Café Niko: Goodbye, Lari

Café Niko, photo by Ansel Mullins

In a desk drawer at Istanbul Eats HQ is an envelope of leftovers from days when life was less sedentary: Tajik somoni, Kyrgyz som, Cypriot pounds, a wad of Macedonian denar and a small stack of Georgian lari. As with the last bite on the plate, it’s impossible to throw money away, no matter how unstable the currency. But the real value of having it on hand is that it makes a return visit seem likely, even pending.

Our plans to return to Georgia were made, cancelled, rescheduled and cancelled again. It would seem our lari would never be much more than a filthy little memento, an IOU from the National Bank of Georgia for a khachapuri that would never be cashed in.

Then we read about Café Euro – now, sadly, closed – on Delicious Istanbul and felt inspired to head to Aksaray in search of somewhere to spend our lari. We had a hunch that where there was one Georgian restaurant there was bound to be another. We asked a bus driver who had just pulled in from Tbilisi where the hungry Georgians go and he directed us into a small alley of shops and up an AstroTurfed flight of stairs to Café Niko. Those stairs opened onto a wide porch that was also AstroTurfed and filled almost to capacity with Georgian men in beachwear – swimsuits, tank tops, Capri pants and flip-flops – drinking bottles of Tuborg and little Turkish tea glasses filled with chacha, Georgian grape moonshine.

We settled at a table inside, away from the raucous balcony, and were presented with a menu in Georgian by a woman who spoke neither Turkish nor English and did not seem impressed by our enthusiasm for Georgian food. We felt the sweet tingle of challenge that comes with the first meal in a foreign country. We used every word of Georgian that remained in our vocabulary: khachapuri, lobio, khinkali, chacha and madloba (“thank you”). Just then a great, big, round man named Beso poked his head out of the kitchen and bellowed, “Georgian food is great!”

In his limited English, Beso explained that he’d come to Istanbul from Batumi six months earlier to work at Café Niko. He planned to stay in Istanbul a few more months and then go back. He brought over a small glass of chilled chacha and pointed to a row of black jerry cans under a table. “No fabrika, home wine!” he smiled. This chacha had the fire of similar “home wines” we’d had all over the Balkans but with a nice fruity nose and no presence whatsoever of the gasoline cans it was transported in.

Then came the dish that always reminds us of Tbilisi: lobio, one of our favorite preparations of red kidney beans. Even living in Turkey, where beans are taken very seriously, the feel of a clay mug of beans in hand, the surprising appearance of cilantro, peppers and garlic, and the sight of people eating beans on the side of a Georgian roadside are our idea of bean heaven. Café Niko’s lobio managed to conjure up that memory.

The waitress sat down at our table without a word and changed the channel from Rustavi 2 to Ajara TV, where an infomercial for cellulite cream played in Georgian. She left the table and Beso brought out the Georgian dumplings. We have a soft spot for dumplings, be they Circassian, Dagestani, Uighur, Turkish or Georgian. Dumplings are an easily appreciated Eurasian handicraft – like a hand-knit sweater, there’s technique, but mostly a lot of homely love involved. These khinkali were great pleated bundles filled loosely with ground lamb and onions and a thin fragrant broth, so utterly homemade and grandmotherly that we couldn’t believe they were being served in a bus station in Aksaray. Delicious, in a word.

Beso reported that the khachapuri would take a while to make and offered us goulash, salad or shashlik instead. It turned out he was offering pork shashlik, a rarity in Istanbul. He confirmed that, like most everything else in the restaurant – suluguni cheese for the khachapuri, Georgian “limonat,” Nabeghlavi mineral water, homemade chacha – the pork is bused in from Georgia. We quickly signed up for an order of pork shashlik.

During its preparation, men wandered in from the porch, shaking the entire structure of the restaurant as they moved toward the cooler and helped themselves to another round of Tuborg. At first glance, it appeared that the porch, like an airport terminal bar, was a place to have several anonymous drinks in a hurry before catching a bus back to Georgia. But in fact, Café Niko had the vibe of a local hangout and there was no luggage to be seen under the tables. Everyone knew Beso’s name and barked it back to the kitchen and he barked right back at them.

Caught up in the daily life of the place, we barely noticed the arrival of our pork shashlik. We had expected a skewer of freshly grilled pork but what we got instead was a plate of fried chunks of ham and onions. Soft and salty, it was served with tkemali, a sweet-and-sour sauce made from plums, which livened things up. This was no roadside Georgian shashlik, much less Spanish ham, but perfectly satisfying for a quick pork fix.

At the end of the meal, we showed Beso our 23 lari and he produced a bill in Turkish lira. We paid the bill in lira and then, again offering the 23 lari, asked him for a small bottle of chacha to go. We agreed and he handed over a Georgian apple drink bottle filled with chacha. Our lari on their way back to Georgia and the Georgian chacha on its way back to Istanbul Eats HQ, we felt immensely satisfied with the transaction.

Now if only we could find a Tajik restaurant in the neighborhood to unload our somoni.

Address: Emniyet Otogarı (bus station), Küçük Langa Caddesi 190, Aksaray
(Go 20 meters after walking through the gates of Emniyet bus station, then look left and you’ll see the balcony of Café Niko above Emniyet Café.)
Telephone: No phone
Hours: 11am-9pm; closed Sunday (Note: khinkali runs out by about 3pm.)
(photos by Ansel Mullins)

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