Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bar Ferdinand

Ever have a restaurant in your neighborhood that is so consistently good that you get bored with it? I know that sounds silly but it doesn't mean it can't happen. I love Honey Nut Cheerios. It's my favorite breakfast cereal and they are consistently delicious - no variations in 32 years now. But I just can't eat them every day.  I need to mix it up with Frosted Mini Wheats, Tony the Tiger or some Fruity Pebbles now and then to keep my sanity.

Such is the case with Bar Ferdinand for me. It's been one of the anchors of Northern Liberties and certainly THE anchor of liberties walk for 6 years now. They've stuck with a very solid menu of Spanish tapas, meats, cheeses and small plates that has won them a consistent following and excellent reviews for more than half a decade. They were doing tapas before Garces made it cool, and helped to legitimize the neighborhood. Question is, how many times can I eat bacon & date empanadas or a cerdo frito sandwich before I become desensitized?

I'm the type of person that constantly craves the new flavor, a twist on an old classic, a cuisine I've never experienced before. I had subconsciously held off on doing our monthly Supper Club at Bar Ferd for a lot of the aforementioned reasons. I'd been there done that. What have you cooked for me lately?

Enter Chef David Ansill of Pif, Ansill and Ladder 15 (wtf?) fame.  I'd been eating at his various restaurants for years now, and was very excited to see him take over the helm and put his touch on the kitchen. While not a complete reinvention, the updated menu has several new dishes and some updated takes on my favorites. Our experience for Supper Club was nothing short of extraordinary. For a $40 tasting menu we got to try 12 different dishes, including a substantial main and two desserts. The wine was flowing freely (although not cheaply) and by the end of the night you could have rolled me down liberties walk.

Some highlights: 

shishito peppers
Blistered shishito peppers cleverly served on a piece of Cuban newsprint.  The peppers are delicious, reminiscent of the ones we raved about on our trip to Spain last year. Every third of fourth pepper is a surprise of heat that smacks you in the mouth. Kind of like Russian roulette with peppers. An excellent new addition to the menu and indicative of the thoughtfulness in the kitchen.

manchego frito
Manchego frito, apple foam and quince puree. The foam is actually frozen, creating a crazy mouth sensation of the cold and the hot fried cheese. Not one of my favorite dishes of the night but an interesting take on an old standby here. 

marinated olives
House marinated olives are as good as ever, especially those little purple ones.  I could nibble on these all day. 

broccoli & kale soup
Kale and potato soup with chives and bacon. This was one of the best things we had, and I didn't even know they served soup! A creamy mixture of kale, potato and cream, with some chopped chives and bits of crunchy, delicious bacon floating on top. This might be the perfect winter soup. It even looks deceptively healthy. 

almond crusted eggplant
Almond crusted eggplant with spiced honey was hit or miss with our eleven diners. Some people loved it, yours truly included, and others thought it was a but bland or just odd. The slivered almonds form this great crust on the outside. When you bite in you get that outer crunch and the inner softness of the roasted and fried eggplant. It's not a particularly strong flavor, but that's where the spiced honey comes in - giving the dish a sweet and spicy component that really rounds it out and brings some complexity. 

date & bacon empanada
Remember those date and bacon empanadas that I was talking about? They've always been a favorite - we literally get them every time we're there. Chef Ansill has changed the dough to more of a filo type that is flaky and light where the former version was fried and substantial. It's a subtle change, but it's like an entirely new empanada. I'll keep coming back for these ones, too. 

patatas bravas w/ shishito peppers
My wife's favorite - patatas bravas are just as good as ever but now with the addition of those  shishito peppers on top. They are served with two sauces, per the Spanish style, a spicy romesco and creamy aioli.  Lovely, crisp olive oil fried potatoes just made for dipping.  Delicious. 

