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Semolina: Convivial in Kadıköy

(Editor’s Note: This guest post was written by Jeff Gibbs, a denizen of Istanbul’s Asian side and author of the very engaging blog “Istanbul and Beyond [2].”)

On a dark and deserted street in January covered in swirls and swirls of snow, a bright pool of light shines from a ground-level window. You open the door and are wrapped the scents of hot espresso and fresh basil, of parmesan cheese and spicy puttanesca sauce bubbling in a pan. A woman calls a hearty “Welcome!” and you pass into the friendliest Italian bistro this side of Sicily.

Semolina is an enticing new addition to the culinary landscape in the Asian side’s Kadıköy neighborhood, which is working hard to pull in Istanbul’s eaters. Within the last year, the area has witnessed the opening of a Cuban restaurant, a German sausage shop, an Iranian café [3] and a Lebanese fast food joint. (Sadly, the Lebanese place folded in months – nobody but foreigners came to feast on the wonderful falafels and babaganoush, and so now it’s been transformed into a lackluster ciğer venue on a street already swarming with them. The sausage shop, unfortunately, is also no longer in operation.)

The restaurant sets things off with a basket of bread served with a side sauce of basil, olives and olive oil. The basil leaves are freshly crushed and full of flavor – bought just that afternoon from Kadıköy’s nearby market. It is brought as soon as we sit down by our charismatic waiter, Fevzi, the co-owner and husband of chef Hülya.

“Our pastas are all handmade,” he explains, “by two Italian brothers who own a small company here in Istanbul.” And while the entrées are limited to pastas, these are not the guesses of some clueless someone hoping to make bank off of Italian cuisine’s popularity, but the real deal. The fettuccine is flat and thick, cooked al dente, and the carbonara sauce made with egg yolk and fresh, grated parmesan cheese. Chef Hülya knows what’s what. I order the fettuccine alla puttanesca. Hülya uses real anchovies in the sauce, with capers and red peppers to give it a little kick. “Tonight I went with cherry tomatoes,” she explains. “Regular tomato season is long gone, and the cherries pack a lot more flavor.” Hülya’s food is thoughtful – the same consideration goes into every dish she makes. For breakfast, for instance, they offer pancakes and she insists that the syrup be pure maple, brought direct from Canada. And I must gush about the mushrooms in the mushroom and chicken fettuccine – these fungi did not slide oozily out of a can. They were crisp and meaty, and like the basil, fresh from the market.

“My wife puts love into this place,” Fevzi says. “For years she worked at a bank – and hated it. So we made a decision. We pooled all the money we got at our wedding and put her through the Academy of Culinary Arts – she had always been a good cook. After she graduated, it was difficult to find a job so we decided to open our own place specializing in Mediterranean cuisine, her favorite.” (In addition to Italian, Semolina sports a few French and Greek dishes as well.)

Hülya’s enthusiasm is palpable in all the little details that make dining here such a pleasure. This place is well crafted, from the little dishes of grated Romano that come with every meal to the fresh ground pepper from the pepper mills, from the soft sofa and chairs perfect for an after-dinner espresso, to the warm wine-red of the walls.

We top off dinner with a chocolate soufflé – again, the genuine article. Crowned with a crisp crust, the inside is light and warm and gooey – the ideal antidote to Istanbul’s coldest winter in 30 years.

Don’t think I haven’t noticed the preponderance of words like “fresh,” “genuine,” and “real” I’ve used in this article – and I know what you’re thinking. Imports! Expensive! Yikes! Yet despite the glut of authenticity, there is none of the usual Istanbul price-gouging for foreign fare. Pastas range from 12 to 17 lira with most things hovering around 14, and the portions are generous.

With wonderful salads, bruschetta and mezes, Semolina’s single culinary lack is alcohol, specifically wine – they don’t yet have a license and it may prove difficult to get under the increasingly draconian laws. The location is also a bit of a disadvantage. The street is rather quiet, although it also hosts the excellent Rengahenk [4], so it may have a bright future if both these restaurants can stick it out. As it stands, follow Kadıköy’s famed Bar Street to the end, cross the road past the bakery and then turn right at the tattoo parlor. Or else come up Moda Caddesi and hang a left past Tek Büfe.

Buon Appetito!

Address: Ressam Şeref Akdik Sokak 7/A, Caferağa Mahellesi, Moda, Kadıköy
Telephone: 216-330-8606
Web: www.semolinamakarna.com [5]

(photo by Jeff Gibbs)

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