Sunday, March 11, 2012

Remembering the Baltimore beehive in Istanbul

When I was a child in Baltimore in the 1970s, ethnic dining meant Greek food. Little Italy was past its prime even then, and because we had a garden in the summer, my mother made excellent tomato sauce, which meant her spaghetti, manicotti, and lasagna were better than anything to be had downtown even though she was not of Italian descent. Anyone not from Baltimore would have seen Haussner's as downright bizarre with its kitschy art collection, waitresses with beehive hairdos and spectacular Baltimore accents, and menu divided between German classics and Maryland seafood, but for us it was the height of fine dining, a place for special occasions where jackets and ties were required, the crabcakes were perfect, and people ordered a custard pie topped with strawberries the size of golf balls for dessert even in the dead of winter.

For the truly exotic, you had to go to Ikaros in East Baltimore's Greektown. If the leitmotiv at Haussner's was the word Hon impeccably pronounced in the local patois, at Ikaros it was the endlessly repeating Greek instrumental music that faded into the background as the room filled and conversation became louder. (Click on the website to hear it: The owner had a spectacular handlebar moustache, and his food was strange, intense, delicious, totally satisfying in a elemental way. Salad with feta cheese and olives. Moussaka. Shish kebab. Lamb shank. Baklava.

I thought of Ikaros when I walked into Karakoy restaurant in Istanbul last month for dinner. The soup, fried lamb liver, and mastic pudding I'd had there for lunch that day were all so good that I wandered back across Galata Bridge several hours later. The meze I had at dinner were just as classic and delicious, but it was the music, the generosity, the leisurely way of eating, and, the next night, a lamb shish kebab that reminded me of Ikaros and gave me the same feeling of pure happiness with food at once unfamiliar and totally comforting, like a quince in sugar syrup slathered in a mascarpone-like cheese, or a simple zucchini meze.

That sensibility permeated my meals in Istanbul. Topaz, a chic restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus, offered perfect green olives I could have eaten all day and a perfect braised lamb. Ciya in Kadikoy on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, had the great soups that start with broth made from fresh chickens, a dessert of fresh black walnut halves with cheese, and a thyme infusion that I later learned is a tea popular in Egypt and Lebanon as well but was not less soothing for that. At Nar, on the top floor of a department store near the Grand Bazaar, I had lamb and stewed fennel in a chicken broth flavored with lemon and a little yogurt, and unlikely but delicious combination of individually flavorful elements.

And each morning at the quiet, affordable and otherwise unremarkable hotel near Hagia Sofia where I stayed, the cook presented a delicious freshly hard-boiled egg seasoned with salt, pepper, and a little olive oil. One bite was enough to prove the merits of the preparation. Further frills are superfluous for cooks that begin with ingredients that good.

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