Who are the best chefs working in Istanbul?

Natalie Milani Yumlu
16 May, 2014

Istanbul, while known for its delicious food, has generally not been famous for its chefs.  You can go to any of Istanbul's perenially popular top restaurants (Topaz, Feriye, Ulus 29Tuğra are a few that come to mind) and you will consistently be served an excellent meal in the traditional Turkish style, year-in, year-out.  But you will still never know who has been toiling behind-the-scenes to prepare that meal for you!

We are pleased to report, however, that in recent times, the cult of celebrity chefs seems to have arrived in Istanbul, along with a style of cuisine that is becoming known as 'Nouvelle Turkish' or, in some cases, 'Nouvelle Anatolian'.  Here, in alphabetical order, we present you with a few of the chefs that are pushing the envelope and trying to take conventional - and sometimes stodgy - Turkish cuisine to the next level... Afiyet olsun!

Semsa Denizsel

Chef of the Year Semsa Denizsel, a pioneer of the farm-to-table approach in Turkey, serves her homemade Turkish comfort food at Kantin in Nişantaşı.  There, you can find the daily specials prepared using only the freshest of ingredients, scrawled by this Alice Waters of Turkey on the chalkboard that runs across its dining room.   A strong believer in everything homemade, Kantin is now even serving homemade sourdough bread – made using starter developed in-house and with heirloom Anatolian wheat.  A second “to go” location in Bebek, with a tiny counter where you can nibble on your purchases,  permits you to pick-up your favorite dishes without having to trek to Nişantaşı.

Kantin (Nişantaşı) $$$
Teşvikiye Mh.
Akkavak Sk No:30
Nişantaşı, Istanbul
+90 212 219 3114

Kantin (Bebek) $$$
Cevdetpaşa Caddesi 43C
Bebek, Istanbul
+90 212 263 04 44

Dilara Erbay

Dilara Erbay, made famous by her innovative restaurant in Arnavutköy Abracadabra (voted Top 50 Restaurants in the World by Conde Nast, now sadly no longer in existence), has gone back to basics with her new place, Datli Maya. Located in an old bakery in the artsy neighborhood of Cihangir, at Datli Maya you can enjoy a variety of traditional Turkish village dishes (including lahmacun and pide baked in a wood-burning oven) in one of its cosy upstairs dining rooms.  When planning your meal there, keep in mind that it is often packed due to its range of traditional Anatolian choices done well and at reasonable prices.

Datli Maya $$
Firuzağa Mah.
Türk Gücü Cad. No: 59/A
Beyoğlu, Istanbul
+90 212 292 9057

Mehmet Gürs

No listing of Istanbul chefs would be complete without mentioning Mehmet Gürs, considered widely to be Istanbul’s most recognizable chef.  Born to a Turkish father and Swedish-Finnish mother, Chef Gürs trained in the U.S. and now serves his creative Turkish-Swedish fusion specialties at Mikla, with drop-dead gorgeous views on top of the Marmara Pera Hotel. Reservations recommended. 

Mikla $$$$
The Marmara Pera
Meşrutiyet Caddesi 15
Beyoğlu/Şişhane, Istanbul
+90 212 293 5656

Didem Şenol

The menu changes daily at chef Didem Şenol’s fabulous Lokanta Maya, home to her imaginative nouvelle Turkish cuisine.  Back to Turkey after studying at New York’s French Culinary Institute (including stints at the famed Le Cirque and Eleven Madison), Chef Şenol has created an oasis of excellent cuisine with beautiful modern decor and attentive service.  A stop at Karaköy’s Lokanta Maya is sure to leave you with great memories.  Reservations Recommended.  If you don’t have the time – or budget – to take a meal at this gem of a restaurant, consider popping into Chef Şenol’s more casual alternative, Gram Pera, located off Istiklal Caddesi in the Pera neighborhood.  Equally beautifully designed, line up and choose your lunch selections from the daily offerings. Lunch only.  And if you just can’t bear the thought of having to live without her great cooking, don’t forget to pick up a copy of her cookbook, Aegean Flavours. A Culinary Celebration of the Aegean Region's Local Markets and Produce (2010), before you head home.

Lokanta Maya $$$$
Kemankes Caddesi No.35/A
Karaköy, Istanbul
+90 212 252 6884

Gram Pera $$$
Meşrutiyet Cd 107/D
Beyoğlu/Şişhane, Istanbul
+90 212 243 1048

Ferit Sarper

Ferit Sarper presents his version of Turkey’s classic meyhane dishes nightly to throngs of Istanbul’s beautiful people at his bar and restaurant, Münferit.  If a lively crowd and modern Turkish cuisine is what you are looking for, make your way to the Firuzağa neighborhood (just down the hill from Cihangir) – you won’t be able to miss the place – most can hear the music and chatter from blocks away, and enjoy your Beylerbeyi rakı (bottled by Sarper’s family) in the gorgeous setting designed by Seyhan Özdemir of the hip design team, Autoban.

Münferit $$$$
Firuzağa Mahallesi
Yeni Carsi Caddesi No. 19
Beyoğlu, Istanbul
+90 212 252 5067

Gençay Üçok

Gençay Üçok, one of Istanbul’s innovative young chefs, reinterprets Turkish mezes using seasonal local ingredients at Meze by Lemon Tree. All of the dishes on the menu of this cozy meyhane, with less than 40 seats, demonstrate Üçok’s keen eye for combining traditional Turkish flavors with a modern twist.  For example, his shrimp güveç has a bit of a Thai flavor with his addition of ginger, paprika and coconut milk instead of the traditional Mediterranean tomatoes and onions. You will not be disappointed with your meal at this great little restaurant.  And if you find yourself in the mood to learn more about this inventive chef, you’re in luck since in recent months, through his collaboration with KD Tours, he has become the Istanbul go-to person for those who want to gain inspiration from Turkey’s culinary delights.  Reservations recommended.

Meze by Lemon Tree $$$
Meşrutiyet Caddesi 83/b
Beyoğlu/Şişhane, Istanbul
+90 212 252 8302


Civan Er, formerly of Changa, has recently opened a stylish new restaurant just off Istiklal Caddesi, Yeni Lokanta.  Don’t let this restaurant’s youth fool you.  Chef Er has obviously put a lot of thought into his succinct Nouvelle Turkish menu, which provide options for everyone’s tastes.  While the servers still seem to be getting their bearings, this does not detract from the exquisite dishes made using ingredients brought to Istanbul from all over Anatolia, such as smoked yoghurt from Denizli which is used in one of the delicious cold appetizers.  Tables will become hard to come by once word gets out about this hidden treasure of a restaurant.  Reservations recommended.

Yeni Lokanta $$$
Kumbaracı Yokuşu No:66
Beyoğlu, Istanbul
+90 212 292 2550

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