Istanbul Restaurant brings unique Mediterranean flavors to Hawaii

The new venue opens this weekend in Kakaako
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I first met Ahu Hettema many years ago at the Wednesday Blaisdell farmers market. Her pop up, Istanbul Hawaii, offered unique and flavorful vegetarian dishes with Mediterranean flair. And best of all, she made fresh baklava — who does that? — that melted in my mouth. I would try to eat one piece and save the rest for later, but always ended up snarfing all three pieces before I even got home.

It wasn't just the desserts, of course. I'd get their to-go plates, bursting with so much flavor that just the smell in my car made my mouth water. One of them was even a vegan dish, called imam bayildi, comprised of eggplant topped with tomato reduction and Turkish extra virgin olive oil. The name says it all: It translates to "the priest fainted," meaning it is a dish that was served to a priest, and it was so good that he fell over. 

Istanbul Interior
The view of Istanbul Restaurant from the bar

I was excited to hear that Hettema was opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, because that meant I could get Istanbul's food any day of the week. But I've worked in the restaurant business long enough now to know how long it takes to open a restaurant in Hawaii. I scrolled back through my messages and was shocked but not surprised to find that we had started chatting about this in 2017! And I thought renovating my tiny apartment was a nightmare. After many twists and turns with real estate and contractors, and Hettema and her family having to build everything from scratch (except the chairs and the HVAC system), Istanbul Hawaii is finally ready to open this weekend in Kakaako's Anaha condominium — one year and one month later than their original projected date. Welcome to Hawaii.

Ahu Hettema and her mother Nili, who is also a chef

Hettema's family has deep roots in the restaurant business. Her uncles have owned restaurants in the San Francisco area for decades, and her mother is also a chef. When Hettema went through a period where she couldn't get home to Turkey, her mother, Nili, suggested she do things to help her feel like she was at home. She started cooking, and that became a process that nourished her body as well as her soul. At first, they cooked for their neighbors. The community loved it so much that they suggested Ahu get a space at the Hawaii Farm Bureau farmers market so she could see how much people would love her food. One tent turned into two, which turned into four … and soon, they were catering for parties of hundreds of people. Istanbul Restaurant is the culmination of Hettema's journey, turning her healing process into a way to share her culture with Hawaii. Here's a little taste of what you can expect when they open.

mezze platter
Meze platter, $24

If you're with a group, you'll probably want to start with a Mediterranean meze platter, with (clockwise from the pita at the top) imam bayild, hummus, water borek (wet traditional filo filled with fresh cheese and parsley), dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with rice, black currants, pine nuts and parsley with tzatziki). Instead of the imam bayild, you might get muhamarra (a red pepper and walnut spread). Not pictured: falafels with tahini. As you can see, due to the ingredients that are abundant in that part of the world, quite a bit of their food is vegetarian or vegan. But that doesn't mean they skimp on flavor.

When the restaurant opens, there will be more meat items available, but this is just a quick preview.

Organic fresh lentil soup with fresh herbs
Organic red lentil soup with fresh herbs, $8 for a cup (pictured) or $12 for a bowl

Normally when I go to a restaurant, I'm not the type to get lentils. And lentil soup? No thank you, I'm not a hippie. But this vegan soup had us moaning and trying to figure out how to get more. It's rich and complex, like a mulligatawny soup. Then we realized we were supposed to squeeze the lemon in, and that little touch of brightening up the flavor made it even more moan-worthy. 

lamb dumplings
Manti (Turkish lamb and beef dumplings with Greek yogurt and pepper sauce, $29

These bite-sized dumplings were probably the best things I put in my mouth during this hosted preview. They're filled with local lamb and Kunoa beef with burnt Maras peppers and minted garlic, then covered in Greek yogurt. The dumplings are great as is, but the magic is in that red sauce, made of urfa pepper. It's aromatic, but not "hot" spicy, and actually not too strong. It's like nothing most Hawaii people have tasted, yet it adds so much flavor, so much flair, so much color to your palate. It was so good, we all started insisting that Hettema needs to sell the sauce so people can enjoy it at home.

chicken wings
Organic chicken wings, $14

But wait, there's more. We demolished a plate of organic chicken wings with tandoor tava Turkish pepper reduction, served with that same magic sauce. This is served with homemade Dead Sea salt focaccia so you can clean the plates and not waste any sauce. Yes, the wings are good. But at this point, if you've eaten this in the same order, you'll feel like the chicken is just another excuse to help you consume more magic sauce.

Saganaki pan fried halloumi
Saganaki, $16

Saganaki is pan-fried halloumi cheese, served with pita bread, lemon, Rare Hawaiian lilikoi honey, Turkish apricots and walnuts. This will be served on a flaming plate not just for instagrammable entertainment, but that helps to melt the cheese a bit. The saltiness of the cheese with the sweetness of the fruit and honey is addicting.

Turkish pistachio söbiyet baklava, $9

There's that baklava, the item that started it all for me. It's made with traditional filo, of course, wiith pistachios, Rare Hawaiian honey, syrup and pistachio sand. It's great by itself, but even better withi fresh cream dondurma. I'm glad they serve it with two, because after you inhale the first one, you'll know that you need to savor the second.

hibiscus lychee sorbet
Hibiscus lychee sorbet, $9

This is a seasonal item, of course, celebrating lychee season and pairing the fresh fruit with a refreshiing sorbet made with edible hibiscus. This is a nice, light way to end your meal if you're full.

Chocolate rose dondurma
Chocolate rose dondurma, $9

Chocolate lovers will delight in this dondurma, made of Waialua Estate dark chocolate, then topped with rose essence and petals, rose-flavored Turkish delights and walnuts. Roses are found abundantly in Turkish cooking, and this is a great way to showcase it. Have this with Turkish coffee, and your meal is complete.

Istanbul outside
Outdoor seating at Istanbul

Construction on Istanbul Restaurant began well before the pandemic, of course, but the restaurant is large enough for effective social distancing. The entire outside area is set up for al fresco dining, with a view of Whole Foods across the street. 

Many people who already knew about Istanbul Hawaii have been waiting for them to open; others who are about to discover it are in for a real treat. Hawaii doesn't have many restaurants with Mediterranean flavors, especially presented in this way. I expect photos of Istanbul and its food to be flooding my Instagram feed in the months to come.

Istanbul is slated to open on Saturday. They will be open only for dinner until their grand opening on July 17, when they will open for lunch as well. They'll be open from 5 to 11 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; and 5 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday. Ample parking is available in the Ward Village area.

Istanbul Restaurant
1108 Auahi St.