Monday, June 15, 2009

It Was Hot and There Were Many Cats, and Other Fascinating Observations on Istanbul

Also, there was a lot of traffic.

My mother, brother and I flew to Istanbul on Saturday via Frankfurt.

This was breakfast. Can you guess where? The orange juice was a replacement orange juice after the first one was delivered in a structurally unsound vessel that disintegrated in my brother's Lenny-like grip. (Actually, all he did was pick it up and the bottom of the glass just fell off.)

This guy, who shall henceforth be known as the Cherlin Bayramı (Cherlin Festival), flew in on the same day from Paris and we all met up at the airport. We were put up at the lovely Residence at Bilgi University. It's a beautiful campus and they offered an excellent breakfast, but the Bosphorus stinks, y'all, for real. I'd still recommend it to anyone, but you need to have your own bus to take you into central Istanbul, otherwise what's the point?

These people are unknowingly participating in the Bayramı of Cherlin. Traditional Bayramı costume: too-short pants, expansive hair, semi-tucked shirt. Traditional Bayramı demeanor: sunny with a chance of math. Traditional Bayramı folk song: Thriller by Michael Jackson.

On Monday, the Bayramı went to the Bayramı, the monster stayed in his lair, and my mother and I walked down Istiklal Caddesi, a long pedestrian boulevard near Taksim Square with lots of shops and the requisite number of cats. One of the side streets sold fish and watches—Dalí Street, per the Bayramı.

Istiklal

There are packs of wild dogs all over Istanbul (although not nearly as many as there are cats). Periodically, they get rounded up, tagged and vaccinated, and then returned to their original spot.

Government-sanctioned wild dog. All Turkish dogs are blurry, or so says my camera.

Parental units. Untagged and unsanctioned. Cherlin Bayramı is at right, being festive.

This is Asia.

And this is Europe. Or that is Europe and this is Asia.

I was disappointed that you couldn't take the subway to Asia. My brother did set foot in Asia during a four-hour boat trip that lasted only 60 seconds for my mother and me. But that was later.

Tuesday morning, we were exiled from the Residence breakfast table (admittance was restored the following day after protests) and given some floppy pseudo-meats, imitation vegetables and plasticine bread. After breakfast, we deposited our trays in the designated rack. Back in the room, I realized I'd left my craptacular Time Out guide to Istanbul on the tray. Alas, when we returned my tray was still there, along with the alleged guidebook. Kudos to my subconscious for trying, though.

To Taksim we went to meet friends, one of whom was playing hooky from the Bayramı. We walked through the Grand Bazaar and then ate lunch across from the Süleymaniye Mosque at the Historic Seller of Beans restaurant. Or something. The Historic Seller of Beans (or something) makes a mean tavuk ve pilav (chicken with rice). They have a web site, complete with nifty sound effects of what the Internets really should sound like. Click on it. Neat, right? Highly, highly recommended (the restaurant, not the web site). The yogurt was heavenly. The bathroom attendant outside the mosque taught us to count to three in Kurdish (yek-du-se, same as in Farsi) before handing us some toilet paper and sending us in to enjoy the, for once, geographically correct Turkish toilets.

That night, we were invited to a party at Ali Baba's apartment, where, unsurprisingly, there was topless dancing:
video

The cake was supposed to say "Happy Birthday, Greg Cherlin, from your friends and colleagues," and instead it says this:

According to Ali, who cannot be trusted on any matter whatsoever, this doesn't mean anything in Turkish.

On Wednesday, we had breakfast back at the Residence, followed almost immediately by lunch at Tamirane, a delicious restaurant on the university campus (it has a Facebook page, naturally).
In the afternoon, we had the aforesaid boat trip, which my mother and I ditched. Instead we went to Çırağan Palace, where instruments of the brass family are frowned upon and falafels are $5 apiece.

Worth it.

At the Çırağan Palace, we briefly considered stealing toilet paper (they were really stingy with it at the Residence), but decided against it, because my mother had found a more convenient place to steal from (which I'm not going to reveal).

It's a beautiful day for cleaning one's gun.

Fearsome Istanbullu wild cat.

On Thursday, it was time for some serious sightseeing.

First we saw a cappuccino freddo at Taksim.

Then we saw some beers and highly interesting nuts.

Next, we visited some Ottoman watermelon.

