February 21, 2013

A good story somehow continues in a shimmer of possibility.

I came across a link to a Tobias Wolff interview from 2003 in the Paris Review on Alec Soth's Little Brown Mushroom blog, where he pondered out loud whether the phrase "a shimmer of possibility," the name of the notable book and body of work by Paul Graham, was originally a Wolff line. That line comes from Wolff's description of the success of Anton Chekhov stories, where he says, "A good story somehow continues in a shimmer of possibility.

Whether Wolff is or isn't the source, I'm so glad I found this interview. There are so many parts of it that resonate with me, even though he is speaking as a writer and me, reading, as an aspiring maker of a whole multitude of things (having achieved nowhere near the experience or accolade or repertoire of work that he has). His thoughts about the practice and lifetime of writing, about expectations around what leads you to your best work, of trying to classify or being classified by the things you're making, of returning to the same subjects again and again, about patience, about storytelling, about memory, about grace—are ever thoughtful and self-reflective. I've excerpted a few of my favorite bits below, but really, if you don't read the whole thing, I can honestly say: you're missing out.

On not talking about what he is working on:

Writers are superstitious. I don’t mean knock on wood, throw salt over the shoulder—let me try to explain. I began this whole writing enterprise with the idea that you go to work in the morning like a banker, then the work gets done. John Cheever used to tell how when he was a young man, living in New York with his wife, Mary, he’d put on his suit and hat every morning and get in the elevator with the other married men in his apartment building. These guys would all get out in the lobby but Cheever’d keep going down into the basement, where the super had let him set up a card table. It was so hot down there he had to strip to his underwear. So he’d sit in his boxers and write all morning, and at lunchtime he’d put his suit back on and take the elevator up with the other husbands—men used to come home for lunch in those days—and then he’d go back to the basement in his suit and strip down for the afternoon’s work. This was an important idea for me—that an artist was someone who worked, not some special being exempt from the claims of ordinary life. 
But I have also learned that you can be patient and diligent and sometimes it just doesn’t strike sparks. After a while you begin to understand that writing well is not a promised reward for being virtuous. No, every time you do it you’re stepping off into darkness and hoping for some light. You can be faithful, work hard, not waste your talents in drink, and still not have it happen. That’s what makes writers nervous—the sense of the thing being given, day by day. You might have been writing good stories for years, then for some reason the stories aren’t so good. Anything that seems able to jinx you, to invite trouble, writers avoid. And one of the things that writers very quickly learn to avoid is talking their work away. Talking about your work hardens it prematurely, and weakens the charge. You need to keep a fluid sense of the work in hand—it has to be able to change almost without your being aware that it’s changing.
On what his writing day is like:
You have to be alone a lot, you have to be rather sedentary, you have to be a creature of routine, you have to fetishize your solitude, and you have to become very, very selfish about your time.
 On spending time in Rome, for no reason in particular:
...it’s good for a while to be dropped through the bottom, to be a little helpless, to have to scramble to make do, because as you get older, you do less and less of that, and it’s good for you, it takes the rust off.
On the value of showing your work to others:
I guess the point is, as you go on in this life you become aware of the folly of thinking you did something all by yourself. We’re held up by others all along the way. 
On getting advice, giving advice, and being patient:
Writers often give advice they don’t follow to the letter themselves. And so I tend to receive their commandments warily. I don’t have a lot of advice to give. The one thing I would say to a young writer who wanted counsel is to be patient. Time, which is your enemy in almost everything in this life, is your friend in writing. It is. If you can relax into time, not fight it, not fret at its passing, you will become better. You probably won’t be very good at the beginning, but you will become better, and eventually you may actually become good.  