endive "salad"
Our "salad" consisted of endive leaves drizzeld with a jamon vinaigrette (you read that right) over a base of Cabrales crema. Cabrales is a Spanish blue cheese that pairs really well with the bitter endive.  Mix in the salty jamon bits in the sweet vinaigrette and you've invited to a party in flavor town. 

roasted mushroom coca
Just about everyone's favorite  of the night was the roasted mushroom "coca" (basically a flatbread) with truffles and goat cheese. Truffles, like bacon, make everything better - why not add them to a flatbread with two of my favorite ingredients? It's like Ansill is in my head. The dough is crusty and just a bit chewy, like some of the best pizza shops in town. The perfect bed for this orgy of flavor that is about to descend upon your mouth. It is earthy and luscious, creamy and robust - like the best glass of wine you've ever tasted. This is near on perfection. 

roasted chicken with chorizo and catalan spinach
For my main I chose the roasted chicken thigh with catalan spinach and chorizo. The chicken is succulent and fall-off-the-bone tender. You don't even need a knife. Huge chunks of the rich dark meat offer themselves up and leave your fingers glistening like they were sneezed on by a unicorn. Crunchy bits of that spicy chorizo and delicate spinach round out this perfectly opulent piece of chicken. 

churros con chocolate
Dessert was an exercise in fortitude. By this point we had already had 10 tastings and an entrée. This was going to take serious motivation. Platters of flan with fresh fruit and churros con chocolate did the trick, and were pretty much obliterated in 5 minuntes. The flan was surprisingly very good - I'm not usually a flan person but this was almost impossible light and airy, without any of that thick syrup that you usually find it floating in. The churros were the star though - crispy fried lengths of dough and dipped in melted chocolate that would make Augustus Gloop want to dive right in.

Chef Ansill is the shake up that Bar Ferdinand desperately needed to stay relevant in our ever evolving dining scene. Staying true to the Spanish authenticity, but varying enough to keep me surprised and excited with every course. I feel like I've found a toy in my Cheerios. What a lovely surprise.

Food Baby Rating: Triplets!

Bar Ferdinand
1030 N. 2nd Street
Philadelphia, PA 19123
(At the eastern end of Liberties Walk)

Friday, December 7, 2012

New York, NY

Now that I've learned how to "check in" on Facebook, you might have noticed that we spent the weekend in NY enjoying the holiday lights, seeing a show and eating lots of great food. Kind of hard not to eat well in NY, as long as you avoid any restaurant within 10 blocks of Times Square. We stayed with my brother-in-law on the upper east side (66th & 3rd) which has a ton of good local spots and easy access to the subway to explore the rest of the city.  I apologize for the lack of pictures. I wasn't thinking of blogging until the bus ride home and I started recapping all the great places we went.

Boltbus ride from Philly and a late dinner Friday night at The Smith in Midtown. A huge space by Manhattan standards, well lit and stylish. A good restaurant with a decent bar, and not the other way around; they do mostly steaks, chops and seafood. We had some great shishito peppers that were a flashback to Spain. Nicely blistered and just a little sweet. Mac & Cheese was great - crunchy little crust on top and served in it's own little skillet with a good béchamel as the cheesy base. My chicken pot pie was enough to feed 3. Needed some salt to amp up the flavor a bit, but the pastry top was flaky and buttery. So good on a cold windy night.

Brunch with some cousins the next morning at Extra Virgin, down in the Village. Almost no wait on a Saturday at noon (apparently unheard of in NY) and wonderful food. The truffled mushroom turkey burger was probably the best I've ever had. They serve it with a little side of porcini aioli that really brings out a depth of flavor and lusciousness in the burger. My only complaint about the place would be the $10 bloody mary's. They served them in tom collins glasses (should always be in a pint glass). The mix was watery and not spicy in the least. Basically tomato juice & vodka. Made me miss the good ones at N. 3rd & Standard Tap. Worth coming here just for the food though.

