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Michelin’s stars for Istanbul are late but welcome

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By Bobby Ghosh

ANNOUNCING the Michelin Guide’s first list of Istanbul restaurants recently, Gwendal Poullennec, the international director for the guides, said the city’s culinary scene had “simply astounded our team.” Me, I’m astounded that they were astounded — and that it took Michelin this long to bestow its attention on one of the world’s preeminent gastronomic capitals.

Istanbul, the seat of the highly epicurean Byzantine and Ottoman empires, has had fair claim to that title for well-nigh 1,700 years, many centuries longer than most of the cities that Michelin has deemed worthy of its imprimatur. That Washington — no, seriously, Washington — got a guide before Istanbul should make you stop and ponder about Poullennec’s priorities. (And while you’re at it, chew on the irony that the first list for the American capital included, in the “Bib Gourmand” category, a Turkish restaurant.) 

From its earliest days as Constantinople, the city’s cuisine was a fusion of Roman, Greek and Persian influences. The fermented fish sauce known as garum, now extolled as a delicacy by top chefs like Rene Redzepi of Noma, was in common use. After it became Istanbul, Turkish and Arab tastes were grafted onto the gastronomic scene. In her magisterial 2017 biography of the city, historian Bettany Hughes notes that caviar was introduced there in the 12th century.

Thinking back over trips to Istanbul across the best part of two decades, I can recall dozens of world-class meals on both sides of the Bosphorus, ranging from traditional Turkish fare in Ciya Sofrasi to the more inventive indulgences of Changa, alas now closed. High or low, cheap or dear, Istanbul’s culinary scene has always had an abundance of choice. If a visitor had any cause for cavil, it was over the relative scarcity of good non-Turkish options; but an upwelling of fine European and Asian eateries is plugging this gap.

Whether for my money or my expense account, Istanbul is even-steven with Dubai (which got its Michelin guide this past summer) as the two best food cities in the Middle East and its periphery.

All that said, does it even matter whether or not Istanbul has Michelin’s sanction? It does, in three ways.

First, and most obvious, it will boost tourism. Gourmands around the globe take their travel cues from the Michelin guides; in the past week many will have added Istanbul to their itineraries.

Second, the recognition will spur excellence among Istanbul’s chefs: Those who didn’t make the first list of 53 will vie for the honors next year, and the year after that. Many will be especially encouraged by the two stars handed to TURK Fatih Tutak, which has taken the modernizing spirit of Changa to new frontiers. Chef Fatih Tutak’s reimagined mussels “dolma” — in which dried vine leaves are made to appear like the bivalve’s shell — would have pleased the sybarite sultans of old just as much as it would delight Ferran Adria, the godfather of molecular gastronomy. 

Several of the restaurants on the Michelin list have chefs who served an apprenticeship at Changa before it closed in 2013. Most of the others raise the standards of conventional Turkish cooking. My personal favorite in this group is Seraf, on the outskirts of the city, where Chef Sinem Ozler elevates even the humble icli kofte, a kind of meatball, into a thing of beauty. That her restaurant only made the “recommended” category, the lowest on the list, is a miscarriage of gastronomic justice.

The third beneficial impact of the Istanbul guide will be felt far from the city, even the country — in Turkish restaurants around the world. The Michelin stamp confers prestige, not just on a restaurant or city, but on an entire cuisine. Foodies who haven’t yet sampled Turkish fare and can’t get to Istanbul will buy a cookbook to try some dishes at home, or look up Turkish restaurants nearby.

And, here’s the sweetest of ironies: I’m betting more people will be inspired to try that place on the Michelin guide for Washington. — Bloomberg

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz, and international editor at Time.

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