The chiaroscuro of the lemonade's brushstroke was breathtaking.

Okay, so we did cross the Galata Bridge and wander around Sultanahmet. Near the bridge was the train station we arrived at when we took the train to Istanbul from France (via Venice, Belgrade, and the nightmare known as Thessaloniki) in 1989.

Sirkeci

We went to the Hagia Sofia. To but not in. It's been around for almost 1500 years; how much can it really have changed in the last 20?

By the way, never, ever eat ice cream in Turkey. It's a glutinous, possibly extraterrestrial* abomination. The Wikipedia entry for dondurma describes it as having a "resistance to melting." I mean really.

Thursday night we were invited to the home of some other Turkish friends for dinner. Before dinner my brother and I had a little bit of time to use the Internet. I used my time to send a couple of work-related emails. My brother used his few minutes to download and install Firefox on our host's laptop. My brother, ridding the world of the scourge of Internet Explorer one continent at a time (or actually, two continents at a time, though his activities in Asia were not disclosed).

On Friday, we wandered around Istiklal again, down to Pera, site of the Pera Palace (under renovation), where 20 years ago we attended the press conference for Ali Baba's baba's hunger strike.

Sign for the stage named after him at a theater by Taksim.

Urban sprawl

Iftah, ya Simsim!

*If goats are aliens.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Baji Asks and Receives

Baji and TP are finally getting a vacation and coming to the city and Baji has requested recommendations even though I fully plan to have all meals and snacks with her during her stay. In no particular order:

Brunch –
Supper (East Village)
If you're old and grumpy like me, your tolerance for supper at Supper (terrible service, annoying crowds, long waits, but wonderful, affordable food) died out circa 2004. (Mint butter pasta, I miss you!) Thankfully, brunch appeared there a few years later. Like the dinner menu, the brunch offerings are unique, delicious, and remarkably affordable. Bonus: no wait, no crowds, excellent service. Have the polenta and a side of bacon (those instructions are for me, not for Baji). $15 per person

Dinner – Frankie’s (Lower East Side)
One night a middle-aged female tourist came up to me on Avenue A and said she had just eaten at Supper:

"Strangest Italian food I've ever had. They didn't even have meatballs on the menu!"

We didn’t know each other; she just really needed to share. She did not find in me an understanding soul for her savagery. I felt truly sorry for her from the tips of my elitist NYC toes to the top of my supersnobby French head (or is it the other way around?). In any case, she would surely say the same about Frankie's, which has Italian food that is quite simple while being different from what you might expect if you were an uncouth chicken-parm eater slash mouth-breather (although it must be said that they do have meatballs on the menu). It’s a bit pricier than some of the other options here (except Nobu, duh). Main dishes are around $16, unlike Supper and Lil Frankie’s $11–$12. At Frankie’s, everything has been determined to be wonderful. Even should-be-boring steamed broccoli rabe evokes the same awe as the creme brulee (which is marvelous—and big!). $20–$30 per person

Another Dinner –
Lil Frankie's, not actually related to Frankie's, but related to Supper (EV)
At Lil Frankie’s, one eats the rigatoni polpettini and one eats it a lot. $15 per person

Another Dinner II –
Epistrophy (Little Italy/Soho-ish)
Just saying a restaurant is unpretentious is pretentious. But somehow, Epistrophe manages to cultivate a romantic, sort of scene-y aura that attracts pretentious Euro types while genuinely remaining unpretentious (although certain parental units have complained that it’s too loud). It’s damn good. And yet another example of “weird” (=normal) Italian food. No meatballs. $15 per person

Dim Sum – Mandarin Court (Chinatown)
Mandarin Court’s a little tricky: Some days lots of trays with many options come around frequently, and on other days, it’s just the same two trays over and over again. But either way, you will get a good meal (you just might not get baby bok choy when you want it). One thing to keep in mind when in Chinatown is that no one there (and probably no one Chinese, period) cares what you think, what you want, or when you want it. This is generally closer to charming than annoying because it's not an affectation. On the Lower East Side, the waitstaff with their "I'd rather be modeling" attitude work hard to deliver bad service; in Chinatown, it's effortless. They really don't give a shit. My point being: When the dessert tray at dim sum comes around at the top of your meal, grab your dessert(s) NOW. Don't expect the dessert tray to come around again when you're ready for it. And at Mandarin Court the service isn’t bad, just indifferent. Overeating will run you $10-$12 per person.

