A food lover’s tour of Istanbul, Turkey

Special to The Los Angeles Times

Istanbul, Turkey

Here come the mezes: minted, garlicky yogurt, dusky roasted eggplant salad. A waiter presents them on a huge tray: glistening artichoke crowns, a spread of ground walnuts and sweet red peppers. And wait, how about that beautiful mushroom salad spiked with scallions?

The glow of a late-summer sunset floods the rooftop terrace as couples and families and groups of friends feast on Turkey’s version of tapas, sipping from glasses of the milky-looking anise-flavored aperitif called raki, unwinding and talking and enjoying the spectacular view of the Old City. Scores of mosques, with their graceful domes and minarets, light up one after another as the sky turns apricot and rose and purple.


Istanbul dining: A Sept. 21 Travel story on dining in Istanbul said the Museum of Modern Art opened in 2005. It opened in 2004. The story also referred to the Golden Horn as a nickname for the city; actually, the Golden Horn is an inlet of the Bosporus that forms the harbor of Istanbul. —

This is Istanbul -- glorious and glittering -- and it’s dinner time in a busy kebab house.

The cuisine of Turkey has a reputation among food lovers as being among the world’s most compelling, and I’ve come -- with my favorite cohorts-in-dining, my husband, Thierry, and our 11-year-old son, Wylie -- to see what all the fuss is about. We’ve long dreamed of visiting Istanbul, and we have only 3 1/2 days, after exploring Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, to take in the city. Where to begin? In my view, the best way to soak up culture quickly is at the table.

Istanbul’s magnificence lies in its history, in the layering of cultures -- Byzantine on top of Hellenic, Islamic on top of Byzantine and then modern on top of all of that.

Built on hills, all rising from the Sea of Marmara, the Golden Horn and the Bosporus, it’s a visual city that’s all about space and light and shifting horizons. It straddles Europe and Asia literally; the shining waterway through the city known as the Golden Horn separates the two continents. Fortunately for us, there’s no better vantage point from which to take it all in than on a restaurant’s terrace.

That point hasn’t been lost on Istanbul’s restaurateurs, and remarkably, some of the best places with the most impressive cooking have the most spectacular views.

Hamdi, one of Istanbul’s great traditional kebab houses, on a square in the Old City’s Grand Bazaar district, is flanked on one side by Yeni Camii (the Ottoman imperial New Mosque) and fronted by Eminonu Harbor and the Galata Bridge. On two sides of the square is the old Egyptian Spice Bazaar. Olive stands, fruit mongers, tea shops, nut shops and spice merchants compete for attention with colorful wares and beguiling aromas.

Nab a reservation on Hamdi’s roof terrace (try for the balcony), as we did when we were here in late July, and dinner is a fabulous show -- especially on a Sunday, as wedding boats shoot off fireworks in the harbor. As the sky turns from periwinkle to midnight blue and the lights of the Old City come up, it’s gorgeous.

Start with cold appetizers, or mezes, good with beer or wine, but best with raki, similar to French pastis or Greek ouzo. Then come hot mezes. Hamdi is known for icli kofte -- tasty fried quenelles of bulgur filled with meat. Lahmacun, a thin pizza topped with seasoned lamb and parsley, garlic and hot pepper, is even better

But the kebabs are the star attraction. Be sure to keep some haydari -- thick, garlicky yogurt with dried mint -- on the table. It will cool the palate.

Beyti kebap -- a combination of minced veal and lamb, seasoned with sweet peppers, parsley and garlic -- is served with rice pilaf and a bright little salad of parsley and onions. We order yogurtlu kebap (yogurt kebab), choosing grilled lamb skewers over urfa (half veal, half lamb, minced). It’s terrific, served on thick yogurt, with sliced ripe tomatoes.

Fistikli kebap (veal and lamb kebab with pistachios) is a specialty of the house. The idea is to wrap a morsel of it in warm bread that’s a cross between a pita and a flour tortilla, adding a bit of grilled tomato and parsley-scallion salad. It’s wonderful.


It might be tempting to stick with traditional food in an ancient place with such a rich culinary heritage, but history lives and breathes here, and that makes Istanbul unique. It is ancient but also ultra-modern. Lots of women cover their heads in scarves and hide their bodies in long coats, but others wear shoulder-baring dresses. Turkey yearns to join the European Union, and the city’s culture -- with its energetic night life, forward-looking architecture and insatiable thirst for commerce -- announces it loudly and clearly.

In the Karakoy district, next to a grand-looking Baroque 16th century mosque, stands the streamlined 21st century Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, opened in 2005 and already one of the city’s most important cultural attractions. A well-presented exhibit in the permanent collection chronicles the history of Turkish modern art, which developed as a result of a decree handed down by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Republic of Turkey’s founder and first president. Ataturk decreed that Turkey must modernize, and that included art.

The exhibit is appealing because, although the works have much in common with better-known European art pieces of the late 19th and early 20th century, Turkey’s Asian exoticism and eventual revolutionary zeal make them feel very different.

Taking a walk through the revelatory historical exhibit and getting a handle on the country’s march toward modernity perfectly sets up our lunch: a modernist take on Turkish cooking in the sleek museum restaurant/cafe. Take a seat on the terrace and get a splendid view across the Bosporus.

If you’re lucky, that is. The day we show up, a cruise ship is parked in front of the terrace, blocking the view. (View-seekers should call the museum to see whether a ship will be there the day of their visit.)

