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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).

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Café des Cafés February 23, 2010

Posted by Steven Bartus in Foreign Cuisine.
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Although this blog was created to be a repository of the best places to eat in Ankara, it’s sometimes necessary to chronicle the restaurants that fail to impress as well. One such establishment is Café des Cafés in Kavaklidere. This chic, French-inspired eatery was recommended to me by several people, including the Ankara section of Lonely Planet. Despite such positive reviews, I can say without reservation that my lunch at Café des Cafés was the most disappointing of my time in this city.

At first glance, Café des Cafés looks promising based on appearances alone. The decor and ambience are charming and a welcome change from the sterile, uninspired design prevalent in most Ankara restaurants. It’s the sort of place one might envision on some side street in Paris. The menu also looks appealing. I have previously written about an expat’s need for respite from Turkish food, and Café des Cafés appears to provide such relief. It offers a sizable variety of bistro fare, ranging from sandwiches to salads to pastas. But the accolades stop at the food.

My friend and I sampled a varied selection of items for our lunch today to test the diversity of the menu. We ordered the Greek salad to start. Despite allegiances to my current country-of-residence, I will admit that Greeks make a superior salad. So naturally I was quite disappointed to see Café des Cafés slaughter such a tasty dish. An overabundance of lettuce, soggy olives and a poor excuse for feta cheese left the salad largely tasteless. Still, I tried to keep my hopes up for the rest of the meal despite the early misstep.

Per the advice of my friend Jim, better known as Eski Kanka on the football blog The Round Ball in Ankara, I ordered the sosis steak sandviç. I must have misunderstood his recommendation because it was, simply put, the most disgusting thing I’ve eaten in Turkey. A sloppy mess of ketchup, melted cheese and Turkish hot dogs (you know exactly what mean by “Turkish” if you’ve ever eaten one), I couldn’t bring myself to finish the sandwich. It might be the only time in recent memory that I wasn’t able to clean my plate at a restaurant. Indeed, I made more progress on the brain salad last week.

My dining companion did only slightly better with the margherita bruschetta. When ordering bruschetta in a typical Italian restaurant, one expects to receive something reminiscent of small toasted bread slices topped with seasoned diced tomatoes. What we got today, however, would be more at home in the frozen food section of an American gas station than anywhere in Italy. The “bruschetta” (I’ll use quotation marks to signify a blatant misnomer) was actually cheesy bread with a diluted tomato paste sauce. It’s the sort of snack I would microwave during the wee hours of the morning in college, not what I expected to see at a café in one of the trendiest areas of Ankara.

Whenever I have such a decidedly horrendous dining experience at a otherwise decent-looking place, I tend to give the restaurant the benefit of the doubt and suggest that I ordered the wrong things. I don’t think I can do that with Café des Cafés. I left today with the feeling that it is the type of place that specializes in duping wealthy Turks with faux-European food. But take this review for what it’s worth, especially since I am writing this with the vitriol inspired by a terrible meal still pumping through my veins.

Café des Cafés is located on the popular Tunalı Hilmi Cad. in Kavaklidere (Google Maps). Prices are upmarket: Lunch for two people followed by coffee costed 55TL ($36 at 1.52TL/$).

Liva Pastaneleri February 14, 2010

Posted by Steven Bartus in Breakfast, Turkish Cuisine.
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Liva is another strong contender in the battle for the best brunch buffet in Ankara. The famous pastane chain offers a quality spread of Turkish breakfast favorites very similar in size and scope to that of Big Chefs. While both places make for an excellent meal, Liva’s made-to-order omlet and gözleme station might give it the edge. I really liked the börek as well. However, the restaurant itself (specifically, the one in Çukurambar) lacks the charming decor and ambience found at Big Chefs, and the buffet area tends to get very congested. You will have to try both for yourself to determine which is deserving of your Sunday morning feast.

It’s also worth mentioning that Liva’s cakes and pastries are some of the best in the city. If you are looking to impress your friends or colleagues with a tasty treat, this is the place to visit. One recommendation: the Çikolatalı Dilim Pasta.

