If I were to open a restaurant in Istanbul I would never consider – not even for a second – to do Turkish home food. It is the trickiest restaurant concept in this country because when it comes to home-style food in Turkey everyone has got something to say. A lot to say in fact but I will not go into detail and just distill that “a lot” to “my mother does it better”.
Now, this is changing with the new generation of young Turkish women who want a career instead of spending time on the home-cooked meals. But we are still witnessing the fruits of the generation of solid home cooks, i.e. their children who did not grow on köfte and french fries. Of course there are many succulent kebabs turning on the spits out there and fish sandwiches assembled on the rocking boats but no Turk has grown up eating those. People here have grown up eating wholesome meals caringly put together by their mothers. So Turkish mothers bring up very demanding eaters who want their kuru fasulye found elsewhere to be just like their mother’s.
I got to appreciate that fact during my very fist trips to Istanbul: after asking for directions to a cooking school I was offered to be taken to the mother of that young shopkeeper instead because it turned out (or so I was reassured) she makes the best Turkish food. I subsequently understood what he meant as I got a Turkish mother of my own – technically my mother-in-law which is the same in Turkey. From the tales of her legendary efforts to make a fresh dinner while working full-time and the feasts she is putting together for the guests at our restaurant now I can see where my husband is coming from and why even though he never fails to show how impressed he is with my cooking it is not so easy to impress him when it comes to food.
That’s why I thought that the guys at the restaurant called Açık Mutfak (Open Kitchen) serving Turkish home-style food must have been either completely bold or plain silly. I went to check.
The place is nestled on a small lane of Galata, a hip backpackers with hostels, tourist shops and eateries – most of which are as cheap as unimpressive. But Galata is also just slightly off Istiklal street, a popular hangout of Turkish youngsters. And Açık Mutfak seems to cater to both: despite its blackboard menu in Turkish the place is packed with foreign eaters.
The name is literal: it is a small open kitchen with an center island serving as a display for a dozen of meze in the bowls, plates and clay pot. Adjoining the kitchen is a dining room with purposefully unmatching table clothes, plates and candle holders. That seemingly unorchestrated yet very homely interior does have a female touch. Fresh flowers, selection of herbal teas on the menu, a personal collection of bags as an interior decor. Kind of place where you go with a few friends and spend the evening lingering over food, chat and laughter. Kind of a cozy family meal put together by your mother.
And the mother is there too. Esra Şener – the woman behind Açık Mutfak one could say if only she was not the mutfak (kitchen) – is running the place knowing the power of her cooking to bring people to her kitchen over and over again. One might be deceived by Esra’s reserved manner but this is how Turkish mothers are: they have a lot of things that keep them busy at the kitchen before they can give you a smile and maybe even find a moment to chat with you. But ones they do you feel as if the queen has conferred knighthood upon you.
As I have joined the army of those with a Turkish mother I am authorized to say smart things about my food. Like the hummus was not so smooth or fava paste was way too sour. But apart from these small details (or my desire to showcase my deep expertise) Esra Şener’s food is the kind of fair every Turkish mother would be proud to put on the table for her special guests.
The menu at Açık Mutfak changes with the seasons – as the good Turkish home cooking does – and features a strong selection of meze. Go for the mixed plate to sample a few. I had excellent beats seasoned with poppy seeds and sunflower oil: never, never, never take delicious sweet beet for granted in Turkey, sourcing one is a skill. Fresh grated celeriac with walnuts, garlic and yoghurt. Broccoli florets seasoned with mustard and olive oil sauce. And kısır – kısır was just as I know it – no separate grains but well-knead sticky mixture with a perfectly balance of sourness, sweetness and spice. Simple delicious food.
For the main I had a classic – stuffed eggplant (imam bayıldı) which was so rich on onion that made recall the first time I had a plate of French onion soup in front of me. But just like with the French onion soup I happily finished the eggplant: well-cooked soft onions which sweetness was reinforced by dry red berry, soft eggplant absorbed quite a bit of olive oil but did not appear heavy at all. Not when it was served with fresh salad and garlicky yoghurt at least.
I did not make it to the mastic flavored tart. And a whole bunch of other things on the menu that will change in a few weeks anyways. A good reason to go back to the comfort fare prepared by the person who truly cares that you eat very well.
Açık Mutfak. Galip Dede Caddesi, Tımarcı Sokak, No. 6b, Galata. Phone: (0) 212 293 7433. Hours: Dinner from 6.30 pm to 11 pm every day but Sunday.