Calm to a spider is chaos to a fly.
Having traversed through populated India many times, I have become addicted to chaos in a way that it is actually alluring. And when in Istanbul, as if in a seismic pendulum of Europe and Asia where I also witnessed many grave situations, I still enjoyed the chaos. And like a boat, I waded through the energy and movements of swirling people, like boats in the Sea of Marmara, unaware of the gushing Bosphorus, merry in their Ottoman inspired funk and style. With a city bursting with 14 million inhabitants, there was a distinct vibrance in the nature of the city, which circulated the air like a chant, a charm of sorts, and came to rest only in cafes and restaurants.
One such quintessentially Eastern slot which was recommended by comrades who knew my penchant for all things lush was Gile, tucked into an alley in Beşiktaş. While my mindset often favored rooftops and gilded settings for first time outings, this one was chosen courtesy of its proximity to the safety of our luscious hotel. And with a portrait of nouveau Gandhi amongst other paintings on the walls, it was most certainly living up to the glamorous quotient that the cities glittering mosques and curvy skyline promised against a velvet blanket of the night.
Run by Chef Cihan Kipcak and Chef Uryan Dogmus, the restaurant owners were initially perplexed at my choice of vegetarianism. Something I had long forgotten the innate reactions to, but smiled with my own coy foretelling of a trend in the works. It was, after all, in the philosophy of Gile to be local, innovative, produce flavors of Istanbul with refined techniques, and tell a story. One that inevitably involved some sort of culinary chaos.
My eyes darted from wall to wall, hoping to see the artwork complemented by hukkah vials and Turkish tea pitchers in ornate coppers and delicate glasses. Instead,I was met with a rainbow of Absolut vodka and other wines, which I steered clear of in hopes for a Turkish gastronomy takeover.
It started with a bouche amuse of almond milk with cucumber and mint. Being in the Middle Eastern seas, mint was a staple in refreshing the palette in a natural way, something discovered rather late in the game by Western toothpaste manufacturers. Yoghurt and milk were also like oxygen in the diet, and the sour, fresh and small slurp definitely started the meal on a bright note.
What I could have skipped was the butter with garlic salt, accompanied by mint chutney with balsamic vinegar as a spread for my cold bread. Borrowing from the Italian books, I quite preferred to dig my teeth into heavenly baklava than bread when on the vibrant soil of pistachios and honey.
The edamame beans in rich citrus olive oil, however, was a pleasant bite. For what I quite despise about raw beans served as snacks are their intolerably high salt quotient. All of which was washed away by a slick layer of oil, reminding me why butter was so key in any hearty cuisines. The citrus notes gently cut through the buttery dreams, reminding me that I had to save my inhalations for a dual dose of dessert.
My simple vegetable salad was perhaps the most wild form of modern art I had seen on a plate. What some would call a mess, collectively made a series of spheres that could be mistaken for a starry galaxy. Petite cucumbers, pickled strawberries, cherry tomatoes and sour blackberries were the essential components of this salad, alongside goat cheese powder, a dash of crispy greens and crushed nuts, alongside saffron citrus cream. An oxymoron of flavors in one dish, the collective taste was muddled at the onset, but began to make sense after a few bites.
The play on savory strawberries and sweet tomatoes, or the elevation of simple citrus with rich saffron, or even the clash of soft cucumber with nutty brittle, all made for an adventure in my mouth’s new playground. While not the wildest of salad creations, the sheer whimsy held true to the promise of telling a story. This one was all about playfulness.
While I skipped over some of the heavier dishes, I was, as usual, keen on nibbling away on desserts. Having promised to find baklava more indulgent than Dubai’s hidden alleyways, I was thrilled at the prospect of food science for dessert. It started with a ‘cezerye’, which is usually a gelatinous Turkish-delight confectionary, but naturally arrived entirely deconstructed. Beneath a coat of coconut and carrot cream and coconut sorbet blobs were marinated wild berries, placed next to fresh persimmons and salep mastic ice cream, distinct with specks of caffeine enchanting the tired voyager.
This form of ice cream was one that I had again tried in Dubai, and had a slightly stretchier textured (almost cheese-like!) than ice cream, often interlaced with nuts. This was a strange combination of flavors for the novice Middle Eastern palette, and perhaps having the dish in its re-constructed form would have helped discern the flavors better. However, I enjoyed the fresh flavors of carrot and coconut against the denser creaminess, and was thankful for the nutty almond crunch.
I gushed over the gorgeousness of a watermelon salad for dessert, being a favorite of all fruits to gobble up in the messiest of ways. This rendition had it neatly chopped into brick like cubes, alongside ‘ezine’ sheep cheese sorbet in conical scoops. Tasting ever so slightly softer and sweeter than its sibling, the ever popular goat cheese, it was a soft and refreshingly icy sorbet with a savory undertone courtesy of olive oil dust. Without any greens except for a namesake mint leaf atop each watermelon slice, the rest of this dessert salad comprised of coffee infused walnut paste with clover and lemon zest. Battling the bitter and tangy flavors, these were in perfect harmony to the sweetness of the fruit and sorbet. Collectively, the juxtaposed flavors melted in my mouth like a sensual dream, and for once I did not even miss the lack of intentional crunch.
With dishes served in local ceramic artisan dishes, the experience was one that welcomed us to a city fit for a Sultan. Sweetened in saccharine bliss with oriental opulence and chaotic, culinary charm, we bee-lined down the streets to the vibrant nightlife of a fascinating city on the cusp of two continents.