The opening of Yeni Lokanta (literally – New Canteen) is undoubtedly a signature event for Istanbul. Not only because the city has got one more restaurant serving very good food, but also because this eatery may be the first robin of the culinary revolution in the city. We do have a few restaurants that had pioneered New Istanbul, if now New Anatolian, cuisine such as Mikla, Lokanta Maya, Kantin and others. And it is important that those places broaden culinary horizons of their eaters, but it is also critical that they teach their chefs to experiment so that some of those young chefs could continue their bold experimentation in their own restaurants and further popularize the idea of the New Istanbul cuisine.
Civan Er worked at Changa, the first fusion restaurant in Istanbul that has been playing with the traditional ingredients in a way that would put most of the Istanbul eaters out of their comfort zone. He says, however that for a few years he had been nursing the idea of opening his own place. Creation of the concept and menu took a few years of travel and eating at the celebrated restaurants around the world. And it is pleasing to know that Mr. Er did not come back with the idea of opening yet another French restaurant with a Turkish twist but rather an eatery that seriously re-thinks the typical Turkish fare.
Not that there is no French touch in the Yeni Lokanta’s interior resembling a slick bistro: wide marble porch and stone carving hinting to the European past of Beyoğlu, the area where the restaurant is located, green glass lamp shades, geometric black-and-white floor tiles and deft young male waiters. But you will also see tiles a la Iznik on the bar and copper pots instead of the bread baskets leaving no doubt of the unmistakably Turkish roots of the place.
Yeni Lokanta serves lunch and dinner and has a well-thought through menu composed according to the classic rule: while being extremely brief it manages to cater to all sorts of eaters – comforting pasta, edgy fish, filling lamb loin or light salad. The wine list features a good selection of Turkish labels, and a few of them are offered by glass such as the excellent blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris by Arcadia, a Turkish boutique wine producer.
I ordered a salad and mantı, Turkish dumplings. Rather immediately two items arrived to my table: house sourdough straight from the restaurant’s wood fired stone oven and their oak-smoked lor peyniri (Turkish ricotta) whisked with olive oil. Accompanied by the glass of chilled white it was a non-pretentious yet confident start of a thrilling culinary adventure.
The salad was superb: sweet strawberries and grapes were combined with the rich toasted almonds, crunchy lettuce, sharp rocket and refreshing mint. All the flavors were accentuated by the reduced sumac juice (sumak ekşısı), a traditional condiment that – rather surprisingly – rarely makes it to the Istanbul plates. The sumac juice appeared in the unexpected fashion – mixed in the Turkey’s very own alternative to mozzarella - buffalo milk labne, so fat and creamy that is nearly stretched rather than spread when poked with a fork.
But what really surprised me was the mantı. I can already hear the mantı purists denying the right of the Civan Er’s creation bear the name of the Turkish specialty: they were not your tiny square parcels and there was no meat inside. The role of stuffing was smartly given to the dry eggplant shells that – when re-hydrated and cooked – indeed resemble meat texture and flavor. Mixed with the spicy red pepper paste (biber salçası) and pomegranate molasses (nar ekşışı) they could not be more Turkish. And for those not completely convinced: Er’s mantı were seasoned with pepper and mint butter and yoghurt poured over the mantı. Yet of course he could not help elevating the sauce: the red-hued butter is merely infused with pepper, but we don’t see the flakes, the mint comes fresh minced to the tiniest particles (rather than in the regular dry form) and the yogurt is the salty labne from Antakya (tuzlu yoğurt).
I felt sorry not to try the day specialty – slowly cooked meat and vegetable stew (ğüveç) that I enviously eyed at the next table. The young man who ordered it was completely mesmerized by the house-made pickle the stew was served with so he interrogated the waiter about the making process. I didn’t have the strength to try the desserts either even though the idea of kadaif-coated deep-fried pudding seemed worth a try. But I am sure this was not my last meal at Yeni Lokanta.
Civan Er’s colleagues have seriously changed the dining scene in cities like Copenhagen that was never discussed in the culinary terms until it’s been proclaimed “a new food mecca” by the NY Times and “best European town for foodies” by Travel+Leisure. A whole new generation of chefs has been brought up at the Copenhagen’s Noma, the place that gave the world the New Nordic Cuisine and has been voted the best restaurant in the world for the 4 consecutive years. Now those young ambitious talented cooks graduated from the Noma’s kitchen are creating their own food and sharing their own understanding of what contemporary Nordic food should look like.
Some stay in the fine dining category yet many are happy to be reach a broader number of eaters like Civan Er who’s Yeni Lokanta will inevitably become a popular spot of young professionals and hipsters. Can we hope there would be more Turkish chefs following his lead? There is no shortage of the young creative energy in Istanbul that has been bursting over the past month; young people here promise “that is only the beginning”. I can only hope the young chefs of this city can reassure us of the same.
Yeni Lokanta-Bar. Address: Kumbaraçi Yokuşu No: 66. Beyoğlu. Phone: (212) 292 25 50. Hours: 12 pm to 1 am. Walk in for lunch; reservations for dinner (waiting at their bar or on the marble porch will not leave you at loss though). Website: www.lokantayeni.com