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In This IssueDining Out in Istanbul by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER: Ben & Jack's Steakhouse by John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: All in the Family at Dry Creek and Ponzi by Mort Hochstein
Dining Out in Istanbul
Turkey’s gastronomy is a complexity of Middle Eastern cuisines, as is appropriate for the crossroads of the world, drawing as much from Greece as from the Ottoman Empire. The Spice Road--the famous overland route to the Orient that Columbus tried to shortcut by sailing west--was central to the region's economy, and its importance is still manifest in the great Spice Market (left) in Istanbul, covered wall to wall, floor to ceiling, with the most extraordinary colors of saffron, turmeric, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves. And then there are the arrays of baklava-style desserts—thin sheets of baked, butter pastry crammed with pistachios or walnuts and suffused with intense sugar syrup—varieties of which are sold in Istanbul’s spice bazaar under the sobriquet “Turkish Viagra.”
It is a country rich in grains—wheat, bulgur, rice, even corn (introduced from America)--vegetables and fruits. The Aegean, the southern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Sea of Marmara provide abundant seafood. Cross any bridge in Istanbul and you’ll pass dozens of men with their fishing poles cast into the Golden Horn and the Bosporus.
In Turkey you learn it is rude to refuse anyone’s offer for a cup of strong, thrice-boiled coffee or a glass of tea, and everyone will offer it. Turkish hosts expect you to eat heartily, beginning with breakfast (kahvalti) of breads, olives, and feta cheese. In a city like Istanbul working people may pick up a stuffed börek sandwich (left) for lunch at a shop or sit down to an array of mezes and kebabs and have a sweet milk pudding at a muhallebici shop. Dinner at home might be an assortment of vegetables, lamb, chicken, or seafood. Pork, under Islamic law and popular tradition, should not be served.
Over a week eating around Istanbul I found both wonderful traditional food and many modern variations. There were meals as mundane as any I’ve had in third-rate Turkish restaurants in America, but I did learn to crave Istanbul's street foods, from the flatbreads called pide to the sesame-studded pretzel-like snacks called simit.
One of the best traditional restaurants I visited was Hünkar (21 Caddesi Mim Kemal Öke; 90-212-225-4665; www.hunkartr.com) in the fashionable Nişantaşi neighborhood. The dining room (right) has a wonderfully warm atmosphere, with yellow walls, glowing sconces, dark wood accents, marble floors, and a service staff well-versed in English. Chef-owner Galip Ügümü is extremely proud of his lavish display of mezes, brought on big plates to our table and including a dill-scented fava bean purée, broad beans cooked with tomato, sweet red peppers stuffed with rice, fried zucchini flowers, and exceptionally rich yogurt. From a winelist that includes about 20 Turkish bottlings, Ügümü toasted our table with a glass of Doluca Özel wine, saying "Sherefeh!" and we ate with great relish a perfectly steamed bass with a parsley sauce and lamb chops with a purée of eggplant and butter, finishing off with a yellow semolina cake and a bread pudding with honey and sugar syrup. A very generous meal, without wine, runs about $35 per person.
Hünkar’s menu is common to many restaurants, if not prepared quite so well all over Istanbul; what is not at all common is the menu at Çiya (43 Güneşlibahçe Street; 90-216-330-3190; www.ciya.co.tr), pronounced CHEE-yah, across the Bosporus in one of the cramped streets on the Asian side of Istanbul. It doesn’t look like much from the outside or inside, but chef owner Musa Dağdeviren is a sort of Turkish Mario Batali-and-Alice Waters rolled into one ebullient, mustachioed cuisinier. Musa cooks “forgotten dishes” made from Turkish ingredients you rarely find anywhere outside of regional homes in Anatolia, Cappadocia, the Balkans, and Caucasia. He himself hails from Nizip, and if you sit at one of his cramped tables and ask him and his charming wife Zeynep (left) to bring you their specialties, you may not get up for hours after sampling a score of dishes, from Turkish truffles sautéed with garlic, plump cardoons, a sour weed called “stone crab,” wild white mustard greens, bitter chicory, celery herb, baby green almonds, red basil, various kebabs (they have a repertoire of a hundred), a plate of suckling lamb chitterlings with chilies, oregano and tomato, and penny royal, a Eurasian herb with blue flowers. There is also a soup called yilanotu that supposedly takes 60 hours to make. It begins in the mouth with a buttery flavor then gives a pungent, peppery bite. For dessert Dusa may serve a sweet tomato (which is really a fruit, not a vegetable) with green walnuts, along with a glass of tea made from savory or an almond milk beverage called somata. All this will cost you about $30. The couple also runs two local, very popular kebab eateries across the street.
