This past week I was in Istanbul to visit recent guest on Stir the Pots, restaurateur extraordinaire Dilara Erbay. After interviewing her a few months back, she talked me into coming to Istanbul as a guest chef at her restaurant, Abracadabra. Though I would only have five days, Istanbul was too enticing to refuse. After a nine hour flight, I was greeted by a driver Dilara had sent. He spoke no English, and I was tired, so I just soaked in the sun-drenched scenery that was both ancient and modern, from the Sea of Marmara, to the Bosporus. Along the highway still stood walls built by Theodosius of the ancient Constantinople.
And on top of the city’s seven hills were minarets shooting out like rockets across the horizon. At some point in that sunny morning drive, Mehmet, the driver, passed me his cell phone. It was Dilara. "Welcome", I am at Abracadabra see you in a half an hour." Wow, I thought, I have arrived in Istanbul.
We enter Arnavutköy, a former fishing village that was once a Greek neighborhood. Abracadabra, Dilaras’ restaurant is a four story red building surrounded by other restaurants and nestled on the shore of the
Bosporus. Dilara welcomes me. Her pace is fast. Faster than fast. Furious! I follow her as she lightly scampers up a spiral staircase, passing thhe kitchen and dining rooms covered in conceptual art. Already I feel wrapped snuggly in a whirl of Turkish voices, kitchen smells, heat and humidity. I need a drink! She brings me Turkish coffee, thick and not too sweet, perfect for jet lag.
Lunch with Dilara at TARİHİ KARAKÖY BALIKÇISI
After a quick introduction of the staff and a short interview with a
local reporter arranged by Dilara’s husband, Ahmet, she takes me into
town for lunch. We get into a cab headed back towards the old Ottoman
neighborhoods. The decaying buildings are left like old skeletons
amongst the heavily trafficked streets. Dilara listens to me as I ask
her questions. But I wonder if the heat is getting to her. For some
reason, cabs here operate without air conditioning. And Dilara looks
like she’s melting. "Jeremy, my brain cannot function without food, I
am sorry, I am weak!" At that she turns to the driver and says: "stop
here!" Then she pays him, and without a word, hops out of the cab into
oncoming traffic. Holding up her hand with the command of a New York
City cop, Dilara stops the traffic with me in tow, walking me through
the cars towards a narrow alley leading to the Bosporus.
This non-descript neighborhood was once the Old Ottoman city. Now
it’s a neighborhood inhabited by Turkish minorities: Armenians, Jews,
Greeks and others who seem to run a stretch of hardware and
construction stores. We pass into another alley, entering a ramshackle
building and then inside into a tiny room. Inside is a menu on a
blackboard and a chef grilling fish. Dilara starts chatting to the man
at the grill. He has a grimace on his face, but he nods as she talks to
him, I guess listening to her order our food, or perhaps telling him
about the heat of the cab. She comes over and tells me it is a
restaurant her father first took her to as a child, her favorite place
for fish. She explains that her father taught her about taste,
something I would soon understand. First, we are served a soup speckled
with herbs. The texture is creamy, the flavor lemony. I ask what type
of soup it is, as it’s hard to tell. Fish soup she says, not so good I
guess from her expression. She tells me that the chef is new. The
original chef has disappeared or died, and the new chef failed to get
the formers recipes.
As we wait I ask about the neighborhood, interested in a nearby food
stall cooking rice and some other sort of protein. "Arroz con pollo?"
I query. Yes it’s rice and chicken, a staple meal that costs around a
dollar and is accompanied by pickles and washed down with yogurt. We’ve
finished the soup but no more plates are coming. Dilara scolds the
young waiter. "Where is the food?" "They’re so slow!" Finally he comes
out with a salad of greens, tomatoes and cucumber (but no dressing),
along with a loaf of white bread and some fish. Dilara gets grilled
fish while mine, a huge sea bass, is baked in parchment with tomatoes.
The flavor is fresh, just barely seasoned. Dilara is happy, all has not