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.

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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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Galata Kahvehanesi

Şahkulu Mah. Tımarcı Sk. No:1 34421 Istanbul • (0533) 2391403

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Just off the main drag cutting through Galata there is a monopoly brewing by the name of Nar Hotels. A rather interesting concept whereby the hotel and its restaurants reside in several different buildings that span for blocks, as opposed to everything being under one roof. The result is very charming, quaint and each décor is done very tastefully, packing a lot of style into each square meter. Take Galata Kahvenhanesi as a prime example, with its soothing use of earth tones combined with a contemporary flair. It’s enough to make you forget all about the dilapidated building falling to pieces next door.

While we’re on the subject of things falling apart, let’s discuss the service in Istanbul restaurants during Bayram. Not only do you not get the A Team (who are busy on holiday in Bodrum), but they skip right over the B and C teams and go straight to D, as in Deplorable. We had to ask for things so many times I believe it may have set a world record. In fact, the only way the service could’ve been any slower was if the waiter had dropped dead mid-shift, been rushed to the hospital, resuscitated and rushed back to the restaurant to continue serving.

Fortunately for us, the chef apparently stayed through the festivities, because the food was up to snuff. The meze platter was fresh and flavorful, filled with eggplant dolma, bulgur salad, hummus, etc… And the rocket salad was equally worthy of praise. In fact, the only thing that wasn’t was the bread, which boy genius (a.k.a. our waiter) decided would be better served warm, so he nuked it, making it as chewy as a dog toy! Head in hand. But all things considered, I still most definitely recommend this place. Just not during Ramadan.

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The Ultimate Mussels

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Midye Dolma Carts & Sehmus– Bodrum, TK

During the Summer, throughout the Bodrum area, there are these guys walking around with street carts, loaded with mussels. Now, if you are half sane, mollusks are probably the LAST street meat you’d ever want to risk your life with, but please hear me out.

These mussels are called midye dolma (stuffed mussels) and they cooked, stuffed with rice and spices, closed back up and then chilled. All of this happening back in Izmir where the family catches the mussels and prepares them. Then, they load up their sons (it would seem they have outdone the old lady who lived in a shoe) with these mussels and send them off throughout the Turkish Riviera.

So, should you happen to see one of these guys, don’t think it’s some rinky dink operation. And especially don’t pass them by. Get yourself a dozen, squeeze some lemon over the top and order yourself a glass of white wine or raki. I will bet my foodiness that about halfway through you will be ready for another dozen.

Yamashiro – Los Angeles, CA

Most people come to Yamashiro for the view. I go for the mussels. I mean sure, the view is spectacular and the grounds are impeccable, but the Seven Spice Mussels are seventh heaven. Forget the sushi. Forget the fact that Jason Priestley once took Jennie Garth here for a date on 90210. Just remember to get the mussels if you should ever go here.

L’Ondine – Cannes, FR

The place is very unassuming from a culinary aspect as you would likely discount it as just a beach that happens to serve food, but assumptions are like really annoying phrases that you’ve heard all your life so I’ll spare you. That said, park your assumptions on the Croisette because the Moules Frites here is phenomenal.