IM’ing with my friend the other day. She advises that she has only one row left of the box of lokum (that’s “Turkish delight” for any readers who are unsophisticated rubes…) I brought her from Istanbul. (N.B.: for those of my other friends who only got a sample of lokum, the reasons she got an entire box were that she specifically asked for it before I left and she was super-preggo… Of course, I’m still trying to figure out why I didn’t just bring home an entire suitcase-full, given that my own personal stash of lokum was gone by my third day back. God, I am an idiot…).
Now, despite being pretty sure of her answer, I had to ask, “Horizontal or vertical? That is, one row with one of each flavor? Or one last row of all one flavor?”
She replied, “Horizontal. One piece of each. What do you think I am, some sort of monster?”
She also followed up with the advice that she’d been eating it only while her husband was at work, so she wouldn’t have to share.
And this is why we’re friends… We really get each other.
The moon landing. The birth of Little Ricky Ricardo. “Who shot JR?” Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.” The fall of the Berlin Wall. The final episode of Newhart. Alexis and Krystle’s cat-fight in the lily pond. All iconic moments in the history of television viewing.
But let’s face it – none can compare to this, the ultimate Showcase from The Price Is Right. Everything about it is amazing.
A trip report on my flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul; and then my return home from Istanbul in Turkish Business Class and United Domestic (shudder) Business Class
TLV-IST/IST-TLV: Turkish Airlines Economy
My flights from IST to TLV and back on Turkish in coach were pretty similar. It’s only about a two-hour flight, so really just getting there without any delays or problems is sufficient to make a flight OK. But again, the service delivered by Turkish is definitely a bit odd.
Arriving at Ataturk, check-in was quick and painless. I found my way to my gate and had a seat. After about 15 minutes or so, there was some hubbub among the other passengers – turned out our departure gate had been moved three gates further along. Not that big a deal – except this was never announced. And the monitor at the gate with the gate change message was displayed in a tiny, nearly-invisible red-on-black font. So, essentially, the gate change was communicated by word of mouth.
After we’d all moved to the new gate and another ten minutes had passed, another gate change. Same as the first, though at this point, word spread quickly. And a good thing since of course this new gate was at the opposite end of the airport. Eh, what’re you gonna do?
Anyway, once at the new gate, boarding eventually announced. First, they boarded the VIPs – and then it was basically just a free-for-all, despite there being boarding groups listed on the boarding passes. I think they even called for groups to board, but everyone just started getting on the plane. I don’t even necessarily mind this method of boarding, but it was weird – either announce how it’s gonna work and do that or just announce “All aboard!”
Anyway, I got to my seat, 7C – an aisle seat I’d reserved a week prior (Turkish also has weird timing rules about when you can reserve a seat assignment – and one can’t do it online. Annoying.) After a few minutes, a mom with a babe-in-arms and a daughter of around 6 or 7 boarded and took the seats next to me. Dad was in a center seat across the aisle.
After a few minutes, the mom asked if I’d be willing to switch seats with her husband. Ugh.
Now, I am not unsympathetic to parents traveling with kids (though it does always cross my mind, “Where the fuck does a four-month-old need to go, anyhow – a business meeting in Tel Aviv?” Of course, I’m an a-hole, so this is no surprise) – it must be a real challenge. But I pee a lot, especially when I fly since I drink a lot (of water!) to try to stay hydrated – hence I like the aisle seat so I can get to the lav easily. And that’s why I reserve my seat well in advance and just generally make sure to prepare for my trip in every way possible to make it go smoothly. And I would think if I were traveling with a spouse and children, I would make an even more concerted effort to plan ahead.
Anyhoo, I politely refused her request, indicating that I really wasn’t willing to give up an aisle seat for a center seat. I felt like kind of a jerk – though also kind of put on the spot. And it’s not like I was planning on giving her dirty looks for the rest of our voyage. I was fully prepared to spend the next couple of hours beside a potentially screaming baby without complaint.
Well, a few minutes later, her husband got up – first, he made kind of a point of leaning over me and invading my space while he chit-chatted with his wife. Then he headed to the back of the plane and returned a few minutes later. “There’s an aisle seat back there in row 18. Would you mind taking that one?”
“Sure, that’s fine,” I replied. I gathered up my stuff and headed back and sat down. That’s when the guy in the middle seat of row 18 took off his sleep mask and told me that the aisle seat was his – and he’d had to move to the center because the aisle seat was broken (it wouldn’t un-recline). Sigh. So, back up to my original seat I went. “Sorry, dude – seat’s broken,” I advised the husband.
But at this point, the guy from row 18 came up and said I could take his center seat with an open aisle seat, he’d take the husband’s center seat and the husband could have mine. So, eventually, everything got sorted – and as it turned out the aisle seat in 18 was only partially broken. I was able to manually pull it into the upright position and get it to stay that way. So, I wound up with an aisle and no one in the center seat.
I should also add that I didn’t get a “thank you” from either the husband or wife at any point during the flight. The whole episode was kind of annoying. I’m sure there are plenty who’ll read this and think I should’ve just taken the husband’s center seat from the get-go to accommodate this family’s wish to sit together. But why should I have to be inconvenienced just because I’m traveling solo? Also, it would’ve been nice if the Turkish Airlines flight crew had been a bit more proactive in figuring this out – they didn’t do a thing to assist at any point in this whole fooferall.
Once we pushed back, the remainder of the flight went smoothly. Including being served an extraordinarily tasty light meal (in coach! They even handed out menus!) consisting of smoked salmon and dill crème fraiche, a tasty salad with chicken slices and a dessert.
