Café Niko: More than just a Foodie Haunt

Having misjudged the Friday afternoon Istanbul traffic, I arrived at the Emniyet Otogar an hour before my friends were due. For a moment I stood on the hot tarmac watching a man ironing his shirt in the shade of his bus. Then I turned to look at the two-story shack where, on the second floor, the little Georgian café served the strong drink and comfort food that had kept me coming back year after year. The sign that had once hung from the balcony, with its indecipherable Georgian script, was now missing, a development that added something to the establishment’s exclusivity –only the initiated knew its charms or even knew how to find it.

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What happened to the sign?

Beso, the owner, nodded at me wearily when I said I had five friends coming. ‘Not inside,’ he warned. ‘It’s all reserved.’ He said this as though it were the most natural thing in the world for a cockroach hut on stilts to require advanced reservations. I stepped onto the balcony and sat down among a handful of chain-smoking Turks.

‘What the hell are you guys doing here?’ I asked. ‘It’s Ramadan!’

Two of the Turks sized me up with me a cold stare. Another one sitting alone, with a bald spot and an impeccably trimmed mustache, gave an amused laugh.

‘I’m here because they serve the cheapest liquor in Istanbul.’ He said. ‘And because I haven’t yet died or gone blind from drinking it.’

We drank Chacha –a grape based moonshine smuggled in from Georgia in plastic soda bottles– and talked together for nearly an hour. The loner with the mustache turned out to be something of an intellectual and offered his point of view on the state of his nation. When he got up to leave, the other two Turks stood up, embraced the man, apologized profusely for the nature of the request they were about to make, and shook him down for two more beers.

As my friends began to show up, each expressed a different reason for feeling dismay at having to sit outside. The non-smokers among us complained that the outdoor patio was always too smoky or that the diesel fumes from idling buses carried over with the breeze. The two Turks among us complained that they wouldn’t be able to see the television, with its Georgian soap operas -a distraction they claimed was necessary to take the edge off once everybody else started babbling drunkenly in English.

‘They take reservations now,’ I said, by way of explanation.

No one seemed to buy this.

When we asked what was on the menu our Georgian host, beaming with pride, exclaimed: ‘Her şey var!’  Wanting to avoid the tedious process of hearing each individual preference, I took the liberty of ordering a serving of everything.

Minutes later we were presented with Lobio (kidney beans with onions, coriander, and fenugreek), Ostri (tender meat stew), Shashlik (braised pork and onions), and Khinkali (meat dumplings). Our host went so far as to reassure us that the Khachapuri –the delicious cheese bread—would take a few more minutes to bake. At this unsolicited remark, we all stopped eating and stared at one another, unsure of how to account for such uncharacteristically polite behavior.

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Three years ago, when I first discovered the Georgian place, both the quality and availability of food items was anything but consistent. Sometimes the lobio had a nice garnish of fresh coriander and onion; sometimes it didn’t. The shashlik could be a rare and delicious treat in an otherwise porkless land; or it could be tough as a boot. On one or two occasions there was no food at all. Lately, however, the place has been doing much better in delivering what its customers want. Long gone are the days when a loyal customer would be turned away for lack of food.

While we were greedily wolfing down the grub and toasting every five minutes to each other’s health and fortune with a liquor guaranteed to destroy both, a group of Georgian bus and truck drivers sat down at the table next to us. They were friendly and animated and called out to us to share in a toast. The food that gradually arrived at their table looked increasingly unfamiliar. There was a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, slices of white cheese, and a cold eggplant and potato dish. When we expressed that we had never in our 3 years of patronage been offered such simple delicacies, one of the drivers stood up, picked up one of the dishes and, ignoring our protests, proceeded to distribute little bite sized samples to everyone at our table.

‘Only Georgians get this kind of treatment!’ he exclaimed.

The drivers were impressed by our knowledge of Georgian food and culture. They said that if we wanted, they could take us to Georgia on their next tour. One of the truck drivers even gave us his business card and told us to be ready at the Otogar at 2 in the morning with our bags, if we wanted a ride. When we asked whether they were responsible for bringing the restaurant’s booze, the face of one driver erupted in a huge grin.

