A few blocks away stands the beautiful Blue Mosque, its multiple domes cascading downwards like a waterfall. And virtually around the corner, the Ayasofya Hamam (traditional Turkish bath house) lays claim to its own heritage, having been built in 1556 by Sultan Suleiman. So historic origins are a given in the city that spans Europe and Asia and embodies both the Byzantine and Ottoman. The Ottoman Imperial Hotel fits neatly into the overall picture, but what distinguishes it is neither architecture nor furnishings, as pleasing as they may be, but what happens in its kitchens where chefs prepare dishes fit for a king.
It is an early evening in June. The sun has not yet set; the sky is a shade of lavender blue, and we are seated at a table the in winter garden of the Ottoman Hotel Imperial beside a garden wall, under a gold-colored market umbrella in Matbah (“kitchen” in the Ottoman tongue). Necati Yilmaz, the hotel’s Food and Beverage manager, places a little glass bowl filled with some purple liquid before us. “We boil plums, add pomegranate flowers, bake them in an oven, strain the liquid, and this is the result,” he says. Gingerly, we dip in our spoons and taste. Surprisingly, it’s wonderful! Sour, but, at the same time, with an exotic sweetness, cool and refreshing. Unlike anything we’ve tasted before.
A few hours before, we had stepped outside our room in this 52-room boutique property (one of the “Great Hotels in the World”) onto a terrace that looked out over domes and minarets and a centuries-old madras. We heard muezzins calling the faithful to prayer, a new voice picking up the melody before the previous one left off. Now we were drinking Turkish champagne and eating baked plums and pomegranate flowers on a patio punctuated by brilliant floral displays. It is the end of our first day in Istanbul. Already we have fallen under its spell.
Necati smiles at our approval of the sauce. “It is part of the Ottoman cuisine,” he says. “But remember, Ottoman is not only Turkey; it is also Georgia, Armenia, Romania, the Balkans, Middle Asia, the Middle East, the Mediterranean.”
All of them will play a part in the gastronomic adventure we are about to embark upon. By the time dessert is served, we will have learned how this engaging food and beverage manager of the Ottoman Hotel Imperial became a scholar of a unique, complex cuisine whose dishes fed generations of sultans, how he formed a partnership with a young chef who realized the possibilities of centuries-old recipes, and how a hotelier was inspired to use their combined talents to make his hotel a significant presence in a locale defined by the treasures of it Byzantine and Ottoman past.
“Eleven years ago, I was a waiter in an Istanbul restaurant and I became friendly with the chef, a man named Kadir Yılmaz,” Necati began. “One day I saw him preparing something I did not recognize. He showed me the recipe he was using in a small book, and he told me it came from the palace (Topkapi Palace, the primary residence of Ottoman sultans for some 400 years). I was curious so I went to the palace myself. My uncle worked there, and he helped me get some of the librarians to show me the archives. I discovered that for the most part, palace cooks kept their recipes secret. Still, I was able to find some, and that encouraged me to search further. I looked through documents of cooks’ guilds, books by palace historians, and found hundreds of them, going back hundreds of years.
“‘We are on to something big,’ I told Kadir. I would copy the recipe, and he would prepare it. We would test dishes in the restaurant’s kitchen and adapt them to modern tastes and techniques. That was how the concept began. I got into it, but Kadir was the one who stimulated me.”
Flash forward to 2006, when a handsome hotelier from Troy named Serdar Balta becomes the general manager of the 19th-century, three-story building of orange-colored stone, originally a hospital, then an inn for young travelers and students, and now the Ottoman Imperial Hotel.
“As soon as I came here, I had an idea for the hotel,” Serdar told us. “But I was not yet ready for it. Among other things I wanted to renovate the kitchen and build a winter garden that would be used as a restaurant. It wasn’t until about a year after the Grand Opening that I began to think seriously about implementing my concept.
“My belief was that we must pay attention to the setting of the hotel and the rich history that surrounds it. All aspects of the hotel must be on the same level. We had renovated the interior to reflect the Ottoman palace theme. Now we must look at the cuisine. It could not be ordinary; it must be very special, and I had to find the best people in Turkey to do this.
He continued, “I heard about two men who were working in a popular Istanbul restaurant where they were re-creating the dishes of Ottoman palaces. I went to the restaurant, I ate there. What they were doing was just what I had been looking for. I began to follow them; I continued following them for four and a half years.”
