Sunday, July 12, 2015

Big Chefs Cafe & Brasserie: 100% Turkish!

Dear readers,

Yup! Just like I wrote in my heading - Big Chefs is 100% Turkish although the name isn't! Moreover, it was founded by Gamze Cizreli, a self-starter ambitious woman - in our state capitol Ankara in 2007. 

Big Chefs Menu
It didn't take long for the popularity of this casual eatery to be noticed and after becoming partners with Saruhan Tan, the co-owners opened their first branch in the upscale neighborhood Etiler in Istanbul in 2009. Today, they have over 20 branches in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities in Turkey. Furthermore, they opened their first branch abroad in Dubai at JBR - The Beach in late 2014. 

Big Chefs -Etiler, Istanbul
I actually remember the first time I went to Big Chefs and who I went with in 2009 because I remember being overwhelmed by the size of the menu! My first thought was "how can they handle preparing and stocking all these different types of products?". Well, obviously they knew what they were doing! 

Unfortunately until earlier this year, I hadn't had a chance to go back to Big Chefs since my first visit - there are just so many places to go to in Istanbul that it's hard to keep up! In fact, I had breakfast at the Etiler branch this morning and took the above photo.

Big Chefs Etiler is in walking distance my new place in Ulus where I moved to in March of this year, so I have been to this branch a few times since - especially during my morning walks with Luka, my adorable nearly 5 year-old Maltese dog 

Then, about a week ago, I received an invitation from Big Chefs's PR company (InHouse Iletişim) to have dinner with the owners of Big Chefs and other journalists at Big Chefs in Tarabya, which is located on the Bosphorus waterfront. The purpose was to introduce the newly opened Big Chefs Tarabya Beach. 

Big Chefs Tarabya Beach Club (lower level)
You can pretty much say that Big Chefs Tarabya is their flagship branch in Istanbul because it is huge with indoor and outdoor seating area for 400 and now with a multi-level beach club!

Big Chefs Tarabya Beach Club (upper level)
The beach club can hold up to 100 sunseekers and there are several outdoor showers, towel service and lockers. The Beach is open daily from 10:00am to 6:00pm with an entrance fee of 75 TL during the week and 100 TL on the weekends (complimentary for children up to the age of 6). There is no swimming pool, however, you can swim in the Bosphorus because it is not very deep by the Beach and more importantly, the water is clean. 

As I mentioned earlier, this is the largest Big Chefs in Istanbul and our table was set right next to the bar and beach section waiting for all the guests to come to enjoy a leisurely dinner and good conversation...
Big Chefs Tarabya
We had a smorgasbord of delights - starting with a variety of cheeses, meats, jams, olives, etc. while the owners filled us in on their future plans...
Big Chefs Tarabya
which include opening more branches abroad. A second branch will be opened in Dubai and two in Saudi Arabia in 2016 and potential sites are being considered in Asia, Europe and even the USA as well as other cities in Turkey. The owners are very confident in their brand and with their energy and positive attitude, I'm sure they will reach their goals and targets!

Although it is now very hot in Istanbul, when you sit by the Bosphorus at night you are usually very lucky because there is usually a lovely breeze. In fact, it even got a bit chilly so a cup of lentil soup really hit the spot - and it was excellent! The soft cheese and chard leaves was a nice touch!

Lentil soup @ Big Chefs Tarabya
Although our dinner was held on a Tuesday night, Big Chefs Tarabya was packed with diners!

Big Chefs Tarabya

spilling into the indoor section which also houses their open kitchen...

Big Chefs Tarabya
and there is also a lovely lounge area where you can sit, have a cocktail while you are waiting for your table...

Big Chefs Tarabya
For our main course, we were each asked to make our own selection. As I mentioned earlier, the menu is quite big at Big Chefs (breakfast treats, appetizers, salads, burgers, wraps, pizza, pasta, noodles, mains, desserts, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages)! The other thing I like about this casual cafe & brasserie's menu is that photos of many of the dishes served are included and the quality of the photographs are excellent. 

