Saturday, April 6, 2013

Saturday, April 06, 2013 - No comments

Bebek: Istanbul's Macaron Mile

Sometimes Google can lead you down the garden path.  A recent search to find the best macarons on Istiklal Street in Istanbul led me to a whole slew of articles about the police seizing hundreds of kilos of “makarons” that had been smuggled across the border.  

“Wow,” I thought, “the Turks have really gotten serious about their macaron habit!”

As it turns out, the word “makaron” refers both to the airy, ganache filled cookies I love so much, as well as the paper used to roll a cigarette.  It wasn’t boxes of cookies that cops seized in a raid, but paper, filters and cigarette rolling machines.  Now, that sounds more in line with the Turkish addiction I’m familiar with!

That said, I was amazed to discover how many cafes and bakeries in Istanbul DO offer the tiny French delights.  I’d set my heart on doing an Istanbul Macaron Crawl on a recent trip there, and Google Amca (“Uncle Google,” as he is called here) informed me that the district of Bebek is definitely the city’s macaron hot spot, with three different brasseries serving them, all within sight of each other.  I was especially excited that one of them was a Laduree, because I would have the world’s Makaron Ustası (expert) against which to measure all the others.

The Bosphorus sparkled like a sea of sapphires in the unexpected January sunshine as I made my way across to the European Side on the ferry the day of my Istanbul Macaron Crawl.  Perfect outdoor cafe weather.  I’d eaten a hearty breakfast, fortifying my stomach for the sugar-overdose I was about to inflict on it.  (My plan was to bring most of the specimens home to test with my Turkish family, but I had to try some of them at each establishment.  You know, to be able to rate the ambience...)  

Bebek is one of the Bosphorus “villages” that, with time, got eaten up by the metropolis of Istanbul.  Its name means “baby” but it is most definitely a playground for grown-ups.   Pleasure boats bob in the small harbour while women in pricey sunglasses, leggings and boots walk tiny dogs in designer sweaters on the promenade.  Patisseries and cafes line the shore road, their decks extending out onto the Bosphorus for a stunning view.  Bebek is a place to see and be seen.  And to indulge in sweet treats while you’re at it.

I was very disappointed to find this sign where the Laduree should have been:

A street sweeper told me that Laduree had closed down a few months ago.  There went my standard of excellence with which to compare the others.  And the violette cassis macaron I’d been dreaming of since London in November...

The other cafes on my list were Divan (a confectionary chain) and Kitchenette (a chill restaurant that has macarons on the menu.)  But as I strolled the main avenue to get the lay of the land and plot my sugary course, I was delighted to find that a chic looking cafe called Baylan also had macarons in their display window.  I decided to make this my first stop.  

I selected an assortment of flavours to bring home in a box - rose, apricot, strawberry, raspberry, lemon and pistachio - and then got a chocolate and a caramel to have with my latte out on the patio.  The sun on my back, Norah Jones on the radio, the purple-tipped yellow rose on my table and the laughter of the seagulls swooping over the waves let me forgive the cigarette smoke and the nasal Bağdat Caddesi accents of the women around me.  Most seemed to be locals, reading their papers with afternoon tea or checking Facebook on their smart phones and catching up with friends on a day that just begged to be enjoyed outdoors.

My macarons arrived at my table on a cute silver two-tiered truffle tower.  The chocolate one wasn’t nearly chocolate-y enough, and the only flavour that really came through was the almond in the cookie.  (Macarons may be made from almond flour, but if they actually taste like almond, that’s a loss of points in my book.)  Besides that, it was kinda chewy - gummy almost - which might be nice in a chocolate chip cookie, but certainly doesn’t suit a macaron.  The filling in the caramel one had a much stronger flavour which almost overpowered the almond flavour...but not quite.  And this one, rather than being gummy, was a little dry.  So...overall, the view was impressive; the macarons, not so much.  

Baylan's macaron selection
In Baylan’s favour, though, I have to say that their truffle and chocolate counter looked amazing, the jars of multicoloured Jordan almonds gave the place a candy-shoppe feel, and the street-side seating (complete with stand heaters for when the day feels like, well, January) was definitely stylish, so it still gets point for atmosphere.  

Next up was Divan.  The interior of the brasserie was classy and cute at the same time.  The area around the candy counter was dolled up with macaron trees and a mirror covered with macarons.  Seeing the three-tiered macaron-fringed cake, I asked if they did weddings, and the cashier seemed surprised, saying they didn’t.  But, seriously, how fun would a macaron wedding cake be? 

As all the other dine-in customers seemed to be outside on the balcony, I opted instead to sit at one of the storefront tables.  I watched the world stroll by through a display window still decked out with “New Years” fare - polar bears, snow flakes and baubles, mobiles of frosted cookies, all silver and white.  

I got a bergamot çay - wonderfully fresh - and one raspberry, one Turkish coffee, macaron to try on the spot, with vanilla, chocolate, lemon, mint, caramel and passionfruit to try at home.  The raspberry, while it had a nice, zingy flavour, was disappointingly hollow - so much so that the entire top of the shell came off when I took my first bit, revealing a whole lot of defrauding nothingness inside.  The Turkish coffee one, too, fell far below my expectations, tasting a lot more of almond than frothy coffee.  

