I did not ever experience a warm atmosphere in restaurants we call ‘esnaf lokantası’, where they serve just-cooked homemadish food, displayed alongside the counters. Not to mention the fluorescent lightings, white MDF-coated tables and simple metal chairs – the very exact reasons of my dislike. By description, the most basic components get together and form a restaurant, targeting people who work in neighboring shops and offices. Their food is traditional but mostly mediocre. Even though these ‘tradesmen restaurants’ are more or less in the same league, you can find fairly decent versions here and there. The fact is; it’s their ambiance why I avoid them, since I have a serious disorder of feeling moody and uneasy in such fluorescent-lit old-school places even if I happen to stay in for a couple of minutes. They eventually lead me to nausea and dizziness.
Hünkar in Nişantaşı adopts the ‘esnaf lokantası’ concept; but exceptionally takes it into the top level with a fancy setting, white tablecloths, yellow lighting (thankfully), and… fantastic food. All of them together pretty much makes me feel like home. Then again, as I get my first bite from a random dish, the whole restaurant evolves into my grandma’s house by delivering almost the same taste of hers. Along with the rustic aura of the omnipresent elderly waiters as they wander around the cozy furniture, I feel totally safe.
Above all other redundantly-popular restaurants in Nişantaşı, Hünkar is one of the few significant gems around, distinctly remaining modest. Well, being a renowned restaurant in Istanbul for over 60 years fairly makes them pretty unflappable. Their first establishment in Fatih was slightly small to meet the demand on such a bosom of lusciousness and moved to Etlier years ago, and later on they opened up a new restaurant in Nişantaşı as well. Ügümü family runs the restaurant for four generations – a significant part of the key to their success.
Today I am “physically” hosting Joel and Terra at Hünkar, my new foodie friends from Chicago. It was an absurd situation that lead us meet each other, though we were attendees of a very special occasion that day. Later when we decided to go out for dinner in a couple of days, Hünkar was the first place that came into my mind – the correct place to dig them into the real Turkish (chronically arguable to define so) food. We ordered mostly my own favorites – also being the traditional classics – as guidance, and a couple of others of their choice which surprisingly ended up being the knock-out dishes of the night for them. Anyway, agreed that the rest were not even less than perfect as well.
We started with the Aubergasm, is how I call this dish, yoğurtlu patlıcan is how others do. It is eye-twitchingly awesome. It’s so deep and complex that you tend to identify what on earth is in it, but it is as simple as charcoal-smoked aubergine and yoghurt. A golden start.
Fava is technically a fava bean pâté of sorts, a dish people rather eat aside fish. I do not mind, it always has a go for me. It was perfectly homogenous and tasty, served as a slab and drizzled with some fine olive oil.
Ispanaklı börek was boring – clearly prepared in a traditional way, but neither of us found a taste to make us have another bite. It was just an agent leading us to reassess and thankfully appreciate other dishes on our table yet again.
Zeytinyağlı kök ıspanak was super-light and probably from the other side of the galaxy, millions of light-years away from all the other brown slimy lumps of overcooked laidback spinaches. This is just a vegan’s dream. It was cooked just to the point where it retains its freshness, totally juicy and even livelier in green than when raw.
Kabak kızartma, was Joel’s favorite and was almost zucchini tempura. I’ve never thought of ordering these before, assuming the impossibility of presenting me a wow feeling. But it was astonishing. The batter was fantastic, got both crispy and fluffy, and not greasy at all. With yoghurt, it was all in balance.
Imam bayıldı is a whole aubergine stuffed with onions, tomatoes and garlic, and served cold. This one has exactly the same taste of my grandma’s. Gives me a moment of yearn and reminds me how I love her and her food whenever I get a bite.
Karnıyarık is another kind of stuffed aubergine. But this is completely different than imam bayıldı. Served hot and stuffed with loads of ground beef and thinly chopped parsley. The ground beef gets freshened up with all the parsley in it while still keeping its umami explosion at the same level.
Eating karnıyarık with the delicate house-made yoghurt is highly preferred.
Hünkar beğendi is the signature dish and is incredibly tasty – incredible being as much as the cuteness of a herd of lambs on Scottish highlands. The concept is pretty much alike anyway; except for the fact that lambs are confit, and the field is resembled by roasted aubergine mash cooked with milk and flour. This is not just a must-eat at Hünkar, but on earth.
We shared şekerpare for the dessert. Somehow, it was the worst I had at Hünkar so far. It absorbed the weird collective smell of the cooler it was kept in, which is the very same smell you feel when you exhale after each bite. It was quite unpleasant. Its texture might have been okay once, before it slowly soaked up all the sherbet through the day. Ridiculously, the best şekerpare I had in my life was at Hünkar, in Etiler. The texture was impeccable, and so was the taste. Ayva tatlısı also disappointed me the last time I ordered it at Hünkar. It was way below average, while I had the best ever in there a couple of months back. Still, ordering desserts is not much of a risk to run from; instead, mostly leads to a happy ending. Worthy of a try.
Turkish tea lacks consistency at Hünkar. I am very well aware that it’s a tough task to achieve – serving tea of the same taste any time during the day – but for today it was just too ordinary. I’ve clearly had my second best Turkish tea in my life at Hünkar in some of my visits before, but it was not even competing with the best I had at the summer house of my mom’s friend, Miriam. It was an awakening for me back then, but sadly ten years ago.
Overall, Hünkar is the right place to experience traditional Turkish cuisine, exquisitely prepared with high-quality ingredients. You can also find dishes such as marinated prawns, octopus carpaccio, falafel, mücver and a variety of grilled meat and daily seasonal fish, which are just as great.
Mim Kemal Öke Caddesi No:21
Phone: +90 (212) 225 46 65