First of all, we owe a huge thank you to antman and everyone else who made Istanbul recommendations here. We had so many great meals because of what we learned on this board.
General overview: we loved the food. There was a group of us, including kids. The kids were welcome everywhere, no problem. We had mezes at many places, often 10 or more at a meal, and I can’t say which mezes we had at which place anymore. Some of my favorites: marinated sea bass in a lemony mustard sauce; a spicy red pepper salad—red pepper, parsley, onion, garlic, all minced together and very spicy; some sort of greens in a yogurt salad; all kinds of eggplant, especially roasted and smoked with a pomegranate sauce; roasted red peppers; and hummus. Most places served a regular yeast bread which was not that interesting or tasty. I vastly preferred the few places that offered a pita like bread with the mezes. Favorite hot mezes were tiny local fried fish, fried calamari, and grilled octopus. In general, the mains were plain and came with no side dishes. Coming from my Western ways, I prefer to have more “tastes” on my plate. Restaurants seemed to serve either meat or fish, not both. For fish, it was grilled or fried, and served only with some arugula and lemon, maybe a slice of tomato and lemon. The fish was grilled excellently, but I would have liked some sauce, maybe a side dish to go with the plain fish.
Day 1. Dinner at Tarihi Sultanahment Koftecisi. We stayed in Sultanhamet and needed somewhere close and easy. Kofte (meatballs) were very light and spongy, which I think is more of an acquired taste. Nice white bean salad and pickled peppers. A note for the literal (including one of the kids with us): kofte are actually patties or logs. Our 7 year old felt [i]extremely[/i] betrayed.
Day 2. Lunch at Sura Bialik, which overlooked the Sea of Marmaara. We were looking for another place recommended here, but it was closed for lunch, and would up at Sura because there were signs directing us. Probably our most expensive meal. Actually quite delicious, even though geared to tourists. Several cold mezes, fried mullet, and grilled sea bream. The best dish was a perfectly grilled octopus meze—it was the best octopus we had anywhere.
Dinner at Abracadabra. Took us a while to get there from Sultanhamet—roads closed for festivals and we were in a taxi. We sat outside on the terrace and it was a great atmosphere with the sea and the views. We had several hot and cold mezes. Standouts were the borek: a duck borek—triangle shaped phyllo with roasted duck—and a cheese straw shaped borek with pastrima. We were nearly full and shared one main, which was plainer than expected. It was supposedly artichoke stuffed with lamb, but they were just cooked in the same pan and served with rice. We had a wonderful waitress and our first raki. After this, we mostly stuck with beer and wine.
Day 3. Lunch at the restaurant at Topkapi Palace (not the café). We read somewhere that it had decent food, and it did. Not great, but since you can spend several hours at Topkapi touristing, it was nice to have lunch midway through. We had yogurt kebab. The meat was well seasoned and it comes with a red sauce on top and yogurt on the side. The meat was served over grilled bread, which is a nice contrast. Our second dish was a thinly sliced meat, like a gyros, which was a bit plain, and a fresh cucumber and tomato salad. Most of our time was very hot, so the salad was nicely refreshing.
Dinner at Giritli. In the Sultanhamet, it offers only a fixed price meal—now 95 TL. It was superlative. The calamari was very lightly battered and fried as a whole tube (not rings). It was the best example of the dish during our stay—we ordered it again a few times, but couldn’t really taste the delicate calamari at other places. Here, the calamari was tender, not chewy, and very flavorful. Our picky kid ate a ton. Again, we started with about a dozen cold mezes, then hot meze, then a choice of entrée.
Day 4. Lunch at Pandeli above the Spice Market. It was good, but not great. Beautiful restored tile is worth a look. As you can tell, we leaned more to leisurely lunches than street food. There was meat here, very well seasoned given the choices below our feet! Again, with the heat, we really wanted to sit in the cool while we ate. A mix of business people and tourists here.
Dinner at Antiochia. One of my favorites. We had a collection of mezes, including a lovely walnut puree mixed with several minced things. Unfortunately, I am allergic to walnut, so I could only have a taste. My entrée was the durum. It was one of the best mains of the whole trip. We all agreed it was absolutely fantastic, with the well grilled meat, thin bread, and delicious seasoning. One of our group had two. The Tunel area was crowded, hip, and fun.
Day 5. Lunch at Cooking a la Turka. Hot yogurt soup, which despite sounding weird, was delicious, and even refreshing in the heat of the day. Entrée was eggplant stuffed with a beef/lamb mixture. It was an entertaining class, and Feyzi was a good teacher. If you are an experienced cook, you won’t learn a lot that is startlingly new, but it was still a good experience.