Ben Gurion airport was a nice change from the rather chaotic atmosphere of giant Ataturk. Passport control went smoothly and I was out in a taxi pretty quickly after clearing customs.
After nine days in Israel, I headed back to Istanbul, flying with Turkish in coach again. This flight uneventful, save for the disorganized boarding process – which I was now prepared for and just boarded as soon as they opened the jetway, disregarding my boarding group assignment. And I managed to switch to an emergency exit row seat with no one in between me and the other fellow in the row. Yay!
And, par for the course, all the other passengers in the emergency exit row had their TV monitors out of the armrests for all of taxi, takeoff and landing – so essentially they’d set up physical barriers between the aisle and the designated emergency egress. And no comments from the flight crew – though they did make the guy who’d reclined put his seat up. Very peculiar.
Served another shockingly tasty meal – a really delicious cold chicken with masala sauce, eggplant and red lentils; salad; and some dessert. And actually, Turkish Airlines may be onto something here. Flying in coach and then being served any meal at all – let alone one that was really quite good! – in economy is such an unexpected surprised that it colors one’s entire impression of the experience. If anything, my flights to and from Israel were unremarkable – and, in fact, given the disorganized boarding process and the disengaged demeanor of the crew, I could’ve left with a not-so-great impression. But for the couple of bucks it cost to feed me, I was left with a generally favorable view of the overall experience.
Arriving at Ataturk in mid-afternoon was not pleasant – passport control took forever and was mobbed. But what’re you gonna do?
IST – Turkish Airlines CIP Lounge
If you’re flying Turkish Business Class, take note: check-in for all business class passengers is at counter E; disregard the counters listed on the departure board and just head straight for E. I didn’t discover this until I’d already waited in line at counter B with all the coach travelers. I didn’t have to wait too long (though I did have to listen to the terrible couple in front of me argue the entire time), but it looked like there was no wait at all when I passed section E. I did make sure to find out where the Fast Track passport line was – and thank Zeus, because the regular one was very long.
Anyway, I hurried myself to the Turkish CIP Lounge. I’d read nothing but good things about it – and turns out they are all true. Now THIS is a lounge!
I’ll start off with the only downside – the lounge is very busy. That is, it’s not exactly an oasis of calm. That being said, it is also huge, so there are plenty of places to sit – and as one explores further, there were areas toward the back corner of the place that were somewhat less populated. And trust me, I’m really kind of quibbling here.
So, what do they have? FOOD. Multiple mezes bars, olive bars, a whole section of sweets and cakes, hot soup, fresh fruit (gross!), a chef preparing hot flat breads in four varieties, various bar carts stocked with wine and beer (not sure if there was champagne) and spirits, fridges throughout with water and other soft drinks, strong wifi, lovely décor with plants and trees throughout, a grand piano that plays itself.
There are also storage cupboards for leaving one’s luggage near the entrance. It’s a nice touch – let’s you wander the place without having to lug everything.
And let me tell you, people go ape-shit for some free food. The chef guy had served all of his previous batch of flatbreads, so I was lurking nearby waiting for the next batch to come out of the oven. When he took them out to serve, I meandered over to get in line behind the two ladies already waiting – when some dude materialized from behind the column to my left and pushed his way ahead of me. Jesus, you greedy thing – relax, there’s plenty for everyone… Oh, and all four varieties were totally delicious. Took mine to a table in back and dug in while sipping another glass of wine.
There are signs throughout reminding visitors that flights aren’t announced – which is fine, since they’ve got monitors of departure times in several locations. I proceeded to the gate when the monitor read “PROCEED TO GATE” – only to discover boarding was not in process. Somewhat annoying, but eh.
IST-IAH: Turkish Airlines Business Class
I actually don’t recall if Business Class was called to board first. I think so – or it may very well have been the usual rush to the jetway. Anway, got onboard and settled into 2C – the left aisle seat of the center section. Business is set-up 2-3-2, which is not ideal for solo travelers – I chose 2C in hopes that 2D would remain empty – and so it did. Hooray!
The business class cabin felt very spacious (it’s their highest class of service – no first class). The seats were pretty comfy – perhaps a tad narrow, but a huge amount of space between me and the seat in front of me. I suspect with three across it might’ve felt a bit tighter, but luckily that was a non-issue this flight.
Also, it looks like there’s actually a bit more distance between 2C and 2D – the shared armrest is wider than the one between 2D and 2E. This appears to be to make room for the remotes, seat adjustment, power, etc. for both seats. So, again, appears that C seats are best for single traveler.
Pre-flight drinks served – I had champagne, of course… Gosset, IIRC – and the chef came around offering a tray of Godiva chocolates (does anyone actually like Godiva? I’m sorry, but they’re just not that good. I mean, I ate it obv, but still…). We were also presented with menus, detailing the quite lavish meal service to come.
After we’d gotten to cruising altitude, the chef and the FAs rolled out the mezes cart – shrimp, Caesar salad, lebneh, some really tasty tuna canapés, dolmas, eggplant. And it was all delicious – not as in “well, this is pretty good food for an airplane” but as in if I were eating it on the ground I would declare it delicious. Really the most impressive food I’ve ever been served at 30K feet. Oh, and a selection of breads was also proffered. Then a soup course.
For my main course, I chose lamb chops (I think the other options were fish and something vegetarian). They were pretty darn tasty, though the potatoes were a bit mealy (again, I’m quibbling). This food was good, but not in the same league as the mezes. But still impressive. Enjoyed some rosé with my meal – I think it was Turkish but it may have been French.
Next the dessert tray – cheese, fresh fruit (as if), chocolate soufflé balls, Turkish semolina cake and baklava (I had both and declared them excellent), ice cream with berry sauce, tiramisu. It was quite a spread.
