Maksut Aşkar

Neolokal, chef Maksut Askar’s restaurant inside the SALT Galata museum, is one of Istanbul’s most exciting fine-diners and draws heavily on Askar’s southern Turkish heritage. Although Askar was born in Hatay – a province on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast – he has developed a strong understanding of the diversity of Anatolian cuisine. Best of all, he knows where to find these regional flavours in Istanbul. Prepare to have your Turkish food horizons broadened.
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A Farm-To-Table Restaurant

Istanbul is big and we all have our favourite places in different parts of it. I spend two weekends a month in Yeniköy which is home of one of my favourite cafés, Apartıman Yeniköy Restaurant. It’s run by four siblings: two brothers and two sisters. One brother is in charge of the restaurant, one sister is in charge of the morning menu in the kitchen and the other sister is in charge of the evening menu. They also have a farm in Kırklareli City in the Thrace region close to the Bulgarian border that the second brother takes care of. They produce ingredients for their restaurant, have lambs and make amazing cheeses. We can call it a farm-to-table café. It is not only because they are close friends that I come here: it is because the food is amazing and the ambience is amazing, and the most important thing for me when I go somewhere in Istanbul is to feel at home. If you feel at home in a place then it is your place. You become a regular there. Even though you feel like you want to eat everything on the menu, when I come here I’m always craving specific items and the quality never changes. Apartiman has amazing lunches and dinners. It uses a lot of Turkish ingredients and Turkish recipes, but is inspired by different things as well: it’s a super smart menu. Their bar is very strong so you can just go for a drink.

Natural Wine in Turkey

When the COVID crisis began, my team and I wanted to make something positive out of it. We took the closure as a chance to restructure the system of running things in the restaurant. We learned a few lessons in crisis management from Istanbul’s time of political unrest and managed to keep afloat between closures. Most importantly we managed to retain the people that have worked with us for five years, which in my opinion is the biggest accomplishment. We also opened a wine bistro by the name of Foxy two months before the COVID crisis started and a second location in the middle of the pandemic. One is in Karaköy and the other one is in Nişantaşı. The aim of this project is to increase awareness of natural winemaking. It is not really very common in Turkey and we knew that in order for us to create this awareness we needed to help create a demand for natural winemaking. What better way than opening a natural wine bar? We are encouraging winemakers to produce this way and are promising to buy their entire production. We buy most of the natural wine produced in Turkey for Foxy. When we started, there were only two winemakers producing wine this way. Now we have a lot on the list, and the quality has become incredibly beautiful.

Some of our Favourite Turkish Natural Wine Producers

Kastro Tireli in Akhisar made a natural amber wine in 2013 with the narince white grape variety. They couldn’t sell it because there was no market for it, so they kept it. It was surviving beautifully and we bought nearly the entire production and sold all of it. They started making a new batch in 2019. It’s also sold out now, so they made a 2020 narince and a red öküzgözü. Last night I had both of them and they were super good. They are light natural wines and I believe in a year the red one will be even more delicious, but I doubt it will last till next year without someone drinking it all. Of course many know the amphora wine of Gelveri in Cappadocia, Turkey’s first proper natural winery. All of its wines are still among my favourites to drink.

Food from My Native Hatay Province

Çiya Sofrası is the longest remaining restaurant that I have been going to. Zeynep Abla, the chef and wife of the owner Musa, is actually from my hometown. She remembers me coming to the restaurant with my mum when I was in secondary school. We’re talking about 30 years ago. Whatever I was having there then, I am still having today: the quality doesn’t change. I go there to eat seasonal home cooking made with traditional recipes I grew up with. I choose mostly from their daily display. I don’t go there to eat kebabs.

Where People In The Industry Go For Kebabs

For kebabs I go to one place and one place only: Adana Ocakbaşı. Most chefs and restaurateurs around us go there, and when chefs and restaurateurs go somewhere you know it’s a good place. Unlike others, I am not particularly fond of eating lamb chops or meat kebabs. I like offal, and Adana Ocakbaşı makes really good lamb testicles, hearts, liver, kidneys and sweetbreads. 

The Place I Would Lunch With Visiting Chefs

If a friend from the industry is landing in Istanbul during the day and I know they have a few extra days to explore eating around Istanbul, I would take them to the Bosphorus to experience the beauty of this city. We would go to a fish restaurant to drink Öğlen Rakısı, which means ‘rakı at noon’. You know we always work at night, so we tend to meet our friends at noon. If I have to choose it’ll be Mira Balik and we’d order some mezzes and fish and drink rakı. For Istanbullites, going to a fish restaurant is a real habit and something we do once a week or every other week. There are many great places. It’s a matter of where each person feels at home. I feel at home when I always know what to expect in terms of quality and taste. I don’t like to be surprised. I’m specific with my dishes and with my rakı. When you go to a fish restaurant it’s not only about dining, it’s also about the conversations you have with whom you are going there with. You don’t want your conversations to be interrupted by anything. You want to be comforted and to enjoy your time.

My Favourite Rakı

Lately, my favourite rakı is Beylerbeyi’s Kalecik Karası. It’s a single origin rakı made of the kalecik karası grape variety, which is not common for rakı making. I like the taste. On the other hand, Mehmet Gurs and Cemre Torun made their own rakı, Prototip, and my goodness it’s super delicious. The other day we were drunk by 3 o’clock in the afternoon drinking their rakı.

