Michelin stars for Istanbul are overdue but welcome

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Announcing the first Michelin Guide list of Istanbul restaurants last week, Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the guides, said the city’s food scene had “simply blown our team away”. I am amazed that they were amazed — and that it took so long for Michelin to turn its attention to one of the world’s most eminent gastronomic capitals.

Istanbul, seat of the highly epicurean Byzantine and Ottoman empires, has claimed this title for almost 1,700 years, several centuries longer than most of the cities Michelin deemed worthy of its imprimatur. That Washington — no, seriously, Washington — has a guide before Istanbul should make you stop and think about Poullennec’s priorities. (And while you’re at it, bite the irony that the first listing in the US capital included, under the “Bib Gourmand” category, a Turkish restaurant.)

From its beginnings as Constantinople, the city’s cuisine was a fusion of Roman, Greek and Persian influences. The fermented fish sauce known as garum, now touted as a delicacy by great chefs like Rene Redzepi of Noma, was in common use. After it became Istanbul, Turkish and Arabic tastes entered the food scene. In her masterful 2017 biography of the town, historian Bettany Hughes notes that caviar was introduced there in the 12th century.

Looking back on travels to Istanbul over the better part of two decades, I recall dozens of world-class meals on both sides of the Bosphorus, ranging from traditional Turkish cuisine at Ciya Sofrasi to the more inventive indulgences of Changa, alas now closed. High or low, cheap or expensive, Istanbul’s food scene has always had an abundance of choice. If any visitor had a reason to get upset, it was about the relative scarcity of good non-Turkish options; but a resurgence of fine European and Asian restaurants is filling that gap.

Whether on my money or my expense account, Istanbul is tied with Dubai (which got its Michelin guide last summer) as the two best foodie cities in and around the Middle East.

That said, does it even matter whether or not Istanbul is sanctioned by Michelin? He does this in three ways.

First, and most obvious, it will boost tourism. Gourmets around the world are inspired by Michelin guides for their travels; 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 compete for top honors next year and the year after. Many will be particularly encouraged by the two stars given to TURK Fatih Tutak, who has propelled Changa’s modernizing spirit to new frontiers. Chef Fatih Tutak’s reinvented mussel ‘dolma’ – in which dried vine leaves are made to resemble the shell of the bivalve – would have pleased the Sybarite sultans of yesteryear as much as it would have delighted Ferran Adria, the godfather of the molecular gastronomy.

Several of the restaurants on the Michelin list have chefs who apprenticed in Changa before it closed in 2013. Most of the others raise the standards of conventional Turkish cuisine. My favorite of this bunch is Seraf, on the outskirts of town, where chef Sinem Ozler even elevates the humble icli kofte, a kind of meatball, into a thing of beauty. That his restaurant only made the “recommended” category, the lowest on the list, is a gastronomic error of justice.

The third beneficial impact of the Istanbul guide will be felt far from the city, or even the country — in Turkish restaurants around the world. The Michelin stamp confers prestige, not only on a restaurant or a city, but on an entire cuisine. Foodies who have not yet tasted Turkish cuisine and cannot travel to Istanbul will buy a cookbook to try dishes at home or look for nearby Turkish restaurants.

And, here’s the sweetest of ironies: I bet more people will be inspired to try this place on the Michelin guide for Washington.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of the Hindustan Times, Editor-in-Chief of Quartz and International Editor of Time.

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