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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Crimson

2901 Ocean Park Blvd. Ste 127 Santa Monica, CA 90405(310) 396-2400 crimsonla.com

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If you hate Tommy James and the Shondels, the University of Alabama football team and Tom Clancy novels about submarines, then your crimson ship finally came in. In the form of hummus wraps stuffed with fresh tabouleh, bursting with flavor. Dip that in a side of their tzatziki and you’re golden. But speaking of gold, their Turkish style grape leaves drizzled with a harissa yogurt are so good I think they should be made mandatory for all other restaurants to emulate. Even their Arnold Palmer was pretty decent, making this an all around great spot for a grab and go, delivery or a casual bite.

I’d elaborate more, but this one is a solid fastball down the middle. And besides, you have too much work to be sitting around reading lengthy blog posts waxing Hemmingway about a dolma anyway.

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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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Lefteris Gyro

190 E Main St. Mount Kisco, NY 10549 • (914) 242-8965 • lefterisgyro.com

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I have eaten at all three locations, Tarrytown, Mount Kisco and Yonkers (Ridge Hill), not so much because I am a Lefteris groupie, but more because I like a good gyro and no matter where you are in Westchester, Lefteris is never too far away. And while I wish I could regale you with stories of magnificently thin lamb shavings, sprinkled with pixie dust, the greatness of Lefteris is born more from the rules of supply and demand than any culinary hocus-pocus. Put plainly, they are the only game in town.

And currently Lefteris is winning that game 3-0, because all three locations appear to be doing a good business. Partly due to the kid friendly/family friendly vibe. And partly due to the insanely generous portions for bargain basement prices. When I have it delivered, one order of the gyro platter is enough to feed me for two nights, making it less than eight bucks a meal. Note to the penny pincher.

Please take the knife count below with a grain of salt though. The stuffed grape leaves are crap and you can find better spinach pie at Stew Leonard’s, but the pitas always come warm and the gyro meat and souvlaki seldom miss the mark- that mark being a very casual Greek fix. They’re definitely not trying to be MP Taverna (not that MP impressed me either). So recalibrate your expectations and go for some good, quick, cheap, Greek eatin’ and you’ll be happier than Socrates… before he drank the hemlock.

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Almayass

24 E 21st St. New York, NY 10010(212) 473-3100almayassnyc.com

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Attention all Ilili lovers, there’s another game in town. And what’s especially nice about this game is that it’s easier to play. In case my obtuse analogy isn’t tracking, what I mean to say is that it’s way easier to get a table, especially at lunch.

But settle you will not. Almayass is not just an alternative. It’s very much a destination in its own right. From the moment you enter, you are immediately taken by the elegant décor which is much warmer than Ilili,, blending more classic elements with contemporary, and accented with wonderful works of art.

Another plus is that the staff is much more pleasant and much less snooty than at Ilili, which is nice if you don’t want a side of attitude with your fattoush, speaking of which, it was very good.

In fact, most everything was good. A few misses. A few homeruns. And lots in between. Among the homers would be the Soujuk Almayass. Best thing I’ve ever had with this Middle Eastern sausage. It’s painfully simple really, just a slice of sausage sitting on a crostini with a sunny side quail egg on top. But holy Lebanon was it good! Chased with a little arak (Lebanese anise liquor) and I was all like “Ilili who?”

Another dish that was surprisingly better than any I’d ever had before was the mantee. It’s the same thing as the Turkish dish “manti, which are tiny ravioli filled with meat, covered in yogurt. What made it so special, however, was how crisp it was on the outside, and so most and creamy on the inside. And we all know what a softy I am for contrasting textures.

Three other dishes that were also very strong were the kebab made with filet mignon, the baba ganoush served with pomegranate seeds and the lentil soup. Granted my review of the soup is only hearsay, and by that I mean “MMMMMMMMM!!!” from across the table.

In the middle of the road was the pita bread, tzatziki and hummus. And bringing up the rear, the three biggest misses for me were the olives, the tabouleh salad and the sarma.

The olives because they were served pitted, which I can only assume was due to the fact that they’re afraid of getting sued by someone for cracking a tooth on a pit, because no self-respecting restaurant from the region would ever serve olives pitted otherwise.

The tabouleh because it was very leafy and dry. I like mine more moist and hearty.

And last but- well actually least, the sarma. Among the worst stuffed grape leaves I’ve ever had. Such a shame too, because this place was so close to five knives, but I’m afraid they fell shy by one.

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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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Ilili

236 5th Ave. New York, NY 10001 • (212) 683-2929 ililinyc.com

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I’ve only eaten lunch here (several times), but one of these days I will be back for dinner.

Of the many visits however, here are some of my learnings: For my first trip I had the prix fixe (great deal) and decided to go with the Phoenician fries which, I have to say, are probably the best fries I’ve even had in my life along with the Lamb Dip. The lamb was definitely good too, but compared to the fires, it took second.

The bread was also good (warm puffy pita), as was the cucumber, mint lemonade. The only miss was dessert, the caramelized banana bread was just eh.

As for decor and service, both were excellent. Decor being a very pleasant surprise. It’s sleek and hip and a very popular spot for happy hour.

