Friday, 28 July 2017

A Bird’s Eye View of Istanbul

Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova   
From the hills on dry land, houses and streets seem to be flowing down to the shimmering waters of the Bosphorus.

The thick smoke from the grills along the ports, where fish, corn and chestnuts are being grilled, rises and, for a little while, shrouds the colourful scenery in a veil – light, inconsistent clouds, quickly carried away by the wind.

Along the railings of the Galata Bridge, fishermen stand frozen as if part of the décor. They don’t flinch even from the sirens of the ships passing underneath – as if their keeping silent is enough to not disturb the fish. Apart from them, everyone and everything else is in motion: ferries, trams, bags on wheels, boats, cars, motorbikes and carts – 19 million people squeeze through the sky-piercing minarets, bell towers and turrets, crossing from one continent to another as if merely crossing from one boulevard to another.

In Europe, there isn’t a more spectacular city than Istanbul. Having dinner while observing that spectacle is like being served food in the box seats of the Metropolitan Opera, with the world as the main performing character.

The view of the city from high up is enchanting. Even the locals have not grown accustomed to it, which explains their tendency to open up restaurants with a guaranteed panoramic view. Such hedonistic observation points are already spread all over the city. They are the places from which it is best to start if one decides to rediscover Istanbul. The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the cisterns, the Egyptian market – all the classical sites are still there, but life is taking place elsewhere.

Lately, that place is around the Pera Hill. One of the major advantages of this now modern part of the city is that it rises over the most dramatic part of Istanbul’s landscape – the place where the Golden Horn flows into the Bosphorus. Many of the good restaurants are in Pera and at least three of them make use of the panorama, provided by the erstwhile Christian quarter: 360, Leb-i derya and Mikla.

Pera was one of the city’s most interesting areas in the past as well – it houses the oldest hotels, including the Pera Palace, built as the end stop of the Orient Express, with its mythical Mata Hari Bar; and the Büyük Londra, the Large London. Their elegant buildings are among the prominent examples of the Rococo style, in which the entire hill over the Galata was built up.

Among them, Mikla – housed in the modern building of the Marmara Pera Hotel, is an exception. The entrance is through the hotel’s darkened, theatrical foyer. You press the top button in the modern elevators and end up in the small vestibule on the floor where the restaurant is located. It is occupied by the face control and by hundreds of bottles of wine, lined up on the shelves over the glass partition to the venue.

Until you cross the transparent door, things are looking just chic. The first steps into the hall are…. well, dumbfounding. The salon beyond the glass door is an aerial version of the infinity pool – the space inside merges with the space outside. The hall is almost dark, lighted only by spotlights, and one gets the feeling of hanging up in the air over the whirlwind of lights that is Istanbul. To make the illusion even more complete, the lamps don’t shed any light on the floor, but just on the tables – if you are short enough and your feet dangle from the chair, you feel like you are hanging in a swing over the abyss. It’s like dining on a Ferris wheel.

This restaurant, with its science fiction interior, was created by the Finn of Turkish origin Mehmet Gürs and, at the moment, it is considered the best haute cuisine place in Istanbul. The combination of a sweeping interior/exterior with the pretence of excellent cuisine is a bold move: very few things are capable of making an impression on a person while sitting at one of Mikla’s tables.

But still, Mehmet Gürs has found a way to also impress with the dishes that are served. His declared concept is simple, but well prepared food. And he follows it, but only to a point.

The major element, where this shows is the bread: instead of the buns with anything from corn to millet for parrots, that enjoy popularity in similar restaurants in Istanbul, here they serve a piece of white and a piece of brown bread, accompanied by a little plate of olive oil, poured out before you. And that’s it as far as simplicity goes – if it comes up later at all, it is only as an element of the presentation.

The hors d'œuvre, varying in price between 14 and 30 Turkish liras (around 6 and 14 euro), come in a well thought out collection of processed national tastes. A memorable one is the crispy pieces of bread with anchovy – a unique interpretation of the beloved Black Sea fish. Another is the stewed mackerel pâté – exceptionally tender, served with slices of beet that shimmer in the light, a minimalistic side of onion and dill and a fine egg sauce. It also comes with small, crispy bread triangles fried in butter – the obsession with butter is one of the endlessly harmful but also endlessly pleasurable moments in Turkish cuisine.

