Ali Ocakbaşı Herengracht

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.

The entrance to Ali on the corner of Herengracht

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!

Raki: fresh from the lion's teat

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.

Meze, Efes and raki. The makings of a good evening.

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.

The kuzu şiş in the foreground, and the ali nazik in the background.

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.

A close-up of the ali mixed grill.

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.

Complimentary baklava and Turkish coffee. This was a good day.

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 price list. Just close your eyes and think of the meat.

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.

Results

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

Meraklı Köfteci Hermannstraße 174

Greetings, Döner Fans! Dr Döner has been eating kebabs with reckless abandon this week; so far thankfully without ill effects. Today the surfeit of meat continued. One particular kebab establishment near Leinestraße had been catching my attention over the past few days. A big, red sign had been announcing the presence of the ‘Meşhur’ Meraklı Köfteci shop – meşhur meaning ‘famous’ and meraklı meaning ‘curious’. Though you’ll find that most kebab restaurants seem to think themselves famous. Anyway, my cravings drove me into the Köfteci’s meaty embrace and I ordered an Adana Kebap Ekmek Arası, or an Adana Kebab (minced lamb) in bread.

The famous Meraklı Köfteci shop. What do you mean you haven't heard of it??

The interior was sort of standard and plasticky, though the display beneath the counter looked very fresh with its assortment of meats and salads. Rather than your standard döner shop, this was a specialty kebab, köfte and soup establishment along the lines of Baba Sultan in Wedding (which incidentally also considers itself famous – rightly so!) Waiting at a table before the counter, I was kept entertained by a Turkish music channel on the main TV in the corner. Meanwhile, the Adana Kebab was cooked before my eyes and a fresh dollop of yoghurt was slopped into the bread, followed by some spicy sauce. Lettuce and red onion were sprinkled on, followed by a row of tomatoes carefully arranged on top, and garnished with a pinch of red sumac. It looked and smelled very promising.

The piles of mince and veg beneath the counter bathe in an appetising pink glow.

Handing over my 4,50 I took the kebab back to the flat and ate it. It was very good. The yoghurt and the spicy sauce mingled deliciously, each trying to overcome the other. The salad was fresh and the meat was finely spiced. All in all, its quality approached the heady heights of Baba Sultan standards, and its popularity was attested by the large number of customers dining at the tables outside on this warm August day. If you are ever on Hermannstraße, then Meraklı Köfteci comes highly recommended. Afiyet olsun!

The Adana Kebab. Very tasty!

Results

Service: 4/5 (good)

Atmosphere: 4/5 (popular and relaxed)

Price: 4/5 (good)

Taste: 5/5 (very nice)

To Recap: What Have We Learned?

“meşhur” [mesh-hoor] (famous)

“meraklı” [mer-ack-luh] (curious)

Photography by Dr. Döner

Cafe Pera – 57 Elm Row, Edinburgh

Hello Döner Fans! I hope this finds you well. On a sunny day this week, Dr Döner was back in Edinburgh again. Had he gone for the Festival? Was he there to soak up cutting-edge theatre and stand-up comedy? No, he was not. He was there to sample a new Turkish restaurant called Cafe Pera, which has recently opened on Elm Row. And he was in for a treat!

Pera, as we all know, is the historical name for a formerly European mercantile quarter of Istanbul, now known as Beyoğlu, on the Western side of the city. It was renowned for its nightlife and illicit delights and, to an extent, still is. The delights at Edinburgh’s Cafe Pera were thankfully very licit, and my companions and I were lured in by the array of delicious meze on display in the front window. Keen to try everything, we ordered the mixed meze platter to share, and I followed this with the Pera mixed grill.

The bountiful spread of the Cafe Pera mixed meze for three

The meze platter offered a vast selection of tasty morsels, both familiar and unfamiliar. It boasted cacık (tzatziki), turşu (pickled vegetables), various creamed and spicy vegetable and nut pastes, and a basket of freshly baked pide (bread). It was a generous platter, and the flavours were good. Our appetites were well whetted for the grilled kebabs that were to follow. And we were served by an absolute gent named Savaş, who diligently checked on us throughout the course of our meal to ensure that everything was satisfactory. He brought us our main course and we tucked in.

Cafe Pera mixed grill

The mixed grill consisted of chicken şiş (cubed, skewered meat), lamb şiş, and lamb köfte (skewered mince) nestled on a bed of bulgur with a small portion of çoban salatası (shepherd’s salad), which is tomato, cucumber, onion, chilli pepper and parsley. The meat was tender and juicy. The chicken in particular was done to perfection, and nicely spiced. Best of all was the lamb köfte, however, whose mix of herbs gave it a full and rich flavour. In all, it was magnificent.

