Stanbuli A Turkish Riff on Food and History

Text: Lee Tran Lam

Ibrahim Kasif is only 30, but he carries a lot of history with him. When he first entered Enmore Road’s Marie-Louise Salon, back in 2013, he encountered hair products from the 1980s, newspapers from the 1940s and hand-scrawled appointment cards with prices in British pounds. “It was like it was functioning one day and then they just turned off the lights and walked out,” Kasif says of the property’s previous owners.

Ibrahim Kasif, Chef at Stanbuli. Photography by Dakota Gordon / @dk.gordon

As a chef, Kasif hoped to turn this site into Stanbuli, his first solo restaurant. It took him two years – far longer than he expected – to renovate the Marie-Louise Salon. The pink-and-purple facade was heritage-listed, and “about one good shake from falling onto Enmore Road”, says Kasif. The revamp was also dragged out by glacial responses from council. They informed Kasif that, along with the facade, other relics of the building had to be preserved. Kasif is now the custodian of a short strip of plain, dark terrazzo and “this weird plant out the back”.

The delays came with one upside: history lessons from nearby residents. “I had a few of the old locals walk up to me, very curious as to what I was doing to the building.” They’d tell Kasif stories about the building’s former owners, George and Nola Mezher. The siblings famously won $429,000 in the Lotto in the 1980s, and spent it on setting up Our Lady of the Snows near Central Station. This soup kitchen treated homeless people like proper restaurant diners. Then premier Bob Carr praised it in NSW Parliament: “Some people say it is the best restaurant in Pitt Street.”

These memories merged with Kasif’s own when he finally opened Stanbuli, his modern Turkish restaurant, in December 2015. On the walls are Mezher’s appointment cards – forthright comments and all (“Her hair was in a mess. Had to be evened up.”) – as well as signs Kasif salvaged from an eighth-century mosque. Plus, Turkish lights from one of the world’s oldest marketplaces and random photos found in Istanbul. One night, a diner from Turkey broke down when he recognised a wrestler depicted in one of the framed pictures: “Oh my god, that’s my grandfather’s best friend,” he said. “I knew that guy when I was a kid.”

In the same way that the interior decoration riffs on history, so too does the food. Dishes evoke childhood memories of dishes made by his grandmother Gokcen. At 16, she came here during the White Australia policy; she was a Cypriot-Turk but was allowed to enter because she was technically a British subject. “She taught me everything: how to drive, how to cook,” Kasif says. She still picks up haloumi and olives for Stanbuli, despite her age. “She’s pushing 80!” he adds.

Dishes inspired by the chef’s past include the fried eggplant and peppers, the mince dumplings showered with haloumi, the raw kingfish with tabouli. And while the food is distinctly Turkish, customers of various cultural backgrounds, from Greek to Egyptian, always tell him, ‘It tastes like my Mum’s food’.

“They’ll also say that ‘my mum’s food is better’,” he says, “but I’m glad to be in that category.”

 

Stanbuli: 135 Enmore Rd, Enmore. Phone (02) 8624 31 32. Wednesday – Saturday 6pm till late; Sunday 6-10pm. Licensed.