Craft beers for $5 in Manhattan?  Impossible you say?  Well you would be completely wrong. The Pony Bar serves only crafts on draught and has a live updating screen of what beers are being poured and what's up next. Basically the NY version of Kraftwork. The menu didn't look like anything special so we just stuck to the beers.  For $5 a beer though, I might never drink anywhere else here again.

I've always wanted to have that NY pizza moment. That slice that explains what all the fuss is about. The reason that foodie tours come here. Well, I finally had my moment. John's Pizzeria on 64th street was incredible. Kind of a no frills place with some booths and a decent list of beers you can get by the pitcher. The pizza that they pull out of their ancient ovens is just about the best I've ever had. They serve only whole pies - no slices,  it's definitely a sit down experience. There's lots of good pies in Philly (Stella, Tacconelli's, Zavino) but this seemed to be on a whole different plane of existence. The chewy crust with just a few blisters. The deeply flavored sauce. Pepperoni that does a little dance on your tongue. Mozzarella that tastes like it was stretched just minutes before going on. I ate my slices. Did my little happy wiggle in the booth. And tried to savor that moment.  Mmmm.  I get it now.

Can't come here and not get bagels right?  Sunday brunch/hangover helper with some more cousins at Ess-A-Bagel on 51st & 3rd. This place looks like they opened up in the 70's and never touched a thing since (the website confirms my suspicion). The bagels are pretty stellar though. The line is generally stretched along the counter and back to the door. They do not pride themselves on efficiency. Getting two bagel sandwiches made took about 10 minutes, plus another five to pay for them. The food is worth the wait though and nothing rights the ship like carbalicous bagels. I've told my wife before that good bagels are one of the best things she's brought into my life. Up until I met her I only knew frozen Lenders and Dunkin Donuts. For shame. What I've been missing out on.

It's great having family to stay with in Manhattan. Hotels are insanely expensive and having someone there that knows the good places is clutch. A quick 2 hour bus ride and we can play food tourist for a weekend - one of my favorite activities. Still need to get a Papaya Dog on one of these trips and maybe a trip to Brooklyn next time to check out the scene there. So much food and so little time to eat. 

-Food Baby

The Smith - Midtown
956 Second Avenue, New York, NY
(212) 644-2700

Extra Virgin - Greenwich Village
259 W 4th St, New York, NY
(212) 691-9359

Pony Bar - Upper East Side
1444 1st Avenue New York, NY

John's Pizzeria - Upper East Side
408 East 64th Street, New York, NY
(212) 935-2895

Ess-a-Bagel - Midtown East
831 3rd Avenue, New York, NY
(212) 980-1010

Friday, November 16, 2012


Food Baby has officially hit the big time - 10,000 pages views and counting!  Thanks for following, and sometimes participating in, my culinary adventures and of course for all the suggestions on new spots to check out.  I love writing this little blog and appreciate the time that you take out of your day to read it.  


Friday, November 9, 2012

Los Gallos

Enchiladas and groceries. No, seriously. At this tiny corner market at 10th & Wolf you can shop for produce, canned tomatoes and prepaid phone cards while you wait for your chicken tacos and salted beef tortas to be prepared. It's kind of a crazy setup, but the food here is authentic and addictively good.  

Just cooked chips, hot from the fryer and free bowls of salsa verde keep you busy if you're not browsing the shelves. Bright green guacamole with chunks of whole avocado is some of the best I've had in Philly. And those homemade chips can stand up to the thick guac. No party foul chip breakage here, although you might be tempted for the double dip.

salsa verde and house made chips

chicken tacos a la plancha
I swear, there actually is chicken under the pile of grilled cactus. Bonus - they serve all their a la plancha tacos with slices of avocado, grilled jalapenos & charred green onions at no extra charge. This is a hell of a deal for $10.  The chicken is grilled nicely, and mixed with the pile of veggies on top creates a substantially filling meal that will leave little room for anything else. You'll probably be wrapping this up for lunch tomorrow. 

