It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon in Istanbul, and I’m in hot pursuit of a vegan brunch. Our taxi driver indicates on the GPS screen that he can take us no further, so we stop at the head of a one-way street. Take the first right, then the next left, he instructs us, and I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier for him to take another route. Without umbrellas, we walk briskly and find ourselves stumped. An inhospitable gentleman is too busy smoking to offer any help, so we take a chance and turn the next corner. Too close to read the name written on the awning, I step back into the street to peer through the rain drops and read Bi Nevi Deli. Destination found.
I enter relieved but worried that we might be turned away. Every seat in the house is taken, but two diners clear their table quickly. Their faces are somehow familiar and it soon registers that they are the owners of the restaurant. Belkis, an American-born, Turkish chef welcomes us warmly and introduces us to her plant-based wonderland in case we weren’t in the right place. Meanwhile, her business partner, Özge, offers us tea and coffee. We wrap ourselves around a small, square table, and I can’t help but feel like we’ve intruded on a private party. The fog on my glasses evaporates enough for me to now see that space has been made for us. We remove our wet coats and ease into our seats.
As is our habit, we always check buffet offerings before deciding to stay. I report back to my family delighted by what I’ve seen. The small square plates can hardly contain my enthusiasm to try everything all at once, so I prepare a few sampler platters for my family to pick from.
Bi Nevi’s menu is sassy and intelligent. It wouldn’t be out of place in Belkis’ hometown of San Francisco, my hometown of New York, nor where our paths currently cross right here in Istanbul. The brunch begins with a local staple: a round sesame topped bread called simit likened to a bagel. A huge bowl of mashed avocado sits adjacent to roasted pumpkin slices, a seasonal favorite. The tofu scramble beside it is soupy yet flavorfully combined with nutritional yeast and chickpea flour. A tomato and pepper sauce akin to a thin salsa is commonly served with eggs in Turkey, but compliments the tofu well.
Next, I help myself to börek, a potato filled phyllo pastry that is mildly flavored with dill. On to the menu’s heavy-hitting trio: smoked tempeh bacon, artisanal nut cheeses, and seitan salami. I have been craving the likes of these foods since I landed in Turkey, and I’m in disbelief that they are here in front of me. The tempeh is sourced locally but marinated in-house to deliver robust flavor and a pan-seared crisp. The variety of nut cheeses are both firm and smooth, made of almonds and cashews. Of course, no Turkish breakfast would be complete without olives and cucumbers, but I pass over them to make room for another treat—chia pudding. Topped with sweet fruits, I savor each and every spoonful because I know just how healthy and expensive chia seeds are.
As the restaurant clears out, we finish our meal and sip the last of our rooibos vanilla tea. The background music is more audible and my husband and I smile as the soundtrack goes from Barry to Badu, Tribe to Fugees. I recall a Turkish friend comparing this neighborhood to Brooklyn and I can see why. The trendy cafes, cultured art scene, and the abundance of vegan restaurants transports me home for a bit, but alas the meal is done and it’s time to brave the rainy streets once again.
It’s admittedly hard forking over 55 TL per adult for the meal, but I’m grateful that my daughter eats for free and my son is still nursing. A few dollars shy of twenty bucks, the price tag is hefty by Turkish standards. However, in defense of the “creative plant-based kitchen”, I must admit that they delivered a high-quality feast that can’t be served for less. They easily could’ve substituted nut cheeses with a cheaper soy milk-based cheese but they didn’t. They could’ve added on carb-heavy pancakes and roasted potatoes, like most American brunches, but they didn’t do that either. No corners were cut in delivering a tasty and innovative spread that is not only pleasing to the palate but appetizing to the eyes as well.
Bi Nevi’s attention to aesthetic is evident in their branding and design. The décor of the restaurant is simple yet intentional. White brick walls are lined by wooden shelves of books ranging from Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet to Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Veganomicon. The focus is clearly on the food and it’s no wonder their Instagram account is heavily trafficked by onlookers drooling over the daily specials and culinary experiments.
So, if you’re in Istanbul and looking for an uptown dining experience that offers health-conscious, raw and vegan dining, visit Bi Nevi in their new Etiler location where there will be much more on the menu and more space to enjoy it in.
This post was originally published at I Luv 2 Globe Trot.