Mutterings of Ciya's existence were spoken in hushed tones, blurred by alcohol, at the front of Alex's bar off Istiklal. Having mentioned we had a week to spare, and desirous of new munching grounds, his face lit up with the expectation of our enjoyments shared at that fabled restaurant in Kadikoy. For all the internal voices praying us back to bed, our hearts steered us into darker territories, and morning swallowed us whole in spiralling intoxication. Sleeping off a pitiful percentage of our allowance, the early afternoon brutalised our waking moments with the reminders of alcohols poison. As heavy as the worst hangover you could ever remember, multiply it by a hundred and you'd barely come close. This was torment of the occult kind.
Somehow managing to find our legs, we left the Airbnb in Beyoglu and walked down to where the ferries crossed the bosporous, chased by mawking seagulls, sitting in desolate abandon silently suffering. For once in a lifetime of culinary adventures, food was the last thing on my mind.
In the blur that is morning after regret, we managed to board the wrong ferry and were confronted with a 45 minute walk along the ocean front, past old hospitals and strange bus rides, until we collased into the streets of Kadikoy, found Ciya, and wrestled a table upstairs. Orders were places, throngs of delicious food arrived, mouths moved in slow survival, and to be fair, none of it was savoured for our internal suffering.
From the skeletons of that disaster, I returned over the years. Five times, as of writing, and each time a new revelation. I managed to see the restaurant featured in Chefs Table, and subsequently was blessed with a personal recommendation by Musa Dagdeviren on one visit, pleading with me to try the sour plums wrapped around Kofte. He pointed at 4 dishes, and I ordered them all and sat out in the breaking spring, with the air so clear and tart that my appetite grew with every exhalation. It was one of the most astounding meals I had eaten.
I went back a full 4 times before even noticing (or caring) that they had Ciya Kebab directly opposite. So wrapped up had I been in the delights at Sofrasi that I didn't even give it a chance, knowing that the kebabs at Raif Usta, Emmi and Durumzade would more than sufficiently quell any hankerings. However, Musa himself had mentioned that the spicy lamb kebab was definitely worth trying, and who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth.
The kebab was as sumptuous and flavoursome as the rest of the dishes opposite. Delicately spiced, perfectly seasoned, immaculately cooked meat juicy as a rare steak, filling me with dizzy glee. The pita bread was perfect, the simple blistered pepper and onions all that were needed. I sat long after the meal digested sipping tea and watching surrounding tables take their first bite, feeling almost as though they were sharing in my secret.
It would be utterly criminal to visit Istanbul and not, first of all, visit Kadikoy, and secondly, eat at Ciya. Sure there are perhaps other eateries in forgotten corners that may have specialised in one dish and perform their particular tasks slightly better than here, but as a whole, you would be hard pressed to find such solid food in the city. For a man who has regarded his life a 'protecting of dying recipes', his quest alone should be rewarded with attendance. Eat liberally, tip graciously, smile politely, and then walk down to moda and catch the dying sun disappear in the slow ripples of waves and admit to yourself that life can be a grand, grand waltz.
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.