Michelin Stars Shine on a New Gastrocity: Istanbul
Story & photos by Buzzy Gordon
The renowned Michelin Guide has finally discovered what visitors to Istanbul since the days it was known as Constantinople have always known: that Turkish cuisine – which, by virtue of the Ottoman Empire, has influenced kitchens across two continents – is among the finest in the world. This fall, the French publication that has come to define culinary excellence around the world bestowed an array of honors on no fewer than 53 establishments deemed worthy of Michelin approval.
Among these are five establishment that earned coveted Michelin stars, including one that was honored with two stars – a rare achievement for a first-time winner. All five restaurants are located on the European side of the sprawling megacity that straddles the Bosphorus and extends into Asia as well.
The two-star winner is TURK Fatih Tutak, helmed by Chef Fatih Tutak, who trained and then headed up Michelin-star restaurants in the Far East and Europe before returning to Turkey and opening his fine dining restaurant not long ago, in 2019. The restaurant became famous not only for its outstanding menu, but also for its trademark dessert, served in the open kitchen.
Joining TURK Fatih Tutak in the Michelin constellation are four newly crowned one-star restaurants:
Araka, the only one helmed by a woman chef, Zeynep Pınar Taşdemir; Mikla, whose menu is inspired by Anatolian traditions; Neolokal, which similarly celebrates innovations on dishes of Anatolian origin; and Chef Serkan Aksoy’s Nicole, whose contemporary Mediterranean cuisine is served on a terrace with a magnificent view of the Old Town.
Neolokal also won a Michelin Green Star, a new award created by the guide in 2020 to reward restaurants dedicated to the principle of sustainable gastronomy. Neolokal earned this distinction, according to Michelin, by virtue of its eco-friendly efforts and initiatives.
Other special honors bestowed by Michelin in Istanbul were the Michelin Service Award and the Young Chef Award. The former went to the Sunset Grill & Bar team, for providing outstanding service and comfort to diners, while the latter was conferred on up-and-coming Chef Mevlüt Özkaya, aged 33, who presides over the wood-fire kitchen at Mürver.
Next, ten Istanbul restaurants were awarded commendation in the Bib Gourmand category, which recognizes value-for-money – i.e., eateries that offer great food at reasonable prices. This popular distinction went to a cohort arguably topped by Alaf, a fine dining restaurant that celebrates the seven regions of Turkish cuisine, alongside creative cocktails – and also operates the more casual annex with colorful sidewalk tables, Alaf (2 Tek).
Other Bib Gourmand winners were: Pandeli, located just above the Egyptian Bazaar, and notable for its blue ceramic decor; Karaköy Lokantasi, in particular for its delicious mezze; Aheste, by Chef Volkan Türe, specializing in (but not only) vegetarian dishes;
Tershane, with panoramic views and excellent roasted meat; Giritli, known for its extensive classical and modern mezze menu; Calipso, on the Asian side city, serving fresh fish and seafood; Cuma, serving Mediterranean and globally inspired cuisine; SADE Beş Denizler Mutfağı, offering Anatolian snacks in addition to more copious meals; and lastly, Aman da Bravo, representing modern bistronomy in a typically Turkish context.
Finally, 38 restaurants were found worthy of inclusion in the Michelin Guide Istanbul 2023, a worthy recommendation in and of itself. Among this group, many reflect the diversity of Istanbul’s cosmopolitan culinary scene, including Asian (primarily Japanese and Thai), Italian and international cuisines.
Of particular note among these 38 are: Çok Çok Thai, whose native Thai chef creates true delicacies served both in the casual eatery and the nearby upscale bar; 1924 Istanbul, a retro Russian restaurant – with great food and distinctive infused vodkas – that is also an historic landmark, with the table where Ataturk (the father of the modern Turkish republic) used to dine still preserved as a shrine; Sans, whose Dutch chef and collaborator wife do wonders with the freshest of ingredients; and Spago, the Istanbul outpost of the Wolfgang Puck empire.
The full selection of the Michelin Guide Istanbul is available free of charge on the Michelin Guide website and app.
With all due respect to the hard-working Michelin inspectors, it is not possible to scout out all the worthwhile restaurants in this city of some 20 million inhabitants, especially not the smaller neighborhood ones that might be worthy of Bib Gourmand status. So here are two recommendations from this writer, both in narrow lanes off the main, bustling pedestrian thoroughfare Istiklal Street: Ficcin, an all-day eatery specializing in Anatolian and Circassian fare, and Asmali Cavit Restaurant & Meyhane – a traditional raki (the Turkish national spirit, akin to ouzo) house, where expertly prepared mezze accompany the drink of choice.
