Food review: Istanbul, Shrewsbury
If you’re not heading off on holiday enjoy Middle Eastern delights on your doorstep. Andy Richardson samples authenic Turkish food. . .
We waited too long to get started. The waitress serving on a quiet Monday night had two other tables to attend to, which meant we sat twiddling thumbs while we might have been cooling down with glasses of something pleasant.
Her manner when she eventually arrived, however, was exceptional. Istanbul is a family restaurant and grill where guests are treated almost like friends. A warm welcome awaits – providing you don’t mind waiting until staff get around to your table.
The owners are thoroughly pleasant people. Full of bonhomie and character, they are a part of the attraction. Their restaurant is bedecked in all manner of Turkish charms and paintings; from murals to pictures and dangling blue ceramic ‘eyes’ – I think they’re meant to be some sort of charm that protects against bad luck. The Nazar Boncuğu is not just a Turkish tradition anymore though it is present in the grand bazaar of panoramic viewpoint in Cappadocia, where they hang off trees providing many perfect photo opportunities.
Friendly service isn’t the only defining characteristic of Istanbul. Gargantuan portions and robust cooking also help to make it stand out.
When we visited for a quiet supper, my partner ate two starters – rather than a starter and a main – and still found herself unable to manage a dessert. I opted for a traditional starter followed by a main and was unable to eat all of the latter. “The portions are quite big,” joked the waitress. She wasn’t kidding. Big handfuls of meat accompanied by great dollops of starch and a mini side-salad is the order of the day. Other tables were eating their main courses with chips and rice in scenes reminiscent of ITV’s Benidorm; where Monty Staines habitually orders two starchy sides rather than one.
We started with a small bakset of fresh bread served with black and green olives, a yoghurt mint dip and a tomato and vegetable salsa. The bread was magnificent; light and soft, like a pillow, and perfect for tearing, sharing and dipping.
My starter was a Turkish flat bread that had been smeared with lamb mince and finely chopped vegetables and herbs, then folded in half. It was delicious. Served with a big wedge of lemon, all the better for squeezing and adding a splash of citrusy acid to cut through the savoury lamb, it was big on flavour and a pleasant way to begin.
My partner started with large pan fried king prawns that had been cooked with garlic butter and pepper flakes and finished with lemon juice. Served with their head and shell on with a little salad, they were decent, though more seasoning was required. It was pretty tasty but in no way exceptional.
My partner had spied the size of the portions heading out to other tables while we perused the menu. And so, cleverly, she opted to order a second starter, rather than a main, for her supper. The dish she chose was creamy garlic mushrooms, which had been pan fried and served with white wine, garlic and cream. They were served alongside fresh homemade bread and were one of the stand-out courses of the evening. Simple food is a delight when executed properly and there was everything to love and nothing to dislike about the course.
Bravely, I’d gone large by ordering lamb shish kebab that featured tender marinated lamb cubes skewered and cooked on a charcoal grill. The meat was delicious. Tender, slightly singed so that the exterior had strong caramelised flavours and wonderfully seasoned with a Turkish marinade, it was delightful – though, as ever, there was much too much of it. The sides were less impressive. A timbale of over-cooked rice with peas was so soft that it had become sticky while a side salad seemed to be little more than a passing thought. There were no marks for presentational flair, though the key ingredient – the lamb – was a delight.
Desserts looked like a mixed bag, with various filo pastry and syrup treats, Turkish-style milky chocolate pudding and cold rice pudding mixing with such distinctly un-Turkish numbers as Oreo Cookie cake and Ferrero Rocher ice cream. Though the rice pudding and milky chocolate number sounded fine, neither of us could summon the necessary appetite after being over-loaded with protein and carbs from the earlier courses.
The service throughout had been engaging and warm; the waitress interacting properly when she visited the table rather than offering the fake, air-kissing ‘have-a-nice-day’ nonsense that some of the corporate chains offer.
It wasn’t a stellar dinner, in truth. The slow start and unrefined eating options meant it was a fun evening, rather than anything memorable.
And yet Istanbul is an important restaurant in Shropshire’s culinary firmament.
The county provides dining around the world for those willing to search out decent independent restaurants and Istanbul isn’t so different from the food you’d find at a Greek taverna on the side of the Bosporus. It had all of the classics you’d expect to find in an atypical taverna – with plenty of bread, lamb, salads, appetisers and a couple of fish dishes.
Shropshire has a number of international restaurants that offer great nights out; from Persian and Thai to Bangladeshi, Japanese, Italian, Spanish and French – and Istanbul offers something distinctly different.
I’m not sure the restaruant’s pile-it-high policy is entirely necessary. I’ve visited twice and on both occasions been unable to make my way through a starter and a main – not through lack of appetite but because the portions have been XXXXXXXXL.
The flipside, I suppose, is that there is a market here in Shropshire for diners who want value for money and who judge the merit of their dinner by whether there’s a gut-busting sensation at the end of the evening. At Istanbul, there very definitely is.
The cooking was pretty good. There was no particular finesse, rather more well-cooked fish and meat with unremarkable salads and starch. It’s a formula that has made the restaurant popular with customers over several years and judging by the smiles of our fellow diners, it continues to do so.