So that rounds out my first impression. Upon returning, however, here’s what else I learned. Get the mezzes as opposed to the prix fixe. It’s definitely the way to go. The brussel sprout dish alone is worth a second, third, fourth and fifth trip. Easily the best brussel sprout dish I’ve ever had – and for those of you who have been to Cleo in LA, yes, this one is better.

We also had several other dishes from tuna belly, to lahamajeen, to hummus and all were quite good as well. The only thing that was a bit of a let down were the stuffed grape leaves, which is a shame, because that’s one of my favorite dishes- but whatevs- with everything else as good as it is, I’d put this in the top 5 med restaurants in the city without a second thought. Granted until I go for dinner I’m holding back on the fifth knife.

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Pera

303 Madison Ave. New York, NY 10017(212) 878-6301peranyc.com

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The stars are primarily for the food. The service is actually hit and miss. First time we went it was pretty slow. And by slow, I mean if we didn’t ask for things to be sped along, we’d still probably be there. But the second time we went it was as though they remembered us and redeemed themselves in spades. Hard to say until I go a third time for the tie-breaker.

As for the decor, it’s nice. Simple and elegant, but nothing too lavish either. And the crowd seems to be more business than pleasure. But VERY packed regardless. Not an open table in the place at 6:30pm on a Tuesday.

But forget about all of that, because the moment the bread hits the table, Pera shines. What I mean by that is the bread is like nothing you’ve ever had. Akin to a souffle, it is light and airy and served with crumbled feta that literally melts into the steam of the bread.

The dolma (stuffed grape leaves) are also solid. Made turkish style with currants, the way I like them.

And the dates wrapped in pastirma (Turkish sopressata) were also pretty awesome.

But then, the dark horse rode in. The fried calamari. A dish I’m seldom a fan of, so much so, that when my wife wanted to order it, I rolled my eyes. Well, I wound up eating a lot of crow on this one. And a ton of calamari along with it. It was easily the best I’ve ever had. By a wide margin. Served with hot peppers, chives and sucuk (spicy sausage).

Then for entrees, I had the Lamb Adana, which was solid. But nothing better than it is at other Turkish haunts in the city. That said if you’re craving lamb, I would skip it and go for the lamb “tacos.” HIGHLY recommend. Can’t decide which is more amazing, those or the fried calamari.

Also worthy of note, the salmon entree was excellent, especially considering it’s not a Turkish fish.

Now for the only two misses: I found the okra entree to be a touch bland. And for dessert, the chocolate volcano was just okay- shoulda gone with the Baklava. And I will… Next time.

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Sayat Nova

157 E Ohio St. Chicago, IL 60611(312) 644-9159sayatnovachicago.com

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The best stuffed grape leaves I’ve ever had- nuff said.

Okay, I’ll say a little more. I lived right next door to this place for 5 years and ate there about once a week, so I guess you could say I’m a fan. Such good Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern, no matter what you order. And the decor is nice and warm and authentic without feeling “themey” Sort of feels like a place you’d expect to find in Cappadocia, Turkey, with its cave-like walls surrounding the tables on the perimeter of the dining room.

Oh, and if you get in good with the staff, maybe they’ll light up a hooka and play some backgammon with you on a slower night.

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Kouzzina

The Boardwalk • 2101 Epcot Resort Blvd. Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830(407) 939-5100 • disneyworld.disney.go.com/reservations

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Oddly enough, the second best restaurant at Disney just happens to be right next door to the first (Flying Fish Café). Yes, Kouzzina actually lives up to the hype. And I have to give it extra props, because as far as celeb chef restaurants go, most of them fall horrendously short of expectations. For example Bobby Flay’s Americain and Mario Batali’s Babbo. But Cat Cora finally manages to convert her celebrity into something worthy.

Right out of the gate you can tell you are in for a treat with the stuffed grape leaves and grilled shrimp to the creamy hummus and fresh pita. Even the Greek olive oil, with it’s peppery finish. All of the above are all great. But the true stars came next…

All three entrees were phenomenal. The shortribs with a glass of Russian River Pinot Noir. The Branzino with the chili oil- such a great blend of Mediterranean and Thai influences. And the pork- which I didn’t actually try, but my mother wolfed it down amidst a symphony of “oohs” and “mmms.”

But could Cat stick the landing? Would dessert live up to its predecessors? Indeed. The chocolate “lava” cake was incredible. Skip the raspberry ice cream is comes with though. It cheapens the dish, which is plenty good all by itself. The other dessert, the baklava, was also good, but very non-traditional. Done more like a spring roll (again, mixing Asian influences). This one, however, is just okay by itself, so I do recommend having it with the cinnamon ice cream to get it over the hump of just “eh.”

So, after such a glowing review I’m sure you are wondering why only 4 stars and not 5- and that is because the rest of the experience was lack luster. The service was absolutely atrocious. She was nice and well-meaning, but a terrible fit for such a good restaurant. She should be a server at Chili’s or Applebee’s. Not here.

And the other big miss is décor. Fortunately we forced our way to a table outside, so if you make a rezzy, be sure to request outside, because inside feels like a dining hall, woefully lacking anything that resembles what some might call “décor.”

So, the good news is, if you eat outside and you get a better server than we did, you are quite likely to have yourself a five star meal. At Disney, no less!

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