We order sandwiches, wondering why my trusted cookbook author friend Anya von Bremzen has recommended a place with such simple fare. We’re ready to go when I notice a man at the next table perusing a different menu, a full list of appetizers and main courses.

As it happens, that lunch menu -- filled with inventive, ambitious, interesting dishes -- isn’t available until 1 p.m., and we were seated at 12:50.

In any case, though we are sated, we have to sample the real deal. To the wait staff’s amusement, we start over again, ordering an unusual appetizer of tiny house-made Turkish lamb ravioli in thick, garlic-tinged yogurt, and a cool confit artichoke crown, preserved in superb fruity olive oil with fresh favas, carrots and potatoes.

We manage a bite of dessert -- a creamy and deep-flavored baked rice pudding. We’ll be back.


Tout Istanbul is buzzing about chef Mehmet Gurs and his rooftop terrace restaurant, Mikla, atop the Marmara Pera Hotel in the fashionable Beyoglu district. There’s a relaxed pace to dining in Istanbul, and when we arrive in time for our 8 p.m. reservation (we learned later that most people dine after 8:30), the maitre d’ suggests a drink first in the rooftop bar.

The 360-degree view is the most spectacular we’ve seen yet -- from the 14th century Genovese Galata Tower, across the Golden Horn to Topkapi Palace, Seraglio Point and even the Blue Mosque off in the distance.

A few steps down at the restaurant, the small terrace is bounded only by the glass of the windows, and the drop is dizzying.

Inside, a stylish-looking international crowd is starting to settle in. It’s a bit more relaxed than on the windy terrace, and the vistas are still stupendous from nearly every table. There’s a view, too, into the kitchen, where wonderful things are happening.

Forty-year-old Gurs -- who was born in Finland, studied cooking at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island and opened his first restaurant (Beachtown) in Istanbul in 2000 -- turns out sophisticated dishes with a Turkish backbone and light Scandinavian touches. He dots a paper-thin palette of pristine raw grouper with osetra caviar, a tiny brunoise of cucumber, delicate filaments of dill and chives. A cube of velvety marinated salmon luxuriates in cacik, a horseradishy, creamy bubble bath.

Gurs’ lamb dishes are superb. A lightly smoked loin comes with walnut pistou and a silky white bean purée, and it’s set off nicely by a side of lemon-roasted romaine lettuce. Treacle-glazed lamb entrecôte is paired with thyme and honey-roasted apricots. It’s elegant and delicious.

For dessert, a selection of Turkish raw milk cheeses is just the thing, because we still have some Syrah from the Aegean coast in our glasses. Made with cow’s milk, the cheeses come from Erzurum, Corum, Kars, Konya and Adapazari -- a beguiling side trip on a plate.


Next morning, we’re up early. Our modest hotel -- Seven Hills, just across the street from the Four Seasons in Sultanahmet -- serves a beautiful buffet on its lofty garden terrace. The morning we arrive, checking in before our room is ready, we head up to the roof for a Turkish coffee.

We’re blown away by the panoramic view. The hotel sits right between the majestic Blue Mosque and the imposing Hagia Sofia -- the 1,400-year-old Byzantine church that was converted to a mosque in the 15th century by the Ottomans.

Just next to the Four Seasons, we can see an archaeological excavation in progress, and just beyond, Topkapi Palace, red-tiled roofs, the Sea of Marmara.

We’re blown away, too, at the price of drinks -- $5 for a Turkish coffee (and not a great one, at that) and $5 for a soda.

So the gorgeous buffet breakfast, included in the price of the room, is quite a nice surprise: ripe figs, luscious melons and peaches; sliced cucumbers, tomatoes and sausages; olives, sliced cheeses, breads, jams, terrific yogurt. The coffee’s fine, but the waiter soon warms up to us and offers us excellent espresso. Judging from the other terraces in eyeshot, the hotel rooftop terrace breakfast buffet is a regular Istanbul thing.

Many visitors wouldn’t dream of visiting Istanbul without taking a cruise or ferry ride up the Bosporus, the strait that connects the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea to the north. For us it’s a long taxi ride -- because there’s no ferry stop in the village of Rumeli Hisari halfway up the strait, where we have a fish restaurant on the water in our sights. We arrive a little late to visit the medieval Fortress of Europe, built by Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century, but early enough for a stroll along the Bosporus.

At Rumeli Iskele restaurant, everyone sits out on the patio -- right on the water -- and the view of the strait, the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, and Asia on the other side -- is splendid.

We start with cold seafood mezes -- a chunk of lightly cured bonito with a fantastic texture, sitting on a slice of red onion; impossibly tender octopus with sliced cornichons; a nicely briny stuffed mussel.

A cool breeze blows through the patio, which is starting to fill up with a well-heeled crowd in polo shirts and summer dresses.

Next comes shrimp served in the earthenware dish in which it was baked, with sweet red and green peppers and herbs; we soak up the sauce with warm bread.

The raki flows, and soon our main courses arrive: grilled fish so fresh it must have been pulled straight from the sea -- whole sea bass and grouper and mackerel. At another table, a waiter presents tuzda levrek -- salted bass roasted in a salt crust -- flambé. The late-summer sky is darkening, and the flames dance about. Another sip of raki, a bite of sweet sea bass, a taste of super-ripe grilled tomato, the Asian lights starting to twinkle across the strait. What could be better than this?