After years of economic stagnation and staunch traditionalism, Istanbul has transformed itself into the Mediterranean’s city of cool. Rediscovering ancient recipes and obscure ingredients from Turkey’s plump pantry, a clutch of chef’s are now reinventing the city’s restaurant scene.
Glasses clink as the sun slips behind a medieval stone tower. Below, groups of merry makers wind between beeping cars, gridlocked in the narrow winding streets. The view, soaring over higgledy rooftops of an ancient and chaotic city is just as superb as the wine we are drinking- a native grape from a little-known biodynamic vineyard that last year picked up an astonishing fourteen European wine medals. It is going down perfectly with a rare strain of delicately salted olives chilled on ice. Are we in Bordeaux? Reims? Florence? Welcome to Istanbul.
The once capital of three grand empires- the eastern Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman- which together stretched from Morocco to Iran, Istanbul has long been blessed with a plump pantry of fine produce. But inundated with high-yield varieties and cheap supermarket imports, much of these foodstuffs have fallen into obscurity in recent years. Inspired by the Slow Food Movement, a coterie of chefs are now forging the beginnings of an organic, sustainable and traceable food movement. Tracking down many of these old ingredients- some almost on the verge of disappearing altogether- and focusing on what the seasonal harvests brings, they are now hoping to bring it all back.
In the vanguard is Mehmet Gurs, my drinking companion and the dashing owner and chef of Mikla, one of Istanbul’s most glamorous restaurants and upon whose balcony we are standing. “There have been so many cultures on this land, both on the Asian Anatolia side and European Thrace side, and they all left distinct culinary marks,” says Gurs, adding that food in Istanbul has become so commercial and mass produced these days that you have to be a villager or seasoned intellectual to even appreciate a decent tomato.
The white wine we are drinking has been made from Vasilaki grapes which are native to the tiny island of Bozcaada in the Aegean Sea. This arid, wind-swept island a short hop from the Gallipoli Peninsula was once famous for its wine; 17th century travel writer Evliya Çelebi declared that Bozcaada wines were the finest in the world. Six years ago architect Resit Soley bought an old state-owned vineyard and started reviving French and Italian grapes planted centuries ago, as well as experimenting with strains native to the island. The results, bottled under the label Corvus, are staggering and have been pocketing prizes at wine shows from Berlin to Burgundy; a surprise for everybody, including Soley, who knew little about viticulture beforehand.
“We’re just adding the technology; the land gives its own,” he tells me.
Intent on tracking down more culinary treasures, Gurs now employs the taste buds of villagers to scour Turkey’s countryside. Goodies unearthed so far include the unusual halhal zeytin olives we have been devouring with Soley’s wine, a 7th generation halva, wild lavender jam made by a women’s cooperative in the country’s South-West and numerous raw-milk cheeses.
Much of this is featured in Gurs’ nine-course degustation menu. Hamsi is a delicate sardine-like fish from the Black Sea often classified as peasant food. Here it is anything but: sandwiched between wafer thinslices of bread, deep fried and served with a lemon and egg-white sauce. Grouper is served raw and drizzled in mouth popping Oscietra caviar and a zesty lemon infused oil. The most interesting dish is a cherry-wood smoked lamb, the cooking technique borrowed from Gurs’ native Scandinavia and tasting distinctly like duck.
The rest will soon hit the tables at the Marmara Hotel’s ground floor cafe, which Gurs is currently refurbishing and opening as a “fun, cheap and down-to- earth cafe” with traceable farm produce from around the country. “We want to make wholesome, organic, and most importantly made-in-Turkey food available to everybody”, he explains.
Homely Abracadabra is one of the best examples of the farm-to-table movement blossoming amongst Istanbul restaurants. Housed in a four-storey wooden Greek house in trendy Arnavutköy, with views over the royal blue Bosporus busy with cargo ships and ferries zipping back and forth to the Black Sea, Abracadabra is owned by spritely Dilara Erbay, who prefers to call it a “creative food company” with a zealous “go local” edge. The retro diner’s fall-off-the-bone lamb comfit is hard to resist, but balmy summer days are better suited to the mezze menu: tart olive and caper salad, raw salmon and bulgur köfte, fried calamari with a creamy, citrus infused dipping sauce followed by deserts with alarming titles like Insomnia Every Night (which I am told is trueto its name).
