The Ottoman Empire lasted 623 years and spanned three continents at its height. Its heart was Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, a beautiful Turkish city that bridges Europe with Asia, where the influences of East and West meet in art and architecture.
But on a recent visit to Istanbul, I discovered that the Ottoman's also created a distinct tradition of food -- not the Turkish kebab that most people associate with the region, but an exquisite menu of eclectic ingredients.
Many restaurants along the Istikal pedestrian mall or in the touristy neighborhood of Sultanahmet offer a sampling of Ottoman cuisine. But if you want to try some of the very best on offer, you should head to the Four Seasons Hotel in the shadow of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia, which is now a museum. Executive Chef Mehmet Gok and his team won first prize in a recent competition in Amasya, where strict rules for ingredients were enforced. The Seasons Restaurant, situated in the hotel's interior courtyard, offers a tasting menu.
"Keeping loyal to the information we found through our research, we combined the special tastes of the past with the modern techniques and decoration items of today," writes in his presentation to diners.
The appetizers were a selection of garden vegetables filled with rice, something many might associate with vine leaves in a Turkish or Greek restaurant. But here the vegetables were green cherry tomatoes, shallots, leeks and green bean leaves with sour cherries. The dish can be dated back to the 15th century when quince, chestnuts or fresh items were stuffed with rice. The flavors of the vegetables are not overpowered by strong sauces or heavily seasoned rice. The presentation is symmetrical, with the tiny tops replaced on the cheery tomatoes and shallots, the green bean leaves propped up by stuffed leeks.
In Italy, you would refer to the next course as the "primo piato," or the pasta course. Gok offers a "manti plate two ways," another beautifully presented dish of the Ottoman version of raviolis. The bottom manti is long and thin and filled with delicious porcini mushrooms and dried aged yogurt. The mushrooms are incredibly flavorful. On top, three ravioli-like manti filled with minced meat. The red and green sauce that stretches across the plate resembles a music staff; the manti are the notes. In Ottoman times, the dried yogurt was packed in salt to make it available throughout the year.
From Prison to Twice-Baked Cheese
For the main course, lamb shanks with prunes. According to Gok, the Ottomans consumed a great deal of lamb and game. Beef and seafood were less common and considered peasant food. Traditionally, the lamb would have dried fruits added to bring out the flavor of the meats. At this meal, the lamb has been stripped from the bone and chopped into small pieces. It was then pressed into a small round compote dish to form its shape, and is topped with a puree of prunes. It looks like a dessert when it arrives at the table, and it explodes in your mouth with a fruit and spice flavor that is fantastic.
The Four Seasons Sultanahmet opened in the past few years. The building was formally a prison in Constantinople, one made famous worldwide when the 1978 film "Midnight Express" was partially filmed on location here. That movie made a huge impression on me some 30 years ago. I sat sipping a very good Turkish white wine, Kav, while describing the scenes from the movie to my wife. It only added to the enjoyment of the evening.
Our hostess, Pinar, and the wait staff were very attentive and friendly. I had to smile when we realized a mistake with the restaurant iPod created an evening of Christmas music -- which I love anyway -- in juxtaposition to the call to prayer we could hear from the two nearby famous mosques.
Dessert was described on the menu as "twice-baked cheese" but it was much more than that. Similar to an Italian tiramisu, it was a combination of layers of pastry alternated with ricotta cheese doused with a syrup and covered with powered coffee. It was quite rich, but very good. During the height of the Empire, desserts would have been made from dried fruits and honey with some flour or semolina based pastry. Cheese was a luxury item reserved for palace menus. Gok has combined the best of both for an excellent end to the tasting menu.
It was a special occasion for my wife and me, so we were planning to splurge a bit anyway, but I was quite surprised at how reasonable it was, considering that we were in a beautiful hotel in an exceptional city.
The drinks we had on the terrace overlooking the city and the Sea of Marmara before dinner were a little pricey, but the dinner for two with a bottle of wine was about $100 a person. For the beautiful surroundings, the "Midnight Express" memory, the Christmas music and the history lesson, it was well worth it.