No visit to Istanbul would be complete without participating in the meyhane experience or rakı balık (rakı the anise flavored national drink and balık the Turkish word for fish) as it is so often called. Meyhanes are taverns where both men and women meet to share small plates and robust conversation while rakı flows and music swirls around. The venue can range from a rough and tumble local joint to one that has been open for generations or to the high-end ones characterized by white tablecloths and smartly dressed waiters. The newly opened Lalezar is the later.
They say that eating begins with your eyes and that is certainly true with Lalezar. Formerly Oriental Corner the space within the Hilton Bosphorus hotel has been transformed into an upscale tavern with warm wood paneled walls accented with stained glass doors and a backdrop of photos of old Istanbul. Off of the main dining area is an outdoor terrace with a sweeping view of the Bosphorus where you can see all the way to the Asian side of the city.
Upon arrival you can expect to be immediately seated at your crisp, white clothed table while the waiter hands you a menu to peruse. The menu is in Turkish, but the English speaking waiters will be happy to explain things to you. We started off choosing cold mezes directly from the tray presented to us. For our cold starters we began with a selection of melon and creamy artisan cheese from the 38°30° Farm in southwestern Turkey. Next muhammara a red pepper and walnut spread accompanied by mütebbel which is made of smoky aubergine. Marinated bonito and cured mackerel were also on offer.
As we moved to the hot mezzes we were intrigued to try both the Edirne chili flecked, pan fried sheep liver and the special Hatay style “oruk” which is essentially a fragrant ground beef blend coated in a bulgur dough and deep fried. Both were lovely. As we tasted and conversed the attentive waiter was sure to keep our raki glasses full each time confirming if we wanted a tek or duble (single or double) pour. Turkish music played in the background so as not to overwhelm the conversation but still giving you the feel of a proper meyhane. Keeping a leisurely pace did not seem to be an issue for the staff, we never felt rushed and were able to enjoy the courses as they came.
For our main dish there is the choice of by land or by sea, we of course opted to make it a proper rakı balık and ordered a selection of grilled sea bass, bream and swordfish as well as Mersin jumbo prawns. The fish was all cooked nicely with just the right amount of grilled flavor. Finally we came to the last course of the evening, the desserts. I was born lacking a sweet tooth and had to fully rely on my sweet toothed dining partners for an assessment of the sweets presented to us. They all agreed that the pistachio baklava, Irmik Helvası which is a popular Turkish dessert made of semolina, clotted cream and the candied pumpkin were all quite delectable.
Once the meal was finished we felt like some air was in order so we finished our evening as the Turks do with a steaming glass of çay while taking in the fresh Bosphorus air on the terrace. Over all we had a great evening, great service and enjoyed our experience immensely. We loved the atmosphere and I for one know that I really enjoyed the fact that it was a smoke free environment indoors. So many good meyhane experiences are ruined by the overwhelming cigarette smoke. The location is also great, just walking distance from Taksim square or Nişantaşıi and an easy walk from the M2 metro line getting off at Taksim.
As a bonus the former restaurant was a place to see and be seen by many Turkish celebrities, politicians and journalists. It seems that trend is going to continue. That night the Turkish male among us was quite pleased that we were in the presence of Beşiktaş football great Gordon Milne.