Burger – Royale (EV)
This one inexplicably never turns up on the best-of NYC burger lists. I don't get it. It is by far the best burger I've had in New York ($8, fries are extra but they’re kind of crap; onion rings aren’t much better). The service is great. Shake Shack (location: nowhere you need to be) is good too – their fries are amazing – but the lines are retarded and you should only eat there if you’re in the neighborhood around 5pm (or if you’re retarded).

Cupcakes – Sugar Sweet Sunshine (LES)
Repeat after me: Sugar Sweet Sunshine is the best. Magnolia is the worst. I don't even like cupcakes and yet I love the ones at Sugar Sweet. The trifle at Sugar Sweet is also insane. Seriously, NRA-card-carrying, shoot-people-from-the-bell-tower insane. Get it. But leave the shooting to the trifle (no worries, trifle has terrible hand-eye coordination and at worst will make you dance like Bugs Bunny when Yosemite Sam shot at him before being hauled back to the asylum, aka your belly).

Splurge – Nobu (the only reason to go to Tribeca, ever)
You must have: black cod with miso, rock shrimp tempura (times a million), ceviche, yellowtail sashimi, praline parfait for dessert, and then some sushi for good measure. If you’ve never been to Nobu, the waiters will tell you what to get and how much. Listen to them (the pricey specials can be avoided, though). It’s a splurge at about $100 a person, but for the best meal you’ll ever have, one you’ll think about for months to come, it’s unquestionably worth it. My only complaint about Nobu is their cheap-ass splintery disposable chopsticks. I have strong feelings about their subpar sticks and can work myself up into quite a state on this topic. But anyway, hot damn is it good. Don’t let anyone talk you out of getting two orders of the rock shrimp tempura (ahem, certain fathers of mine).

Snacking at a Dinner Place – Momofuku Noodle Bar (EV)
Marry Nobu, cheat with Momofuku. It’ll be awkward when your children are born with marked chicken-bun features, but worth it (especially if you didn’t get a prenup). $10 for two brilliant, valedictorian chicken buns

Japanese Takeout – Ogawa (location irrelevant)
The shrimp tempura roll awaits you and it does not bear hidden, insidious lettuce. Embrace the roll, love the roll, be the roll.

Comfort Food – Mama's (EV)
Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, the only meatloaf I am willing to eat, garlic-infused broccoli, etc. This place always strikes me as pricey when I’m paying, given that it's not really a restaurant, but you can easily make two meals from one, so it’s really not that bad. $12 for a main and two sides

Jerky – Jerky (?) (LES/Chinatown-ish)
Does this place have a name? I don’t know. It’s around Ludlow & Canal and all it sells is jerky. I don’t recommend the beef; it’s kind of boring. Chicken is not bad, but pork is really the way to go. And no, this one is not for Baji. It’s pricey at $14 a pound, but it’s the only time a stranger has asked to share my food on the street (yes, I shared and the stranger was duly impressed with the jerky).

Runner-up Splurge – August (West Village)
It’s in the West Village, therefore the service is excellent and the ambience is elegant yet warm. Just eat whatever, it’s sublime. $30 to $50 a person

Thai – Sea (EV)
Cute, affordable, tasty. The kind of place in which you might be tempted to order every single one of the appetizers. Know what happens when you do that? I do. It makes people uncomfortable, because apparently it’s what restaurateurs do when they’re sizing up the competition. And the people next to you will stare. Do it. $12–$15 a person

Banh mi – Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches (EV)
A very out-of-the-ordinary combination of flavors (to me) plus ingredients that when looked at closely (avoid doing so) resemble bologna and cat food equals: a virtuoso performance by a sandwich. Bravo. $5

Coffee will be had at Cake Shop and ice cream will be had at Il Laboratorio del Gelato, which I am frankly indifferent to and think is overpriced, but I am indifferent to almost all ice cream and all ice cream in New York is overpriced so I am not to be listened to on this front. Baji, I believe you will enjoy this place. And it’s still cheaper than that empire of heinosity Coldstone Creamery. Shudder. I got a cone there once and had thrown it away by the time I got to the end of the block.

What's that? Manhattan continues north of 14th Street and south of Delancey? I don't believe you.