A fine evening of meze magic at an authentic and cute Istanbul meyhane
It seems that it takes at least two years to really feel like one is getting to know Istanbul. In regards to the culinary scene, another Istanbul ‘gem’ was found and experienced a few weeks ago. Although I would like to take credit for this find, thanks must go to Jackie and Aisha for sharing Meze by Lemon Tree with us, a small intimate group of quality diners.
Situated in one of the most beautiful streets in the city, surrounded by the architecture of years gone by, this authentic Istanbul meyhane sits across from the historic Pera Palace Hotel. With brightly coloured sections of glass adorning the façade, you can’t miss it, cute and inviting. This ‘petit resto’ oozes with warmth and its owner Gençay Üçok, is obviously proud of his establishment.
Turgay, our waiter for the evening was attentive and endured our many questions such as “How many mezes should we order for a group of twelve?” and “What is this dish called and what ingredients are in it?” Taking responsibility for the group, by choosing from the selection of cold mezes, was a task I immediately jumped at (together with two others from our group.) As Turgay took us up to the display case and explained each dish in English and Turkish, I was wondering how I was going to remember all the ingredients and names of each meze.
In general, the selection was varied and very different than what one finds on offer at most Turkish establishments. With six choices confirmed, it was back to the table for the wine selections. The ‘carte de vin’ (wine list) had a surprising array of choices, all of which were unknown to me. Jackie and Aisha had negotiated a 30TL wine deal, however, I was concerned about which winery this deal would represent. Turgay informed us that the beyaz şarap (white) was from Anatolia, a Semillon from the boutique Melen winery from the small beach town of Hoskoy on the coastline of the Sea of Mamara. This varietal is a ‘fav’ of mine and I was pacified for now and reserved my judgement for the first taste. The kırımızı (red) was also from the Melen vignoble (winery.) The Semillon had a light aroma that transformed into a palate with a hint of fruit and a dry finish, yet there was a good balance of acidity. It didn’t ‘rock my world’ but it didn’t induce a contorted facial expression of displeasure either, as many Turkish wines have in the past.
As I started to relax, the food and wine choices completed, I began to catch up on the details of each meze as each arrived at the table, of course with the help of my ‘trusty’ waiter.
Like a rich hot summer sunset, the deep orange Muhammara dip was calling me to start here. This mélange of tomato, paprika, walnuts, spices and breadcrumbs was a flavoursome blend atop a piece of fresh bread. The slight crunch of the walnuts and the freshness of the tomatoes balanced nicely with the spices. The Tahinlı to follow was creamy, with the tahini in the forefront of this red pepper and Gruyere combination. Again the crunchy walnuts helped balance the richness of the cheese however the tahini did take over a little with each additional mouthful.
The Blood Dragon Sedum or more directly translated from Turkish as the Rock Sendum, is a green plant grown widely around the whole Mediterranean between the rocks near the sea. On the plate, it was accompanied by more red peppers in its delicacy form. I felt like I could hear the ocean since the taste was sea salt in flavour. The texture was a little too plant-like for me, and the taste quite unusual. Everyone’s friend the Ezme, was excellent. All the ingredients were meticulously cut to even sizes and the result was a balanced blend of ‘yummyness’ to even rival Memets in Ortaköy.
The two mezes I have left until last were my favourites. I think it was a tough competition. The Şaman Bayıldı, was the first dish I had laid eyes on in the display cabinet. But these were not just ordinary stuffed peppers. They were morsels with a centre of feta and pistachios, two of my favourite ingredients on the culinary shelf.
This creamy, crunchy, slightly salty mix hit the spot in both flavour and quality. I later found out from Gençay, the owner, that this name means ‘The Pagan loved it’, referring to a novel called Ben Şaman (Me the Pagan) written by Murat Hicyilmaz who is one of the business partners at Meze. Gençay also said, “The name is also allegorising with the classical Turkish aubergine dolma called ‘Imam Bayıldı (the Imam fainted!)”
The last meze to arrive was perhaps the most complex in taste. When celery and wine are added to any meat or seafood, one is in for marinated magic! This fish meze (11TL, the name forgotten in the magic of the moment) had a slight smokiness that made for an excellent and deeply satisfying taste explosion. In all the excitement I also forgot to ask the variety of the fish…sorry!
With smiles a plenty and conversations moving from the mezes to the choice between mains (25-36TL) or warm mezes (15-25TL), everyone was obviously impressed with the cuisine perfected by the chefs Gençay and Gülabli at the Lemon Tree. The group divided, six of us opted to continue with the meze theme, as our glasses were refilled with the Melen wines.
After little pause for reflection on my decision not to order the Swordfish Casserole (30TL), the first warm meze appeared. The addition of pan-fried cured beef to the chickpea hummus was a welcomed surprise. Although the hummus dominated the palate the beef added a smoky, chewy something to the dish. The calamari was tender, with no hint of chewiness and was covered in a light batter not unlike beer batter. The tartare sauce was très agréable; I was later to learn there was a purée of walnuts added! What else could you wish for with calamari than this?
As a breathed a sigh of apprehension, I jumped into the Casserole of Shrimps (18TL.)‘Thank god’, no flowery shrimps…a fresh combination of ginger and paprika purée, a lovely mixture. The Pan Roasted Beef Slices followed and although they were not as tender as I would have hoped, it made up for this with the creamy ‘tomatoe-y’ freshness of the accompanying sauce. My food sensors were taken back to another time…I just couldn’t pinpoint when or where!
The end was near and the final sample was worth the wait. Baked Pastry Stuffed with Aubergine (25TL) topped with cheese and tomato puree (like passata, the Italian style tomato concentrate.) Obviously the aubergine had come from the grill as the smoky taste complimented each mouthful. A slight picante pepper hit me at the end… was I wrong to be thinking thoughts of gourmet pizza?
I can’t believe I still found room to sample the deserts on offer, but I did have to share with my friend next to me! The mixed dessert plate of Glazed pumpkins, Figs and Tangerines topped with Tahini and served with ‘Maras’ ice cream (15TL) was delightful. But when I sneaked a taste of the Bananas topped with honey, almonds, walnuts and fresh cream (14TL), the nutty crunch with the creamy sweet cream and honey and was not overpowered by the banana. A perfect end to a perfect dining experience!
Wow! What a fine evening of meze magic! I can’t leave without mentioning the cute dining room lights and believe it or not the bathroom décor downstairs via the spiral staircase. Beautiful pictures adorned each cubicle and I wished I had taken my camera (I know this sounds weird!) After my experiences in the South of France I was almost convinced to write a Toilet Coffee Table Book of Europe, experiencing several surprise decorations. I am always impressed when a restaurant or bar’s eye for detail doesn’t stop upstairs in the main dining room.
Do take a trip to Meze by Lemon Tree you won’t be disappointed with the service, the atmosphere, the imaginative variety of mezes or the quality for the price. Reservations absolutely necessary. Until next time….
Amatrice de bons crus et cuisine.