Homemade food with a twist of Tarsus

Not only does Dört Kadıköy serve up good coffee  and hospitality, they also get a thumbs up for their recommendation to visit Sımsıcak Ev Yemekleri, a restaurant just a few storefronts down the street. At first my friends and I were just going to stop in for a tea since we had had our fill of coffee and desserts at Dört, but we certainly couldn’t say no to all the mouth-watering dishes on display. We ordered a huge spread and sat down to eat while at the same time informally interviewing the owner.

Sımsıcak Ev Yemekleri (translation: really hot homemade food) features a set menu of dishes which customers pick from the display up front, and they also rotate in different dishes depending on what’s fresh and in season at the local market. The owner’s family is originally from Tarsus, and thus, he also tries to incorporate goods from the Tarsus area when possible such as olive oil and pomegranate sauce, dried veggies, and spices.

Like Helvetia in Asmalımescit, Sımsıcak has several dishes for the vegetarian crowd, and for everyone worried about whether the veggies we eat in Istanbul restaurants are cleaned well, don’t fret at Sımsıcak. They wash all their vegetables three times, yes that’s right, three times. First in water, then in vinegar, and again, rinsed in water. And for those lamenting the amount of plastic bottles used in restaurants, Sımsıcak has one large water cooler where you can fill up your water glass, enormously cutting down on the amount of wasted plastic.

In addition to an amazing karnıyarıkone of my all-time favorite Turkish dishes – the restaurant’s two standouts were the eggplant puree and çıntar mantar. Eggplant puree is a standard Turkish dish made by roasting eggplant over a gas-burning stove and then pureeing it. Delicious, right? Well, as much as I like eggplant, I often find the finished puree to be too strong on the palette, either because of the burnt flavor or the bitterness of the fruit. Sımsıcak’s eggplant puree, however, was so smooth that for a split second, I doubted that it was even eggplant. When we asked the owner about his magical puree, he told us about a secret ingredient he incorporates into the dish. Where he got the idea for it is baffling since it’s not a common ingredient  used in traditional Turkish cooking, but it’s genius all the same. He did, however, ask us to keep the secret ingredient a secret, so I’m keeping my word.

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Karnıyarık, split eggplant stuffed with minced meat

The other highlight was the çıntar mantar, a mushroom which grows in Tarsus on the cedar tree but can also be found on kızılçam (red pines) in the Kanlıca area of Istanbul. I had never heard of çıntar mantar before, and in fact, I have been struggling to find the correct English translation but another blogger has referred to it as a Saffron Milk Cap. To be honest, I thought it was ciğer (liver) at first  due to its meaty appearance, and when I tasted it, it certainly had a meatier texture (& better taste!) than the standard table mushroom. For this very reason, the çıntar mantar is an ideal meat substitute and may feature in some of Sımsıcak’s dishes traditionally made with meat. Mushroom-stuffed mantı, anyone?

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Chopped çıntar mantar with grated vegetables

Just when you are starting to think that you might be enjoying a homemade meal made by your favorite Turkish abla, teyze, or kaynana, you are kindly reminded by the mustachioed Charlie Chaplin on the wall that you are in Kadıköy after all, and that you’ll step out into the streets to be swept up in the energy of Istanbul. But don’t forget to pay the bill first, and trust me, Sımsıcak Ev Yemekleri is quite the deal!

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Zucchini stew with mint

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Lentil balls (mercimek köfte) with assorted pickles

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Saçaklı köfte (meatballs with shredded potato) on a bed of potatoes, peppers, and eggplant with yogurt

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Meatballs on-the-go at Ekspres İnegöl Köftecisi

The place: Ekspres İnegöl Köftecisi
The offerings: İnegöl-style meatballs,  meatball sandwiches, bean salad (piyaz)
Price range: A portion of İnegöl meatballs for 12 TL; half sandwich to-go for 6 TL
The pros: Family restaurant, fast service, and reasonably priced
The cons: This place gets really busy on the weekends! 


Ekspres İnegöl Köftecisi is not a tourist destination but it is the perfect place for everyone else – families with kids and grandparents in tow, students on a budget, and locals looking for a quick and tasty fill. I was first introduced to this restaurant as a student at Sabanci University when I was a frequent visitor to Kadıköy on the weekends. Since then, the place has gotten a face lift and the food is just as tasty as ever.

