Istanbul - Ciya Sofrasi report
We crossed over on the ferry on Easter Sunday with a sense of pilgrimage, having read the many glowing reviews of Ciya Sofrasi. Bemusement might best sum up our feelings as we returned back to the European side later in the afternoon.
We located the place surprisingly easily, without the assistance of a map or the fairly common lack of Turkish street signs. Our attempt to reserve a table in three hours time was met with some blank looks, matched by a similar reaction on our return at 4 pm. A table was found however but no explanation of their point-and-order system of communicating your food selection was given until we had sat for some time contemplating our bottles of water.
For the record, you go to the cold starters station and point to your choices of mezes; these are weighed and a docket is issued to you. You then order your hot food from the other station, your selection is written on a piece of paper and you pass this on to your server when you return to your table.
We chose a general selection of mezes and found them in general to be a little different and more interesting than what we had sampled in our previous four days in Istanbul. However, the hot food we selected (two lamb, two vegetarian) came lukewarm, overcooked and lacking in flavour. The options were numerous types of lamb stew, some vegetarian casseroles and two vegatable soups. While we can happily profess a total ignorance of Turkish peasant cuisine, we had hoped for a lot more excitement on our plates. Transposing ourselves back to our home country, I could not help thinking how tourists would react to a menu offering multiple variations of Irish stew.....
Sufficient to say, we ate our way through some but not all of our food and paid our (very modest) bill. Overall, we were generally underwhelmed by the experience as we obviously missed out completely on what this restaurant is all about; a good working knowledge of a particular cuisine should not be a requirement to enjoy a new food experience however.
For those making the trip over to the Anatolian side. we can highly recommend the promenade walk to Moda, an Efes overlooking the sea at Moda Teras and the walk back again ( or there is an historic tram linking Kadakoy and Moda).
I was just at Ciya for the first time a few days ago. I wandered in for a late lunch, and found the staff extremely helpful and warm. (Maybe my terrible attempts at Turkish helped, but I don't think so.) I too found the system a little confusing at first, but if you've ever been in one of the many, many steam-tray type lunch places in Istanbul (which are actually pretty good, not like the states), you will be able to figure out how to point to this and that.
As for the food, it was fabulous. It's incredibly fresh, and the spicing is just right. A lot of the things I had were typically Turkish, but with a little twist- the kisir (bulgar salad) for example, is something most people make, but at Ciya it was vibrant and a bit more spicy than usual. I'm dying for the recipe. All the other salads were outstanding. After some consultation with the staff, I had kofte with sour cherry sauce, yaprak dolma, and pilav, all unusual and delicious. I wish I had ordered more! Then, a waiter led me to the dessert counter, where he steered me towards the Walnut Sweet (ceviz tatlisi) and some fresh sweet cheese. I ordered the Tomato Sweet (domates tatlisi) as well out of curiosity. My curiosity was satisfied, but I should have listened to my waiter, as the walnut was much better. As I was finishing my meal, I noticed Musa himself, hanging around tasting things. Not bad for a Wednesday afternoon.
All in all, I totally recommend a trip to Ciya. The ferry ride is lovely, but the food will knock your socks off. I agree that a basic familiarity with Turkish food should enhance the experience.
I was last at Ciya in August 2009 and it was as good as ever. Ordered a feast like amount of food with tea, serbet and tons of desserts. I thought almost everything was tasty though the service could have been a bit more smiley.
I've been going for quite a while now. I'll have to make sure it hasn't gone downhill when I arrive in Turkey again this coming summer.
Indeed, dining at Ciya should come with a guidebook. The experience would be greatly enhanced by knowledge of what Musa, the mastermind of the place, is up to. He is actually rescuing or at least reviving dishes otherwise lost or at least very hard to find in any other restaurant. more importantly, he has encouraged a dialogue among people in the food business that points out that traditional regional cuisines are quite important- not just stuff your fat aunty cooks back in the village but really important culinary remarks.
That said, if it doesnt taste good and isnt served properly than what's the point?
It sounds to me like your experience is the result of all the hype around this place. sounds like they cant handle the crowds heading out there and the quality is suffering as a result. i am really sorry to hear that. i hope it is not a sign that the glory days of Ciya are history.
There is one place that I can recommend for a Ciya-like experience though focusing on the food of the Hatay region. The place is called Akdeniz Hatay Sofrasi. It is in Aksaray. I am sure it will turn up in a google search.
This is a locals only sort of place with amazing variety of specialty regional dishes. I like the "testi kebab" which comes in an earthenware jug which is set on fire and then shattered at the table to reveal a moist and tender lamb stew. fireworks aside, the food is really special. give it a try.
Anyway, I hope your Ciya experience doesnt sour you on Turkish food.
Ciya is a place where countryside foods, mostly from south east part of Anatolia, are served at its original form, (not Turkish peasant only.) Most of food cooked there are diminishing from the kitchens of Turkish houses.
For many people Ciya is a place for nostalgia .
Not kebap house, not fish restauranr, not meyhane, not ottoman kitchen, exatcly not a luxury , expensive place.
Possibly, your expectation was different.
Thank you for your observations.
Perhaps our main disppointment was the lack of meats, other than stewed. The shish kebap was over when we arrived and there were no offerings of roasted meats; had hoped for either kid or lamb but perhaps these are not specialities of the region.
Hopefully the report does not appear to seek to discourage visitors to Istanbul to try the restaurant but perhaps to inform them of what to expect.