The Istanbul-bound flight out of Singapore arrives in the wee hours. Even after we've hit up airport Duty Free, fought the traffic to Beyoglu and dropped our bags in our usual stay in Cihangir it's still early. We know a long nap will assert itself eventually but on a morning like this -- turquoise skies, birds chirping, a light breeze -- going straight to bed is out of the question.
So we walk a little, poking around the neighborhood, tallying the changes since our last visit: a few sleek restaurants, a new bar or two, a couple boutiques. Cihangir doesn't have Galata's dramatic architecture or its historic charm, but its hipster factor has risen dramatically. We're happy to see Mucver is still there; we know it even before we climb the hill outside our door to the corner because we can smell lunch being prepared in the garden-level kitchen just a few doors away.
But wait ... the postage stamp-sized wood-fired bakery where we always buy simit from a sometimes friendly, sometimes grumpy hoca, we see as we approach, has been re-painted. He is gone and -- we roll our eyes -- the place is now a cute cafe called Datli Maya. There is cheesecake in the window.
Oh dear. There goes the neighborhood.
Still, it's open, we're hungry, and jetlag is closing in. We step inside and find that the wood-fired oven is still in use and simit are still for sale. And when we inquire about the hoca the new owner tells us that he taught her to use the wood-fired oven, and the simit recipe is his, and he lives upstairs on the third floor. We feel better.
The cafe is in early days, she says. They're still testing, getting a feel for the fire. Would we like to try a dish of lor (ricotta-reminiscent fresh cheese) and Spanish quince paste warmed in the oven? We would, so we head upstairs, through the teeny-tiny kitchen, and take a seat at one of three tables in the even smaller dining space. In the corner by the door there's help-yourself tea in a big old-fashioned samovar. The wall shelves by our table hold jars of dried herbs, a few books, some knick-knacks. The chairs and tables are mismatched but the place feels comfortable, not twee. Personal, not self-consciously shabby chic.
The cheese and fruit paste arrives at our table drizzled with good olive oil and garnished with two black olives. The lor is unsalted and uber milky, nicely balanced by the sharp olives and sweet quince paste. As we're fighting over the last bite the cafe's energetic owner pops upstairs and, plucking twigs and leaves from the jars on the shelf, offers us herbal tea.
As we drink I read a framed newspaper clipping hanging on the wall. It turns out that our friendly host is Dilara Erbay, a not unknown quantity in Istanbul's culinary world. (Read more about her career, and Datli Maya, in a typically authoritative Istanbul Eats write-up here.)
Dilara was last associated with Abracadabra, a big beautiful restaurant with a view in Arnavutkoy. One Sunday morning last January we and a couple chef friends went to Abracadabra for what is yet one of the best breakfasts we've eaten in Turkey. Dilara wasn't around, but her commitment to sourcing the absolute best regional ingredients was evident in the kaymak, honeycomb, eggs, butter and cheeses on our table. Yet despite the deliciousness and the welcome given by the Abracadabra staff we knew we wouldn't return; the vibe was a little preening, a bit too see-and-be-seen.
What a lovely surprise then to find that a not-new talent, but a new-to-us talent, was working magic in a place without attitude, a cafe we'd be eager to return to. Three weeks later, after a spell on the Black Sea and inland, we did. It was all good.
The traditionalist in me sniffs at a menu that puts lahmacun side-by-side with cheesecake. But why not, if both are done well? Datli Maya's lahmacun hoca brings his talent for taming the wood fire all the way from the southeast;, our thin-crusted pekmez specimen was memorable, our garlicky sausage and cheese pide delicious. Dilara knows a thing or two about baking; the cheesecake is seven-spiced and lovely, a cross between hefty New York-style and fluffier versions.
Turkey boasts amazing regional ingredients that should be getting more play outside traditional kitchens. Our kudos Datli Maya for going there in a way that feels honest, not gimmicky.
And as a curious cook who enjoys talking with other cooks I like the idea of a place where I can walk through the kitchen and see what the staff is cooking up for the lunch special. On our last morning in Istanbul we found Dilara and her colleagues wrist-deep in wild mushroom and bulgur pilav. Are those dates? I asked, and Dilara pulled a package of floury red Chinese dates from the counter. "A friend gave them to me," she said. "I think they're Vietnamese. But we're using them in this pilaf. Why not?"
Datli Maya, 59/A Türkgücü Caddesi, Cihangir (across from the mosque). Daily 8am-midnight.