Last month we went to see Skyfall. My husband was bewildered by my unwitnessed before enthusiasm about an action movie. I reassured him it was not for Daniel Craig (oh, is he not the hottest Bond of all?) but the Istanbul scenes of the movie. A good part of the summer during my food walks I had to take my clients rounds and rounds around the “Oriental bazaar” built for the Skyfall stunts before we could enter the actual Spice Market. Those weeks of filming in Istanbul were packed into the minutes of motorcycle chase on the vast roof of the Grand Bazaar. While I was thrilled by the stunts my husband got puzzled that the directors have chosen Istanbul to shoot the Grand Bazaar and but then flew to Shanghai (instead of going to Maslak) for the backdrop of lit up skyscrapers.
“This is what people think of Turkey, honey!” I told him. “Oriental and a tad backward“. I see it a lot of this thinking in the dining choices foreign tourists make in Istanbul. In the pursuit of the local flavors travelers wow about archaic canteens (lokanta) where local hardware sellers dine but they are less interested in the places where local industrialists go for lunch. Do the hardware sellers really know their food better? Do you actually identify yourself with a hardware seller with choosing a place for lunch back in your home country? With all my respect to the Istanbul tradesmen’s canteens (esnaf lokantası) and forgiveness to all the mediocre food they have served me I beg you to have a better look around. And maybe get in a cab to a different kind of canteen. The Kantin.
Kantin in Nişantaşi is exactly what its humble names suggests – it is a neighborhood canteen catering to the people working and living in the area. Meaning comfort food served for lunch, early dinner and as a takeaway. Established old upscale neighborhood of Nişantaşi puts a clear mark on the place. If you come for lunch you may think the place, crowded and bustling, is closed for a private function. People socialize in the lobby (politely converse while waiting to be seated) and there is a recognizable patters in the dress code – casual chic with high heals and deep blue suits. There is no private function: you have found yourself in the local Nişantaşi crowd!
Nişantaşi neighborhood is as a perfect backdrop for the ambitions of Şemsa Denizsel, chef and proprietor of Kantin, just like the Shanghai skyscrapers are for James Bond’s killing of yet another villain. Şemsa Denizsel’s ambition was to re-think a common dining format in Istanbul. A humble canteen has become a French brasserie with spotless white linen, fresh flowers and thoughtfully arranged soft light. Before you even taste Kantin you can sense love and care around the place from its looks, smells and sounds.
And the food supports that feel. Şemsa Denizsel serves what she calls “New Istanbul Cuisine” – seasonal food inspired by the traditional recipes and ingredients yet taken way further their original use. Chalkboard menu gets revised daily: anything printed in ink would have seemed too limiting for chef Şemsa and her plentiful ideas. At times she’ll just make a Turkish classic not so often found: laborious hamsili pilaf, definitely the best way to celebrate the anchovy season but very time consuming with filleting the tiny fishes. Or she’ll combine a long-standing local tradition with a modern trend such as making her sourdough bread, a reincarnation of Turkish “köy ekmeği” (countryside bread). Also Şemsa domesticates a foreign classic such as zucchini gratin turned into a Turkish home cooked meal with bread crumbs, white crumbly cheese and fresh dill. But more often than not Şemsa Denizsel is playing around to elevate the Turkish cooking into more refined and revealing dishes: tabbouleh with candies almonds, oat crusted chicken schnitzel, şiş kebab of bonito are just few of many ideas that has become regulars on the chalkboard menu.
Şemsa is very humble about naming the dishes (and the chalkboard is not the right space for snobbish food anyways). My simply titled “baby spinach salad” was a whole meal deal: baby spinach leaves were accompanied with fresh mint and basil with the added substance of toasted hazelnuts and lor (Turkish ricotta) and juiciness of cherry tomatoes. I assumed it was all until I discovered tender white beans under the carefully arranged spinach.
Kantin’s daily menu does have a few constants served daily though. One is çıtır, a crispy thin flat bread topped – in a pizza fashion – with cheese and a whole lot more. Last spring there were broccoli bits, wheat sprouts, slices of mushrooms, zucchini, red peppers and onions; this winter arrived the chard, hazelnuts, pungent tulum cheese and onion slices. Another specialty you can find every time are the seasonal house beverages: summer fill-packed Turkish lemonade is followed by the recent addition of ginger ale. And the final constant is not on the menu but it invariably comes to every table: Kantin’s sensational sourdough that appeared as a result of 2 year experiments with recipes, flours, ovens and methods – showing the ultimate dedication of the chef not only to treat her guests to the best food but also to the best bread around.
Prices at Kantin are not low for your typical lunch fare in Istanbul but then reflect the pride, honest effort and the quality of the used ingredients. Because neither the food nor the eaters pretend to be what they are not you are definitely getting value for money unlike at my hip Istanbul restaurants that may have ambition of doing “New Istanbul Cuisine” but missing Şemsa’s talent to produce it.
Every time I eat at Kantin I feel there much more inviting food than I can have on a given lunch. So after I meal I walk down the steeps to Kantin’s store, an extension of the kitchen, that carries the signature flavors – bread, desserts, takeaway salads and so ons. Does not matter how much I buy – to my disappointment those finish up too soon as well and I am left with my mouth watering and plans set for the next trip to Kantin.
Address: Vali Konağı Caddesi Akkavak Sokak No.16/2 Nişantaşi. Phone: 212 219 31 14. Hours: Mon – Sat 11:30 – 21:00. Closed Sun.