Eating Istanbul: Four Restaurants, One Day

Four restaurants, one day. Why travel any other way?
pide dough
The friendly staff at Halil Lahmacun preparing the fresh dough for the brick oven
I do my research before heading to big cities. I know that there is good food to be found, but I also know that it can be quite difficult to do so. Too many tourist-based restaurants lose heart on cooking because they come to feel that impressing the customer is unimportant since they won't be returning anyway.

I ensure that these places are skipped.

After reading reviews from Istanbul's revered food bloggers at Istanbuleats.com, TripAdvisor, and a few other web sources, I carefully mapped out a food trail based on taste and value for our brief four days in the big city.
istanbul fish market
Walking through the fish sector in Kadikoy, en route to our Lahmacun contest
You can read about a few of the places we hit in our first two days at the Old City by clicking here.

Come day number three, we found that our friend Kylie, whom we met on Nar's farm, would be visiting the Kadikoy region of the city with the farmers to sell at an organic bazaar, so before we visited her and the crew, we explored the area and tested out two nearby places famed for Turkish lahmacun.

istanbul fresh vegetables
Fresh vegetables in Kadikoy
fresh mushrooms istanbul
Fresh musrooms, cheese, and eggs, oh my!
cheese in goat skin
Erzincan Deri Tulum, or "sheeps cheese in goats pelt"...and that's exactly what it is. Care for some olives?
phyllo dough pile
Oh phyllo dough. You've overwhelmed me once again, and I literally want to be wrapped within you.
Lahmacun ("la-mah-jun") is a traditional Turkish dish that is often called "Turkish pizza," but I'm not going to explicitly compare it to pizza for fear of leading you astray. It is not pizza any more than a blackberry is a raspberry...but there are some similarities.

Simply put, lahmacun is its own thing. It's Turkish and it's wonderful, just as you would expect. 
typical turkish breakfast
When you're dining amongst a culture that casually sets up a breakfast like this while at the workplace, you should expect great things. This was a small shopped we popped into to ask directions to our Lahmacun joints.
Nevertheless, while lahmacun may be found all over Istanbul, it's not easy to find one that's actually made with any sort of passion. After reading about two places that placed first and second for lahmacun according to IstanbulEats.com, we had a pretty fair idea of where we needed to go. These two places roll out the homemade dough by hand, add the toppings, and slide it into brick oven within about one minute of your placing the order.

We decided to do a taste test between these two places, so we started things off at Borsam Tas Firin Lahmacun
best lahmacun
best pide
best lahmacun istanbul
The guys at Borsam Tas Firin Lahmacun are pretty fun, too. They hammed it up for my investigation and even did some acrobatics for me.
I knew it would be good when I asked to start the meal with a Turkish coffee and the manager solemnly denied my request, telling me that it wouldn't taste good with the food we had ordered.

These are people who care about your food experience.

The crust of the lahmacun, only about as thick as a saltine cracker, somehow had layers of texture. 
Only a true artist can create a textural experience so memorable out of so few ingredients: A crispy bite, a soft interior, then a lingering flirtation of dough that absolutely melts in your mouth.
best lahmacun
The lahmacun, with diced lamb, a light tomato sauce, onions, garlic, parsley, and lemon on the side

best pide istanbul
We also ordered Pide, or a canoe-shaped "pita" (a dense, crusty version of the pita we're familiar with) with cheese and various meats 
Our second destination, Halil Lahmacun, was just around the corner, and it certainly gets points for its no-frills simplicity. A gruff chef "greets" you as you walk in, ready to roll out the dough and make the magic happen. There are two food options, one traditional lahmacun and one Peynirli Pide ("with-cheese pita"), and at a price of about $1.50 each you should probably get as much as you can handle.

We found the traditional ground meat topping at Borsam Tas Firin to be more a bit more flavorful than Halil's because you could really taste the barnyardy flavor of the lamb. This is because the minced lamb is only cooked for the amount of time it takes for the dough to finish, which yields rather rare lamb. It's a strong flavor that I'm not typically a huge fan of, but I respect as the way it should be. 
lahmacun dough
The chef waits for magic time
halil lahmacun
Peynirli Pide with Turkish cheese, parsley, lemon, and butter with lahmacun in the background
Halil's Peynirli Pide, with a topping of ­­­cheese, parsley, a touch of egg, was perhaps my favorite food so far, and since the other restaurant didn't have this option, I might end up frequenting Halil more often because I prefer it to the meat topping.

The lahmacun fromBorsam Tas Firin Lahmacun emerged victorious in both our minds, but only by a hair. The expert crust and tangy lamb did us in.

Two restaurants in one hour and we had at least learned one thing other than we had eaten too much: Never buy a pre-made lahmacun in Istanbul. The stakes are simply too high.

After visiting Kylie at the Bazaar for a couple hours, we decided that it was time to eat...again. We meandered back to our final stop in that section of Istanbul: Kebapci Iskender.
best iskender istanbul
It doesn't matter how full you are, never, ever pass up the opportunity to eat at this place. Bar none, it is my most memorable food experience so far in Turkey. Ok, maybe not more memorable than the schmorgasboards we encountered at Nar's farm, but it takes the cake for restaurant experiences.

It has a simple formula: slice long shavings of lamb that has cooked by slowly spinning in front of a vertical fire (thus braising itself), place on a pillow of roasted and diced Turkish pita bread smeared with a savory tomato sauce, bring to the customer's table, and at the very last minute pour bubbling and aromatic browned butter over the top.
butter kebab
Our Iskender Kebab with butter-soaked lamb slices, doughy bites of warm pita, fresh tomato, and tangy sheep yogurt
iskender lamb kebab
The famous Iskender set-up, established by the one and only Iskender Efendi in the late 19th century
And speaking of over the top, could a formula that ends in a melted butter bath ever really fail?

Every bite made me swoon, and I will swoon for years to come.

Somehow, we forced ourselves to stop eating and once again crossed over the river to make our way to our Couchsurfing destination at the flat of our new Turkish friend Ismael.
istanbul bay
Leaving Kadikoy to ferry it back over to the Old City.
Overlooking the city and the sea in Ismael's flat, we had a relaxing night drinking a few Turkish beers and dining at a nearby restaurant that served what you might call Turkish home cookin'.

Yes, we ate again.

And tomorrow we will eat even more.

2 comments:

  1. Looks like you've been having a good time! Happy eating in Istanbul!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've realized it's impossible to have a bad time when you devote your day to eating in a place like Istanbul...!

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