After meal service ended, I decided to relax and take in a couple of movies. The AVOD system on Turkish was great – a really wide selection (I wound up watching three recent movies I’d wanted to see – and was glad I hadn’t paid good money to see any of them in the theaters…). Plus the wifi worked quite well for nearly the entire 13-hour flight – and it was free! And I’m pretty sure it was free for all passengers, including coach – take that, United!
As for the seat, it was certainly a big step up from economy – though I suspect it may have been somewhat better for sleeping in than sitting. It was a flat seat and back, plus the leg and foot rest. I certainly wouldn’t call it uncomfortable – but it was hard to find a position that felt just right. Though, again, not complaining, just observing – much better than coach, for sure.
I did doze for a bit. The flight crew were certainly the most engaged of the four Turkish flights I’d taken thus far – though once meal service was over, they were not around so much. Drink refills weren’t offered, though they were happy to pour more at my request.
As we got closer to arrival, a second meal was served: a first course of a variety of prepared cold appetizers (chicken, cheese, dolmas, hummus), followed by a hot entrée. I chose chicken, served with risotto and greens. All of it very, very good – Turkish really does an amazing job with their in-flight meals.
All in all, a great flight – this was the longest I’ve ever had to spend in an airplane and what a treat to get to spend it being wined and dined.
IAH: United Club
There must’ve been half-a-dozen or more planeloads of people waiting to get through immigration. The line initially moved at a steady clip – until three of the six counters closed down. Really aggravating that they can’t keep some personnel on hand to deal with the rush.
Once through it was quick trip to the United Club in Terminal E. Well, I didn’t exactly have high hopes, especially after the glorious CIP Lounge at Ataturk – and it’s a good thing, because it was no great shakes. I was able to grab a shower in an OK bathroom. The lounge itself was quiet and had good wifi. Many of the seats were stained and shop-worn and the selection of food on the second floor was packaged cheese slices, crackers, pretzels, coffee and an urn of ice water with plastic cups. Not exactly the lap of luxury, but quiet at least. There may have been some other beverages on the first floor, but I didn’t bother to explore. A pretty ho-hum experience.
IAH-SFO: United Business First
My flight was scheduled to leave at 9:50 for SFO, with boarding at 9:30, I think? So, I headed to the gate and got there just at the time boarding was supposed to have started per the departure monitors – but the equipment wasn’t even at the gate. Of course, the monitors and gate info all still showed “ON TIME” – and they displayed that even when the passengers from the arriving flight started deboarding at 9:45. It’s really infuriating – and this is not unique to United. If equipment is not at the gate to board on time, it’s not going to leave on time. If it’s still deplaning at five minutes before ETD, it’s not going to leave on time! I don’t mind a delay, especially if it’s only 15-20 minutes – but let us know! Update the monitors! It’s not rocket science! While it was no CIP Lounge, I’d rather chill out in the United Club than at the gate.
Anyway, we eventually boarded about 15 minutes late. The equipment was an A320 which was presumably once piloted by the Wright Brothers. I was quite shocked that United had the gall to refer to anything in their “Business First” cabin as “first” or “premier.” Now, I certainly knew not to expect anything like their international service – but the seats were shabby and old, the whole cabin felt dirty (I couldn’t tell whether the little drink tray between me and the guy next to me was grime-covered or the plastic was simply disintegrating), no power ports, no foot rest. I did get an actual glass for my split of wine, so there’s that… And while I’m sure it was better than coach on the same plane (which presumably looked something like this), I flew ORD-SFO last year on UA in a newly upgraded 777 Econ Plus cabin – and that felt like Global First compared to this disgraceful excuse for “first class” in which I was currently seated. Really, really bad – and if I had paid money out of my own pocket to purchase or upgrade on this flight, I’d’ve been livid.
I slept for the first two hours and missed the snack service. But the friendly FA served me at my request. In the saddest possible coincidence, it was a small plate of vaguely Middle Eastern cold chicken and tabbouleh – under any circumstance other than having just dined in splendor on Turkish Airlines, it might’ve seemed passable. But it simply reinforced the sub-par experience of this flight.
Finally, back home to SFO. A great vacation, a mostly-great experience getting to fly in United’s “real” first class to LHR and experience Turkish Airlines’ amazing food, its spacious business class and its sometimes odd in-flight service. All in all, 117,500 miles very well spent, I’d say…
For my recent flights to and from Istanbul, I had the great good fortune to book Mileage Plus Saver Award tickets in United Global First and Turkish Business Class. Deets below for the voyage there (I’ll post separately about the trip back), but short story is that it was a delight. It’s going to be awfully difficult to go back to coach for my next trip… Better start saving my miles again…
SFO: United Global First Lounge
Arrived at SFO and made my way to the First Class Premier Access line to check in. I nearly got into the line for Business Class – quelle horreur! There was no one manning the First Class ticket counter – but the next available agent waved me over and I was quickly provided with my boarding pass.
Security line was short, so no idea if I got “special” treatment, but was through quickly and then hurried my way to the United International First Class Lounge. Was greeted warmly by the lady at the counter – she had some trouble scanning my boarding pass, so reprinted both of them to ensure I’d have no problems boarding.
Took the elevator downstairs to the club and settled into a comfy chair by the window – had a great view of a 747 pulling up to the adjacent gate.
Helped myself to some Ruinart champagne (which I thought was delicious), selections from the sushi tray and water. The place was mostly quiet and not very full – which is frankly the best part of all. Just being able to wait for my flight in peace was as good as the free champagne.
