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Köşebaşı June 30, 2010

Posted by Steven Bartus in Turkish Cuisine.
Tags: ,

When evaluating restaurants, I often like to separate them into those that offer life-changing experiences and those that don’t. I like this categorization because it reflects the transformative potential of a good meal. At its pinnacle, food has the capacity to push our senses to places they’ve never been before. Such experiences are rare; I can think of only a handful during my time in Turkey. But when they do occur, these moments of gastronomic brilliance, your world slows down, turned only by each bite you take.

I’ve evoked this life-changing language in several posts over the past few weeks to convey what several places did not offer. This is not a mark of disappointment; it’s unreasonable to go into every meal expecting an earth-shaking culinary experience. Most times, in fact, I’m quite content with good food at a good price. However, there are times when I want to be wowed and money is not a concern. One such time was last weekend.

Köşebaşı makes bold claims about itself on its website. To quote the ‘About Us’ page:

Kosebasi was voted as one of “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” by the 14,000 members of Conde Nast Traveler magazine and was awarded with “International Tourism, Hotel and Catering Industries Prize” as the best representative of the traditional Turkish cuisine. Kosebasi was also cited as “the best kebab restaurant in Istanbul” by Time magazine.

Kosebasi’s global fame has received numerous bookings from all over the world and continues to attract many celebrities including Jack Nicholson, Chelsea Clinton, Warren Beatty, Sting, Tim Zagat and Donna Karan.

Köşebaşı has several branches in the more chi-chi sections of İstanbul as well as in Ankara and İzmir. It also has expanded internationally to Athens, São Paulo, Bahrain and Dubai. Given this reputation and global reach, I had to venture up to Gaziosmanpaşa on Sunday for a potentially life-changing dinner. Did Köşebaşı offer this superlative experience? The answer, I’m sorry to report, was a resounding no.

You might think it takes some hubris on my part to proclaim that Köşebaşı is a decidedly mediocre restaurant in the face of accolades from fabled magazines like Condé Nast Traveler and Time. But I can do so in this case without reservation. The food was simply not good enough to match the acclaim it advertises.

Köşebaşı features the ‘traditional recipes of South Anatolia’. Popular offerings like beyti, çöp şiş, kanat, patlıcanlı kebap and lahmacun are all on the menu. Köşebaşı also makes some specialties, such as şaşlık kebabı and terbiyeli şiş, both of which I had not previously seen in other restaurants. Per the recommendation of the waiter, my friend and I ordered these dishes in addition to the spinach salad and spicy bulgar ezme for starters.

The food at Köşebaşı is not bad, but it’s far from remarkable. The spicy bulgar ezme is exactly what you’d expect: typical ezme with some bulgar and extra spice in it. The spinach salad diverged from expectations only by the inclusion of a few raisins for a bit of sweetness and texture. Our entrées, the most expensive items on the menu, were overcooked and served with a lackluster side of seasoned onions, peppers and roasted tomatoes as well as some generic, straight-from-the-bag lavaş. Simply put, these are not the trappings of one of the world’s ‘top 50 restaurants’.

Köşebaşı highlights a long-standing grievance that I have with Turkish cuisine: the insistence on cooking meat well done. No one (except Turks, it seems) wants to eat leather, especially at a purportedly top-quality restaurant. Far too often I regret forgetting to ask the chef for ‘çok kanlı‘ when I ordering beef or certain cuts of lamb. I’m the first person to recognize that there are differences in taste across cultures and these are usually something to be celebrated. But in the case of meat there is no going around it: well done is not acceptable.

To end an already sub-par meal, my friend and I ordered the künefe for dessert, which has been recommended to me by several readers. I have long maintained, somewhat snobbishly I’ll admit, that there is no good künefe in Turkey outside of Hatay, the southern city most renown for this dish. To date, everything I have had in Ankara has proven this theory to be correct. Köşebaşı further added to my credibility. This particular offering was terrible. There was an almost negligible amount of cheese in it, accentuating the taste and consistency of the kadayif. How can any respectable establishment serve künefe with such an egregious oversight?

I suspect that the original Köşebaşı in İstanbul was (or maybe still is) a very good restaurant. The Condé Nast top 50 ranking (at least the one framed on the wall in the Ankara branch) is from 1999, four years after Köşebaşı was founded. It was likely based on early work by a talented chef that attracted some deserved attention from the press. But in the eleven years since then, my guess is that Köşebaşı’s owners decided to use the notoriety as a basis for an ambitious expansion, first around Turkey then abroad, which ultimately compromised the quality of the food in the name of profit. Now Köşebaşı is best suited for duping rich Turks and foreigners out of their money under the guise of being world-class Turkish cuisine. There is far better elsewhere in Ankara for far less money.

Köşebaşı is located on Kuleli Sk. in Gaziosmanpaşa (Google Maps). Prices are upmarket: starters cost around 8TL each while entrées average at 18TL. Alcohol is served.