A mom and pop meatball restaurant? Look no further than Çukurcuma Köftecisi

If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll known that I have thing for Cukurcuma, one of Istanbul’s neighborhoods. Art galleries, antique shops, and hipster cafes galore, it’s also the location of Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence which should not be missed if you’re a fan of the book by the same name.

The destination this time was Cukurcuma Koftecisi (or, according to Google, Cukurcuma Meatball Restaurant). I first saw it on one of my many walks exploring Cukurcuma – it’s not far from Cukurcuma 49, a restaurant serving up yummy pizzas with local Turkish wine and live jazz music.  I also checked out the restaurant’s website, and after seeing this fun quote featured on their homepage, I knew it was a place I had to visit.

“Having lunch at Cukurcuma Koftecisi is like being a part of the live studio audience of a TV sitcom with meatballs. Three generations of an unusually tall family run a busy local restaurant with what seems like very little service industry experience but great intentions and strong will. Hilarity ensues.”

We went for an early dinner on a Saturday evening, and had the whole restaurant to ourselves. There’s no menu – the options rotate daily and you just choose from the day’s offerings. We ordered two portions of kofte (meatballs) and a plate of mucver (zucchini fritters) and fried eggplant which came with a side of spicy pepper sauce. The mucver and eggplant were excellent, and the kofte were of the homemade variety. They were very tender and not at all like the kind you typically find in restaurants. My favorite thing, however, was the pepper sauce. It complemented everything perfectly. In fact, I was content to eat it all by itself until Gurkan kindly reminded me that I should save it for when the kofte came.

While we ate, the mom of the family (looking lovely in her chef hat) prepared vegetables for the following day and the dad sat outside watching the dark streets of Cukurcuma and its passers-by. When customers came in, he took their orders and barked a few orders to the kitchen hand. Little rough around the edges but very helpful nonetheless. I’d say the website’s quote wasn’t too far off.

In a neighborhood full of trendy (read: pricey) cafes and restaurants, it’s a relief to know this no frills restaurant exists. The restaurant (and the family who runs it) has a personality all its own and as Gurkan says, it’s the nicest esnaf lokantasi he’s ever seen.

 
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Spicy pepper spread, eggplant, zucchini fritters

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Homemade meatballs

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Gurkan petting the cats of Cukurcuma. If you look closely, you can see the mom preparing veggies. Just look for the white chef hat.

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The dark streets of Cukurcuma. Can you find the three cats?

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Tasting adventures at the Istanbul Culinary Institute

The place: Istanbul Culinary Institute
The offerings: mezes, main dishes, desserts, drinks
Price range: 22-28 TL for a main dish (we ordered off the February evening menu)
The pros: good service, nice atmosphere, great variety
The cons: A bit of a tourist destination


Although Friday was Valentine’s Day for most couples, we were celebrating Gurkan’s birthday since he had been on a business trip over his special day. I was really worried that all the restaurants would be booked and when I left work, I still hadn’t made a reservation. We were going back and forth about where to go (Gurkan mentioned Canim Cigerim, and I told him we should go somewhere a bit more special for the occasion), so I suggested that we check out the Istanbul Culinary Institute. Gurkan had called earlier and no one had picked up so I feared the worst – that they would be swamped with starstruck couples.

Luckily, they weren’t. We walked in and the host was able to find us a seat tucked away by the bar. Perhaps, not a prime spot by other people’s standards it actually turned out to be quite nice because we were able to ask for wine recommendations from the bartenders. We also had the back corner all to ourselves which saved us the misery of sitting next to the overzealous, extremely loud tables of American tourists (not resident foreigners – we learn to keep our voices down) sitting in the front of the restaurant.

Everything on the menu looked absolutely delicious. Right when we sat down, the waiter brought a selection of bread with olive oil. Gurkan couldn’t get enough of the corn bread and kept saying how great it was – coming from someone from the Black Sea that is quite a compliment! For our appetizer, we chose a meze plate with ezme (spicy side salad), hummus, beet salad, potato with dill, sarma (stuffed grape leaves), and salmon. Everything  was unbelievably tasty especially the hummus and ezme. Although old favorites, there were prepared so well and different enough that it was as if we were trying them for the first time. Honestly, I think the hummus was one of the best I’ve ever had – it was very thick and not oily at all. The sarma were of the sweet variety  and perfectly seasoned. The salmon was spot on. Each spoonful was a completely new tasting experience.