Of course, some nimrod who showed up a bit after me and sat down right behind me, proceeded to have a video call on his iPad – using the external speaker. Seriously, WTF is wrong with people? Who does that? And of course the conversation was along the lines of “Oh, I just wanted to see if this works. Can you hear me? Ok, I guess it works. I can hear you. I can see you. Can you see me? OK, it’s working. Just checking. OK.” Jeezus… The call was short at least – though I affixed him with my best “are-you-fucking-kidding-me?” raised eyebrow once he’d hung up.
SFO-LHR: United Global First
My flight was called and I headed back up, where another agent asked if I’d like to wait for the other passengers in the lounge and she’d escort us down. I was fine on my own – plus, having read that overhead storage is at a premium in the first class cabin of a 747, I wanted to be sure I had somewhere to stow my bag (due to the curvature at the nose of the plane, the first two seats – one of which was mine – have no overhead bin and the second two have smaller-than-usual bins).
I was the second to board. Greeted warmly at the door by the purser (it was a British crew, apparently – at least all the folks in my section were British) and advised I knew where my seat was – I was probably grinning like an idiot. Then I turned left – LEFT! – to get to my seat for the next 10 hours, seat #1A (a.k.a. the Pimp Seat).
I was greeted next by the first class cabin attendant who introduced herself and saw my bag. “Oh, how about we put that right down here? As long as it’s on its side it’ll fit just fine.” indicating the small closet in the center aisle. During my extensive (some might say obsessive) research into flying up front with United, I’d heard that this closet was sometimes the source for friction between crew and passengers, with crew sometimes insisting it’s reserved for their bags. Anyway, that was certainly not the case on this flight.
The FA was extremely personable – chatting me up about my travels and sharing my enthusiasm for snagging seat 1A. She was happy to take my photo, as I luxuriated in my fancy seat pod. In fact, as the cabin filled up, there was a bit of a party atmosphere. The fellow in 2K heard me talking about Istanbul and asked about my plans, lady in 3A had some advice, too. I suppose the PDBs (pre-departure beverages, for those of you unfamiliar with the lingo up in front…) of champagne were helping to get things started right.
My seat was a delight. Comfy, roomy, three windows, tons of space to store my backpack, computer, etc., electrical outlets, a decent size TV screen, pillows and a blanket. Really just fantastic.
Purser came round again after we’d taken off, introduced himself to me, asked me some questions about my travel plans (we shared a wink when he asked why I’d chosen Tel Aviv as a destination…), took my order for dinner and asked if I wanted “turn down service” when I was ready to sleep.
Got a serving of traditional warm nuts (heh), more champagne and then dinner began a bit later. Some not-as-hot-as-they-should’ve’been apps, a quite tasty crab bisque, an OK salad and a steak that was decent-sized and serviceable. Ice cream served for dessert. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was certainly fine, generously served and accompanied with some very nice red wine – which was refilled on the regular (I actually waved away a third helping – I know, right?).
I didn’t actually use the AVOD system, so no opinion pro or con on it. I did attempt to us the onboard wifi. This was a big disappointment. First of all, despite riding up front, I still had to purchase access for $17 – way to nickel-and-dime your “premier” passengers, United. But even worse was that it was mostly non-functional for the duration of the flight. I think I had a total of maybe 20-30 minutes of online access with incredibly slow speed. A lousy experience overall. And still no response from United re. my request for a refund.
I was hoping to get a decent amount of sleep on the 10+ hour flight to LHR, so I popped an Ambien and put my seat into the flat-bed position. The turn-down “service” was really just being provided with an extra sleeping cushion to go on top of the “bed” – it wasn’t a service per se. The seat, once in the flat position, was not nearly a comfortable bed as it was a seat. It was certainly long enough, but felt a bit narrow and cramped. Plus the various contours that made it such a nice place to sit made it less so for lying in. N.B.: I AM NOT COMPLAINING! Only observing. The amount of space and comfort I had was vastly superior to any other flying experience I’ve had, including a couple of stints in overseas business class.
Anyway, I probably got about five hours of fitful sleep – certainly better than I’ve done in the past back in Economy Plus…
I know other airlines are reputed to have better service and food up front. But you know what? I was perfectly delighted with my Global First experience. Sure, the wifi didn’t work, but the spacious and comfortable seat was a pleasure. And frankly, the best part of first class is that everything is easier – uncrowded and relaxing waiting areas, no pushing and shoving to get onto the jetway, plenty of both space and privacy at one’s seat. Taking a ten-hour flight and having it be stress-free is just great. What a difference from the usual madhouse in coach.
Layover LHR: Star Alliance, Singapore Silver Kris and SAS Lounges
I had a ten hour layover at LHR (this was the big drawback of my itinerary – but considering I got first class Saver Award for this leg, it seemed a fair trade-off), so I headed for the Star Alliance lounge.
Now, here’s where I’m gonna be a little nitpicky. My award travel was booked in Global First on United – that is I “paid” for a first class ticket with my miles. But my connecting flight from LHR to IST was in business class, because Turkish Airlines doesn’t actually offer first class – business class is their highest class of service. So, since I was departing LHR in business class, I was only allowed access to the business class Star Alliance lounge, not first class. It’s not that big of a deal – in fact from what I’ve read, it’s not much different than the business class lounge other than it’s a bit less populated. But it still kinda chapped my hide.
Anyhoo, I was able to take a shower right away. What a pleasure! Very nice shower rooms, with plenty of room to tidy up and all.
Once done, I headed to the lounge (this was around noon local time) proper and helped myself to some pretty tasty sandwiches. I think there was some soup and maybe one other hot dish and maybe some sweets? Nothing to write home about, but certainly a decent and well-stocked assortment. I set up camp in the “business” area, grabbing a desk and logging into my office remotely. Spent the next several hours working, wifi AOK. This lounge stayed pretty crowded all day – it wasn’t pandemonium, but it wasn’t exactly an oasis of tranquility.