‘Did you see all the Chacha?’ he asked.

He led us inside the restaurant and removed the lid to a 120-liter drum to reveal a deep reservoir of Chacha.

‘You could drown a pregnant Georgian man in one of these,’ I said.

The driver laughed and rubbed his flat belly as if acknowledging that he had his work cut out in getting it to a respectable size.

As the night drew on, the members of the reserved table began to show up. They were all yabancı, mostly American, judging by their accents. The occasion, as I would learn later, was a bachelor party for a Texan who would, in a matter of days, take a Turkish bride. When 12 men with varying lengths of beards and disheveled hair had taken their seats, I started to wonder if the high concentration of American blood mixed with a near endless supply of potent drink might not make for a potentially volatile combination.

As my imagination began to run astray, provoked partly by my own consumption of Chacha and partly by what I had heard about the reputation of the neighbouring area, I feared some of the bachelor’s friends might get it into their heads to scour the surroundings in search of a female escort or two for their table. Given the local adage that once married, a man’s life -or at least his freedom- comes to an end, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch to expect one last hurrah.

Far from becoming depraved, however, or even a little rambunctious, the members of the bachelor party comported themselves like benedictine monks having a modest respite from the austerity of their existence. When one guy got a little over excited and spoke at a near shouting volume, another would politely point out that one of the Georgian servers was trying to concentrate on their nightly soap and politely urge them to calm down. It was the most somber affair I’d ever had the misfortune of witnessing.

Actually, the thing that attracted me the most to the Georgian restaurant, more than the food or booze, was its capacity to surprise and entertain with unexpected little encounters and adventures. Rare was the time that something memorable didn’t happen. Colorful characters abounded: from the gold-toothed members of what might’ve been some mafia, to the Georgians full of stories and longing to return to the homeland after long periods spent as expats in Western Europe.

The effect of the Chacha too always had a way of instigating some kind of doomed scheme or ill-advised adventure. There was the time I insisted on leading a group to break into the Bulgar Palace -an imposing mansion once owned by the baron of bulgar that can be seen from the restaurant balcony- only to get lost for hours in the labyrinth of narrow backstreets.

Then there was the time I tried to get rid of a friend who was down and out and depressing the hell out of me. All he could talk about was how bad the conditions were in Turkey and how much worse they would get. Convinced that what he really needed was a change of scene, I got him as drunk as possible, paid off one of the bus drivers leaving on a midnight trip to Georgia or Kazakistan or some other far off land, and dragged my near comatose friend on board. It was only at the last minute, as the bus was pulling out of the station, that reason won over. I threw myself in front of the bus -nearly getting myself killed- and pleaded with the driver to forget the whole thing.

Just as we were beginning to think that the evening would end without some classic Otogar excitement, we discovered a young Chinese couple -they insisted they were only business associates- tucked away in a corner. They had been to the Georgian place three times but had yet to try the Chacha. When presented with a shot of the Georgian fire water, the man drank it in one gulp, stood up, and immediately stumbled into the table, knocking over a basket of bread and a bottle of coke. He said, ‘you don’t have that kind of stuff in China.’

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Once crowd began to disperse -I’ve never heard mentioned a specific closing time, but come 9:30-10:00 people generally start filing out- we ventured inside to pay our bill. The total for five people was 150tl –30tl per person—which, considering the amount of Chacha we had consumed and all the delicious food with which we had gorged ourselves, was quite a bargain.

 

Directions: From the Yenikapı Marmaray station: Take the Namık Kemal Cd. exit. Walk up Namık Kemal Cd. for two blocks (towards Turgat Özel Millet Cd.). Turn left on Küçük Langa Cd. and make an immediate left into the Emniyet Otogar. Niko Café is on your left hand side.

 

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One thought on “Café Niko: More than just a Foodie Haunt

  1. Pingback: Corruption of a Food Review – Stories by Sean Monterastelli

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