The main courses, priced 40 Turkish liras (around 18 euro) and upwards, have the same signature style: traditional dishes, transformed into a delicate and fine perfection, without much pretence in the presentation. A reference to the eternal nomad pastırma, for example, is the dried beef, served in thin slices accompanied juicily by a glaze that is barely noticeable in structure and taste.

The deserts: ice cream with basil, dates or the especially adorable version of dog-eat-dog – truffles with truffles, are a dignified way to end any dinner, including the tasting menu for 110 Turkish liras (around 50 euro).

The wine list, in which a central position is occupied by Californian wines, is demonstrated by a sommelier, who in addition to not recommending the most expensive wines, gives such discreet advice that one does not feel obliged to follow it.

All in all, if there were a culinary culmination in the heights of Istanbul, it would be in Mikla – figuratively, as well as quite literally, as the restaurant is located on the last floor of the highest building on the peak of the Pera Hill.

From there, a short descent to the pedestrian Istiklal street, which leads to the old Richmond Hotel, across from the splendid, 100-year-old Art Nouveau café Markiz. This is the still melancholic, Belle Époque part of Istanbul, which, used to be a kind of metaphor for West European decadence until recently, when most of the buildings were restored.

On top of the Richmond stands another excellent restaurant with a view,

Leb-i derya

With its wide, panoramic windows facing the Bosphorus, its white canvases on the ceiling and its row of mirrors on the internal wall, it looks more like a ship than a construction that is connected to the ground. The feeling of sailing seems to unite the restaurants with similar locations in the city.

The well-lit interior and exceptionally pleasant service make the restaurant quite a popular place even for lunch – especially in times of the year when light is scarce.

The top chef here is Ozhan Sivetoglou, another culinary icon of Istanbul. His fame started from the first restaurant with that name, which is located on one of the nearby streets. The one located on the last floor of the Richmond is comparatively new – it opened about a year ago. The food here is almost twice as cheap as that in Mikla and, even though it is half a degree lower in class, it is excellent and with a well thought out presentation.

As a whole, the menu seems to be composed of light foods – chicken and sea products, prepared with a unique signature style.

The hors d'œuvre, priced between 6 and 10 Turkish liras (around 2.70 and 4.50 euro) include an excellent broccoli cream soup with flakes of almonds and pepper sauce; marinated European bass with a truffle-flavoured tapenada and fresh basil; altogether – no more than ten eclectic, but intriguing offerings. The situation is similar with the short list of risotto and pasta – six dishes, among them risotto with shrimps, pumpkin and peppermint.

The main courses, priced between 20 and 30 Turkish liras (about 9 and 13.50 euro) are done in the same spirit, with a few nods to the local culinary culture, in the shape of a Bosphorus kebab (one made with minced lamb meat and another – with pieces of beef, served with a yogurt salad, spicy walnut pesto, onion and red pepper).

When it comes to the prices, Leb-i derya is one of the places confirming the curious fact that eating in an “expensive” restaurant in Istanbul doesn’t cost more than dining in one of the Turkish meyhanes. Even though they mimic cheapness and authenticity, these latter places often speculate with the prices, while restaurant from the league of Mikla and Leb-i derya could never afford doing that.

From the Richmond, along the Istiklal street, one passes the Saint Anthony church, squeezed between the buildings on the main street, and immediately after it is the exit of another cult bar&diner of contemporary Istanbul –


As its name suggests, it offers a complete panorama over the city – in a closed circle, from the penthouse space of a nineteenth-century building’s last floor. The restaurant’s announcement on the ground floor is already a promise in and of itself: in the space between the spiral staircase, from the eight-floor ceiling hangs a sign “360.”

On top, if the view poses serious competition to that of Mikla, it is because of what’s in the foreground – Saint Anthony’s towers, beyond which a fantastical sight of the Golden Horn is revealed and behind it, Sultanahmet and the Sea of Marmara.

360 is also an elegant place, but funkier in comparison to Mikla and Leb-i derya. In the evenings, it operates more as a bar, with live jazz on Wednesdays and Thursdays. It is a creation of South Africa-native Mike Norman, who often changes the restaurant’s menu, all the while retaining its principle – eclecticism and modernised traditional Turkish dishes, with the aid of an outsider perspective.

Unlike the drinks menu, which has the thickness and design of a magazine, that of the food is simplicity at its best: a page of hors d'œuvre and a page of main courses. The food strives to have a unique signature style, to be made well and to have a well though out presentation.

