Easter celebrations in Istanbul

After my roommates surprised me with a birthday cake at my favorite cafe in Istanbul, my roommate Nazli and I were off to meet up with her Greek friends who were in town. Although we found ourselves in Asmalimescit post-dinner, we made a point to make it to church to take part in the Easter celebrations. First, we stopped in at Saint Antoine‘s Catholic church, Istiklal’s most famous church, and found it was extremely busy. Plenty of people were attending the service and others like ourselves were stopping by to see what was going on.

Around 11:15 p.m. we decided it was time to head over to the Beyoğlu Panagia Rum Ortodoks Kilisesi, a Greek Orthodox church nestled behind J’adore, a little cafe famous for its hot chocolate. I had always wanted to visit this church but had never seen the gates open, and as many Istanbulites know, it’s hard to get into religious institutions in Turkey if you aren’t a member of the congregation. Earlier this year, I had attended a wedding at the Neve Shalom synagogue in Galata. Security had shut down the entire street and wedding guests had to show a special invitation card to the guards in order to enter. A couple of American tourists had sauntered down the street, and when they were unable to speak in Hebrew, they weren’t allowed inside. At the time, I didn’t know that this particular synagogue had been the target of terrorist attacks so I had found the heightened security excessive, but plaques inside detailed the synagogue’s unfortunate history. In 2010, I attended a concert to commemorate Gomidas, his life and music, at the Armenian church tucked away in the fish bazaar right off of Istiklal. People packed in to see the rendition of Gomidas’ liturgical music, and the concert had been such a milestone for the community that more than a few looked on through tears.

This Easter eve, the Greek Orthodox Church had its gates open and by the time we got there, it was nearly full although not as packed as Saint Antoine’s. The church was breathtakingly beautiful and ornate, and the crowd was fairly diverse with Greeks, Russians, and Georgians among others. Lucky for Nazli and I, we had her Greek friends to show us the ropes. We picked up some candles at the door and found some seats close to where the hymns were being read. Once the reading was done, the lights were turned off and everyone went to the front of the church to light their candle from the priest’s flame. Then everyone followed the priest into the courtyard to commemorate the moment of resurrection. The church bells rung loud and people enjoying their drinks up and down Istiklal were probably wondering what was going on at the church at midnight. Many people returned for the the rest of the service, but we were tired and headed home so we could get up to dye Easter eggs the following morning. Nazli and I also said a silent hallelujah that this Easter service was much more pleasant and welcoming than our last one together at the local Protestant Church in Bursa, a story for another time.

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Lighting candles from the priest’s flame

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In the courtyard for the moment of resurrection

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Celebrating Easter at the Panagia Greek Orthodox Church

 

 

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Georgia on my mind at The Galata House

The place: The Galata House (Galata Evi), or commonly known as the British prison restaurant
The offerings: Georgian food  & wine; Russian and Tatar dishes
Price range: 25 – 30 TL for main entree; wine starting at 18 TL/glass
The pros: LIVE MUSIC & it’s open late
The cons: Tucked away on a side street, this restaurant can be a challenge to find


The Galata House is a real treat, and if you can find it, it will surely be an unforgettable experience. My friend Olivia and I went on a weekday evening, and even though I had called ahead to make a reservation, it wasn’t necessary. Only a few other groups came in the entire evening. The Galata House is not the sort of restaurant where you eat and get up and leave. Think of it as a restaurant where you plan to spend the whole evening – similar to meyhane culture.

With a selection of seasonal mezzes and several stew and manti-style entrees, the menu is very short and simple. It also indicates where each dish comes from with the majority of dishes being Georgian and a few Tatar and Russian dishes. I tried the lamb stew in plum sauce (Georgian) and Olivia tried the saffron chicken dish (also Georgian). We passed on the mezzes since the eggplant one we were eyeing wasn’t in season. The  menu’s timeline also lays out the restaurant’s history, and indeed, it was a British prison at one time, although briefly.

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Lamb stew in plumb sauce

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Saffron chicken dish

The restaurant has a nice selection of alcohol (raki, wine, beer) with the highlight being the Georgian wine. Although I didn’t try a glass (a bit pricey at 26 TL), I did have a glass of Turkish red wine. The lady came to take our food and drink orders and we were shocked when her husband came to pour the wine and filled our glasses to the brim. He kept chatting away, and meanwhile, he poured until our glasses were completely full. He was a charming man who told us about living in New York where he had worked on community development projects in an Italian neighborhood many years ago.

We had just finished our meal and had started to entertain the idea of going to Sensus Wine House to continue the evening when the lady that she would start to play piano. The table of Turks next to us ignored the announcement so again, she said somewhat sternely ‘kizlar, I’m going to start playing’. We had no idea what we were in for, but we were utterly shocked when she started singing. Her voice was absolutely beautiful, and that beautiful music recording that had been playing all night in the background? I’m sure it was a recording of her. Everyone in the dining room got up and went to the opposite room to watch her play.

 

We no longer had any intentions of leaving so we ordered up a Georgian chocolate cake so we could enjoy the music for longer!

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Georgian chocolate cake

A hint on finding the restaurant: When facing the Galata Tower with Istiklal Avenue towards your back, walk on the right side (the side with Senus Wine House), and continue to the back of the Tower. Take the street leading towards the church (see map). The Galata House is very close to Rapunzel Hostel which locals will probably be familiar with if you ask. I asked several people for Galata Evi and no one seemed to know it by name, so I’d stick to asking for the hostel. Ring the doorbell at Galata House and you’ll be welcomed at the front door. You can also get there by taking a side street leading up from Bankalar Caddesi in Karakoy.

