Not so long ago, I could be heard lamenting the lack of Turkish restaurants in Tunbridge Wells – finding fabulous falafel was tricky. But now? Now the town has become a hotspot for hummus – and Istanbul is the latest restaurant to bring a taste of the Med to the town.
My guest and I visit on a chilly November evening, but as soon as we enter the restaurant we forget all about the blustery weather outside. Inside Istanbul, which is situated at the top of Calverley Road, it’s spacious yet cosy. There’s soft lighting glowing from the copper lamps, the walls are a stylish deep grey and the open kitchen takes centre stage, where diners can watch their menu choices come to life.
We’re shown to our window table by Amil, who’s incredibly personable and for whom nothing is too much trouble.
After bringing our drink choices – a glass of the Turkish red Sevilen Nativus Öküzgözü-Bogazkere for me and the Sevilen Nativus Narince white for my guest (each £5.25), he then presents us with a dish laden with delicious-looking treats; hummus, olives, tzatziki and flatbread. He explains that this platter is on the house, and it’s part of the Istanbul dining experience – every table is given one to enjoy while they peruse the menu.
We become momentarily transfixed by the mezze before us, forgetting completely to do any perusing, and instead focusing our efforts on audibly enthusing about each mouthful. The tzatziki is fresh and zesty, the hummus flavoursome and light and the bread grilled to perfection with a dusting of spice.
In fact, we enjoy it so much that when Amil returns to take our order, we end up asking him to impart his hummus wisdom – we need to know how to recreate this at home!
Istanbul’s menu is extensive, they’re keen to cater for dietary requirements so have carefully selected a range of fish, meat and vegetarian options to accommodate a whole host of needs.
But what to choose? With several pages boasting mezze, grills, seafood, house specials and more, the menu is both a feast for the eyes and the stomach.
On Amil’s recommendation, for our starters we opt for the vine leaves (£4.75) from the cold mezze list, and the sautéed king prawns (£5.90) and the sautéed octopus (£8.90) from the hot mezze list.
When they arrive, they look every bit as fresh and delicious as they were described, and we eagerly tuck in.
The vine leaves, which are stuffed with rice, pine nuts and herbs, are full of flavour and served with wedges of lemon to give that extra citrus kick. The prawns are equally delicious with the taste really heightened by the peppers and onions they’re served with, but the real piece de resistence for us is the octopus. Wonderfully succulent and tender, the addition of garlic, spring onion, chilli and ginger among other ingredients make this a real stand-out dish, for which we’re very grateful for the recommendation.
In fact, we’re so impressed with Amil’s first round of suggestions that we call him over to help us select our main dishes. And once again he delivers.
I’ve chosen the chicken shish (£12.90) – a classic served with rice and salad which is very tender and full of flavour. While it might not be the most adventurous item on the menu, its simplicity is what makes it – every element of the dish provides fresh, authentic flavours and it’s a definite crowd-pleaser that I’d order time and time again.
My guest has been a little more adventurous with her main course, opting for Islim Kebab (£14.90) from the house specials menu. Unlike my grilled chicken, this dish is lamb based and the meat is wrapped in aubergine and then baked in a special sauce.
The combination of textures and flavours is impressive, with the smoky flavours from the silky aubergine perfectly complimenting the tender lamb. The sauce is perhaps a touch on the oily side, but the freshness of the salad and the addition of the rice help to balance the dish seamlessly.
We take our time savouring our dishes and while doing so, observe the other diners surrounding us. We’ve chosen to visit mid-week and the restaurant is buzzing with diners of all ages and group sizes; from couples enjoying a romantic meal for two, to large families fighting it out for the last bite of mezze.
In a town with several Turkish offerings you could be forgiven for thinking that Istanbul is just ‘another’ of them, but I promise you that if you visit, you won’t be disappointed. If a taste of the Med on a plate is what you’re after, teamed with fantastic service and authentic flavours, then get yourself booked in now – and make sure you order the octopus…it may have started as their recommendation, but now it’s mine.