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 per month in Yeniköy neighbourhood, home to one of my favourite cafés Apartıman Yeniköy. It’s run by four siblings. 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 have a farm in Kırklareli City in the Thrace region close to the Bulgarian border that the fourth brother takes care of, where they produce ingredients for the restaurant. They have lambs and make amazing cheese. You 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 and ambience are amazing. 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 becomes your place. You will feel like you want to eat everything on the menu at Apartiman, but when I go I’m always craving specific items and the quality never changes. It does amazing lunches and dinners and uses a lot of Turkish recipes, but is inspired by different things as well. It’s a super smart menu. Their bar is excellent, so you can just go for a drink.

Natural Wine in Turkey

My team and I wanted something positive to come out of the Covid period. We took the closure as a chance to restructure the restaurant. We learned a few lessons in crisis management from Istanbul’s time of political unrest and managed to keep afloat between closures. 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 Covid started and a second location in the middle of the pandemic. One is in the Karaköy area and the other one is in the Nişantaşı neighbourhood. The aim of this project is to increase awareness in natural winemaking. It is not really very common in Turkey. We knew that in order for us to create this awareness we needed to help create a demand for this type of wine. 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 30 years ago. Whatever I was eating then, I am still eating today. The quality doesn’t change. I go to eat seasonal home cooking made with traditional recipes I grew up with. I choose from their daily display as I don’t really go there to eat kebab.

Where People In The Industry Go For Kebab

For kebab, 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 good. I’m not particularly fond of eating lamb chops or meat kebab. 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 lands in Istanbul during the day, 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, a common expression in Turkish that means “rakı at noon”: we always work at night and tend to meet our friends at noon. It’ll be at Mira Balik where we’d order some meze, fish and rakı. Going to a fish restaurant is part of Istanbullite culture, something we do at least 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. 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

Locantas (cafeteria restaurants) are important in Istanbul. 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 and makes daily specials. 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 (tavern) because you usually go there with a crowd. When I want to have a real-deal meyhane experience, I 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”. Bonito is not fatty enough, so you cannot grill it because it becomes very lean. So when in season, it’s perfect for Papaz Yahnisi. You add a lot of onions to it, bay leaves, garlic, (sometimes) tomatoes, all-spice and a bit of cinnamon. The meyhane also serves offal, and by now you should have guessed that I love offal. Another meyhane I like going to is Asmalı Cavit in Beyoğlu. It’s got a great vibe, the tables are close to each other and it feels very local. It’s been there for ages but the quality and taste are always consistent. I like the liver there.

Where You’ll Find The Next Generation Cooking

An interesting demographic phenomenon has happened in Istanbul recently. There are many young, talented chefs who went abroad to study and work in many good restaurants, and came back to Turkey wanting to open their own places. Unfortunately, restaurant investors are mostly looking at the numbers, not the ideas or the taste so they don’t invest in these chefs. This led to these chefs opening stalls and corner shops doing their own take on street food from Istanbul. Most of them put all of their life savings in these ventures and take all the risks. There’s an 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 of this phenomenon. Their gastronomic background is France but hey 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 make their dream of opening a neo-bistro [by the same name] come true.

The Only Cocktail Bar I Go To

I only go to one cocktail bar: Geyik in Cihangir. It makes the best cocktails in town, roasts its own coffee and only sells it at the bar. The owner is an amazingly brave woman who I admire a lot. She runs the coffee roasting operation and the cocktail bar all on her own. She does both the classics and her own signature cocktails. I always have a Negroni: to me cocktails are divided into Negronis and “the others”. Geyik makes really good ones (as well as Foxy and Apartiman where I sometimes have a few right after breakfast). The bar is super small with strictly outdoor seating, so everyone is always on the sidewalk.

My Favourite Döner

Everyone has their favourite döner place: 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 and learned how to make it from his father. He’s from a city called Erzurum, famous for its döner. He does a combination of lamb and beef. The herbs he uses in the meat marination are different from my other favourites. You need to like this kind of thing and I really do, because it’s the taste of my childhood. I go there at least once a week. He has 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. I remember it being called Halep ekmek (Aleppo bread) in my childhood. When I’m in Beşiktaş, I go for döner at Karadeniz Döner Asım Usta. It has its own oven from which the tombik is freshly baked and served.

The Science of Pide

The best pide I’ve had in Istanbul is at Karadeniz Tadal Pide Salonu. It’s in the middle of nowhere and really far from the centre. This guy has been making pide for more than 35 years and, again, 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 it changes from season to season depending on the climate. He’s super strict on taste, crustiness, ingredients and freshness; and it’s all 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 make. Lades Menemen in Beyoğlu only makes custards and dairy-based desserts like the famous Turkish chicken custard, ekmek kadayıfı (bread pudding) and kataifi (vermicelli baklava). I go there for breakfast or whenever I crave rice pudding made 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 and are willing to go to Izmir, try OD Urla. It serves 500 people a night between its two restaurants that share one courtyard. I say close enough because there’s no way you can do fine-dining for that many guests. Still, what Osman Sezener does is incredible. He works like a mad person with a crew that’s just amazing. I love him.

A Restaurant With a Personal Connection

I love the style at Aheste in Beyoğlu. The first owner and chef it had is a close friend of mine. When she had her son, she decided to take some time off and gave up her shares to her partners. The chef who has taken over worked with me at Neolokal. It’s a truly precious thing to see someone you worked with for many years not do anything that resembles what you had done together. It means that this person evolved to having their original touch. I’m proud of this guy.

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