On being a nomad, and then "settling."
I had an idea of myself as someone free and unencumbered, and virtuous for being so. Of course, one cannot live like this— I can’t, anyway. And in fact, I find that all the best things in my life have come about precisely through the things that hold me in place: family, work, routine, everything that contradicts my old idea of the good life. For years I lived mostly out of a backpack, traveling light and living cheap, often bestowing my mendicant presence on my brother, Geoffrey, and his wife, Priscilla, on my patient friends. But, you know, it seems as time goes on that the deepest good for me as man and writer is to be found in ordinary life. It’s the gravity of daily obligations and habit, the connections you have to your friends and your work, your family, your place— even the compromises that are required of you to get through this life. The compromises don’t diminish us, they humanize us—it’s the people who won’t, or who think they don’t, who end up monsters in this world. I’m not talking about dishonesty, I’m talking about having some give, sometimes letting go of things that you aren’t inclined to let go of, that you may even have attached the name of principle to, to justify your fear of bending. 
On fiction being interpreted as autobiographical:
Writers, to my way of thinking, are no more free in their choices than most people. Our material chooses us; certain things engage us, certain things do not. Certain subjects call me out and I feel like my feet are on the ground when I’m writing about them and no doubt this has led here and there to apparent repetitions and correspondences that may be deceptive in that they lead the reader to assume an autobiographical basis for the work. 
On the perception of the need for danger, experience, travel, adventure to make good work:
Experience is about seeing what’s around you, not going different places and putting yourself in danger—it’s about being attentive, seeing how things work, what they add up to.
On what it is about writers that enables them to stand back and be bystanders to situations:
We live by stories. It’s the principle by which we organize our experience and thus derive our sense of who we are. We’re in an unceasing flow of time and events and people, and to make sense of what goes past, we put a beginning and an end to a certain thing, and we leave things out and we heighten other things, and in that way we break the unbroken flow into stories, because that’s the only way we can give it significance. And that’s why people will never agree that a friend’s or relative’s memoir is accurate. We have left things out without even realizing it, and heightened other things, but to our friend the missing moment was paramount and the heightened moment of no importance at all.
On the idea that a subject can no longer be written about:
There’s no story that’s used up. People say things like, There are really only seven stories. Well, no. There’re as many stories as there are ways to imagine stories, and there are an infinite number of ways to imagine stories, and for them to be brand-new after you’ve done it.
On whether writing is a socially responsible way to spend one's life:
I think of it this way. I was changed by literature, not by cautionary or exhortatory literature, but by the truth as I found it in literature. I recognize the world in a different way because of it, and I continue to be influenced in that way by it. Opened up, made more alert, and called to a greater truthfulness in my own accounting of things, not just in my writing, in my life as well. It did that for me, and does that for me, and no one touched by it in this way should have any doubt of its necessity. Yet we writers do doubt, constantly. It’s one of the conditions of our employment. Poor us. Poor us because lucky us—we have the leisure to devil ourselves with questions like this. 
On what he responds to in writing, regardless of the writer's belief system:
I respond to something gracious in the writer. That doesn’t mean nice, or kind, or consoling, though it can have that effect. It has to do with a certain courage and verve and even sense of play in facing things as they are. If there’s no grace to be found in things as they are, then you’ll have to find it in things as they aren’t, and you know what Yeats wrote about that: “We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.” 