Liva has several branches around Ankara that offer brunch from 9:00 to 15:00 on Sundays. Check their website for specific information about the nearest location (Google Maps). Like Big Chefs, the price is 30TL per person ($20 at 1.51TL/$) including drinks.

Beykoz Paça and İşkembe February 7, 2010

Posted by Steven Bartus in Turkish Cuisine.
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Human beings eat with a variety of considerations in mind. At times we seek pleasure or enjoyment. In others we require only basic satiation. But there are also instances when curiosity or a desire for adventure motivate our eating. It is this latter inclination that might best describe my recent lunch at Beykoz Paça & İşkembe.

Per the recommendation of Deniz over at Yemek Lazım, I ventured to Çankaya early this afternoon to sample some of Beykoz’s famous işkembe çorbası (tripe soup). It’s reputed to rank among the best in the city. I’ve always been a fan of intestine; the unique texture and flavoring make for a tasty combination when prepared properly. But I’ll admit it’s not for everyone. This soup, in particular, doesn’t exactly offer the best aromatic experience. So if you’re daring enough to try işkembe çorbası, do so with an open mind. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not my favorite option in this country.

While eating intestine is as repulsive as it gets for most people, I decided to up the ante today. Beykoz also offers an old Ottoman creation, beyin salatası (brain salad). Yes, I typed that correctly: brain salad. Do I have particular affinity for the taste of a lamb’s central nervous system, you might ask? No, not at all, but it’s always a good culinary philosophy to be willing to try everything at least once. And that’s just what I did.

There’s no way to avoid saying this: beyin salatası was a decidedly bad eating experience. I’m usually hesitant to be so negative about any food, but it’s really all I can say here. By itself the poached brain is disgusting: flavorless and with texture reminiscent of extra dense tofu. Together with lettuce, parsley, olives and tomatoes, dressed with vinegar and fresh-squeezed lemon juice, it’s edible, but far from delicious. I’m honestly not sure of the appeal in eating it. Sure, there’s some novelty involved, and at least one website cites special nutritional value. But there are so many better salad options in Turkish cuisine that it’s reasonable suggest this is one part of the lamb that should be allowed to go to waste.

If I’ve piqued your curiosity, you should make the trip to Hoşdere Cad. (Google Maps) to give both a try. Each item costs around 7TL ($4.50 at 1.53TL/$). For those who don’t care to be so adventurous, Beykoz also offers vast selection of other Ottoman-inspired dishes to please your more conventional palate.

Big Chefs January 17, 2010

Posted by Steven Bartus in Breakfast, Turkish Cuisine.
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Breakfast might be my favorite meal of the day. There is always something really awesome about waking up and having a very serious meal to get you going. On the weekends, a long and leisurely brunch with friends ranks among the greatest joys in life. For those seeking such a superlative experience in Ankara, I suggest you check out Big Chefs.

Big Chefs offers a massive Sunday buffet featuring all the staples of a Turkish breakfast plus a great selection of salads and pastries. You will undoubtedly get your fill of delicious cheeses, jams, fruits and vegetables. For those with a sweet tooth, the variety of cakes is daunting. My advice: try the chocolate-banana one in the middle of the dessert spread. Yes, like with most buffets you’ll probably end up eating too much. Just accept it, call it a “blinner” (breakfast-lunch-dinner), and have a good time.

There are three Big Chefs in Ankara: on Filistin Sk. in Gaziosmanpaşa, in the Minisera AVM in Çayyolu, and on 29. Cad. in Çukrambar (Google Maps). However, brunch is only served at the latter two between the hours of 10:00 and 14:00 on Sunday. The price per person is 30TL ($20 at 1.46TL/$) including drinks. Reservations are recommended.

Tavacı Recep Usta January 15, 2010

Posted by Steven Bartus in Turkish Cuisine.
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For much of my time in Ankara, everyone’s been telling me that I have to eat at Tavacı Recep Usta. It’s one of the best places in the city, they say. I finally got around to making the trip to Park Vadi this past weekend, and I must say it was an incredible meal. I left feeling very satisfied and impressed with the entire experience. Most importantly, it also reinvigorated Turkish cuisine in my life. On this blog I’m not shy about admitting that the food in this country can often become a bit monotonous. This was not the case at Recep Usta. It impressed with some old favorites while introducing me to dishes that I had never previously encountered. It would be a mistake to visit Ankara without enjoying a meal here.