Rainy evenings in Ortakoy

Ortakoy is not exactly the place you usually find yourself on a cold, rainy Istanbul evening but my friend Olivia was in town and I wanted her to try Ortakoy’s famous kumpir (giant stuffed potato). Since most of the week it was raining, we had no choice but to bundle up against the Bosphorus chill and walk to Ortakoy at least of those rainy evenings. Along the way, we passed Ciragan Palace, and I excitedly told Gurkan and Olivia how I been invited by Zomato to a baklava-making class at Ciragan. (Istanbul foodies – check out Zomato if you haven’t already!)

For the most part, Ortakoy’s jewelry and souvenir stands had been packed up for the day and the throngs of people that you usually find there were non-existent. It was unbelievably quiet and peaceful. We stopped at kumpir stand #6 which is the one we always go to in Ortakoy. As usual, the lady told us that if we were still hungry after the first kumpir, the second one was on the house. Yeah, right. One kumpir is enough to put me in a food coma – I can’t imagine what two would feel like. My favorite toppings are kisir (bulgur salad), corn, haydari (yogurt with herbs), and extra kasar cheese, and on this particular night, the man making the kumpir was particularly generous. For those of who you don’t know kumpir, there are plenty of other toppings to chose from such as: olives, spicy ezme spread, pickles, Russian salad (a sort of pasta salad), etc. When it comes to kumpir, the possibilities are endless. They are also fun and easy to make at home if you can get by with only preparing a few toppings (with a big group, that might be difficult) The main difference with an American-style baked potato is the sheer variety of toppings and the way the kumpirci mixes in the butter and kasar cheese before adding the toppings.

Despite being full after kumpir, we had designated it a street food sort of night so the eating continued. Next up were waffles with hazelnut spread/Nutella/strawberries/bananas/nuts for Olivia and Gurkan while I dreamed about  midye dolma (mussels stuffed with rice). Before heading back to our neighborhood, I talked the others into a few rounds of midye dolma in Besiktas, and by the time we made it home, we were cold and wet, but had very full stomachs.

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Olivia enjoys a waffle in front of the kumpir stands. Kumpir stand #6 is on the far right in this picture.

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Olivia and I bundled up against the Bosphorus chill

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A peaceful evening in Ortakoy

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Potatoes as big as your head!

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?

Runway show at Istanbul Fashion Week

My friend Olivia was visiting from Boston this past week and we were lucky enough to get tickets to Istanbul Fashion Week thanks to the help of my roommate. It was my first fashion show so I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was surprised to see that not everyone attending was dressed in high fashion. I know it’s not New York Fashion Week, but I expected to see more extreme outfits. Everything appeared to be on the wearable spectrum. This was lucky for me since I had come right from work in the pouring rain and didn’t feel horribly out of place.

Before the runway show, we had a chance to walk around and check out the various promotional booths  and shoot a few Ellen-style selfies in front of the Istanbul Fashion Week backdrop. When we finally entered the runaway area, I was surprised to see that it was exactly how I  pictured it based on what I’d seen in the media. We took a second row seat right next to where the models walked out – a perfect location to see the the models and garments up close.

The show we attended was Tuba Ergin‘s ‘Giga-Bites’ 2014 Fall/Winter collection. You can watch it in its entirety here. I thought the music and backdrop complemented the collection nicely, and I was happy to see relatively healthy-looking models. My favorite garment was the short black dress on the blonde model towards the end of the video clip. Although the video clip doesn’t do the dress justice, it had a really nice shape and looked great in person.

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The opening of Giga-Bites

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Models walk the runway

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The finale

We also ran into fashion photographer friends M & F Barranco who were photographing Istanbul Fashion Week. Check out their awesome work here.

Exploring Çengelköy on a Sunday afternoon

This Sunday we decided to explore Cengelkoy, a neighborhood on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Neither Gurkan nor I had been there before, so it was a first for both of us. All I knew was that Cengelkoy was famous for cucumbers and borek.

The trip there was frustrating. After landing in Uskudar via the Besiktas ferry, we got on a bus and found ourselves in bumper to bumper traffic all the way to Cengelkoy. After getting off the bus in the wrong place and walking in the rain, we managed to find Cengelkoy Borekcisi. And that was when the day took a turn for the better.

At Cengelkoy Borekcisi, we ordered cheese and minced meat borek. Although we couldn’t find a place at the Tarihi Cengelkoy Cinaralti Cay Bachesi, we snagged a bench by the seaside instead. The borek was hands down the best I’ve ever had in Istanbul. Not only that, it was much cheaper than anything we could ever find in our neighborhood.

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Cengelkoy Borekcisi at the entrance to the Cinaralti Cay Bahcesi

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Meat and cheese-filled borek

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The view from the Tarihi Cinaralti Cay Bachesi

Afterwards, we walked along the coast up to the military high school and back. The sun was out by then and so were the fishermen. We watched a few reel in some fish and admired the wooden fishing boats.

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Wooden boats

Back in the main part of Cengelkoy, we had dinner at Cigerci Cengelkoy. Gurkan had the Arnavut Cigeri and I chose the Edirne Cigeri (fried sliced liver). It was only my second time eating Edirne style liver and the first time eating it outside of Edirne, but it was quite good. As for the Arnavut Cigeri, I am not sure what makes it special because it just looked like cubed, fried liver to me. Anyways, we were pleased. The service was great.

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Serving up liver at Cigerci Cengelkoy

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Edirne Cigeri (front) & Arnavut Cigeri (back) with piyaz (bean salad)

The dogs of Cengelkoy are also much cleaner and nicer than most of Istanbul’s stray dogs. According to the waiter, this one (Cakir) really likes liver, too.

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Cakir begs for liver

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He got a head scratch instead

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Sunset over the Bosphorus

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!?