Thursday, 20 March 2014

Istanbul Restaurant, Lytham

Thirty years ago this year I was lucky enough to spend the better part of a month in Turkey, visiting Istanbul, the Aegean coast, the Mediterranean coast (where I saw lots of hotel foundations going in, foreshadowing the  package-holiday-ification of those miles of beautiful, empty beaches), the central Anatolian plateau and the frankly weird Cappadocia.  All beautiful in their own way, and everywhere characterised by an almost overwhelming friendliness.

Apologies for the quality of these photographs from 1984: they are photographs of prints, the original Kodachrome slides having long ago gone astray.
Istanbul in 1984

Fisherman selling his catch, Istanbul, 1984
Particularly phallic geology in Cappadocia
Brush seller, somewhere in Turkey, 1984

It was fabulous, and my first introduction to the shared food culture of the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant. Restaurants in Istanbul and Konya, where the menu consisted of going into the kitchen and looking in various pots and fridges; charcoal-grilled döner kebab from a street stall outside the Grand Bazaar, grilled meats, grilled fish, fried fish from a boat bobbing in the Golden Horn, still the best ever börek, lahmacun from street traders, and the list could go on and on.

Sadly, in the north west, there are few opportunities, beyond the many dodgy kebab shops, for this genre of cooking.  The excellent Lebanese evening with Chateau Musar at the Parkers Arms was a noble exception, and I wish we could persuade Stosie Madi, chef-patron of the Parkers Arms to allow this part of her heritage to show through more on her menus.

When I heard that a Turkish restaurant had opened in Lytham, in the building formerly occupied by the much missed Hastings, I realised that it couldn't be a dodgy kebab operation, given the size of the building, and a quick google found the website for Istanbul Lytham, which, despite a certain charming amateurishness, suggested there was some ambition here.

Istanbul Lytham has had the benefit of moving straight into an already fully-equipped restaurant, and have done really very little indeed to the old Hastings, even down to some of the photographs on the walls remaining.  There has been a light refurb, recovering some seating with Turkish fabrics, and adding a shisha pipe, but that's about it.  Certainly at lunchtime when I've been, what used to be the bar area is used for dining, with the large split level dining areas to the rear remaining unused.  Certainly on the numbers that have been eating there when I've been for lunch, it's difficult to understand how they can support such a large property.  I hope they do, as it's something fresh, different and really pretty good, and a welcome addition to Lancashire's Fylde Coast.

The menu has a reasonably extensive selection of meze, apparently all made in-house apart from the stuffed vine leaves (yaprak dolma).  A nifty bit of up-selling from the waiter pointing out the six meze for £18 offer was too much for a pair of old bargain hunters to resist.  I enjoyed these much more than what I'm about to write seems to make out.  They're not going to win any best meze competitions, but that's also what I remember about meals in Turkey 30 years ago: it's all pretty good and seems better at the time, but is ultimately fairly simple and falls below the standard of what we're led to believe was the greatness of Ottoman cuisine.
Falafel (foreground), Mantar Dolma, Humus Kavurma, bread, Muska Börek (background left to right)
The falafel weren't the best I've had, and were oddly dark., but they also weren't the worst.  Curiously, the dark colour didn't seem to reflect them having been overcooked.  Mantar Dolma were mushrooms stuffed with a lightly garlic-flavoured chicken mousse then breaded and deep-fried.  For me the breading and deep frying didn't add much worthwhile.
Humus Kavurma was splendid: a good humus topped with a lamb casserole.  The börek were the best of this little selection: cheese, pine kernels and herbs in a light pastry.
Also very good was the sucuk, a spicy Turkish sausage (below): noticeably different to any of the readily available chorizo sausages at least, and with a nice, gentle, well-balanced spicing.
I also find the bread very good.  It's a sort of leaven seeded not flat flatbread.
Chicken börek
Oddly, the chicken börek was quite different to the cheese börek, and seemed much more spring roll like. Good filling, but I'd have preferred a slightly lighter pastry.

This next dish was supposed to patlican salata (aubergine salad), which I expected to be more like baba ghanoush than the cold imam bayildi it appeared to be.  Given that there is another meze dish which is cold imam bayildi, I wonder whether this was the waiter's error.  Once I'd got over the disappointment, it was rather good.
Patlican salata (or is it imam bayildi?)
Some simple calamari were really excellent: light and crunchy on the outside, and beautifully tender squid.

Moving on to main courses, the grills were the star for me, but I think it's such a shame that they don't grill over real charcoal.
Adana kofte
The Adana kofte was terrific: nicely cooked and very pleasantly spiced.  The rice with vermicelli, is worth a mention too.

Iskender mixed grill
The Iskender mixed grill (lamb fillet, chicken thigh and lamb kofte) was also very good, the chicken thigh particularly so having clearly been well marinaded before grilling.  It was served with
yoghurt, tomato sauce and minted brown butter, which I believe is where the name Iskender comes from.

Having had what seemed to be cold Imam Bayildi as one of the meze, the larger main course Imam Bayildi made us regret the duplication, though not when it came to eating it.  The main course version is served hot, with more of that rather good rice.  There's really nothing you can do to make it look pretty on the plate though.
Imam Bayildi
The menus skip over the notion of dessert, which is odd as they produced some rather good baklava. The waiter said they make it themselves, which struck me as a bit strange, given the effort involved and the fact they don't really sell it.  But it was noticeably fresher tasting, and a little less sweet than most of what I've found commercially available in the north west.
Turkish coffee is available, and pretty good, but again they somewhat curiously don't make any song and dance about it.  When we returned for a second visit, they had even run out of Raki.  The wine list is a little peremptory and unfortunately only has four Turkish wines - two whites, two reds.  They could do better than that, I think.  Though I guess more Turkish wines would need selling.  Service is friendly and welcoming, but tends to the "excellent choice" or "that's my favourite" response to everything you order.

Reading through what I've written about Istanbul Restaurant in Lytham, it sounds like I've a bit of a downer on it.  It's not perfect, but I've enjoyed my two visits so far very much, it's something a bit different on the Fylde coast, and am sure I'll be going back soon.

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