Unfortunately, Dr Döner had pigged out on the meze. Yes, he had stuffed himself beyond the point of redemption. It was a study in gluttony. The result was that, when the kebab arrived, he was unable to finish it all by himself, and was forced to leave a piece of lamb şiş and half a piece of chicken. If anyone thought that this faux pas would go unremarked, they were wrong. Savaş looked anxious as he lifted my plate and asked why I hadn’t finished. I gushed that it had been delicious but that I was too full and had had to leave a small portion of it. He went away. But then he came back. Words had been had in the kitchen, and he wanted to know if the meat had not been good. I offered my most profuse flattery, saying that it had all been excellent, but that I had eaten far too much of the equally delicious meze to stuff in any more. He looked relieved. The crisis had been averted.

Lamb Kavurma (stew), eaten by a fellow diner, and equally delectable

When it came to order coffees, my cover was finally blown. I asked Savaş for a Türk kahvesi (Turkish coffee) and asked for it orta şekerli (medium sweet). His eyes lit up. He asked me in Turkish where I had learned these words. And then the whole tale came out. I regaled him with my time in Istanbul, and he beamed as he replied that he was from Istanbul himself, from Üsküdar on the Eastern shore. To prove our new camaraderie, he brought me my coffee in a special cup, not the one he gives the tourists! And the coffee was perfect, everything was perfect. When the time came to pay the bill, he brought us a dish of Turkish delight.

‘What is name?’ he asked cheerfully, proffering the dish.

I told him my name.

‘No,’ he said, pointing to the Turkish delight. ‘What is name of this?’

‘Oh…’ I said, red-faced. ‘It’s called lokum.’

‘Yes!’ he beamed. ‘Turkish delight is lokum!’

When we left, Savaş shook my hand for so long that I thought he wouldn’t let go, and invited us to come back later for raki. And that, Döner Fans, proves once more the undeniable friendliness of the Turkish people. They are some of the world’s best hosts: conscientious and welcoming to a fault. We departed, promising to return once again, satisfied with our food and with the service, having enjoyed a very good, and very hospitable, afternoon. Cafe Pera gets the Dr Döner seal of approval!

Results

Service: 5/5 (impeccable)

Atmosphere: 5/5 (very nice, with Turkish lamps and art deco photography)

Price: 5/5 (very good)

Taste: 5/5 (delicious)

To Recap: What Have We Learned?

“cacık” [ja-jick] (Turkish tzatziki)

“turşu” [toor-shoo] (pickled vegetables)

“pide” [pee-day] (flat bread)

“şiş” [sheesh] (cubed, skewered meat)

“köfte” [köf-teh] (mince, either in meatball-form or on a skewer)

“çoban salatası” [cho-ban sa-la-ta-suh] (shepherd’s salad)

“Türk kahvesi” [toork kah-fe-see] (Turkish coffee)

“orta şekerli” [or-ta sheck-er-lee] (medium sweet)

“lokum” [low-come] (Turkish delight)

Photography courtesy of Ms. I. McQueen

Mercan Restaurant – Wiener Straße 10

Hello, Döner Fans.  Dr Döner is back on home turf. Yes, I have been applying my skills to Berlin’s meaty offerings once more, and this time with a tale of great success! The scene is central Kreuzberg, which no doubt is familiar to most of you who live in this city. Anyway, as fate would have it my employment circumstances now permit me to frequent this choice area of Berlin with its plentiful international cuisine. Colleagues of mine had informed me of a hidden gem nearby: a cosy Turkish restaurant serving tasty home cooking at a bargain price. Whipped into a meaty fervour, we boldly set off one lunchtime to uncover the delights of Mercan restaurant.

The entrance to Mercan, viewed from the pavement on Wiener Straße

The interior of Mercan was quaint and pleasing, with stone arches and wooden furniture, and a selection of coloured Turkish lamps hanging from the ceiling. At the counter, a host of different meals offered up their tasty waftings. We each ordered the ‘menü’, which consists of a plate of one of the daily specials, accompanied by a plate of salad and Turkish rice. All for a cheeky 6 Euros. I chose the Turkish moussaka, as did both my fellow diners, and we took our places in the comfortable dining area.

Menü: the food was actually much better than it looks in the photograph

I should mention that all the staff were very friendly. Our meals were brought with a smile, and I was delighted to find that the food was delicious. As with a lot of traditional Turkish cooking, the food at Mercan was quite oily, but the flavours were authentic and reminiscent of the kind of cooking you will find in the traditional restaurants of back-street Istanbul. The salad was authentically sharp and spicy – such was the quality of this simple food that Dr Döner was quite robbed of his speech! Yes, he noshed in silence. To top it all, we were offered a round of free Turkish tea once our meal was finished, which rounded it off nicely. A Note On Etiquette: in Turkey, if you are given free tea, it is considered polite to clear it up and take it with you to the counter once you are finished. This is clearly not common knowledge in the German capital, since the staff reacted in surprise and delight when we brought our empty tea glasses with us when we went to pay. The money was handed over, a tip was given, and a smattering of Turkish pleasantries were exchanged, before it was finally time to leave. I exited Mercan feeling well-fed and well looked-after. Thank you, Mercan! Dr Döner will be back again!

