Warding you off any food tourists traps in Istanbul is almost my full-time job. I am telling you constantly that even it is your first time in Istanbul don’t be such a tourist. Get a clue! Read in! Ask for a local advice! But as I am back to the traveling mode myself (very real 2 week vacation after 2 years of none) I start thinking there is nothing wrong with being a tourist after all. I am going to the region completely foreign to me and I will inevitably end up at a few touristy places on my trip to Thailand. And that fact does not upset me: I am anticipating the thrill of being a tourist again.
That’s right, as a tourist you lack local knowledge. But then the lack of clue can be a blessing. In fact this is probably why we travel – to find that lightness of being that comes from all our clues and ideas being zeroed down by a different cultural, geographical and climatic setting. And then if you have traveled enough before you are able to develop a clue about a new place rather quickly – and even before getting there.
Even here in Istanbul – I miss the feeling of being a tourist. After two years in Turkey I have developed good insights to pass for a local but then with the insights my enthusiasm fades. I miss being excited about my first bite of real Turkish baklava, first sip of Turkish coffee, aroma of roasted chestnuts and sound of the fresh fish sizzling in the grill. That’s why I love giving my food tours – not only to share my knowledge of Istanbul food but also to re-live the excitement of my first days in the city as I lead a small group of the newly arrived enthusiastic Istanbul travelers.
Ah, I was a tourist in Istanbul once too: I let my stomach take me around and tried anything that looked attractive – even a regular red lentil soup was enough to make me feel I lived a culinary fairytale in Istanbul. It was long time ago before I got cursed by the unmatched cooking of my Turkish mother-in-law which sets the bar really high and makes me an unhappy diner in Istanbul most of the time.
Especially if the dinner is around the historical peninsular – Sultanahmet and around. The area with most tourist attractions, hotels and shops in Istanbul is bound to be a food trap. Food here is made and served with tourists in mind who have no clue, right?! And so Turkish food is getting vulgarized in burned döner, in the same two soups and salads found in every single eatery, in the cult of the average meatball joint, in the stale baklava and factory-produced Turkish delights sold everywhere. Wait, I have forgotten the”Ottoman food” which many restaurants in Sultanahmet pretend to do but no one has a clue about. However sad, this mediocre food offering in the touristic centers of the cities is not specific to Istanbul; those who have traveled to Rome, Paris, Moscow know what I am talking about. But then I can understand that many travelers chose to stay closer to the historic sights and may have no energy to leave the area just for a meal. Naturally most of them eat close to where they stay.
So I thought I’d revive that being a tourist feeling and go for a meal at the historical peninsular. I have picked Imbat, restaurant on the rooftop of the Orient Express hotel near the Sirkeci train station that used to receive the train coming from Paris once as the name of the hotel hints. Imbat is now and then mentioned by my clients and in fact for long time was ranked as “No.1 restaurant in Istanbul” according to the Tripadvisor reviews. If you live in Istanbul no wonder you have never heard of this and 95% other restaurants ranked high on Tripadvisor. And you will probably never venture in: it is off your way and caters to foreigners – the latter has sadly become to mean “vulgar food” in Istanbul. At the risk of a wasted meal I ventured in.
As we were greeted by a smiling young waiter in a uniform and seated at table with a crisp white cloth I knew this late afternoon lunch will be most tranquil meal I have had since I have come to settle down in Istanbul. I will not be disturbed by serving 10 family members and farmhouse workers. I will not be answering tricky questions as I am trying to savor a bite. I will not be rushed into ordering by a very efficient waiter (think Istanbul fish restaurants). I will not be thinking I have to be somewhere at 6 pm. Because I am a tourist. Because this is no one and nothing else existing – just me, just Istanbul which I could see from the large terrace window, just food which looked promising from a glance over a menu and just Elena who took me shopping for pro pastry equipment in Eminönü and was happy to share a meal afterwards.
Imbat’s menu is rather brief and focuses on the Aegean cuisine meaning Turkish-Greek – think seafood, wild herbs and lots of small eats that are elevated into full-fledged dishes in this restaurant. We started the meal with a fish soup which was prepared with vegetables and slightly thickened by flour – Turkish style: warm it was so good on this cold that we nearly forgave it for being under-seasoned and lacking the flavor of the plain fish stock we prepared of fish heads and tails yesterday.
What did not disappoint at all was the choice of Turkish wine including international award winning range Anfora by Aegean-based Pamukkale Wines. I appreciated the waiters did not try to push one wine over another (often happens in Istanbul to move around already open bottles) and two different bottles were opened to pour the two glasses we ordered – bright red of Öküzgözü and Boğazkere and light Sauvignon Blanc.
For the mains we ordered hot starters. I had grilled jumbo prawns on the bed of stewed spinach. I appreciated the fresh prawns (too much frozen rubbery stuff even at the specialized fish restaurants in Istanbul), nicely cooked spinach and good presentation. The spinach stew will not make the news in Turkey – any home cook turns it as-matter-of-factly a few times in season. But it was lovely to see a honest effort to elevate traditional Turkish home cooking into a restaurant-quality dish. I wish more places were doing it in Istanbul.
Elena ordered chard leaves stuffed with minced meat and bulgur – again a Turkish home cooking classic elevated by use of firik – a rather exotic type of unripe wheat roasted on the open fire – and tomato sauce it was served with. Again we both thought that both dishes could benefit from more seasoning but the thought did not prevent us from thoroughly enjoying them.
We could not say no to a dessert platter a true highlight of which was cacao and poppy seeds sekerpare (a huge button-shaped pastry soaked in sugar syrup) and rosewater ice-cream – you should be all means leave some space for those when eating at Imbat.
The bill – with two soups, two glasses of wine, two mains, dessert, coffee – set us back 95 TL for two. Best of luck finding a better deal in Istanbul for this quality of ingredients, setting and world-class service.
Service. This is there Imbat really stands out – in its attentive and professional service. Wait staff was very helpful and honest, a characteristic I got to appreciate very much in Istanbul waiters who – I think at times – are salaried based on their skill to come up with lame explanations. Imbat should share their know-how in hiring and training their excellent waiters.
I signed as we were leaving: I would had loved my meal at Imbat if I was a first-time tourist. But because I am not I will keep trying to convince you to take a 40 minute taxi drive or a ferry ride for a truly memorable meal in Istanbul. But do bear in mind that my idea of memorable in Istanbul is different from yours. Because you – very fortunately in a way – have not being spoiled by unmatched cooking of a Turkish mother-in-law. But there is justice: on my coming trip to Thailand I will again become clueless, carefree and hence – a very happy eater.
Imbat Restaurant: Hudavendigar Street No: 34 (top flour of the Orient Express Hotel) Sirkeci. Phone: 0212 520 71 91. Open every day 12.30 to 23.00 (kitchen closes at 22.30)