Five Days in Istanbul

The last time we traveled was nearly a year ago, when we returned to Beirut after Stephen’s birth in California. Now that he’s a year old, we felt it appropriate to make a quick family getaway to a nearby country. Turkey immediately came to mind, as neither I nor my husband had ever visited.

Indeed, Istanbul is about an hour and a half plane ride from Beirut, and it is a popular destination for Lebanese because no visa is required. We booked a four-night stay in the capital, divided between Karaköy, close to the historic district, and Taksim, just a stone’s throw from Istiklal Caddesi.

I’d only entertained a few fleeting perceptions of Istanbul before arriving, but few proved to be accurate. Yes, the Turks are rather sly and expedient, much like the Lebanese. For example, as we exited the airport and scanned the sidewalk for taxis, a porter quickly darted to our side, and once he’d tucked us in to a cab, he demanded a fee. Then, our taxi driver pretended to know exactly where our hotel was, but he ended up driving along the coast and circling our hotel in a roundabout fashion even when I pointed out its location on Google Maps. I’d wanted to hail a Careem, which exists on a relatively small scale in the city, but the app is not without its faults. More on that later.

While the city houses its fair share of chaos, it’s far more modern, clean, and fast-paced than I’d imagined it to be. The European influence is unmistakable, and that extends to cigarette smoking. Everyone, and I mean everyone, sucks on those little suckers as if their consumption repelled malevolence. No need for the famous blue evil eye (Nazar Boncugu). Just puff away, and you’ll be safe in your cloud of fumes.

Our first two nights, we cozied up at boutique hotel The House Vault in Karakoy, a few steps from Galata Koprusu which lands you directly to the Spice (Egyptian) Bazaar as well as the extensive network of the Grand Bazaar. Venture eastward, and you’ll stumble upon the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace.

We feasted on döner from Sehzade, unique for its horizontal spit from which meat is shaved. It is succulent but admittedly fatty, as lamb is wont to be, and comes swaddled in soft markouk-like bread. Choose from a selection of mezze like a spicy salsa, plain yogurt (to subdue the piquant flavors), and onions with sumac.

At Sehzade, the meat is threaded onto skewers as it's shaved from the horizontal spit

After that meaty meal, we sipped on “boza,” an unusual fermented beverage of bulgur and wheat that packs in both sweet and savory notes via a handful of roasted chickpeas and cinnamon. I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not, particularly because its creamy, smoothie-like consistency dissolves into a lemony kick.

At the hotel, breakfasts shaped up nicely with soft white cheeses, jams, simit bread decked with sesame seeds, and fresh fruit juices. You could have muhammara if you so desired, or fried eggs with sucuk (soujouk).

Eggs with sucuk (spicy soujouk sausage)

While The House Hotel has a charming air to it, perhaps owing to its former profile as a bank whose vault remains intact, we wished to be closer to the touristic shop-lined street called Istiklal Caddesi stemming from Taksim Square. So on the second part of our trip, we stayed at The Grand Hyatt, whose “salep” beverage proved to be far and away the best I tried in all of Istanbul.

Along Istiklal, we retraced Anthony Bourdain’s footsteps by sharing a chicken döner at Kizilkayalar Hamburger, but that’s nothing to write home about. For a cuisine that’s mastered the seasoning of lamb, the same cannot be said for chicken, which lacks any real flavor or boldness. The wrap is decidedly dry and doesn’t hold a candle to Lebanese taouk or shawarma sandwiches we slather with garlic paste.

Visually inviting, but the sandwich leaves a lot to be desired

Durumzade, however, rectified those wrongs with its aromatic kebabs stuffed inside supple round bread that’s soaked up the juices from the barbecued meat. Opt for double meat, and wash it down with the yogurt drink Ayran to avoid heartburn.

Anthony Bourdain graced this hole in the wall -- a tribute is framed outside

Lamb kebab with double meat at Durumzade

In the dessert department, Turkish Delight didn't tickle my palate, but I was mesmerized with the baklava at places like Hafiz Mostafa and Dedeoglu. It’s always intriguing meeting an adaptation of something so intimately familiar, and Turkish baklava truly bears little resemblance to its Lebanese counterpart. How so? For starters, it’s drenched, nay saturated, with syrup. Blame the biting cold or those assaulting winds, for the Turks love cloyingly sweet dessert. Second, the name of the game is pistachio. That’s where you want to start and end, trust me. And if it’s good, you'll hardly notice the phyllo dough.

Make a beeline for the pistachio baklava

How about the touristic institutions, like Salt Bae’s Nusr-Et steakhouse, or Al Madina Restaurant? In the former case, plan for a 25-min drive to Etiler, an affluent neighborhood northwest of Istanbul. We celebrated Thanksgiving lunch there with premium steaks and table-side theatrics. It’s simple, no frills BBQ, and it’s incredibly tasty. But you feel the restaurant’s tacit urge to turn tables, so once you finish your meal, usher yourself out.

"Dallas Steak" with sides of excessively baked potato and sauteed spinach

Al Madina evokes scenes from a Lebanese restaurant, with its prominently Arabic soundtrack, Syrian waiters, and unanimously Arab clientele. You won’t bump into Chef Burak at the Istiklal stronghold. Apparently, he makes an appearance at the Etiler outlet after 5 PM, but that’s not a firm promise. Mezze is rolled up to your table on a trolley for you to ogle and pick, and mains are illustrated in a photographic menu, so there’s no surprise or suspense as to what you order.

Lamb kebab in the foreground, "kabseh" in the background

For something more typical of Turkish cuisine, where you’re likely to rub shoulders with locals, try Zubeyir Ocakbasi off Istiklal. Spread over three floors and boasting an indoor furnace where kebabs are grilled in front of hungry diners, this eatery will leave an impression. Wait staff are congenial and will help you navigate the menu. Pull out all the stops, and order “raki” to wash down the meat and purge your palate.

So what’s my final verdict on Istanbul?

Folks here are generally pleasant and eager to assist. We bussed our one-year-old everywhere in a stroller, and he was treated regally wherever we went. Waiters stroked his cheeks, offering him fresh-baked bread, and made sure we felt at ease despite all the unwieldy accouterment that comes with baby.

Stephen perched in a metal high chair at The House Hotel in Karakoy

Istiklal Caddesi is like a strip mall that keeps repeating itself. You’ll find about three iterations of nearly every shop, from Kötön and Flormar to Ahsan and Mado. We walked the street five times in total and eventually tired of it.

The city is formidably hilly. You will form rock-hard thighs by the end of your stay, but in the process, you’ll be shamed over and again by octogenarians who effortlessly outpace you.

Using a car-hailing app like Careem is a grab bag. While there’s nothing more comforting than the familiar, you’ll have mixed luck finding cars in your proximity half the time. And the other half the time, the ETA of the cab to your point of origin will be in a constant state of flux. A 5-min wait period loosely translates to 10 or 15 minutes. Oftentimes, it’s easier waving a cab down in the street, and since it’s a metered ride, you won’t feel gypped (unless your driver strays off the beaten path).

Our final fix of Istanbul was the airport experience, and it was less than impressive. Long lines at security, a check-in desk that didn’t open in a timely fashion, more long lines at passport control, and general chaos left us feeling hassled and frazzled. The new airport due to open in 2019 promises to address all those issues in its endeavor to be the largest hub connecting Europe and Asia.

I guess we’ll be the judges of that next time we pass through.


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