Bella Sombra

Bagarasi Cad. No:24, Golturkbuku 48400, Turkey • T +9 0252 377 6100 • bellasombrahotel.com

Secrets, contrary to conventional wisdom, are better shared than kept. Obviously not all secrets, however. Like “I have another family” or “I’m actually a man” or “It’s not your baby.” But when it comes to restaurant finds, I lean towards letting the word get out. Sure it will make the place more popular and harder to get into, but it beats the alternative of no one ever hearing about it and the place disappears. This is a fate I would like to save Bella Sombra from.

As the name implies it is VERY “bella.” The setting when you walk down those steps toward the pool courtyard is breathtaking. Stone villas flanking it on all sides. The glow from the water, the moon and the lanterns on the steps luring you deeper into the seduction. And as you make your way around the pool, you will come upon the dining area, which is set apart by greenery and charmed with strung lights (pictured). The bar next door enjoys some of the same, but with a very spacious, more casual vibe. Almost done like an amphitheater of chaise-like sofas all facing the wooden bar meets hut in the center of the arena.

Sadly though, it is all wasted, because the crowd is not just virtually non-existent. It’s actually non-existent. We were the only table of the night. There were more stray cats than people, that’s how dead it was. On the upside, service was great. How could it not be?

So maybe it’s the food that’s killing them? Not really. I actually found most of the dishes to be quite worthy (not to mention large). The best dish being an inventive eggplant starter that tasted similar to baba ghanouj only better. The other winner was the paella for two, made with sucuk for a Turkish spin (resisting the temptation to make a dervish joke here).

In the middle for me would be the vegetarian sushi that tasted a bit like red lentil kofte. And the only miss was the manti. I get what they were trying to do, similar in some ways to how it is done at Limon. But in execution, it comes off like chickpeas and yogurt with Cheez-its stuck in it. So a pretty mighty miss in retrospect, but not enough for me to lose confidence as a recommendation. In other words, please go. It would be a shame to see this place disappear.

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Simit Sarayi

435 5th AveNew York, NY 10016 • (929) 374-3237 • simitsarayi.com

For all intensive purpose the name basically translates to Bagel Palace. And a palace it is not. In Turkey it is essentially a Panera, a local chain of decent baked goods and other dishes. And if I was in Turkey I’d probably only give this place 3 knives, but that’s in Turkey. To have this in New York City on my walk to work, it is a godsend!

About once a month I go butt-wild and buy a double Noah’s Ark- four of everything. The spinach rose borek might just be my favorite thing of all. Warm it up with a dollop of plain yogurt and sliced tomatoes on the side and you’ve got yourself one of the easiest, bestest meals you could wish for.

I also loves me some su boregi, which is sort of like a savory kugel or sauceless, meatless lasagna. It sounds awful the way I’m describing it, but I promise it’s delish. Granted it’s even better at Gulluoglu on the East Side, but since Gulluoglu isn’t on my walk to work, this one is plenty good enough.

Their dill and feta buns are terrific too, which are pseudo pogaça-like. For those of you who don’t find the poaça analogy helpful, it’s a small, savory pastry filled with herbs and cheese.

Ironically the top billing, the simit, can be a bit of a wild card. Sometimes it’s true to the motherland, thin and dense and seeded galore. Other times it tries to masquerade as a wannabe sesame bagel. I prefer the former.

On the sweet side, they also kick some serious ay çöreği, a crescent-shaped, semi-sweet dessert filled with ground hazelnuts that are so dense they almost taste like chocolate. Then, they top it off with sliced almonds.

All of the little cookies are money too. Perfect for çay sati (tea time). They have chocolate chip, Nutella filled, hazelnut and fig. You really can’t go wrong. And that’s what I love about this place. You could throw a dart anywhere in the joint and still be happy with what you got to eat, unless you hit the cashier, of course.