For the main meal, Gurkan chose the lamb karsky – a lamb dish topped with a lamb kidney served with bulgar pilav and roasted eggplant puree. I opted for the duck in pomegranate sauce with roasted potatoes and caramelized apples. I had a hard time deciding between that and the lamb stew with quince which also sounded delectable. We both ended up being extremely pleased with our selections. I did think the duck was a bit salty but  tasty nonetheless. It made me nostalgic for all the great duck places in Portland (duck fat fries at Duck Fat & duck nachos at Grace)! Gurkan absolutely loved the lamb kidney and said it was the best part of the whole dish. Although I refrained from trying the kidney, I thought the lamb steak was cooked nicely (was that a little bit of pink I saw?) and the roasted eggplant puree was out of this world.

The service was quite good – the waiters weren’t overly attentive, but most importantly, we never felt pressured to hurry up which is often the case in Istanbul. We continued sipping our wine long after we finished our main dishes and probably could have stayed there all night had we not decided to move on.

The place is perfect for a special occasion and I’d definitely recommend ordering an appetizer ahead of time if you’re tummy is hungry! They have dessert too – I’m already looking forward to trying the homemade rose and fig ice cream next time I visit.

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Meze platter – a taster’s paradise

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Duck with pomegranate sauce, potatoes, apples

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Lamb steak with kidney, eggplant puree, bulgar pilav

The Istanbul Culinary Institute also offers recreational cooking classes. How fun would that be!?

 

Çimdik Mantı, or the hidden gem of Levent

The place: Çimdik Mantı
The source: It’s right by my office
The offerings: soup, salad, mantı, dessert
Price range: 15 TL for soup and mantı
The pros: The best ayva tatlısı in all of Istanbul
The cons: None – I love this place!


Dreading another lunch at Kanyon or Metrocity? Can’t find a spot at Küçük Ev in Levent Carşı? Need a quick, quality meal? Look no further than Çimdik Mantı. It’s tucked away on the corner of Levent Caddesi and Gonca Sokak, a two minute walk from the Levent metro exit.

The decor is simple, the service quick and the menu brief – all great things in my opinion. Although the place makes good mantı (it’s a mantı restaurant after all), the real star is the restaurant’s ayva tatlısı (quince dessert). I’ve been a lover of ayva tatlısı ever since I tasted it at one of my friend’s houses, but this ayva tatlısı takes the cake. It’s not too sweet, the quince is smooth, and it’s topped with a generous helping of kaymak (clotted cream). I had been raving about the dessert to Gürkan for a couple of weeks until he went with a  group of colleagues many of whom ordered up a second helping of ayva tatlısı because it was just that good.

Even without dessert, the mantı is reason enough to visit the restaurant. Sabırtaşı used to be my favorite mantı restaurant, but the portion sizes have been so drastically downsized that Çimdik Mantı is my new go-to mantı place. Each table is stocked up with the obligatory spices of red pepper and oregano – sumac also makes an appearance. The owner told me you can’t have mantı without sumac so I poured it on and I was pleasantly surprised with the result (& happy to discover a new use for sumac!) The broccoli soup is also highly recommended – it comes piping hot and actually has real chunks of broccoli in it.

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Piping hot broccoli soup

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Kayseri style mantı

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Best ayva tatlısı in all of Istanbul

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The offerings

The original Fazil Bey’s Turkish Coffee

 

The place: Fazil Bey’in Turk Kahvesi (Fazil Bey’s Turkish Coffee) in Kadikoy, the original one located in the fish bazaar
The offerings: Turkish coffee, sahlep, filter coffee and more
Price range: 4 – 7 TL
The pros: Traditional Turkish coffee and yummy sahlep served with lokum in an authentic atmosphere
The cons: It’s really small so it can be difficult to find a place to sit & there is no credit card machine


Fazil Bey’s has been one of my favorite cafes since my days at Sabanci University  – the days when I spent a lot of time on the Asian side and trips to Europe were few and far between. Now, that I live in Besiktas, it’s quite a treat to spend some time in Kadikoy, but it also takes a bit of planning.

This week’s occasion was meeting up with my good friend, Alia, who I met while doing my Master’s with Sabanci University. The last time Alia and I had been to Fazil Bey’s was a couple years ago right after I had finished my coursework and before I moved back to the US (momentarily). That day was a snowy one, and I remember climbing the narrow stairs of Fazil Bey’s, shaking off the snow, and sitting down only to fall in love with Fazil Bey’s sahlep. The upstairs was a cozy one with a few disparate tables squeezed into the small area, and the servers had had no shame when it came to telling us when we had overstayed our welcome. To be fair, with very limited seating, I can see how they want to move people in and out as quickly as possible, but to our Midwest sensibilities, this seemed quite the affront!

