Why Istanbul Is The Next Food Destination To Add To Your Bucket List
Thracian lamb, çayeli coco bean, lamb tail at Turk Fatih Tutak. Photograph by Ms Duygu Turkmen, courtesy of Turk Fatih Tutak
If Turkish food experiences can sometimes feel uniform in cities like London, New York and Berlin, a trip to Istanbul is like the culinary equivalent of choosing the red pill. For a start, you can eat adana kebab and doner that will expand your notion of their possibilities – but it won’t stop there. You’ll learn about the ubiquity of mussels – stuffed and fried; mackerel wraps you’ll want to try making at home; intricately layered boreks; and rotating around horizontal spits, a lamb offal delight called kokoreç, which, when finely chopped and stuffed between a crusty loaf, may well be a contender for the world’s most flavoursome sandwich. And for those with a sweet tooth, you can easily fit multiple pit stops – alongside robust cups of Turkish chay – in days of languorous flânerie around the historic streets.
While 2022 was the year the Michelin Guide properly arrived in the city, now listing 53 spots, it has long been home to a bounty of culinary innovation, with a gastronomic culture driven by equal attention to tradition and renewal. But it was only in recent decades that Turkish chefs started looking internally for inspiration.
It began with Çiya Sofrası, founded by the chef-owner Mr Musa Dağdeviren in 1987, which set in motion an irreversible process. Assiduously recording the depth of Turkey’s culinary cultures, and in particular those minorities who have dwindled in numbers since the Republic of Turkey was created, he generated an almost anthropological approach to cooking.
Not so long ago, the city’s most deluxe restaurants had focused on mimicking Italian food. But today, they are, almost unanimously, passionately embedded in the languages of regional diversity, seasonality and memory. Here are seven of the best.
Turk Fatih Tutak
Interior of Turk Fatih Tutak. Photograph by Mr IIbrahim Özbunar, courtesy of Turk Fatih Tutak
Yayoi Kusama; smoked mackerel, fermented horseradish, black radish, oscietra caviar at Turk Fatih Tutak. Photograph by Ms Duygu Turkmen, courtesy of Turk Fatih Tutak
Istanbul’s first two Michelin-starred restaurant combines the techniques learnt by chef Mr Fatih Tutak in an impressive career spanning Copenhagen, Beijing and Tokyo, with a futuristic focus on the traditional flavours and ancient preservation techniques of Turkey. This is depicted in the organic decor, where Nordic and Japanese minimalism is combined with an ancient Anatolian touch. The intriguing ingredients all sing together in concert, and the Mugaritz-inspired flourishes surprise and entertain (acclaimed Spanish chef Mr Andoni Luis Aduriz helped open the restaurant with Tutak in December 2019). Menus are not delivered to the customers until after the meal, but you can expect playful dishes with a profound depth of flavour, such as the Ms Yayoi-Kusama-inspired mackerel on a pool of fermented horseradish, surrounded by assorted dots of mystery intensity.
Terrace at Mikla
Cured bonito, almond milk and okra at Mikla. Photographs by Mr Can Mete, courtesy of Mikla
The first restaurant to channel the epicurean might of the Turkish kitchen into a fine dining setting, Mikla has been proponents of what they call the “New Anatolia Kitchen” for a decade. They were also the first place to gain a Michelin star. Chef Mr Mehmet Gürs’ version of modern Turkish cuisine states “no boundaries”, so expect the unexpected when it comes to flavour combinations. The quality of octopus in Istanbul is famed, as is Gürs’ ability to transform it into magical dishes, always centring around charred tentacles with intriguing greens and pickles for balance. The current version features purslane, fish roe, pine nuts, pickled beans and cinnamon onion, while the rest of the menu promises to entice in a similar fashion.
Interior of Mürver
Smoked seabream with vegetable salad and fermented tomato sauce. Photographs courtesy of Mürver
A spacious and stylish restaurant also promoting New Anatolian cuisine, Mürver is organised around a focal point of a charcoal open-fire kitchen, where regional ingredients are given the ocakbaşı touch. The best quality products will be cooked above the embers or on the ash itself and served with zingy fresh salads to cut through the smoke. By day, the cooking can be enjoyed on the terrace with captivating views of the Bosphorus, while at night, a dimly lit elegance fills the atmosphere of the room. It is a more casual affair, and if you love the spirit of the mangal, are intrigued by how it is being carefully refined in its original setting and err away from too much fine-dining pomp, this one’s for you.