steak enchiladas
Steak enchiladas with green chile sauce reminded me of the local Mexican places in Denver. The suace tasting like it  had been slowly simmered for hours with just enough heat to keep it interesting but not overpower.  Lovely refried beans on the side with an almost silky texture. The steak inside was fork tender and melt in your mouth good. 

el ranchero tacos
Grilled bits of chicken topped with lettuce, avocado, Mexican sour cream, pico de gallo salsa and crumbled fresh cheese define the el ranchero tacos. Something about that thin, tangy Mexican sour cream just brings these simple tacos up to another level. The scattered crumbles of queso fresco don't hurt either. A squeeze of fresh lime and suddenly you could be in a Corona commercial somewhere overlooking the Pacific. 

tacos al pastor
Not quite as good as Los Taquitos de Puebla, but definitely a contender for their tacos Al Pastor. That spicy seasoned pork carved from the roasting spit, topped with cilantro, onions and chunks of fresh pineapple. It creates such a fantastic mix of spicy, sweet and savory in each bite. If I had to eat one meal for the rest of my life, it might very well be Al Pastor tacos. My mouth is watering just thinking about them.  

Need some canola oil or a can of spaghetti sauce? You can literally reach behind you from the tables in the middle and grab items from the shelves. Apparently they started as more of a market that happened to have a takeout menu. The food was so good that they added a couple small tables. Now they've removed a whole row of shelves from the middle of the store to accommodate more seating. This is a sign of a restaurant that is doing things the right way, and one that is starting to develop a cult like status for their tacos. 

Tacos, tacos, tacos! I can't even remember what these ones were, but the picture came out so pretty. The bright pink radishes, green limes, grilled scallion laying lazily over the jalapeno.  The backdrop a beautiful canvas of tortillas, cilantro, grilled meat and diced onions. This is what Mexican should look like, taste like, smell like. It's bright flavors, simple ingredients, fill you up kind of food. And it should never be expensive. Los Gallos hits it on all notes. Salude!  

Food Baby rating: Twins!

Los Gallos market/restaurant
951 Wolf Street
Philadelphia, PA 19148
Open daily 9-11
Cash only | BYO

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Wow. What an incredible meal at Pumpkin. Our monthly Sunday Supper Club ventured out this past week to sample their $40 five course prix -fixe menu, and we were solidly impressed. It's a small room and seating for large groups can be tough. Our group of 10 ended up split at two different tables which wasn't ideal, but by the time the desserts came around it had cleared out enough so that we were able to move back and forth between the tables. The staff had no problem letting us sit for an extended period sipping the last of our wine and catching up with friends.  Such a warm and cozy interior, great for a chilly October night with hearty fall food.

The menu kicked off with a bowl of sweet potato soup for everyone. Poured tableside over a little cube of apple & a pool of honey and enriched with miso for a beautifully rich broth. Just thick enough to be substantial but not grainy in the least. The soup had such a depth of multiple flavors that changed and evolved with each spoonful.

Next up was a choice of two appetizers - escargot or coddled egg. The escargot was served out of its shell, with a few pumpkin gnocchi, crisp chanterelle mushrooms, sweet pecans and micro greens. There was an ethereal mushroom flavored foam dolloped over the top that intensified the earthy flavors of the chanterelles and escargot. Not chewy in the least, and probably the best escargot I've ever had.  Better even than Bistrot LaMinette. 

escargot w/ gnocchi and chanterelles
The coddled egg was a bit of a mystery on the menu - none of us knew exactly what was coming out of the kitchen on this one. Essentially it's an egg that is cooked in its shell in warm water for an extended period of time. Similar to a poached egg, but much closer to raw and a more delicate flavor. They serve it on top of a panisse (a fried chickpea pancake) with some crunchy bits of chorizo in between and an intensely green sauce made from scallions. With the side of a fork you cut through the coddled egg and the yolk spills out it's luscious treasure, coating the panisse & chorizo with a golden layer of eggy richness. A quick swipe of the scallion sauce for a counteractive tang and you can taste, smell, and see the chef working his magic on your senses. The plate is beautifully presented, with more of the micro greens topping the egg & panisse, looking like a plate of art.

