I wanted to make my first trip to Turkey count. So I dined in 23 restaurants over four days. It was a culinary marathon, and I hope you’d consider joining it, too. For it’s so easy to be inspired in Istanbul. Every where you turn, you catch a whiff of something wonderful waiting to be tasted. I was very fortunate to be given a comprehensive by foodie friends who call Istanbul home; hence I simply had no room for even a mediocre meal.
Even the humble simit, the sesame bread that’s cradled a civilisation found in every corner is worthy of trying. Here’s my list of ten places to consider in the capital of four great empires:
MEZZE BY LEMON TREE
The walls are bare and the tables packed so closely together you really get to know the diners beside you; but, somehow, this charming neighbourhood eatery sets the bar sky high. What outstanding food — a blend between modern Turkish and contemporary European. The cold mezes are displayed in a glass counter to dazzling effect… stuffed sweet peppers, ceviche, eggplant dips (note the plural). You’ll want to share everything… and the portions are generous. I loved it so much it was the only place I returned to during my five-day visit.
Beyoglu… off Istiklal Street and right across the Pera Palace Hotel.
If it weren’t for its location in Sultanahmet so far from my hotel, I might have chosen to come here every day. Situated at the top floor of a posh department store, it feels very much like dining at Harvey Nicks. Traditional Turkish dishes are served in a thoroughly trendy setting, and prices are comparable to any street bistro around. Very clean flavours, exceedingly high quality produce, and a table olive oil I could drink by the gallons. Good spot to people watch, too, as it’s a favourite among the city’s glitterati I am told.
Nuruosmaniye, a block from the Grand Bazaar and right along the walk from Hagia Sophia.
You’ve literally died and gone to steak heaven. I was skeptical reading reviews about how extraordinary their beef is, but I was proven mistaken. The place lives up to its hype and beyond. They age and season their meat beautifully. And the portions are–without exaggeration–bigger than my face. Go hungry. Leave fulfilled. You’ll need reservations… there was a line down the street.
Besiktas, in a residential neighbourhood next to Bebek
Ever been to Zabar’s in New York? This is its Turkish twin. The place is a gourmet food hall with tables along the periphery to feast on a traditional Turkish breakfast or hot lunch. If you’re feeling particularly chatty and the place is bustling, the servers will sit you on a communal table. It’s not exactly a place to linger, but come here to get fueled before a day of sightseeing. Then when you’re done, quickly nip next door into Istanbul’s most famous baklava shop Gulluoglu.
Karakoy… right off Galata Bridge
As stated above, this is the city’s preeminent baklava shop. Mandatory stop after Namli Gurme.
I wish I’d eaten a full meal in this sleek café inside the museum. I came just for tea and dessert, but what I got was what felt like a feast on the Bosphorus. You are on the water, in the sun, looking at the ferries ply the strait. The experience is unparalleled. And the food looked magnificent, too.
Karakoy. Inside the Museum of Modern Art
A popular breakfast and dessert chain all over Istanbul, I came to try the famous Turkish dessert tavuk gogsu, translated as chicken pudding. Shreds of chicken breast are cooked with milk and sugar. It wasn’t half bad and definitely worth trying, but one order goes a long way.
Akin to the local Haagen-Dazs or Magnolia Bakery, this must be Turkey’s pride when it comes to dessert. The Turkish ice-cream uses salep and mastic for an ultra smooth consistency and is served with a knife and fork. Order the traditional flavour. It’s heavenly. Conveniently, there seems to be a Mado in every neighbourhood.
The view…. the view… the view! This is one of the most expensive and talked about restaurants in Istanbul right now. Inspired by the slow food movement, the Scandinavian proprietor infuses his training and culinary heritage into Turkish dishes, resulting in a menu at once exciting and extra-ordinary. While the gourmets come for the food, it’s also about what’s outside the restaurant. From the rooftop terrace, you can see all the way to the Asian side as well as the landmarks of Sultanahmet.
Beyoglu, rooftop restaurant/bar of the Marmara Pera Hotel five doors down from Mezze by Lemon Tree.
Speaking of the view, 360 sits on a rooftop of an apartment building on Istiklal Street. Over the years, the clientele has gone from chic to hipster to tourists with sun hats and plastic bags. But I came for sundowners, and the changing light over the Bosphorus was dead romantic.