With hope pumped by everything I heard or read about the place I was striving to find the signs of that excellence that has made Karaköy Lokantası the talk of the town. The stunning turquoise tiles could not compensate for the burned stuffed green peppers and only average food. That was my 5th Istanbul dining disappointment in the recent months.
I though I would not write rants. I mean who wants to read about the restaurants where you will waste your time, money and good mood if you can read about the restaurants and eateries where you will be not? But the more I come across the lists of “Top 10 Istanbul restaurants” of all sorts I get convinced I should be ranting. Constantly.
Last time I met Marina and gave her a scoop of my life over the past weeks she concluded, “What a rant! You blog paints such an idyllic image of what turns to be a really turbulent life”. So I think it’s the time to let the steam out. And will start with mediocre Istanbul restaurants.
I hate mediocre restaurants climbing on top of those lists and being consistently mentioned on Chowhound, Lonely Planet, Tripadvisor, Timeout and where not. Mediocre restaurants are worse than we think. They are evil. Because they make ordinary the norm. It is acceptable to serve ordinary no-thrill food if you are a canteen, roadside cafe or a hole-in-the-wall. Yet it turns that sometimes those eateries try harder than a bunch of very popular Istanbul restaurants.
Here are my recent disappointments: five Istanbul restaurants you are likely to consider for your dining based on the buzz. Bear with me for a few minutes and I hope you can have better dining experience than I did. Elsewhere.
Karaköy Lokantası: Lunch by Day, Meyhane Fun by Night
Karaköy Lokantası’s interior is tastefully finished with turquoise tiles, cast-iron staircase, collection of the vintage olive oil and raki bottles skillfully sneaked into the concept of a modern canteen. Youngsters serving you at the white-clothed tables were not so bad either. Yet I was perplexed with the raving reviews of Karaköy Lokantası.
Its menu is a combination of the Turkish canteen seasonal classics some European dishes. I had a 3-course meal: broccoli soup, stuffed peppers or celeriac stewed with carrots, potato and green peas and spongy syrupy ekmek kadaif. None of the dishes appeared exceptional.
When choosing dessert from the glass refrigerator I thought it was optical illusion when I saw the burnt stuffed green peppers, staple of Turkish cooking. Maybe it has become very hipster in Istanbul to have your lunch no-thrill and slightly burned? But this is definitely not how I eat mine.
Koco: Fish Restaurant in Moda, Kadikoy
The premise of Koco is romantic and appealing without doubt: Greek family-run fish restaurant by the Marmara Sea. Who wouldn’t buy? We did. When we moved to Moda and made a tour of the nearby places Özgür said, “Let’s check it out. It’s our neighborhood restaurant, we will be coming frequently so we need to make friends with the guys“.
Large terrace by the sea was bustling with cheerful diners and waiters ready to please. Encouraging sign. Yet the only one. Typical range of meze, regular range of fish and OK service – everything turned out average. Besides the bill. We estimated that we could take cab to other side of town, dine at Set Balık and still get it cheaper.
Koco’s years of glory have long passed. Don’t fall for the nostalgic sentiments and head out to Kadı Nimet Balıkçısı at the Kadıköy Market. If you are after the views there are definitely better places in Arnavutköy and further along the Bosphorus.
Çiya in Kadıköy: Travel Book’s Favorite
I have complex relationships with Çiya, I must admit. It was my first introduction into the world of the Turkish regional home cooking – rich and exotic – and I loved it back then. Until the summer of 2011: it was a grape leave sarma which was not that top-notch once, then hummus which was off and then stale bread. With these imperfections in food I started being more conscious about the spotty service and frankly indifferent waiters at Çiya.
Çiya has become a vivid illustration of how a great idea and charisma of a chef is not enough to run the restaurant. Beyond the certain scale (which Çiya has clearly achieved with all the hype around it) a restaurant requires better training and motivation for the staff.
That said I still recommend my clients to try Çiya’s decadent kebabs. I have learned to take Çiya for what it is: an eccentric South-Eastern kebab shop.
Tarihi Karaköy Balık Lokantası: Wrong Address for Fish
Özgür became the victim of my culinary explorations and trust into the option of others. I dragged him into the place. When we entered he asked me, “Are you sure this is the one?” I said, “Look at all those newspaper clips on the wall. Highly reputed institution it is, I am telling you”.
Tarihi Karaköy Balık Lokantası does fish and only fish. Sea bass, sea bream, anchovy, red mullet. 5 or so options that bore you to death if you spend some time in Istanbul. I went for the kağıtta levrek – sea bass basked with vegetables in parchment pepper – the specialty of the place people rave about. The fish came overcooked and burned. The signature dish of the place came overcooked and burned. Combined with the no-existent service and shoe-box size of the place that still keeps me wondering about those raving.
Antiochia in Asmali Mescit: South-Eastern Food Goes Glamors
Unlike the States where cooking has gotten so glamorous and celebrity chefs compete with Fortune 500′s SEO’s in popularity and earnings chefs in Turkey are men of few words and little visibility. And women don’t want to be chefs because cooking is backward and not sexy.
This is changing, of course. There are a few young Turkish ladies armed with the solid Western culinary education and working hard to give new life to the traditional Turkish cooking. Such as Jale Balcı, TV-show chef, cookbook author and co-owner of Antiochia restaurant.
Antiochia was a cool concept indeed: South-Eastern Turkish flavors – rich, generous in spices and renown for its meat dishes – served in a casual ambiance with a touch of hip. But things changed after the fatal prohibition of the outside sitting in Asmalı Mescit which had decreased the capacity of Antiochia two-fold.
Now Antiochia works like almost a high-turnover fast food joint: you are served politely but it is clear that you need to leave rather fast to vacate table for the next diners. The food (quite wonderful if not the mean portion sizes) and wine they serve assume lingering and you can’t linger here. For no rushed feast over the Sough-Eastern Turkish food served with pride and politeness I prefer Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası in Aksaray so much more.