Recep Usta gets its name from its proprietor, Recep Budak (“Usta” is a term of respect given to one who has mastered his trade). Born in Diyarbakır in 1961, he opened his first restaurant at the age of 17 and completed his military service as an officer’s chef. Budak brought his signature pan cooking to Ankara and Istanbul in 2002.

Upon being seated at Recep Usta, your table is served a large spread of mezes, including etli ciǧ and içli köfte, eşkili patlıcan dolma, çorban salata and ezme. All are very tasty.

For entreés, the menu offers a wide variety of kebabs, grills and other selections from the Diyarbakır region. The pirzola tava and kaburga dolma were recommended by the waiters as specialties. My friends and I ordered the latter, which is stuffed lamb rib served over seasoned rice, and were quite impressed by the moist, flavorful meat. We also enjoyed the ali nazik and beǧendili kebap. The beǧendili, in particular, was my favorite. Consisting of lamb in a cheese-eggplant pureé, the dish offered the sort of dynamic taste that I often find myself missing in Turkey.

The ayran at Recep Usta is worth mentioning as well. I personally didn’t care for it. But my companions, none of whom like ayran at all, found it to be quite palatable. Perhaps it’s an non-ayran drinker’s ayran? You’ll have to let me know.

Tavacı Recep Usta is located in Dikman Vadisi (Park Vadi) in Çankaya (Google Maps). Expect to spend at least 25TL ($17 at 1.46TL/$) per entreé. The mezes are free.

“The Köfte Men” January 10, 2010

Posted by Steven Bartus in Street Food, Turkish Cuisine.
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In my travels around the globe, street food is often the culinary highlight of any trip. Indeed, I’ve found “avoid walls” to be a particularly useful adage when deciding where to eat in a new city. In Ankara, this advice rings true late at night when dozens of venders set up shop and sell delicious midye dolma, pilav, kokoreç and köfte to the hungry masses.

Two of the my favorite after-dark places to eat are not street food per say, but are actually modified, somewhat-dilapidated vans. Don’t let their appearance fool you: you’ll be hard pressed to find better food at any hour of the day.

“The Köfte Men” is the label my friends and I affectionately apply to these vehicular eateries. One, run by a man named Ali, is located on Tunus Cad. by the Bilkent University bus stop (Google Maps). The other, run by Vahit, is just past the corner of Eskişehir Yolu and Bilkent Blv. near the new mosque (Google Maps). Both open at around 21:00 and close sometime around 2:00. I would rank their köfte among the best I’ve had in Turkey. Perfectly spiced and made to order, there are few greater joys to be found in the early hours of the morning.

LeMan Kültür January 5, 2010

Posted by Steven Bartus in Foreign Cuisine, Turkish Cuisine.
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Named after the satirical Turkish comic book series, LeMan Kültür provides some much-needed novelty to the Ankara dining scene. This popular eatery bustles with city’s student crowd and offers a pleasing fusion of Turkish and international cuisine. Amidst the artistic décor and pulsating music, it’s a fun place to share a meal with friends before heading out for a night of revelry in the clubs and bars around Sakarya Cad.

The food at LeMan is good, but by no means life changing. It could be described as something comparable to the American “casual” dining franchises (T.G.I. Friday’s, Applebee’s, Chili’s, etc.). LeMan’s menu is large and diverse, with options ranging from pesto tortellini to Chinese egg rolls to chicken fajitas. They provide welcome alternatives to the staples of Turkish dining that pervade most Kızılay restaurants. LeMan also puts a twist on some of these favorites, a good example of which is the köfteli sandviç. Topped with an excellent eggplant-garlic-cheese sauce, this sandwich has been something of an addiction for me and many of my friends over the past year. It revitalizes the ubiquitous köfte meatballs found all over the city with a dynamic flavor that manages to satisfy both your taste and your appetite. And at 8.50TL ($5.80 at 1.47TL/$), the price cannot be beat.

