Joe Mortimer discovers that one particular restaurant in Istanbul is giving traditional Turkish dining a modern makeover
Planted at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Istanbul’s culinary canon is the product of 2,000 years of modern history. The Greeks, Persians and Romans all claimed the city for their own over the years, from the era of ancient Byzantium to its halcyon days as prosperous Constantinople, when much of the world’s trade flowed through the city and with it, the tastes of those who passed by.
While empires rose and fell, Istanbul’s gastronomic repertoire evolved and grew. Spices arrived from the Far East and India, grilled meats and sticky sweets from Mesopotamia and the Levant, fresh fish from the Black Sea, vegetables, olives and wine from the Balkans and Mediterranean, hearty stews from the Caucasus, and eventually, potatoes and tomatoes from the Americas. All made their mark on the Turkish kitchen, but it was the Ottomans who made the most indelible impression on the city and its epicurean history, renaming it Istanbul and refining the smorgasbord of regional influences into the distinct Turkish style that we recognise today.
In modern-day Istanbul, the bustling streets are a theatre of culinary creativity. High-end restaurants overlooking the Bosporus pride themselves on the traditional Ottoman ‘palace cuisine’ created in the vast kitchens of the Topkapi Palace 500 years ago. More modest venues serve wonderful, humble dishes that form the backbone of Turkish casual dining: cheese, meat or vegetable-topped breads like pide and lahmacun, and hearty kebabs overflowing with grilled lamb and beef. Café windows reveal trays full of borek (filled filo pastries), while bakeries display rows of golden baklava (nut and syrup-covered sweet pastry treats) and colourful mounds of fragrant lokum, the aptly named Turkish Delight; while street vendors hawk bags of roasted chestnuts and warm crusty simit, the ubiquitous sesame seed-covered bagels seen all over the city.
Somewhere between the lofty heights of palace dining and the simple but delicious street food is a collection of dishes that makes up an entire chapter of the Turkish culinary encyclopaedia: mezze. Every great civilization has a type of food designed for sharing, and in Turkey, they have made it an art form. Despite the bevvy of dining options in Istanbul, families still often eat at home and it’s usually mezze that brings them together.
It’s with mezze in mind that I arrive at Fairmont Quasar Istanbul in the upmarket Mecidiyeköy business district for dinner at Aila, the hotel’s sleek and stylish signature restaurant that promises a modern take on traditional mezze and a crash course on the Turkish kitchen.
Arriving through Aila’s private elevator, accessed via a dedicated door next to the main hotel entrance, guests step out into the Raki Bar, a sea of marble with warm golden accents that stocks a head-spinning variety of the aniseed-flavoured elixir. Part Byzantine palace, part contemporary bar, the anteroom is a wonderful place to start the evening.
Love it or hate it, raki is Turkey’s national drink, a variety of the spirit found throughout Europe and Asia in many forms: pastis in France, ouzo in Greece, arak in the Levant and sambuca in student bars all over the world. Known colloquially as aslan sütü (lion’s milk) the clear spirit turns milky white with the addition of water, which dilutes the high-proof spirit to make it more palatable. The strong, sweet flavour of aniseed is known to cut through the rich, unctuous and often heavy Turkish cuisine, and its properties as an aperitif are useful when settling in for a long mezze session, all of which makes it the perfect accompaniment to dining at Aila.
The larger of the two dining rooms is a bright, open space with soaring ceilings and walls clad in marble and dark wood, with a standalone mezze bar where rows of mason jars packed with colourful pickles are stacked high in backlit shelves. The effect is a modern Ottoman temple of gastronomy, forming a palatial backdrop to live culinary performances each evening, and cooking classes and private events during the day.
On the far side of the Raki Bar is a more intimate dining area, with dark walls and heavy drapes, where a DJ spins contemporary Turkish tunes throughout the evening. Behind an ocakbaşi wood-fired grill, Chef de Cuisine Emre Inanir and his brigade work in an open-plan kitchen that hums with activity, adding some human theatre to the nightly spectacle.