I was lunching with Erbay earlier last year when a farmer from Artvin, a mountainous town near the Caucasus country of Georgia, interrupted us sporting an enormous jar of thick jet-black date molasses. Bursting with sweetness and a mellow trace of date, Erbay explained that if Turkey ever joins the European Union- as is their wish- it would be the end of most small producers like the man from Artvin. Unhomogenised and prepared in a traditional kitchen, it’s unlikely this molasses would pass European health and safety laws. “It is far more expensive than what the supermarkets stocks, but much healthier and much tastier. If we stop eating food the way it was supposed to be eaten, then what?” she stated.
This mini-revival has come at an appropriate time; in October last year Turkey raised a few eyebrows when it lifted a ban on Genetically Engineered (GE) organisms to be used in the country.
“There are only a handful of chefs in Turkey who are public figures”, says Murat Bozok, the owner chef of Mimolett, Istanbul’s latest fine-dining venue, which opened in December 2009. “I think it’s up to us to push food standards, not just in terms of quality of the dish but also quality of the product- persuading people to eat locally, organically and GE free”. Bozok, who fled his family textile business in Istanbul to work in the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay at the Connaught and Joël Robuchon’s L’Atelier (while his family thought he was studying hospitality), is now hoping to score Istanbul’s first Michelin star. Mimolett is a first-class experience, with slick waiting staff and three superbly prepared degustation menus to pick from. My chef’s menu started with an earthy chestnut soup with truffle before moving onto melt-in-the-mouth foie gras with quince jam and grilled venison with mustard and bitter chocolate. Although unadventurous, the dishes are tasty and unfussy and worth the splurge.
In less salubrious surrounds but packing an enormously innovative punch is the tiny-diner of Moreish, headed by Esra Muslu. Changing the menu every three weeks while also working to establish a Sunday farmer’s market, Muslu tries hard to stick to what is in season, buying locally and seasonally. For a menu like this one, that is a challenge. The dishes blend a mind-boggling range of seasonal ingredients that together sound like they will taste dubious at best. But the results are phenomenal. The monk fish wrapped in bacon with oxtail and red wine jus, fig with cognac and Jerusalem artichoke is so good it almost jumps off the plate; that is if you eat a bit of each ingredient on the same fork. Even better is the smoked artichoke soup with puréed chorizo sausage, dukkah seasoned spinach and a poached quail egg, where each mouthful is a journey in taste and texture.
“The last ten years have seen enormous changes in how Turkish people appreciate food and wine”, says the Melbourne trained chef at her cosy restaurant one night. “Imported food and wine have been really popular in the last few years, but now that restaurants are moving towards home-made and local, hopefully Turkish people will start to follow.”
Afiyet olsun! Bon appetit!
Where to stay
The Macka Palas was originally built as a residence for the nearby Italian embassy. Opening as a Park Hyatt in 2008, all 90 rooms blend the building’s art deco origins with contemporary sleekness. (Nisantasi, +90 2123151234, istanbul.park.hyatt.com, double rooms from $325)
Located in bohemian Cihangir, Witt Suites is the newest designer digs to hit Istanbul, with 17 spacious suites. Cihangir, +90 2123937900, www.wittistanbul.com, double rooms from $220)
Where to eat
Mikla Marmara Pera Hotel, Pera, +90 2122935656, www.istanbulyi.com, degustation menu for two, $160, with matching wines, $280.
Abracadabra Arnavutkoy, +90 2123586087, www.abracadabra-ist.com, lunch for two, $70.
Tarihi Karakoy Balikcisi Karakoy, +90 2122511371, www.tarihikarakoybalikcisi.com, dinner for two, without wine, $140.
Tugra Kempinski Ciragan Palace, Besiktas, +90 2123264646, www.kempinski-istanbul.com, dinner for two, without wine, $220.