Interior of Karaköy Lokantası. Photograph by Elif Çakırlar & Barış Aras, courtesy of Karaköy Lokantası
Sultan’s delight at Karaköy Lokantası. Photograph courtesy of Karaköy Lokantası
Should walking into a restaurant offer a breath of fresh air? Well, somehow, this one does. It is bright, elegant and serenely silvery. White tablecloths, but without any ostentation. The fare itself is the most Çiya-like on the list, offering essentially home-cooked food using seasonal ingredients in their prime. Fresh and pickled salads of purslane, zahter, peppers and cauliflower can be chosen from the alluring counter, followed by orders from the menu of manti, grilled red mullet, or green beans casserole. These are all good options, but a must order is the hünkârbeğendi (sultan’s delight) – tender lamb stew sits on a bed of heady, smoky aubergine puree to create a dish fit for its name.
Interior of Neolokal. Photograph courtesy of Neolokal
Revani with rose; rose milk ice cream, rose delight, coconut meringue. Photograph by Mr Can Mete, courtesy of Neolokal
Neolokal is located on the upper floor of the modern art museum Salt Galata and sees diners surrounded by a panorama window offering a sublime vista. The menu is delivered with a story booklet and the restaurant’s commitment to locality and mentorship made it the city’s first recipient of a Michelin Green Star. Chef Mr Maksut Aşkar’s Antakyan roots can really be felt across the menu, with the highlight being an intensified version of his mother’s içli köfte: delicately spiced lamb surrounded by crispy bulgur with whipped yogurt and herb oil. Neolokal only serves Turkish wine, and if natural wine is your thing, it has the largest selection in the city. Try a bottle from the producer Gelveri, whose orange wines are lauded by prolific wine writer Ms Isabelle Legeron and hard to come by.
Interior of Foxy
Poached pear with wine at Foxy. Photographs by Mr Can Mete, courtesy of Foxy
Istanbul’s first natural wine bar features more than 100 cuvees using only indigenous grapes. Its quirky style is akin to natural wine bars you’ve seen before, but rather than the caves of Paris, it is pitched towards meyhane culture – raki drinking houses where Turkish wine was also integral at points in time. Equally important to Foxy’s ambitious wine programme is the food menu, focusing on lost heritages. It features a charcuterie board with mortadella and bacon from the last Bulgarian-Greek pork butcher in Istanbul, alongside house cured sucuk, and a traditional Armenian dish called topik, where a rich chickpea and tahini paste enrobes caramelized onions and is dusted with cinnamon. Make sure to try the spaghetti avgotaraho (Greek for bottarga), which is laced with a luxuriant amount of the grated roe and given an Armenian twist with stewed onions. As with the bar, you’ve no doubt had something similar before, but dive in and it’s truly a world of its own.
Interior of Yeni Lokanta. Photograph by Ms Derya Turgut Sancar, courtesy of Yeni Lokanta
Manti dumplings at Yeni Lokanda. Photograph courtesy of Yeni Lokanda
Located in the Beyoglu neighbourhood – famous for its quality market – Yeni Lokanta also pays homage to traditional dishes and the provenance of particular ingredients, such as dried aubergine from Antep, peppers from Hatay, and ezine cheese from Thrace, but always offers an inventive twist. The decor combines modern and classical features, with the idea for it to feel both chic and bohemian – much like Beyoğlu. The service similarly delivers flair among informality, with a menu designed to be shared amongst friends. The signature – and unmissable – dish is the manti, artfully constructed tortellini-like parcels stuffed with a simple filling of beef and onion. This magnifies the magnificently layered sauce the dumplings come swimming in, which is made from goat’s yogurt sourced in Antakya, Chef Mr Civan Er’s favourite region, and flecked with parsley oil and chilli butter to look like traditional Ottoman ebru art.