We had asked our guide at Aya Sofya for somewhere local, somewhere in real Istanbul for lunch, and Imren Lokantasi certainly ticked the boxes. Bells tinkled as we entered the little neighbourhood lokanta hidden half an hour from Sultanahmet behind the streets lined with dilapidated shops selling designer shoes from collapsed cardboard boxes. Tables and chairs were laid out canteen style, the entire room populated with elderly Turkish men sharing tables, but hardly talking, grunting approval to no one in particular and staring intently at their dishes. They only looked up to grab more flatbread from the communal baskets.
Mark and I looked at each other, shrugged and sat down opposite a shaking man with soup in his beard. I scoped the room for a toilet, but apart from a dirty sink in the corner and a beaded curtain that lead to a steaming kitchen, there was nothing. The two of us looked uncomfortable for a couple of minutes until the beaming Turkish man behind the counter beckoned us to come up to him. The food was laid out in dishes in front of us, like the hot section of an Ikea café, and I felt a slight twang of disappointment. I wanted sizzling kebabs cooked in front of us; that was my misguided idea of local flavour. The man behind the counter pointed at each dish in turn, dark meats and darker aubergines swam in deep red sauces and I couldn’t even pretend to pronounce any of the dishes except one.
We both chose the Moussaka.
Settling back at the shared table, feeling more part of the community now that I had a dish in front of me, I was really enjoying being far from the gaggles of cruise ship tourists around Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque. I was having a lovely time people watching, until I took the first bite of the Moussaka. The chatter of shoe shop attendants on their lunch breaks fell to silence, the Turkish shouts from the kitchen melted away and time stopped. Well, that’s what it felt like. I’ve eaten in the side-streets of Athens, Tavernas on Greek Islands and up-market restaurants in Bulgaria, but none of the Moussakas I have eaten come close to the one from Imren Lokantasi. I looked at Mark for expert approval. Just like the elderly men around us he was immersed in his food, grunting approval with sauce in his beard, only looking up to take another flatbread.
The Lokanata by Suzy Pope is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.