Archive for July, 2010

New York minutes, post-Istanbul

July 2010

The seriously good: Recipe, again, where my consort and I headed shortly after he landed from his latest time-zone abuse, 10 days in North Carolina after at least that long in Istanbul and before that Phnom Penh and Ukraine. Our apartment is not only too hot to cook in, with half the windows plywooded over, but it always helps to reconnect on neutral ground. The great lunch prices also made it worth the short walk: $11.95 for my grilled calamari with two kinds of beans and cascading flavor, and a slab of sliced steak with potatoes, broccoli and green beans plus exceptional chimichurri (not just parsley and garlic but fresh oregano, cilantro, green peppers, celery and jalapeño Tabasco, the chef said when he stepped out of the kitchen and Bob grilled him). Bob scored just as well, with a little Nicoise-esque salad (olives, hard-cooked eggs, green beans, anchovies) followed by the roasted half-chicken with grain salad mixed with carrots and asparagus. WIGB? Anytime. Can’t believe it’s even in our neighborhood and not over in a certain borough. 452 Amsterdam Avenue near 82d Street, 212 501 7755.

The not bad: Mermaid Oyster Bar in the West Village, where three of us headed after the well-made but depressing “Restrepo” at Angelika on Saturday night and where we were lucky enough to snare the last bar table rather than wait two hours. The place was mobbed, but the staff was rolling with it — our glasses were kept filled with a Provencal rosé, and the busboy was quick to remove extra plates from the overcrowded table. Our food came too fast; my fries and the oysters in my otherwise fine $16 po’ boy could have been crisper. But everything tasted great (I didn’t try Pam’s fluke seviche with its “three-crab” sauce or Bob’s two kinds of raw oysters; Roy Blount Jr. and his “like swallowing a large baby” keep me away from those guys). The $20 crab cake was a big, meaty one with good tartar sauce, “whale” fries (potato slices), coleslaw and lettuce. WIGB? Probably, but only with a reservation. And an understanding that the huge markups on the wine underwrite the very affordable food. 79 MacDougal Street just above Houston, 212 260 0100.

The geographically correct: Canteen 82, where a friend in the neighborhood lured me on the one-week anniversary of my return to this tiny town from the mega-city on the Bosphorus. She loves it; other friends who live relatively close by love it. And it’s certainly better than any of the other dreary “Chinese” restaurants that don’t require braving the subway on a 95-degree Saturday. But the soup dumplings were underwhelming, and the Peking duck buns full of too-sweet meat (yes, she was right: ordering them was a mistake, but I was glad we didn’t get a dozen of the dumplings). The scallion pancake was crisp enough, and the green salad was a deal, for $6, with lots of vegetables and a paving of avocado slices over the top. But the service was ridiculously inattentive in a nearly empty room. And that breakfast/brunch menu of Western standards made me wonder if any kitchen could juggle hollandaise and special orders of slivered ginger without losing its way. WIGB? Probably. It is convenient, and Bob needs to taste for himself. But while it seemed like a deal, our lunch at Recipe was 35 times more satisfying for about the same amount of money. 467 Columbus near 82d Street, 212 595 4300.

The oops, I forgot: Stone Rose at JFK, where I ducked in to top off my tank after skipping lunch before getting trapped in the absurdly long security line at Delta (a whole fucking hour). I figured if I ate before boarding, I could sleep straight through to Istanbul, and that was exactly how it almost worked out, except the cheesy “steak flatbread” with pico de gallo seemed to expand in my stomach like a Houlihan’s special. Also, too, the portion was T.G.I.Friday’s outsized, and I ingested only a little and still suffered. I figured I would at least get a decent glass of wine from Rande’s cellars, but they were out of the NZ SV and I had to settle for chardonnay. WIGB? If I stupidly ever fly Delta ever again? All I can say is I was disappointed on heading to the gate to see I had missed a Chili’s. . . .

