We're approaching the end of our third week in Istanbul. Some advice: if you're parking yourself here for more than a few days, find 'your' esnaf lokanta.
According to Istanbul Eats, a go-to site for much that is tasty in and around the city, esnaf lokanta means 'tradesman's restaurant' in Turkish. You know an esnaf lokanta by its daily dishes (which can vary from a few to more than a dozen, depending on the place), displayed up front on a steam table. There's no gymnastics going on in the esnaf lokanta's kitchen, but these joints catering to working folk (no fancifully coiffed, Wonder Bra'd, thickly made-up ladies-who-lunch here) cook up dependably good grub. (Some are better than others, of course).
But sometimes that's just what the sojourner needs.
We identified 'our' esnaf lokanta on our very first day in Istanbul when our taxi passed en route to our temporary apartment-home in Galata. Little Merkez Lokantası sits amongst wood, metal, and other workshops on a steep, firmly un-hip lane a stone's throw from the gentrifying neighborhood's famous tower. The next morning we made a beeline down the hill for a 'test' meal of mercimek çorbası (lentil soup).
We have strong feelings about mercimek çorbası; in fact, it's one of our favorite Turkish dishes. Like rice porridge in Asia, the dish is ubiquitous in Turkey. And much like rice porridge, the mention of mercimek çorbası is unlikely to inspire swoons from those unfortunate enough to have never tried a really fine version.
Done right, mercimek çorbası can be a revelation; it can challenge everything you thought you believed about what lentil soup -- and breakfast foods -- should be. Merkez' version (photo up top) lives up to the dish's potential: it's thin yet boasts plenty of body and is full-on meaty (read: lamb-y) yet not heavy. The soup's soothing creaminess is countered by a swirl of sit-up-and-take-notice kırmızı biber-enlivened butter.
Cue to late this morning. For the last couple of days we've been moping over some crappy news (note to self: never check email during your few remaining days of holiday). It's been gray and rainy. Caught in a shower without umbrellas, we were wet. Our shoes were squelching. Wednesday was not looking good.
"Let's go see the çorba usta," said Dave. "That'll make us feel better." (Usta means something like 'master'.)
Indeed. Twenty-five year-old Merkez is run by Ahmad, a close-to-the-vest kind of guy who allowed only the merest hint of a smile to flicker across his face when Dave pulled out his camera a few weeks ago to photograph the çorba. This morning as we picked our way down the rain-slicked street, he showed teeth. And waved.
And so we sat down to a late breakfast (or early lunch, depending on how you look at it) of good, solid comfort food. Nothing fancy. Nothing mind-blowing. Everything satisfying.
There was intensely flavored stewed spinach topped with a fried egg (see photo above) and creamy barbunya (kidney beans) in a tomato-based, slightly sweet sauce that was reminiscent of American baked beans.
There were zeytinyağlı taze fasulye (fresh wide green beans cooked to melting silkiness in plenty of olive oil), a nutty bulgur pilav seasoned with crushed red pepper and tiny nubs of lamb, and a lemon-dressed salad of chopped cucumber, thinly sliced hot green chilies, and juicy tomatoes. For dessert, a square of Ahmad's sugar syrup-soaked, toasty kadayıf topped with a sprinkle of dried coconut (see opening photo).
As we were drinking our apres-meal tea Ahmad's döner
usta set a stack of meat a spinnin' on the grill and began to sharpen his enormous knife.
(A two-step process that took a good 15 minutes.) The phone rang and Ahmed spoke a list of
dishes, then took the day's first lunch delivery order.
We paid our bill. Ahmad sent us on our way with a wave and a "Gule gule."
We felt better.
Merkez Lokantası, on an unnamed lane off Serdari Ekrem Caddesi, which runs from the bottom of Galata Tower. (Look for Furriye fish restaurant on the lower side of the Tower -- that's Serdari Ekrem. Walk street and head downhill at your first right. Merkez is almost at the end of the street/bottom of the hill on your left). Closed Sunday. A lunch as large as ours, which was really too large (3 dishes, a pilav, 2 salads, a dessert, 2 teas, a water) will set you back about 17TL. One (large) portion of döner over pilav costs 10TL.