From the first sight of its busy streets Istanbul presents itself as a kebab capital of the world steering away vegetarian foodies. This impression is deceiving. Do not despair neither sheer number of kebab shops made even more noticeable thanks to the stentorian cries of the vendors. Do not take seriously locals fainting after you declare your meatless agenda. Instead, get ready to fetch finest local flavors from the menus of best Istanbul restaurants.
Really, kebab-hype is only a part of the Istanbul food scene. First, it is hard to believe in the strong carnivore grounds in the city sprawled between the Marmara and the Black Sea – since the Byzantium times Istanbul has being big on fish not meat. Second, even the 500-year Ottoman obsession with exquisite meat dishes did not change rich vegetarian traditions of the Istanbul food: beyond the Sultan palace vegetables and cereals have always been most available and cheapest source of nutrition. Third, I am pretty positive that vegetarians foodies don’t come to Istanbul to eat safe international food but are keen on exploring the local flavors. And should be catered to. And they are.
Vegetarians in Istanbul should keep their mind open to explore great vegetarian food at the most unexpected places. You will be safe even beyond a small bunch of purely vegetarian restaurants in Istanbul. And here are a few places to get your mouth watering.
Best value south-eastern Turkish fare with seasonal vegetables and exotic greens.
It’s hard to find any guidebook not mentioning this place and a local living on the Asian side who would not bring her guests here. Often praised for its outstanding south-eastern Turkish cuisine with its key specialty being kebabs the place is nevertheless is an excellent choice for a vegetarian in Istanbul. For starters you want to check out their fantastic salad bar where you will spot some Turkish and Middle Eastern classics (yet with some twists) such as ezme (spicy tomato and pepper salad), yaprak sarma (wine leaves stuffed with rice), patlican dolma (stuffed dried eggplants), hummus, muhammara (mix of tomato and pepper pastes with crushed walnuts). Besides that be sure to check the salads you will not find elsewhere in Istanbul and possibly in Turkey – look out for the greens and seaweeds.
For the mains you can either head out to the counter where the helpful English-speaking staff will explain you the dishes or navigate the menu which is conveniently divided into the “main courses with meat” and “main courses with vegetables”. The menu for mains changes daily and as a friend of mine says, “Even if you like something very much you will not find it on the menu again”: sounds like an invitation to a delicious adventure for keen foodies. And vegetarians in Istanbul.
Address: Caferaga Mah. Güneslibahce Sk. 43,44 and 48/B Kadiköy. No alcohol. Meals starting from 10 TL (salad bar only) to 40 TL (with mains and desserts) per person.
Istanbul Culinary Institute – Enstitü Restaurant
Turkish and Mediterranean meatless classics smartly served.
Turkey’s internationally acclaimed cookery school runs an smart city cafe where its students hone the acquired skills both at the kitchen and the floor. On the customer end this translates in reasonably priced delicious Turkish and Mediterranean fare with great vegetarian angle. Meal would start with a complementary yummy house bread with olive oil – really nice break from the common white bread usually served in Istanbul. Then you’d have a good selection of vegetarian delights from the menu of the day, salads from the main (check out zucchini fritters or homemade lor böreği, cheese-stuffed layered pastry) – all seasonal and all well made. In summer try wonderful home made lemonade and rose water sherbet; in colder days their excellent selection of teas comes to your rescue. Cozy jars of jams and piles of cookies tied with ribbons suggest takeaway and a teatime stopover. Splendid choice for a casual breakfast or lunch in Beyoğlu.
Address: Mesrutiyet cad. No: 59 Tepebasi. No alcohol Closed on Sundays.
Namlı Gurme Karaköy
Gourmet Turkish breakfast or light lunch of traditional vegetable salads and starters.