That’s why this past weekend we decided to check out Fazil Bey’s newer cafe, but it was packed to the brim, and there was no hope of finding a table especially since neither of us wanted to be stuck on the balcony with the copious amounts of second-hand smoke. After a quick stop at Beyaz Firin to grab some acibadem cookies to take home for later, we went to the old Fazil Bey’s and found a prime spot right inside on the first level. We were able to catch up over a round of sahlep and then coffee which are both served with lokum, and the drinks were just as good as I remembered. This time we sat for a couple of hours and it didn’t seem to be an issue at all. We chatted about blogging, recipes, home, work – all the stuff you talk about with a good friend.

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Evening falls on Fazil Bey’s

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Looking down on Turkish coffee preparations

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Coffee nostalgia at Fazil Bey’s. Check out MK drinking his Turkish coffee in the black and white picture center top.

*If you are looking for a real Turkish coffee in a traditional Turkish coffee shop, this is definitely the place to go. I always make it a point to bring guests to this cafe for a Turkish coffee experience, and in my many visits in the last few months, I haven’t felt rushed at all. Must have been a one-time thing!

Keeping it hipster cool at Karabatak Cafe

The place: Karabatak Cafe in Karakoy
The offerings: coffee, tea, dessert (full menu here)
Price range: 5-10 TL for coffee drinks; 12-15 TL for dessert
The pros: Great customer service and atmosphere, English-speaking waitstaff
The cons: Can’t purchase coffee by the lb/kg late in the evenings
Fun fact: Kabatak is the Turkish word for the cormorant bird, often seen on the Bosphorus


On Friday night, we decided to venture over to Karakoy, a neighborhood caught in what seems to be an eternal transitional period.  Once known for its seedy brothels, it’s now the site of hipster cool cafés and chic restaurants. We were recently at Bej – also in Karakoy – for my company’s holiday party and during grad school, I would sometimes attend weekend classes at Sabanci University’s Karakoy building. This time our destination was Karabatak cafe, recommended to me by one of my colleagues. The goal – to get some new coffee for my French press.

After grabbing a bite to eat at Namli Gurme in Karakoy, we set off to find Karabatak. All I knew was that it was by Bej, and sure enough, after only a couple wrong turns, we found it tucked away in a side street. Right when we walked in, we were greeted by several employees all who wanted to help us find a place to sit, and who surprisingly, all seemed to speak fluent English. We settled for a spot by the door right under the bike (see pic below), and took a look at the menu. We both ordered lattes  – the cafe serves Julius Meinl coffee, an Austrian brand – which had come highly recommended. Since it was already 8 p.m. by the time we arrived, the cafe had already run out of most of their desserts (including the cheesecake and brownie) so we settled on a latte cake to share. Again, the waitstaff was super helpful and explained the different options and apologized for having so few selections.

The service was quick and we were soon enjoying our lattes which were delicious and the cake which was not as delicious. I didn’t have high expectations for the dessert because I generally don’t like Turkish cake, so honestly, it wasn’t a surprise – I just wish there had been some cheesecake left!

While sipping my coffee, I had a chance to take a better look at my surroundings, and I had the slightest feeling that I might be somewhere else, maybe Portland or Wicker Park. There was definitely a hipster vibe going on.  The main room had a tractor which doubled as a low coffee table and supported the espresso machine. The walls were all brick with various decorations including vintage coffee paraphernalia. The atmosphere was low-key and backstreet Istanbul cool. From what I’ve heard since visiting, the place has become a bit of a tourist destination, but to me, it didn’t have an overly commercial feel to it.

The only drawback was that it was too late to purchase coffee by the pound which was one of the main reasons for visiting. Not a major problem though since I am already looking forward to stopping by again, probably on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon after exploring Cukurcuma, another one of my new favorite pastimes.


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How to get there: Take the tram to the Karakoy stop and then take Mumhane Caddesi. Karabatak is on a side street right off of Mumhane Caddesi and its sign can be seen from the main road.

What’s coming next?

Thanks to everyone who has given me such great feedback on my blog! This week has been full of activity, but I am hoping to get a few more reviews posted over the weekend.

Here are the restaurants/cafes/pubs  I have visited in the past few weeks that I am still planning to write reviews on:

Kunefis – Besiktas

Pando Kaymak – Besiktas

Asim Usta doner – Besiktas

Sur Ocakbasi – Fatih

45lik – Beyoglu

Cukurcuma 49 – Beyoglu

Tarhun Lokanta – Kadikoy

Fazil Bey’s – Kadikoy

Cimdik Manti – Levent

Some of my colleagues recommended me a few more, so I am hoping that this weekend is full of new discoveries.