coddled egg over panisse
The only dish I wasn't crazy about was the "salad" of roasted parsnip, celery root, grapefruit and pistachio.  I'm not a huge fan of grapefruit to begin with and the flavor became a little overwhelming with the other subtle ingredients. Others at the table really liked it though, so I can't completely write it off. Just not my thing.
roasted parsnip salad
 Onto the heart of the batting order - entrées. Side note here - have you ever thought about that word "entrée".  In French it means "entrance" and is supposed to be an entry to the meal, served before the main course.  Not an appetizer but somewhere in the middle.  What ever happened to this course?  Why do we call our main course the entrée now?  Most people in this country don't even like the French, so why do we keep using that word?  I digress.

We had the choice of either the albacore tuna or Duroc pork loin for our main course. You can guess which one I picked. Luckily the wifey got the tuna so I was able to try both. A nice light sear on the fish and perfectly seasoned it was at once flakey and buttery. A wonderful dark ruby red in the center. Confit potatoes, slices of fennel on the side and an great buerre noisette sauce drizzled over the fish. In case you're wondering, buerre noisette is a fancy French term for browned butter.  

albacore tuna with confit potatoes & fennel
The pork dish was near on perfect. Slices of the incredibly succulent Duroc loin and a chunk of fatty, sweet, meltingly tender pork belly on the side. The loin was cooked perfectly - just barely pink in the middle so it doesn't dry out and a nice crust of seasoning on the outer edges. Slice off a piece of the pork belly to go with it and it's piggy heaven on a fork.  Oh, and let's not forget the quince sauce, savoy cabbage and cipollini onions on the side. If you could serve autumn on a plate, it would look like this.

duroc pork loin and belly
Dessert was an option of either a chocolate cake with blackberry sorbet or a terrine of butterscotch pudding with rum raisins and ginger snap.  The cake was decadently indulgent, the sorbet melting ever so slightly and mixing with a scoop of crème fraiche that added a fantastic lightness to the dense and luxuriant cake. The pudding was a bowl of magic sprinkled with pixie dust. I wanted it to go on and on. Towards the bottom I started taking those tiny little spoonful's to help make it last just a little longer. Hints of caramel, molasses, rum and ginger floating across your tongue like a ghost. Did I just taste that? I thought this was right up there with the budino at Barbuzzo. Apparently Food Baby is a pudding kind of guy. 

chocolate cake w/ blackberry sorbet

butterscotch pudding
I think what I was most impressed with at Pumpkin was the artistry of the plates and attention to detail of every ingredient. Each dish was more beautiful than the last. They are truly appealing to all your senses, the goal of any fine dining experience. Service was attentive but never intrusive -they left you to appreciate the food on your own terms. And that food was some of the best we've had on our Sunday Supper Club run. For $40 this is an incredible deal. You're not going to leave having to loosen a button, but you will certainly leave with a contented smile on your face. 

Food Baby Rating:  Triplets!! 

1713 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19146
Tues-Sunday 5:30 - 10pm
BYO, Cash Only

Friday, October 19, 2012

Burger Challenge Round 11 - Standard Tap

The veteran.  The trusted friend. The old standard.  I've been getting burgers at Standard Tap since 2003, back when it was one of only a handful of decent bars in Northern Liberties. Before the Piazza. Before the angled parking on 2nd street. Before Fishtown was a thing. Standard Tap has been doing awesome burgers since before they were a thing. They just about created the market for the gastropub in Philadelphia, serving really good local beers on tap and a menu of substantially excellent food.

