A couple months ago I received an email from a favorite former editor: "We're going to Istanbul. Suggestions welcome."
When I have the kind of intense affection for a place that I have for Turkey and Istanbul in particular, I desperately want other visitors to end up feeling the same way. Especially if I've been talking (or blogging) a destination up, as I have in pretty much all of our Turkey posts, I feel obliged to point friends to the sort of experiences that have endeared that destination to me.
So began a series of missives, me to her. I emailed lists of favorite places and foods and restaurants, bullet-pointed tips on how a first-time visitor can get the most out of Istanbul/Turkey, food-focused suggestions from local contacts, stream-of-consciousness ramblings on everything from where to go for the city's best Turkish coffee to where to find the best breakfast spread. I even drew and scanned a map of Cihangir, the neighborhood where she'd be staying.
My map highlighted, with a few stars, what Dave and I came to think of as our "Istanbul corner place": a tiny cafe called Mucver. We stayed a few doors down from Mucver last June and then again in December/January. After our first taste of Mucver it became our go-to for great, soul-satisfying home cooking. In fact, a number of times we found ourselves diverting back to our temporary 'hood from elsewhere in Istanbul just for one more Mucver meal.
Olive oil-cooked spinach and coarse bulgur, stewed chickpeas
My map highlighted, with several stars in different colors, what Dave and I think of as our "Istanbul corner place": a tiny cafe called Mucver. We stayed a few doors down from Mucver last June and then again in December/January. It became our go-to for great, soul-satisfying home cooking. In fact, a number of times we found ourselves diverting back to our temporary 'hood from elsewhere in Istanbul just for one more meal at Mucver.
Named after the dish -- mucver (mooj-VEHR) is a grated zucchini "fritter" usually eaten with thick yogurt -- the cafe serves Turkish Mom Food With a Twist. Its dishes are the comforting sort that make you feel loved and cared for. The twist is that Mucver's gifted cook has been a caterer for over ten years, and so while there's anything fancy on the menu, the food shows the kind of attention to detail that that caterers tend to lavish upon their creations. Everything is delicious ... and just a cut above versions you've had elsewhere.
Emine prepares Mucver's daily menu in a kitchen around the corner
Shy Emine and her outgoing husband Gursel opened Mucver early last year. On our first visit last June business was just so-so. When we returned in December we were pleased to see the place pretty much packed out every lunch hour. When we stopped in for some takeout at 5-something on our last evening in Istanbul there wasn't much left to choose from. This is all good, because it means that Mucver is likely to be going strong on our next visit.
Mercimek koftesi, red lentil and parsley rolls tea eat with a squeeze of lemon
Emine cooks everything in a small garden-level kitchen just around the corner from the cafe. Walk Palaska Sokak at ten in the morning and you'll be assaulted by all sorts of unbearably tempting aromas. The menu changes daily, but vegetarian mercimek koftesi, hand-formed logs of tender red lentils seasoned with parsley, garlic, and red pepper, are a regular fixture.
There are always a few creative salads to choose from. On one visit in January we ate a pretty "green"-tasting mix of shredded Swiss chard and romaine leaves mixed with fresh dill fronds and parsley sprigs, garnished with a sprinkle of bulgur and a small mound of ruby red pomegranite seeds. Everything was dressed lightly with a lemony sour-sweet dressing.
Emine's brown lentil, pasta and mint soup (Jerusalem artichoke mash behind)
On a cold, rainy afternoon we sampled Emine's mercimek corbasi -- lentil soup, Turkey's breakfast of champions. Made with brown rather than the usual red lentils, many of which were left whole, it included thick, chewy pasta and loads of fragrant dried mint that, with a squeeze of lemon juice, rendered the soup as refreshing as it was warming.
Her zeytinyagli, or "cooked with olive oil" dishes, are not swimming in the stuff. Zeytinyagli yer elmasi ("earth/ground apple" -- Jerusalem artichoke) took the form of a pleasingly rough mash with studded with bits of sweet carrot. Though zeytinyagli dishes usually demand an accompaniment of good bread we spooned this up straight from the dish, and ordered one more.
Zucchini stuffed with lamb and rice
Emine has a way with ground meat. Her sauced lamb kofte (opening photo) or meatballs are light as air. Sauced with tomatoes and red pepper paste and aromatic spices (I think I detected nutmeg), they split in half with barely the nudge of a fork. Vegetable dolma, like the zucchini above, are stuffed with a similarly ethereal mixture of seasoned ground lamb, chopped vegetable "innards", and rice and topped with a finger of thick yogurt. Our last Mucver meal included a surprising, and wonderful, dish: moist, well-seasoned Turkish meat loaf swimming in silky smooth potato puree that would do an American midwestern grandmother proud.
The first dish to clue us in to Mucver's possibilities was not savory, but sweet. Our initial visit was for tea and dessert and on that day we swooned -- and are still swooning -- over sutlac (pudding) blanketed with crispy browned and sweetend kadaiyif. What an amazing pairing that was -- mild, uber milky pudding with the crunch of caramelized wheat threads.
We've never seen it since, unfortunately (the downside, if you can call it that, of the daily menu), but consoled ourselves in January with a slice of sutlu irmik tatlisi, a firm-ish milk and semolina pudding/cake dusted with cinnamon. Emine's caterer-ly touch: banana slices hidden inside the pudding, which is made in a bundt cake mold. Also noteworthy: mozaik, a firm slab of dark chocolate cake cum fudge shot through with crispy biscuit bits. (Emine has a thing for chocolate; there's at least one chocolate dessert a day.)
We can't close our ode to Mucver without a nod to its quirky, homely decor. Dave's favorite item, above: an old-fashioned diver's mask kitted out as a light. Gursel is quite a collector.
Mucver, corner of Palaska Sokak, just across from the mosque, Cihangir. Tel 0212-292-7918. Closed Sundays. A very generous lunch for two, including a few dishes, salads, tea and dessert, runs about TL 32.