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Burger Story March 23, 2010

Posted by Steven Bartus in Foreign Cuisine.

Turks often ask me for examples of traditional American cooking. Such examples are difficult to ascertain since our cuisine is in many ways an amalgamation of the different culinary styles brought to our great country by numerous waves of immigration. One distinctly American food, though, is the hamburger. Originating in the late 1800s, the exact birthplace and inventor of this sandwich remain subjects of dispute. But through the popularity of American chain restaurants, it’s impact on dining both in the U.S. and around the world is uncontested.

There is more to a burger than the Big Mac or Whopper. Many who are used to these fast-food staples often forget that all burgers are not created equal. Restaurants across America create far more intricate, gourmet versions that incorporate top-quality meats and special ingredients, such as blue cheese, jalapeños or even lobster. In Ankara, the options for high-end burgers like this are quite limited. The recent opening of the Kentpark A.V.M bought a new place for those craving beef-laden deliciousness. Appropriately named Burger Story, this establishment delivers the goods for those seeking American-style tastes here in Turkey.

Burger Story’s menu offers about a dozen options ranging from the classic to the more complex.  The cornerstone of these burgers is the excellent meat. You’ll immediately notice the fresh-ground difference. Several burgers are also topped with some nice sauces, a welcome addition in a country where the food is too often sauce-less.

I’ve visited Burger Story twice in the past few weeks and was really impressed with the more traditional offerings. I’d highly recommend the caramelized onion and mushroom burgers. The cheese streak, rokfor soslu and “White Castle” are also quite good. However, avoid the falafel “veggie” burger; the flavor is dry and overpowering from the excessive starch.

You might be enticed by Burger Story’s milkshake selection. While better than most in Turkey, they’re sadly underwhelming if you’ve ever had a proper milkshake in America. They lack the thickness that, for example, separates a chocolate milkshake from chocolate milk. My friends reported otherwise after a different visit, but I still expect more consistency for the premium price.

Burger Story is on the ground floor of Kentpark (Google Maps). To the chagrin of my bank account, it’s on the pricey side. Burgers average between 15TL and 20TL ($10 and $13 at 1.53TL/$).

Kalbur March 8, 2010

Posted by Steven Bartus in Turkish Cuisine.

Although last week’s attempt to find superlative dining in Ankara came up short, I continued the search this weekend with a visit to Kalbur Fish Restaurant. You might be somewhat skeptical of the potential for good seafood in a city located about as far as one can get from a body of water in Turkey. In most cases, you’d be correct. But Kalbur is something very special. By combining traditional cooking techniques with an innovatory approach to seafood, it delivers a meal like no other in Ankara or even, dare I say, Turkey. Without question, Kalbur will change the way you look at Turkish cuisine. It is deserving of the laudatory enthusiasm often heaped upon it by journalists and food aficionados alike.

Situated deep in a quiet residential area of Oran, Kalbur is unassuming from the outside. Simple place settings and unadorned decor give a decidedly understated feel to the ten-table restaurant. The owner, Mehmet, and his wife, Bilen, have been cooking magic in this humble spot since 1990. They have developed a reputation for being a bit cold to their customers, something one might expect from artists overseeing their craft, but all is forgiven once you taste the food.

Kalbur specializes in taking Turkish classics, such as börek, köfte, kokoreç and mantı, and reinventing them with the wonders of the sea. You’re not going to find the typical whole-grilled-fish-on-a-plate offering that one would get on the Kordon in İzmir. Kalbur’s approach represents the type of creative license I so often yearn to see in other Ankara restaurants. More Turkish chefs need to test the balance between respecting culinary tradition and pursuing innovation in their work.

The portions at Kalbur are small and best enjoyed mezze-style with friends. It’s impossible to choose poorly, but some dishes are better than others. It’s also worth noting that the menu changes frequently with ebb and flow of Mehmet and Bilen’s inspiration, so expect some variation on what I describe here.