I opted to select the "Beef Tenderloin slices served on a bed of arugula and topped with Parmesan cheese", served with a side of French Fries (which I had previously eaten at at their Etiler branch and loved).

"Beef Tenderloin slices" @Big Chefs Tarabya
The meat was cooked just the way I like it... medium rare.

Finally, it was time for dessert, but unfortunately I have no pictures to share because it was too dark and the photos came out bad. But, take my word for it when I say that the blueberry cheesecake and chocolate layer cake were very good! 

It was a lovely evening! It was a pleasure meeting Ms. Cizreli and Mr. Tan. It was also a night of catching up with old acquaintances and making some new acquaintances.

So... I say, visit the nearest Big Chefs to where you are for a relaxing, casual breakfast, lunch or dinner with friends or family in a delightful setting. Or... go to the Big Chefs Tarabya Beach and soak up some rays!

Gamze Cizreli (standing), Saruhan Tan (far left) 

Stay well,

Side bar:Mr. Tan is a businessman and his family is the owner of YKM Giyim, a well-known retailer in Turkey and this is his first venture into the restaurant industry. He also still retains his role as Chairman of the Board at YKM Tourism and Travel Agency. 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

GEZI ISTANBUL: A refreshng and relaxing retreat in Taksim Square

Dear readers,

As a tourist in Istanbul... you will definitely wind up either visiting or even preferring to stay in the Taksim Square area. Conversely, as a resident, there's always a reason to go to Taksim!

Although Taksim Square is not a picturesque square right now (it used to look better and hopefully it will re-landscaped to attract visitors for its grandeur), it is a major hub and considered the "center of the city". Istiklal Street, the major pedestrian only (will most of the time!) street lined with cafes, retailers, art galleries, hotels, etc. and Sıraselviler Street, which links Taksim Square to Cihangir - a very hip, artsy yet bohemian neighborhood with fancy expensive apartment buildings, boutique hotels, cafes and more are parallel to Taksim Square. On the opposite end of these streets is Gezi Park with its lush gardens among all the concrete where you can sit under the trees and enjoy a break from the hustle and bustle of Taksim Square. 

But, if you want to take a break and have a cup of coffee, breakfast, lunch, cocktails or a casual yet refined dinner, the choices are very minimal right around the Square. 

However... good news! This has changed since the re-opening of Gezi Istanbul which is right next door to Gezi Park and the Atatürk Culture Center (closed for renovations - long story!) in May 2015.

Gezi Istanbul is a multi-level brasserie, pastry shop, cafe, bar and restaurant. It first opened in 1987 and changed ownership in 2002. The current owners closed Gezi Istanbul in mid-2014 for renovations and although the old space was nicely decorated, obviously it not only looks better now - the menu has also been totally revised.

I went to see the new Gezi Istanbul a few weeks ago and had lunch with Fatoş Ertaş Doğan who I met a couple of years ago when she was the Marketing Manager at P.F. Chang's. Since last year, she is part of the Gezi Istanbul team as Marketing Manager and she invited me to lunch so that we can not only catch up (we see each other outside of work), but to also see the new Gezi Istanbul.

I must say I was impressed! On the ground level and to the left is a lovely new terrace for outdoor wining and dining.

Gezi Istanbul outdoor terrace

Once you walk inside, you will be totally enticed with the selection of chocolates, cakes, savory and sweet pastries that Gezi Istanbul is known for.

Gezi Istanbul 
Once you successfully pass through this area without burying your face in the delectable treats, you are confronted with another beautifully decorated hallway... 

Gezi Istanbul
Leading you to the indoor wining and dining area of Gezi Istanbul.

Gezi Istanbul
I preferred to sit in the newly designed 2nd floor restaurant, so we headed upstairs to another world all together!

Gezi Istanbul - 2nd floor restaurant
While the downstairs is casual elegant, the upstairs is refined elegant with seating for about 40 people, overlooks a portion of Taksim Square and has a fully-stocked elegant bar.