Delicatessen shop favored by the generations of Istanbulites: besides all the packaged gourmet deliciousness they serve great meals at spot dragging in most fussy foodies for generous brunches. Anytime from 7 am to 22 pm you can come, inspect the long food stall to the right and compose a plate with the delights you fancy: it is organized as a buffet with the only difference that a helpful waiter would make your plate not you. Vegetarians, beware, you will feel like a kid in a candy shop! The candy shop is next door though while Namlı serves a range of fresh salads, grilled vegetables, variety of local cheeses and olives along with a great selection of meze (starters typical for Eastern Mediterranean) – check out their dolmas, ezme, mix of cheep cheese and fresh herbs, marinaded seaweed,) broad bean spread or thick yogurt with herbs (haydari). Compose your plate, wash down with some tea and then head out to a real candy shop next door for a piece of divine baklava.
Address: Rıhtım Caddesi Katotopark Altı 1/1, Karaköy. Meal, about 20-30 TL per person. In rush hour speak to a waiter about the table before taking the queue at the buffet.
New Istanbul cuisine – casual, seasonal and somewhat vegetarian.
This cozy restaurants in the posh neighborhood of Nişantaşi is run by a chef who swears by local and seasonal ingredients. Vegetarians in Istanbul are in luck as there is hardly another place in Istanbul which does that much justice to the seasonal gorgeousness. Say, in spring they do scrumptious spring salad (bahar salatası) of fresh asparagus, broad beans and green beans slightly tossed with fresh herbs in olive oil – all served with young cheese of buffalo milk, balsamic vinegar and pine nuts. Meatless dishes are a few but they stand proud in the menu – salad of baby spinach, artichoke patties or a range of vegetarian çitirs, pizza-like dish made with whole-wheat wafer-thin crust and garnished with wonderful vegetarian combinations: Swiss chard, white cheese, red onion and hazelnut or wheat sprouts, zucchini, roasted red peppers, mushrooms and cheese. You must try home made ayran, yogurt drink diluted with water, which here is nicely thick and foamy and done with fresh mint. Another must is refreshing home made lemonade. Also, they have a shop downstairs where you can pick up takeaway food, fresh desserts and cake.
Kantin is doing really great job at rethinking not only Istanbul cuisine but also dining format – the place itself is a modern take on a traditional local Istanbul restaurant for people working in the area (locanta). At Kantin they think it does not hurt to complement the delicious food with white table clothes, fresh flowers and polite waiters. I really like their vision for the new Istanbul food and dining – creative, seasonal and in large parts – vegetarian!
Address: Akkavak Sokak 12, Nişantaşi. No alcohol. Lunch, 30-40 TL per person. Closed Sundays.
Pampering for vegetarian foodies on top of the world.
Just like most of the fine dining places around the world Mikla has a limited vegetarian selection but you will never regret going for this gastronomic pampering. Expect a symphony of flavors, shapes and textures boldly combined and creatively served in the quantities that are right to appreciate the taste and get ready for the new one. Finnish-Turkish chef is doing wonders with the carefully sourced local ingredients and inspiration borrowed from Turkish, Mediterranean and Scandinavian cuisines. Vegetarian gourmets should go for bustling with freshness salad of mixed vegetables seasoned with pomegranate molasses, Kars Gruyère cheese and roasted walnuts for starters. For mains inquire about the vegetarian plate (not in the menu) featuring tender and juicy vegetable terrine of thinly sliced and grilled courgettes, red bell peppers, aubergines, celery root and carrots – serves with the sauces of pumpkin puree, celeriac puree, reduced plum (pestil) and chlorophyll, or pure of briefly cooked rocket, parsley and spinach. Then enjoy a plate of a local cheese served with dried fruits and nuts and interesting takes on the traditional Turkish jams (e.g.quince puree or fig confit).
And I beg you to leave room for a dessert – typical flavors you will find in the dessert specialists around Istanbul get a new life in Mikla. Pistachio and tahini helva ice-cream or Çeşme anise crème brûlée with yogurt sorbet are among those you’d remember for the rest of your life. The wine list is excellent too and features both Turkish and international wines by glass and bottle. Topped by the breathtaking view over Istanbul and the Bosphorus, proper service and appropriate music this place becomes so heavenly that you’ll forgive them for not being really a vegetarian sanctum.
Address: Mesrutyiyet Cad. 167-185, Teperbasi. Dinner with wine, about 150 TL per person. Reservations are essential.