"Nothing beats seeing Istanbul from the water," declares the city's star chef, Mehmet Gürs. Gürs, owner of the outstanding Mikla restaurant, expertly steers his inflatable Zodiac boat along the Bosphorus Strait as million-dollar sailboats zoom past antiquated white public ferries. The cascading domes of 16th-century imperial mosques loom on the horizon. Up ahead, miles of green rolling hills curve toward the Black Sea. "By taking the water route, you avoid Istanbul's traffic, and you can dock at teahouses and fish restaurants on the shore," Gürs notes before declaring that the Bosphorus is the world's most scenic waterway. But we're not just sightseeing on the 18-mile-long channel that divides Istanbul into Europe and Asia: We're on a mission to pick up ingredients for a glorious lunch on the water that Gürs will make for friends the next day.
© Marie Hennechart
Gürs is Istanbul's most recognizable chef, and not only because he was showcased on the Today Show when co-host Matt Lauer traveled the world. He owns multiple restaurants around the city: his avant-garde flagship, Mikla, and a sleek, whimsical fast-food joint, Numnum, which has seven locations. Gürs introduced his streamlined, contemporary food to Istanbul at Downtown in 1996, at a time when the only restaurant choices were old-school Continental and traditional Turkish. Now he's working on a new place, opening in late summer: a wine-centric place with inspirations as diverse as southern Italy and Scandinavia ("but no dilled salmon pizza," he promises).
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At Mikla, the panoramic spot on the 18th floor of the Marmara Pera hotel, Gürs channels influences from his Turkish-Swedish childhood into sharply modern dishes. He borrows Nordic smoking techniques to cook buttery Turkish lamb, which he serves with Barbunya beans braised in olive oil (a traditional Istanbul preparation); he flavors sliced Aegean grouper, a Turkish favorite, with cucumber and dill (the classic Scandinavian combination). Although he employs cutting-edge equipmenthe purees those Barbunya beans in a futuristic food processor called a ThermomixGürs also works with an anthropologist to research heirloom ingredients around Turkey. "You wouldn't believe what we've discovered," he enthuses. "Sheep's-milk tulum cheese that has been aged for four years, so strong it knocks your socks off; tiny olives from an Orthodox Christian village near the Syrian border that we serve at Mikla over crushed ice."