Welcome back, Döner Fans. And welcome to the sixtieth post on the Dr Döner blog! Sixty posts in four years might not sound like a lot. But rest assured I have had far more than sixty kebabs in that time. (Often I bought them from places that I had already reviewed.)
And so, in honour of this small milestone, I thought I’d review one of the best ever Turkish restaurants that I have been to. Yes, you read correctly. This is a true giant of Turkish cuisine, a palace of mouth-watering meats and spices, with warm and welcoming staff and a beautiful, traditional interior. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been there. (It was certainly often enough for them to start recognising me – always a danger in the food-review business.) And so without further ado, I give you Amsterdam’s very own: Ali Ocakbaşı!
First of all, the word ‘ocakbaşı’ [o-jack-bash-eugh] is a Turkish word which literally means ‘top of the oven’. This refers to a traditional type of restaurant which specialises in meals that are grilled on open fiery coals. (I can feel myself beginning to salivate even as I type.) Amsterdam’s Ali Ocakbaşı is located on the corner of Herengracht and Utrechtsestraat, not far from Rembrandt Square, and is based on the original Ali restaurant in Istanbul.
A Turkish friend recommended Ali Ocakbaşı to me, and I am eternally grateful that he did. On stepping off the street, diners are greeted to a hearty ‘Hoş geldiniz!’ [hosh gel-din-iz] (welcome) by the cheerful staff. You can sit downstairs (where the service is usually at its heartiest) or in the upstairs gallery which offers a view over the canal and the street. (If you sit on the side facing Utrechtsestraat you can even have a glimpse into the ‘coffee shop’ opposite, from which I have seen one or two former colleagues sheepishly emerging.) In terms of drinks, it is traditional to have a crisp glass of Turkish Efes Pilsner, but a nice glass of red wine will also go well with the succulent meat dishes that you will soon be enjoying.
One thing that I always have with my meal is a glass of rakı. This is the famed aniseed-flavoured drink known sometimes as ‘lion’s milk’, and it is served in a narrow tumbler with optional ice and water. Personally I like to fill up the tumbler with ice and add only a dash of water to make the raki turn cloudy, while maintaining the thick, milky flavour of this potent Turkish tipple. But be warned, Döner Fans: two or three of these cheeky little snifters and you will be well on your way!
Starters are served from a traditional meze platter. There is a large array of choice, but I would personally recommend the çiğköfte [chee-keuhf-tay]. This consists of delicate patties of ground meat and spices, served with salad leaves and fresh lemon. The staff may try to tell you that the meat is raw. But don’t worry, I’ve always been fine afterwards. In any case, no doubt the raki kills off anything untoward. Your meze is served together with a complimentary basket of hot and freshly-baked Turkish puffy bread, which needless to say is also delicious.
One peculiarity at Ali’s is that you are usually asked for your main course order only after you have finished your meze. However, the service is quick and usually you will not have to wait long. I can recommend three main course dishes that I have found to be of particular excellence.
- The first is the kuzu şiş: this consists of succulent pieces of cubed lamb which are literally oozing with juices. These generous chunks simply melt in the mouth.
- The second is the ali nazik: this consists of minced kebab and spices served on a bed of creamed aubergine. This was my regular Friday night treat back when I was living in Istanbul, and is a true meaty, creamy delight.
- The third is the ali fıstıklı: this is ground meat and spices laced with shards of pistachio, which add an extra note of refinement to this kebab’s already tantalising set of flavours.
All these main meals are served with Turkish flat bread, a portion of Turkish bulgur, a minty rocket salad, and a grilled tomato and green pepper. All this is served on a spacious wooden board to accommodate this vast smorgasbord of culinary delights.
When I first started going to Ali, I found the portion sizes too large to finish. But with practice, this no longer became a problem. Copious servings of Efes and raki tend to help. The décor in the interior is rustic chic, and combines a home-cooking feel with stylish Turkish panache. But to be honest, the food is so good that they could serve it to me from a bucket in a shed and I would still recommend it.
Be friendly to the staff. Attempt a few words in Turkish with them, if you can. I have been rewarded with free raki, Turkish tea, and coffee simply for throwing in the occasional phrase in Turkish. On one memorable occasion the mood was so jolly that we received a free serving of baklava on the house.
At the end of your meal, the only downside may be the bill. Yes, Ali Ocakbasi tends towards the expensive side. For a main meal you are looking at 22 or 23 Euros. However, it is Dr Döner’s editorial opinion that the price is worth it. I am yet to have a better Turkish meal than the fare that is served in Ali’s.
The prime location of the restaurant also means that you are only a very short walk either from Rembrandt Square and the city centre, or the many traditional Dutch bars that are to be found along Utrechtsestraat (if the raki has not rendered you too legless). Ali Ocakbasi is somewhere I will be returning to. Give it a try if you’re ever in Amsterdam, Döner Fans! You won’t regret it.
Service: 5/5 (warm and friendly)
Atmosphere: 5/5 (stylish but homey)
Price: 4/5 (pricey but well worth it)
Taste: 5/5 (maaşallah!)
Photographs taken by Dr. Döner