Though the menu is inspired by regional food from all over the country, there’s nothing rustic about the presentation of the vibrantly hued plates that begin to arrive at my table. Borani is a dish of strained yoghurt with green pepper and parsley oil that’s usually served in a bowl for dipping. Here, the borani has been shaped into a set roundel and embellished with jagged shards of frozen yoghurt, adding crunch and texture, and a wow factor at the table.
It’s not the only plate given a modern twist. The black carrot tarator is a fresh take on the traditional Anatolian dish: a creamy garlic and strained yoghurt dip turned mauve by the dark vegetable, topped with a bundle of crispy carrot slivers.
The hummus is flavoured with mushroom dust and truffle oil, while the vibrant purple kisir – a rich medley of bulgur wheat with orange sauce, sumac molasses and beetroot – is a piece of edible pop art that leaps off the table. Garlicy eggplant kopoglu is slow-cooled for a deep rich flavour, and the addition of sumac and pomegranate molasses to a tomato, red onion and walnut salad is an absolute triumph, adding a bright, fresh dimension to the first round of mezze.
Legend has it that Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet created piraye – a sauce of slow-cooked tomato puree and pine kernels, served with a homemade yoghurt cheese – for his wife, Piraye, while he was a political prisoner. While I lament the man’s plight, I’m grateful for his contribution to the mezze oeuvre: a delicious creation that I greedily scoop up with hunks of fresh-baked bread.
When they’re not performing in the kitchen during a busy service, the affable Chef Emre and his close-knit team spend their time exploring the chemistry of Turkish cooking, experimenting with traditional flavours and ingredients to see how far dishes can be enhanced and modernised. The results of their work can be seen in the Spice Library, a studious space behind the main dining room where more than 100 spices and homemade seasonings are displayed in tall glass jars or packed into drawers like the merchant stalls of the city’s Spice Bazaar.
Alongside the familiar labels like cinnamon, turmeric and peppercorns are some of the more exotic spices used in Turkish cuisine, like sumac, mastic and dusted rose. There are spices for sherbet – the sweet beverage that can be enjoyed hot or cold – like tamarind and star anise, and others recommended for infusions such as marjoram, hibiscus and juniper. All can be purchased to take-away, or simply admired during a break between courses.
But it’s the Signature Spices that stand out: a selection of powders and rubs created in Aila’s kitchens that isolate powerful flavours like black kalamata olives, porcini mushrooms or red beetroot. Serving suggestions provide inspiration and guidance on which powders will liven up a salad or brighten up a dessert. Want to sass up your fruit-based cocktail? How about some quince powder to give it a tart finish? It’s a creative and playful concept that demonstrates the great lengths Aila’s chefs are going to incorporate fresh takes on traditional ingredients into the modern home dining repertoire.
Back at the table, I’m wowed by thin slices of lamb’s heart with little savoury boregi (filo pastry puffs) and awed by zucchini flower lalanga (deep-fried batter balls usually served for breakfast) stuffed with roasted sea bass and fennel tarama. The crunch and crispiness of these hot mezze dishes take the meal in a new direction, playing with the texture and temperature to create new taste sensations.
Beautiful buttery sea bass is served with nutmeg fennel cream, Jerusalem artichoke and spinach root, and the perfectly cooked beef tenderloin in bone marrow sauce comes with a bulgur pilaff and eggplant yoghurt. After such an extensive parade, there’s no room for dessert, but a potent Turkish coffee rounds off the experience with a bittersweet flourish: a punchy end to a meal full of surprises and style.
Aila Dokuzsekliz, to give the restaurant its full name, pays tribute to the roots of Turkish dining and culture: Aila was a popular girl’s name in the late 1970s and 80s and ‘dokuz sekliz’ refers to the 9/8-beat tempo that’s often used in the country’s traditional music. But while the restaurant celebrates the wealth of heritage, the approach taken by Chef Emre and his team is modern and forward thinking, driven by a desire to ignite fresh interest in Turkish food.
It’s a modern and artistic menu that tells a story: a kaleidoscopic selection of beautifully presented dishes that bring this time-honoured fare firmly into the modern age. With restaurants like Aila and chefs like Emre writing new chapters in Istanbul’s epic culinary history, it’s clear that the future of Turkish cuisine is in safe hands.