February 19, 2013

Notes on China, Part II: Pollution in Beijing

(Above photos heading to, at, and returning from a local fish market near where my friend N's driver Ge Shi Fu lives. This is on a medium-bad pollution day. Also, I promise, this is my last day of the grim-but-fascinating-to-me Beijing stuff. On to the fun stuff next.)

There's so much to say about the gripping, grim, grimace-inducing pollution that overtook Beijing for much of our stay there in January. We'll start with the fact that the pollution was so bad that even the Chinese government admitted it is bad, which is kind of like the NRA admitting that guns in schools might be a bad idea. It does not happen. For years and years the pollution in China has been getting worse and worse--this isn't a new problem that appeared on the occasion of the 2008 Olympics.  It's largely attributed to the extreme rise in manufacturing, the surge of car usage (and a huge population), and the continued use of coal energy. It's hard to know what else is causing it but much of the pollution alleviation "plan" depends on how much wind blows through the city (very unreliable) or the government's decision to make changes like stopping factory pollution or seeding clouds for rain, like they did during the Olympics. I should also add that the pollution isn't only horrible in Beijing, it's just as bad in dozens and dozens of other cities in China. 

It's one thing to imagine pollution -- we talk abstractly in New York about ecological impact and climate change and gawk at garbage bins overflowing with could-be-recycled bottles on Bedford Ave and the value of eating organic because it's "good" for the environment or our bodies. It's another thing to wake up with your throat stinging, the air smelling like dirty tires, your eyes achy, your skin broken out like you're 13 and waves of nausea, because the air you're breathing and in contact with is so dirty. It makes our daily choices seem very small, because all in all most of us (in the States) live in a relatively very, very clean place with an enormous number of healthy options. 

A primer on air pollution numbers: The US Embassy offers hourly readings of the pollution, with a scale (the Air Quality Index) that goes from 0-500. Under 50 is thought to be healthy, above 100 is unhealthy, above 300 is hazardous, 500 was at some point deemed "crazy bad," a made-up status that nobody thought they'd hit, but then they did (and now do regularly), though 500 is still "off the charts." If you're ever in China, or just curious, I recommend the China Air Quality app, which will give you both the US Embassy air quality index rating and the Chinese Embassy rating. 99.9% of the time, the US Embassy number is significantly different, and higher, than the Chinese Embassy's. 

There are various readings of what the levels -- measured as density of particulate matter in the air -- were measured at during our trip, though consistently over 300.  But, at one point after we raced home from the Great Wall, seeing the pollution literally wave over us from our van, the app our friends were using read 826, which is basically so toxic that at comparable levels in other cities, birds have (supposedly) been seen falling out of the sky. Others liken it to sitting in a closed garage with your exhaust running. Or, smoking a pack of cigarettes with every few minutes of breathing. This might be hyperbole (these are all "what it's equal to" descriptions we heard from people there), but it feels like willingly shortening your life to breathe that air. 

As I mentioned yesterday, we were in Beijing visiting American friends who live there with their 4 young children (ages 8 months, 2ish, 4ish and 6ish), so they take extra precautions when it comes to the pollution because kids are far more sensitive. There's high risk of developing asthma, and countless other health effects. They keep their kids inside when the pollution reads above 250, and try not to go out much themselves. Fortunately, their apartment is connected to a mall with a bunch of decent restaurants and a grocery store, so they can at least go beyond the walls of their apartment. They spend a lot of days with kids wandering around the empty mall. Not great when you're used to parks and beaches and a backyard and a garden. You can imagine how destructive this becomes when you're trying to run daily errands and all your plans are constantly being thwarted. New York just wouldn't function. Or perhaps people would leave. 

You probably why anyone would live there or how people just carry on with their lives, but the government puts a lot of time and energy into denying pollution exists, that it has a health impact or that anyone should be worried about it. And, people normalize it, as many of us probably would too. 

Anyhow. Reading the pollution levels on your phone becomes a multiple-times-a-day event. You wake up, take a reading. Eat lunch, take a reading. Every time you go out, you take a reading. It's not uncommon for the pollution to blow in and out of the city in a matter of hours, so you can go from 100 to 400 between meals. The way this looks is that you can be driving around 3rd Ring Road, one of the big beltway-like loops that encompasses the entire city, on your way to visit a hutong and eat some dumplings. As you're driving, visibility starts rapidly dropping. Tops of buildings begin to disappear and you start to taste the air. Your throat starts to scratch, but you drive on. By the time to get to your destination, you can't see the building across the street. You can stare straight at the sun in the middle of the afternoon because it's so blocked by particulate matter. Everything is dirty and dense and gray-brown, like you're in a never ending sandstorm. There is no skyline, no sunset, no sunrise. 

On the first day we saw the pollution, to be honest, Jacob and I were a little excited. We observed it as pure novelty and Delillo's Airborne Toxic Event was forefront in our brains. But it gets old fast once you start feeling horrible and makes you very grateful that air quality isn't something we've ever had to bother really worrying about.  

Once we got back to the States, everyone around us seemed aware of the horrible pollution in Beijing for the first time because of the aforementioned record-breaking numbers that led to articles in international papers. And, the good news is, it appears to have been so bad  it's caused a stir amongst the Chinese as well. Even if it doesn't lead to longstanding change, it leads to more internal awareness and pressure for change; currently the papers like to tell citizens that the best antidote to the "smog" is to eat more black fungus and pears. 

