Be it fresh fish, pastries or long-lost Ottoman recipes, the Turkish capital promises a culinary delight.
Istanbul's Bosphorus feast boasts an international menu
If proof of a city's culinary prowess came from its Michelin rating, then Istanbul would be just a minnow. It was only last year that the city earned its first Michelin star. But this Spice Route hub has never needed outsiders to tell it how good it is. Locals have known for centuries that this is one of the world's tastiest food cities.
It's late at night and I don't have a reservation, but in a place like Istanbul, it really doesn't matter. My midnight food walk starts at Taksim Square, a meeting point, a traffic roundabout, and - for many visitors - a first taste of Istanbul. This is where buses from the airport arrive, and it used to be a bit of a backpacker haunt. Underneath florescent tubes in glass cabinets is the student meal of choice - the wet burger. If you like cheap meat in soggy bread, then this is the dish for you.
I have my eyes on something far more satisfying. But first, I need to brave the crowds on Istiklal Caddesi. This is Istanbul's main shopping street, and despite the late hour, it is heaving. I am shoulder to shoulder, being washed along in this great sea of people who seem to be going nowhere and doing nothing. Then I spot it - the unnamed tea shop halfway along the street. It is a struggle to get out of the traffic flow, but I manage and duck into the Formica-table dive and order a plate of kiymali. The chef chops up the huge spiral of flaky pastry filled with mince meat at super speed and brings it over with a sweet mint tea. It is greasy, crumbly, and incredibly filling. I'm not going to finish the plate, because this is only the first course.
As I reach the end of Istiklal, the crowds thin out before the cobbled street leads down to the Bosphorus. The Galata Bridge is a fish-lover's heaven. Seafood restaurants line the lower passageway across the water. Pick your fish from the displays outside and then take a table by the water. I'm in search of something even more simple, though: balik ekmek.
As I reach the other side of the bridge, I spot a neon-lit boat bobbing up and down by the water's edge. I walk up to the boat, hand over my cash, and a whole mackerel in fresh, crusty bread is thrown over to me. This is lively, street-side dining. Grab one of the tiny tables, squeeze some lemon juice on to the fresh fish, and then wait for one of the passing juice sellers to catch your eye.
For dessert, I walk behind the nearby Orient Express terminus, now sadly marred by a petrol station built right in front of it. It is here that I find Hafiz Mustafa, one of the city's oldest patisseries. It has been around since 1864, when it may have welcomed travellers stepping off the train from Paris. I head upstairs to the beautifully tiled tea room for their amazing dark chocolate-covered baklawa. Sugar doused in sugar, the perfect end to a night filled with food tastier than what I have eaten in some Michelin-starred restaurants.
The next morning, I am out early to grab a simit, a crunchy bagel, that is the Istanbullus' commuter breakfast of choice. I pick up my one lira breakfast from an old man selling his wares out of a beautiful antique red cart at one of the Bosphorus ports. At one time, the simit men of each neighbourhood would collect their bread from the local firin (bakery), and then cart it around the streets, plying for commuter trade, a bit like newspaper boys going on their morning rounds.
One of the most important was the Cihangir firin, hidden downhill from Istiklal Caddesi. But it fell into disrepair, and was bought by one of the city's most exciting chefs. Dilara Erbay is the woman behind one of Istanbul's most celebrated restaurants, Abracadabra. There were queues out of the door every evening. But Erbay was uncomfortable with the success. She wanted to go back to her hippie roots for her new project, so she moved into Cihangir, a boho neighbourhood of artist squats, workers' cafes and streetside fruit and veg stalls and set up Datli Maya.
All of her ingredients are bought locally. Today, she's serving an artichoke kofte. A few days earlier, she made octopus biryani. But it is the kebab that really grabs my attention. Freshly baked, doughy bread from the oven down below, tender lamb, and fresh vegetables. It's everything that late-night European snack that goes by the name of "kebab" is not. I follow this with pide, a flat bread covered in homemade goats cheese brought by one of the chefs from her hometown in south-eastern Turkey. It is washed down with the finest glass of lemonade I have tasted outside of Damascus. "I rebel against industrial production. I don't call myself a chef, it's an insult," she says with a laugh. "They're kitchen slaves, I'm not."
And if she's not a chef, then this is not a restaurant. At Datli Maya, to get to your table, you need to walk behind the oven, climb a tiny, winding set of stairs, and pass through the heart of the kitchen. It feels like you are eating in your friend's bedroom.
