The unassuming sound of Turkish is interwoven with fleeting instants of dialogue in Spanish, as the young wait staff at Cafe Istanbul organize aloud with their Latinx cooks, who, so it appears, have mastered some of the more prepossessing recipes shared along the coasts of the Aegean, Marmara, Mediterranean and Black Seas, those bodies of water that have ever provided the diverse richness of the Anatolian palate.
Its walls, furniture and decor have the peculiar, ground-floor Los Angeles ambiance of bleak, ahistorical functionalism. But there is a saving grace, transporting as the fare, which, under palm trees and near Pacific beaches hints of exotic locales. Encircling the cafe seating, almost like an American diner, are framed photos of the Bosporus, its commuter ferries, and other iconic fragments that recall nostalgia for the urbanized marine ecology that is Istanbul.
Their cooking, however, extends beyond the citified airs of Turkey's largest metropolis to include more bucolic lands within the Anatolian pale. Their thick, white “yayla” rice soup is yogurt-based and flecked with mint. It is itemized as a "highland meadow" appetizer, and although hot, its fresh, dairy richness is also cooling, making for a proud comfort country dish that is as appropriate on a hot California summer day as in the chilly Black Sea hills.
“Yayla,” which means highland in Turkish, conjures that humid forest ecology on the coast of a shoreline shared from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. It is almost tastable in the Cafe Istanbul recipe, executed with convincing authenticity. Half of the planet’s circumference dissolves the moment its silky texture is savored. And beside a light, flaky variety of long, thin “cigar börek,” it is well-paired.
Dusted with dried herbs and spring onions, the "cigar börek" is larger and distinct from its traditionally lighter fry. The many outer layers of its phyllo dough shatter and crumble to the touch. It is as irresistible as it is delectable. In a home setting, where much of this fare is liberally consumed, there would be countless numbers of these salty pastries filled with feta and mozzarella, which, when melted together create a tantalizing fusion.
The history of food in America is defined by the reinvention of the Old World kitchen, rearranged to suit a population who, after many generations of displacement, whether by choice or force, turn around and attempt to imagine how their ancestors cooked. Luckily, as an immigrant nation in which foreign business is generally welcome, America has become a testing ground over which the rules of dining are rewritten.
In a climate where both cooks and foodies are perhaps not as steeped in a knowledge of the cuisine on the fixed menu at Cafe Istanbul as the casual, young Turkish-speaking staff, anything goes. That said, Cafe Istanbul adheres to tradition where it might have otherwise veered off course. While it offers an Americanized Mediterranean ensemble of Greek favorites, its strictly Turkish dishes could very well appear on someone’s plate in Istanbul.
Such is the case with their “imam bayıldı”, a storied name for a beloved recipe, which, in Turkish simply means, "the imam fainted.” There are many folktales that forward colorful explanations for the moniker behind the fried, whole eggplant stuffed with onions, tomato, garlic, slowly oven-baked and served with a creamy sauce of garlic-laced yogurt mixed with mint and chopped cucumber.
In the Bosporus shorefront village of Kuzguncuk, now within the metropolitan region of Istanbul, a bubbly, stout female chef ruminated aloud on the origins of “imam bayıldı” while preparing it in her personable kitchen cafe. Kuzguncuk has an air of intercultural mixture with its multiple and prominent Greek and Armenian churches, as well as two synagogues, and a reputation for sheltering bohemians like the poet Can Yücel.
Raising a wooden spoon, aproned and in her usual humorous mood, she wondered if she had finally cracked the mystery behind the legendary fainting of the imam who had inspired a Turkish culinary classic. She turned to her hungry guests as they cupped their hot teas and said that it would not be out of the question if a Greek woman had simply added too much garlic to the formerly plain eggplant fry that she would make for the local imam.
The heavy degree of garlic in both Greek and Turkish cooking is enough to make a foodie wonder if these culinary cultures have been locked in a competition over how much they can get away with using, especially in the "jajik" sauce (spelled cacık in Turkish) that goes with "imam bayıldı" and the dish itself, which, it seems has been designed to accommodate a plentiful mass of garlic-induced relish.
Elsewhere from the kitchen of Cafe Istanbul are carnivorous favorites whose traditions span the Anatolian countryside. Eastern Turkey might have an ecological affinity with the desert-like living conditions in southern California. The meat-centric dishes of Adana and Iskenderun circle back to Istanbul out of a hole-in-the-wall eatery in Beverly Hills and include an array of Mediterranean-style seafood, such as gilt-head bream, or “çupra" in Turkish.
At all times of day, Cafe Istanbul is a proper haunt to appease anyone’s appetite for Turkish dining, even if, in comparison to any actual on-the-ground experience of Istanbul it is, in fact, wildly steep, utterly unaffordable. For example, the average "Turkish tea”, served in a tallish, curved glass, while legit in color and taste, is 10 times more expensive than it would be from a luxury cafe overlooking the Bosporus (and Cafe Istanbul does not look over anything).
Added to that, the absolutely basic "simit" or Turkish bagel, and “açma," another bread item for breakfasting commuters, while baked with black olives or cheese and served with honey and butter (as it is on the streets of Istanbul), seems wildly overpriced at 14 bucks. But so is property in Beverley Hills, and all of Los Angeles for that matter. It is a wonder that, with its Spanish-speaking kitchen and mute mood, the food at Cafe Istanbul is, finally, worth it.
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