I had a few takeaways from seeing and experiencing Beijing pollution: 
  • Air quality is obviously something I should appreciate more. And I do now.
  • Factories are plowing through coal not just because of goods and products being produced for the Chinese. All those things we buy that are Made in China add to the demand. So, when we buy cheap sweaters or electronics or a thousand other items around our homes, the impact is real, even though it hasn't affected us on the day-to-day yet. Our consumption is to blame for this pollution as well. 
Nota Bene: 

February 18, 2013

Notes on China, Part I

(Photos from a Hutong on our first day, just after arrival. From 4th from the bottom: Older men playing Chinese chess (I think) near the Drum & Bell towers, areas of the city under construction, a mobile bike repair station, a temporary key copying station)

Jacob and I returned from China a few weeks ago, but it's taken a few weeks and a bit of distance to really gather all my thoughts and observations. More reflections come out with each conversation we have, over dinner, with friends late at night, talking to our families -- trying to grasp why it's not a place I'd necessarily tell you to vacation, but certainly describe as a place I'd encourage you to visit.

Beijing was the last leg of a long trip that also earned us passport stamps from Berlin, Istanbul, Warsaw and Tokyo. I'll put an immediate disclaimer out there -- my perspectives and observations are skewed by only visiting Beijing (within China), only being there for a week, and from being privy (or biased) due to what we learned from the experiences and perspective of my (American) friends who live there. They've lived in Beijing for ~8 months and moved there with four young children (under the age of 6), which also means my observations are also focused on some of the battles/interactions/challenges they've faced navigating a life that's probably unlike yours or mine would be if you (for some reason) ended up in Beijing.

I'm going to start off with major China themes -- things that surprised me or became major topics of conversation while we were there. In the next few days I'll share more of the sites and experiences we had around the city.

Pollution: First things first. The pollution. It is very bad. It was so bad while we were visiting (record-setting bad) that it made international news, a first possibly ever. You've probably heard about it in the last few weeks. It's so bad that it warrants its own forthcoming post.

Arrival: We arrived in China by way of Warsaw and were immediately struck by the modernity and scale of the Beijing airport, which is, as of 2009, the busiest airport in Asia. I believe we landed in the built-for-the-Olympics Terminal 3, designed by the British architecture firm Fosters and Partners. The space is expansive and open with incredibly clear and helpful signage, and fluid, open navigation through customs and baggage claim. In hindsight, this is even more remarkable given that clear, open navigation and helpful signage/translations are not among China's strong suits.

CCTV Building: Our hotel was just across from the famous CCTV building (China Central Television Headquarters), designed by Rem Koolhaas's firm OMA. The building is also known as "The Pants" and took 8 years to complete (opening earlier this year) after a terrible fire mid-construction. All TV in China is operated and produced by the state, and most of it goes down in this building. Our first day, we could see the CCTV building clear as day; quite a site. In hindsight, also remarkable, given the pollution we would soon see roll into town, blocking that view.

The Architecture of Pollution: Aside from the CCTV Building, architecture heading into downtown Beijing is remarkably unsexy. There's lots of cement, a distinct lack of central HVAC units, lots of old block-y, sometimes-pastel rectangular buildings with thousands upon thousands of apartment units. The city is in general less tall than either Jacob or I had anticipated considering the sheer number of people who are condensed in the city. That said, there are many quite-tall 40-50 story buildings that have gone up in the last decade or so. The city's tallest building is the China World Trade Center, which looks like a spitting--but shorter--image of the former World Trade Towers in NYC. All of this makes for a rather unremarkable skyline, which, compounded by lack of visibility due to the frequent pollution, made it feel hard to orient ourselves within the city. Our friends explained that most of the "sexy, futuristic" China portrayed in movies/TV is likely either shot in Shanghai or Hong Kong. The LA Times has a good piece from 2008 about how architects take smog into consideration when developing in Beijing.