Please help me add to my list by posting some names of your favorite restaurants in the comments section. I’ll give you a shout out in my review!

Craft Beer at The Bosphorus Brewing Company

When I first arrived in Turkey (Bursa), the only beer to be found was Efes, and occasionally, the oh-so-cool western import, Miller. Although I was happy to see a familiar product appear in our little student village of Gorukle, we stuck to Efes. For starters, Miller was severely overpriced, and it wasn’t even one of my favorites back home (For my generation, Wisconsin is the home of New Glarus, not Miller). So, let’s just say I was pretty stoked when Bomonti appeared, or rather re-appeared, on the Turkish scene since it has a history thats dates back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. Check out photos of the original Bomonti brewery here. Nowadays, it’s also brewed by Efes, but it’s still a refreshing alternative to its blander cousin especially after the release of Bomonti’s unfiltered version. With Macro Center and most corner convenience stores stocking the likes of Hoegaarden and Leffe these days, the beer selection in Istanbul is without a doubt much more varied than it was just a few years ago. Nevertheless, I was still left with a burning question – did Istanbul have a craft beer culture? It turned out I didn’t have to wait for an answer for long since I kept hearing about a hidden gem over on Yildiz Posta Caddesi.

Yesterday marked my second visit to the Bosphorus Brewing Company, known in most circles as the BBC, this time with some colleagues for after-work drinks (& food). Every once in a while I like to have a decent non-Turkish meal out, and British pub food tops the list of the decidedly few options so I was overeager to try an entrée this time.

Since my roommate ordered fish and chips last time, I gave it a whirl and ordered the same. This time around, however, the portion was noticeably smaller, but the fish and chips were still quite tasty, and exactly what you’d expect of an entrée sporting the name fish and chips. As an added perk, this dish was accompanied with a smushed pea and mint side salad which was surprisingly good. (For the record, the best fish and chips I’ve ever had was at Big and Little’s in Chicago. It’s legendary.) Around the table, people were quite pleased with their entrees (rave reviews for the bacon sandwich and sausage dish), and so was I, but I am not sure I’d order it again at a price tag of 30 TL. You can check out the full menu on the BBC’s website.

The beer, on the other hand, was a completely different story. I ordered up a Halic Gold, my personal favorite, and just like the first time, I was impressed not only with the quality and taste of the beer but also with the clever names (a Cold Turkey anyone?). At approximately 14 TL a pop, I think it’s actually quite reasonable for a craft beer, plus I dig the atmosphere of the place and the waiters’ suspenders are particularly amusing. My days are certainly brighter knowing a craft beer selection is within my reach.

The verdict? Go for a beer or two. It’s well worth the trip to Gayrettepe. If you’re lucky like me, you might even live within walking distance of the BBC, and dropping in for a beer on Sunday night is a great way to dispel what my roommate aptly calls the Monday syndrome. It’s also pretty easy to get to – take the metro to Gayrettepe and it’s a short walk (less than 10 mins) from the station.

FYI: BBC has special set menus for holidays (again, on the website), and proves to be a hit among the expats since it serves pork products. The pub also gets quite busy so I’d definitely recommend making a reservation if you are a larger group.

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First trip to BBC with the roomies

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The scene of the magic

Liver it up at Canım Ciğerim

I thought I’d start the blog off right with one of our favorite standbys, Canım Ciğerim, in Asmalımescit right off of İstiklal Caddesi. Take the metro to Şişhane and you’re only a five minute walk away. Check out the map below:

Featured in the book İstanbul Arka Sokak Lezzetleri (I think there is also an English edition available), this restaurant has been reviewed time and again, so there’s really not much more I can say about it, other than go there! Famous for its ciğer (liver), Canım Ciğerim also offers a chicken or meat option for those not keen on liver, myself included. The portions are quite large, so you can also opt for the half portion. All meals are served with a spread of mezzes including parsley, mint, raw onions with sumac, lemons, pickled peppers, ezme, and friend onions and peppers. Lavaş (flat bread) is perfect for grabbing the meat off the skewers and wrapping it up with all the fixins.’

The only drawback? We went on New Year’s Day, and as usual, the place was busy. The waiters seemed a bit stretched and we didn’t get our second plate of fried onions we ordered until we were almost finished with the meal.

2 meals & 2 ayrans were a little over 40 TL. Not terrible considering the location. Our bellies were full and Gurkan’s craving for liver quenched. Mission complete!

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Street view of Canim Cigerim on Minare Sokagi

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Gurkan eyeing his liver

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The spread at Canim Cigerim