TURKEY & GREECE Eats: Istanbul Impresses While Greece Keeps Me Guessing
I revisited Istanbul and Greece back to back, instantly calling a comparative duel. Having been to each on my own travels only two months earlier, I wanted to see if my previous chowing experiences were mimicked this time around. Judging by the title of this piece, it's no surprise who came out victorious. While both cuisines are ones that I'd live and die by in NYC, only one impressed in its authentic environment.
Istanbul did not disappoint me with its signature Menemen, eggs scrambled in a saucy red stew boasting fresh dices of tomatoes, enriched with softened onions and bell peppers. Garnished with watery cucumber crisps and dried oregano leaves, it was the best thing I'd had in quite some time. It's usually the simple and fresh that take the cake. This sit-down also included a "Special Salad" platter - essentially a smorgasbord of my favorite things. I jumbled pickled slaws of cabbage and carrots with thick yogurt cacik and hazelnut-chickpea hummus dips. Add a sprinkling of corn kernels, a rolled rice-stuffed dolma grape leaf, and a spiced bean salad and that about seals the taste deal. This is a poo-poo platter I could get used to.
These Turks are happy when you're happy and could not be more eager to share with you their flavor. Before this meal, I was moseying about and popped into a local cafe for a potty pit stop. This turned into an invitation to sit and enjoy the most deliciously rich cup of black Turkish coffee I've had to date, chased by an even stronger steeped chai tea. How does this get better? All gratis: an offer I can't refuse. I can't tell you why he invited me to a charge-free coffee break, but I can tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed it with my dried fruit and fresh almonds I had just purchased at the established Spice Bazaar (a smell-sensory playground). How can one not fall in love with Istanbul?
Greece was another story. I remember in my previous visits to Athens, Santorini, and Poros, I was not swept away by the food. I was puzzled with the oft thought that I get tastier (more authentic?) Greek eats in New York. This time I was in the port town of Pireaus and my dining experience was not impressive. I ate al fresco at a local-looking tavern, which provided a softer landing pad for scrutiny.
Still, a few things were on point, while others were disappointing. Namely the cabbage and carrot shredded salad was in its rawest form without a lick of dressing, lest a sprinkle of spice or herb. Dip-wise, the hummus was lackluster, jonesing for some flavor. Conversely, the tzatziki (a favorite condiment of mine since it touched my tongue at the ripe age of 10) was as thick and silky and garlicky and refreshing as it should be, with uneven chunks of crunchy cucumber and just the right amount of herbaceous oregano.
My whole squid on the grill had a nice char and the body was firm yet tender - a good thing. The tentacles unfortunately were overcooked to a rubbery tooth-pull. The real downer were the grilled sardines, which packed not a pinch of flavor, even with a generous squeeze of lemon. However, to end on a truly tasty note, the experience was salvaged by the best thing since sliced bread: grilled cheese. No, not the sandwich. Haloumi (a semi-firm cheese) actually charred on the grill, served warm under a blanket of fresh, chopped parsley. Its salty bite is slightly less sharp than that of feta, and is even further mellowed by citrusy lemon juice. It pulls like partially hardened mozzarella and this lovely texture combined with the crisped exterior is a divine mouthfeel. Dare I say cheese is better grilled than fried? I can assure you this one is.
Turkey was a treat (on my birthday to boot) and Greece followed with a mixed bag. If you must make a bet, put all your eggs in a Turkish basket.