Istanbul, the seat of the supremely Epicurean Byzantine and Ottoman empires, has had a fair claim to the title for nearly 1,700 years, many centuries longer than most cities Michelin has deemed worthy of his imprimatur. That Washington — no, seriously, Washington — got a leader before Istanbul should make you pause and consider Poullennec’s priorities. (And while you’re at it, chew on the irony that the first listing for the American capital included a Turkish restaurant in the bib gourmand category.)
From its beginnings as Constantinople, the city’s cuisine has been a mix of Roman, Greek and Persian influences. The fermented fish sauce known as garum, now touted as a delicacy by top chefs such as Noma’s Rene Redzepi, was widespread. After becoming Istanbul, Turkish and Arabic flavors were grafted onto the gastronomic scene. In her instructive 2017 biography of the city, historian Bettany Hughes notes that caviar was introduced there in the 12th century.
Reflecting on trips to Istanbul spanning almost two decades, I can recall dozens of world-class meals on both sides of the Bosphorus, ranging from traditional Turkish fare at Ciya Sofrasi to the more imaginative delights at Changa, which unfortunately is now closed . High or low, cheap or expensive, Istanbul’s culinary scene has always had plenty of choice. If one visitor had cause for criticism, it was for the relative scarcity of good non-Turkish options; but a surge in fine European and Asian restaurants is bridging that gap.
For my money or my expense report, Istanbul ranks alongside Dubai (which received its Michelin Guide last summer) as the two best-dining cities in the Middle East and its periphery.
Does it even matter if Istanbul has Michelin approval or not? It does, in three ways.
First and most obviously, it will boost tourism. Gourmets all over the world base their travels on the Michelin guides; In the past week, many have added Istanbul to their itineraries.
Second, the recognition will spur excellence among Istanbul’s chefs: those who didn’t make the first list of 53 will compete for the honors next year and the year after. Many will be particularly encouraged by the two stars presented to TURK Fatih Tutak, who has taken Changa’s modernizing spirit to new frontiers. Chef Fatih Tutak’s reimagined ‘dolma’ clams – in which dried vine leaves look like the shell of the clam – would have delighted the Sybarite Sultans of olden times as much as Ferran Adria, the godfather of molecular gastronomy.
Some of the Michelin-listed restaurants have chefs who trained at Changa before it closed in 2013. Most others raise the standards of conventional Turkish cuisine. My personal favorite of this group is Seraf on the outskirts of town, where chef Sinem Ozler turns even the humble icli kofte, a type of meatball, into something lovely. That their restaurant only made it into the Recommended category, the lowest on the list, is a lapse in gastronomic fairness.
The third beneficial effect of the Istanbul guide will be felt far from the city, even in the countryside – in Turkish restaurants around the world. The Michelin seal gives prestige not only to a restaurant or a city, but to an entire kitchen. Foodies who haven’t tried Turkish dishes and can’t come to Istanbul buy a cookbook to try some dishes at home or look for Turkish restaurants nearby.
And here’s the sweetest irony of all: I bet more people will be inspired to try this place in the Michelin Guide for Washington.
More from Bloomberg Opinion’s Bobby Ghosh on food and drink:
The rise of an Indian restaurant mirrors that of Asheville
Momos are taking over the dumpling world for a reason
New York serves up a true taste of the Middle East
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign policy. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief at Hindustan Times, Managing Editor at Quartz and International Editor at Time.
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