Mmm Enfes

70 W 39th St, New York, NY 10018 • (212) 827-0801 • mmmenfesnyc.com
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As I have stated before, I’m not typically a fan of build-your-own concepts, because I sort of feel like it’s the restaurants job to come up with interesting combinations. Otherwise I could just make it myself. But since it was their way or no gozleme ( hey that rhymes!), I shelved my principles and started pointing at everything like a kid in a candy store. Spinach, cheese, olives, hot peppers, corn, mushrooms, more spinach and more cheese… And ya know what I learned that day? I make a damn good gozleme foreman.

And to drink, they have ayran, which is a salty yogurt-based drink that goes perfect with spicy food and even perfecter on hot days. So the fact that it was both, made that ayran go down like an elixir.

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Four Seasons Sultanahmet

No. 1, Cankurtaran Mh., Tevkifhane Sk., 34122 Sultanahmet-Eminönü/Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey+90 212 402 3000 • fourseasons.com/content/fourseasons/en/properties/istanbul
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For those of you still hung up on Midnight Express, the notion of dining in a Turkish Prison is probably not high up on your Istanbul bucket list, but rest assured, your fears would be sorely misplaced, because this prison is the Four Seasons of prisons. No, seriously. It’s actually a Four Seasons. With prison yards turned into lush gardens, cells turned into rooms and the cafeteria turned into an expansive restaurant atrium.

Like all Four Seasons restaurants, the food falls somewhere between good and great, although I would temper your expectations toward the lower end of that spectrum, because compared to the Four Seasons in New York it’s not even close. I mean that food-wise. In terms of décor it blows New York out of the water. Crazy to say about a prison, I know, but true nonetheless.

The food itself is a classic array of the usual suspects, mezes and iconic Mediterranean dishes ranging from whole sea bass (levrek), to dolma (stuffed grape leaves), to kufte (meatballs), to lentil soup (lentil soup). And while they all hold strong, there are better to be had throughout the city. But the food is not why you’re heading here, it’s for the one-of-a-kind experience, and on that The Four Seasons Sultanahmet delivers in spades.

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Bosphorous

108 S Park Ave. Winter Park, FL 32789 (407) 644-8609 bosphorousrestaurant.com

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Considering my wife is Turkish and I visit Turkey for a few weeks at least once a year, I would say I’m a pretty good judge of Turkish cuisine. Therefore, by the power vested in me, I pronounce Bosphorus to be the real McCoy. One bite and you feel like you’re sitting in Istanbul enjoying mezes (appetizers) and sipping raki (anise Turkish booze). Everything is as authentic as it gets and once upon a time it was pretty damn good too. But ever since they opened a second location in Dr. Phillips, the food at both has slid downhill. Particularly at the Dr. Phillips location. So if you if you’re going, head to Winter Park instead.

That said, there are still a few things that remain strong, like the lavas (a giant puffy bread) with cacik (yogurt mixed with garlic and herbs), the lahmacun (ground lamb flat bread: pictured), the babaganoush and humus. The rest is sadly a shell of its former self, from the oily mucver (zucchini pancakes) to the flavorless okra dish to the adana kebabs that are not very adana (spicy).

But at least the staff is still very friendly, so if you need additional guidance, feel free to let them show you around the menu. Also, two things; I recommend going with three or more people so you can try lots of different things and second, don’t go if you are in a rush. Turks like to take their time and so should you. Besides, it’s not good to eat too fast. And yes, I am your mother.

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The Ultimate Baklava

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I’m nuts about Baklava. So much so that it forces me to write involuntary puns. The thing I suppose I love most about it is that it’s like a textural amusement park in your mouth with the light, flaky phyllo dough and the crunchy pistachios or walnuts or hazelnuts (depending on who’s making it), all packed in so densely it’s almost like mortar. Then you’ve got the sticky, syrup or honey holding it all together like Elmer’s. There’s so much effort crammed into every square centimeter you’d almost have to be an asshole not to appreciate it. That said, my two Ultimates aren’t exactly what one would call traditional baklavas. But this is my blog and as far as I’m concerned they are close enough.