Around 6PM, I schlepped over to Terminal 3 (I’d been in T1), eventually (and not easily) finding the bus to transport me. LHR confusing as ever to get around – it’s not a very pleasant or easy airport to navigate.
Once at T3, most of the lounges all lined up and down a corridor of the center of the terminal. I decided to try Singapore first.
Very nice! Smallish space, but with high ceilings and windows overlooking a couple of gates – made for a much better atmosphere than Star Alliance. Not very many folks there – another plus. Helped myself to some amazingly tasty veg curry and rice and ordered a glass of wine from the bar. Décor not very fancy, but this was a really great place to hang out. Had another glass of wine, some more tasty food – a creamy, mild chicken curry – and enjoyed the twilight view of the airport.
Final stop was at the SAS Lounge. Large, occupying two floors. Food was cheese, bread, yogurt, cold cuts (I think?) plus some self-serve wine and beer. The place looked like it was done up in IKEA – which is perfectly fine. But the place hasn’t been updated in years and had a rather threadbare and kind of dingy feel. Plus, at this point I’d been hanging out for nearly nine hours, so I was impatient to get on my flight to IST.
My next flight was scheduled for around 10:30PM. And they do a weird (and annoying) thing at LHR, apparently – gate info for flights isn’t posted until the flight is open for boarding. But the fellow at the SAS Lounge desk gave me my gate info ahead of time, so I headed down there about 9:30.
Found the gate – nary a passenger there, but staff was ready, so I proceeded to the boarding area and had a seat. “Hmm, I guess it’ll be an empty flight, what with the late hour and all.”
WELL. In about 15 minutes, every seat at the gate was taken and there were mobs of people and luggage everywhere. Then, they made an announcement that they were NOT ready to begin boarding and everyone should remain seated – this was taken as a cue for every single person to rush the doors to the jetway (which were closed and locked).
All I can say is, thank FSM that they pre-boarded business class (apparently Turkish can be a little blasé about this nicety). I literally had to elbow my way through the crowds to get to the front – and the gate agent gave me a look as he said “Business class only.” Yeah, that includes me, bud… Lemme on.
LHR-IST: Turkish Airlines Business Class
The equipment was a rather elderly A320. Business class fairly roomy, but with tired seats with manual seat adjustment – they were comfortable though and it was late, so totally fine.
This was a VERY strange flight – though as I’d find out on my other flights with Turkish to and from TLV, pretty much par for the course. First of all, despite the usual announcements about seats upright, tray tables locked, etc., the flight crew did literally nothing to enforce any of these. The two horrible spoiled teenagers (I know – redundant) across from me (BTW, I don’t think anyone under 18 should be permitted to fly in business or first. Or maybe even under 40…) were fully reclined, foot rests out, monitors out of their stowed position throughout taxi, takeoff and landing. Not an eye was batted (except by me, obv).
Now, keep in mind, by the time we were in the air, it was well-after 11PM. I know Turkish is especially well-reputed for their food – and I figured what with the late hour and all, we’d get a nice late snack. Which we did – some cold sliced chicken, smoked fish and some salad and dessert. But then after that, a hot entrée was served! By the onboard chef! I think I had lamb skewers? Remember, I’d been en route for about 24 hours at this point, so my recollection is hazy. But I ate it all – and it was very tasty. But it still seemed weird… Good weird – but weird.
It was kind of nice getting to Ataturk Airport at 530AM – place was empty and passport control was a breeze (especially compared to the throngs I’d find when I returned in two weeks).
My suitcase was literally the first one off the conveyor belt at the luggage carousel (those “PRIORITY“ stickers really work!). Breezed on out to the main concourse, saw my name on the car service placard and I was shortly on my way into Istanbul. After 30 hours en route, I must say, I felt in relatively good shape – amazing how all those perks and comforts make for such a pleasant journey!
After bidding a fond farewell to Tel Aviv, I was back in Istanbul for a couple of nights. I’d decided to splurge on a stay at the House Hotel Galatasaray, a rather fancy boutique hotel – and it was an excellent decision.
I’d done some reading up on the place and while the reviews were consistently good, a couple of folks indicated that rooms in the back of the building were darker and could be noisy in the evening thanks to an adjacent nightclub. So, I sent an email to the hotel a couple of days before I arrived, requesting a room on a high floor that was quiet.
When I arrived to check in, I was advised that no deluxe suites (the room type I’d booked) meeting those criteria were available – so they’d upgraded me to the Executive Suite at no extra charge. To say I was pleased is an understatement – especially once I got upstairs to my suite. It was huge! To paraphrase one of my Facebook friend’s comments, “If there’s a chandelier in the bedroom, you’ve arrived.”
Anyway, my original plan was to head back to the Grand Bazaar and maybe purchase some Turkish towels. But I decided (wisely, I think) that I was just going to relax for the final two days of my vacation rather than rush around trying to see more sights or squeeze in some shopping.
So, as soon as I’d unpacked and showered, I headed up the hill to Istiklal St. I’d been looking forward to a return visit to Ahmet’s Barber Shop for another shave – and figured I’d get a haircut too, because why not?