Istanbul overload

July 2010

Exactly a week after I got home, I met a friend for lunch who said her 20-something son had suffered terrible food in Istanbul and been harassed the whole time. Where did he stay? Near the Blue Mosque and the other ancient attractions. Thank allah the workshop my consort was teaching had lodged him over the Galata Bridge, in Beyoglu, in a business/boutique hotel, the Richmond, where everyone had warned we would be so isolated. Let’s start with the huge breakfast buffet: Eggs and potatoes and toast for timid travelers plus the real local deal, too: half a dozen kinds of cheese, meats (anything but pork), cucumbers and tomatoes, olives, jams and honeys, yogurts and fresh and cooked fruits. The best part: a Nescafe machine that turned out perfect coffee on all but one morning, when it needed its white balance adjusted. The second-best part: the view, over city and water.

But this was location, location: We were right at the funicular end of Istiklal Cadessi, the  main boulevard in that district, with shops and restaurants directly on it and alleys lined with endless sidewalk cafes branching off it. Down the center, the “nostalgia tram” ran, loaded with passengers in daylight but towing a music car at night (usually with some band blasting “Ride, Sally, Ride”).

All my meals fascinated me, but the worst transpired where we also had one of our best: Refik, right near the hotel. Bob and I stumbled in on Saturday at lunchtime when it wasn’t open and they said we could have any of the mezes in the display case, but after we’d decided on three they decided we could have fish, too. So we tasted our way around bland eggplant puree, intense roasted eggplant with tomatoes, onions and peppers, plus strong anchovies rolled around olives, all with grilled bread, and then split the good fried red mullet and the swordfish kebabs with bay leaves and charred lemon. It was expensive (70TL?), but the hospitality (and jazzy WC) lured me back a couple of nights later on my own. What a difference a lack of consort makes. The same waiter/manager could not have been more dismissive; a couple who came in after me got a better table, faster water/raki (with ice, no less) and a display of mezes to choose from. I picked from the menu, and the bread in the basket for my broad bean purée was all heels. Ungrilled.

Also disappointing was the wildly recommended Ozkonak in Cinagir, what Bob described as the SoHo of Istanbul. But I have only myself to blame; it’s an old-line place where you go to the steam table and choose what you want, and I was hot, fried and confused and pointed at stuffed zucchini and then braised artichoke hearts, since I’d seen them being tidily trimmed in the markets. Suffice it to say that this is too often what you get when you order Turkish in NYC. All the staff, though, could not have been nicer.

Heeding Istanbul Eats, I made my way to sleek-and-modern Antiochia another night, and what I’ll remember as much as the food was how mellow the waiter was as a hammering rainstorm set in after most of us patrons had chosen sidewalk tables. He just kept calmly and methodically dragging out umbrellas and adjusting them, so while the American woman with a book seated next to me fled inside, I could stay and share my beef kebabs with a very charming cat who politely stood up to tap me on my elbow to beg for more. An outstanding walnut-tomato-pomegranate spread, though, was the best part of my dinner.

Just as good were the two very spicy mezes, one with peppers and walnuts and the other with peppers and tomatoes, at Sofyali, a few barfronts down from Kefit Fail. The waiter’s hand kind of shook “are you sure?” as he transferred the small trays to our table, but we are salsa-conditioned. Three of us also split a grilled sea bass that was fine until the local fixer who had stopped by our table noted that cheaper fish prices on a menu indicated farmed V wild. As I always say, you are what you eat really makes a difference with the chicken of the sea; it tastes like the grain it’s fed. Funnier still was the special salad of the day, which turned out to be arugula, tomatoes and grated cheese plus . . . corn. Houlihan’s, Istanbul-style.

And I thought the cuisine was settling into the coherence the night three cabs’ worth of us headed to the ferry to Uskudar, on the Asian side, for dinner at Ismet Baba, right on the Bosphorus. The food unloaded onto our table, chosen by the fixer, looked familiar: melon and white cheese; smoked/cured fish with slices of raw onion; eggplant purée; roasted eggplant with tomatoes and hot peppers; sea beans with garlic; yogurt with scallions; fried calamari with ricotta-like cheese for dipping; famous fried liver; slices of a phyllo roll filled with potatoes and dill. The main course was swordfish as we’d had it at Refik, with the addition of grilled tomatoes, and dessert was a huge array of fruit with helveh. It seemed like a classic meal.

