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Fair warning: Anyone reading this article will likely write me off as a lovesick, Justin Bieber-style groupie, accuse me of not being rational, and wonder who is paying me off. But let me assure you that I am a sane, objective journalist, who just happened to find myself loving the cuisine on a recent trip to Istanbul.
So, yes, I’m about to gush (and I mean really gush) about four Istanbul restaurants that no self-respecting food lover should miss if they’re getting anywhere near the country of Turkey.
Like Italy, Turkey is obsessed with food.
From street vendors hawking roasted corn to grandmas in colorful hijabs (headscarves) handing you a cup of homemade yogurt, food is how you show your love. And boy, do the Turks show a lot of love.
So sit back, buckle your seatbelts, and get ready to be launched into "food heaven," Istanbul style.
Gile Restaurant. If Picasso had been a chef, not a painter, he’d have come up with something like this 40-seat restaurant in the trendy Akaretler neighborhood. Unless you have a serious allergy that guarantees a trip to the emergency room, get the tasting menu. Put your fates in the hands of Cihan Kıpçak and Üryan Doğmuş, the brilliant young chefs who opened this masterpiece just six months ago.
Every dish on Gile’s innovative tasting menu (and there are roughly 16 of them) is a piece of art, so beautiful you’ll want to snap a picture and send thank you notes back to the kitchen. Because, face it, you probably wouldn’t have been daring enough to order a dish with pine needles or a sorbet made from corn or a desert using chicken breast, three of the items on the tasting menu the night I was there. And had you missed these, you would definitely regret it.
Each course is better than the next. You’ll sample things like watermelon salad with coffee and walnut purée, duck pastrami served with rakı-scented melon, Circassian chicken (chicken with walnuts) pâté alongside pickled apples and black mulberry molasses, küşleme börek (puff pastry with lamb fillet) accompanied by black eggplant purée and the lamb’s shoulder slow-roasted for 41 hours.
The innovative Doğmuş, a C.I.A.-trained chef, although he doesn’t look old enough, spent time in the kitchens of Sarasota and Kapalua Ritz-Carltons, as well as several of Turkey’s top restaurants.
Now, with his own place, he spares no special touch: the dinnerware is designed exclusively by ceramic artist Mehmet Kutlu and the art on the spare, white walls was painted by Arkın Allen.
Lokanta Maya. Didem Şenol, the creator of this hip, contemporary eatery in Karaköy, was asked for her zucchini fritter recipe so many times that she finally just took out a lipstick and wrote it on a mirror in the dining room. Now, the chef who honed her skills at New York’s International Culinary Center, has published a cookbook that, hopefully, will deter some of the recipe requests. But you have to ask, right? When the food is this good.
Menus change seasonally, but expect things like caramelized sea bass with sautéed oranges, grilled octopus legs over puréed leeks, and slow-roasted lamb, served on rice pilaf with sumac berries, currants, cranberries, and pine nuts.
Even the décor shows off local flavors. One wall is a giant case of Turkish walnuts and the middle divider showcases dried fruit, peppers, and other indigenous foods.
And just to save you the embarrassment (because you won’t be able to resist) the mucver (aka those long-lusted-after golden zucchini fritters) are cooked in hazelnut oil and served with a cucumber yogurt dip with mint.
Tugra. Let me just start by saying that Ottoman sultans were not given to understatement. Everything about this restaurant that is named for a sultan’s calligraphic seal is over-the-top. It’s located in a real sultan’s palace, one of only three left, it overlooks two continents (Asia and Europe) and the view alone would give some chefs an excuse to coast. I mean, people are going to come for this stunning view of the Bosporus even if you serve Big Macs.
But Tugra, not content to rest on the view from its floor-to-ceiling windows, serves historical dishes from one of the world’s great dynasties. The chefs of the Imperial Ottoman sultans (high-ranking army commanders also vied for such secondary titles as chief cook, baker, and pancake maker) spent 493 years developing a cuisine that had to please their lavish-expecting bosses and their guests. Those that didn’t ended up in a sack and thrown into the Bosporus.
As historically accurate as possible, Tugra serves such dishes as warm, creamy mashed eggplant topped with ground lamb; grilled kulbasti (lamb) with smoked walnuts, fried spinach, eggplants, onions, and a fresh-squeezed pomegranate sauce; saffron ravioli stuffed with flakes of sun-dried chile and thyme sauce.
Although the wine is no longer served with crushed Bahraini pearls, the Tugra wine cellar holds more than 200,000 bottles, 70,000 of which are from Turkey.
Enstitü at the Istanbul Culinary Institute. Culinary guru Hande Bozdoğan has a farm in Saros, near the Greek border, and since she would rather stick a carving knife in her eye than serve anything canned or frozen, you can rest assured that most of any meal here will come from her farm’s extensive organic gardens and 500 fruit trees. Even her olive oil comes from a neighbor’s grove on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
"The integrity of the ingredient means everything," she says, a lesson she also imparts to the students who come to her culinary school for everything from a six-month certification to a weekend workshop.
The menu changes daily, sometimes even hourly, but rest assured you’ll find a tantalizing selection of Turkish classics with a modern, seasonal twist. The 74-seat practice restaurant fuses industrial cool with warmth and young, fresh energy.
And if the meal I had is any indication of Turkey’s up-and-coming culinary talent, well, Turkey’s food reputation is only going to explode.
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