The Great Firewall of China: As most of you probably know, Internet access in China is subjugated to what is known as the "Great Firewall of China." A good handful of sites that you and I visit regularly are blacklisted in China, or, are slowed to a level where functionally using said website is impossible. Among these are: Gmail, the NY Times, Twitter, Facebook, blogspot, blogger, etc. Jacob and I found, despite staying in a largely foreign-oriented hotel with decent wifi, that trying to use the internet was essentially futile. Gmail timed out after ~10 seconds and trying to search news websites to keep up with un-censored sites is fairly discouraging. A lot of expats (and others) set up VPN's to connect to the web and surpass the firewall, but the government intermittently shuts these down as well. Oddly enough, Instagram still worked and furthermore, pushed updates to Twitter + Facebook. So, there are obviously holes and there's a somewhat arbitrary degree of blockage happening here. What this does emotionally is more complicated than pure frustration. Because the internet often works just enough, I found myself trying to spit out lots of quick emails which definitely included words like "Chinese government" and "horrible pollution" and "Ai Wei Wei." Then, the next day when your internet doesn't work at all, though there's no causation or fingers to point to, you find yourself feeling very suspicious/paranoid that you're being observed. Not knowing how much you're being controlled has a psychological impact much greater than knowing what restrictions are.

Lost in Translation: Many storefronts and street signs feature English "translations," but calling the words a translation would be a major leap. Generally, the English "translation" has no relationship to the Chinese words. This makes finding places difficult -- because even if you could speak Chinese, you also need to read Chinese to know the name of a place. On top of this, surprisingly few people in Beijing speak English compared to other international cities of that size. If you do go to Beijing (or China), download the Beijing Taxi Guide app, listing 3,000+ locations with their Chinese and English names. If your driver or other people you're asking for directions can read, this will be extremely helpful.

Cash only: We paid for everything in Beijing in cash (aka Renminbi, quay, yuan) and nobody aside from our hotel even accepted credit cards. Dinner? Cash. Get in a car accident? Settle with cash. Go to the hospital? Pay cash. Shoes? Cash. Pay for your kids' school tuition fee? All cash. Occasionally you see Mastercard or Visa stickers on businesses' doors, but as my friend explained, that usually only means that Mastercard or Visa sent the business a sticker and doesn't actually mean they accept it. Credit cards are essentially moot.

And, a few warnings my friend N sent me a few days before we arrived:

1) For your stay, you should memorize one phrase in Chinese. "Bu Yao" (I don't want) Say it forcefully and repeatedly if someone is pushing themselves on you trying to sell you something. There is no begging allowed here in the streets, so you dont have to worry about that, but salespeople are alarmingly assertive.

2) Any price you are quoted that isn't written down (and some that aren't) is negotiable. By like 90%. Never pay asking, or anywhere close. If you dont feel comfortable bargaining but want something, just ask me. Street and restaurant food is the exception, the prices are the prices.

3) dont step on the street grates/manhole covers. J had one flip out from under him before we learned that this is a common issue in Beijing.

4) The pollution may make your throat hurt and give you a headache...

5) People spit phlegm in the streets. It is believed that mucus is very unhealthy for the body, so it is unloaded right there and then. You'll learn to recognize the sound of someone about to hawk a loogie (is that the right term??) and watch your feet

6) There is no sense of personal space here. People shove/push/don't queue, etc. Don't worry about being polite, just push on in if you want to get anywhere.

7) Careful crossing the street. There are bike lanes here that have electric scooters/motocycles that dont abide any traffic laws. And also you can't assume a car will stop for a red light because they often dont. You have no right of way as a pedestrian, even with a walk signal.

February 7, 2013

Rachel Kaye

Works by Rachel A. Kaye, who is doing a textile collaboration with Gravel & Gold in SF. 

February 6, 2013


(Oh hi. Just got caught taking a selfie.) 

Buyukada is the largest of the nine Princes' Islands, in the sea of Marmara, 2 hours and 5 lira by slow ferry from the Kabatas port in Istanbul. In the summer the island swells with visitors who gather by the shore to enjoy the water and the view and the wildflowers, the food and the drink and the romance of somewhere incredibly old, beautiful and overgrown. They gather all around the perimeter of the 2 square mile island and up top, at the highest point on the island, you can see a monastery and and old orphanage, the latter built of now-decaying slats of wood that was once the color of cream or clouds or paper mache, but is now splintered and an indiscernible white. Mansions dot the island, palatial homes like those that might be found in Bel Air or Grosse Point or in South Beach, but many of these old Ottoman mansions that were once the vacation homes of the Greeks, Armenians and Turks are now abandoned, and cats find their way in every window.

