September is one of the best months for visiting Istanbul. The heat and humidity of the summer are on the wane; the light is at its most enticing for any keen photographer; and for anyone who wants to take advantage of its many distinctive restaurants, this is the last month when their outdoor seating areas with their breathtaking views are in use.
From late May until the end of this month many of the city’s restaurateurs conduct a process that has them referred to locally as ‘butterflies’, as they move up the Bosphorus to the cooler parts of this fascinating city.
In fact, I don’t think I have ever been anywhere where my eyes have so consistently wandered from my plate. Boats, big and small, move in every direction; there are stunning views of the Old City; and The Golden Horn at sunset is as spectacular as its name suggests.
Nor do any other city’s restaurants I have visited seem to offer such diversity. There are those specialising in the rich dishes of the Ottoman period; many offering simply grilled fresh fish; and a growing number concentrating on modern interpretations of Turkish dishes using the distinctive ingredients of Anatolia to the east.
While I fell, like so many others, for the particular charms of the cafés and restaurants in and around The Spice Market (excellent ingredients but beware the fake saffron), it was the suburb of Bebek a 15-minute taxi ride up river that encapsulated for me the city’s history as well as its distinctive modern charms.
Named after a baby-faced soldier with whom a Sultan supposedly once fell in love, Bebek is unusual among all the neighbourhoods on the Bosphorus because of the large bay in front of it and on which the lucky residents moor their yachts and motorboats.
While this gives Bebek the air of the south of France, just by the small park on the waterfront is the unusual juxtaposition of a mosque, a café and a branch of McDonalds. This mosque is not only used for daily prayers but also for funerals so that whenever a coffin is carried in or out of the mosque those sitting in either of the cafés outside stop eating to solemnly rise and pay their last respects.
Two hundred metres away is Bebek Balikci, a fish restaurant dear to the heart of many Istanbulli and run by Cem Karabulut and his father, Etugrul, who started as a busboy 47 years ago. A long, narrow restaurant, four tables wide, which juts out over the water’s edge with branches of Caffe Nero and Starbucks as its neighbours, Balikci’s charms are that its menu never changes and it is open 365 days a year.
There are 20-30 hot and cold mezze to choose from for the first courses, which include the most delicious taramasalata; the aubergine puree of which they are justifiably proud; marinated peppers as well as hummus, of course. Then any combination of fish – squid, sea bass, sole or turbot – followed by unctuously sweet desserts and pastries. A great place for a long, leisurely lunch or dinner.
Two hundred yards away on the other side of the road is Lucca, which personifies Istanbul’s modern face. Opened six years ago by Cem Mirap, who used to work in advertising, Lucca occupies a great corner site that has become extraordinarily popular for breakfast, lunch, cocktails and dinner.
Several factor’s have contributed to Mirap’s success and Lucca’s popularity. The first is his good taste that has resulted in a bright interior, clever graphics and excellent, non-stop music. The second is a modern, flexible menu that will please all age groups, principally focusing on Mediterranean dishes but not afraid to look elsewhere. Finally, there is Mirap’s determination to innovate and to look for the best in food and drink wherever that may be. Lucca may not be old Istanbul but I am sure it will age well.
Bebek Balikci, www.bebekbalikci.net (from which the image was taken)