Dinner at Grifin. What a fabulous view. And unlike most view restaurants, also great food. Another favorite. The seafood was really top notch. Several of us had sea bass cooked in parchment. It is a specialty here and very delicately seasoned. As a personal preference, I prefer grilled I think.
Day 6. Lunch. Lonely Planet suggested the Sultan Pub as a casual place right by the sights for decent food. It is very near the cistern and Hippodrome, and we tried it. Definitely a tourist trap and the worst food of the trip. Had some kebabs that were nicely grilled, and served with fries. One thing I think we did not do well on our trip was remember which kebabs we tried so we could try different ones each time. Wound up with yogurt kebab again, so the meat was smothered in a red sauce.
Dinner was at Sofyali 9. We wanted to return to the Tunel area and this again was a Lonely Planet suggestion for classic meyhane fare. We sat inside (outside was booked) and it was packed. One room was almost all men—not tourists—and the next was more of a mix. The food was decent, but did not live up to the quality of our other meals. The waiter offered us a price fixe meal which we foolishly accepted—he was a very sweet young man with a real affection for the kids with us, but his English was bad (of course our Turkish is worse) and we never could understand what we could eat a la carte. Mezes were very good. Hot mezes included its specialty, fried Albanian liver. You could tell it was well prepared, but several of us were not fond of liver in general. The mains were bland and not very appealing—one chicken, one fish, each meat in pieces and mixed with peppers and other veg in a dull sauce. The flavors of each were the same. It would be a fine place for just mezes, but stay away from the mains.
Day 7. Lunch at Asitane, because we were hungry and had just been to Chora. It was quite good. We ate at least half of our meals outside, as we did here. The walled and ivied patio felt a little more Colonial than most. Expensive (overpriced), but some new dishes. The starter plate of cold meze included an older version of hummus—it was very dry, with a touch of sweetness, and quite lovely. The other standout was an eggplant and yogurt salad. For mains, we tried the special, which was roasted duck, shredded and mixed with a rice pilaf with pine nuts and currants, and baked in a thin phyllo crust (just a couple sheets). Very good. We also tried veal with an apricot sauce, which was excellent, and someone else tried a lamb and beef stew, which was much liked. The lunch menu was only a couple pages, not the 40+ we read about for dinner. The meal took a turn for the worse, though, when it took beyond forever to get our check at the end of the meal.
Our last dinner was at Ismet Baba. Again a very local crowd. Fabulous views—the reverse of Abracadabra, since this was our only meal in Asia. The mains were four different grilled fish—sea bass, sea bream (the collective favorite), turbot, and blue fish (second favorite). Four grilled fish on a plate, though, without sauce or sides, is a little intense. We picked all our favorites for the cold meze, plus some fried calamari.
We went to Mado several nights for ice cream. We had fun with the stretchiness and the different flavors. We only saw mussels as street food once—in Tunel, but after dinner, so we never got to try them. It’s not the season for mussels here (PNW), so I wonder if that had a effect.
We didn’t go to many places that offered hard liquor, but managed cocktail hour at our hotel every afternoon. With most meals, it was Efes for the beer drinkers, and white wine for others. It was mostly a Turkish white that was cold and crisp and went well with the food, but not spectacular in itself. We tried a few different kinds, when we were given a choice, and nothing particularly stood out, good or bad. The raki is an acquired taste, but it’s fairly light in alcohol content, apparently. We had it a few times and I enjoyed the ritual very much.
Thanks for the trip report. I am glad that you found the recommendations on this board useful. As your report reflects, the guidebooks (LP, etc) are particularly unreliable when it comes to restaurants in Istanbul.
I agree with you on Sofyali 9- the main courses on offer are far less appealing than the starters. I nearly always make a meal of the meze and hot starters and pass on the boring entrees. These days I am enjoying that place for its lunch specials. They are very affordable and a bit more homey than the dinner menu.
On Padeli, isn't it a pity that they dont have good food? It is an amazing space. Unfortunately, in Istanbul- as in most big tourist destinations- restaurants near monuments do not rely on local business so the quality and value are rarely impressive.
It sounds like you had a really nice trip. Thanks again for posting this detailed report.
Most, if not all, of our good meals were due to your recommendations, so thank you again. There are only a couple meals I would do over, which is an excellent ratio for a new (to us) city! I love small plates and wish every restaurant came with 14 cold apps at a time (grin). If you ever come to Seattle, I would love to return the favor.