Istanbul may have been revelling in its position as this year's European capital of culture, but for many on their first visit to this magical city there must have been another revelation — the food. If your image of Turkish food is the döner kebab, think again. Istanbul is
rediscovering its culinary heritage.
Istanbul is the perfect place to combine sightseeing and eating, as some of the best restaurants in town are located right next to the city's historical sights. Take Asitane, which serves classic Ottoman dishes (many of the recipes are based on centuries-old palace cookbooks) in a leafy courtyard beside Saint Savour in Chora. After gazing at frescoes and mosaics which date to the Byzantine period, in a church which later was to become a mosque for some 450 years, a touch of quiet contemplation is necessary. And there's no better way to achieve it than over a civilised lunch.
The advantage chefs in Istanbul have, as well as building on a long tradition of culinary excellence dating back to the time of the sultans, is the quality of the local ingredients. At the two-year-old Istanbul Culinary Institute, trainee chefs use ingredients grown at the institute's farm in Thrace, near the Greek border, to produce dishes which are then served to paying customers in the restaurant.
The emphasis is on traditional dishes such as courgette fritters or grilled aubergine with lamb made with a lighter touch. With a seasonal menu which changes most days, this is some of the best-value food in the city.
Down the road at the new Mimolett, near Taksim Square, chef Murat Bozok also emphasises the importance of good ingredients, using organic produce as much as possible. He has worked at a number of Gordon Ramsay restaurants in London, as well as L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, but wanted to come back to his roots, to cook dishes he remembers from his mother's kitchen. But he also wants a Michelin star, which would be the first in Turkey.
So for him presentation is key, something, he points out, that is often lacking in Turkish food. Hence the tiny skinned red peppers wrapped around local goat's cheeses, the cubes of quince jelly which accompanied foie gras, the minute meatballs made from the Armenian sausage suçuk which accompanied the rack of lamb.
With each course there was a nod to local cuisine but the highlight was a souffléd rice pudding.
The cooking in Istanbul has come a long way from the days of that infamous hippy favourite, the Pudding Shop.
Read more on London Evening Standard: Turkey with a twist: eat your way round Istanbul