Thursday, January 03, 2008

Istanbul Food Tour: Ciya

The New York Times warned us to bring a Turkish friend since there's no English menu, so we memorized a few names and double-checked that the Ciya at number 43 was the correct address.

Lots got lost in translation.

Is it better to re-tell how we saw it? To quote? Or, rather, to imagine what the staff there was thinking when we forged our ways in the uncharted silver urns of Anatolian cuisine?

All of the above.

"Self-service" they informed us several times, so up we went to the dishes of warm starters. We eyed a greens dish, one with browned onions, the other with red pepper. Pointed at both. Both? he questioned with a quizzical eye turned toward us and another toward the server. Waiter pointed, seemed to confirm both, said something about pilaf and after we agreed to yogurt sauce, I grabbed the dishes. Eyes raise, again. This time to the woman across the way. Grabbing the damn dishes, carrying themselves... she seemed to sigh. Frowns all around. Back to our seats.

Two plates of dark greens and all we can do is moan that this is like Chez Panisse in Istanbul visiting an ancient cousin. Onions caramelized to sweetness and browned for depth, greens "cooked to perfection" (is there a better way to describe when greens are cooked well?) The yogurt sauce the first I've tasted this good since the days of Zia's Cafe in San Diego (known prior to 9/11 as Zia's Afghan Cafe).

As I'm pondering the benefits of well-cooked greens, Liam is braving the self-service cold salads. Suddenly, an English-speaking staff member appears. Dolmas, meatballs, some dips on his plate when he returns (plate delivered by staff). I'm not sure if I can explain this in English without the name of the dish or lacking the knowledge of Paula Wolfert, but one was an eggplant so snowy white and smoky that it shimmered like the snow atop the minarets. The other I can only say was nut, kind of spicy, and so good you didn't want to ruin it with bread. Dolmas were thin cigarettes of rice and sweet, not chewy like the ones I usually have - in this country they have displays of "vine leaves" with the variety of a fromagerie.

"Do you have dessert?" Liam asks our original server, who nods, and then proceeds to the back of the restaurant to repeat to the English-speaking staff the word "dessert." We are guided to the street-facing window where trays of iridescent fruits await us - except they are not all fruits and I'm not even sure how these sweets are made (I have a list of research days long about Turkish food that is not easily done with a few Google hits on 'Turkish sweets'). "pumpkin" he says pointing at huge orange hunks that look jellied, "tomato" at another, drier, mauve slab. "No olive," I say, pointing at the large black forms in front of me. "Walnut" sighs the woman behind me, and so, I pointed to one of most (pictured below).

How quickly I am smitten. It doesn't take much to lure me with pumpkin, but this was slivered and shivered in your mouth with a crackle of sweetness. The walnut was by far our favorite, black like it came from an olive can and sliced at the top as though it hid pimentos, but when you cut into it it had the star shape of walnut skin and layers of meat inside with the faint taste of wine or sherry and slathered in a butter cream that erased all of my neurotic, self-conscious memories of nods meaning no and questions equaling statements and a general throwing-up-of-hands of understood self-service dining norms on both ends.

While we ate, surrounded by write-ups in Food and Wine, Saveur, New York Times (these are just the ones in English that I recognized), I wondered how others fared here, and curiously, why this wasn't in any guidebook. It was despairingly hard to find - a "quick boat-ride to Asia" sounds romantic and easy enough, but we walked around for nearly an hour with no map and a simple wish, asking a taxi driver, simit vendor, and tchochke kiosk before we got directions to led us to the market street that led us there. These desserts though, almost enough to make a gal forget buche de noel and macarons.

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