My timing was perfect. Selman, the fellow who’d given me such a great shave last time, was just finishing up with a client. After a short wait, I was back in his chair. Shave much the same as last time – save that the nice young kid who was assisting in the shop prepared the shaving mug for Selman. Actually, I think the shave might’ve been better – he spent a lot of time navigating around my septum ring to ensure my mustache was in perfect form. Having someone else shave your face is a really great thing and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Haircut followed – and it was very traditional (none of that fancy salon sectioning!). Now, I don’t know what exactly Selman did – but the sad peninsula of hair that resides at the front of my remaining hairline is problematic. It always looks so sparse. After shampooing my hair (which involved leaning face forward over the sink while my barber basically scrubbed my entire head and face clean, followed by the vigorous application of some kind of tonic to my scalp), he got out a small round brush and blow dried my hair (I KNOW!) – I was a bit concerned I was going to get a Tony Manero cut. But I should’ve known better than to worry – because once he was done drying and de-poofed it with a little product, those three hairs that remain at the front of my hairline had been transformed into a tiny yet lustrous mane – by which I mean, my scalp wasn’t peeking through. It was some kind of tonsorial miracle!
To finish things up, he took care of my nape and even trimmed down the chest hairs poking over my collar. And tamed my brows. And cleaned my ears. Oh, and he also spent a good ten minutes re-waxing my mustache into place. Got out of the chair, got a once over with the whisk broom from the young apprentice and then it was time to pay up: 40 Turkish lira. Which is US$20. Which is an astonishing bargain. And of course, just as last time, I left feeling like a million bucks (while also depressed at the prospect of returning home and having to shave my own damn face…).
So, I’m sure there are plenty of great barbers in Istanbul – but my recommendation is to seek out Ahmet’s Barber Shop. Seriously, guys – if you’re going to Istanbul, don’t even bother packing your razor. To get to the shop, find the M.A.C. Cosmetics store on Istiklal St., then walk about 20 meters down the street to the left of M.A.C. (The address is Balo Sokak No: 8/2). And tell them Eric sent you! Which probably won’t mean a thing to them – but if you tell them it was the loudmouthed American (yeah, redundant) with the handlebar mustache, the nerd glasses and the septum piercing, that might ring a bell.
Back to the hotel for a lie-down before a fancy dinner at Gile. I’ll be posting about my meal separately – but it was quite an evening, what with the 14-course degustation and all…
When I arrived back at the hotel, the fellow at the front desk was just on his way out after his shift ended. We chatted a bit and I asked him what time would be good to go to Tekyön (a gay disco).
“Oh, not ‘til 1AM,” he replied.
“Well, that’s a bit late for me…”
“Take a disco nap!”
OK, I officially love the House Hotel Galatasaray. And I did take a disco nap. And I went to Tekyön. And it was cray. I don’t know why I was expecting something sort of low-key – but it certainly wasn’t. The place was PACKED, the music pumping (typical gay dance stuff, though most with Turkish lyrics) and it was dimly lit, with lots of doors, short stairways, ledges, a big fenced in balcony for smokers and other various obstacles and potential hip-breakers. It wasn’t until my third beer that I was able to stop thinking, “What if there’s a fire? And how do you say ‘Cocoanut Grove’ in Turkish?” Anyway, I stayed for a bit and had an OK time – as I observed the next day on Facebook, I am way too old for this shit…
Anyway, I was out rather late so had a low-key Sunday, occupied primarily by acquiring Turkish delight to bring home. And I was apparently out of my mind, given the paltry amount I purchased. It barely lasted three days in my kitchen!
On Sunday afternoon, I’d made my third appointment for a visit to the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. Now I already described my first visit (oh, and BTW, I obv couldn’t take photos of the place while I was getting bathed – but check out their site to see how lovely it is. And there’s a few good photos here. Or just do an image search…). It was wonderfully relaxing way to start my holiday after 30 hours in transit (yes, first class transit, but still…). And I enjoyed it so much that, when my dinner plans fell through during my earlier visit to Istnabul, I said to myself, “Self, you ought to spend that money on something. How about another Turkish bath?” And so I did.
My second visit that part of my trip was much like the first – up to the point where my therapist, a fellow called Erol, asked me after he’d soaped me up, “You like strong?”
“Yes, I like strong,” I replied. WELL, THIS WAS NO JOKE. He gave me quite a workout – neck, back, shoulders, arms and particularly on my calves, which tend to be tight-as-a-drum due to bike riding. He had me groaning and grunting as I endured what he smilingly referred to as “Turkish torture.” He finished up by wrapping my arms around my chest, grabbing my elbows from behind and squeezing every last breath out of me – twice.
And it was fantastic. Yes, I was wincing, but I left there feeling so good. I’d spent the last five days walking, lugging my camera, climbing up and down the hills of Beyoglu – getting an intense round of body therapy was just the thing.
After drying me off, he led me out to the main hall, shook my hand and thanked me. I think I managed to mutter a sincere thank you back to him, though I was so relaxed I may have just drooled and grinned like a simpleton. Had a bit of lie-down and some apple tea, before getting a massage with Murat. He struck just the right balance between strong and relaxing and I left the hamami feeling simply marvelous.
Anyway, when I booked my final appointment for Sunday, I requested Erol again, since I really liked his technique. And I was not disappointed. Other than the fact that I was a bit more prepared for his ministrations (though there was still a lot of grunting from me), it was another wonderful bath.
At the end, when he took me to the smaller room to dry me off, he’d wrapped up my waist, head and shoulders and was drying off my legs – and then he began singing to me in Turkish, his voice sweet and reedy. And I managed to only get a bit teary-eyed while he sang – though I was on the brink of blubbering. It was just such a lovely moment and I was so happy that it was one of my last memories of this trip.
Had a massage with Murat again – wonderful again. And then I bade my farewell to all the folks there who’d treated me so wonderfully during each visit. I hope I get to go back again some day soon.