We rented bikes with heavy wheels, made for riding up and down mountains, and started our trek around the rim, pulling over to the side every so often when we encountered a cow or a fork in the road, or heard the chariot-like clomps behind us of the horse-drawn carriages that serve as locals main form of transportation. There are no cars here, just bicycles, buggies and rugged folk with strong legs enjoying the quiet and beauty of the off-season.

February 5, 2013


Last night, I got a box of much-anticipated citrus from the family-run Friend's Ranches in Ojai, CA. My little brother tipped me off (he is a huge fan of their Ojai Pixie Tangerine, which ripens around March), and I discovered they have monthly boxes of seasonal citrus as well as single-fruit boxes (just navels, just blood oranges, etc.). Ours came with meyer lemons, a bacon avocado, 4 types of tangerines (W. Murcot, Dancy, Page, and Lee) and 3 types of oranges (Tarocco blood, Cara Cara and Washington navels). The variety of citrus depends are where you are in the season. The box has about 50 pieces of fruit. So far I've tried about five varieties and needless to say, I imagine our stash will go very quickly.

February 4, 2013

Old City, Istanbul Eats, Tips for 1st time visitors

The Old City in Istanbul is almost entirely tourists, but still very much worth a visit. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia are stunning sites of architecture, history, and grandiosity, and if you appreciate craftsmanship, the tilework, painting, and patterns that are integrated into the fabric of the buildings is just stunning. It's further stunning when you realize the Blue Mosque was first built in the early 1600s and the Hagia Sofia was built in the 300s -- in fact, first a basilica and then later a mosque (and now a museum). Topkapi Palace, the royal residence of Ottoman sultans for many centuries, is also grand, but i'd say it's one of the "must sees" you can actually skip. It's flooded with tourists and many of the treasures and artifacts of the space are behind glass walls and in cases. 

Good general first-time tips for Istanbul travelers:
  1. Be prepared to walk. Streets are narrow, windy and hilly so you'll want comfy shoes. Cabs are hardly useful -- streets are so clogged it's usually faster to walk anyhow. 
  2. Cars take the right of way. Watch where you are walking; mopeds and vehicles and trams will plow through a crowded intersection. 
  3. Alcohol is expensive, but available. Unlike other largely Muslim countries where alcohol is not available, you can get beer, wine + cocktails in Istanbul. But, it's pricey. The gov't puts a hefty tax on drinks, so expect your beer to cost more than your food. Even for bodega-style wine, the cheapest bottle we could find was around $20. Cocktails at restaurants were usually $15-$20. 
  4. Raki is an unsweetened anise-flavored alcohol popular in Turkey. Try it. 
  5. A lot of restaurants add a 5-10% bread + bottled water charge onto your bill. This is not optional, so be mindful when you sit down. That said, tipping at most restaurant is minimal to 5% or so. Nicer restaurants is a bit more -- maybe 10%
  6. If you're buying anything from a bazaar, bargain. 
  7. There are lots of cats. Everywhere. 

