"You're going to Istanbul again? Why?" Was the response many of my friends and acquaintances when I told them we were headed back to Istanbul. Even though we'd always spoke about returning to Laos or Peru, we'd never gotten around to pulling the trigger. And here we were headed back to Istanbul, and yes, even Greece, though this time it was the island of Rhodes, a place I'd been wanting to visit.
So why Istanbul? We really loved visiting last year, the history, the people, the vibrancy, but perhaps not as much the food.......strange. We compared many of the dishes we ate during our trip with what we enjoy at Sultan and though there would be singular dishes that surpassed those at our favorite Turkish restaurant, both of us were quite impressed at how the food at Sultan stood up. Soon after our trip I took stock of how much effort I really put into researching restaurants in Istanbul. It turns out that even though I had a list, the trip was overwhelmingly about sites and history....we'd often be too tired or lazy to go and search out places and ended up spending all of our time in Sultanahmet, Sirkeci, and Eminonu. Easy enough to do, I suppose since there's so much to see and do. But plane fares seemed reasonable and the Missus wanted to fly out of San Diego instead of making the rather long trip, bus from the house, train to Union Station, then bus to LAX, then the reverse or some facsimile on the way back....which was even worse. So there we were, back in Istanbul.
We arrived around midnight so by the time we made it to our hotel, we were booked into the Hotel Djem again, it was time to crash.
The hotel has gotten even better over the last year, good wi-fi, even conditioner.......during the first leg of our trip we stayed in the new "annex" location, a very large room. The front desk staff had changed over, but they were a nice bunch.
The first place the Missus wanted to see after breakfast was the Blue Mosque yet again.
Known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, it is an imposing, yet beautiful, fully functional mosque. Our hotel sat right behind it.
I had wondered where the wash area outside the mosque was. It is important that certain parts of the body be washed before formal prayers, but had never noticed it before. It is discreetly located right next to the stairs.
Our next stop......well I did mention wanting to revists Hagia Sofia. Which is what we did. The lines weren't as long as on our previous visit and we had the drill down....get your ticket and head straight for the interior getting there before the tours and ohter tourists. Heading upstairs you can really understand how grand the place is.
I was fascinated by this marble door on our previous visit.......I didn't know what the significance of it was. Well, it's called, what else, the "Marble Door" and participants of synods used the door to enter and exit meetings.
The amazing thing about Hagia Sofia is, that no matter how many hundreds of people are in the place at once.......it never seems totally filled.
As we left Hagia Sofia, I was on a mission........we needed to get out of the area and to some of the more well known eateries. "Lokantas" are eateries where working stiffs traditionally got their fill of good home style cooking. Many of the items are in steam tables and you pick what you want. Before you go where I think you're going....this ain't Panda Express, as lokantasi have become a key player in bringing the cuisine of Turkey to the forefront. Here's a great article from The Guardian. One place that I saw constantly mentioned over the last year on food forums and blogs like Istanbul Eats is Ciya Sofrasi, having been called a "culinary shrine" and even "the best restaurant in Turkey", among others. Ciya is located on the Asian side of the Bosphorus....so this time we were actually using the ferry, not taking a tour. The fare is cheap....2 TRY, about $1.10 gets you across the Bosphorus.
Beyond just the metro and tram to and from the airport, we'd find out just how good the transit system was in Istanbul on this trip. Taking the ferry is a snap. you just find the station for whichever area you're going to, put your 2 Lira in the entrance gate and wait in line.......also, folks in Turkey, in spite of a rather serious looking demeanor, are generally very helpful and nice.
Here's what the Asian side looks like from the ferry.
About 40 minutes or so later......you're getting off in Kadikoy.
It looks like a middle class residential-business area. The part of Kadikoy where Ciya Sofrasi is located contains a ton of restaurants, vegetable, and seafood stands.
So we decided to walk around to kill time. We found a shop that sold coffee and inquired about a place that actually made a good cup of proper Turkish coffee. We were directed a couple of door down.
