If a chef had a finger in your guided tour of Istanbul, here’s what you’d experience: An exhaustive exhibit on the history of Turkish coffee, complete with a centuries-old flyswatter meant to illustrate indolence in coffeehouses. The newly opened kitchens at the Topkapi Palace, where the guards are so busy on their phones they don’t notice everyone ignoring the universal no-photos sign on every exhibit, and where the workmanship in centuries-old china and silver is extraordinary. A warm-up stop for Turkish tea and red poppy/rosewater/tamarind sherbets (more like juices) in the gift shop. A spin through the Spice Bazaar with more time spent outside, where the real food is for sale and the cheese and olive vendors can’t pass out enough samples. A stock-up stop in a lokum/Turkish delight shop dating from the relatively recent past (1777). Lunch at an unlikely power lunch scene in a gentrifying neighborhood with exceptional traditional food (if the usual watery manti) and with Noah’s Pudding for dessert, made with grains and beans and honey and pomegranate and walnuts. True Turkish coffee in a 1967 coffeehouse and a lesson in reading the grounds like tea leaves. Through it all, nonstop insights into Istanbul’s history and modern life. I usually find guided tours about as pleasant as actually being led around by my nose would be, but this was impressive. As our guide said: “No one person can ever finish Istanbul.” I highly recommend her; email if you’re interested in contact info.
Archive for March, 2015
I almost skipped my last supper in Istanbul, having had a late lunch with cauliflower and cat over in Orhan Pamuk’s neighborhood and knowing I had one more big breakfast to tuck away before the long, long ride home. But I would have missed an experience that had everything: great food, good wine, excellent service, a dramatic setting, cats to shoot on the walk to and from and, best of all, proof that bitches act the same all over the world. When I walked into Aheste, having had my lunch date reserve for me (cuz you can’t just walk in), the host/server offered me two tables, one awkwardly positioned in the center of the narrow room and the other in the window, where a scarf and bag were arranged in one chair, as if the owner had just stepped away. I didn’t understand that the latter was really available and settled for awkwardness, only to watch as a couple entered shortly afterward and the waiters started to remove the bag and scarf to a high stool. The young woman next to that table grabbed both, angrily, and then apparently instructed her husband/date to get the check even though they were still eating. If I had known it would be so easy to evict a princess, I would have chosen my table more wisely.
But as soon as the menu was set down and the host/server translated what I could not, I was oblivious to everything but the food and wine. I was actually tempted by the lamb neck but chose grilled mixed (mild) peppers with anchovy “aioli” and green olives plus the mutebbel, a combination of smoky eggplant with tahini and walnuts. And I would have been totally happy with those, especially after the sourdough bread with garlic confit in excellent Turkish olive oil. Maybe because I snapped everything, or because I had a little notebook, or because Istanbul, even with a population now of 18 million, 4 million more than my last trip in 2011, is a very tiny town, I was comped sensational ceviche, of buttery sea bass with red onion, dill fronds and orange. That made me order the chard with smoked yogurt so I could taste more of what the generous chef was cooking up, and I am here to report that “dried rose” actually could outperform bacon bits as a garnish. I couldn’t finish any of it, but I was then comped the craziest pumpkin dessert all week: crisp, crunchy, slightly sweet slices of squash set over ice cream and dusted with chopped walnuts. If I got it all straight, the cucumber cousin is being cooked via centuries-old molecular gastronomy — limestone does the trick.
As my own private Baedeker said: Eating at Aheste “tastes like being here.”