Turkey’s New Culinary Delights

  • Alancha's, seasonal, locavore menu includes dishes like this one: grilled wild purslane with smoked goat's cheese, strawberry vinegar, and spring flowers.

    Alancha's, seasonal, locavore menu includes dishes like this one: grilled wild purslane with smoked goat's cheese, strawberry vinegar, and spring flowers.

  • Can Ortabas on the grounds of his Urla Winery, pictured with sommelier Can Bayrasa and Alancha's Kemal Demirasal (far right).

    Can Ortabas on the grounds of his Urla Winery, pictured with sommelier Can Bayrasa and Alancha's Kemal Demirasal (far right).

  • Chef Mehmet Gurs in the dining room at Mikla, with a block of Divle cave-aged cheese from Karaman province.

    Chef Mehmet Gurs in the dining room at Mikla, with a block of Divle cave-aged cheese from Karaman province.

  • Gurs's version of lakerda, or bonito pickled in salt and raki.

    Gurs's version of lakerda, or bonito pickled in salt and raki.

  • Duck pastrami served with raki-scented melon at Gile.

    Duck pastrami served with raki-scented melon at Gile.

  • Kofte ekmek, a street-style dish of meatballs and bread, gets a gourmet twist at Gile.

    Kofte ekmek, a street-style dish of meatballs and bread, gets a gourmet twist at Gile.

  • Chefs Uryan Dogmus and Cihan Kipcak at Gile.

    Chefs Uryan Dogmus and Cihan Kipcak at Gile.

  • The timber-floored dining room at Gile.

    The timber-floored dining room at Gile.

  • Rooftop restaurant Mikla affords views across the Golden Horn to Topkapi Palace and the sixth-century Hagia Sophia.

    Rooftop restaurant Mikla affords views across the Golden Horn to Topkapi Palace and the sixth-century Hagia Sophia.

  • A wall sculpture at Mikla.

    A wall sculpture at Mikla.

  • Chef Maksut Askar focuses on endangered heritage foods at his just-opened locavore restaurant Neolokal.

    Chef Maksut Askar focuses on endangered heritage foods at his just-opened locavore restaurant Neolokal.

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Focusing on Turkish products that the Italy-based Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity has included on its Ark of Taste list of vulnerable and endangered heritage foods, Aşkar’s cooking puts a contemporary twist on old recipes. Içli köfte, for instance, is a traditional dish from Aşkar’s hometown of Iskenderun that stuffs meat into pockets of Siyez bulgur, ancient wheat from the Kastamonu area of northern Anatolia; Aşkar finesses it for Neolokal’s menu by baking bulgur disks in the oven before stacking them with meat, walnuts, pine nuts, parsley, black pepper, and allspice, drizzled with burnt yogurt and olive oil. Another standout is the Divle cave-aged cheese served for dessert. Traditionally made from the milk of the rare red-fleeced Karaman sheep that feed on mountain pastures in southwest Anatolia, this cheese is stored in a 300-year-old aquifer to reach maturity and develop its strong dirty-sock smell.

“Anatolian food has the potential to be big internationally,” Aşkar says. “We have everything we need to make it happen: culture, produce, seasons, and a lot of talented young chefs.”

Üryan Doğmuş and Cihan Kıpçak agree. The duo spins seasonal tastes and ingredients with modern kitchen gadgetry to create “avant-garde Turkish cuisine” at their elegant restaurant, Gile, in Istanbul’s Beşiktaş district. The nightly degustation menu is a feat to finish; the eight big courses matched with generous servings of local wines pose a challenge for waistlines and sobriety levels both. But Doğmuş and Kıpçak are pushing boundaries aside from just quantity, churning out highly complex dishes like sac böreği—wild garlic in paper-thin pastry pockets with an extraordinary combination of clay-pot cheese from Cappadocia and pine honey from Marmaris. Paired with fluffy lemon potatoes, their slow-cooked rock bass with charred leak is another delight, while the 41-hour cooked lamb shoulder, served with eggplant puree, licorice paste, and a super-pungent kaşar cheese made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk, hits a perfect note.

I discover turkey’s most promising new restaurant on the Aegean coast, amid the pine and almond trees that dot the rolling hills of the Çeşme Peninsula, east of Izmir. Alancha is the ambitious brainchild of Kemal Demirasal, a Bosnian Turk who moved here to pursue a career as a professional windsurfer. Besotted by the extraordinary wealth of Çeşme’s seafood and produce, Demirasal taught himself to cook, later opening a modern Mediterranean restaurant called Barbun amid the quaint cobbled streets of Alaçatı, a Greek-built village of old stone houses that the Istanbul jet-set has made its summer escape. But unexcited by the prospect of “having to cook pasta for the rest of my life,” Demirasal last year opened Alancha, a slick 30-seat restaurant on a hillock in central Alaçatı.

Drawing on wild herbs foraged from hilltop forests, tart cheeses made from hardy mountain goats, nutty olive oils from trees more than 1,000 years old, and an abundance of fish from the cobalt-blue waters of the Aegean, Demir-asal has created a menu that cleverly divulges the history of Anatolia in its two nightly degustations. If you think that sounds esoteric, you’re right, but eating here is a profound history lesson on this corner of the world.

My dinner menu at Alancha is titled the Great Migration, and it unfolds as a culinary journey through Anatolia and its ancient past. The first dish, Seeds of Civilization, mixes barley, chickpeas, mint, and yogurt—foodstuffs that enabled early Anatolians to make the transition from hunters and gatherers to agriculturalists millennia ago. Next comes Goddess of Wisdom, a Greek salad of roasted cherry tomato halves spiced with lemon thyme, thin slices of pealed cucumber, creamy feta rounds, grilled baby onions, a fern-green olive extract, and—of course—olives, thought to have been brought to Çeşme by the Greeks. Harking back to the era of the Minoans, who came to Çeşme from Crete, is a presentation of octopus and fish with zucchini and yogurt. Nestled in a custom-made porcelain dish that mimics the look of marble, it’s perfectly balanced and almost too beautiful to eat.

All these morsels are irresistible, but the most delicious dish on the menu is Empire Built on Salt. A tribute to the Phoenicians and their contribution to the local salt trade, it involves a whole baked sea bass, filleted tableside and served with tart, semi-fermented sea leaves.

Equally as impressive as Alancha’s food is the restaurant’s lack of pretension. There are no airs or graces here, where tables are bare wood; cutlery comes in a box not even suggesting what diners should use with which dish; the staff are relaxed and chatty; and wine is matched with the meal, not each course, so you can drink what you want, when you want.

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