Feb 01 2010
Prior to the trip a good friend forwarded an article from the New York Times about a stellar breakfast restaurant in Cihangir, a neighborhood on the Beylogu side of Istanbul near Taksim, the "Times Square" of the city. I tried to hit the place during the week, but it was closed, done in by the snow or perhaps only open on weekends. I woke up this (Sunday) morning with no real agenda (other than to get a mosque under my belt) and started off by walking through the Besiktas Market (site of the fish vendors) via a little park that reminded me of Gramercy Park only grungier and surrounded by less posh apartments.
I saw this demented sculpture garden – quite possibly the weirdest thing seen this trip – and continued downhill past the by-now-common site of a gazillion mangy cats and pre-distemper dogs that infest the vacant lots and narrow hillside streets of the city. Some of the dogs have some sort of identification thing stapled through their ear – like cattle – and the cats are everywhere, perched on air-conditioner units, dashing into kebab shops, and languishing under parked cars with their tails ticking away. I imagine they must have to round them up and neuter the poor things every so often. Or, what I saw was a product of not rounding them up and neutering them. Some of the dogs are just nasty. They come wandering down a sidewalk and the first thing that comes to mind is "Oh shit. It's Cujo." You avoid eye contact – be the dog whisperer – and stay out of snapping range. One bite and it's fourteen injections through the belly button. I passed one cur that morning by the steps up to the German Embassy by the Karbatas soccer stadium that smelled like halitosis on four paws. It had this moussed electrified perm in its fur and smelled as if it had spent the night snacking in a dumpster. Two similes are not enough for this dog.
I wandered up to Taksim – a serious trudge up a big hill which instantly rendered my morning shower a memory and turned me into AquaMan – he who sweats buckets in January. No huffing or puffing. My cardio is okay. I just have very efficient liquid transfer capabilities. So off came the Filson logging coat and up I marched in shirtsleeves to the wonder of some French tourists bundled up for Ice Station Turkey. Taksim was quiet but I saw a big Orthodox church I spied from the morning I ate a "wet burger", so I ducked in and took in another service to keep up the march moving towards 52 holy places in 12 months [I'll post on that later, I am highly burned out on churches right now.]
After the service at the Greek church I remembered the New York Times reviewed restaurant, Van Kahvalti Evi, was on a street that fed into Taksim Square. I Five minutes later was wedged into a seat next to a table full of loud Americans ordering a traditional Turkish breakfast from Van, the city in the easternmost regions of Anatolia, the Asian mainland of Turkey.
Tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, a little pot of peanut butter, another of butter, a basket of breads, a bowl of yogurt and dill and cukes, a saucer of wild unfiltered honey and sweet clotted cream, and five kinds of cheese: Armenian string cheese, a very hard and coming close-to-smegma clump of some cheese with herbs, a bland cheddarish cheese, the ubiquitous triangle of very salty feta, and a wet cube of something made from sheep's milk. To add insult to injury and to keep up my reputation as a trencherman and gourmand, I tossed on a order of flatbread grilled with meat and cheese – think a pastrami quesadilla and you aren't far off except the tortilla was more like filo than masa flour.
I dug in. This was a project that took some planning and strategizing and when I eat alone I tend to become self-conscious and understand why my two terriers, when given a bone, immediately head for the underside of a table or staircase to eat it alone in their lairs. I took notes about the church service in my notebook, Tweeted, checked out my city map, and did my best impersonation of a guy eating in prison – shovel quickly, don't make eye contact, and guard the plate with both forearms. The breakfast was very different, very good, and not your usual IHOP clown-face pancakes with the bacon eyebrows.
I left a better man for it, and walked back up past the church (which had two Cujos in a muddy side yard jointly gnawing on what looked like a diaper) to a serious main drag – a pedestrian Broadway with a cute little tram clanking up and down it. It was open and booming on this grey, drizzly Sunday morning, so I took it all in, snapping pictures and taking little tram videolets until I stumbled into the Greek Embassy and an exhibition on the Greek churches in the city. More churches. Just what I needed. But it felt obligatory and I had to feed my head after doing so much damage to my stomach at the Van. In I went, picking up a program, and for a half hour I circled two rooms reading big placards about the sad little churches left behind when the Byzantine Empire tanked.Flickr Video
Back into the fresh air. I walked down the hill past the Galata Tower and headed into the Golden Horn for my Excellent Mosque Adventure. See below.
On the return back to the hotel I had to do some souvenir hunting back in the Besiktas bazaar. Sons get Turkish soccer scarves, daughter gets a collection of pins, wife gets the Sultan's Dagger (the one with the emeralds on the hilt) and a box of Turkish Delight (assorted Fruit flavors). While there I decided to eat the Turkish Last Supper and go as low rent as possible for a full grey-meat-on-a-stick experience. What follows is mayhem. Pray for me on the ride to Beijing.
Right off – worst meal of the trip. Worst meal of the month. The waiter – who is Rudy Giuliani's doppelganger – was as good in English as I am in Turkish – and the menu didn't have any pictures. A good rule of life is "Do not order anything called a: Sausage Special" and don't order something that on second check of the menu is described as "boiled leaves of dough with cheese and/or meats."
Boiled leaves of dough was amazing in its nastiness. It was like eating with a finger down your throat. Gelatinous. Wet with hot water. Sort of floating in the hot water. Cheese was chunks of hard feta. Some pale green parsley was hanging around in there too. Someone had rolled up a handful of cheese and a bunch of parsley in six sheets of filo and tossed it into the dirty hot dog water. Then assaulted it with a scimitar.
So now I have that going for me. I couldn't wait for the Sausage Surprise. I saw the cook messing around with a red squirt bottle and a white squirt bottle, the International Greasy Spoon symbols for ketchup and mayonnaise. Waiter brings same plate to me. What occurred was a bed of greenish French fries bedecked with two hot dogs – pure Oscar Meyer – and two discs of what looked like anemic hamburger patties but were definitely not cow, I am assuming weren't pork, and most likely were lamb or goat or both. On one side was a pickle stuck in a wad of tartar sauce, on the other was two squirts of ketchup and mayo.
Surprise indeed. I picked at a couple fries. Abandoned the dogs after one bite, and finally just gave up. Rudy Giuliani was sad about that. But I tipped him anyway as I didn't want to carry any Turkish lira out of the country and besides, it wasn't his fault. He shook my hand and touched his heart in gesture of "hail fellow, well met."
I lurched out into the rain, missed squashing a cat, and sent it flying into the restaurant in fear. Perhaps it will join the Surprise.
A sad note. As I walked back to my hotel I passed a bookstore and in the window, big as can be, is a picture of my hero, the late David Foster Wallace. I became very blue, and stood still for a second, tired from running around, tired from to-do lists, tired from the fever pace of this emerging market, and looked up across the square where the ferries from Asia dock and saw in big lit up red letters the word "Final."
Thanks Turkey, that was awesome.