My favorite place for kebabs was the well-known Köșebași (15 Camaklik Sok; 90-212-270-24-33; www.kosebasi.com.tr.), a chain of ten eateries in several Turkish cities. Run by an ebullient, very helpful Italian named Piero, the 250-seat branch we visited in the Levent neighborhood (below) has a lovely outdoor terrace with wooden tables and blue mats and, right about now, trees in radiant bloom. We began with the requisite mezes, then tucked into kebabs cooked on skewers over charcoal--succulent chicken wings and minced lamb--while other items are baked in the oven. With a cup of good, dark Turkish coffee and most items about $2.50, we ate very well for very little.
Although we were told it was rather touristy, a huge arcade called Gigek Pasaji (left) off Istikcal Street and fronted by the neo-classical façade of the Cité de Pera Building is lined on both sides with various seafood restaurants, with the fish displayed and the suit-jacketed maître d's beckoning you to their tables.
Curiously enough, Tuğra’s executive chef, Fabrice Canelle and chef de cuisine, Aydin Demir, are Frenchmen who have brought Gallic finesse to Turkish culinary traditions in beautiful dishes like poached Black Sea turbot with red lentils and a cumin emulsion; tender, char-grilled calamari with Kalamata olives and baked tomato; sautéed cuttlefish eggs with smoked eggplant and lamb purée; and braised beef cheeks with quince and aromatic sumac rice. Dinner runs about $50, before wine.
If Hünkar is among the most rewarding of traditional Turkish restaurants, Köșebași a prototypical kebab house, and Çiya an attempt to restore even older foods of the region, there is also a growing desire on the part of young chefs to emulate the haute cuisine one finds in European capitals. To experience the upper reaches of refinement in modern Turkish food, you must go to the most refined hotel dining rooms, like Tuğra in the Çirağan Palace Hotel Kempinski (32 Caddesi Çirağan; 90-212-258-3377; www.ciraganpalace.com; Photo below courtesy of Çirağan Palace), which is literally located in a former palace and features the cuisine of Ottoman royalty, who I’m sure would approve of the lustrous formal décor and huge windows overlooking the lights on the Bosporus.
At the Four Seasons Hotel (1 Tevkifhane Sodak; 90-212-638-8200; www.fourseasons.com/istanbul) an Italian chef, Giancarlo Gottardo, is bringing his own style of refinement to Istanbul at Seasons Restaurant with dishes that evoke the entire Mediterranean in dishes like his morel mushroom risotto with truffles and foie gras sauce; a pink lamb loin noisette with bell pepper and eggplant cannelloni and a slightly sweet plum sauce; and pan-seared sea bass with salmon caviar, baby fennel, and a tarragon-perfumed clam sauce. The restaurant is glass-sided, situated in a courtyard garden and surrounded by the stately yellow walls of the hotel. The service staff could not be more cordial or more professional in their ministrations, and the brunch buffet here has become quite popular. The fact that you can dine here then walk two blocks and be between St. Sofia on one side and the Blue Mosque on the other makes this a very romantic venue indeed.