Turkish coffee takes a while to make. And it was kind of funny trying to tell the shop owner exactly what we wanted since he spoke no English.
A quick word about drinking Turkish coffee. If you ever get a cup, let it sit for a minute or more, the coffee is very fine and unfiltered, you get a mouthful of finely ground coffee if you don't let the coffee settle to the bottom of the cup.
Walking back to the coffee seller the Missus bought a packet of sahlep......She's been wanting to get some.
We arrived back at Ciya and the place was just opening. The owner and chef of Ciya Sofrasi, Musa Dağdeviren is quite a celebrity both in and outside of Turkey, having been a presenter at the Culinary Institute of America and featured in articles such as this one in New Yorker Magazine. Musa is renowned for gathering recipes from all corners of Anatolia, some which have almost disappeared and placing them back on the table.
I had read that there are over a thousand different dishes offered at Ciya over the course of the year, though Ciya is most famous for the vegetarian dishes of the region of Gaziantep.
Upon entering the Missus was drawn to the table of cold dishes.....which the person behind the counter explained to us is simple terms was...."salad bar". Though I've never seen a salad bar quite like this. Here you could get a variety of whatever you wanted and it was priced on weight.
There's a section of other various soups, stews, and cooked dishes. Here you could choose what you want.
You could also order various kebab and meat items from the menu....but really, with all of this to pick from?
Here's the items the Missus selected from the cold table.
The dolmas...stuffed items were quite good, but it was the various salads that were really outstanding. The pickled thin branches and leaves up top I believe are pickled caper leaves....which were wonderfully flavored.
The Missus also picked a simple red lentil soup, something we've had many times....just for comparison purposes.
The Missus just loved this. I'm not a big fan of lentil soup, but I had a taste......this was lighter than other versions, not as buttery, with the wonderful palate cleansing flavor of mint coming through. I actually enjoyed it.
The stuffed artichoke, not as much......
It was a bit dry for me.....also on the bland side.
We'd had a not so great experience with kuru patlican (dried eggplant) before. However, in this dish, combined with great savory flavors, it was outstanding. The texture was slight crunch and the flavor of the eggplant came through.
The one meat dish, a simple lamb stew paled in comparison....under seasoned, the meat very tough.
The dried eggplant dish would have been my favorite, if not for dessert....yes, that's right, dessert. I really don't have a sweet tooth, which is often a saving grace considering what I eat....but this, something I believe is called "teleme", just seemed made for me.
What the person behind the dessert station told the Missus was that this was dried figs and milk. It had a the wonderful flavor of figs (I do love fig newtons) along with what seemed like condensed milk. Sweet, but not a sugar sweet if you know what I mean. This was by far my favorite dish of the meal. Which was capped off with some tea......not Turkish tea though. When it arrived at the table it had a very familiar scent.....this was oregano tea! It really smelt like dry oregano.....we weren't sure at first, but it was pretty darn good!
Our meal came out to about 40 TRY, approximately $22 US. We were later told that Ciya was considered to be quite expensive with regards to Lokantasi.....but to us, it seemed like a bargain.
After lunch we headed back to the ferry station....but then the Missus stopped at the Dolmus station. No it's not stuffed grape leaves or peppers. Dolmus (literally "stuffed") are what they call the minibuses that run specific routes around Istanbul. On the flight to Istanbul, the really nice woman seated next to us struck up a conversation. She was born and raised in Istanbul and lived both in the US and Istanbul part time. She recommended that we visit an area called Bağdat to see what modern, everyday, albeit upper middle class Istanbul was like. So there we were, in a dolmus, having paid a simple 3 TRY each on our way to Bağdat Caddesi. Driver didn't speak any English, but others on the dolmus did and explained where we needed to stop.
The streets in the area were wide by Istanbul standards....I really didn't take any photos because it really looked like just about any large western city. Eventually we got tired and waved down a dolmus. This guy didn't speak English either, but understood "ferry" and dropped us off. We made it back to our hotel just in time for a nice nap........dreaming about what we'd have for dinner!
Thanks for reading!