As top chefs revive the dishes of empires past, Leisa Tyler tracks down Istanbul's culinary treasures.
Glasses clink as the sun slips behind a medieval stone tower. Below, groups of merry makers wind between beeping cars drivers, gridlocked in the narrow winding streets. The view, stretching over the higgledy rooftops of the ancient and chaotic city, is just as superb as the wine we are drinking - a locally grown drop from a little-known biodynamic vineyard that picked up an impressive 14 medals at Europe's wine awards last year. It is going down perfectly with a rare strain of delicately salted olives chilling on ice. Are we in Bordeaux? Reims? Florence? Welcome to Istanbul.
The capital of four grand empires - the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman - together stretching from Morocco to Iran, Istanbul has long been blessed with a plump pantry of fine produce. But inundated with high-yield varieties and cheap supermarket imports, much of these foodstuffs have fallen into obscurity in recent years. Inspired by the organic and slow-food movements, a coterie of chefs is now hoping to bring it all back.
In the vanguard is Mehmet Gurs, my drinking companion and the dashing owner and chef of Mikla, arguably Istanbul's most glamorous restaurant and upon whose balcony we are standing.
"There have been so many cultures on this land, both on the European Anatolia side and Asian Thrace side and they all left distinct culinary marks," says the Finnish-Turkish Gurs, adding that food in Istanbul has become so commercial and mass-produced that you have to be a villager or seasoned intellect to even appreciate a decent tomato.
The white wine we are drinking has been made from Vastlaki grapes, which are native to the tiny island of Bozcaada in the Aegean Sea. This arid, windswept island, a short hop from the Gallipoli Peninsula, was once famous for its wine, the 17th-century travel writer, Evliya Celebi, declared that Bozcaada wines were the finest in the world.
Six years ago architect Resit Soley bought an old state-owned vineyard and started to play around with the native varieties. The resulting Corvus label has been sweeping prizes at wine shows from Berlin to Burgundy and selling for more than $300 a bottle.
Intent on tracking down more culinary treasures, Gurs now employs the tastebuds of villagers to scour Turkey's countryside. Goodies unearthed so far include the unusual halhal zeytin olives we have been devouring with Soley's wine, a seventh-generation halva, an "astonishing" wild lavender jam made by a women's co-operative in the south-west and numerous raw-milk cheeses. Gurs has also started to document the history of Turkish food, including all the recipes and ingredients that have fallen off the radar.
Much of this is featured in Gurs's nine-course degustation menu. Hamsi is a delicate sardine-like fish from the Black Sea often classified as peasant food. Gurs's style is anything but: sandwiched between wafer-thin slices of bread, deep fried and served with a lemon and egg-white sauce. The grouper is raw and drizzled in mouth-popping Oscietra caviar and a zesty lemon-infused oil. The most interesting dish is a cherry-wood-smoked lamb, the cooking technique borrowed from Gurs' native Scandinavia and tasting distinctly like duck.
The homely cafe, Abracadabra, is one of the best examples of the farm-to-table movement blossoming among Istanbul restaurants. Housed in an old wooden Greek house in trendy Arnavutkoy, the retro four-storey diner is owned by spritely Dilara Erbay, who refers to her business as a "creative food company" with a zealous "go local" edge.
"Years ago, Istanbul people were very snobby about food - always going out for Italian, sushi, Indian," Erbay says. "So we decided to make traditional trendy too. Now as Turkey becomes more developed, people are starting to respect Turkish traditions, rather than borrowing from the East and the West."
I know Abracadabra's fall-off-the-bone lamb confit is hard to resist but it's a balmy autumn day and the lamb might be too heavy for the heat. Instead I order from the tapas menu: a tart olive and caper salad, raw salmon and bulgur kofte (a dish that is traditionally made with raw lamb), Armenian-style mussel rice and fried calamari with a creamy, citrus-infused dipping sauce. It's all light and relatively healthy but there is no room for desert, which is just as well considering poetic and rather alarming titles of offerings such as Insomnia Every Night (which I am told is cold curried banana mousse with poppy-seed chocolate).
While on a food holiday, it helps to balance eating with exercise. I hike back along the coast to my hotel, the Park Hyatt, in Nisantasi. The road winds around the edge of the Bosporus, past mansions lapped at by the sea, busy with ships and ferries zipping up to the Black Sea, the water glistening like thousands of tiny diamonds against the midday sun.
