Nicole at the Golden Horn

The setting was gorgeous. We were atop a hotel (and former convent) opposite the compound of the Italian Consulate—the Italian Embassy, in Ottoman times, before Mustafa Kemal founded the Turkish Republic and moved the capital to Ankara. We looked out over old trees. The street just below us was closed to cars; off to the right it became a stairway and a narrow passage up to İstiklâl Caddesi. Beyond the trees of the Consulate were the Golden Horn and Seraglio Point, with the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara beyond. As night fell, electric lights illuminated the Seraglio itself—Topkapı Palace—along with the Hagia Sophia.

We were seated at the outer corner of the terrace, at the table with the best view. It may have helped that Ayşe and I were among the first to arrive when the restaurant opened at seven. We had made a reservation. It was a while before anybody else was seated near us.

My friend Laura had raved about Restaurant Nicole in March, when she dined there with her friend Julie. The women were visiting from Washington, where Laura and I had been two of six roommates, twenty years earlier, at a cooperative vegetarian group-house with a bicycle rack in the living room. The six of us all made good meals for one another back then, though possibly our conviviality covered up technical culinary shortfalls. Some time since then, Laura had become an omnivore. She was impressed by Nicole, and especially by the pairing of wines with the courses.

The menu changes every six weeks at Nicole. Your table must collectively choose to have many small courses, or fewer larger ones. Beyond that, there may be individual choice on individual courses. Perhaps this is a standard format for dining at this level. The Nicole website promises, We will try our best to make accommodations for food allergies and vegetarians with prior notice. Ayşe said we were vegetarians when she made our reservation, several days in advance, for Monday, August 21, 2015. We expected just to eat the meal that was served to us; and so we did.

On the telephone, the maitre d’hôtel said he would consult with the sommelier on the right wines for our meatless dishes. We were choosing to have the wine pairing. We were going all out. No holds barred. After Laura’s enthusiasm about Restaurant Nicole, we had thought we should splurge and try it some time. Months later, Ayşe noted that some money had been deposited in her account, for certain services rendered to the Higher Education Council of Turkey. The thought recurred: why not spend the money on Nicole?

It is what Richard Feynman might have done. Any scientist—any academic—ought to know Feynman’s book, as told to Ralph Leighton, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (New York: Norton, 1985). Any student ought to know the book’s closing essay, Cargo Cult Science, from a commencement address at Caltech in 1974. The title of the essay refers to the South Sea islanders who built runways, and control towers with effigies of controllers inside, in hopes that airplanes bearing riches would land again as they had during the War. The essay begins,

DURING the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas—which was to try to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact, that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked—or very little of it did.

But even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFOs, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I’ve concluded that it’s not a scientific world.

Feynman may be correct that it’s still not a scientific world. But because I mention his essay with praise, and perhaps even because of the teachings of the essay itself, I feel compelled to point out that Feynman is too dismissive of witch doctors. He is wrong to assume that they are trying to do science like him. Collingwood has already cleared up this point in The Principles of Art (Oxford, 1938). Magic is not an attempt to understand and manipulate the physical world as such. If it were, it would be a failed attempt, as Feynman observes. But magic is rather an expression or arousal of the emotions that will help one to go about one’s business. The rituals that we ourselves perform today are magic. One example is washing hands before a meal. This washing has no real hygienic basis, but it is

a ceremonial ablution symbolizing the dismissal from one’s mind of work and its preoccupations

—thus Collingwood in the postumous Philosophy of Enchantment (Oxford, 2005), which I happened upon by chance in the Istanbul bookshop called Pandora. More serious examples of good magic are given by Wolfgang Lederer in What Good and What Harm Can Psychoanalysis Do? (The St. John’s Review, Volume XXXV, Number 1, Winter 1984). This is a lecture describing some of Lederer’s own successes as a psychiatrist. These successes were achieved by the same methods of a witch doctor on the African Gold Coast (as described in the British Journal of Medical Science in 1955) and a sixteenth-century French priest.