With the distraction of new Stephen Starr restaurants opening on Frankford Ave and the merry-go-round of places opening and closing in Bart Blatstein's Piazza at Schmidt's,it's almost easy to overlook the Tap. The little bastion of hipster heaven anchoring the corner of 2nd and Poplar is just pretentious enough to know they do the gastropub concept better than just about anyone, but accessible enough so that no matter how tight your jeans are you never feel out of place.  By this point most of the hipsters have moved north of Girard or south of Passyunk anyway.

But enough social commentary. Let's talk burgers. You can get either the Standard or the Double Standard. Kind of a misnomer, the Double is not two patties but rather a double thick single. Melted jack cheese, lettuce, sautéed onions and mushrooms are the  defacto toppings. A soft and slightly sweet brioche bun keeps it all together and a side of their insanely good shoestring fries fills out the plate.

The beef is delicious. Not quite in the caliber of a Kennett or Royal Tavern patty, but for not having artisanal ground beef trucked in from Manhattan or any marrow mixed in, it's a remarkably good piece of meat. Definitely seems leaner than some of the other contenders we've had. They are relying more on the flavor of the meat than on fat to boost the taste. This helps to keep the burger from becoming a sloppy mess and the bun from disintegrating into the interior of a bread bowl. The roll held up nicely and didn't distract from the experience, which is more than can be said for other challengers. The brioche is just a bit sweet with a lovely golden sheen, the ideal conveyance for said burger.

The toppings is where the Standard burger fell off a bit. The cheese was good but fairly forgettable with no distinct flavors cutting through. The sautéed onions & mushrooms were cooked perfect. You can tell they've been doing this a while. But the pieces of limp iceberg lettuce only served to flatten out the flavor. Why not go for some Boston bibb,or some crisp romaine? I know it's October and it's not exactly in season, but there must be some good lettuce out there. If there isn't, just leave it off.  And the limp lettuce acted like a skating rink for the mites on ice. The mushrooms & onions slipping and sliding all over the place. It make eating the burger an exercise in hand-eye coordination. And I don't want to think about exercise while eating a Double Standard.

Don't get me wrong -this is still a great burger. It is consistently good and always scratches that ground beef itch. You will leave feeling contented and that all is right with the world. And at only $12 for the Standard ($13.75 for the Double) you can afford to have a few extra beers. My father-in-law comes all the way from Newtown just for this burger. Ask him where he wants to go for his birthday, anywhere in the city - Standard Tap for a burger. Where do we take friends from out of the city? Standard Tap for local beers and a burger. I think that says something. These guys have been doing it right for a dozen years now, and they've learned some things along the way. The Standard Burger is that old friend. Always there for you to fall back on - and you never appreciate just how much he means to you. I'm happy to call that burger my friend, and I'm looking forward to many more good times together. <3 you...

Food BabyRating:  Twins!

Standard Tap
901 N. 2nd Street  (Corner of 2nd & Poplar)
Philadelphia, PA 19123
(215) 238-0630

Thursday, October 11, 2012


If the Greek islands were all about seafood, then Turkey is certainly centered squarely on the kebab.  Not the kebab that we generally think about in the west (the shish kind).  The specialty here is donner kebap (not a misspelling).  This involves compiling thin cuts of seasoned lamb or chicken to form a meat tower sometimes three feet tall. The whole thing is put on a huge skewer and then spun vertically next to a red hot heating element that slowly cooks the outer edges to a beautiful crunch. They use a ridiculously long carving knife to slowly saw off just that crispy outer ring, right into a waiting piece of warm flat bread, like a new mother lovingly cradling her infant. This version will make you just as happy with less cleanup.  (It's a food baby! Get it? Anyway, you add some veggie toppings and spicy sauce and you have possibly the best street food ever invented. We literally ate one every day in Turkey. My world has been changed and I'm now seeking out a relatively decent version in Philly.  Holler back if you have any suggestions.

