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8 May 2012

Istanbul IV: Food & Drink

In some ways, Turkish cuisine isn't a bad choice for me because the main courses tend to be very similar from meal to meal (grilled meat with some combination of salad, grilled veg, flatbread and bulgur wheat), with the more interesting variations coming in the starters or meze plates. Eating out is very reasonable in Istanbul, certainly compared to London, and interestingly, the price of our meals didn't really vary much, even between small, low-key cafes and smarter restaurants. At most places, we paid about 9-18L (about £3-6) for a main course and about 6L (£2) for a meze.

Breakfast was included at our hotel (as it is in most of the hotels I researched), and we were able to fill up on bread, fruit, cake, pastries, salad and yoghurt. I thought I would highlight a few memorable meals, moving through the day from lunchtime onwards.

Lunch. First up is Karaköy Lokantası in the former docklands of Karaköy. This restaurant had a good write-up in Time Out and was fully booked when we turned up on Thursday evening and I was disappointed because with its turquoise-tiled walls and sleek central staircase, Karaköy Lokantası wouldn't have looked out of place in SoHo and it sounded like the food was pretty good too. Luckily, we were able to go there for a late Sunday lunch.

Karaköy Lokantası
We sat at one of the leafy sidewalk tables on the quiet side street--a lovely respite on a hot, sunny day. Having finally reached my chicken limit this trip, I caved and ordered lamb köfte (meatballs), which were delicious. Our meze dishes--something called topik, which was some sort of slightly spicy, slightly fruity potato and onion concoction, and fried shrimp in a slightly spicy garlic sauce, were both excellent. Karaköy Lokantası offers a more formal dining experience than many of the other eateries that we visited and I would definitely recommend it for a slightly fancier dinner or weekend lunch.

Topik and fried shrimp

While we were on the Asian shore, we went for a wander through Kadiköy. Based on the description in my guidebook, I was expecting lots of interesting food shops and market stalls but apart from a few quirky places, the town was actually fairly uninspiring. Faced with a choice between a whole street of seemingly near-identical restaurants, the one we picked, which looked the nicest, turned out to be the one Time Out (and other guidebooks) were recommending: Çiya on Güneşlibahçe Sokak. One of their restaurants has a buffet for its meze, for which you pay by the weight; we ate at the other one, which has a huge list of kebabs and other lunchtime options. I had a kind of minty, yoghurty, beefy, beans amalgamation, which was yummy.

Turkish coffee. On one of the days when the prolonged fog and chilliness joined forces with my tiredness and made me want to just go back to the hotel, we decided to seek warmth and caffeine at Smyrna in the hipster Cihangir area (Akarsu Caddesi 29). With its comfy armchairs and sofas and carefully distressed antique furniture, Smyrna has enough "shabby chic" about it to make every candidate in this year's Apprentice mint green with envy. We just ordered Turkish coffee (Türk kahvesi) because, well, when in Istanbul... Turkish coffee is strong and thick and although I quite liked it, I'm glad to be returning to the smoothness of espresso and Aeropress coffee. We sat and people-watched for a while, before heading in search of a view. Smyrna does also do food and the menu looked pretty varied, so it's definitely worth popping by at lunchtime or in the evening.

Hipster Turkish coffee at Smyrna

Cocktail o'clock. The good thing about a hilly, riverside city is that a lot of places offer great views from their rooftop terrace. We decided to check out the Leb-i Derya bar on the sixth floor of the Richmond Hotel (on Istiklal Caddesi, near the Tünel tram stop). The bar is very minimalist--all decked out in shades of white--because the view is clearly the raison d'être. When we arrived, soon after 7 pm, most of the bar seats were taken but we found a pair with a great view of the city coming to life. The tables, by the huge floor-ceiling windows, are reserved for diners and they were filling up by the time we left, at about 8.30. My cocktail, which involved vodka, red poppy syrup, blackberry juice, lime and basil, was delicious and fruity, and the signature Derya cocktail (green apple vodka, cointreau, lime and mint) was also very good. If you're too cheap to buy a cocktail (which was a reasonable £8ish, including nibbles and view), you can take the lift in the Richmond up to the seventh floor and check out the view from the smokers' terrace. But the view from the bar is much better.

Cocktails with a view

Dinner. My favourite restaurant among those where we ate dinner was probably Antiocha, on a side street near Tünel. It's a tiny place with only a few tables outside and one on the street, which was where we ate. My chicken şiş came with plenty of roast veggies and some flatbread and was really tasty. It was also fun to dine on the street, especially when a very cute black and white cat adopted me. Unfortunately for him, the waiter shooed him away just at the moment when I was prepared to give away a tiny piece of chicken. At least the cats in Istanbul look a lot healthier than those in Marrakesh (not that that stopped me wanting to be able to adopt them all!).

Chicken şiş at Antiocha

We went to a more touristy place on Asmalı Mescit Caddesi on Saturday night. The place two doors down (Yakup 2) was in the Time Out guide and was fully booked so we picked one of its less popular neighbours. The food was good and it was still a nice meal--I even tried a tiny bit of rakı, although it's not really my kind of drink--but I preferred the more casual Antiocha and the more stylish Karaköy Lokantası. Finally, on our first night, we got to the hotel quite late and were in desperate need of sustenance. We found some touristy restaurant in Sultanahmet but the food was actually pretty good--the main course came with lots of bread and veggies and we got various side dishes on the house, too.

[Other Istanbul posts: introductiongetting to know the city, adventuring]

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