Istanbul Kitchen is the place in Ithaca to get Turkish cuisine. I went this afternoon for lunch, and was delighted by the experience. Walking in the door, I was greeted by owner Unsal Ayar. He was happy to sit me wherever I pleased, and brought me “kahve” – Turkish black tea. I decided on the lunch special, which was lentil soup and a choice of a kebab. The lentil soup was a good way to start the meal – it was light with just enough spice, due to (as Unsal would later tell me) the pepper paste that he gets from a provider who imports it directly from Turkey. This is one of the special things about Istanbul Kitchen – the authenticity.
Unsal developed a love for food at a young age by cooking with his mother, and maintained this passion after moving to the United States at the age of seventeen. He worked in Turkish restaurants in New York City for almost ten years before moving to Ithaca and opening Istanbul Kitchen. About half of the menu consists of traditional dishes following the recipes of his mother, and the rest are recipes he developed on his own according to his specific taste preferences. Unsal has seen many Americanized Turkish restaurants, but is been determined to keep Instanbul Kitchen as traditional as possible.
While waiting for my main dish, the Sebze Kebab, I enjoyed the atmosphere of the restaurant. The space is elegantly decorated, and small but not confined. Traditional Turkish music plays in the background, and lamps brought directly from Turkey light the restaurant. When my kebab came, I was surprised. Instead of vegetables on a stick (my Americanized version?) I was brought a flatbread with toppings. Half of the flatbread consisted of warm eggplant with a sweet tomato sauce, the other half was made up of cold, pickled cabbage, carrots, and beans, and fresh greens, sweet onions and tomatoes. I love a dish that is a hot and cold mix, which was one of the reasons I appreciated the meal. Predominantly, though, it was the combination of tastes that left me feeling satisfied. The dish was a balanced mix of sweet, sour, and spicy. The tastes were full-bodied and fresh. Delicious!
I ended my meal with a chat with Unsal and Turkish coffee. Unsal described how Turkish coffee is different in that it is more aromatic, rich, and strong but not overpowering. And I tasted the difference, for sure. It was like a thicker, more flavorful espresso. Before our conversation ended, I asked if there was anything else Unsal wanted to add. He expressed gratefulness for the consistency and dedication of his staff. There is little turnover, and many of the cooks who previously had no experience cooking Turkish food can now do so “just as well” as him. Unsal is dedicated to sharing Turkish cuisine with others, which I think is wonderful. I look forward to returning.