We were dancing to an ensemble playing the Russian melody Kakalin at a dinner party at Istanbul’s newest Russian restaurant, Rustik. Russian-Turkish families laughed and sang along while they ate vinaigrette and whitefish salads.
Then the music stopped and the lights dimmed. Two men hung a white sheet on the far wall. They turned on a projector, and portraits of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space faded in and out with the music.
The lights came back on. The owner, Erdem, made a short speech in Turkish about the heroic feats of this first cosmonaut who blasted into orbit 55 years ago that day. The revelers clapped politely.
Then Erdem rolled up his sleeve, revealing a large, color tattoo on his forearm. My wife and I looked at each other in shock.
It was a tattoo of a Gagarin.
Some ethnic restaurant owners are in it to make money. Some are passionate about their jobs, informal leaders of their ethnic communities.
Erdem is in a class all by himself.
His story began over six years ago. He grew up in Turkey and had no major connections to Mother Russia. He then went to work as a draftsman and worked in several cities on construction projects across the former Soviet Union, picking up fluent Russian along the way.
Along the way he also picked up a vast collection of memorabilia that would rival the décor at a Hard Rock Café in its abundance. Instead of posters of rockers, though, Rustik has busts of Lenin. Instead of guitars, matryoshkas. Instead of Elvis’ leather jacket, a Soviet wool coat that guests you can try on along with a starred military cap for a thorough “check-in” experience.
“This is about 10 percent of the stuff I’ve collected,” said the soft-spoken, boyish-looking Erdem as we admired a half dozen Zenit cameras in a glass case. “I change it up pretty regularly”.
The kitchen itself is small and run by a Ukrainian immigrant who speaks neither Turkish nor English. She cooks Russian staples and chats about their ingredients with a shy,hardy smile. “Lot’s of butter” she says when asked what the secret is.
While there are pan-Soviet staples such as chicken kieveski, blinchik, pelmeni, Uzbek pilav, and more, the borscht is the signature dish. It’s hearty, with small pieces of beef, cabbage, carrots, topped with real sour cream (not süzme yogurt!) from Russia, the kind of soup that can fuel a shift at a Soviet armaments factory — or at least a day of sightseeing in Kadıköy.
A sucker for any kind of dumpling, I fell in love with the pelmeni, which is a cross between a perogi and mantı, filled with garlicky minced meat goodness. Dipped in sour cream, it is neither a heavy main nor an unsubstantial appetizer. It pairs well with a half bowl (equivalent to a full portion of soup in Turkish restaurants) of borscht.
Not to be outdone, the blenchiks are what a savory crepe is meant to be; you can have it filled with a kind of cottage cheese called tvorg (like my Russian grandmother used to make) or with minced meat. I preferred the former.
The chicken Kiev is also a filling option for schnitzel lovers. The Russian salad is far superior to that which is found at fast food joints and meyhanes in Turkey. “They used to call it Russian salad in the U.S., too, until the cold war really got going. Then it became ‘potato salad’,” Erdem informed me after I pointed out the difference between the transcontinental cousins.
The complimentary Russian bread, dark, rich and slightly sweet, is a refreshing change from the dry and drab whole wheat or oat breads that you usually get in Turkey.
In addition to being a full service restaurant, Rustik also offers catering for weddings and birthday parties.
You’re probably wondering at this point if there is vodka. It’s a Russian restaurant, for Marx’s sake. The short answer is no; the longer answer is, if you cozy up to the staff and you come on the right day, there is a chance that, if you ask politely, you might be able to get yourself a shot of authentic potato juice for 10 TL. But you didn’t hear it from me, comrade.