Shish! This city serves more than kebabs

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Istanbul's food was always good, but the choice was so limited. A new generation of chefs is changing all that, says Tina Walsh

I'm sipping Kavaklidere Egeo, a delicious Anatolian sauvignon blanc, in the Lebi-i-Derya restaurant in Istanbul.

The hot June sun shines through the huge plate-glass windows, which frame the Golden Horn, Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque. Before me is a plate of fava-bean purée with artichoke and citrus onion chutney – food was never this good when I lived in the city in the mid-1990s.

Back then, most, if not all, of my dining experiences took place in cheap and cheerful meyhanes (taverns), drinking raki and eating mezes and shish kebabs. The food was consistently good, but the choice was limited, and finding greater variety, unless you were prepared to spend a fortune, was a challenge.

Since then, a growing number of Istanbul restaurateurs and chefs – women among them – have quietly built on the more conservative elements of Turkish cuisine by rediscovering regional cooking and long-forgotten Ottoman recipes, and giving them a contemporary twist.

The Lebi-i-Derya is one example. Set on the top floor of the Richmond Hotel in the cosmopolitan Beyoglu district (with those iconic views), it's a smart, breezy affair, decorated in muted creams and beiges. As well as fava beans, the Ottoman-inspired menu lists irmik muhallebisi, a mousse-like dessert made with semolina, crystallised pumpkin and lavender ice cream or rose sorbet – which the Ottomans drank gallons of as a palate cleanser between meals.

Owner Gamze Ineceli came to the restaurant business after working abroad, including a stint in New York's theatreland, and is one of this new breed of gourmets helping to transform the city's image to a destination for food, not just history and culture.

"Istanbul is an incredible melting pot with centuries of culinary influence, from Greece, Italy, the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East," she says. "You could almost call it the first fusion food. I'm trying to stay faithful to that concept but blending traditional Ottoman tastes with contemporary culinary influences."

As we work through a tasting menu of aubergine cream with roasted red bell pepper, sesame-crusted salmon and pomegranate- and plum-infused lamb shish, Gamze switches the wine to a Kavaklidere Prestij Bogazkere – "a superb red that's great with meat dishes", she says – one of the up-and-coming Turkish labels.

At Kantin, in Nisantasi, an upmarket district in the north of the city, the approach is "new Turkish cuisine". So, it's out with the kebabs (which originated in Persia, anyway) and in with fresh, local produce and a menu that changes every day. This is a good place to find vegetable dishes such as kabak sarma (thinly sliced stuffed courgettes), and the artichokes served here are among the best in Istanbul.

The café-restaurant (a modern version of the esnaf lokantasi or "lunchtime canteen") closes at about 9pm and doesn't serve alcohol (not for any religious reasons, just because it hasn't got a licence), yet these factors don't seem to dent its popularity. On the Monday lunchtime when I visited, it was packed with business people, fashionable young guns and ladies who lunch, Ray-Bans perched on their expensively coiffed heads.

Chef and owner Semse Denizsel learnt to cook at her mother's knee. "The single biggest threat to Istanbul cuisine is Istanbullus forgetting their roots," she says. "We must protect the food of everyday Istanbullus as though it were the food of the sultans. Even the peasant food here was refined."

Back in Beyoglu, you'll find Mikla on the 14th floor of the Marmara Pera hotel. It's best to go in the evening, when Istanbul's skyline is lit up to show-stopping, 360-degree effect. It's worth stopping by for the view alone, but the food is excellent, too. Owner Mehmet Gurs is half Turkish, half Finnish and grew up in Sweden. He's obsessive about using only the best ingredients and he and his team (including a "food anthropologist") scour the country for foodstuffs. The menu at Mikla (which comes from Miklagard, the name given to Constantinople by the Vikings) is "Scandinavian via way of Istanbul", with dishes such as smoked istavrit (mackerel), olive oil-poached peas and chilled minted pea soup, along with pistachio and helva ice cream. The sommelier, Sabiha Apaydin, guides diners through an extensive wine list and only a dreadful wine snob would pass up on the fine Turkish labels. Though Mikla isn't cheap, it's well worth splashing out there for a special occasion.

A former chef at Mikla, Didem Senol, has recently opened her own restaurant, Lokanta Maya. At just 33, she already has an illustrious past, having studied at the French Culinary Institute of New York and worked at Le Cirque and Eleven Madison Park. She's also written a recipe book, Aegean Flavours, a celebration of the region's markets and produce.

Ignore the inauspicious location behind Karakoy docks – this is Turkish cuisine at its freshest. Didem's excursions throughout the Aegean and Anatolia are reflected in the eclectic menu: konya blue cheese with lemon, caramelised sea bass with sautéed orange and roasted sardines with bulgur and pine nuts.

The surroundings are minimalist, the staff good-looking and sharply dressed. Those smoky old meyhanes belong to a bygone era.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Turkish Airlines (020-7471 6666; turkishairlines.com) offers return flights to Istanbul Ataturk Airport from Birmingham, Manchester, London Heathrow and Stansted from £171. A double room with breakfast at the Pera Palace (00 90 212 377 40; perapalace.com) starts at €250 (£220) per night.

Further Information

Lebi-i-Derya, Istiklal Caddesi No 227 Richmond Otel, Kat 6 (00 90 212 243 43 75; lebiderya.com);

Mikla, The Marmara Pera, Mesrutiyet Cadessi 15 (00 90 212 293 56 56; miklarestaurant.com);

Kantin, Akkavak Sokagi 30 (00 90 212 219 3114; kantin.biz);

Lokanta Maya, Kemankes Cadessi No 35A (00 90 212 252 68 84; loktanamaya.com).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot