Don’t you love these superlative claims? I’ve made them myself before and in publications I try to push editors to use Five Great (or Good) Places to Dine on Bugs or whatever, rather than the Five Best Ever Flavors of Doritos. But a number of websites all make the claim (or borrow it from each other?) that the best Turkish coffee in Istanbul, nay, the world, is at Mandabatmaz. Well 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong and neither can the tidal wave of bloggers, I suppose. But I had to know for myself.
We ventured into Istiklal Cadessi to see what the coffee buzz was all about.
Down Olivia Gecidi, a narrow walking alley off the pedestrian mall of Istiklal, is a little coffee shop with barely room for half a dozen people to sit inside, and as many short stools and tables out on the walk.
This is where Cemil Filik has been making Turkish coffee for over 47 years. He learned from his older brother, and when his brother left, he took over. Mandabatmaz has always been in this location but back in the day the neighbors were Greeks and Armenians, he told me. Right across the alley were some Italians. It’s true the whole Beyoğlu area was predominantly where the non-Turks and many Western Europeans used to reside. Back then Beyoğlu was known as Pera, a name still held by a few hotels, restaurants, and the district’s museum.
Much has been written and argued about Turkish coffee, regarding both its method of preparation and its origins. But what I saw Mr. Filik do was outside all the common wisdom. I have always been told that the process should start with cold water and requires a long slow heating period that ends with the foam rising before removing the little copper cezve from the heat. Some say you repeat this once or twice. Well there was none of that at Mandabatmaz. Filik is making this stuff all day. He couldn’t say how many cups he makes in a day, but he went through at least 3 kilos of coffee, three tiny spoonfuls at a time.
I watched him make several cups. He starts with tiny tea spoons of sugar — depending on the order: sade (plain), orta (medium), or sekerli (sweet) — then throws in three heaping spoonfuls of the finely ground coffee. Then he adds — hold on to your seats here — hot water. He stirs this all together very carefully. Then he holds the cezve in a powerful blue flame until the foam rises. Then he pours it swiftly into the serving cup he just warmed with some more hot water, and then takes care to put in the last thicker portion carefully suspended on top without too much foam or crema. I was shocked and thought, A-ha! Not worth the hype!
Until I tasted it. Is it the best? I can’t say, not having tasted every cup of Turkish coffee in a city of well over 13 million at modest estimates. But it is noticeably different and tastier than much of what I’ve ever had. Could everyone else be wrong about the brewing technique? I can’t imagine the busy restaurants are making Turkish coffee with a time-consuming, intensive method either.
“Manda batmaz” literally means “the buffalo doesn’t sink.” I tried to ask him why he named the place this and I don’t think the question translated. It’s just the name he chose and that’s that. He showed me a certificate of trademark on the wall.
**As commenter Connor noted below, the idea of this Turkish expression about an unsinking buffalo is that the foam on top of a good cup of Turkish coffee is so thick that even a buffalo would float.
Is it worth it? Surely. Especially as it is near such a popular promenade in Istanbul and offers a brief respite from the crowd.
Olivia Gecidi, Beyoğlu, Istanbul, Turkey
They also serve Turkish tea!