“ Turkish and Mexican restaurant in the heart of the Old City of Istanbul. „
By the second evening of our stay in Istanbul, I suspect that the local restaurateurs must have been getting used to seeing our party of six wandering up and down the street, arguing over where to eat. With my sister and her girlfriend, my parents, my husband and I, it's always a bit of an ordeal getting a decision on where to eat. On our first evening we'd practically caused a diplomatic incident after two restaurants were fighting over us and on the second night we vowed to be more decisive and not to play them off against each other. In fact in a fit of uncharacteristic group decisiveness, we'd all agreed earlier in the day that we would go to the roof terrace restaurant of the Pierre Loti hotel. Of course it didn't happen. We were a little later going out than on the previous night and the sky was a bit cloudy and a wind had picked up. Sitting on the roof didn't seem like quite such a good idea. Instead we chose a restaurant called Cara which sits directly next to the Pierre Loti.
The Cara is actually a combi-restaurant which offers two totally different cuisines. 'Cara' is the Turkish traditional menu but the restaurant is also part of a chain (I assume it's American) called 'El Torito'. I have no interest to eat Mexican food in Mexico let alone in Turkey and we were much more interested to eat from the local menu. In case anyone is tempted to claim this is off topic, I actually requested it and I know it's the right place. The restaurant is located just off the road where the trams run through the Sultanahmet district of the Old City and is not far from the entrance to the Grand Bazaar.
Now we wouldn't want a restaurant to think we were 'easy', would we? We weren't going in until we'd made them sweat a little bit and even though we'd decided this was where we would eat, they weren't to know that. My sister's girlfriend Joyce is tiny but very determined. When it comes to getting a bargain she's a bit like the human incarnation of a Jack Russell. She dallied with the greeter outside the restaurant telling him that other places had offered us free starters and even free beer. Could they do better (or at a pinch match those offers?)
The young greeter seemed to break out in a cold sweat. Perhaps he could do starters if we all came in but no way on the beer. Joyce persisted. Mr Greeter man went to find the manager - a giant who was reduced to putty by Joyce's persuasive talents. The rest of us made "Come on Joyce, let's go somewhere else" type noises and the manager got nervous that we were going to leave. He had an almost empty restaurant and lots of waiters to pay. We didn't get the beer but he gave in on the starters, bread and teas and coffees but Joyce failed on the beer which wasn't really surprising. I'm not really convinced she really had a sniff of free beer or if it was all part of the game. If you can put your English reserve to one side, you can get some decent freebies in Istanbul if you've got a group of six to bargain with
Next choice was whether to sit on the terrace or indoors under cover. My mum picked indoors - it really was a bit too cool outside. We took a table for size in the middle of the restaurant and settled down to check the menus. We were offered both the local menu and the Mexican menu and all pushed the latter to one side. We ordered beers whilst we deliberated over what to have and were happy to see that the glasses seemed to be the right size, something that the previous night's restaurant hadn't achieved. Drinks are expensive compared to the food so we wanted to be sure we were getting what we'd paid for. 500ml beers were 9 Turkish Lire and 330 ml beers were 8 TL. It doesn't take a genius to work out where the value lies in that particular calculation.
We placed our orders and settled back to see what magic the manager could do on the starters. I suspect that almost all touristy places will give you starters and bread if you ask or if you express a bit or reluctance over going in so don't be afraid to ask. The bread baskets came with a combination of thick flat bread and thin breads more like chapattis. Starters included a couple of plates of hummus, some tzatziki (or whatever the Turkish equivalent is with lots of yoghurt), and a spicy tomato dip. This is all very standard fare in most of the restaurants and I must admit I rather like it.
For our main courses we shopped around on the menu. I ordered a prawn casserole and my husband had a chicken curry. My sister and her girlfriend went for various types of kebab whilst my mother was taken with the idea of the local dish in which meat and vegetables are cooked up in a clay pot called a 'Testi'. These dishes are served between two people and seem to be a staple of the Middle East and North African kitchen as we've had similar things in other parts of Turkey and in Libya. I suspect that my mum was most taken with the idea of being able to tell her friends that she went to Istanbul and ate 'testis'. They ordered the 'mixed' testi - which seems to mean that the kitchen throw in whatever meat they've got on the day.
My casserole was lovely. Lots of mid-sized prawns in a juicy tomato and vegetable base, absolutely drenched in melted cheese. It was neither too big nor too small - in Goldilocks terms, they got it 'just right'. My husband's curry was pretty funny as it came with both rice and a little 'garnish' of chips. It was pretty typical of what I think of as a 'German curry' - very yellow, quite creamy and not very spicy. I had already added some extra chilli to my casserole and I'm sure the curry could have benefited with the same. The kebabs were at the other end of the table from me and I can't say too much about them. As someone who hasn't eaten meat in 22 years, I'm pretty useless at expressing an opinion on a lump of meat anyway.
The parental 'testi' was brought to a serving table next to us in flames. The flambé was pretty impressive and quite a performance. I've had vegetable dishes like this in other places and always been a bit wary about watching out for the pieces of broken pottery but in Cara they served it rather differently. I'm more familiar with the technique of blocking the mouth of the pot with a plug of bread dough - at Cara they used foil. The waiter removed the foil and then poured out some of the juices onto the two bowls. He then put the foil back, upturned the pot and cracked it along a pre-cut groove so that the pot split cleanly without any debris. The meat and vegetables were then served onto the bowls. Mum seemed pretty impressed but I doubt she'll be trying it at home any time soon.
We skipped puddings - in fact we didn't have dessert in any of the restaurants throughout our stay - and we were also too full to take advantage of the negotiated free teas and coffees so we got the bill and paid up. Six meals, eight beers and a coke came to 150 TL - around £55-60. I thought this was one of the best meals of our stay and excellent value.
Cara - El Torito
Pier Loti Caddesi No 5,