasazade offers something different; finer dining; and at a good price, especially compared to Dejavu across the road, and this without touts to block your way.

My cacik starter (a yoghurt 'soup') was the best that I had on the trip and my wife was hugely impressed with the spinach soup. There is of course kebap, but there is also a succulent oven-roasted lamb, a classically Ottoman lamb dish with fruit and nuts, and a sublime veal stew with sweet spices that left my wife itching to try to emulate it back home. The second night her seafood stew also received high praise. [I you don’t like nuts and fruit in your food or don’t fancy the ‘sweet’ spices – typically Ottoman - choose carefully from the menu]

Compared to Dejavu the beer is the proper price and the wines are far better value. The Chardonnay in particular was delightful at TL 55 versus TL 90 across the road. Service, as anywhere in Istanbul, is a bit lethargic.

Red River Pub, Hudavendigar Street No: 28-30/B, Sirkeçi [Score 4]
[#65 on TA in Oct 2012] - on Hudavendigar Caddesi, the 'tram street'
I should have known better.  I was not looking for loud pop, sports TV and 'Hollywood' meals. I was here to visit Istanbul and not for 'cowboy movie' nostalgia. This is for those who need the comfort of what they were used to. For that I could stay at home. The house wine was marginal. Not a single local person. Yes, we made an error of judgement. We subsequently fixed that. Please excuse the sarcasm. But do try the barber ('Koifur') next door

Hocapasa, Hocapasa Sok. No.19, Sirkeçi [Score 7]
[#207 on TA in Oct 2012] - in tiny alleys near to the Sirkeçi tram stop
Utterly simple; excellent value - that about says it all. Free water in a cup; no alcohol; great pide. 'Nuff said. Want a light meal? Look no further for a taste of traditional Istanbul. Did I mention the great pide? :-)

Hocapasa Sok stands out in my mind for the number of touts who seemingly form a never-ending line of annoying obstacles to a casual stroll down the narrow streets. This restaurant is an exception to the hassling.

Sultanahmet Fish House - Prof. K. Ysmail Gurkan Caddesi No: 14, Sultanahmet [Score 9]
[# 28 on TA in Oct 2012; I find that a bit underrated] This is a speciality eatery – if you don’t like fish, don’t bother.
The Boss sorting out the salt crust
Well, I certainly didn't have oily fish here, the quality was excellent, and the price of my benchmark sea bream was the same as at any one of the non-specialist top ranked restaurants. The clientèle was pleasantly mixed. Although we didn't choose it, the most flamboyant dish is the fish baked in a salt crust and then flamed. Why flame the salt? But it's a nice show :-)

The Ukrainian owner is obviously passionate about serving top quality sea food. My sea bass was pleasantly large and cooked to absolute perfection. The salads and smoked peppers were top rank. The German couple next to us were full of praise for their salt-crust baked fish. A crisp and fruity Narince was the perfect wine accompaniment at a very reasonable TL55. We had a tough choice as to which was our favourite restaurant to be repeated, and Pasazade only just beat SFH.

HacI Abdullah Lokantasi - Aga Camii YanI SakIzagacI cad. No:17 Beyoglu [Score 6]
[# 479 on TA in Oct 2012] The only reason that I went here was that it was recommended for its authentic Ottoman food, in particular the nut pilaf.
So if you are stuck in Beyoglu, then this seems a good bet.
Pistachio and Chicken Pilaf
But the place had no soul (and no beer, but that is my problem). The ambiance was like a cross between a barber shop and a train station. Service was not exactly stellar nor friendly. "Traditional" seems to just about sum it up. Different from the Kebab houses it sure is.

Having said that, the nut and chicken pilav was outstanding. It had a rich buttery taste to go with the succulent rice, the pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts (?), contained in an innovative pastry crust. That lifted the experience from being sub-par. The rest was forgettable.

Baba - Mektep Soakak no 3/a | Anadolukavagi [Score 6]
[# 1132 on TA in Istanbul]
With no TA recommendations for the northernmost end town on the Bosphorus boat trip, we took pot luck. We got a table on the sea and spent time looking at the fish in the water. Most pleasant. We wanted a light meal because we had a main dinner planned for the evening. The waiter insisted on trying to get us to order more dishes than we wanted until I had to tell him rather sternly that no meant no.
Baba's lovely terrace setting - pity so pushy

My wife's farmed sea bream (gilthead) was done to perfection, soft, succulent and moist but thoroughly cooked; a real recommendation at 15 TL. My portion of calamari was disappointingly small at the same price; nothing novel about it; it could have been served anywhere on the planet. When we had done with the fish, the story started again. Did we want desert? The fruit was lovely. The baklahva tasty. No, no. no. And then the bill. Overcharged, and also with a 2x service charge that was not mentioned on the menu.

Gilthead bream
While we were sorting this out a group of 12 French visitors arrives.  All wanted sea bream or sea bass. Was their order accepted? No way. The turbot was hauled out of the fridge and paraded about, calamari was offered as starters, a monster plate of bulk standard Mezes was shown like a trophy .... and then the French made a dreadful mistake. They hesitated and looked at each other. As we left my wife said to me "I would hate to see the bill for that lot at the end."

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