But then one of the founders of Istanbul Eats took me to lunch in a Kurdish market and I realized I knew nothing. Here we shared chunks of lamb hacked off a whole animal that had been roasted in a charcoal pit; the bits were mounded over a flatbread that soaked up the amazing fat. Lamb sickens me, but I was actually bummed he ordered only a half-portion; I could have eaten double. To accommodate me, he also had chosen chicken and rice in a pastry crust with currants and almonds and steamed patties with kibbeh inside that were equally dazzling. I also got to experience the salty yogurt drink ayran the right, messy way, from a huge copper mug with a ladle.

Given how good that meal was, I took his and his co-blogger’s advice on their site about Zubeyrir, which was the perfect ending. Bob and I sat alongside the charcoal grill and took so many photos of our food the chef insisted on taking one of us. For some reason, the headwaiter insisted I taste everything we chose from the meze tray before he turned it over to us for good, but the gigante beans were as good as the yogurt-cucumber-tomato-spread and warm eggplant purée and spinach with garlic; the regular flatbread was excellent, too, but then he brought a sort of Turkish tortilla, baked with herbs,  crackly and crunchy. I had a hard time ceding most of the grilled lamb ribs with their amazing fat and a spicy mixed-mince kebab that came with a fascinating parsley-onion salad dusted with sumac. All that went well with a good bottle of Kavaklidere red. And I would have felt bad that we were just hitting our eating stride, but we had one last breakfast to look forward to. . .

Ozkonak, Akarsu Caddesi No. 60, Cihangir
Sofyali, Sofyali Sofak No. 9, Beyoglu
Siirt Seref Buryan Kebap Salonu, Itfaiye Cadessi No. 4, Fatih, serefburyan.com
Antiochia, Minare Sokak, Asmalimesict, antiochiaconcept.com
Ismet Baba, Carsi Caddesi No. 1, ismetbaba.com.tr
Zubeyrir Ocakbasi, Istiklal Caddesi Bekar Sokak No. 28, zubeyirocakbasi.com

Snippets

July 2010

We also had mind-changing baklava, two kinds made with pistachios and one with walnuts, at Develi (“since 1912”), outside the Spice Bazaar. I tried two other places that did nothing to convert me to the stuff. We had the best plums of either of our lives from a roadside gardener on Buyukada Island. I got to taste 14 cheeses at the great little Antre shop in Cihangir and several more while walking through markets. We both developed a taste for simit, the sesame-encrusted rounds of bread that are indescribable; they were great whether straight off a vendor’s head near the Spice Bazaar, fresh from a wood-burning oven in a bakery or slightly humidified on the ferry. And I’m here to say Turkish delight could be addictive. It’s not quite Istanbul Chuckles; the flavors — saffron or rose or mastic — elevate it. Finally, Bob warned me off Turkish coffee but hooked me on Turkish tea, served in a special small glass and meant to be sweetened; I preferred it plain. For some reason, though, it always made me want to nod off. The last time I had that reaction was in another city where we felt like ghosts — Turin — and it happened every time I had a chocolate-coffee bicerin.

A note about the wine

July 2010

I had a lot of time by myself while Bob was preoccupied with his students, so I invested it in serious research, investigating “rose wine,” as the waiters called it. The House Cafe had a pleasant balcony and charged 12 Turkish lira for a big glass of fine Lal, from Kavaklidere, apparently the dominant producer in Anatolia. At the sleek cafe in the wonderful Pera Museum with its spirit-lifting Botero exhibit, I tried two other producers’ over two days for only 10 TL a pour and got amazing pistachios to go with them. And one afternoon I invested an hour tasting four different rosés at Sensus, a wine cellar with a cheese counter. I’m not sure how any of them would stack up against something from Languedoc or Provence, but they were beyond impressive there. I see Astor carries some of them in New York, and they’re much cheaper than they were in the restaurants.