What is good about Cargo Cult Science is its spelling out of what scientific integrity is. It is

a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Such honesty is contrasted with advertising, which may possibly tell the truth—Wesson oil doesn’t soak through food—, but not the whole truth—no oils soak through food if operated at a certain temperature. If operated at another temperature, they all will—including Wesson oil. I cannot say by my own personal experience that Feynman is right about oil, because I have never performed deep-fat frying. It’s not something anybody did at the old vegetarian group-house. It seems Feynman did it though, at a young age; for his book opens with the recollection,

WHEN I WAS about eleven or twelve I set up a lab in my house. It consisted of an old wooden packing box that I put shelves in. I had a heater, and I’d put in fat and cook french-fried potatoes all the time. I also had a storage battery and a lamp bank.

At common meals in Turkey, as vegetarians, Ayşe and I have been served french fries in place of the meat that other diners were served. This is not what happened at Restaurant Nicole. I bring up Feynman because of his experience as a young physics professor at Cornell University, making weekly visits to deliver lectures in Buffalo. He gets an honorarium on top of expenses for this, and as a child of the Depression, he habitually banks the money. He does not much like having to visit Buffalo, until he realizes that the honorarium is supposed to make the trips attractive. Then he starts spending his money on drinks for women and himself at a Buffalo bar called the Alibi Room. Ayşe and I spent a good part of her honorarium at Restaurant Nicole. Our meal cost three or four times what we had ever spent on a meal in Turkey.

When we first sat down, I wondered if the waiter thought we were cheapskates for not ordering cocktails. We figured the food would start coming right away, along with the wine. Meanwhile, we had water. It came out of the fancy glass bottles of the Kestane (Chestnut) brand. Is the common preference for bottled water an example of cargo cult science? In Istanbul, it may not be. In living memory, tap water here would make you sick. I suspect that the water is clean now, but nobody has the nerve to find out. In any case, the bottled water at Nicole did not come gratis: it would make up about 2.5% of our bill. We had a lot to learn about fine dining. If the menu posted by a restaurant names only one price for a full meal, along with another price for the wine pairing, this does not mean that the sum of those prices will give you everything you might want.

We did not skip cocktails out of cheapness, but because we had no habit of them. The wines served with our meal ought to be sufficiently mood-altering, if not excessively so. Meanwhile, as we drank our water, the head waiter came to confirm what Ayşe had already told him on the phone: We were vegetarians. We were neither pescetarians nor vegans. We did not consume dead animals, but would tolerate products like butter from living animals. We had no allergies. The man made sure of all of this. Some guests might appreciate his attention to detail. I wondered if it meant he doubted his ability to have kept correct notes from Ayşe’s telephone call.

Food did not come right away, and the first food did not come with a drink. It was four pairs of morsels, set on a folded cloth napkin on a rectangular plate. The waiter made an elaborate explanation of what each bite was. When he got to anchovies, Ayşe pointed out our dietary restriction. The waiter apologized, but blamed the error on his colleague, perhaps the head waiter. We were then given a plate that looked the same, but without the anchovy paste.

It would not kill me—or Ayşe, but let me just speak for myself—it would not kill me to eat an anchovy. It would mean the anchovy had been killed for me: but graver crimes are commonly and thoughtlessly committed. Some attempts at pure living are silly to outsiders, including myself. A minister from the Islamist party ruling Turkey enjoyed a risotto once, but was outraged to learn that the chef had used wine in his recipe. The chef was then taken under the wing of the opposition party. By my reading of the Quran, this was all a foolish dispute. Strict avoidance of wine is not enjoined as a way to distinguish Muslims as a Chosen People; the point is to avoid intoxication.

Forbidden to you is carrion, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that over which any name other than God’s has been invoked

—so reads the Quran, in verse 3 of Surah 5 (The Repast), in Muhammad Asad‘s translation (The Message of the Qur’an, Gibraltar: Dar Al-Andalus, 1984). The list of restrictions continues. It includes divination of the future, but not consumption of wine. Exceptions are possible in any case:

As for him, however, who is driven [to what is forbidden] by dire necessity and not by an inclination to sinning—behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.

Intoxicants generally come up later in the surah, in verses 90 and 91:

O YOU who have attained to faith! Intoxicants, and games of chance, and idolatrous practices, and the divining of the future are but a loathsome evil of Satan’s doing: shun it, then, so that you might attain to a happy state! By means of intoxicants and games of chance Satan seeks only to sow enmity and hatred among you, and to turn you away from the remembrance of God and from prayer. Will you not, then, desist?