My recommendation is to try the İnegöl köfte, a special type of meatball originating in İnegöl (Bursa). A portion comes with a generous helping of fries and a spicy sauce on the side. I always get the piyaz (bean salad in olive oil) as well. It’s a perfect appetizer to share and I think Ekspres İnegöl Köftecisi’s piyaz beats out any contenders.

The service at Ekspres İnegöl Köftecisi is quick (I mean, really quick), so don’t be surprised if your food comes before you’ve even finished ordering it. At the counter, the waiters prepare the dishes assembly line-style and most customers order the meatballs so they’ve got this down to a science. On the other hand, the restaurant can get really busy on the weekends with families, and during those times, you might have to remind the waiter once or twice to bring you that ayran you ordered.

If you’re lucky, you can snag one of the few tables set up outside the restaurant. If the weather is nice, it’s the perfect place to enjoy your meal and do a bit of people-watching. I brought my parents here when they were visiting Istanbul, and we waited for a few minutes to get a table outside – it was definitely worth it!

The restaurant also has a pick-up window right inside the front door. For only 6 TL you can get a half-bread meatball sandwich (12 TL for the full sandwich). Friends and I recently picked up sandwiches to-go and took them to the Caddebostan seaside where we enjoyed them sitting by the water.

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How to get there: From Europe, take a ferry to Kadıköy. At the iskele, cross Rihtim Caddesi and head towards the Starbucks on your right hand side (near Bambi). Ekspres İnegöl Köftecisi is a couple store fronts up from the corner Starbucks.

The Turkish breakfast of champions

You know you’ve grown accustomed to life in Turkey when you can’t imagine starting your weekend without a large Turkish breakfast. You stock up on all the goods at your local bazaar and invite friends over so it can be enjoyed by all. Custom has it that your guests will reciprocate and host you for breakfast in the future.

One of my Turkish breakfast rules is that it should be enjoyed at home not at a restaurant. I refrain from eating breakfast out because 1) it’s almost never worth the price and 2) the taste and quality just isn’t as good as a breakfast prepared at home especially if you live with friends like I do whose parents are always sending goodies from their hometowns.

There is, however, one exception to the no-breakfast out rule, and that is breakfast under the historical Cinar Tree in Bursa’s Inkaya village. The Cinar Tree (English: Plane Tree) itself is a destination – the tree’s plaque says it’s 600 years old and it’s so large that it requires metal supports to hold up its branches in some places. Busloads of Turkish tourists and schoolchildren are always milling around, taking group pictures, and snacking on gozleme under the tree.

The breakfasts are large and one breakfast is plenty for two people (order one and ask for service for two). Each breakfast comes with a caydanlik of tea, a hardboiled egg, a variety of cheeses, butter, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, kaymak with honey and walnuts, kahvalti saltca (a spread of tomato paste, walnuts, garlic and olive oil), jam, seasonal fruit, and of course, a basket of bread. With a group of people, I like to order the village-style eggs with sucuk (spicy pork-less sausage) as well. The eggs come runny and the sucuk is high quality.

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The breakfast spread at Cinar

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Village eggs with sucuk

After breakfast, I always end up in the restaurant’s kitchen where I like to fill up my jars from home with the restaurant’s kahvalti salca. Although it’s easy to find in Istanbul, I haven’t found anything comparable to the kahvalti saltca served at the Cinar Tree. You can also fill up on jam, and the restaurant’s quince jam is especially good.

Don’t forget to snap some pictures in front of the tree and check out the nearby stands selling fresh fruit and souvenirs including reasonably-priced Iznik dishes. If the day is young (and it should be if you are having breakfast!), you can continue up the mountain road for a day at Uludag Mountain. Skiing and sledding in the winter, picnics and hiking in the summer. Otherwise, head back downtown via Tophane and continue your village adventures at the historic Cumalikizik vilage.

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The 600 year old Cinar Tree

How to get to Cinar: It is possible to get there by bus from Altiparmak in the city center, but the bus runs infrequently (only once an hour) so you must rush through breakfast or plan on sticking around for a couple of hours. My recommendation is to take a car (we tend to rent a car for our weekends in Bursa). The morning will be much more relaxing and enjoyable and you can stick around for a cup of Turkish coffee.

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?

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

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