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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cultures Meet at Dinner

On the top floor of Istanbul's Marmara Pera hotel, the restaurant Mikla serves a dish that, at first glance, may look like a simple upgrading of a Turkish standard: smoked lamb loin with a side of white-bean puree -- tasty enough, to be sure, but perhaps nothing special.

The smoking technique used by the chef, Mehmet Gurs, is unusual, however. It's Finnish, usually applied to reindeer and, as it happens, an old family recipe. Its presence on Mikla's menu pretty much sums up today's food scene in Istanbul: international but local, forward-thinking but deeply rooted and, above all, delicious.

"It's just like New York: a mix of different cultures," said Gurs, who grew up in Stockholm before settling in Istanbul in 1996. His -- and Turkey's -- culinary influences span Armenia, Greece, the Middle East, the Black Sea region and beyond to create a cuisine that resembles all, but replicates none. "Everything gets mixed up in Istanbul."

Alexander Nikolayev / Itar-Tass
Istanbul's contemporary food scene is international but local, forward-thinking but deeply rooted and, above all, delicious.
Yet despite that profusion of identities, Istanbul, a city whose population is put anywhere from 10 million to 15 million, feels like a singular city, intent on its own development. Never mind the fluctuating prospect of European Union membership, the Kurdish rebellion and the erosion of secular government, Istanbul has eco-skyscrapers to erect, cold-water fish to grill, wine to consume and a whopping big party to throw, with any and all invited. No wonder that Wallpaper magazine called Istanbul "the world's best city," or that international restaurants are setting up shop, including Hakkasan by the London restaurateur Alan Yau and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Spice Market.

As it has for generations, seafood is still grilled and fried down Istanbul's alleyways, meze and raki are consumed in equal measure and with equal enthusiasm, and old-school restaurants like Beyti -- a temple of meat frequented by everyone from prime ministers to tennis pros -- not only survive but thrive. But even some traditionalists are modernizing. Konyali, which serves the cuisine of the central-Turkish city of Konya, opened a branch at Kanyon, a chic new shopping center, and gave itself a design face lift, with a semi-open kitchen and a cosmopolitan flair that belies the restaurant's 110-year history in Istanbul.

Alexander Nikolayev / Itar-Tass
A tea seller in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, one of the world's largest covered markets.
Meanwhile, new dining concepts are steadily entering the Turkish vocabulary. "The trend I see nowadays is more towards the organic. I see a lot of people choosing local produce," said Cenk Sonmezsoy, who blogs about the city's food scene at

Istanbul's newest and most creative restaurants, he said, gather their produce from local farmers in different regions. The result is restaurants like Changa and Ciya.

The former, housed in the Sakip Sabanci Museum, has a reputation for creative combinations, updating floss halva, a sweet snack often served in train stations, by adding poached pears and buffalo-milk mastic ice cream.

At Ciya, the chef, Musa Dagdeviren, is gaining a reputation for his way with obscure vegetables like goosefoot and mallow.

"I have been living in Turkey for the most part of my life, and I have never heard of them!" Sonmezsoy said. "The local people are just gathering them from these fields and sending them."

Some ingredients, however, are more familiar, like Ciya's stuffed dried eggplant, which Sonmezsoy said he would eat as part of his last meal on Earth.

Later, he added in an e-mail message that he would finish up with Ciya's kerebic, a doughy dessert "filled with pistachios and served with a white foam which is made from the root of a local tree in Antakya" -- the city known in antiquity as Antioch. The foam aids digestion, he wrote, "and no matter how much you eat there, after this dessert you feel like you can eat the whole restaurant again." A fitting end in a city where you'll want to do just that.