Istanbul Eats
Any cuisine that involves heavy usage of eggplant, onions, garlic, tomatoes, beans lentils, olive oil, nuts of all sorts, and copious spices, ranks high in my world, so I was psyched to eat in and around Istanbul. Here are a a few favorites from our trip (not including all the street food, doner, lavash and kebabs we also consumed).
  • Gram: Run by Didem Senol, one of Istanbul's top female chefs, Gram is one version of my vision of a near perfect restaurant. Located in Beyoglu, the storefront features gorgeous pastries and sweets for breakfast -- giant billowing meringues and gorgeous raisin muffins and a fabulous ginger cake we tried one morning (cause cake in the morning is actually just a muffin). At noon the restaurant transitions to an open lunch buffet with a large emphasis on Turkish influenced local salads and grains for lunch. The space is closed for dinner (but open to private parties + intimate gatherines). Tables are all communal, and food is mostly self serve, but servers and chefs bring you oven-grilled bread and drinks. There's a general feeling of stopping by your grandma's (modern, sleekly designed) kitchen for lunch as all the cooking happens in an open kitchen. You pay a prix fixe for your choice of 4 dishes. Some of my favorites here were a lentil, bulgar and roasted pepper salad, a beautiful roast celeriac in a lemon sauce, everything with sweet potatoes, and an intense and beautiful pumpkin cheesecake with a tahini crust. [Beyoglu, official website]
  • Lokanta Maya: The woman running the pastry counter at Gram also pointed us to Lokanta Maya, offering us scant chance of getting a reservation the day before we left. So, we were psyched to get a table to visit Didem Senol's other Istanbul restaurant in the Karakoy neighborhood, down by the water not to far from Galata bridge. T Magazine has a good write-up from a year or so ago, but to summarize: get the golden zucchini fritters with the minted yogurt dip. In fact, get as many appetizers as you can manage. Try a fish dish (any of them). I had a sea bass with pomegranate glaze and grilled persimmon and chard. (Exquisite). This place is modern Turkish cuisine at its best. Karakoy is also a great neighborhood with some galleries, cafes, old auto shops and warehouse spaces that's fun for walking around. 
  • The best simit in Istanbul: I'm going to make a bold claim and say that Galata Simitcisi makes the best simit in the city. Bold because that's like putting your stake on the best bagel or pizza in New York. But, this old school bakery near the Karakoy waterfront does simit and simit only. Their simits seems perpetually warm from the oven with a deep, nutty, slightly crispy crust, and a chewy, rich interior. Turkish folks eat simits for breakfast, like a bagel, or as a snack. Follow suit and treat yourself to one of these at any point in the day. 
  • 9 Ece Aksoy: J and I walked past this restaurant a half a dozen times, peering in the window for slightly creepy, stalkerish amounts of time at least twice, before we decided to go for dinner. The front room (main dining room) is small and intimate -- maybe 12' x 12' -- and features two long family-style tables with high stools. Any way you cut it, you're going to be sitting very close to your neighbor, so get cozy. Ece Aksoy is eponymously named after its chef, a woman who hangs around the dining room and checks up on you like a kind aunt. The food is Turkish homestyle, and I recommend the appetizer plates, which mix and match all the beautiful mezze that are often associated with Turkish dining: eggplant dips and saffron carrots and minty yogurt sauces and chick peas and grape leaves. Ece Aksoy's take were inventive and aromatic variations on traditional mezze, made from ingredients she sources from the local markets. For main dishes, Ece Aksoy has beautiful seafood and is famous for their meatballs. 
  • Mardin Kebap: The best kebap shop we visited was on a side street off of the Grand Bazaar, which I couldn't point you to if I my life depended on it. But, it's near the "leather" section of the bazaar. A casual, bustling grill shop with a straightforward grilled meats and lavash menu. But, portions are big, everything is incredibly tasty and it's cheap to boot. 
A few places that were recommended to us (and we would have gone if we had more time): 
  • Kadikoy Market: Tuesday produce / spice market on the Asian side of the city with excellent vendor food. 
  • Sita Batik: for fresh fish
  • Ciya Sofresi: in Kadikoy. Serves classic Turkish dishes + mezze that are noted as the best in the city. 
Other tips:
  • Yogurt is consumed in many forms, both sweet and savory, and all worth trying. 
  • Borek are common pastries made of layers of a thicker version of phyllo dough called yufka and filled with cheese, parsley, spinach, ground meats, spices and sometimes sprinkled with sesame seeds. Find a borek bakery you love and commit yourself to it. 
  • Drink a lot of tea, especially when offered by a potential friend or when you're working a deal.  
  • Turks love desserts, so sweets are ubiquitous and often incorporate nuts, dried fruit like pumpkin, fig and quince. Turkish delight, halvah, baklava and dozens of phyllo-based sweets in the baklava family are sold at shops everywhere. Karakoy Gulluoglu is a great old school bakery with a late-night diner feel. Also try sutlac, a Turkish-style rice pudding (my favorite). 
  • Gozleme, which we didn't actually eat in Turkey but love to get at the farmers' market in Berlin, are like Turkish-style calzones made on a specialed drum-style griddle. They have a thin lavash-like dough, and are filled with various vegetables, cheese and meat, cut into squares and topped with yogurt sauce. 
  • Istanbul Eats and Delicious Istanbul are great food guides to the city.