Didem’s neighbors brought her flowers when she opened Maya Lokanta in Karaköy a little over a year ago. Nestled inconspicuously in an area quickly on the road to gentrification, Maya is bustling.
This beautiful historical coast of İstanbul, Karaköy, is a joy to discover and rediscover. Its hardware market, the old hans, the many churches and mosques as well as small galleries and restaurants. Its narrow streets are crowded with Saint Benoit school kids, tourists, workers, sailors and expats making their way down from Galata, Cihangir and Gümüşsuyu.
Maya has had many rave reviews both locally and abroad. Among these, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Times, Die Zeit, Time magazine and istanbuleats.com. Its modest chef and owner, Didem Şenol, after obtaining a degree in psychology, took a turn and left for New York to join the French Culinary Institute, then worked at Le Cirque and Eleven Madison Park Restaurants and later wrote about food culture for the Radikal daily.
Şenol’s secret is in the ingredients -- fresh and seasonal. She frequents the Saturday Feriköy organic market and the Sunday Kasımpaşa Kastamonu market and after doing the shopping she meets with her kitchen staff of 12 each day to prepare the menu. Running the place also means doing the tasting, payments and mingling with the guests. However, her favorite place is in the kitchen.
“After entering what may seem a dull and dark kitchen to many, I bring it to life by turning on the oven and setting water to boil; then I quickly transform it into a fragrant, dynamic, bright place full of colorful fruits and vegetables, fish, meat, flour, sugar and herbs and spices,” was how Şenol described going into the kitchen in the morning.
Describing the cuisine at Maya’s, Şenol says it’s Turkish with a twist. Not nouvelle, not fusion, not international, no balsamic vinegar, no salmon, all of the ingredients are Turkish. The winter menu might include quince marmalade with chicken paté, marinated sea bass with grapefruit and coriander seeds, entrecote and capers, hummus with roasted garlic, Octopus linguine or caramelized sea bass and sautéed persimmons. The mücver (zucchini fritters) with a dill sauce were the lightest I’d ever had, the recipe of which was written on a mirror hanging in the restaurant. The sakızlı muhallebi (gum arabic custard) with a sour cherry sauce was a delight. The portions are good, the decor warm and simple, with a touch of humor added by architect Cem Kocacıklıoğlu. With its high ceilings, low lights and a wall filled with walnuts, this restaurant has a great ambiance, and is busy at lunch and dinner, and also on Sundays for brunch. The noisy atmosphere, however, isn’t disturbing.
In keeping with the high quality of Maya’s is Şenol’s cook book, published in 2010 both in English and Turkish, called “Kızınız Defne’yi Oğlumuz İskorpite: Ege Pazarlarından Lezzetlerle Yaratıcı Yemekle” (Aegean Flavors, A culinary celebration of the Aegean region’s Local Markets and Produce). The photos by Orhan Cem Çetin, a Turkish photographer, are a splendid addition to the book, which is so beautiful that you don’t want to bring it into the kitchen. The book is divided into chapters focusing on 11 markets in the Aegean region and Şenol concludes at the end, “After writing this book I loved the coast even more: The markets and the stallholders, the roads, the fields, the air, the colors, the children, even the dogs and cats, all enrich one’s joie de vivre.”
The flavors of Datlı Maya
Nearby, a very different project has sprung up: Datlı Maya. Chef Dilara Erbay and Ahmet Buğdaycı from the very popular Abracadabra Restaurant in Arnavutköy have opened a new venture in Cihangir. To accompany one of the biggest simit wood ovens of İstanbul, Erbay and Buğdaycı have opened a kitchen and added a few tables. Their menu has changed and they use very natural products; the prices are also very reasonable. Their new concept is eat and go, so you won’t find Internet or coffee here. Still, the atmosphere is friendly and your food is actually served to you. There is also water and tea that you can help yourself to. Datlı Maya caters to parties and you can also take out if you want. The eating area itself is in fact an extension of Erbay and Buğdaycı’s kitchen and has a wonderfully colorful and lively atmosphere.
Buğdaycı rightly describes the dishes as “intelligent, delicious and cheap.” They bring traditional dishes to İstanbul from Anatolia and give them a creative touch. They offer smoked bulgur with chestnuts and tepsi kebab, which when I was there was served with persimmon, but there is no guarantee that it will be served the same way again since the restaurant uses fruits and vegetables which are in season. Also on the menu is minced meat börek from Mardin, Octopus stew and a spicy lentil soup, which was probably the best I’ve ever tasted. There are a few kinds of lahmacuns -- Antiochian vegetarian lahmacun, which is made with goat cheese and paprika, one from Antep made with lamb and garlic and one made with veal and pomegranate molasses. They cost between TL 3-3.50 each. There is also a parsley soup and an array of pides (a Turkish pizza), one of which consists of chopped meat, pistachio nuts and seven spices. In Datlı Maya’s gigantic oven you will find stews, pides, puddings, rye bread, corn bread and more.
The restaurant will be serving free-range turkey from Çanakkale for Christmas that can be ordered in advance and comes stuffed with chestnuts and oranges and is served with gravy and vegetables made with “spontaneity and love.” The kitchen boasts a team of 11 and the chef is from Gaziantep. Erbay noted that even though staff members fight sometimes, they make up and enjoy themselves. Datlı Maya’s approach of serving high quality, fresh ingredients sourced from village or farmers markets at low prices seems to work as queues can be seen outside the restaurant on Sunday mornings for brunch and some customers even come twice a day. There is a TL 10 lunch special, a weekend village brunch, costing TL 10-21, and an open buffet, which costs TL 15. The desserts are traditional, sometimes with a twist, and include Sivas katmer, Assyrian Easter pastry and baked pumpkin with buffalo yogurt, all of which are often made using organic Agawa sugar. There are also some unusual soft drinks on offer made from quince, molasses and fragrant grapes. The menu changes each day.