Disappointingly empty shells at Divan
I did get some good intel from the waiter at Divan, though.  When I explained my Macaron Crawl, he told me to check out Pelit up the street, that they also sold macarons, “though not as good as ours.”  (That was setting the bar low, but for the sake of thorough research, I would give it a shot.)  He also told me that Laduree was no longer doing business in Turkey period.  I wondered why - so far the local competition had paled in comparison to the original.

Pelit was only a take-out confectionary, so I bought a box of six to try at home, with kavun (melon) and yaban mersini (blueberry) being the only variations from the usual flavours.  

I made my way up the street to my last stop, Kitchenette, wishing that the walk had been a little further to give me a chance to walk the edge off my sugar buzz.  Kitchenette differed from the previous establishments in that it wasn’t a patisserie but a swanky bistro that happens to have macarons on their dessert menu.  Case in point:  when I asked to see their selection, the obliging waiter led me past their patio diners and the pool tables, big screen TVs and laptop-users inside, up a flight of stairs to the completely empty second floor, behind the counter to the pastry fridge where he pulled out a dinner plate containing about fifteen macarons covered in plastic wrap that looked like they’d been sitting there a week.  Still, research is research, so I selected a chocolate and a passionfruit and asked for a çay to go with them.  

I settled in at a low table by the window with brown and blue damask cushions on short stools and enjoyed the jazz on the radio and the Bosphorus across the street.  I smiled when my çay arrived on the same little blue and white saucer that surely every Turkish housewife in the nation has sitting in her cupboard.  (Only in a place like this, they know that people like me will pay two lira and call it “nostalgic.”)  

My macarons were the most well-formed I’d seen all day, with tall “feet” and a good amount of filling.  The passionfruit (orange in colour, with chocolate ganache and some cocoa dusted on top) was a little dry, but the subtle tangy flavour came through slowly and made for a pleasant surprise.  Now it was down to the chocolate:  the last specimen of the day.  I stared at it for a good while, feeling like if I ate even one more macaron it might make for a very unpleasant scene on the ferry home.  When I finally got up the courage to take a bite, I found it to be like a not-too-sweet brownie in taste and texture.  The dull, matte look to the ganache (I’m a sheen-girl myself) was less than appealing, but it was the least almond-y I’d had all day (major bonus points there) and I declared it the best of the bunch.  

Chocolate and Passionfruit @ Kitchenette
The next day, after a prolonged photo session with my colourful little models (watched with amusement by a lady in her window across the street), my Turkish mom and sister and I sat down to rate and rank the selection of macarons I’d brought home.  Now, I have to say, these two were real troopers.  They dove in and took the point system very seriously and gave great commentary that, unfortunately, isn’t as funny translated.  Mom looked like she’d gone into a sugar coma by the end of it, and we all decided it was unwise to consume 16 macarons in one sitting, but we pushed through to the end and finished strong.

How we felt after 16 macarons.....
I’ll spare you the nitty gritty on each macaron and give you the highlights.

For all of Divan’s fancy mac decor and claims of being the best, none of us were impressed with them overall.  Cinnamon is not a flavour I would have picked for a macaron, but it was surprisingly good.  The mint, on the other hand, was toothpaste-y, the Turkish coffee too almond-y (what is WITH that?) and the vanilla was voted “an unnecessary waste of space in our stomachs” - so much so that between the three of us, we didn’t even bother to finish it. 

I didn’t expect to be a fan of Pelit’s macs (I truly think the sight of plastic wrap over a tray, just like at Kitchenette, made me set my expectations low) but there were several of theirs I really liked.  Had it not been so dry, the coffee one would’ve gotten a nearly perfect score from me.  (Finally someone conquered the almond issue and hit the mark on caffeinated ganache!)  The caramel elicited a “Bu ne be?” (“What in the heck is this supposed to be?”) due to the fact that, had I not written down what I’d bought, we wouldn’t have any clue what flavour it was trying to be.  My sister, who possesses a lifelong disdain for the taste of butter, declared most of them flops due to its prominence in their flavour, but we all gave the melon rave reviews for being original and tasting like “a cookieful of fresh fruit juice.”

I thought Baylan’s macarons needed a lot more filling and wasn’t a fan of the way their too-smooth surface lent an artificial air, but the rest of the jury agreed that “these guys really know what they’re doing.”  I guess they have a higher tolerance for almond flavour than I do.  The lemon had a near-perfect texture - just the right amount of crunch to the shell, with a nice “give” when you bit in, though we all agreed we would have preferred lemon jelly to the light cream filling.  I did forgive the almond faux pas, though, on the apricot, to which we all said, “Mmmmmmm......”  The best kind of winner is the one you don’t see coming, and the real bits of apricot inside knocked our socks off, scoring a 9.5 and two 10s from the judges. the end, I’d highly recommend Pelit’s melon and Baylan’s apricot.  I suppose which establishment you consider to be the Bebek Macaron Master depends on whether or not you’re a fan of almond, or butter, or plastic wrap.  And if I were to have to pick a favourite Istanbul macaron, it would actually be a more recently tasted caramel one from Beyaz Fırın in Kadıköy who, unfortunately, have yet to open a location on Bebek’s Macaron Mile.  Maybe they’ll open up shop where the old Laduree was and become the jewel in Bebek’s macaron crown!