Gulluoglu – New York, NY

The true name of the first Ultimate is actually sutlu nuriye, which means “glory with milk” and I concur. Glorious it is. And milky. Giving it a creaminess that most other baklavas lack. I’m sure we’ve all had our share of dry baklava and I think we can all agree it’s unacceptable. But not to worry here, because Gulluoglu doubles down on moisture with ample doses of syrup and milk, turning these magical blocks of brilliance into both the dessert itself and the glass of milk to wash it down, at the same time. Top that Momofuku Milk Bar!

Yalçin – Gölkoy, Turkey

Considering the Ottoman Empire birthed the dish, it only makes sense that after hundreds of years of tinkering there would be droves of baklava variations. And while they are inherently similar in many ways, the slight nuances from one to another can make all the difference. Be it in proportions, textures or flavor. And then you have to factor in who’s making it. In this particular case, it’s a little bakery right on the main strip in Golkoy called Yalçin, and the baklava of which I speak is called sarigi burma (pictured), which means “sultan’s turban dessert.” I assume the name is derived from the twisted appearance of the dish, which vaguely resembles a turban, coupled with how amazing it is, thus a dessert worthy of a sultan. And if ever there were a baklava deserving of royal billing, it’s ironically the one served up by a surprisingly humble-looking bakery. Their secret lies in not overdoing the sweet honey, but also in the densely rolled shreds of green pastry that almost resemble round bails of hay more than a turban, but I’m guessing that didn’t sound as sexy to the marketing team.

Midyeci Sehmus Usta

Şehit Uğur Öztop Cad. Gündoğan, TK 48965 • +90 535 9492313sehmususta.com

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This is not just a restaurant, this is a movie in the making about a kid who comes from nothing and manages to build an empire… out of stuffing mussels with rice. Okay, so maybe it wouldn’t be a great movie, but it is truly inspiring to see what this man, Sehmus, has managed to achieve since 1981, when he first started selling midye dolma (stuffed mussels) out of a street cart. A head-scratching concept to say the least, because shellfish from a barrel on wheels sounds like the recipe for E.coli if ever I heard one. In fact, back when my wife and I first visited Bodrum together nearly 15 years ago, she tried to get me to try the mussels from one of the street carts and I looked at her like she had seven heads. Granted they were all very pretty heads, but seven nonetheless. That said, after trying a small sampling of three, I immediately ordered another dozen. And every year the number has grown exponentially to 24, 30, 40- even 50 pieces in a single order. Praise be Sehmus! I have seen the light!

And I’m not the only one. Somehow this mussel man (see what I did there?) managed to assemble a family owned and operated network of street carts stretching from Izmir all the way to Bodrum and everything in between. A veritable army of street vendors all carrying a product so consistently great they could give Penn Tennis Balls a run for their money. Too obtuse? Penn used to have a long running ad campaign about how “amazingly consistent” they were. But I digress.

Which brings me to today. Finally, the man, the myth, the legend, has decided to settle down, planting roots with his first brick and mortar restaurant, located in Gundogan, serving up mussels in every way shape and form. In fact, the menu almost reads like that scene in Forrest Gump where he goes on and on about all the ways you can cook shrimp.

But fret not, because the dolma are still the best on Earth. And if you’re not close to Gundogan, that’s okay too, because the army of street vendors is still on the march.

One caveat, however. The rest of the menu doesn’t quite hold up to the dolma. The midye casserole is just okay- be sure to ask for it aci (spicy) and without cheese (one of those rare dishes that’s better sans). Another zag from expectations is that I much preferred the fried calamari over the grilled variety, which is rare for me. And last but not least, the seafood with rice was also a big snoozer. But hot damn are those dolma good! So go for those, some raki or Efes, and eat so many you turn yourself into a dolma. Sage advice if ever it existed.

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Karakoy Lokantasi

Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa Mh., Kemankeş Cd No:37/A, İstanbul, Turkey • +90 212 292 4455 • karakoylokantasi.com
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Karakoy is the dark horse of Istanbul if you ask me, which suits it nicely since the direct translation of its name is “dark village.” Such an unlikely, industrial waterfront turned so hip it could easily give Brooklyn a run for its money, filled with one incredible restaurant after another, a stunning, refurbished Hamam turned spa, and unique boutiques speckled throughout.