LeMan Kültür is located on Konur Sk., off Meşrutiyet Cad., in Kızılay (Google Maps). There appears to be another branch in Bahçeli (Google Maps), but I can’t comment on its similarity or quality. Prices at LeMan are reasonable and range between 6TL and 14TL ($4.00 and $9.50). A good variety of alcohol is also served. For those who are tired of Efes Pilsen (i.e. every non-Turk in Turkey), there is Tuborg on tap.

Mezzaluna December 26, 2009

Posted by Steven Bartus in Foreign Cuisine.
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Living abroad can be at its most challenging during the holiday season. In addition to the separation from friends and family, the absence of certain culinary comforts often makes the distance from home seem all the farther. Twenty-five percent of me is Italian, and as such my Christmas meals have always been laden with the fare of the old country. Although there isn’t a true replacement in Ankara, I found Mezzaluna to be an acceptable alternative for grandma’s cooking this year.

Originating in New York City, Mezzaluna came to Turkey in 1995 and currently operates eleven branches across the country. The menu and quality are very similar to that of Paper Moon, the other upmarket Italian chain in Turkey. While I would say that Mezzaluna isn’t quite as good, I prefer it because of the (slightly) lower prices and they don’t gouge you for water.

The pizza is the star attraction at Mezzaluna. Sizable and tasty, they feature unique Italian ingredients that are a delight to the pork lover living in a Muslim country. The eponymously named Mezzaluna (topped with prosciutto, mushrooms, eggplant, mozzarella and tomato sauce) as well as the Rossa (sun-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, black olives, capers, mozzarella and tomato sauce) are sure to please. The pasta dishes are also quite good, but I find the portions to be a bit too small for my appetite.

Mezzaluna has two locations in Ankara, one in Bilkent and another in Kavaklıdere (Google Maps). Entreés are priced between 20TL and 30TL ($13.20 and $19.80 at 1.51TL/$). Alcohol is served.

Gülsoy Fast Food December 11, 2009

Posted by Steven Bartus in Quick Eats, Turkish Cuisine.
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Sakarya Cad. is a mecca for fast food lovers in Ankara. This bustling pedestrianized boulevard in the heart of Kızılay contains a plethora of quick eats, offerings diverse Turkish favorites such as balık ekmek, lamacun and kumpir. The most popular, though, is without question the döner kebab, Turkey’s most famous contribution to world cuisine. Across the globe, the ubiquitous sight of meat cooking on a vertical spit is a fixture of city life.

It is only a minor exaggeration to suggest that there are approximately 2.56 döner shops per capita in Ankara. On Sakarya alone, there are dozens of establishments making this cheap and tasty kebab. The best is Gülsoy Fast Food, located at the intersection with Bayındır Sk. (Google Maps).

You might ask what separates one döner kebab from the next as it isn’t exactly a complicated dish to prepare. But in my experience (which after fourteen months in Turkey probably numbers over a hundred) there are clear differences. Freshness is chief among them. The rotating nature of döner lends itself to being overcooked; meat is allowed spin all day, becoming drier and drier with each turn. Many shops also buy sub-par meat in order to save on cost. Other places keep their bread or lavaş past its shelf life or use a lackluster garnish of old lettuce and onion.

Gülsoy tends to avoid these pitfalls and is noteworthy not only for its freshness, but also for its use of better ingredients. Soslu döner is a common variation of the dish in Ankara, where iskender tomato sauce is added to the kebab to tastefully increase moisture. But Gülsoy has something better: a herb-based version that adds flavor without excessive liquid. Together, these factors make for the best dürüm on Sakarya and have made me a regular customer whenever I’m in the area.

Like most fast food stops in Kızılay, Gülsoy is very cheap. A delicious tavuk döner costs a mere 3TL ($2 at 1.50TL/$), although this week for an unknown reason they were selling at the ludicrously low price of 2TL ($1.33). The kokoreç is noteworthy as well and is priced at 2.50TL ($1.67) for a çeyrek (quarter) serving.