Text by SOL VANZI
Images by NOEL PABALATE
Istanbul native Ilhan Dede spent seven years supervising 170 Filipino workers at a huge construction project in Oman, and was so impressed by their kindness and friendship, he married a Pinay and decided to spend his retirement years in the Philippines, the land of his wife Liezel, co-workers, and friends. The couple flew in last year; he loved everything he found in his new homeland but was disappointed not to find real Turkish food anywhere.
A man of action, he moved fast and by last March, had opened a small food stall called Merl and Melisa Istanbul Restaurant serving Turkish Kebab and Shawarma at Harrison Plaza (HP), the country’s first shopping mall. Now on the verge of reconstruction, Harrison Plaza was built in time for the 1976 joint conference of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank at the brand new Philippine International Convention Center (PICC).
The Turkish food outlet immediately attracted throngs of foodies, including economists and officials from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) headquarters across the street, who have become regular lunch break customers.
BSP executives often select the set meals consisting of Turkish chicken soup, two vegetable salads, flatbread, the main course, and four different natural, homemade sauces.
HP’s new tenant is like a fresh breeze breathing life and renewed activity, adding new faces, and enticing old customers to return to the old neighborhood shopping center.
Social media has also played a big part in the eatery’s phenomenal popularity, with Facebook users posting very positive reviews and enticing photos. Facebook groups have even come all the way from outside Metro Manila to try the Turkish dishes they read about online.
DETAILS THAT MATTER
To ensure the authenticity of the Halal food offered, Ilhan convinced chef Gafur Ekis to fly in from Istanbul and supervise the kitchen, which is in full view of all the diners.
“Everything we use is fresh. I personally buy the vegetables and meats every morning, and we make all the sauces daily,” Ilhan stressed.
While waiting for their meals, diners love gathering near the kitchen to watch and learn how to prepare the dishes at home. The staff is not selfish about sharing information, including the sources of their Turkish ingredients.
Turkish Shawarma is different from the Arabic kind we are familiar with. It is almost twice as long, and the flatbread is thinner and softer, could be from using a better, finer type of flour.
At the moment, Ilhan only serves Chicken Shawarma.
“Beef Shawarma needs good fat beef, for which I am still trying to find a good supplier. I will only serve Beef Shawarma when I find good, fat, tender, and juicy fresh beef,” Ilhan insists.
His large Shawarma is filled with flavorful roasted chicken slices, finely shredded coleslaw, onions, and spices. They are served with a choice of four sauces, which are fun to mix and match with every bite. Two of the sauces are yogurt-based; one is infused with garlic.
Noel, Kyle, and I shared three set meals, each complete with salad, soup, Biryani, grilled pepper, roasted tomatoes, and flatbread. Surprisingly, the prices are half what they charge in many restaurants.
The first set was Chicken Wings BBQ, composed of several large wing sections scored at the bones for better seasoning absorption and neater bites. The spicy seasonings did not overwhelm but complemented the Biryani, bread, and vegetables.
The Biryani by itself was outstanding. Orange-tinted by a mixture of aromatic spices the Biryani used very expensive imported long grain Basmati rice, rarely found outside high-end restaurants and hotels.
Our next dish was Cheesy Beef Meatballs, freshly minced meat and herbs stuffed with Feta-like melty white cheese that oozed out with every bite.
Last was Beef Kebab BBQ scented with exotic herbs and spices, wrapped around in a sword-like metal barbecue stick.
The chicken soup was thick and comforting, with none of the scent and after-taste of frozen poultry.
BABA TO YAGITS
As we left Harrison Plaza for our next gig, we saw several street children running towards Ilhan, calling him Baba (Turkish for father). The mall’s security guard told us the kids get fed by Ilhan daily, as are many homeless adults.
Merl and Melisa Istanbul Restaurant is inside Harrison Plaza, Mabini Street across Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, Malate, Manila. Open during mall hours, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.