The decor at Zevk Lokanta has that kind of aged golden sparkle, bordering on kitsch, and, in that way it is endearingly retro, especially when recalling the heady heydays of mid-century Turkish liberalism, what would now be imaginably linked to the grandparents of millennials who kick back and wonder just what it might have been like to grow up surrounded by old Istanbul before it went dusty with the ghosts of its mythical legacy.
Around the corner from the Aya Triada Rum Orthodox Church, where, on Sundays, gray-haired women walk from its pearly, high white gate with smiles, some solemn, returning from a service at one of Istanbul’s rare, still-active Greek-speaking churches. But that is the air in Moda, a district that has preserved certain elements of life from the Istanbul of the past, which, to most storytellers and elders, was quite a different city than it is today.
Zevk, however, conjures the feeling of how Istanbul once was. Within its expansive, two-floor theater-like venue with bijou patio space, it seems to resuscitate the long-faded glory of its multicultural society, the crooning music with its intricate eastern instrumentation, as revelers from all walks of life, porters and socialites, artists and workers, commingle and become each other, as their glasses clink and meze appetizers swirl with shared delight.
Situated on the tramway route where the neighborhood trolley passes, ringing its bell, Zevk’s exterior facade is unmistakable, and resonates with the architectural tendencies of its partner food and drink businesses, such as Dün and Yer, cafes that entertain with the buzz of young staff and an inventive kitchen. Whereas the others serve more of a modern global fare, Zevk is very much a feast of roots.
In a counter-intuitive turn that might be risky, but in its boldness proves redeeming, Zevk’s kitchen does not try to stray completely beyond Turkey’s longstanding culinary rituals in the interest of appetizing its thoroughly internationalized target demographic, which is largely the younger generations who inhabit the neighborhood. Nor does the place cater to an overtly touristic mode, rehashing the history of Turkish dining as a token affair.
That said, they come dangerously close to canceling out their attempts at inclusivity, within an ambiance that is not authentically traditional in the modern sense, because of its airs of makeover revitalization, but that also swerves right of appealing to alternative youth in Turkey who have been overwhelmed with the artificiality of national cultural resurgence. As a restaurant they are naive, innocent, but the redolence of misplaced conservatism is strong.
It is in the aesthetic of the walls, the furniture, the colors and music of the place, which quite chaotically bounces back and forth between tavern fantasies and electronic dance. Despite its historical anachronisms, the quality and ingenuity of the food is enough to let bygones be bygones and let the savory mix with the sweet over a full table of masterfully made regional delicacies.
The meze starters alone are enough to provoke mouthwatering joy aplenty, fulfilling as they are rich, immersed in oil of such quality as distinguishes the Turkish countryside from the Greek and Levantine varieties of the ancient fruit. At Zevk, they prepare a crushed olive salad known from the environs of Antakya, at the southeastern edge of the country, bordering Syria in a cultural melting pot rife with Greek, Assyrian, Kurdish and Arab influences.
What goes best with any particular dish at Zevk is no less than the company one keeps. While downing a drink, or basking in the purely wistful ambiance of the room, early afternoon into the late evening is as fine a time as any to smother a piece of bread in their sweet hummus or the unmistakably wonderful girit ezme, a paste of cheese and pistachio said to be derived, via its name, from the island of Crete.
And despite their lavish displays of seafood, from their pickled tunny to marine bass, what might enliven the imagination of the palate most reliably could be nothing more fancy than a simple pureed bean, the favorited "Fava," or oily Aegean herbs. The list is endless and perfectly reminiscent of seaside waves, the smell of salt in the morning and cool breezes that calm the nerves after a long, hot day under the sun.
That is the essence of "Zevk," a word that means nothing less than "pleasure" in Turkish, evoking the ebullient pastimes of a national culture soaked in spices and sauces that have the potential to vitalize human life through old age, as memories and recipes are shared over tables draped and lined with such culinary artistry as that which makes a salty zucchini mücver pancake, flavored with aromatic mahlep seeds.
One night an older woman, ostensibly from the neighborhood, came into the candlelit establishment bearing a few large shopping bags. She was dressed quite conservatively, although uncovered atop her head. She sat for awhile, and took in the spirit of the place, consuming nothing of its food or drink, but just being there, at the end of one of its long tables. And then she left, in few words. No one knew who she was. She was like a memory herself.