“We noticed Serdar,” Necati said. “He came to the restaurant often, but did not say anything. Then one day he telephoned us, asked a few questions. By this time, we had developed a reputation. Soon after, he told us he understood what we were doing, that it was what he wanted in his kitchen. At the same time, we wanted to be in the heart of historic Turkey.”
It took another five years before Necati and Kedar were set up in the Ottoman Hotel Imperial. Serdar, a former professional football (soccer) player, understood he was taking a risk in bringing them to the property, in transforming the hotel cuisine into one specializing in Ottoman specialties. But he decided to make the leap. Today the dishes served in Matbah are all recreations of dishes served to sultans and their parties across the centuries. “This is the only place where you can find them,” Necati says.
Over the course of our stay at the Ottoman Hotel Imperial, we dined on cold soup made of dried fruits with yogurt, spices and aromatics; chilled grape-vine leaves stuffed with sour cherries, rice, onions and pine nuts and cooked lightly in olive oil; honeydew melon with chopped beef, white and black pepper, tiny raisins called “birth raisins,” almonds and rice; fishcakes made with grapes, cinnamon and nuts; chopped lamb meat cooked with honey vinegar, almonds, raisins and apricots; grilled goat cheese served with oyster mushrooms; spring chicken stewed with almonds, dried apricots, and grapes flavored with honey and cinnamon; zucchini stuffed with walnuts and seasoned with dill and verjuice (a juice made of sour fruits); a pudding made from wheat flour served with a syrup made of roses and lemons; and an assortment of halavahs made of wheat flour, cinnamon and honey.
These were but a sampling of the thirty-four dishes listed on Matbah’s menu, each accompanied by a detailed description of contents and, in some cases, provenance. A notice at the bottom of every page promises that should a dish not be appreciated by the diner, there will be no charge for it. A highly unlikely possibility, as the blending of cooked fruits and nuts with meats and vegetables, the variety and quality of the ingredients, the unexpected combinations all enhanced by flavorful and aromatic herbs and spices combine to make dining at Matbah a singular, memorable experience.
More than a delight to the taste buds, it is an appeal to aesthetic sensibility. Brilliant flowers – geraniums, petunias spill out of window boxes along the garden wall; perfumed roses bloom in planters spaced around the winter garden. “A woman is like a rose,” Necati says, making the connection between the rose plant beside him to the beautiful young woman who escorts diners to their table and sees if everything meets their satisfaction. “You look around, all the waiters are men. But if you have just one woman . . .” he pauses and smiles as she passes by – “that is something special.”
“Hotel restaurants present a difficult challenge,” Serdar tells us. “Success is hard to come by as guests like to explore other dining options outside and tourists, as a rule, don’t patronize restaurants that are part of a hotel,” he said. “But over the past two years since our concept has been put into play, we have become a popular destination restaurant with 70% of our clients coming from outside the hotel, many of them from the most famous five-star properties in Istanbul. We have been in the television news; a newspaper chose us as the most popular restaurant in the city. We’ve had write-ups in the ‘New York Sunday Times’ and in the Japanese and Russian press.”
“We are thinking of starting a cooking class,” Necati interjects. “We want to teach Ottoman palace cuisine. This is food with a history; it is based on research, on finding things made hundreds of years ago. That is our cultural heritage.”
“What do guests want to feel when they visit Istanbul?” Serdar poses the question. He stops for a moment to consider his response, then continues: “They want to feel the city,” he says, “the culture, the music, the cuisine. By serving the cuisine of the Ottoman palace, the Ottoman Hotel Imperial becomes a repository of our culture in a central location, close to so many of the historic landmarks.
“We are all partners in this endeavor; we are a good team,” he adds. “It is difficult in this business to keep your chef and managers in your hand. But we signed our contract with our hearts. A promise from me is my check.”
Ottoman Hotel Imperial
Caferyie Sokak No. 6/1
34400 Istanbul, Turkey
Tel: +90 212 514 6151
Restaurant: Matbah, Ottoman Palace Cuisine
A Member of Great Hotels of the
• Besides major historic sites, Istanbul’s chief shopping area, including the famous Grand Bazaar, is located in the Sultanahmet neighborhood.
• Guests at the Ottoman Hotel Imperial receive a 15% discount for dining at Matbah, free wireless connection, and the use of a laptop during their stay.
• Just steps from the Ottoman Hotel Imperial is the Ayasofya Hamam (traditional Turkish bath house) built in 1556 by Sultan Suleiman to honor his wife. Redone in 2011, it is a palatial setting for traditional scrubs, foam soaks, massages and other spa services.