What makes an authentic Turkish restaurant? The kind of place you’d go and after dining there can safely say that you have had a real taste of the country and its food. Where I would go and conclude the same? Where a Turk who lived in Turkey all his life would eat and agree with us? I was thinking about it it all the two weeks I have recently spent eating in .. Thailand.
What is it that creates authenticity in food? The fact that the food is prepared and served in a rustic setting or sometimes without any setting at all – right on the street? Lack of decor may mean more attention to food but not always – we had both spectacular and ever so average meals on the street. The fact that a major media outlet wrote about an eatery in a big way like the BBC did about a stir-fry joint run by a chef they called the “Mozart of the wok”? Well, it was worthy indeed, but we also ate from the hands of many unsung Mozarts of the wok on the streets of Bangkok.
The fact that people queue for a seat? Unless there something else but food which makes them queue as my observant husband noted spotting at least one transvestite per table and two in the waiting staff at a popular eatery in Chinatown. The fact of being located at a traditional venue such as a bustling market where thousands of regulars come to lunch every day? Well, a slick lunch spot in a nearby business center could beat that – in both authenticity and taste departments. The fact that you make traditional dishes that have been the backbone of the national cuisine? Very unlike the young chef of Le Table de Tee who paired the traditional ingredients with French cooking techniques and whose cuisine make me exclaim, “This is the kind of food I have come to eat in Thailand!”
I think authenticity has nothing to do with the location, setting, price and the menu as such. It comes from the chef’s intention. To explore the local ingredients – often including those that have always being around but are less used in the nowadays cooking. To know her away around the cooking techniques so well that taking liberties looks natural. And then – given all these liberties and experimentations – produce consistently great food.
That’s why when I think about authentic Turkish restaurant Meze by Lemon Tree first comes to my mind. The name immediately hints that the core of the menu are meze, appetizers that in Turkey go before the meal or can make a whole meal especially if accompanied by the drinks. This concept may have put Meze next to the classic Istanbul meyhanes such as Refik or Sofyalı 9 but – thank you, God – have not. Folks at Meze go beyond the classics of charred eggplant and broad bean paste – both rather wonderful dishes yet too often found on a meyhane‘s menu and way to often done so-so. Dim light, white table linens, black-and-white tiled flour and helpful waiters taking pride in explaining every single starter you may want to consider – this is where Meze by Lemon Tree’s similarity to your typical Istanbul meyhane starts and finishes.
Folks at Meze by Lemon Tree do not hope to get your drunk and stop minding quality of food. On the contrary, Gencay Üçok thinks quite high about his clients and their palates. He is not shy to offer you something you may not be so comfortable eating. Like snails. Delightfully cooked in zeytinyalı style, or stewed in olive oil with Jerusalem artichoke, fresh basil, chunks of orange and carrot. Me and Özgür immediately voted it the best starter ordered this time at Meze. Not that the others disappointed.
The traditional pilaki (beans stewed in olive oil) came with a twist as accompanied by red onion, parsley and pieces of chestnuts. Another treat was Üçok’s take on acılı ezme (Turkish gazpacho) prepared with finely diced tomato, pickled cucumber, spring onion, garlic and seasoned with sumac, fresh coriander and pickle brine. Finally, we feasted on the creamy paste of pungent ezine cheese, spring onion, avocado, yoghurt, red pepper, red onion and pistachio. As I savored I kept thinking that eating at Meze is like finding your love later in life: just as one regrets wasting years for wrong people I was contemplating the meals wasted at the mediocre restaurants.
Already full after the meze we skipped the exciting looking mains – once again – which is not a rude thing to do at a meyhane. The mains at Meze by Lemon Tree are fantastic but you should not rush ordering until you have thoroughly enjoyed the starters. And by the way this is how you can tell a foreigner in a meyhane: while all the Turks are still nibbling on the few plates of starters placed in the middle of the table and enjoying their drinks and conversation a foreigner is already half-through a main. A friendly piece of advice? Slow down and raise your glass. And if you are done with the starters and still a bit hungry but not hungry enough for the main – this is what hot starters are for. Shrimps casserole is gingery and just a bit peppery-hot. Or hummus – served South-Eastern Turkish style – hot with sliced with cured beef, pastırma.
And it does not matter how full you are but you can’t skip the dessert. Meze’s signature dessert is atom quite descriptively named to reflect the seriousness of the deal. It is a mount of banana slices capped with the clotted cream – kaymak – then almonds, walnuts, honey and .. red chilly pepper. Great finish of the meal as banana soothes and chilly tickles your palate little leaving your settled by hoping for more. Next time.
At Meze by Lemon Tree you should not be scared by the foreigners dining by your side. Some are living here, some have followed recommendation of those in the know (here I modestly keep silent as Meze is among the few Istanbul restaurants I refer to my clients as a “must”) and some – despite a bottle of wine on their table instead of the expected rakı – are not foreigners at all like a renown columnist of a major Turkish daily sitting next to us.
Finally, what puts Meze by Lemon Tree in my personal top5 in Istanbul is that everything, absolutely everything in their ever-changing menu is executed to perfection. Which is obviously a conscious goal and a matter of pride as suggested by their wifi key – “everything is delicious”. And this is a real authenticity.
Meze by Lemon Tree. Address: Meşrutiyet Caddesi 83/B Beyoğlu (opposite Pera Palace Hotel). Phone: (0212) 252 83 02. Reservations are a must: the place is small and insanely popular. Open for dinner: 7 pm to last customer.