Dear Istanbul Eats,
I’ve heard and read so much about the historic Pandeli restaurant in Eminönü’s Spice Bazaar, including that it’s nothing more than an overpriced tourist trap. Have you been there recently? Is it worth going to?
Concerned in Cincinnati
Thanks for the great question. Pandeli is indeed a venerable spot and, for a certain generation of visitors to Istanbul, often the first culinary stop made in the city. Which is to say that we haven’t been there in years. In order to answer your question, we asked our resident guest blogger, “Meliz,” to check things out over at Pandeli and come up with strategies for others who plan to visit the restaurant. Her report is below….
Someone mentioned the film Midnight Express to me the other day, and my first (ok, second) thought was hmm, wonder how Pandeli is these days? Let me explain.
When I first arrived in Istanbul, there were two things I used to hear about with some consistency: the film Midnight Express, and the restaurant Pandeli (not due to any connection between the two, mind you). Interestingly, as the years have passed and the city has gussied itself up a bit, one hears about both of these cultural touchstones less and less. I cannot argue that it is a shame that nowadays visitors are thinking more about what events to attend at the Biennial than “Joey, have you ever been… in a Turkish prison?” But I have to say, after a recent visit to Pandeli, after a decade-long hiatus, that the place deserves a little revival of interest.
This is not to say that every single item on the menu is earthshaking. Nor that every item on the menu is priced within the average diner’s budget. But, the menu has not changed in a decade, and the things that I recall as special are still consistently so today. And those things are tasty enough to justify a visit if one happens to be skulking around the Spice Bazaar, especially with out-of-town guests. Because, let’s face it: Eminönü holds quite a treasure-trove of street food but, sometimes, after bumping elbows with its teeming masses, even the most inveterate chowhound might crave a linen tablecloth and a bit of quietude.
At Pandeli, as is the case with so many places in Istanbul/the world, you are paying for the ambiance and view. But only to an extent, and as these things go, I for one would rather pony up for Pandeli’s turquoise tiles and 17th-century domed ceilings than fork over my precious lira for a panoramic city view blocked by grazing socialites. But that’s just me. So how do you ensure that all you pay for the ambiance is the two-lira cover? Let’s get to it.
Be forewarned: the first page of the menu had me breaking a bit of a sweat. At first blush, this appears to be a listing of appetizers priced between 30 and 60 lira each. And it is just that. But the appetizers are not your average meze. And 30-60 lira per portion for things like caviar and smoked bonito is not utterly outrageous. Just sort of outrageous. The list does smack of a funny nostalgia, a sort of executive’s lunch circa 1962, but as Pandeli does not offer martinis or champagne, I would skip it (and insist that no unordered plates of anything stay on the table).
For small plates, Pandeli offers a variety of vegetables cooked either with olive oil or butter – not something you find everywhere. That said, this is not an esnaf lokantası , not really, and while the veggies may be good, they will not be the most beautiful you have ever eaten. Better to go straight for the eggplant salad, a creamy puree of smoky deliciousness. Having said all that, the dönerli patlıcan börek (henceforth DPB), listed as a small plate, is a) a good solid-sized portion, and b) the single best item on the menu. You know how quiche often comes close to perfect, but is held back by an eggy or over-cheesed heaviness? The DPB at Pandeli delivers on the elusive textural promise of quiche. You have a buttery but not lumpy yufka crust at the bottom, on top of which is a baked layer of that amazing eggplant puree, mixed with a subtle amount of kaşar, the hard melty cheese of Turkey. There is enough kaşar so that the top bakes to crispy perfection, but not so much that the eggplant puree loses its fluffiness. This stuff is darn good, but then, then, they heap on a generous but not gratuitous portion of döner slices. The crispy texture and the meaty flavor of the döner bring the perfect counterbalance to the creaminess of the eggplant börek. And at 10 lira for a portion the size of a Dickens novel, DPB also wins the prize for best deal on the menu.
If you are in for a somewhat more substantial meal, there are a few main courses particularly worth noting: the hünkar beğendi (lamb bits over eggplant puree), the kuzu tandır (roasted lamb) and kağıtta levrek (sea bass baked in parchment). None of these are cheap, but they are good. The sea bass dish is the single most famous dish at Pandeli, and it is done in a style one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. But at 38 lira, this is where one starts to pay for the “experience.” For my money, the prices on these main dishes indicate a splurge, but I am not convinced that the dishes themselves warrant that splurge.
Time to hit a sweet note, no?
At Pandeli, you will want to save room for dessert. We went for the sample plate, being the gluttons that we are, and while all the items on the plate were tasty, when I return, I will go straight for the standouts. The kabak tatlısı (stewed pumpkin) is a light, beautifully textured take on a dish I usually find to be a bit too much, like a sugary punch to the solar plexus. Not so at Pandeli, where it has a great texture and a balanced sweetness that allows the pumpkin to flaunt its flavorful self. Pandeli’s sweet specialty is an almond cookie, a bademli kurabiye of the crumbly variety. The spicing is a light touch, and the ground almonds in the cookie are crunchy-licious, great with after-lunch tea or Turkish coffee.
The third standout is the kazandibi, and here I am about to get myself into trouble. Let me just say, reading Istanbul Eats was a big part of how I learned to stop worrying and love the Turkish chicken-breast pudding. Now one might even call me a pudding snob (I’m looking at you, Saray). So before whipping yourselves into a frenzy of clucking rage, take a deep breath and hear me out when I say I really like the kazandibi at Pandeli. I fully acknowledge that it is not chewy. It does not fight the spoon. In fact, it is more of a crème brulee texture, a bit custardy. But it is the real deal, the chicken breast was in there. Proof’s in the pudding, so to speak. And, when I head back to Pandeli, I’ll be calling dibs on the kazandibi.
Pandeli is a lovely space (worth reserving a table in the rooms facing outside onto the square), the service is old-school and nonintrusive, and offers a quiet refuge from the madding crowds below. In the wild and woolly world of “touristed” restaurants in Istanbul, there is much to be said for consistency, and Pandeli seems to have that down pat, judging by my experiences, decades apart. The place does deserve a visit, both for its pleasantly anachronistic vibe, and its time-tested tastes. I will definitely head back soon, most likely dragging a gaggle of guests shell-shocked by the Eminönü backstreets, for a lunch of their dönerli patlıcan börek, followed by a little sweetness with my coffee. No more, no less. The 2 TL cover thus ends up being very little money, very well spent.
The More You Know… Pandeli is a lunch spot, though they get the busiest around 2 p.m. It is worth making a reservation for a table in the front rooms, though not necessary. To reach the restaurant, one must climb a somewhat daunting staircase. Alcohol is served, but expensive, and the selection is not particularly exciting.
Address: Mısır Çarşısı 1 (just inside the main entrance of the Spice Bazaar; door is tucked away on the left)
(Open for lunch daily, except for Sundays, when bazaar is closed as well)
(photo by Yigal Schleifer)