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If there is one thing local Istanbulites have animatedly debated throughout the decades, it is food. Everyone in this dynamic metropolis can give you their opinion on where to can find the best doner, the freshest seafood, the fluffiest pilaf and the best home cooking. With the traditional staples of Turkish cuisine pretty well known the world over – from char-grilled shish kebab skewers to golden baklava – what often throws visitors to Istanbul is the unexpected variety of local dishes that reflect the Mediterranean legacy of the city.
Vegetables and seafood take pride of place in most of the unassuming esnaf lokantas (tradesmen’s restaurants) around the city, where local shopkeepers and well-heeled Turks alike stop by for ‘mum’s cooking’ – likely a hearty serving of vine leaves stuffed with herbed rice (dolma), lentil soup with a squeeze of lemon and peppering of sumac, or a fat aubergine stuffed with onion, garlic and tomato (imam bayildi). Alongside these comforting favourites, there is no shortage of European and Asian fine dining hotspots – the Hakkasans and Nobus which tend to make their way into every stylish city.
What makes Istanbul’s cuisine particularly exciting at this moment is the proliferation of new establishments and their innovative chefs, who are on a mission to break this traditional-comfort-food/foreign-fine-dining dualism. Bringing simple techniques, sustainable ingredients and a modern take on recipes from Turkey’s diverse roots, the faces and places at the forefront of Turkey’s new cuisine are bringing the ancient produce of Anatolian lands to work with the east-meets-west flavours of Istanbul. The resulting mix is one of delicious flavours, stripped-back cooking and new relaxed eateries. If your travels take you there, don’t miss out on these new culinary hotspots.
Nestled on the corner where busy Istiklal Avenue gives way to a steep hill leading down to seafront Karaköy, Yeni Lokanta is the brainchild of chef Civan Er, formerly of Changa restaurant fame. With its clean, monochrome décor and white tablecloths, the retro tiled flooring and blown-glass lamps inspire the feeling of a late post-show supper in Old Constantinople. The simplicity of Er’s menu emphasises Anatolian produce, paired with familiar ingredients used in unfamiliar, exciting combinations. Manti, or Turkish dumplings, are one such humble classic given a modern but distinctly Turkish twist – by stuffing it with aubergine and serving it with a refreshingly tangy Antiochian yoghurt. Kisir, a mix of the ancient bulgur grain, tomato and parsley, is turned into a crisp salad with the addition of sour pomegranate seeds.
- +90 212 292 2550
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Mikla has been around since 2005, and was one of the first and most successful kitchens to create a refined offering that placed local food at the forefront. At a time when most fine dining restaurants in Istanbul were Italian or French, Mikla proved Turkish cuisine had a place within fine dining – one that stretched back centuries to Ottoman palace banquets. Celebrity head chef Mehmet Gürs draws inspiration from his own Turkish-Scandinavian roots to bring a fresh approach to regional tastes. Atop the Marmara Pera Hotel, Mikla’s view of the glittering Golden Horn and Galata Tower is not accompanied by the truffle and caviar you may expect from the surroundings. Gürs’ philosophy sees Mikla offering elevated flavours with humble Istanbul favourites. These include a starter of balik-ekmek, usually a fish sandwich sold for around £2 off a fishing boat in Eminönü, here containing crispy anchovy tempura, Aegean olive oil braised artichokes and Anatolian black fig and pomegranate sorbet.
- +90 212 293 5656
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Duble Meze Bar
Whether a visitor to Istanbul or a local looking for a good Friday night with friends, the tradition of mezzes accompanied with the aniseed-flavoured drink raki is a distinctly Istanbul affair. The meal can be anything from raki, melon and feta cheese on a dinghy on the Bosphorus to a lavish spread of 20 small dishes at a glitzy waterfront fish restaurant.
Duble Meze is a two-story rooftop spot on the Palazzo Donizetti Hotel in Asmalımescit. The terrace has a near 360-degree view of the city, while the main dining area has a retractable roof with a view of the Golden Horn. Much like Spanish tapas, mezzes are tasty morsels at the centre of the table for everyone to share. Duble Meze Bar brings this dining tradition borne of old Istanbul’s music-and-drink dens – the humble meyhane – into the present day. The nine different kinds of raki are a must-try; though strong, it’s meant to be savoured over a heaving table and animated conversation, along with mezzes like spicy Turkish pastrami-wrapped shrimp and mussels stuffed with rice and pine nuts. With nostalgic Turkish tunes playing in the background, it’s a novel mix of classy and communally familiar.
- +90 212 244 0188
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Neolokal’s founder Maksut Askar believes that though “we learned the best things about our cuisine from our mothers” tourists tend to be sent to places that serve “pale imitations” of these classic dishes. You will not find pale imitations of Turkish classics at this sleek but warm terrace restaurant in Beyoglu. The name Neolokal reflects their ethos – the menu is all about seasonality and regionally grown produce. The restaurant gets its supplies from a farm located just 20 kilometers outside the city in Gümüsdere, taking care to source only the quantity needed to minimise waste. A small garden within the restaurant provides a supply of salad leaves and herbs, and their wine cellar is well stocked with fine Aegean reds from grapes matured alongside olive trees down the Western Turkish coast. All about going back to the roots of Turkey’s agricultural treasures, Neolokal serves simple and modern dishes that give pride of place to endangered heritage foods and overlooked seasonal ingredients, with an emphasis on preserving traditional Anatolian fare by reintroducing them through contemporary dishes.
- +90 212 244 0016
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In the heart of Cihangir, the small but perfectly formed bakery and café Datli Maya has a unique wood-fired oven. It is 80 years old, still reaches searing temperatures and produces the softest bread rolls, sesame seed-encrusted Turkish bagels (simit) and spicy Turkish thin-crust pizza (lahmacun). A staunch supporter of the Slow Food Movement, Datli Maya uses ecological, fair-trade and frequently organic produce, serving kebabs, Turkish pizzas, traditional hot-pots and desserts, while the rustic wooden shelves are lined with enticing jars of cold-pressed olive oil, molasses, herbal teas, traditional tomato paste and Anatolian herbs. They certainly practice what they preach. Although every single spot in Istanbul serves its version of the full Turkish breakfast spread, Datli Maya’s is one which entices you to take your sweet time. From its dill and black olive studded bread rolls to mulberry molasses (pekmez) from Malatya, a Sunday morning could not be better spent.
- +90 212 292 9057
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