For dinner, there was a café I’d wanted to try. But when I arrived, there were no seats available and they were out of the first three things I ordered from the menu. OK! Plan B – I returned to Dürümzade, the place I’d eaten my first meal in Istanbul 16 days prior. Sure, it wasn’t fancy, but both the chicken and the lamb were delicious. I took them to go, headed back to my gigantic suite, opened a bottle of wine and ate them while watching the Turkish version of “X Factor.” It was perfect.
A good night’s sleep, up at a reasonable hour and in a taxi to the airport by 10AM. So long, Istanbul. It’s been grand!
My main impression of eating in Tel Aviv was that it reminded me a bit of SF – young chefs using fresh, local ingredients to drive what’s on their menus. Frankly, though, what was on the menus in TA seemed more interesting and varied than what I see in SF – and I think there was less focus on interpreting a specific type of cuisine than there was on coming up with the tastiest dishes with the ingredients that were in-season. I ate remarkably well in Tel Aviv and at very reasonable prices – though again, coming from SF means “reasonable” can be in the eye of the beholder. I typically paid US$60-80 for dinner that included several glasses of wine (and usually made up about half the total bill).
This place was recommended by my gay, Jewish podiatrist. I had a lovely walk from my place at the northern end of Rothschild Blvd and was lucky enough to get the last two top out on the large patio in front of the place. Started off with labane and bread, followed up by some serviceable chicken skewers and rice. The food was good – perhaps not spectacular, but good – though it hardly mattered. Sitting out under the trees and stars on my first night in Tel Aviv, the weather balmy (a welcome change from the cold nights in Istanbul), the waiters so easy on the eyes – it was a marvelous way to spend my first evening in Israel.
This was not my destination for the evening – I actually had a reservation at Mizlala, but Google Maps gave the wrong address. And I got lost on the way to the wrong address – so when I did finally find the place and it was an abandoned storefront, I was not enjoying myself to say the least.
But as I found my way back, I checked my list of restos I’d researched and realized I’d be passing right by Tzfon Abraxas. And lucky for me, they were able to squeeze me into the cozy (okay, maybe cramped) u-shaped counter. The menu was a bit hard to navigate for a single diner – most dishes are meant to be shared, so the server helped me figure out what to order that wouldn’t be a ridiculous amount of food for dainty me.
I didn’t take copious notes (I was still a little rattled from not showing up for my reservation at the other place). I started off with some simply sautéed beans – they were like tender skinned snap peas. With that, I also ordered onion bread – which was literally that: a piece of bread grilled with half an onion. This was followed up by a burger – came with pickles, cheese and juice-soaked bun. It was messy and darn good.
Oh, and they eschew plates here. Butcher paper is in front of every diner and food is served out of large bowls or on cardboard. Yeah, it sounds weird, but they make it work. That atmosphere is super-lively. The counter is adjacent to the large, open kitchen so there’s plenty to watch. And there were lots of extras. At one point, everyone at the bar was served a shot of whiskey or vodka and we all “L’chaim”-d. Then one of the servers did something involving the setting on fire of sage and alcohol at the counter – it smelled great. Plus, I think the best thing I ate was the tomato bread. One of the chef’s came out from the kitchen with a giant, shallow plan filled with bread, tomatoes and herbs that had been crusted up under the fire. Everyone was invited to grab a handful as he went around the counter. Simple and delicious.
By the time I left, the bad start to the evening was long-forgotten, as I was happily full and satisfied – and maybe just a bit tipsy (it was that shot of vodka!).
On my way home, I actually stumbled across my original destination, Mizlala – I had been within 50 meters of the place earlier! Anyway, I stopped in and apologized for not showing up. The hostess was as nice as could be and booked me a seat for the following evening.
This was probably my “fanciest” meal in Tel Aviv – though don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t hoity-toity or anything. In fact, I quite liked the set up. A large counter on one side, the kitchen at the back and a smaller room of tables on the left. But the menu was a bit more sophisticated in its offerings than some other places.
When I arrived at 830, the place was very quiet – there were maybe four or five other folks at the counter which I think seats 25-30. So, I was just a tad irked that I was specifically shown to the very last seat on the end in front, i.e. the Mary Ann Singleton seat. Well, at least there wasn’t a spotlight trained on me…
Started off with a really good rosé and a calamari dish served with cauliflower, chickpeas, onion, okra and a tangy-yet-sweet sheep’s milk labane. It was great (though I did make a note that I thought the amount of squid in the dish seemed just a tad stingy – my other note was “Every male member of the staff is hot. Per usual”).
For my main, I had veal loin, which was grilled with onions and served in a date sauce with cilantro and tortellini filled with I-don’t-what – though my notes say they were filled with magic. It reminded me of butternut squash texturally, but was a bit sweeter I thought. And the veal was sublime – tender and a marvelous foil for the date sauce. Really, really good. I think my only quibble was the candied walnuts in the dish – it may have been gilding the lily.
For dessert: Indian fig panna cotta, fresh fig, pistachio, Indian halva, tapioca, chai ice cream and date cookie. It was definitely trying too hard. The tapioca was good, but there were just too many ingredients fighting for attention – and the spiral date cookies were too doughy.
A tiny place next to the Shuk Carmel with a small counter inside and some more tables out front. I inadvertently chose the best seat in the house, since I had a great view into the kitchen and watched the chef cooking things up on a stove that appeared to be about as small as the one in my tiny kitchen at home.
Started off with a traditional bread salad – tangy, savory, fresh and perfect on a warm Tel Aviv night.
Had a difficult time choosing a main – was tempted by the pasta with meatballs – but went with the crab served with cheese in puff pastry per the server’s recommendation. Oh boy – it was good. Very rich, but the serving size wasn’t too much and the crab was excellent. I made fast work of it.