Where Workers Eat Away From Home

In Istanbul, locantas (cafeteria restaurants) are important. They are where working people go when home is far, because they’re the closest meal to feeling at home. This is an old tradition in Anatolia. When I’m at Foxy, I go to a nearby lokanta called Nato Lokantası that’s been open since 1952. It makes daily specials, and what’s cool is that there are specific dishes made on specific days of the week. So for example if I know that they serve kadınbudu köfte (meatballs) on a specific day I’d head there on that day if I’m craving it.

A Very Turkish Eating And Drinking Experience

It’s been a long while since I’ve been to a meyhane (wine bar) because you usually go there with a crowd. If I wanted to have a real-deal meyhane, I would go to İnciraltı Meyhanesi in Beylerbeyi on the Asian side. It cooks some very, very old meyhane recipes. For example, it makes Papaz Yahnisi the original way with fish, which people have been making with meat lately. ‘Yahni’ means ‘stew’. Now it’s bonito season, and bonito is not fatty enough, so you cannot grill it because it becomes very lean. It’s perfect for Papaz Yahnisi, made with lots of onions, bay leaves, garlic, sometimes tomatoes and all-spice and a bit of cinnamon. The meyhane also make offal and by now you should have guessed that I love offal. Another meyhane I would go to is Asmalı Cavit in Beyoğlu. It’s been there for ages but the quality of taste is always consistent. I like the liver there: again, offal. It’s got a great vibe, the tables are close to each other and it feels very local.

Where You’ll Find The Next Generation Cooking

An interesting phenomenon that’s happened in Istanbul recently is a story of demographics. There are many young talented chefs who went abroad to study, worked in many good restaurants and came back to Turkey wanting to open their own entities. Unfortunately, restaurant investors are mostly looking at the numbers, not the ideas or the taste so they don’t invest in chefs. The trend is now for these young chefs to open stalls, bars or corner shops, making their own take on street food from Istanbul. Most of them put all of their life savings in these ventures and carry all the risk. There’s this amazing chef called Burak Zafer Simacekici who opened Primitif in the inner streets of Şişli. He makes burgers, hotdogs and other street food. He opened a beer garden called Primitif Birahane on the Asian side, where he only serves beers and street food inspired by what you see in Istanbul. Think kokoreç (grilled lamb intestines wrapped around sweetbreads on a skewer), köfte (meatballs) and mussels but with a twist. He also opened a meyhane called Eski Usul. The Basta guys are another example. Their gastronomic background is from France and they wanted to open a bistro but couldn’t find the investment they sought, so they opened Basta! Street Food Bar where they make artisanal wraps in Kadıköy. It became very famous and a couple of months ago they finally managed to open their neo-bistro.

The Only Cocktail Bar I Go To

I only go to one cocktail bar which is Geyik in Cihangir. It roasts its own coffee and only sells it at the bar and I think it makes the best cocktails in town. The owner is an amazing, brave woman who I admire a lot. She’s running the coffee roastery and cocktail bar on her own. She does the classics and her own inventions. They had a hard time during the pandemic. The bar is super small with strictly outdoor seating, so everyone is on the sidewalk. To me cocktails are divided into two categories: Negronis and the others. Aside from Geyik, I have my Negronis at Foxy and also at Apartiman where we sometimes have a few right after breakfast.

My Favourite Döner

Everyone has their favourite döner. It’s a matter of personal taste. I like tail fat and the taste of lamb. There’s this guy Dönerci Engin who has been making döner for like 35 years. He learned it from his father and he’s from a city called Erzurum which is famous for its döners. He does a combination of lamb and beef. The herbs he uses in the meat marination are unique and different from my other favourites. You need to like this kind of thing and I really do, because it resembles the taste of my childhood in a way. I go there at least once a week. They have the option of lavash (thin flatbread), somun (country bread) or flatbread. We don’t call it flatbread in Turkey: we call it pide or ‘tombik’, which means “chubby”. In my childhood we used to call it Halep ekmek (Aleppo bread). If I’m in Beşiktaş, I go to Karadeniz Döner Asım Usta. They have their own oven in which they freshly bake the tombik.

The Science of Pide

The best pide I’ve had in Istanbul is at a place called Karadeniz Tadal Pide Salonu. It’s in the middle of nowhere, really far from the center. This guy has been making pide for more than 35 years and, again, he has learned it from his father. He showed me how he makes everything, even the dough itself. He never uses a recipe because he says the recipe changes from season to season depending on the climate. He’s super strict on his rules and the taste, the crustiness, the ingredients, the freshness: It’s incredible. I recently discovered a caravanserai in the Old City called Pak Pide that also makes incredible pide.

Memories of My Mother’s Cooking

I don’t really crave sweets but when I do, it’s usually traditional desserts that mothers usually make. Lades Menemen in Beyoğlu only makes egg dishes and dairy desserts, like the famous chicken custard, ekmek kadayıfı (bread pudding) and kataifi (a type of vermicelli baklava). I go there for breakfast and whenever I crave rice pudding made just the way my mum makes it. They’ve been serving all day breakfast for almost 50 years.

Close to Fine-Dining, Far from Istanbul

If you’re looking for something close to fine-dining in Izmir, try Odurla, they serve 500 people a night. I say ‘close to’ because there’s no way you can do fine-dining and accommodate such a number. Still what this guy does is incredible. I love him. He works like a mad person and the crew he works with is just amazing.

A Restaurant With a Personal Connection

I like Aheste in Beyoğlu. I love its style. Its first owner and chef is a close friend of mine. When she had her son she gave up her shares to her partners and took some time off. The chef there now has worked with me at Neolokal. I’m proud of this guy. When you go to a place that’s run by someone you’ve worked with for many years and see that they’re doing things that you did not do before – that it doesn’t resemble what you have done while they were working with you – it is precious. It means that this person evolved to have their original touch.

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