The best kebabs in Istanbul
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
The UK’s first doner kebab is said to have been served in 1966, at Hodja Nasreddin in Stoke Newington. There are now more than 20,000 kebab shops in Britain, almost all of them serving a cheap and cheerful version of doner – heavily seasoned minced meat mixed with copious fat – with business peaking, one suspects, at around 11.30pm.
The doner kebab I ate at Kebapci, an excellent restaurant in the lively Etiler neighbourhood of Istanbul, was remarkable for two things: it was lunchtime, not closing time, and the kebab was superb. It was made from high-quality lamb and beef, layered on a spit, then expertly flame-grilled and carved, and wrapped in fluffy pide (flatbread) to keep it warm. The meat needed no spice, just a little salt and a lick of smoke from the flames.
The kitchens at Kebapci were set up four years ago by meat master (and, under his alias Salt Bae, social media phenomenon) Nusret Gokce. While he spends most of his time nurturing his burgeoning empire of Nusr-Et steak restaurants, standards are still sky-high at Kebapci, the sublime grills augmented by a dizzying range of hot and cold meze.
Order the Atom, a sparkling salad of jade-green pistachio kernels and ruby-red pomegranate seeds, bound together with shredded parsley and olive oil; the muhammara, gently spiced pepper and tomato paste with a scattering of excellent walnuts; and maybe a lahmacun, crisp-based and sweetly aromatic Turkish meat “pizza” with minced lamb and hazelnuts.
Then the doner; but go with a crowd and try the shish kebab on the bone as well, and the adana kebab, hand minced, seasoned with mild red pepper, shaped in a long ripple onto an iron skewer, and grilled over hot coals. Warm bread flows from the kitchen as freely as the raki flows from its bottle, a waft of anise drifting across a contented lunch table.
At 29, in the Ulus area, the long menu strays into international territory – Caesar salad, duck spring rolls, slow-cooked beef cheeks in red-wine sauce – but at its heart is some terrific Turkish cooking from the open kitchen and its formidable wood-fired oven. 29 has a couple of other strings to its bow: its hilltop site and huge terrace offer spectacular views of both of the city’s Bosphorus bridges, while Club 29, the restaurant’s glitzy boîte, draws a glamorous late-night crowd to its bar, stage and dancefloor.
Lahmacun is on the menu here too, served with rocket, radish and lemon; roasted chunks of bone marrow arrive with a tangle of red onion and parsley, plus a DIY range of dried herbs and spices with which to season their wobbly innards; perky meatballs are smothered in a fine tomato sauce; lamb shoulder, served for two, is roasted in the wood oven and happily anointed with smoky aubergine purée. And if that all leaves you feeling the need to work off some pounds, head to the club to dance them away. Closing time at weekends is 4am, so you’re in with a chance.