The hors d'œuvre, priced between 10 and 15 Turkish liras (around 4.50 and 6.80 euro) include several kinds of sushi, crispy fillo dough pastries from different parts of the world, four salads, including Caesar and falafel; all in all – fusion all the way. One of the curious hors d'œuvre is the stuffed zucchini blossoms: rice stuffing, flavoured with raisins, cinnamon and cedar nuts, and especially – the yogurt padding convey the best and most classical Turkish flavours and aromas, diversified by a refreshingly contemporary presentation.

The main dish offerings, priced between 20 and 30 Turkish liras (around 9 and 30.50 auro) are similar, dominated by slow food specialties, such as the stylised İskender kebab. The traditional one is made from pieces of lamb or beef döner meet, served in thin slices over pieces of Turkish pide bread and slathered with melted butter and yogurt. Although delicious, when served in a dish it is reminiscent of something which has already been consumed. The one in 360 combines the same ingredients (with the addition of a breaded pepper), but its appearance has been dramatically improved.

From Istiklal, on the way back to Galata, across the medieval Genoese tower, built as part of the city’s fortification, is one of Istanbul’s most famous old hotels,

The Anemon

The restaurant on its last floor is another spot with stunning views – in addition to those of the Golden Horn’s interior and the lively movement of the ships along it, it offers a view – and a very close one at that, of the Galata; the tower is at no more than 30 metres from the restaurant’s windows.

When it comes to the food, the venue doesn’t have the class and modernity of the previous three. But still, here the menu has pretences too and offers fusion dishes. For example, among there are chicken teriyaki with jasmine pilaf; goat cheese, roasted with brown sugar; and salmon in grape leaves.

The hors d'œuvre are priced between 14 and 15 Turkish liras (around 6.30 and 6.80 euro) and the main courses vary between 25 and 35 Turkish liras (around 11.30 and 15.80 euro). The restaurant possesses some of the atmosphere of communist-era eating venues, and gives the vague feeling that it doesn’t depend on the service quality, the culinary experience or the correlation between price and quality, but rather on its spectacular location. Admittedly, though, such a policy is explicatory – the panorama really is one of the best and most recognisable in Istanbul.

Even though nowadays it looks like quite a natural part of the city’s culture, the practice of opening venues on the last floors of high buildings isn’t that old, going back only two or three years. Its founder and prototype among modern venues is

5 KAT (The Fifth Floor)

To the side of the Pera Hill, it is located west of Taksim Square.

Difficult to find, with a barely distinguishable sign in one of the side streets, the restaurant has been a cult place for many lovers of night life and pleasurable brunch in Istanbul for years. A fusion cuisine; the reborn and enriched 1960s hippie style, complete with bead curtains, velvet draperies with ribbons, mirrors and eclecticism, and yes, again, a good view of the Bosphorus – this place is the original source of many of the ideas that the newer and more luxurious restaurants in the Pera area took and developed further.

Here, as well, the menu consists of modernised Turkish dishes under a lot of foreign influence. After the pasta and the pizzas, which have grown from a fad to a classic, the new obsession is Southeast Asian cuisine. Almost all of the top eating venues in Istanbul, unless they are specialised, have at least a few Thai dishes on offer. Here, in addition to the Thai-style chicken in oyster sauce and the Chinese-style beef, there is a Burma-style European bass, served with lemon grass sauce. (Prices of the hors d'œuvre range between 9 and 18 Turkish liras (around 4 and 8 euro), while the main courses are priced between 19 and 35 Turkish liras (around 8.60 and 15.80 euro)).

It is difficult to call these dishes authentic; rather, these are recipes inspired by the aromas and flavours of Indochina. One of the classics here remains the Turkish version of mish-mash – eggs cooked with vegetables, spicy sausage and spicy Turkish peppers.

The Fifth Floor is also one of the few places in Istanbul that serve pork.

These five restaurants aren’t the only ones that combine a good cuisine with a good view of Istanbul. From Sultanahmed to Ortaköy and Nişantaşı, more and more are opening up.

If one is oblivious to them, one could walk around the city’s streets quite happily, among the carts with buns, peeled passion fruits, fresh gherkins and sweets drowned in syrup, among the steaming dishes behind the glass windows of restaurants and the honey dripping from sweets.

But a single visit to such a place uncovers a whole new Istanbul. In a wonderful, almost fairytale way, it layers itself atop the old one, adding to the colourfulness a lot of air, light and sky, and leading to one thing: addiction.

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