Breakfast in Turkey can be as light as a cup of tea and a baklava pastry or as heavy as Turkish coffee and a dish of menemen - a wonderful hangover killing mix of scrambled eggs, tomatoes, onions, peppers & paprika.  Not in the mood for eggs? Try a gozleme instead - layers of hick filo dough stuffed with feta cheese and spinach (or other ingredients) then cooked on a flat top grill till the dough just starts to brown and the cheese starts melting. Think of it as a Turkish quesadilla, except much better and minus the guacamole.

breakfast baklava with crushed pistachios


Tea & coffee are rituals here. Coffee is prepared the old school way in a single serving pot with the ground up powder added to cold water and brought to a boil. No straining for the Turks. They pour the entire thing, grounds and all, into your cup and you let it settle at the bottom before drinking. The amount of sludge you're willing to down at the end is a measure of your manhood.  I am the equivalent of a 12 year old girl apparently.  Tea is a whole other matter. The Turks drink tea like it's going out of style, like 15 to 20 small cups a day (so says or cooking class instructor ).  They use a special tea pot that works like a double boiler.  The intense tea concentrate sits in the top to stay warm.  When you want some tea you pour a shot worth into your glass and then fill with hot water. The result is a beautifully rich cup of tea that is not bitter or puckering at all. It is so flavorful that you want to just keep drinking more.

Turkish tea

Turkish coffee w/ some Turkish delight

tea delivery! 
One of the most fun sandwiches I've ever gotten has to be the Balik Ekmek (grilled fish sandwich) from the boats floating in the Bosporus just next to the Galata bridge. Apparently dating back a few decades when fishermen used to sell them right off their boats, the tradition has lived on and been standardized a bit.  The boats bob up and down in the wake of the ferries, with the huge flat tops grilling up dozens of fish filets at a time. The cooks assemble the sandwiches (fish, lettuce, onions) and toss them to a guy on the dock who sells them for 5 lira ($2.75) a piece. There are tons of little barrel shaped tables with bottles of lemon juice & salt for your seasoning. It is a tasty sandwich, although a bit boney.  Apparently for 5 lira they don't bother so much with the quality control. The experience alone was so much fun though - a must-do when in Istanbul.

the scene by the Galata bridge and the balik ekmek boats

cooking up the balik ekmek

i am a happy man
Probably our best meal (for the money) in Turkey was on the Asian side at Ciya Kebap. This is in the Kadikoy neighborhood - a nice alternative to the stream of people on Istiklal street.  Taxis are very cheap here so paying for the 25 minute ride over didn't cost us more than $15. The neighborhood is not touristy at all. Mostly locals out for a fun night and enjoying an outdoor café, a beer and some hookah. There are three different Ciya Kebap restaurants but they are all located on the same corner. We of course picked the only one that doesn't sell alcohol. Doh! No worries, the food more than made up for it.  A huge piece of flatbread with some spicy garlic & white bean dip. Perfect kebabs all around. Afterwards we made our way down the street and scored a table at a busy bar for some Efes beers and a great hookah of apple flavored tobacco. I could have sat there all night. Live music pouring out onto the street, lovely smells of the sweet hookah smoke drifting in the air, a cold beer that the servers would not let go empty.

