This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Standing outside her restaurant just behind the Marmara Pera hotel in Istanbul, Ece Aksoy readily acknowledged the enormous debt she and her colleagues owe to this city’s rich and complex history. 'Ottoman cooking was the first real fusion cooking,' she explained with a smile.
Having cooked for over 30 years, Aksoy, 68, now quite understandably takes a more maternal role in the running of the restaurant named after her. But her food is still exciting, particularly for any lover of vegetables, as her modern renditions of simple salads of tomato, onion and cheese; beans three ways; of yoghurt, cucumber, purslane and pomegranate seeds; and a thin pasta tossed with curds and walnuts were to prove.
It is a further tribute to her cooking and vibrant personality that this restaurant’s continuing popularity manages to defy what I was to learn are the two basic rules for most others’ success in this dynamic city. Because while Ece Askoy is tucked away in a narrow street with no view and where even the pavement on which its four outdoor tables and a dozen stools are positioned is frequently invaded by cars, the importance of an outdoor location with a view either across towards Asia or down towards the Old City cannot be underestimated.
This distinctive combination has been vital in the continuing popularity of Sunset Bar & Grill, which Baris Tansever opened 15 years ago with no previous experience but great enthusiasm and high hopes of the location set in a park that he leases from the city council.
By continually innovating, initially by introducing sushi, then more Turkish dishes and finally by buying up the cellar of mature imported wines collected by a former private banker, Tansever has followed principles that are essential to any restaurant’s success. But by creating a space that can seat up to 300 with views across the Bosphorus far below, Tansever offers something that his fellow citizens demand of their restaurants during the hot and humid summer and will thrill any visitor.
This move up river to higher, cooler, locations which many restaurateurs undertake during the second half of May and results in them being referred to colloquially as ‘butterflies’, became quite obvious as we cruised up the Bosphorus the following morning. On both sides of this busy shipping channel, waiters were laying up outdoor tables with white tablecloths and umbrellas with a speed and precision that would have impressed any army sergeant major.
Back on dry land a conversation with Gerhard Struger, the cosmopolitan General Manager of the Swissotel Bosphorus hotel, put the importance of geography into even clearer context. We were in the bar at Gaja on the 16th floor of the Swissotel with views to the Old City and the mouth of the Bosphorus in the distance, and the Besiktas football stadium down below, when, not surprisingly, he observed, 'As far as I am concerned this city has the nicest footprint of any I have ever worked in. But a view is crucial and so too is outdoor seating from now until the end of September.'
Struger went on to highlight his views by listing two contrasting examples of recent restaurant openings from London. While the Japanese restaurant Roka has prospered, having taken over a former fish restaurant on the banks of the Bosphorus, its Chinese counterpart Hakkasan was trading less well because it was located in a shopping mall with only limited outdoor seating.
Only Sydney perhaps offers its restaurateurs so many locations by the water’s edge, but Istanbul’s position on leafy hills between two continents is more dramatic. But to succeed, any restaurateur must also take into consideration one other distinctive factor: Istanbulli like to go out in numbers and when they sit down to eat they are not in any hurry to get up from the table. Turning tables, by arranging two sittings in one evening, is just not acceptable here - although one distinct consequence of this is that when customers do finally leave in the early hours of the morning the traffic can be as congested as it is at rush hour.
Perhaps the need to look after their customers once they have finally battled through the traffic to reach them has helped to generate a city of such distinctive restaurateurs. Because alongside Aksoy, I left impressed by the personalities that lay behind Bebek Balikci, in the salubrious Bebek neighbourhood, and Asitane restaurants.
The former belongs to Ertugrul Karabulut who began in the restaurant business 47 years ago as a busboy and worked his way into a position to buy this elegant fish restaurant on the water’s edge. This vast experience he explained, has taught him to focus on attention to detail that was reflected in excellent mezze and perfectly grilled fish. I was delighted to hear that it is still considered a compliment to the chef if one picks the latter clean with one’s fingers.
Batur Durmay comes from a trading family and was initially destined for the diplomatic service before his family opened the Kariye Hotel and converted the basement and outside courtyard into an area that would satisfy their own passion for good food and, in particular, for the dishes of the Ottoman Empire.
Today, Asitane’s menu comprises only dishes that featured in the kitchens of the royal palaces during this period and provided my introduction to almond soup from the 16th century; Ottoman hummus slightly sweetened with cinnamon and currants; and from the special menu that currently celebrates Fatih Sultan Mehmet’in, who conquered what was then Constantinople just over 556 years ago, Sultan’s ‘Yahni’, a lamb and chicken stew with chickpeas and cumin.