A free round of Turkish tea: it's not a meal without one

Results

Service: 5/5 (very friendly and welcoming)

Atmosphere: 5/5 (quaint and authentic)

Price: 5/5 (very reasonable)

Taste: 5/5 (delicious)

Note that this is currently the top-scorer: a full 20/20!

Photography courtesy of Ms. S. Clarke

Pamfilya Ocakbaşı, Luxemburger Str. 1

Hello Döner Fans. If you take a stroll along Luxemburger Straße in the bustling district of Wedding, then chances are you will pass by a number of equally bustling Turkish restaurants and fast-food establishments. So it always has been, and so it always will be. But hark! Of late there is a new player in this Great Game of rival food-vendors, which has thrust open its doors to the hungry passer-by. I bring you news of Pamfilya Ocakbaşı, a spanking new restaurant right in the heart of the up-and-coming Sprengelkiez (or whatever the estate agents are trying to call the area) where one can purchase a veritable smorgasbord of regional culinary delicacies from the Anatolian peninsula. Yes, its doors are open for business and its grills are jostling with choice kebab meat. Having passed by this bright red neon siren-in-the-night for a couple of weeks I, Dr Döner, decided to take my photographer in tow and avail myself of the choice nibbles that were no doubt to be found within.

The bright lights of Pamfilya viewed from across the road

The slightly dingy-looking customers ogled us suspiciously as we swung into the restaurant, and we took a table at the back in order to gain a commanding view of the interior. The menu was brought, and I have to say my mouth watered at the glistening images of meat and bread and salads that were illustrated therein. Having braved a cold and windy evening to be there, I rewarded myself by ordering none other than a plateful of Adana kebab which, as we all know, consists of minced lamb served with bread and salad, and garnished with one green pepper and half a red tomato. When it came, I tucked in with gusto.

Adana kebab, and some manly elbows

The flavours were very pleasant and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed that meal. The atmosphere inside the restaurant was pretty standard for a middle-range kebab house, and the staff were friendly enough. Prices were reasonable for what you got, considering it was a sit-down meal, and I was also made aware of the daily specials which looked very appetising and could be bought fairly inexpensively during the day. All in all, it was a very tasty experience. Nothing out of the ordinary, and certainly nothing to challenge the majesty of Baba Sultan meatball house which could be glimpsed just across the street (for no restaurant can hope to approach the perfection that those meatball-artisans weave into their grilled goods) but it was nonetheless a very enjoyable experience. Bravo, Pamfilya! Dr Döner may well be back again.

The interior - note the shifty character in the corner

Results

Service: 3/5 (friendly)

Atmosphere: 3/5 (standard for a kebab restaurant)

Price: 3/5 (reasonable)

Taste: 3/5 (tasty!)

Baba Sultan Köfteci, Luxemburger Str. 34

WARNING: delicious! Hello Döner fans. I knew you’d be back. Today I have a tale of the utmost deliciousness to recount. Let me lay the scene. Some family members had come to visit me. As every good host knows, when family come to visit it is only polite to show them the hotspots of the local area. You may be thinking Brandenburg Gate. You may be thinking Berlin Wall. And these would be good guesses. But I was thinking: kebab.

Baba Sultan: the place to be at 4am

Please don’t think that I didn’t first pad the evening out with other activities before ploughing straight into a kebab, Döner fans. Naturally I took my visitors to a few choice bars around Rosenthaler Platz in order to prepare the palate for what was to come. Once suitably in the mood we headed to Wedding, which as everyone knows is the best place to get decent Turkish food. The taxi driver dumped us outside the Baba Sultan meatball house and we gleefully stumbled inside.

Baba Sultan: interior shot of the VIP lounge

Forgive me for veering off topic a little. I understand that this is a blog about DÖNER and not about MEATBALLS. But variety is the spice of life, Döner fans! And the food at Baba Sultan was so good that I could not help but share it with you. I ordered an İnegöl meatball sandwich with salad and spicy sauce, and took a seat in the rear room with a steaming cup of Turkish tea. My guests did the same. After a jolly 20 minutes talking to the staff, my food was brought to me and what a delight it was!

Tea and meatballs at Baba Sultan

Let me start with the salad. This was not some cheap joint which served dried up lettuce and disgusting red cabbage. No, my İnegöl meatballs lay nestled on a bed of fresh rocket, onion, mint and other things too delightful to remember! The meatballs themselves were rich in flavour and nicely moist, while the bread was fresh and delicious. Washed down with Turkish tea, it was a fine repast. So profusely did I regale the staff with my gratitude that they were moved to offer us all another round of free tea. However, it had been a long night and we took our leave and slumped off to bed. A delicious way to finish the night – thank you, Baba Sultan! I’ll come again.

Prising open the vessel of pleasure

The Results

Service: 5/5 (very friendly and obliging)

Atmosphere: 3/5 (nice enough)

Price: 3/5 (a little pricey)

Taste: 5/5 (delicious!)

WARNING

Watch out for the spicy sauce people, because Baba Sultan does not muck about! No joke. If you stagger in at 4am looking worse for wear and ask for the spicy sauce, then that is what they will freakin give you!