Story and photos by Bo Zaunders
Bosporus view by Manos Angelakis
Marmara Pera Hotel
From Miklagård to Mikla
A bit of Scandinavia in Constantinople/Istanbul
I didn’t know that Istanbul, like Rome, was built on seven hills. Now, ascending a labyrinth of narrow streets, I became keenly aware of that. It was a grey November afternoon, and I was scheduled to meet with Mehmet Gürs, one of Turkey’s most renowned chefs and restaurant owners, at his flagship restaurant, Mikla.
Arriving at the Marmara Pera Hotel, where the restaurant is located, I looked in vain for a sign. But inside I was reassured that I was in the right place. An elevator took me to the 18th floor, and there was Mikla – spacious and elegant, with an open– air terrace and an outstanding view of the city. Nearby rose the Galata Tower and, beyond, the Galata Bridge, spanning the Golden Horn. I counted several famous mosques, beautifully interspersed amidst a mass of buildings in the Old Town, recognizing the Blue Mosque, the Suleymaniye Camli, and YeniCami. The Golden Horn seemed relatively quiet, but the Bosphorus, the mighty waterway that divides Europe and Asia, brimmed with traffic.
Waiting in the bar area for Mehmet to appear, I took note of a textured wall sculpture with a silhouetted figure blowing bubbles, as well as some chairs and lamps, which – for reasons soon to be explained – looked extremely familiar.
And there was Mehmet, a tall good-looking guy in his mid-forties, striding into the bar with all the confidence of a celebrity chef and a man who runs eighteen restaurants. “Hej, hej,” he said, and continued to address me in flawless Swedish. Which brings us to his Scandinavian background. Born in Ekenäs, Finland to a Turkish father and a Finnish-Swedish mother, Mehmet grew up in Stockholm and Istanbul.
“Mikla,” I said after we sat down, “is that from the old Viking word Miklagård?” “Of course,” he said, whereupon we talked a little about the Vikings arriving in Constantinople over a millennium ago. They referred to it as Miklagård (the Great City). Which led the conversation to the Varangian Guard, the Vikings who, instead of plundering, became the Emperor’s private guards.
Curious to know more about Mehmet, I learned that after Stockholm he spent eight years training and working as a chef in the United States and moved to Istanbul in 1996, where he started Downtown, his first restaurant. Picked by “Time Out” as Istanbul’s best restaurant in 2001, it was followed by other award-winning Mehmet Gürs eateries, the most recent and spectacular of which is Mikla.
According to the Diners Club Best Restaurants list, it is one of the top 100 restaurants in the world.
Although the food served at Mikla comes under the heading “New Anatolian Cuisine,” with no Scandinavian influences, the restaurant’s interior, with its clean lines, functionality and understated elegance, struck a Nordic note. I asked about the chairs and lamps, which I had noticed earlier, and sure enough, they were Scandinavian. Some of the chairs were designed by Alvar Aalto; others came from Lammhult, Småland, and the lamps were from Kosta-Boda.
Questioned abouthis approach to cooking, Mehmetbecame quite passionate, dramatically summing up his dictate in three words:“Enkelhet, renalinjer, ingakrusiduller” (simplicity, clean lines, no frills).
A couple days later Roxie and I came for dinner. Though it was only 6pm when we arrived, the restaurant was nearly filled to the last seat. That was note-worthy as, this being off-season, I had seen any number of restaurants appearing to be quite empty.
We were both primed for a great dinner, and were not disappointed. As a first course I chose “Octopus,”complemented with leek, sausage, bean pickle, chestnut, over which was poured the most delicious sauce. Following that I enjoyed “Lamb From The Pot,” apparently an all-time favorite. As for Roxie, she raved about her “Iskenderun Prawns,”which contained the following: Grilled Prawns, Chicken Liver, “Antep” Red Pepper, Blackberry, Olive Oil Braised Sakiz Artichoke, Bolet Mushroom, and Fish Roe.
It was a wonderfully inventive menu, and at the end of our stay I indulged in a sampling of three different desserts: Pumpkin, Black Mulberries, and Sutlac.
At one point Roxie asked our waitress if Mikla’s food was more or less spicy than what you would normally encounter in a Turkish restaurant. “Less spicy,” answered the waitress, a sign, maybe, that after all, Mehmet has maintained a certain Scandinavian restraint.
It was quite an evening, and you could tell that this was a place people enjoyed coming to. The notion was borne out when Roxie returned from the Ladies Room and told me that she had just spoken to a woman who, with her new husband, had flown all the way from Dubai for the weekend, just so that they could come here for dinner.
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