We would never dream of stepping on the toes of the increasingly awesome Istanbul Eats but until they develop a franchise called Gaziantep Eats or Urfa Eats, we feel confident that we can weigh in on dining options in these Eastern paradises without stealing their thunder. We're also not likely to be as nice as they are.
There's an increasingly common meme around Istanbul that is most easily summarized as "Gaziantep has awesome food." We take mild issue with this assessment. It is true that this provincial city of 2 million about 100 kms from the Syrian border has surprisingly tasty food, given where it's located (the baklava is, without question, awesome). And compared to, say, the food in Urfa, it is pretty good (but truthfully, most things compare favorably if Urfa sets the baseline).
Gaziantep cuisine is heavily meat-based and by meat we mean "sheep." You can make a kebab better by adding cracked wheat and sprinkling pistachios on it, but it still won't be good. It will always be poor quality meat cut without any apparent skill and cooked within an inch of its life. If you go to Gaziantep, you will eat a lot of kebab and some of it will be better than kebab you have had elsewhere. The rest of it will taste and look exactly the same. We didn't come across any particularly interesting vegetable dishes or anything we hadn't already tried in Istanbul. Lahmacun (a Turkish pizza), the other specialty of Gaziantep, is pretty much the same no matter where you go. Given the buzz, we expected something more, something different.
What Gaziantep does have is an aggressive civic boosterism project that's promoting the "Gaziantep has awesome food" meme. We admire the ballsiness of this effort, even if we disagree a bit with the premise. In fact, there's a Gaziantep Cuisine Museum which is located in a traditional stone house and is well worth a visit if you happen to be in town. There is also reputedly a woman who is promoting Gaziantep cuisine but unfortunately we were unable to track her or her restaurant down.
If you are looking for a decent meal and you have all of Eastern Anatolia at your disposal, go to Mardin. Mardin perches on a rocky hillside, overlooking the vast Syrian plain. It's got an interesting mix of Turks, Kurds (oops sorry, Mountain Turks), Syriac Christians and Arabs. This, in our estimation, is more promising recipe for a surprising meal than a handful of extra pistachios. Accordingly, it has a gem of a restaurant, Cercis Murat.
We had tried Cercis Murat's branch in the wealthy Asian Istanbul suburb of Bostancı a few months back. It was memorable mostly because we took a boat to get there and it seemed like we traveled practically to Beijing for dinner, but also because they stuck a bunch of stuff we didn't order on the bill (seriously, how many yabancı women order beet juice with dinner? Did they think we wouldn't notice?). The very fact we've considered going back is a testament to the quality of the food. Surprisingly, when Carpetblog's Paris Correspondent wrote about it here, she didn't mention we were with her.
Mardinese (we made that word up ourselves so please credit accordingly) food seems to be influenced as much by Arabs as by Turks but the whole is better than the sum of the parts. The mezze at Cercis Murat reminds us a great deal of those at Çiya, which is an Istanbul favorite. Made with pomegranates, dried tomatoes, walnuts, capers and whole green lentils and served in copper ayran spoons, they are genuinely different from typical Turkish food. For that, we bestow praise. If you're still hungry after the mezze sampler plate, order Dobo (lamb shoulder stuffed with garlic on rice), but temper your expectations, especially if you've ever had plov.
Van in Northeastern Turkey gets a lot of praise for its breakfasts (even here!) and there are Van Kahvaltı Sofrasılar all over town. Why has no one ever mentioned the awesomeness of Diyarbakır kahvaltı? Is it because people, rightfully, hesitate to use the word "awesome" and "Diyarbakır" in the same sentence? Well, in the old Han across from the Ulu Camii in D'bak there are half a dozen breakfast places and they rock. We had fresh yogurt with fruit and fruit syrup, bal kaymak (honey with clotted creme) with pistachio, fresh butter with walnuts and honey, a delicious tomato and eggplant ezme (sort of like a salsa) and white cheese that was genuinely complex and tasty. That, and the carpet shop across the street, make D'bak famous for more than just Kurdish separatism and 40% unemployment in our book.
Oh, did we forget to mention Urfa? Seriously, there is nothing more boring than an Urfa kebab, no matter what anyone from the Urfa booster club tells you. It's simply a blander, greasier version of an Adana kebab.
*Kebabingo is what you say when you have already eaten every single kebab offered on the standard Lokanta menu in Eastern Turkey.