Every week, Erbay holds a themed food night. "Last week we had a whole stuffed baby goat, cooked in the oven for five hours," she says. "We put it on Facebook and the event sold out straight away."
Erbay keeps her prices low to make sure locals who rarely eat out can afford to take a place next to international, jetsetting fans of Istanbul's rebellious superstar chef.
You are more likely to find the rich kids eating further up the Bosphorus. Just down the road from the villas of Bebek is Arnavutkoy, the place where the Porsche drivers come to spend their money. This little cobble-street hamlet is known for its fine dining. So it is no surprise that Time Out magazine's best restaurant in Istanbul is here. What is surprising is that this year's winner, Antica Locanda, is an Italian eatery.
Chef Gian Carlo Talerico is something of a purist, and he says it's been a battle to convince Turks to stop asking for pizza. "Other Italian restaurants are Italian by name only, the pasta is overcooked. I make it al dente, some people don't like it, but that's the way it is," he says with a shrug. "I fight every single day."
The food was worth the arguments. The simple starter of boiled asparagus in butter and parmesan is delicate, and is served with the sweetest, lightest olive oil I have ever tasted. Talerico's special recipe of roasted and caramelised chicken breast in raspberry sauce is one of the highlights of the menu. But it is the bucatini, a Genoa penne served with a homemade pesto creme that is the best dish I have eaten in Istanbul. And yes, I am aware how controversial that statement will be in one of the world's great food cities.
The trouble is that Arnavutkoy is a 30-minute taxi ride out of town. It is unlikely to be discovered by tourists reluctant to stray far from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The area with the most tourist sites, Sultanahmet, is foodie-hell. It is populated by tourist-trap restaurants serving set "tourist menus". These are thrust into your face by over-eager staff standing on the street. The one exception is Karakol, hidden inside the Topkapi Palace. And unlike the nearby restaurants, Karakol seems determined to stop me getting in.
"You'll have to get past the armed guards," Hilmi Akcay, assistant manager of the Karakol Restaurant tells me cryptically. "Call me if you have any problems." It sounds more like a message to a spy than an invitation to dinner.
Nervously, I walk into the deserted Topkapi Palace grounds after closing time. "Stop," a guard orders me. "The palace is closed." When I give him Akcay's details he reluctantly lets me through. After three and a half years of hard work, this former Ottoman police station was converted from an abandoned building into an elegant eatery. And fittingly, they're serving the type of food that would have been on the menu back then. "When people think about Turkish cuisine, it's all about kebabs," says Akcay. "Our owner found dishes from the original Ottoman recipe books."
It is the cheese sea bass that is the winner for me. Caught fresh from the Bosphorus, it's cooked with shrimp and tomato sauce and served with melted local feta. Alongside ancient dishes like that is, unfortunately, a range of dull mezzes because tourists are unadventurous, apparently. There aren't many tourists around, though: the place is deadly quiet. Maybe they were scared off by the guards.
At the Istanbul Culinary Institute, the atmosphere is very different. Chefs are shouting across the open-plan kitchen and the evening cookery class is about to begin. In addition to hosting amateur classes for visitors who have fallen in love with the local cuisine, the Institute is home to one of the city's best chef schools.
Even if you don't want to get your hands dirty, this place is an education in local food. The à la carte changes every month, and the set menu every day. "It's a very busy menu for a restaurant like ours but we want our students to practise with as many dishes as possible," says founder Hande Bozdogan.
"This is an apprenticeship restaurant but some of the stuff you find here is maybe better than what you can find in a top level restaurant," she says. The result is a crowd of local diners who are in search of some of the city's best food, rather than Istanbul's most showy surroundings.
And just maybe, this chef school will earn the city a few more much-deserved Michelin stars.
If you go
The flight Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Istanbul cost from Dh1,830, including
The stay The new A’jia Hotel (www.ajiahotel.com; 00 90 216 413 9300), right by the water’s edge, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus is a lovely white-washed Ottoman mansion. Double rooms cost from €275 (Dh1,300)
The set menu at Datli Maya (www.datlimaya.com; 00 90 212 292 9056) costs 20TL (Dh40).
Main courses at Antica Locanda (www.anticalocanda.com.tr; 00 90 212 287 9745) are 32TL-50TL (Dh64-Dh100).
Dinner for two at Karakol (www.karakolrestaurant.com; 00 90 212 514 9494) costs around 150TL (Dh300).
You can eat for 50TL (Dh100) per person at the Istanbul Culinary Institute (www.istanbulculinary.com; 00 90 212 251 2214), with one-to-one cookery classes from 480TL (Dh961)