Yet, amidst all of the funkier, cooler restaurants there lies a much lower key option, not trying too hard to live on the edge, delivering all your classic meze with excellent service and a simple, inviting, understated (comparatively) décor.

That said, the mezes themselves were a bit on the hit and miss side, not quite living up to the raves. My favorite being the smoked bonito fish with red onion (lakerda). Perhaps it’s the latent Jew in me, responding to the reminiscent flavors of sable and red onions atop a bagel and cream cheese… Cue Homer Simpson drooling noises.

After that, both the mustard pickled levrek (sea bass) and the grilled octopus proved to be a solid yum, while the yaprak sarma (stuffed grape leaves) and sigara boregi (phyllo dough stuffed with feta) proved to be nothing memorable.

The only flat out miss was the midye dolma (stuffed mussels), which is normally my favorite meze of all mezes. But I have to say these might’ve been the worst I’ve ever had. I mean they really shat the seabed on this one. So much so that they should foot the bill to fly in Sehmus, the Midye Whisperer of Bodrum, to teach them how it’s done.

But back on a positive note, the cacik (yogurt and herbs) was thick and creamy, just the way I like it. Granted I like the more soupy version well- okay, I like practically anything with yogurt, but this was definitely on the better end of the cacik spectrum. In fact the only other I can claim was as good was at Beyoglu in New York. Also, the fig dessert (pictured) with kaymak was pretty tasty as well.

So not exactly an out-of-the-way must. And I can’t say I’m even sure that it’s better than the scads of much cooler looking places all around it, but after a glass or two of Ala Yeni Raki who even cares?

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Turkish Kitchen

386 3rd Ave. New York, NY 10016 • (212) 679-1810turkishkitchen.com

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If you have read any of my other reviews you probably guessed by now that I have some sort of link to Turkey considering how many Turkish restaurants I have reviewed. And you would be right. I go to Turkey at least once a year for a few weeks and I absolutely love the food. But unfortunately there are too many great dishes for one restaurant to hold on their menu so I kind of have to run the circuit to truly get my fix on all of my favorites. And Turkish kitchen is the only place in the city that I found to have my absolute top favorite dish, midye dolma (stuffed mussels). A dish born out of fishing towns like Izmir and the beautiful coves of the Turkish Riviera. But TK is more than a one trick pony. They do a lot of things well, particularly their whole fish served bones, head and all- which is the way they serve it in Turkey, so be prepared to clean it should you choose to order it. Décor is nice and service is always friendly. And while they are the only ones to carry my favorite dish, if you find yourself lovin’ some Turkish like me, check out some of my other recos, because Turkish Kitchen is just the tip of the buzdagi (iceberg).

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Pasha

70 W 71st St. New York, NY 10023 (212) 579-8751 •  pashanewyork.com
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 I’ve been going to Pasha for years and the reason is quite simple, it’s the best Turkish in the city. Well, other than Beyoglu and Pera. But they each do different things well, so it’s kind of a draw.

Among Pasha’s bailiwicks are the octopus, so consistently tender and awesome it just barely missed my Ultimate Octopus list. Solid mezes ranging from baba ganoush to sigara boregi (feta pastry) to yaprak sarma (stuffed grape leaves). And of course entrees ranging from whole fish to kebabs and all of it is done as authentic as anything you might find in Istanbul.

Decor is touch on the expected side, painted Turkish Flag Red. But they somehow manage to charm it up with its different rooms and quaint vibe. As a result it feels nothing like its decor twin in Kips Bay, Turkish Kitchen (also red, but more expansive and less intimate).

And service as a rule among most Turkish haunts is always very friendly and accommodating. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had a bad waiter at Pasha or any other Turkish restaurant in the city and I’ve eaten at close to a dozen. And I’m not just saying that because my Turkish wife is reading over my shoulder as I type this.

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