biggest. flatbread. ever. 
garlic and bean dip

kebap with flat bread

spicy kebap 

Nevizade street is the place to go to party in Istanbul. It is absurdly crowded (like the city itself). The street itself isn't even paved - there's just dirt & gravel with plywood running down the middle. Not sure if this is due to construction, or they just never bothered with the concrete. The entire stretch of 3 blocks is lined with restaurants and bars that fill the narrow street with outdoor tables. Servers constantly call you into their place as you stroll down the block taking it all in. It reminded me so much of Brick Lane in East London, just replace the curry with kebabs. There is live music everywhere.  Acoustic guitars and fiddles make up the majority of instruments, and they all seem to be playing local folk songs that everyone knows the words to. Bars don't close till 4am, so the party goes late here. If you can handle the smoking (everyone loves to smoke here) it's a great scene. Making friends is easy and the beers are cheap.
Nevizade street
On your stumble back from Nevizade street you are bound to run into the guys with muscles. Not the kind you see on Jersey Shore, but guys selling muscles, on the street, raw, without refrigeration. They don't do much business early on, but after a few drinks people work up enough courage stupidity to start downing them. The muscles are huge and served with just a slice of lemon to squeeze over them. I am an adventurous eater, but I'm not a masochist. This is food poisoning just waiting to happen. Also of note are the random men carrying around trays of almonds for sale. The almonds, in a strange sense of irony, are covered in ice. So in Turkey you ice down the almonds but leave the sketchy shellfish at room temperature.  Right.
sketchy muscles on the street
Our best meal of the trip (regardless of money) was at Topaz in Istanbul.  It is not cheap. But the food, service, and view of the Bosporus is nothing short of incredible.  Situated on a cliff overlooking the river and a beautiful mosque below it, one entire wall of the restaurant is open air - letting you take in the stunning view of the bridge to Asia and it's light dance all night. The menu is a mix of traditional Turkish dishes executed with western influence (and vice-versa). We learned from our waiter that the olive oil they serve with bread is produced in Turkey. We subsequently learned that most of the olive imported into the US is actually from Turkey. If it says "bottled in Italy", check the back of the label. More than likely it's made from olive oil produced in Turkey, then simply bottled and relabeled in Italy. Fun fact for the day!

view from our table at Topaz
Another trip to a foreign country and another cooking class! We've turned this into sort of a tradition after Thailand. Such a great way to get a sense of the culture and tradition of a place. Being able to replicate the tastes of somewhere you've been at home instantly brings you back. Unlike Thailand, this was not a very formal class. There were only four of us, and instead of individual stations we all took turns helping to make a few larger dishes for everyone to share. On the menu were "spring rolls" which was filo dough rolled around a local cheese similar to feta mixed with parsley & seasonings; bulgur salad with peppers, scallions & cucumbers; eggplant puree with sautéed chicken; and lastly a strange jello like desert made with rose water. The jello was a bit weird, but everything else came out great. Our instructors were helpful and friendly, even if they didn't have written recipes to give us.

making the spring rolls

mixing up the bulgur salad

fruits of our labor...

Another highlight of Istanbul is shopping the markets. The Turks love to haggle and they've apparently never heard of the supermarket concept.  The Egyptian market is a busy, noisy display of hundreds of different herbs, teas, spices, pastes and boxes of Turkish delight. It's a bit touristy inside and the prices aren't great. On the plus side they will vacuum pack anything you buy so you don't get a suitcase full of harissa. On the outside of the market you can walk amongst the cheaper priced stalls that the locals actually buy from. There are tea guys, spice guys, dessert guys, nut guys, and cheese guys. Piles of a local string cheese (free samples!) that is super cheap and makes a great snack while walking around. Pistachios that are roasted red, salted and better than anything you get in a bag at Superfresh. The Turks are apparently known for the pistachios and it's big business for them.  Bonus - more free samples! We skipped breakfast one morning and just grazed on all the samples that the vendors are offering, plus we were there early enough to avoid the massive crowds later in the day.

dried mushrooms

americans buying spices

piles of string cheese

our spice guy. home of the world's spiciest harissa. 
I wasn't surprised by how good the food was in Turkey. I had been looking forward to it for weeks after splendid reviews from friends and family that had visited. Turkey certainly lived up to my expectations and then some. I'd go back just for a donner kebap. Or some of that olive oil. Or one of those fish sandwiches. Or an Efes beer. Or a cup of that Turkish tea. I would go back to explore more of the country. See where that olive oil is made, where they grow those oh so yummy pistachios. I would go back to experience the hookah cafes in Bodrum and the thriving night life in Istanbul. I would go back for more. Much more.