On Saturday, my friends and I ordered twelve courses covering the whole range of the night’s menu. The salmon dolma, seafood köfte, shrimp börek and grilled octopus were our favorites. Two days later I still find myself imagining their taste in my mouth. We would also recommend trying the artichoke hearts stuffed with a cheese-fish paste and the mixed-seafood calamari dolma. The stuffed mussels, octopus salad and seafood kokoreç were all quite tasty as well, but less remarkable than the others and could be excluded to save on cost. The seafood mantı might have been the only bust of the night, although you should try it for yourself if you generally enjoy traditional equivalent.

Kalbur is located in Oran Şehri Çarşı Merkezi C-3 Blok (Google Maps). It’s not the easiest place to find, but most cab drivers in the area should know the address. Additionally, Kalbur is closed on Mondays and reservations are required at least a week in advance (Telephone #: 312 490 50 01).

As one might expect for a restaurant of its caliber, Kalbur is not cheap. Our bill came to 275TL ($180 at 1.53TL/$), so about 75TL ($49) each for our four-person party after tip. Alcohol is served and rakı is certainly recommend to complement your fish. Do note that credit cards are not accepted.

Çengelhan March 1, 2010

Posted by Steven Bartus in Turkish Cuisine.
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This weekend I sought the very best dining experience that Ankara has to offer. On most days I’m usually quite content to eat good-quality Turkish food prepared cheaply and without pretension, something one gets at my favorite eatery, Çukurağa Sofrası. But I felt the time had come to test the culinary potential of this city. To do so I visited Çengelhan, the brasserie operated by the Divan Group in the Rahmi M. Koç Museum.

Çengelhan has frequently received great praise when I have asked for dining recommendations. It has also been mentioned by the foreign press as a top place to eat when visiting Ankara. The New York Times writes in its city guide:

As yet another one of Koç’s babies (which include the Divan group of hotels, restaurants, and patisserie), the brasserie offers best in quality and creativity with a menu that gained it membership in the prestigious culinary Chaines des Rotisseurs.

With so many positive reviews in mind, three friends and I went to dinner on Saturday night with high expectations. In the end we found Çengelhan to be a mixed bag: While the dining experience is quite novel, the quality of food falls short of remarkable.

Eating aside, it’s worth dining at Çengelhan simply to take in the surroundings. The restaurant is situated in the glass-covered courtyard of the museum with the tables placed amidst the exhibits. I can safely say it’s the first time I’ve eaten with a biplane hovering above my head and an antique car parked beside me. The service at Çengelhan was impeccable as well. Prompt, courteous and accommodating, the waiters made the meal a very pleasant affair. And for my Anglophone audience, it’s also worth noting that they spoke excellent English.

To begin our meal my friends and I sampled a range of starters, including the içli köfte, artichoke hearts, a selection of dolma and the prawns rolled with kadaif. All were decidedly underwhelming. By no means were they bad, but it would be incorrect to say they were vastly superior to something from a restaurant of lesser repute (and expense). We expected something more dynamic and creative from Çengelhan.

With our expectations diminished by the mediocre starters, we braced ourselves for disappointment when our entrées arrived. Fortunately, we were pleasantly surprised with a tasty meal. The winner of the night was the Halep işi kebap, sort of an iskender-like dish with Arabic influence. The Ankara kuzu tava (lamb shank) was also skillfully prepared and very tender. Finally, the dana beǧendi (braised beef cubes in an eggplant purée) was pleasing, but way too small for anyone with a reasonable appetite.

While our entrées were all quite good, none of us left with the impression that Çengelhan offered the best meal in Ankara. The food was expertly prepared and we appreciated the emphasis on traditional Turkish cuisine. But I didn’t feel a burning desire to return the next day, as is often the case when I eat at a truly remarkable restaurant. Simply put, the menu at Çengelhan is too safe. It’s designed to appeal to a very large audience by doing classic dishes very well and without taking unnecessary risks. For many diners, this is an ideal meal. For me, however, I liked to be challenged by the chef to view food in a different light. I want to taste something more than the technical ability of the kitchen. This level of excellence is required for me to apply a superlative label to any restaurant.

The Koç Museum is located in Altındağ (near Ulus), opposite the entrance to the Citadel (Google Maps). By Ankara standards, Çengelhan is an expensive establishment: Starters average around 17TL ($11 at 1.54TL/$) and entrées are priced between 26TL and 35TL ($17 to $23).