Istanbul: Turkish fast food and an upstairs view

Every day, before we go out, I decide I will be bold and try one of the many small eateries lining the streets of Cihangir. And every day, I step out of the apartment and feel instantly intimidated by all the things I don’t know and am not used to. The cobbled pavement, the conversations I can’t understand, the lack of crosswalks (unless it’s a major thoroughfare, everyone just waits for a suitable pause in traffic — a habit my efficiency-loving self actually likes, but it’s another thing to adjust to), the men standing outside cafés and restaurants attempting to wave in new customers. It all makes me gravitate toward the more Western-looking restaurants and food stores, the spacious ones with printed menus and lots of tables, and just enough customers to feel occupied but not crowded. So we have not yet tried the little börek places or köfte shops… but we will.

Today we walked out mid-afternoon and I was determined we would try something a little more daunting than the places we’ve already gone. As usual, my resolve wavered once we wound through the throngs on Sıraselviler Caddesi, but we kept on, taking side streets to get to the even more crowded İstiklal Caddesi (I am very pleased to be learning my way around the neighborhood!). I was thinking we might try something on Nevizade Sokak, but before we got there, another establishment caught my eye and we decided to give it a try.

Saray Muhallebicisi

I thought it looked cute — and plenty busy, which I figured was a good sign. I had no idea what kind of food they served, and when I looked in the window and saw tons of pastries, I actually hesitated; we wanted food, not dessert. But we went in anyway, and when I saw an elderly lady eating soup, I was reassured. A girl approached us and I held up two fingers and said, “Two, please.” She asked, “Upstairs?” Without really thinking about it I said yes, and she led us to the back of the room and an elevator, where she turned us over to a young man waiting there. As the elevator ascended I wondered at my lack of question-asking; upstairs could be anything, couldn’t it? The attendant took us up two floors and then gestured us out, smiling. We walked out into a room that looked almost identical to the one we’d left downstairs, only much quieter and emptier.

Dining room.

Another smiling young man greeted us. I repeated my gesture and request for a table for two, and we were seated in a corner next to the windows. The menu on the table was all in Turkish, for which I was prepared, but after we’d perused it for less than a minute, the waiter appeared with English menus. I was almost disappointed! But then, English was easier… we soon placed our orders. After the waiter left I looked out the window and realized we were high above the street, and not the only ones — we faced the balcony of another café. I had no idea there was this delightful vertical aspect to the avenue, in addition to the many, many street-level shops and restaurants that draw so many to İstiklal Caddesi every day.

View from the third-floor window.

When our food arrived, it was a bit of a surprise. I had ordered chicken and rice — having realized yesterday that we had not yet eaten rice in Turkey, a situation which clearly needed to be remedied — but I did not expect the menu description to be so literal.

Chicken and rice

Erik’s döner and rice was only slightly more elaborate.

Döner and rice

I found out later that the restaurant, Saray Muhallebicisi, is a chain owned by the mayor’s family, and it’s known for its desserts and “Turkish fast food.” Well, that explains what we got — which was perfectly tasty, but nothing to write home about (blogging, however, is a different matter! 😉 ).* But the experience was fun, and I got to try the (in)famous chicken-breast pudding.

Brûléed pudding

I ordered the “burnt” version, which cost the same as the regular (6 TL, or about $3.25 USD). I had read that the pudding is sweet and you can’t taste the chicken, which is mainly for texture. I guess that’s true. It tasted like, and had the consistency of, a cross between my mother’s Chinese New Year’s cake made of glutinous rice flour, and cotton candy. Imagine a very, very thick — in fact, semi-solid — cornstarch pudding with undissolved cotton candy in it. Does that sound weird? I found it so. The fine shreds of breast meat made me think too much of eating hair, even though the flavor was pleasant. It’s not a dish I’d get again, except that I want to know if this version was a good one or not… so I might end up getting more of it, just for comparison!

We also got pistachio phyllo rolls, which were very sweet and tasted overwhelmingly of pistachios. They were okay. I prefer my phyllo crunchy, and I don’t know if these were supposed to be and weren’t, or what. I was so indifferent to these desserts that I actually stopped eating while there was still some left!

Pistachio phyllo rolls

After our meal, we crossed the street to the mall on the other side, and looked for the balcony we’d seen from the window of the restaurant. We found it in an upstairs food court that boasted a pizza place, an Arby’s, a Burger King, and a Krispy Kreme. (!) As the sun went down, I made a sketch (my first in Turkey!), and Erik took a video of the street below; I find it as fascinating as a choreography.

Sketch

When we went back home it was getting dark. As we made our way through one of the narrow streets (I recklessly took unfamiliar turns, confident that my compass instincts would get us back — which they did!!), we heard the sunset call to prayer. It sounded something like this; apparently the calls are all (or mostly?) recorded now, and broadcast from loudspeakers. Amazingly, even though we’ve heard street vendors and other intriguing calls** on a daily basis, this was our first time hearing the call to prayer. (There’s a historic mosque close to us, so I don’t understand this at all.) I loved it.

And yes, I am feeling better than yesterday. Still a bit sick, but I hope recovering.

*On the other hand, I had a very enjoyable feeling of being a Gilded Age lady taking refreshment during an afternoon out shopping… in some weird, wrong-place-wrong-time way, the ambience and location recalled what I learned in college: that around the turn of the last century, department stores became an unexceptionable place for women to go shopping/dining alone. Of course a proper 1890s American lady is worlds away from chicken and rice in Istanbul, but such is the way my mind works.

**There’s one sound we hear very regularly, several times a day: a little snippet of song, a jingle maybe? with a female voice and a tune that sounds enough like a few bars of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 that it always gets that piece stuck in my head afterward! I have no idea what this could possibly be and I’m very curious. I’d thought something like an ice cream truck — it sounds like that kind of amplification — but I’ve never seen a vehicle going by during the time that I hear it. It’s a real mystery.