Photo courtesy Four Seasons Hotels
Our last meal in Istanbul was one of the most evocative, enjoyed along the banks of the Bosporus at the large seafood restaurant Park Fora (134 Caddesi Mualim Naci; 90-212-265-5063; www.parkfora.com), where, despite prices that can easily rise to $100 per kilo for a whole fish, every table is taken on weekend nights. You enter the seaside park and go down to the restaurant, praying you might score a table outside on the water (left). The mezes here--two pages of them--include a purée of smoked eggplant, variously flavored yogurts, roast peppers, and boiled, sweet shrimp smaller than the tip of my pinkie, all served with a real gentility on the part of the well-versed staff. The sea bass, with a crisp, slightly charred skin, had flesh white as the clouds above and came with a benediction of green-gold Turkish olive oil and lemon. In the distance, floating over the water, came the plaintive voice of a Muslim cleric singing his prayers to Allah.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
Ben & Jack’s Steak House
219 East 44th Street
The answer to the question, "What's the best steakhouse in NYC?" used to be so easy ten years ago:
"All of them." By which I meant that NYC steakhouses used to have a monopoly on the best USDA Prime dry-aged beef, and the competitiveness among well-established places like the Palm, Smith & Wollensky, and Sparks guaranteed that you couldn't really go wrong at any of them. But the explosion of steakhouses both in NYC and nationally--particularly the big chains--has caused a dilution of steakhouses' quality of beef, simply because there isn't enough to go around: USDA Prime has never constituted more than 2-5 percent of the meat supply. Still, your best chances of getting the best beef in America are at those restaurants nestled in those few square blocks of Manhattan East Side real estate one might call "Steakville," bound more or less by 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue up to 50th Street, which is chockablock with Palm, Palm II, Sparks, Smith & Wollensky, the Capital Grille, Morton's, Rothmann's, Bobby Van's, Bull and Bear, Michael Jordan's, and Blair Perrone. Peter Luger, which has been out in Brooklyn since 1887, stays far from the fray, but many of the new steakhouses in Manhattan are trying to get a competitive edge by claiming to serve the same style of sliced porterhouse for which Luger is famous, Luger's owners, the Forman family, still hand-picks their dry-aged carcasses. photo: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery As a result, Luger wannabes are opening all over and outside of town, more often than not by former members of Luger's staff.
One of the newest--and the one I think comes closest to the Luger standard--is Ben & Jack's, opened last August by Ben and Russ Sinanaj and their cousins Jack and Hari Sinanaj (right), who worked at Luger and in fact now wait tables at their own place! So, too, Chef Burim Bajrami manned the grill at Luger, and Luger's long-time bartender, Teddy (in the middle), is now B&J's maître d'.
The premises, for years a flashy Chinese restaurant, have 18-foot ceilings, expanses of mahogany, antique chandeliers, burgundy carpeting, frosted etched glass doors that open onto six private party rooms, very comfortable floral fabric-upholstered chairs, even a golden bull (above). Tables are of good size and well set with white cloths. The waitstaff--which in too many NYC steakhouses verges on the obnoxiously brusque--are real professionals and very cordial; after all the owners might be your waiters. Within seconds you get a basket of breads and butter, and your cocktail will be out in a minute or two. The winelist is well stocked with familiar names like Opus One, Far Niente, and Tignanello and hard-to-find small estates' bottlings; for big spenders there are magnums of Nickel & Nickel Syrah 2003 ($185), Stag's Leap Fay 1998 ($300), and Mouton-Rothschild 1986 ($2,995). Prices on regular size bottles seem to run about double retail.
The no-nonsense menu doesn't even try to be original--no French side dishes, no exotic sauces--instead keeping to classic and beloved NYC steakhouse favorites, all done under the rubric that practice makes perfect. So a platter of cold seafood contains fat shrimp, lobster, and crabmeat, and there's the now ubiquitous Luger item of sliced thick bacon, which is delicious, though by its very nature a little salty as an appetizer. A beefsteak tomato and onion salad was good, though this ain't August so don't expect great tomatoes.
The sliced steak (below) is the best way to go: it comes sizzling to the table and tilted to collect the buttery juices, impeccably cooked as ordered and as finely flavorful as any steak I've had this side of the East River. Juicy Colorado lamb chops make a good option too, and the massive four-pound lobster was steamed perfectly, served with an enormous soul bowl of clarified butter. Side dishes include delicious creamed spinach and German hash brown potatoes. Good lord, how could I have forgotten to order onion rings?
Desserts meet the usual standard for steakhouses--cheesecake, strüdel, and so on, but I found myself head over heels and deep into the hot fudge sundae here, scooping up every last drop of it down to the bottom.
My own mixed feelings towards Luger are based on my belief that they still serve the greatest porterhouse in America, but I don't like hiking all the way out there, don't like reservations ignored, deplore the winelist, the sometimes rude waiters, and the difficulty of even getting in when I'm in the mood for steak. But I get nothing but good vibes from Ben & Jack's, which is the best facsimile yet and the place I will head for in Steakville next time I want to be treated well, drink good wine, and have great beef and lobster, served with a nice slice of New Yawk hospitality.
Lunch entrees range from $16.95 to $25.95; at dinner $29.95 to $36.95, with sliced steak for two ($75.90) or more people, and 4-pound lobsters at market price. The restaurant is open daily.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
All in the Family at Dry Creek and Ponzi
by Mort Hochstein
YOU JUST GOTTA LOVE THOSE WACKY GERMANS!