As always, the distance looks shorter on the map, so after the three-hour stroll it is without guilt that I turn up to my dinner reservation at Tarihi Karakoy Balikcisi, which at 86 years old dubs itself as the oldest fish restaurant in Istanbul. Previously lunch-only and worth the trip to Istanbul alone, in September last year owner Hakan Ozkaraman added a classy evening-only room upstairs.
Although dressed aptly with pressed white table cloths and crystal glasses, the Tarihi Karakoy Balikcisi is an unfussy affair, letting the food and the view - soaring over the Galata Bridge and Topkapi Palace - speak for themselves. I am met at the door by the genial owner who, although oblivious to the fact I am reviewing the place, treats me like a long-lost friend. Would I prefer red or white wine? Most grape varieties are Turkish and I haven't heard of any of them, so Ozkaraman opens five bottles to let me taste each ("Please, you're my guest," he says when I resist, followed by, "Don't worry! I'll drink what you don't!").
Ready to eat? As with the wine, there is no food menu. Instead I am led to the kitchen to let my nose do the choosing.
The first thing to arrive at the table is a simple loaf of bread, hailing from Gaziantep in south-eastern Anatolia: it's crispy outside, soft inside, warm and tasty.
Next to arrive is a small plate of mashed eggplant - smoky and flavoured with just a touch of lemon. Small details indeed, this dish stole my heart.
The restaurant is famous for its seafood chowder but this doesn't impress like the whole-fish dishes do: hamsi, fried so quickly they are still raw on the inside, followed by melt-in-the-mouth swordfish. I can't help but stuff myself silly - made almost painful when Ozkaraman brings over complimentary dessert: nutty sesame halva and candied pumpkin with a thick black Turkish coffee.
Of all the empires and ethnic groups who have inhabited Istanbul, it was the Ottomans who left the biggest culinary impression. Ruling from 1299 to 1923, they borrowed taste and texture from the Jews, Armenians and Greeks to create a cuisine of their own. For the Ottomans, food equalled festive: palace kitchens would heave with more than 1000 chefs preparing meals of 20-plus courses.
Ottoman cuisine is illustrated in spectacular fashion at Tugra, the elegant fine dining restaurant at the grand Ciragan Palace, the last Ottoman palace, now a Kempinski hotel.
Each dish has been meticulously researched from old Ottoman diaries. Ugur Alparslan, the head chef, is just as diligent about sourcing ingredients: olive oil from Ayvalik on the Aegean coast, tomatoes from Antalya, lamb from Tekirdag, eastern Thrace.
Like all good Ottoman feasts, Alparslan's starts with a selection of dolma - vine leaves and vegetables stuffed with spiced rice - and a sour lentil soup with fried eggplant called lebeniye. The pistachio piruhi, ravioli-like pasta in a spicy butter and thyme sauce is so rich, the meal should rightly stop there. But in true Ottoman fashion, this hardly marks halfway - thankfully, as the lamb kulbasti is not to be missed. Marinated in thyme before tossed in a pan and served hot on a bed of smoked eggplant puree, the tiny slithers of meat are pure perfection.
Afiyet olsun! Bon appetit!
Singapore Airlines flies to Istanbul via Singapore from $1790. Emirates flies via Dubai from $1711.
Australians require a visa to enter Turkey, which is available on arrival.
WHERE TO STAY
The Macka Palas was originally built as a residence for the nearby Italian embassy. Opening as a Park Hyatt in 2008, all 90 rooms blend the building's art deco origins with contemporary sleekness. Nisantasi, phone +90 212 315 1234, see istanbul.park.hyatt.com. Double rooms from $325.
Located in bohemian Cihangir, Witt Suites is the newest designer digs to hit Istanbul, with 17 spacious suites. Cihangir, phone +90 212 393 7900, see wittistanbul.com. Double rooms from $220.
Mikla, Marmara Pera Hotel, Pera, phone +90 212 293 5656, see istanbulyi.com; degustation menu for two, $160, with matching wines, $280.
Abracadabra, Arnavutkoy, phone +90 212 358 6087, see www.abracadabra-ist.com; lunch for two, $70.
Tarihi Karakoy Balikcisi, Karakoy, phone +90 212 251 1371, see tarihikarakoybalikcisi.com; dinner for two, without wine, $140.
Tugra Kempinski Ciragan Palace, Besiktas, phone +90 212 326 4646, see kempinski-istanbul.com; dinner for two, without wine, $220.