Below is a report on restaurants in Istanbul from a May’07 trip. None of the restaurants are “finds” or unknown; they were culled from a variety of sources, including chowhound, other web sites, and guidebooks. Also, none are hole in the walls or street food, but average priced for a sit-down dinner. (Btw, local Istanbulus friends thought the listing in the Time Out Istanbul guidebook were on target. If you’re in Istanbul for a week or so, it might also be worth grabbing a copy the weekly Time Out Istanbul, English language eds of which can be found in many newsstands, especially in touristy areas such as Sultanahmet).
Probably the most memorable meal we had was at Galata House. The place is difficult to find*, on a dark, residential street, with no other commerce in sight and a very modest sign over the door. It used to be the British civil prison and was purchased about 15 years ago by a couple, Mete and Nadire Goktug, who are architects and planners and who turned it into a restaurant. The dining spaces are lovely (2 floors) and if you’re lucky, you might get a table in the upstairs courtyard. Snug and surrounded by high walls that are charmingly lit, the place is evocative. The food is Russian and Georgian and was for me a welcome break in a 10-day visit. Mete and Nadire are happy to make recommendations; the mixed appetizer plate was terrific, the only disappointment in it the yogurt with squash (the walnut spread was splendid, as was the eggplant filled with walnuts, as was the beet salad [and I’m not a fan of beets]). The lamb with plum sauce was terrific (the sauce a tart surprise) and the veal goulash solid. The best part of the evening, however, was a long conversation with Mete, a fascinating and worldly man who knows the city of Istanbul intimately and has read everything it seems. Perhaps because we were there on a Sun night late, we had a lengthy conversation with him in which I learned much about the history of Istanbul, it’s nooks and crannies, it’s past and present. Mete is a genuine host and seems to love conversation; just ask him a question and you’ll have a splendid conversation in which you’ll learn much, possibly even about your corner of the world. [Galata Kulesi Sokak 61, Galata (0112 245 1861; www.thegalatahouse.com)]
*Getting to Galata House: Take the tram to Karakoy. When you get off, you’ll have to cross the wide street to your left towards the Tunel funicular station (there is also an underpass but most folks seem to prefer to dodge the traffic and I would certainly avoid the underpass at dark). Having crossed the street that the tram runs on, walk north, past the wide intersection, past a plaza-ish space, upon which you’ll get to another street. Straight ahead, a bit to the left, you’ll see a set of steep steps going upward and a sign saying “Galata Tower.” DON’T take these steps (they will, predictably, take you to the Tower which is too far north), but take a left at the street and perhaps two or three streets up is Galata Kulesi Sokak, where you take a right GH is on the right up a steep hill and past a curve.
Our next best meal was at Sofyali 9 (the “i” at the end is the dotless “i”), a lovely restaurant in Beyoglu, near Tunel square, at the bottom of Istiklal Caddesi. The meze here were spectacular, a cut above. The waiters come around with a large tray with meze and you just point to what you want. The white beans with olives, pickled lemons and dill were superb, as were the leeks (a simple and fragrant preparation), the seaweed, and the walnut paste. Sofyali is a grill place and the kofta and lamb kebab were some of the best I had in Istanbul. [Sofyali Sokak 9, Tunel (0112 245 0362)].
Also in Beyoglu, on Istiklal Caddesi was a sweet shop that I’ve been dreaming about since I first saw it and kicking myself for not bringing boxes of sweets back. Saray has superb baklava. Even if you don’t like baklava, you ought to try theirs (I seldom eat sweets and loved theirs which weren’t too sweet). I got various shapes and sizes, all made with ground pistachio, and each was better than the last! Go there, point at various different types of baklava, and get a box. You won’t regret it. (Istiklal Caddesi, 102; closer to the Taksim Square end).
Everyone recommends Balikci Sabahattin (both “i”s in the first word are dotless and the “c” has a cedilla) in the Sultanahmet area, and it IS very good. I highly recommend the house appetizer, mussels with rice. They are excellent, flavored with what I’m guessing is star anise (at least that’s what it tasted like to me, although I don’t know if that’s a spice used in Turkish cooking). The hot appetizer of monkfish was recommended and I’m grateful for the recommendation: the fish comes on a fajita-like pan and is cooked with tomatoes and bell peppers and is delicious. [Seyit Hasan Kuyu Sokak 1, off Cnkurtaran Caddesi (012` 4581824); reservations are essential]
The restaurant at the Istanbul Modern (take the tram to Tophane and it’s a short walk from there) is well worth the trip for it splendid location. Housed in an old warehouse, the Modern is perched high and right at the conflux of the Golden Horn and Bosphorous. If you sit on the deck, you’ll have a wonderful view: on the one hand the Topkapi palace, Aya Sofya, and Blue Mosque, on the other the Beyoglu area and Galata Tower. The place is leisurely and the food very good: the artichoke appetizer was splendid and the manti very, very good.
The food at Asitane, which is right next to the Kariye [or Church of St Chora (you should, btw, make it a point to go to this beautiful church which as some spectacular mosaics and frescoes)] is very good and they have a lovely outdoor garden, but the service leaves much to be desired, especially for a place with its pretensions and prices. Our meal was given to another table and we were kept waiting more than an hour for a replacement. They were apologetic, but we hadn’t really planned to take a two-hour lunch and were annoyed to get stuck in the neighborhood because traffic out of it is hideous after 3pm. Given that, I will say that lamb shank was excellent: subtly flavored and falling off the bone in just the way it should. The sea bass in parchment was also very good, as was the appetizer of chard filled with bulger wheat. If you get the “Fava” appetizer (which I do recommend because it is so unusual), know that this is not beans, but some sort of paste that then seems to have been steamed and dressed with dill. [Kariye Camii Sokak 18, Edirnekapy (0212 635 7997;www.kariyeotel.com/asitane.htm)]
Hamdi in Eminonu is a grill place and very good. If you want a seat on the top floor (you do, for the brilliant view of the Galata Bridge and across), make reservations. Otherwise there are 4 other floors and you’ll have little trouble getting a table. The service is brisk and the grilled meats very good. The meze are fine - not great, not bad. [Kalcin Sokak 17, Tahmi Caddesi, Eminonu (0121 528 0390)].
Finally, I’ll underscore what everyone says: avoid eating in Sultanahmet (with the one exception noted above) The food is bland, disappointing, and not worth the price. It’s a great location to stay in (both for the sights and the tram line) but not to eat in. We ate at several joints and can only recommend two, both less for their food as for their truly spectacular views from the top floor or rooftop (Dubb Indian Restaurant, Incili Cavus Sokak 10, 0212 513 7308 and Seven Hills Restaurant).
One final note tangentially related to restaurants: bathrooms in Istanbul can be a challenge (the Modern’s and Astine’s are striking exceptions that get top marks); I recommend carrying a tissue pack in your bag.