"There's a bar in Munich's newly hip Glöckenbach district that doesn't need a doorman. Hanging down over the doorway is an epiglottis of thick red curtain that's security enough for the X-cess Café on Jahnstrasse. Battle your way through the fold, and, if you're a woman, your reward is a lollipop from a man with an oversized Russian Air Force hat teetering on his head. Men get nothing, except the possibility of trying on the hat later. Notice that where you'd expect to see a bar there is a cabinet of chocolate."--Jonathan Allen, "With Nightlife Like This, Who Needs Berlin?" NY Times (Jan. 29, 2006).
NOT JUST BAN THE HEADMASTER?
WHY NOT JUST BAN THE HEADMASTER?
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS
The restaurant Hakkasan was mis-spelled in last week's announcement of the 50 Best Restaurants in the World.
"THE SWEET LIFE" CRUISE
This fall, from Sept. 29-Oct. 6 John Mariani (left), publisher of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet and food & travel columnist for Esquire Magazine, will host and lead a 7-day cruise called "The Sweet Life," aboard Silverseas' Millennium Class Silver Whisper, with days visiting Barcelona, Tunis, Naples, Milazzo (Sicily), Rome, Livorno, and Villefranche. There will be a welcoming cocktail party, gourmet dinners with wines, cooking demos by John and Galina Mariani co-authors of The Italian-American Cookbook), optional shore excursions will include a tour of the Amalfi Coast, dinner at the great Don Alfonso 1890 (2 Michelin stars), a private tour of the Vatican, dinner at La Pergola (3 Michelin stars) in Rome, a Night Cruise to Hotel de Paris and dinner at Louis XV (3 Michelin stars) in Monaco, and much more. Rates (a 20% savings) range from $4,411 to $5,771. For complete information click.
To all media publicity agents: Owing to the large volume of announcements received regarding holiday events, I will only have room in this newsletter for those that have a unique distinction to them. It would be impossible to list all Mother's Day event. --John Mariani
* Beginning this month, Chef/Partner Tony Mantuano and Executive Chef Missy Robbins of
* From May 3-7 the 2006 Dallas Wine and Food Festival will feature a lineup of events showcasing medal-winning wines from around the world, incl: “Dinner and a Movie” pairing the film “Chocolat” with award-winning wines and a 4-four-course dinner and chocolate confections from La Duni Restaurants, at the Angelika Film Center & Café; At the Nasher Sculpture Ctr. chefs in Dallas will cook at the 9th annual “Rising Stars Chefs’ Contest Awards Dinner; “Salute to Texas!,” at Eddie Deen’s Ranch, is an evening of casual food and fun; “Indoor/Outdoor Living and Entertaining With Style,” a full day of chef demos, wine tastings, and seminars, presented by Western Interiors and Design Magazine, at Decorative Ctr. Dallas; At Hotel Crescent Court several seminars designed to demystify the world of wine and wraps with a “Taste of the World.” Seminars begin at $25 each; evening events, $40-$95 pp. Visit www.dallaswineandfoodfestival.com, or call 214-741-6888.
* From May 8-19 The Gastronomic Festival of the City of Bilbao and Province of Bizkaia brings 7 Basque chefs and cuisine to the United Nations Delegates’ Dining Room in NYC for buffet luncheons. The visiting chefs are: Sabin Arana, Restaurante Jolastoky; Isidro Arribas, Restaurante Andra Mari; Aitor Basabe, Restaurante Arbola-Gaña; Aitor Elizegi, Restaurante Gaminiz; Josean Martínez Alija, Restaurante Guggenheim; Eder Montero, Tía Pol; José Miguel Olazabalaga of Restaurante Aizian. $25 pp. Prior reservations required; call 212-963-7625/6.
* On May 12 Il Fornaio Catering at the Alta Mira Hotel in
* From May 12-20 “A Taste of Navarra” Gastronomic Week will be celebrated in
* From May 16-21 NYC’s Aquavit welcomes a pair of esteemed chefs from the Raffles Hotel in
* From May 16-28, Jaleo in Washington DC will host renowned mushroom expert Llorenç Petràs of Petràs Fruits del Bosc and author of Cocinando con Setas, to participate in a celebration of the mushroom with specials and events taking place at all three Jaleo restaurant locations, culminating with wine dinners. $75 pp. Call Jaleo in DC at 202-628-7949; in
From May 18-20 at Caneel
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, Naomi Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
newest book, written with my brother Robert Mariani, is a memoir of our
years growing up in the