Friday night frolicking began with a walk down memory lane. (Literally way down a huge decline and through a dark laneway.) A pre-dinner night time stroll through Ulus Park, where you can breathe in perhaps the best view in Istanbul at night (too amazing to capture on film), reminiscing and working up an appetite were the goals en route to the evening’s foodie destination, a long awaited visit to TOI Restaurant & Lounge (opened in 2015.)
A Reminiscing Walk of Old to a Restaurant of New
I used to walk this route regularly during my first three years in Istanbul. The area has taken on many changes. There is a new playground for kids in the park and improved paving as you wind down the hill. Opposite the cemetery, park benches have been erected to sit on while resting your weary legs. The footpath is now extended with extra railings to hold onto. This steep decline all the way down to Kuruçeşme has markedly improved in both safety and appearance. My legs quickly remembered the toll the hill takes on your lower limbs and joints but I soldiered on!
With the proverbial carrot, (a birthday foodie invitation from Dutch friend Marc Guillet of enjoyistanbul.com) dangling in front of my face and heeled feet, I descended the cobbled walkways carefully through the winding backstreets. The impending meeting with Toi Head Chef Izmet Saz added to the birthday excitement of joining friends, including Dutch Chef Rudolf Van Nunen.
So, TOI…is it French?
As I looked skyward on the main street of Kuruçeşme trying to spot the resto situated in one of the top floor establishments, helpful locals were confused as I asked with my best French accent “Toi Restaurant?”…and simple Turkish, “Nerede, lütfen?” Although totally used to being misunderstood due to my Aussie accent and not perfect but reasonable Turkish pronunciation, I wondered why everyone was saying the more phonetic ‘To-ee’ when I was sure it must be a play on the French word. I pondered that thought as I ascending the stairs into the restaurant.
With understated restrained décor, low hanging lamps and a touch of turquoise accented by the velvet armchair type chairs, I found the birthday boy and took my seat at the table opposite the curved booth-like couch seats. The first story of the evening demystified the earlier confusion that Toi did not stand for ‘You’ en français, but in fact stood for T- Trust, O- of, I- Izmet –Trust of Izemet, the restaurant owner and head chef Izmet Saz’s creation. With that all sorted we perused the menu and wine list to see what the evening had in store gastronomically.
Meeting the Chef
Upon meeting the talented Chef Izmet, we decided to leave the foodie choices in his capable hands and allow him to select from the Tasting Menu for us. I scanned the new wine list, released that very evening for us to take the first look, settling for a favourite drop of mine, the Anaxagoras Chardonnay from Yedi Bilgeler winery. Only familiar with the 2016 and 2017 vintages, it was a good bet that the 2018 Vintage would not disappoint. With a very floral bouquet, it was fresh and interesting without oak, despite being a little young. It matched perfectly with the second tasting plate, but more of that all in good time.
The chef presented an amuse-bouche of dried white cabbage skin with goat’s cheese and dehydrated egg yolk. It ticked off the creamy, cheesy, crunchy boxes and woke up the palate for the treats to come.
Appetisers- Fresh from the Sea
A plate of fresh oysters appeared next with three choices of condiments, pickled onions in red wine vinegar, fresh lime wedges and Tabasco. Of course because of the fusion foodie I am, a dash of each had to be added, the oyster was washed down with the wave of complementary flavours- freshness, funkiness and fire!
Tasting plate number two was visually stunning with citrus colours and fresh aromas- Ceviche Sea Bass marinated in grapefruit, orange and lemon juice, served sitting over an ice bowl with pear cubes, red onions, radish, sprouts and a sweet and sour sauce drizzled over it, that included pekmez. This quality dish was the highlight of the night for Foodie Frolics. It was fresh with a radish crunch and a spicy finish, well balanced in it’s own right and then perfectly paired with the Yedi Bilgeler Chardonnay, leaving the mouth with a mélange of smooth yet spicy notes.
To prepare la bouche for the next plate, the wholemeal sourdough and freshly cooked mini brioche with truffle butter were welcome friends on the side plate. After Foodie Frolics previous two weeks refining octopus/squid preparation skills, it was great to sit back and have my sea creature handed to me on a plate with Viennese potatoes, onion confit in red wine vinegar and a handful of fresh purslane. Chimichurri sauce (Argentina/Uruguay origin) coated the unbelievably tender octopus tentacles adding a herbal touch with mild spice. The creamy potatoes were not too rich due to the added yoghurt and the greens a fresh burst in the mouth. A very ‘happy camper’ so far!
A Touch of Duck
Hearing that prosciutto was on the way to the table was music to my ears. To my delight it was actually duck prosciutto that adorned the plate with my other veggie favourite, beetroot, presented two-ways. Visually attractive with vibrant colours, my eyes were sucked into the possibilities of this dish. But alas, there weren’t enough complimentary flavours to counterbalance all that beetroot. The purée was too sweet and the small cube of Canrûba cheese (from Izmir) didn’t have any impact on the palate/dish. I love beetroot but this plate was somewhat unbalanced and needed some refinement.