Gezi Istanbul - 2nd floor restaurant
me with Fatoş Ertaş Doğan at Gezi Istanbul
While the Brasserie menu at Gezi Istanbul is quite extensive with a wide choice of Turkish and international selections (starters, sandwiches, salads, burgers, pasta, mains, etc.); the restaurant menu is smaller and doesn't include most "cafe fare". I don't need to mention the delectable desserts do I? The prices vary but are comparable to other venues of the same  quality. I was also impressed that Gezi Istanbul had a modestly priced wine list with a good choice of Turkish & International wines and most are also available by the glass.

After reviewing the menus, I suggested we order dishes from both menus, but those that are "different" and not very "typical".

We started our meal with two appetizers: Spicy Shrimp (26 TL) and Yellow Fin Tuna Tartar with avocado puree, soy sauce and topped with crunchy fried onion bits (35 TL). Both are available on the restaurant menu, but the Spicy Shrimp is only available on brasserie menu. 

Spicy Shrimp @ Gezi Istanbul
Yellow Fin Tuna Tartar @ Gezi Istanbul
The Spicy Shrimp might look familiar to those who have dined at P.F. Chang's but not quite. The spicy mayonnaise based sauce was delicious and served on a bed of raw cabbage. I do love shrimp and could have eaten a second serving very easily (can't you tell when you look at my pictures... I'm no Twiggy that's for sure!)

The Yellow Fin Tuna Tartar was "out of this world" to say the least. The dish had perfectly balanced tastes and the crunch that the fried onion bits added to the flavor of the dish was an excellent touch! 

Our next course is listed as Gezi Dumplings (24 TL) on their brasserie menu but called "mantı" in Turkish.

Mantı are bit-sized dumplings stuffed with chopped meat that are normally boiled (fried version available too) like pasta, strained and then served with plain yogurt sauce and drizzled with a spicy paprika based melted butter sauce. The version at Gezi Istanbul is more like a "soup" which I absolutely loved because I'm part Crimean Tartar (on mother's side) and we make a version of this but the dumplings are a little bigger. I couldn't get enough of this dish either.

The last dish we had was also from the Brasserie Menu and listed under the heading Pita.

Browned Lamb Meat "calzone style" @ Gezi Istanbul
Called "pide" in Turkish, it is a savory open-faced or closed savory pastry prepared with fresh dough and then stuffed with a wide selection of fillings but usually cheese, meat or different vegetables - mainly spinach. We had the pide stuffed with mini bite-sized lamb flavored with spices and green bell peppers (19 TL). Pide is an integral and traditional part of Turkish cuisine and I personally believe it is a risk to include it on a "cafe" menu as it takes a certain expertise to prepare it properly. You definitely will not find it on most Turkish cafe menus: they are mainly available at kebab/meat restaurants. Kudos to the chefs at Gezi Istanbul because the pide tasted much better than some I've previously tasted and supposedly prepared by "experts". The thickness of the savory pastry dough was just right; and the balance of the spices and quality of the meat were perfect. 

Although I was totally stuffed by this point, Fatoş said I must try the "specialty of the house" dessert... listed as Ice Cream Profiterole stuffed with vanilla ice cream and topped with Swiss chocolate sauce (14 TL).

Ice Cream Profiterole @Gezi Istanbul
I was definitely in chocolate heaven! I normally do not like profiterole because they are usually stuffed with chocolate cream in Turkey - I prefer white cream. But, the cool vanilla ice cream coupled with the warm chocolate sauce was just divine!

The next time I find myself in the Taksim area, I know I will definitely stop by Gezi Istanbul - even if to just have a cup of coffee, since I'm perpetually battling the bulge - with very little success I might say!

I highly recommend you try Gezi Istanbul too!

Stay well,

Gezi Istanbul
Inönü Caddesi No. 5
Taksim, Istanbul
Tel: (0212) 444 76 39