Asad notes that the rhetorical force of the closing question is that of a command to desist. This effect is achieved, he says, only by making the question negative, though it is literally positive in the Arabic: Will you then desist? It seems to me that the desired effect is also achieved by, Will you please desist?—unless it should be felt that the word please gives an option to the listener. In any case, enmity and hatred can be sown by making a fuss over whether there was wine in your risotto—or whether there had ever been wine in your water glass, to name another concern that some pious Turkish Muslims have. If making this fuss is necessary to remind the fusser that he is chosen by God, that is fine. In this case the pious Muslim is only aping the pious Jew. Islam is an amalgam of Judaism and Christianity, but sometimes I think it takes the worst aspects of both religions: the formalism of the one and the proselytizing of the other.

God warns us against intoxicants. If we can avoid the dangers only through total abstinence, then let us abstain. But after some decades of experience, it appears that I can pretty well avoid the dangers without total abstinence. I do not accept the Quran as being any more the word of God than any other book is; but the Quran can be read as permitting the life I lead.

People do like to have clear rules to follow. If they don’t care whether they enter the toilet with their left foot or right foot, they like to have a favorite brand of cigarette or spirits. Alternatively, they like to be able to announce things like, I don’t eat pork. This announcement had an electrifying effect on Malcolm X when he made it in the prison refectory, as I recall from the Autobiography of Malcolm X—another as told to book, this time by Alex Haley: unfortunately it is one of the books that I never managed to bring to Istanbul, so at the moment, I can consult it only by memory. Malcolm’s announcement of his new-found dietary restriction gave him special standing, in the eyes of his fellow inmates and himself. It was magic, in the sense of Collingwood above.

The announcement of being vegetarian may be an annoyance in some settings. I could consider eating the regular food at Nicole. I had fish once, on one of the islands of Istanbul. There is no farmland on the islands, but the fish are right there: what can be wrong with eating them? Eating fish did not kill me. But neither did it thrill me. Restaurant Nicole said they would accommodate vegetarians, and so we asked them to do so in our case.

They did accommodate us. But I am not sure that they did not do so, simply by leaving out the meat that was served to other customers. After the amuse-bouches that I mentioned—served dry, as I said, though according to Wikipedia, a complementing wine is often served with them— after the amuse-bouches, we had two more starter courses, three main courses, and three dessert courses. There was one glass of white wine for all of the starters, one each for the mains, and one glass of fortified wine for the desserts. The glasses were small, but the courses were minuscule. Though there were nine of the latter, we went home hungry.

We were not so hungry that we ate again before sleeping. However, we had anticipated a lean repast. A couple of hours before our dinner, we had gözleme, which is sold to tourists as Turkish pancake: it is a thin sheet of dough folded over a filling, in our case potato and cheese, and baked on a convex griddle. We had gözleme for little more than we would pay for water at Nicole; and we had it, not just overlooking the Bosphorus, but right next to the Bosphorus, at the open-air cafe between the Dolmabahçe Palace and its mosque.

When I visited St John’s College in Annapolis as a prospective student in 1982, the reading for the freshman seminar that I was to sit in on was from the dialogue of Plato called the Gorgias. In this dialogue, the character of Callicles asserts that pleasure is the good, and the best life is a life of limitless desires, constantly being satisfied. In the Jowett translation that I read back then (at 491e):

he who would truly live ought to allow his desires to wax to the uttermost, and not to chastise them; but when they have grown to their greatest he should have courage and intelligence to minister to them and to satisfy all his longings. And this I affirm to be natural justice and nobility. To this however the many cannot attain; and they blame the strong man because they are ashamed of their own weakness, which they desire to conceal, and hence they say that intemperance is base.

Thus Callicles. Socrates is skeptical, and he tells a story:

There are two men, both of whom have a number of casks; the one man has his casks sound and full, one of wine, another of honey, and a third of milk, besides others filled with other liquids, and the streams which fill them are few and scanty, and he can only obtain them with a great deal of toil and difficulty; but when his casks are once filled he has no need to feed them any more, and has no further trouble with them or care about them. The other, in like manner, can procure streams, though not without difficulty; but his vessels are leaky and unsound, and night and day he is compelled to be filling them, and if he pauses for a moment, he is in an agony of pain. Such are their respective lives:—And now would you say that the life of the intemperate is happier than that of the temperate? Do I not convince you that the opposite is the truth?