Turkish Traditional Fare with a Mexican Flare
With that behind us, the next morsel to arrive was a Turkish traditional ingredient found on the streets of Turkey, Kokoreç but with a slight modern take, atop a soft taco tortilla. Not being a fan of sheep’s intestines didn’t stop me from sampling this plate. My previous Kokoreç experiences have been chewy and unpleasant but this one was not, the offal having been sous-vide (in a water bath.) The aioli and Urfa red pepper on the side added to the dish. However, the addition of the sweet breads made it all a bit rich and fatty for me.
A Trip To Italy
Next was a quick trip to Italy for us. Chef Izmet came out with a pan full of piping hot Risotto. Also consisting of black truffles, shallots, fresh vegetable stock, butter of course, and Tulum cheese. The Carnaroli rice was cooked to perfection. Despite the cheese already in the dish, I asked for a shave of Parmesan to distract my taste buds from the slightly heavy-handed truffle addition. Again, the leftover lime wedges on the table helped this foodie cut through the richness. An enjoyable dish that could have been great with a few extra tweaks!
The NEW Wine list
Time for a new wine choice from the list of many reds! The new ten plus page ‘carte des vins’ consists predominantly of wines from Turkey, Italy and France, with representations from New Zealand, Argentina, Germany and Spain. With my only interest in the wines of Turkey, thanks goes to Seçil for introducing me to Chamlija’s Pinot Noir special edition, with an additional wine story behind its creation. Dubbed the ‘Happy Mistake’ (Felix Culpa 2014), we can thank Mustafa Çamlica for his early harvest decision. It was indeed some ‘happiness’ in the mouth. A lovely drop with a fresh and fragrant nose, not too much fruit-forward flavour and a medium satisfying finish. A pairing that wouldn’t overpower the meat dishes to come!
Slow Cooked Oxtail
As Foodie Frolics strapped on her second stomach, out came the 18-hour Oxtail confit with buckwheat and hollandaise sauce. The beef fell apart with the wave of a fork, and the flavour was delicious…but, the strange edition of the hollandaise sauce confused the dish. A red wine jus was a missed opportunity to make this dish shine…Where’s the sauce? I heard all of France (and Masterchef Australia’s three judges) shouting!
An Instagram Favourite
As Chef Izmet visited our table to touch base with everything, the answer “YES” was immediately blurted out when he asked, “Would you like another dish?” (Our brains forgetting to consult our ever-bulging bellies.) However, I’m so glad we piped up because the last dish was worth squeezing in. I had ogled this dish on Instagram posts and always kept it in mind to order on my first trip to TOI. Drum roll please……out came the Beef Wellington, woohoo!
The fillet of beef was to die for in tenderness, juiciness and flavour, the pastry enclosing it light. It’s rare to find a rare piece of meat at a Turkish table (pardon the pun.) So I revelled in that mouthful of tender, soft flavoursome, pink beef. Unfortunately I was a bit truffled out and the sauce had an overwhelming aroma and taste of truffles. The spinach purée was an added vegetable element and colour on the plate, the potato quenelle pretty but a touch salty. Also I left aside the small portion of steak because it was chewy. However, this wasn’t an issue to dwell on because nothing could compare to the beautiful parcel of beef wellington anyway.
Another Qualtiy Drop of Red
With a well-needed bottle of red to pair with the beef, we left it up to Chef Rudolf to choose- the selection, a bottle of 2017 Likya Malbec. This was an agreeable wine for its young age, with enough body and interest to compliment the beef with a medium finish, acidity and tannins associated with the Malbec varietal. Not being a Malbec expert, (only familiar with the varietal as part of the Bordeaux blend) I had to rely on the experienced chef at the table. But I have to say it was a lovely medium-bodied wine that will only improve with a couple of years of cellaring. The pairing with the beef wellington was perfect!
Cake and Bubbles
With birthday cake to follow and a flute of Pergolo Prosecco Doc Treviso La Pieve, the night was done. A wonderful celebration of Marc’s last birthday in Istanbul- a fine food and wine experience. Thanks to Chef Izmet and everyone on the Toi team for a night to remember. The service was nothing short of perfect, the presentation of the dishes excellent, the wine list varied with an abundance of good quality Turkish wines and the atmosphere warm and cosy. Just one request…please consider taking down or opening the Venetian blinds fully at night so we can clearly see the Bosphorus view!
Final thoughts….Value for Money?
If it’s a quality dining experience you are after, then YES, book yourself and your foodie friends into Toi. It’s not easy to find an all-round satisfying and sophisticated culinary experience in Istanbul. Toi ticks off all the boxes; quality, interesting food, excellent Turkish wine (despite the cost), fabulous service, ambiance and a view.
Dining out has become even more expensive since the decline in value of the Turkish lira. The increasing taxes on alcohol are also a huge factor causing the current price of wine to be astronomical!
What will the evening set you back?
Wine per bottle: from TL210 – use your imagination!
Wine by the glass: (previous wine menu) TL35 – TL70
Appetisers: TL34 – TL95
Mains: TL61 – TL210
Chef Tasting Menu: TL325 per person
The Toi experience is well worth saving your pennies for. Don’t expect to come home with anything but a large dent in your credit card or hole in your pocket. But your belly and soul will be as happy as Larry!
Text and photos by Sally McDonald
Australian ‘foodie’ and food critic. She is the face and owner of Foodie Frolics.
More about her and her culinary business in Istanbul on her site: