Datlı Maya: Oven of Wonders
About eight years ago, in a cozy little dining room off of an open kitchen, we first encountered the chef Dilara Erbay, who, in her trademark Turko-English patois, barked orders at us and her kitchen staff, thoroughly charmed our table and, most importantly, created delicious, inspired food. Sticking close to traditional Turkish recipes with a subtle tweak or two, our meal that night felt entirely spontaneous, at a time when dining out in Istanbul was mostly predictable. The restaurant had a name but it was really just Dilara’s place to experiment with whatever she picked up from the market that day. She’d promote the night’s creations by SMS messages filled with exclamation points and made-up words. Its location, on the tacky French Street, was not even enough to deter us from becoming regular customers until its final days.
Dilara then surfaced for a short tenure in the kitchen of Cezayir, a grand space just around the corner from her old place on French Street. Her touch was apparent for a while but it quickly faded with her departure. Then at Abracadabra, the behemoth on the Bosphorus – complete with a merchandise line – that was her next venture, we saw bright, encouraging moments – usually when Dilara was in the kitchen for the night – eclipsed by stormy mismanagement. The entrée side of the menu featured a troubled marriage of Turkish and Thai, but the starters were all classic Dilara material. The fragrance of her cinnamon-laced Armenian rice, in essence stuffed mussels without the shell, stays with us to this day. But the restaurant never seemed fully settled. It’s closing, though certainly a low moment, must have been of some relief to Dilara’s fans and perhaps even to the chef herself.
Most recently, we started getting Facebook messages in that familiar Dilara-speak (eg. “…kurufasuliye, hot n sexy”) sent from a place called Datlı Maya, the itinerant chef’s latest project, housed in an old Cihangir simit bakery that she recently purchased. Decorated in a rustic utilitarian style, without even the embellishment of a wait staff, the center of attention here is the old oven, as it should be. Modified to burn gas a long time ago, Dilara restored the oven to its previous wood-burning glory, scalped a master baker from Antakya and the concept was born: traditional Turkish food prepared with a chef’s attention to detail and cooked by a true usta in the smoky, natural heat of the oven. That means lahmacun (we prefer the one with onion), pide (don’t miss the one with ground beef and pistachio), a daily güveç (i.e. dishes, from stews to white beans, slow-cooked in a clay pot), a spinach and spicy Antakya cheese börek that is in a category all it’s own, and a rotating cast of traditional breads, including the old sesame-studded simit. There are playful drinks on offer like gazoz and little bottles of ayran, but we prefer to belly up for bottomless çay from the hulking samovar in the corner of the dining room.
Most days, Dilara works with Saban usta, who stands with a slight stoop, bringing him right to the height of the over door. For Dilara, the enterprise almost looks like an apprenticeship, with the veteran chef up to her elbows in ground lamb for tepsi kebabı while the usta feeds the oven with a long wooden paddle. Turning away from Abracadabra’s arty fusion cuisine, chauffeured clientele and sweeping views to a business whose only assets are an oven and a delivery scooter might seem like an odd choice for an ambitious chef. But it’s one we applaud and sincerely hope to be indicative of a developing trend, one that sees greater cooperation between the traditional usta and the trained chef.
Within the strict boundaries of what constitutes traditional Turkish food, there is no magic sauce to fall back on. It’s all about technique and the quality of materials, subtleties that Dilara is not skimping on here. Rather than reinventing the baked bean, her kitchen is manipulating every detail to tap vast reserves of flavor that many similar businesses left back in their hometowns when they made their migration to Istanbul. What you get here is delicious village food fresh from the oven, served in Dilara’s way, and once again as spontaneous as when she first fed us eight years ago.
Datlı Maya’s Facebook page probably does the best job of summing up what the restaurant is all about. Beside a photo of a dump truck delivering a pile of wood for the oven, it simply says: “If we have wood, we have fire and if we have fire, we can make lovely food!”
Address: Türkgücü Cad. No: 59/A, Cihangir (behind Firuzağa Mosque)
Open every day, 8am-midnight
(photo by Monique Jaques)
Post Tags: bakery, Beyoğlu, Istanbul Eats, Istanbul restaurants, kebab, pide, specialty foods