He does not, yet. But Callicles admits to Socrates that unsatisfied desire is itself painful. To be hungry is painful, but eating when hungry is pleasant. In this case, observes Socrates, the pain and the pleasure occur at the same time: thus they must not be bad and good, for as Callicles has also admitted, you cannot fare well and ill at the same time.

Perhaps then Nicole is a Platonic restaurant. It does not offer up the pleasure of filling one’s belly, for this pleasure would require customers to be also suffering the pain of hunger. What Nicole offers is the feeling of holding an interesting assembly of ingredients in one’s mouth.

I am aware that some foods are better than others. Some versions of the same food are better than others. The tomatoes grown to be eaten near the farm are better than the ones grown to sit on a truck. The ezogelin soup at Kebap 49 in Ankara is better than most. Maple syrup, a good olive, a good yoghurt, are enrapturing. So is the smell of roasted coffee.

I cannot say that Nicole gave me either a standard food, excellently prepared, or a simple food that produced ecstacy. Everything was unusual, like tomatoes with pistachios. It was all delicious, but nothing made me say Wow. A possible exception was the fortified wine with dessert. In my limited experience, no other spirits are more pleasant than whisky, and the whisky need not even be single malt; but what was served with dessert at Nicole was something else. All I seem to remember is that it was from Turkish Thrace, but I would not mind paying a certain price for a bottle.

The white wines at Nicole—again, all Turkish—were fine, but I was not able to discern a significant difference between them. I had been fortunate once to enjoy a vertical tasting, with three white wines of different years from the same vineyard in Germany. Each wine had its own flavor, owing to different levels of fungus on the grapes, according to what I recall of the host’s explanation. At Nicole, the sommelier explained each wine before serving it, but I don’t know how much he was bullshitting about flavors of stone fruits and what not. Anyway, what is the point of being told the taste of what you are about to taste? You can find out for yourself—at least if you are given enough of it.

I suppose this is the problem with the tasting menu (Nicole called it Discovery): you do not get enough of any one food to know what it is really like. Most competently prepared dishes are going to be good, at least to the sufficiently adventurous person; the test of the really good dish is whether you can enjoy it repeatedly. For the connoisseur though, one bite may be enough.

I remember fondly the salad at Nicole, perhaps because there were several mouthfuls of it. One component was baby purslane. Somewhat more mature purslane is commonly available in Turkey. It may be boiled into a rather tart food, or else mixed raw into yoghurt, and both forms are served at the cafeteria where (along with bank workers and construction workers) we usually have lunch. The salad plate at Nicole had a bowl in the middle for the salad itself, but a convex rim whose width was greater than the diameter of the bowl. The rim sloped downward away from the bowl, making it look like a flying saucer. It was useless for balancing a fork. The waiter had a challenge to clear the empty dishes from that course.

I do not recall whether the waiter clearing the old dishes was the same as the waiter bringing new dishes. The latter, at least, would probably speak English, because most of the customers were foreigners. Such a waiter probably commanded a decent salary. Still, the salary would not likely pay for frequent nights at restaurants like Nicole. I can only imagine that the friendliness of the staff masks either envy, or plans to slit our throats in the Revolution. I would prefer the latter.

As they left, I heard other diners make English comments to the staff like, Very good indeed! I was in no such mood. People in Turkey can be disappointed in me for not praising them effusively for the providing the service that I am paying them for. They might recall that God paid no heed to the offering of Cain, but told him (in the interesting translation, based mainly on Robert Alter’s, used by Robert Crumb in The Book of Genesis Illustrated—New York: Norton, 2009—recently acquired by me):

Whether you offer well, or whether you do not, sin crouches at the tent flap, and for you is its desire, yet you can be its master.

Had Nicole offered well to me? I had enjoyed some interesting flavors, but without having satisfied my stomach. I had also expected more wine.

However, it was a fine romantic evening. After we left Nicole and descended to the street, we walked up to İstiklâl, which was jammed as usual with people out enjoying themselves. At Taksim, we decided to take a bus home, rather than walk another forty minutes. I imagine other Nicole customers would have taken a taxi.

If the test of good food is repeated eating, the true test of Nicole might be another evening spent dining there. Thinking back on it, I can certainly wish to return, knowing better now what to expect. I would have to convince my spouse not to try another expensive restaurant instead. And we would both have to overcome our reluctance to spend an absurd amount of money on a few mouthfuls of food.

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