It’s rare to find anything as simple as a lamb kebab on the menu at Turk, one of the most talked-about fine dining restaurants in Istanbul. But tonight chef (and owner) Fatih Tutak is making one just for me. As my guide to the city’s evolving food scene, he’s been keen to get past the stereotypes. “Turkish food is not just kebabs,” he tells me. Yet here he is, with a mezzaluna as big as a machete, chopping up lamb mince, mixing in herbs and pistachios and moulding meat onto skewers to grill over hot coals. Call it civic pride, but if I’m going to have a kebab during my stay in Istanbul he insists on making it himself. Dressed in onions, parsley and sweet chilli oil, his meaty creations are fine ambassadors for the dish.
Tutak is part of a wave of chefs and restaurants in Istanbul helping to establish the city as a modern gastronomic destination. Their food may be rooted in tradition – “if you don’t respect tradition, you can’t do contemporary”, says Tutak – but the approach feels current and cutting edge. At Turk, a constant on the seasonal tasting menu is a reinterpretation of the rice-stuffed street-food staple mussels dolma that comes encased in an edible shell made out of dried tamarind and squid ink. Other dishes I try include wild-caught seabass with a tangy bread tarhana; duck with foie-gras rice and sweet kumquat jam; and a shrimp with seaweed cream dish arranged on the plate like a mandala. This features dots of isot (Turkish chilli pepper) and parsley oil, discs of tomato jelly like coloured contact lenses and a circle of adana caviar topped with a garlic flower.
Tutak trained as an apprentice under Paul Pairet at Istanbul’s Ritz-Carlton before manning kitchens in China and Singapore. He did stages at Nihonryori Ryugin in Toyko and Noma in Copenhagen, and in 2015 became head chef at the acclaimed restaurant The House on Sathorn in Bangkok. It was here that he first created a dish called “From my mom”, based on his mother’s manti (Turkish dumplings). The success of the dish inspired him to develop an entire menu of “New Turkish Cuisine”. In 2018 he returned to Istanbul to launch his own restaurant in the then deserted, now thriving, hospitality hub of Bomonti.
While Turk pushes the boundaries of Turkish gastronomy, Aheste delivers modern comfort food for a cosmopolitan crowd. The Turkish/Mediterranean menu consists largely of meze dishes such as calamaraki, fish cakes with tarhana, and lamb’s neck with figs on aubergine puree – traditional foods with a twist. The standout is the charred quince with olive oil celeriac, a Trojan horse of unexpected flavours inlcuding tamarind and curry leaf. What sets this place apart, though, is the vibe. Brick walls, industrial fittings and warm lighting conspire to create something casual but exciting. Whatever makes a restaurant feel special, this place has it.
Location plays a big part in the success of Aman da Bravo, a neighbourhood restaurant in Reşitpaşa, far from any tourist hotspots. The building is historically listed and perches on a hill. You can dine inside, but better to settle on the terrace, where the cool breeze and easy-listening playlist are a fine tonic on a hot day. Tutak likens this place to The River Café in London, and the menu certainly brims with Italian-inspired vegetable dishes and seafood, sourced from the Aegean coast where chef Inanc Celengil grew up. I enjoy a bright, crunchy raw artichoke, fava bean and snow pea salad, followed by bottarga capellini and stone bass with ribollita. But my favourite is a retooled Turkish classic: kokoreç (lamb intestines wrapped around sweetbreads) topped with thyme, cumin and red pepper and served with a parsley, rocket and red onion salad.
On the top floor of the Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus in Karaköy, Mürver offers panoramic city views and a menu that riffs on ocakbasi (charcoal grill) cooking. Among the crowd-pleasers are a zesty oven-roasted celeriac with orange and apple; confit duck with walnut hummus; and mashed potato served in its charred skin with grilled lamb sucuk.
But for all the joys of the new some older establishments deserve attention. Tutak insists I try the pide (flatbread) at a no-frills café in the Fatih district called Karadeniz Pide Vefa. Here the veteran bakers have been sliding dough in and out of the wood-fired oven for 40 years. And no trip to Istanbul would be complete without a swing by Karaköy Güllüoğlu, serving baklava since 1843. “They’re artisans, the best,” says Tutak, as we sip tea and sandwich clotted cream between layers of syrupy pastry. Because some traditions don’t need updating.
Ajesh Patalay travelled as a guest of Lotus International