Besides keeping my wine glass filled, shots were proffered (this is a custom in Tel Aviv restaurants that I both heartily endorse and am very leery of…) and consumed. I chatted up the other couple at the counter, NYers who spend a lot of time in Israel. They got the meatballs and sang their praises – they also insisted I try some of the excellent red wine they were drinking. So, in other words, I had rather a lot to drink. So, when it came time for dessert, I think the couple offered to share their warm chocolate budino with me – though it’s certainly possible that I was like, “OH, HEY! I’ll take some of that!” I guess we’ll never know… But it was a simple and well-executed chocolate dessert – which I appreciate, since there’s really no need to get fancy with chocolate.
I’d spied this place across from Mizlala and liked the looks of it – plus I’d highjacked onto their wifi whilst at Mizlala and I love me some free wifi.
Well, this turned out to be a great choice. I took a seat at the bar and the lady at the bar, after pouring me some wine and giving me the menu, described the entire specials board to me (it was written in Hebrew, obv) and made several recommendations.
Started off with a Thai salad with pork. Wow – so good. Fresh mint and other herbs and greens, along with some shrimp chips piled atop a tender serving of mildly spicy pulled pork. Delicious.
I’d noticed several of their specialty cocktails on the menu, including one with gin and cucumber, which sounded great. But I’d already had some wine and didn’t want to tempt fate… But someone ordered one and I watched as my waitress prepared it, muddling the ingredients and then lining a crystal tumbler with cucumber slices before pouring the drink in. There was more cocktail than could fit in the glass – so out came the shot glasses and me and the two fellows next to me were treated to a sample. And yes, it was great – I mean, c’mon, it’s cucumber and gin!
For my main course, sea bream (a semi-firm white fish) served simply atop broccoli and green beans. Perfectly cooked and just the right amount.
And for dessert? Panna cotta topped with diced celery and pineapple. It was surprising and really tasty combination – the celery adding texture and it’s mild flavor to the creamy panna and the sweet pineapple. A big success.
This was one of my favorites of the trip – not only because the food was so good, but because the service was so genuinely friendly and helpful. Highly recommended.
Stopped here for lunch. Their specialty is sandwiches served on Asian-style steamed buns. I started with a carrot and radish salad, followed by a couple of buns stuffed with pulled shortrib. Pretty yummy – though I might’ve liked squirt of Sriracha to zip them up a bit.
The pide place around the corner
My Airbnb host told me about this place and I was glad I took his advice. On the northwest corner of Dizengoff and Ibn Gabriol is Frank’s Hot Dogs (which, judging from this write-up, I should’ve visited too) – right next door on Ibn Gabriol is the pide place. The chalkboard menu is all in Hebrew, but if you ask for an English menu, they’ll give you one. On both my visits, the fellows taking orders were very friendly. One visit, I tried the kofte – and it was great. But rather amazingly, the pide that knocked my socks off was the cauliflower one – big chunks of grilled cauliflower, mixed up with tomato, cucumber and tahini. It was pretty great.
UPDATE: I’ve been advised the pide place is Miznon, from chef Eyal Shani of Tzfon Abraxas.
Another small place near the Carmel Market. It was pretty quiet and I grabbed a seat at the small bar – which was great since the kitchen is right there and I literally watched my meal prepared about a meter in front of me.
I must say, I was a little skeptical when I saw the bread being prepped for me. The lovely brown oval was popped into the microwave, then put onto the grill to crisp up the outside. WELL. It was so good – crispy and doughy and hot. Served with some labane (yum) and a cilantro pesto that I advised the chef he should sell by the gallon. I could have made an entire meal of just that bread and pesto. But obviously didn’t…
First up, a simple dish of sautéed calamari. Tender and a heaping helping.
I actually had a bit of a hard time choosing a main, since so much of it sounded good. But I decided on bratwurst – not really sure why, just sounded good. They are made in-house, seasoned with sage and ginger and they were fantastic. When the chef was serving them up, I was going to ask for mustard, but he was already preparing a little bowl to go alongside – though as it turned out, these brats needed nothing else. They were so wonderfully flavored on their own, I wouldn’t add a drop of mustard. Served with a great potato salad and a kind of sweet-and-sour kraut/slaw. I think this was my favorite dish of the whole trip.
The chef (I think his name was Lee? I didn’t write it down… Oops! I am the worst) was really personable and was happy to chat with me about food and travel – and he encouraged me to take photos while he was working. Oh, and at some point, shots were served… I didn’t even bat an eye this time.
Café 48 (again!)
For my last night in Tel Aviv, it was a toss-up between Gedera 26 and Café 48. I’d really enjoyed both of them – and since Gedera 26 closes on Shabbat, back I went to Café 48.
I had the same lovely server, whose name I learned is Darya. She was as gracious and helpful as on my first visit.
This time I started with a Vietnamese-style shrimp and vermicelli salad. Fantastic – and frankly better than any I’ve had in SF. Not to mention that I think there were a dozen plump shrimp in here – along with a very spicy chili-infused sauce. It was the best starter of any place I’d been.
For dinner: steak and potatoes. That is literally all it was. A perfectly medium-rare steak served with wedges of oven broiled potato. Hearty, delicious, a great cut of beef. And a really nice part? I asked for salt and was provided a small bowl of sea salt flakes rather than a shaker full of Morton’s. It’s a small thing, but speaks volumes about the care with which the food is served.
For dessert – an oat-and-butter cake-pie hybrid. Sticky and sweet, a crispy-buttery crust, a dollop of cream on top. Wonderful. And really nice way to say farewell to Tel Aviv.