The food scene in Istanbul is as hot as the politics right now. There is some seriously good food to be had if you know where to get it. Lokanta Maya is a very popular restaurant in Istanbul and allegedly hard to secure a reservation. Yet I had simply emailed a few days before and received a speedy response confirming a table for 4 on a Saturday night. We were lucky perhaps, unlike the constant stream of people turned away at the door.
Istanbul is nothing if not a city of contrasts. Lokanta Maya is situated in a rather rundown neighbourhood which itself is overlooked by enormous cruise liners, the size of small cities. Poverty and wealth rub shoulders here so a pre- dinner stroll around the neighbourhood did not prepare us for the sleek and elegant restaurant we would later encounter. Some might prefer a pre-prandial kir royale, but we chose a glass of chai perched on plastic stools overlooking the harbour at Karakoy, watching the fishermen in the evening sunshine.
From here it was a few steps to Lokanta Maya and a new experience of Turkish cuisine.
The chef, Didem Senol, trained as a psychologist before pursuing her culinary training in New York. Her aim is to update traditional Turkish food and present if with a contemporary twist. I paged through her beautiful cookbook, Aegean Flavours, while we waited for our food and could not resist adding it to the bill at the end of the evening.
I had read rapturous reviews of the courgette fritters which were light and lovely with their refined tzatziki. The octopus salad – tiny pieces of octopus with morsels of toasted bread and strips of orange zest – was very a pick me up on the tongue. The fried ox liver with gently pickled pink onions took me straight back to much enjoyed liver dishes from my childhood.
But it was the updated stuffed vine leaves that were triumphant. A gently charred flavour from the grilled halloumi that was draped in a vine leaf, topped with a strawberry coulis that added just a hint of sweetness.
Main courses were just as good. My caramelised sea bass with roasted pear boasted a wafer thin caramel crust, the best bit of bass I can recall eating. The details of how to make this dish are in the cookbook so I hope to at least make a stab at recreating this fabulous fish. The accompanying stirfried chard was brilliant – slightly charred and wonderfully garlicky.
Other dishes included a sea bream in papilotte with a mound of fresh mint, the fish moist inside its wrapper.
A tenderloin of beef kept one son happy while the other polished off his medallions of chicken on potato puree.
By now we were delighted with our meal and ploughed straight on with the dessert menu. We passed our spoons around each other’s plates tasting a rich chocolate mousse with a scoop of coffee ice cream, mulberry tart, a lemon ice cream sandwiched between two sugar wafers and topped with strawberry sauce, and a geranium mastic ice cream.
As happens so often in fine restaurants, one’s expectations are sky high by the time dessert is served and somehow the momentum is not always sustained. Or perhaps we were just too full by then and our tastebuds over sated.
All was not lost though as almost next door, underneath a multi storey carpark, is some of the best baklava in Istanbul and well, well, well worth seeking out.
The first mouthful had me groaning with pleasure and I am not even a great lover of baklava. We bought boxes full and even returned a few days later to restock. Karakoy Gulluoglu has been in business since 1820 and produces every variety you could ever need. They keep up with the times and even sell gluten free baklava and light baklava with reduced calories and added omega 3s! The chocolate baklava alone was worth the plane ticket. And as for the pistachio!
On our return to London we were presented with baklava at the end of a Turkish meal. My son, he with the sweet tooth, surprised me by turning it down. Why? I enquired. ‘Because it’s not from the Istanbul shop’, he replied. ‘Once you’ve tasted the best why eat anything else?’