We are getting comfortable in this neighborhood, venturing farther from the main arteries clogged with traffic and deeper into narrow veins where a single car is enough to cause a blockage. Superdorm and Boğaziçi sit on a spine above the Bosphorus, and on either side of the main road sloping alleys curve precipitously downward, flanking the thoroughfare like ribs.
Along dirty backstreets, gems hide behind the façade of rickety tables and broken signs. Like Amy said, choosing a restaurant is like gambling, but armed with the advice of an Olaf student who spent last Spring in Istanbul, Lauren, Christina and I ventured into a space no bigger than my St. Olaf dorm room.
A dozen wooden chairs, sized appropriately for 8-year-olds, were arranged between the bright lokanta and the cobbled street. Mutfak, or “kitchen,” was aptly named: the simple interior boasted a fridge, mircrowave, dishwasher, and oven. Cold vegetarian dishes were lined up behind a glass counter, and a few prepared hot items were sitting under the microwave. The restaurant was empty, save a lonely waiter smoking outside on the patio, hunched in one of the small chairs so that his knees drew up to this shoulders. As we perused the appetizing food, wondering how we were expected to order, he came in after us.
“English?” He smiled, waving us over and lifting the lid off a plate of meatballs and vegetables. I looked over to Lauren and Christina: were we really supposed to go behind the counter? Wasn’t that in violation of health code? He gestured again and I spontaneously approached, recognizing the dish immediately.
“Kofta,” I offered. His smile brightened and he laughed. Yes, he said, Turkish Meatballs. He signaled a plate of lentils and paused, forgetting the English, so I provided the word. “Lentils!” He cheered, looking to Christina and Lauren, who were smiling behind the counter. He pointed to the other dishes, and I mirrored his English with Turkish whenever possible. The girls were eying the food hungrily, so I jokingly occupied the display and reached for a plate. “Miss, what would you like?” I indicated the two sizes, practicing some newly learned adjectives: Büyük? Large? Biraz? Small?
The waiter chuckled, teaching us the word for plate so I could complete the sentence. I moved to put the plate down, but the waiter stopped me with a laugh. “Why don’t you serve them? One spoon, one lira. Okay?” I spent the next five minutes in the kitchen, collaborating with the waiter to take orders from Christina and Lauren. I learned how to pack rice into a bowl to make one serving, and how to use the microwave to warm up the hot dishes. Eventually it was my turn to order, so I heated my lentils, packed my rice, and indicated which of the sides I wanted.
“Get the beans!” Lauren cried from the small table outside. “They’re incredible!” I got two scoops of beans on the side of an already heaping plate and asked for the watery yogurt drink called ayran that has become a staple for me in Turkey.
The food was fantastic: home-cooked and perfectly seasoned. Bread was produced from a cupboard inside, and the waiter returned to his post to smoke, periodically spraying water at an orange cat with lucent yellow eyes that would stand on its hind paws to examine our food. When other diners arrived, menus were produced, and Mutfak seemed a regular restaurant. The three of us shared a smile, confused as to why we had been given such a hearty welcome but wholly satisfied with the experience. After a few cups of mandatory çay, the check was produced: an even ten lira apiece, about six dollars, for one of our best dinners yet (show included). Our waiter waived as we left, and we promised to come back. Maybe next time, he’ll teach Lauren how to cook.