Written by Saisha Grayson.
The 13th edition of the Istanbul Biennial, one of the most consistently intriguing of the international contemporary art “annuals”, opens tomorrow, September 14, and runs through November 10, 2013. Unfortunately, I was unable to make this grand event coincide with my recent trip to Istanbul, but as Good. Food. Stories.’ trusty art world food scout, I felt it my duty to eat my way through the city so those of you with more flexible fall schedules can navigate the neighborhoods of Beyoğlu, where the Biennial is sited, to maximum culinary effect.
The title of this Biennial edition asks the question, “Mom, am I a barbarian?,” critiquing cultural hierarchies that cast the West as the barometer of civilization. Based on Istanbul’s culinary offerings, however, it is clear that centuries at the intersection of East and West have produced one of the most sophisticated food cities in the world.
As GFS readers may remember, my report on eating at Miami Art Week responded to the inflationary prices of South Beach with a distinctly budget-conscious approach. However, for Istanbul, I have a very different recommendation.
Take this opportunity—and current currency rates—and eat like a King/Queen/Sultan/Empress and the rest of the royal court! By just splurging a bit, you can get ridiculous amounts of amazing food while feeling like you’ve saved hundreds by not eating the same meal in New York (or London or Tokyo or…). Among these highly enjoyable meze onslaughts, I’ll focus on the two closest to the Biennial venues, but feel it is my duty to footnote others for those who will venture further afield.
Just blocks from the Biennial’s Karaköy venues, Lokanta Maya (Kemankeş Caddesi, 35/A
Karaköy) is an elegant little gem serving upscale twists on traditional Turkish dishes, as well as more fusion fare. Grilled halloumi appeared on olive oil-brushed bread with a brilliant touch of sweetness from fresh figs, while the spicy corn soup offered a surprising overlay of Middle Eastern and Southwest flavors.
The sea bass, the star of so many of my meals in Turkey, came out perfectly moist and rich, with sautéed char and fig on the side. While I was too full to manage dessert, the single bite of a friend’s chocolate and bergamot ice cream alerted me to my mistake. Try going on an empty stomach or with lots of friends for sharing so you can make it through the last course!
Luckily, by the time I went to Meze by Lemon Tree (Asmalımescit Mahallesi, Meşrutiyet Caddesi, 83/B Beyoğlu, across from the Pera Palace) on my last night in Istanbul, I was more prepared for the slow, steady pace of endless meze. After hours of boutique-gazing near Biennial venues ARTER and SALT Beyoğlu, I arrived hungry and with a two-bite per dish strategy. One by one, the waiters brought out six cold meze, two hot meze, one seafood and one lamb entree each, and the most obscene dessert I’ve ever eaten for a blazing total of eleven forms of flavor heaven. We grilled the waiter in hopes of uncovering the secret ingredients in each dish, and while I’m not sure he was completely transparent, the consistent simplicity of his explanations confirmed what is so often true of great kitchens: high quality ingredients and stellar technique were the key.
Picking just a few examples from the list below, a feta-labneh spread might have appeared to be fairly standard Mediterranean fare, but the creamy consistency was amplified by a touch of avocado and offset by the crunch of walnuts and red peppers, making it everyone’s guilty pleasure. The ceviche was transformed by the brightness of grapefruit, which avoided the sometimes overbearing tartness of lemon-cured fish, and the ruby-colored gazpacho featured the sweet tang of pomegranate molasses.
Final mention must go to that dessert, which highlighted local ingredients in a presentation that smacked of French haute cuisine. A disc of kaymak (Turkish clotted cream) was layered with ripe bananas and golden veins of fresh honey, preserved lemon, and crushed walnuts, pistachios, and almonds. This was crowned by a hot, dry red pepper, flakes of which appeared throughout, infusing the sticky sweetness with hints of brittle fire. Unable to resist, I tempted fate by breaking off bigger and bigger pieces of the whole pepper, violating my two-bite rule till I got the balance of sugar and spice just right.
Only one thing could add to the joy of this meal, and that was the realization that Mikla, a rooftop bar with the city’s best view and best martinis, was right around the corner. While I was disappointed to have missed a glimpse of the Turkish contemporary art scene, I experienced artistry of another kind from Istanbul’s great kitchens. I can’t wait to come back when I can get a taste of both at the same time.
I finally realized, after struggling to navigate hotel selections, that Beyoğlu is an umbrella term like Downtown, within which many neighborhoods like Karaköy (LES), Galata (Village) and Pera (Soho) blur into each other from one block to the next.
I say this because basically I had nothing but epic meals in Istanbul. I tried to hit local food spots and taste some street food highlights, but invariably we’d be so full from brunch or on our way to a dinner so massive that all incidental food stops had to be cut from the agenda.
Other epic meals that I’ll never forget (but can’t begin to describe here) were:
- Sunday Brunch at The Four Seasons Sultanahmet
- Giritli, Sultanahmet
- Ciya, Kadikoy (on the Asian side of the Bosphorous)
- G.Balik, in the middle of the Bosphorous (!) at Suada Club
- And then, somewhere, you need to eat Menemen (stewed egg, onion, tomato, and green peppers, with spices) and a traditional breakfast of small plates of olives, cheese, vegetables, and spreads to understand the leisurely joy of picking and combining one’s way through the morning (and afternoon, and night).
I also arrived with a group of 20 and a prix fixe deal that gave us a stream of food and unlimited wine for $75. I’m not sure how the regular menu compares, but if you can find some more friends, I highly recommend trying to arrange for this option.
Those eleven courses, in order, were:
- Grilled eggplant, tomato, and ricotta-like cheese mix
- Zucchini, mushroom, feta, and dill fritter with garlic yogurt sauce
- Sea bass and radish ceviche in a grapefruit, lime, and coriander marinade
- Gazpacho with pomegranate molasses, red peppers, and tomatoes so sweet I thought they were watermelon
- Fava bean, pumpkin, and clotted cream spread (consistency like hummus, but sweet and nutty!)
- Feta, labneh (strained yogurt cheese), avocado, and dill spread with walnuts and chopped red peppers
- Smoked eggplant and grilled cheese wrapped in puffed phyllo dough
- Little shrimps in coconut milk sauce with scallions, pickled ginger, fresh onion, and red pepper
- Monkfish in a red wine reduction with red pepper, onion, parsley, and tons of butter
- Lamb filet (maybe throats?) and super-buttery mashed potatoes with peppers, beets and “angry mustard,” accompanied by a mixed green salad and mustard vinaigrette
- Banana layered into kaymak (clotted cream), covered with local honey, walnut, pistachio, almonds, preserved lemon, and dry hot red pepper
Good. Food. Stories.’ art-world correspondent Saisha Grayson is the Assistant Curator at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and the very lucky daughter of a natural foods chef and consultant. A perennial academic, Saisha is functionally incapable of writing without footnotes, and we love her for it.