Thinking back on my formative years growing up in Essex, although admittedly not an expert, I thought I was reasonably au fait with all manner of Turkish food. Something of a gourmet, even then. I ‘knew’ that the doner kebabs from the van parked opposite the Watermill Pub were quite tasty and reasonably pleasant (the tightly permed owner was a bit tasty in a fight as well, apparently). Those served up from the burger van near the BP Garage in the town centre were to be avoided. I possessed an opinion on the relative merits of every doner vendor in town. I had no idea that my horizon was so miniscule, my knowledge of Turkish food began and ended with kebabs. I was a philistine.
Having just returned from a rather fantastic few days in Istanbul, this point was, almost quite literally, rammed down my throat at every turn. Despite having developed a more mature and sophisticated knowledge of Turkish cuisine, moving on from my kebab munching, pint swilling younger self I was still surprised to find that eating out in Istanbul was a fantastic experience, almost without exception. From the classier restaurants down to the most modest street vendor’s offerings. Even the cheapest doners from the most decrepit looking places in the non-touristy end of town were sublime, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the processed, thawed out meat on a stick that gets carved up in the UK. To say I was impressed with Istanbul’s food offerings would be something of an understatement.
In the few days I spent stuffing myself silly in Istanbul, one of the places that pleased and charmed me the most was Datli Maya. Located in the twisting hilly streets of the trendy Cihangir district, opposite the Firuzağa mosque, this tiny restaurant was an absolute gem. I’d been tipped off about it on my pre-trip research, the excellent Istanbul Eats and Eating Asia blogs singling it out for praise, with particular emphasis on the chef Dilara Erbay, who is apparently a bit of a character on the Istanbul restaurant scene, well known for sourcing superb ingredients and not being bound by convention when cooking classic Turkish dishes.
As soon as you walk through the door, you’re confronted by the glow of an old wood-burning oven, the heart of Datli Maya. Laid out around it, tables heaped with delicious looking cakes, Turkish pastries and salads. In a corner, a chef was expertly rolling and shaping dough for ‘pide’ a type of Turkish pizza. We were greeted enthusiastically. It’s ridiculously tiny and cramped, and it’s hard to believe all this was going on in such a small space.
Our first visit, more of a recce, was at lunchtime and after a bit of shuffling, head scratching and clarification we finally went for a set menu each (encompassing a drink, a pide each, a salad and a cake) and were ushered through a corner doorway and up a steep flight of stairs, unbelievably through a modern commercial kitchen, complete with smiling chef and pounding Turkish folk music, round a corner and into a tiny and slightly battered but very comfortable dining room with windows overlooking the square outside.
In the corner I spied an elaborate Turkish tea urn. It was serve yourself but instead I’d gone for a bottle of yoghurt, a popular drink in Istanbul. It was surprisingly tart and unsweetened at first, but after a while I found it quite pleasant. Apparently it’s a good choice when eating grilled meats.
Datli Maya’s style is a modern take on traditional Turkish village food, with pretty much everything being cooked in the wood burning oven downstairs. Our pide arrived from the very same furnace, served on wooden slats. ‘E’ had gone for ispanakli keci peynirli - spinach and goats cheese. I’d chosen afyon kelle sucuklu - spicy Turkish sausage and cheese. Both were hot, crisp, stuffed full of ingredients and absolutely delicious.
A huge bowl of winter salad arrived. Full of beetroot, fennel and all sorts of other good stuff, it was coated with a beautiful orange scented dressing with a touch of sourness, which we found out was from the addition of sumac.
Finally, to finish we helped ourselves to tea in dainty glass cups, from the urn in the corner to wash down my large slice of decent carrot and walnut cake.‘E’ had a piece of rather amazing, flourless chocolate cake.
A fantastic lunch, in a very relaxed and friendly restaurant. Our bill? Just over £7 each! I think you’ll agree, a bit of a bargain.
In fact we enjoyed it so much, and were so intrigued by the food and the menu that we returned a couple of days later, but in the evening, for dinner. There are no reservations so we arrived around 8pm and hoped for the best.
Again, squeezed into the downstairs kitchen, the stove roaring away to one side, we ogled the table groaning with food, made our selections and clambered upstairs, through the kitchen, nodding to the chef’s rocking out to the crazy sounding Turkish beats and took our seats in the crowded dining room.
Our food arrived as it came, and it seemed like we might have been just a bit greedy in our ordering. Our table was covered in dishes. Nodding grimly at each other in silent acceptance of the challenge ahead, ‘E’ and I waded in without mercy.
Some kind of spinach and cheese pastry seemed a bit overcooked, dry and unappetising – we tossed that to one side after a few exploratory bites. However, ‘antakya ispanakli borek’ (which the menu tells me is a Antiochian style pastry) was delicious. Folded over on itself and containing cottage cheese, onion, spinach and chilli peppers. We scoffed it down.
Another massive bowl of excellent winter salad appeared, with the same orange and sumac dressing and we helped ourselves to this in between sampling from the four clay casserole dishes, that had been cooked in the wood-burning stove.
Slow cooked white beans, to me, were surprisingly reminiscent of Heinz baked beans, but creamier and fresher. I’m not complaining, it’s a good thing and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
A bowl of braised spinach root was superb. Tasting perhaps more like peppery celery rather than spinach. It’s not an ingredient ‘E’ or I had encountered before, and inspired us to keep an eye out for it in the UK.
Baked figs with peppers, wasn’t a favourite of either of us. Cooked figs, for me never seem to be as interesting as a perfectly ripe fresh fig. The whole dish just seemed a little bland when compared with some of the other food.
Smoked bulgar pilaf with chestnuts, carob and silverberry was much more successful and intriguing, neither of us having any idea what silverberry are (I now know silverberry comes from a tree and apparently has a sharp, but sweet taste). Mystery ingredients included, it was delicious.
Dessert absolutely stole the show. We were stuffed silly, so shared an oven-baked quince topped with a dollop of karacadağ yogurt. It was amazing. Sticky, caramel flavored with cloves combined with the fresh, thick, richness of the yoghurt. Superb. This is something I’ll definitely be having a go at when quinces are back in season in the UK.
Altogether, our dinner bill for two came to around 70 Turkish Lira, which is about £25. That’s stupendous value for money.
I found Datli Maya to be welcoming, fun and just a bit hip. One object we spied tucked away in the kitchen sums it up. A tambourine, I could well imagine the chefs using it whilst dancing around the prep area, to the bonkers upbeat Turkish music blasting out. It seems like that kind of place.
The food was inventive, fresh and interesting definitely unlike anywhere else we ate in Istanbul. It’s almost unique in my experience to quite literally, walk directly into the kitchen, see the available dishes laid out and say ‘that looks nice, I’ll have one of those’. I should also point out, so that pescetarian ‘E’ and I could share everything, I ate a complete meal without any meat in it whatsoever, and amazingly, didn’t really miss it much. Don’t worry meat fans, I’m still an unrepentant carnivore, but it made a nice change.
If you ever find yourself in Istanbul, I'd highly recommend Datli Maya for it's great value, delicious modern take on traditional Turkish food. Go.
Türkgücü Cad. No:59/A, Cihangir