May 24, 2009
Choosing a restaurant in Istanbul is not easy. Those recommended are scattered in different neighborhoods. Guidebooks and bloggers have much more diverse ideas than in Europe’s other great cities. Hünkar had been mentioned in the 2007 list of The World’s 100 Best Restaurants, but was since dropped; it does not appear in the 2009 Zagat’s Istanbul. But others recommend it as the best example of traditional “Ottoman” cuisine, which inspired our choosing it for dinner on May 22, 2009.
The traffic was fierce on this Friday evening and we arrived feeling hassled after a fifty minute taxi ride. (The return taxi trip only took fifteen minutes.) Hünkar is a small restaurant in Nişantaşı, an upscale residential and shopping neighborhood. It is tucked away below a fancy decorating store. We were warmly welcomed and seated at the table reserved for us. The décor was a mixture; there were wood paneling and white tablecloths, as I expected, but we were surprised to see steel and glass installations and a somewhat frenetic pace. We soon learned that not everyone was in such a hurry and we slowed down. Afterwards, I found this accurate description in Fodor’s review on the web:
Istanbul is full of small, simple, family-run restaurants where a bounty of prepared dishes are served cafeteria-style from a steam table. Hünkar, which has been in business since 1950, is one of them, but it’s in a class apart. With its starched white tablecloths, dark wood paneling, and solicitous, hovering waiters, the restaurant almost feels like the dining room of an exclusive club. And the food is excellent. You’ll find dishes like zucchini stuffed with ground meat or grilled fish on the menu. Also unlike other similar restaurants, Hünkar serves wine.
The mezes tray arrived almost immediately. We had no trouble choosing the eggplant as we had read beforehand:
Try all kind of “patlıcan”(eggplant) specialities ; if you are not afraid of becoming an addict of “Hünkar beğendi (Sultan’s Delight”-Creamy eggplant puree). Hünkar beğendi is not a creation of Hünkar‘s Chef. It was originally invented for a foodie Ottoman sultan (Abdülaziz) in XIXth Century!
We also chose a fava bean purée and rice-filled grape leaves. The eggplant was, indeed, excellent with the right amount of garlic and other spicing. The other two were okay. We ordered a bottle of Serafin Merlot.
As we relaxed and enjoyed our mezes and wine, we watched other diners go to the steam table in the back and were able to figure out how the process worked. Many regulars would go there first, before sitting down. Some of them were done with their one-course meal in twenty minutes. I guess that isn’t as strange as it seemed for people who live nearby as the food is excellent and the prices low. Finally, when no one else was there, we went up. We asked for descriptions of some the dishes which were not obvious.
Linda chose the lamb on eggplant, which was superb. The eggplant looked like the Hünkar beğendi, but had a thicker texture and was less spiced. Although the lamb had been carved, it still tasted of its charring over wood charcoal.
I had the very good lamb shank with orzo in a light tomato sauce.
To choose my dessert I went to a chilled cabinet near the front door. My choice was a good pastry with honey and pistachios in what I think was almond milk.
The total bill was 160 TL (about US$ 110.)
We recommend Hünkar, but not so much that it is worth the hassle of a long, chaotic Istanbul taxi ride if you are not staying nearby.