If there’s one thing I love most about Turkish food, it’s meze: small plates of hot and cold appetizers. Imagine garlicky dips, meat-filled pastries and endless combinations of fresh vegetables. Out of the traditional meze, I live for the combination of beyaz peynir (white cheese), green melon and raki. Raki is Turkey’s national drink, an anise-flavored liquor so popular that on a warm summer’s night you can smell it wafting on the breeze. The mix of these three flavors results in a food alchemy so extraordinary it has to be magic.
With less than 72 hours to spend in Istanbul, my priorities are defined before I even step off the plane. The first plan of action is dinner in a meyhane, a traditional Turkish tavern (think tablefuls of raki) serving up mezze and other local specialties. The tricky part is that Istanbul is bursting with hundreds of “traditional” meyhanes, most serving food ranging from passable to excellent, so where does one begin? It’s like traveling to New York City for the first time, looking for the best slice of pizza. I needed a little help from a local. I connected with Ansel Mullins, founder of Istanbul Eats, who suggested a Beyoğlu meyhane called Asmali Cavit.
After being seated in the upstairs dining room, I check out a glass case filled with platters of cold meze. I’m asked to choose five dishes, though it’s difficult to narrow the options. I select cacik: a tangy garlic, cucumber and yogurt dip, tarama: a smooth pink paste made from fish roe, creamy eggplant dip (the house specialty), dried, vinegar-marinated anchovies and a thick slice of the irresistible white cheese.
A bottle of raki arrives at the table and is poured into tall glasses. When mixed with water, the clear liquor becomes white, hence its nickname of “tiger’s milk.” Warning: raki goes down much, much too easily.
Though I’m filling up on cold meze, I can’t resist ordering one more Turkish favorite, savory triangles of borek, flaky triangles of pastry stuffed with minced meat. It’s incredible how these small plates come together and compliment one another. I could survive on the salty dips and garlicky spreads alone. Meze is absolutely my thing.
With a successful meyhane experience under my belt, it was time to turn to my next Istanbul food priority: fresh fish.
A stone’s throw from both the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, Istanbul serves up some of the world’s best seafood. I wanted a local, low-key (yet amazing) fish-tastic experience to celebrate my birthday. Once again, I gave Ansel my wish list: secret location, gorgeous view, inexpensive, no tourists, best EVER. He turned me on to Kandilli Suna’nin Yeri – a small, remote seafood restaurant on the Asian side of Istanbul with outdoor tables teetering on the banks of the Bosphorus. There’s no liquor license here; the restaurant backs up to the local mosque. They don’t take reservations and most of the tables are filled when we pull up to the dock at sunset.
We never see a menu; I don’t know if they have one. The fish selection changes daily, but whatever they’re offering is bound to be great. At Kandilli Suna’nin Yeri, like much of Istanbul, the seafood is served fried. This may actually be the best fish fry joint in the city, but the dish that unexpectedly captures my heart is a rectangular brick of chilled fava purée.
The fava brick is smooth, garlicky and topped with fresh dill. It spreads like thick butter onto fresh slices of bread. We can’t get enough and immediately order seconds. More meze follows: whole fava beans in a tomato sauce, mixed salad with peppers, tender calamari and a heaping platter of Black Sea anchovies.
For the main course, we’re served crispy fried kalkan, or turbot. The tender, white fish is considered a great delicacy and it’s in season. The plating is simple, the turbot is served plain with several sliced raw onions and a slice of lemon. It’s all about the flavor here.
Kandilli Suna’nin Yeri is located in Kandilli area of Asian Istanbul, about 5km north of the First Bosphorus Bridge. It’s most easily accessible by private boat or taxi, though public transportation is possible. The restaurant’s difficult-to-reach location only adds to the local experience and is well worth the trek, at the very least an excellent excuse to hire a boat for an impromptu sunset cruise across the Bosphorus.
Kandilli Suna’nin Yeri: Kandıllı Mh. 0216 332 3241
Asmali Cavit: Asmalimescit Cad. No. 16/D Beyoglu 0212 292 49 50
2011 Mileage Total: 72217