Of course, one does not eat in restaurants every day, let alone Michelin-related ones. Even here, Istanbul has you covered: the city’s street food scene is one of the most vibrant in the world, ranging from filling sandwiches and savory snacks to quick bites and sweet treats. You will find food stalls and tiny eateries in virtually every neighborhood, and it’s pretty easy to spot the good ones: just look for the ones with the longest lines.
One of the most iconic local street foods is doner kebab, ubiquitous slabs of seasoned meat that rotate slowly on a vertical rotisserie – a familiar site to Israelis, who will recognize it as shawarma. In Turkey, doner kebab is usually made from beef, although many places also serve a very white chicken version, with lamb doner kebab a distant third (and turkey versions simply non-existent).
One of the most renowned places for doner kebab is Karadeniz, on the main street of the market area of Besiktas. A popular institution since 1973 (the year is heralded on the sign, making the place easy to identify), it closes early – at 17.00 or when they are sold out, whichever comes first. Karadeniz has no tables and does not even serve drinks – but the bar next door will let you bring your wrap inside with you, if you want to wash it down with a cold beer.
Another delicacy found in abundance in Besiktas, as elsewhere, is midye dolma – stuffed mussels, which has no counterpart elsewhere in the Middle East, The piles of hot mussels stuffed with seasoned rice can often be seen on huge stand-alone trays, but if you’d like to sit down and take your time while enjoying these tasty morsels, check out the corner eatery Midyeci Yasin, where you have the tantalizing choice of regular, spicy, or curry flavored midye dolma.
For a sweet dessert, look no further on the same street for the stands selling candied pumpkin, or halwa – warm semolina cake, with your choice of chopped nuts, topped with a scoop of ice cream. Not to mention rahat lokum, or Turkish delight, the chewy candy that comes in many more colorful fruit and nut flavors than can be imagined from the limited selection found internationally.
Street food in Istanbul ranges from the universal to the exotic: in the former category, portable grills can be found on many corners selling charred corn on the cob, while vendors with trays of roasted chestnuts can be spotted all over town.
On the opposite end of the universality spectrum, kokoreç is a uniquely Turkish invention: spiced sheep intestines, grilled on small horizontal spits. This writer admittedly did not have the intestinal fortitude to try the offal, but he can recommend tantuni, spicy julienned beef fried in cotton oil. Like doner kebab, both these delicacies are wrapped in tortilla-like soft wheat discs called durum.
Tantuni is sold on an amazing street in the neighborhood of Karakoy which is a must for any foodie visiting Istanbul: Kemankes, a narrow lane parallel to the Bosphorus that is lined with terrific eateries, ranging from a soup place selling more than a dozen hearty varieties, to a well-known bakery where you can enjoy simit – sesame-encrusted bagel rings – hot from the oven.
In addition, perhaps the longest lines here in the early evening are in front of (and across the street from) a stand selling freshly grilled fish (usually mackerel) sandwiches on thick hoagie-style rolls. This treat can also be enjoyed more atmospherically in Eminonu, a scenic walk from Karakoy across the Galata Bridge spanning the famous Golden Horn. Once you have arrived on the Historic Peninsula, specifically on the waterfront at the bottom of the Grand Bazaar, you will find tables packed with people eating these sandwiches that come straight off the boats bobbing on the waters of the fabled inlet leading to the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara.
Last but not least, Karakoy’s Kemankes Street is also home to arguably the city’s most revered temple of baklava, Gulluoglu, where master bakers painstakingly prepare the imperial pastry comprising no fewer than 40 layers of flaky phyllo dough. In the establishment’s new two-story showroom one may sample an entire world of baklava, with versions both sweet and savory, and even gluten-free and sugar-free options.
Finally, finishing out the carb category of Turkish street food found everywhere are pilav, rice cooked in chicken broth and topped with chickpeas (or possibly shredded chicken); pide, boat-shaped pizza-like treats (akin to the Georgian khachapuri); and of course, borek, akin to a savory cheese-filled mille feuille, and often called on English menus in the capital “cheese pie.”
Over the course of a 40-year career that has spanned more than 80 countries, award-winning journalist Buzzy Gordon has been a reporter, editor, and travel writer on five continents. His work has appeared in USA Today (where he was a regular travel columnist), National Geographic Traveler, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among other leading publications. Buzzy is the author of Frommer’s Jerusalem Day by Day Guide and a contributor to publications in Israel and the United States.