Hotel dining rooms by definition are places to decompress, where travellers wan from jetlag know they will not have to wrestle with fricasseed lamb cheeks or cheeky waiters. But the restaurants of Istanbul's grand hotels aren't just for wimps. In the late 19th century, the Tokatlıyan Hotel, which catered dinner parties for the palace, was the hottest seat in town. More recently, and as more and more five-stars begin to open their doors, hotels have become stand-alone centres of glamour and culinary innovation, designed not to stop guests from going out, but to draw the city in.
In its heyday the Tokatlıyan had but one rival - the Pera Palas around the corner. The Pera Palas catered to a diplomatic clientele as well as being the terminus for the Orient Express. It was here that Agatha Christie penned the start of her Murder on the Orient Express, before moving to a seaside mansion up the Bosphorus owned by the hotel's then owner. This does not explain why she had Poirot dine at the Tokatlıyan (where he has great difficulty keeping his moustache out of the soup) before setting out on that fateful journey.
He should have come to Agatha, the flagship of the recently reopened Pera Palace, where one of the signature dishes - a potage of vine leaves - comes in an eminently sippable teacup. Chef Maximilian Thomas is a long-time resident of Istanbul, and although the dish sounds like artsy fusion, it is attractive and tasty and just the sort of intelligent adaptation of ingredients that go to make up a new Istanbul cuisine.
At its best the menu at Agatha presents familiar Turkish ingredients in interesting contexts and is not afraid to borrow from abroad. It might seem an odd thing to say, but there is respect for texture. It's not just that the grouper (or lagos - a fine Mediterranean fish) was properly springy but that I still remember the milk-marinated lamb I had once had at a banquet cooked by Chef Thomae which was firm but not tough - something kebab houses do well, but large hotels almost never achieve. Agatha boasts a menu dégustation which changes every month and is a strong believer in set menus. On the other hand, we preferred the bolder choices of ordering à la carte.
Agatha inhabits a purpose-built room which is more sedate than the porphyry- and marble-clad public rooms upstairs or the empire-style old dining room which is now the dedicated banqueting hall. But if the Pera Palace has gone through a top-to-toe makeover, this is as nothing compared to the transformation of the Divan Hotel, a familiar Istanbul landmark which has been torn down and rebuilt. In the process the hotel has changed nationality - where once it was a bit of modernist Americana, the exterior now sports Moorish brown and beige stripes. It is not an oriental fantasy. The architect, Thierry Despont, is after all a Frenchman based in deepest Tribeca. Certainly what lifts the Divan's game are the extravagant glass chandeliers in the lobby, a lotus assembled from enormous hand-blown petals and the hanging glass sculptures - a firework of exploding tubes - in the high-ceilinged, ultra-sophisticated restaurant, the Divan Lokanta.
I had lunch there with Robert DuGrenier, the artist responsible. He is a man of enormous charm who speaks enthusiastically about the varietals of wild wheat he grows in Vermont and only talks about himself when prodded. Lokanta might seem to be a laboratory for new Turkish cuisine and the plates arrive carefully arranged. However, what the kitchen does best are traditional standards. The roast lamb is soft and succulent - almost gooey from being moist-roasted and very different from the tenderness achieved by serving it rare or, as the current fashion would have it, “dry poaching” it sous vide. As the afternoon wore on, I came to realise that much of the pleasure of sitting in Lokanta comes from the juxtaposition of the highly manicured setting and the dangerous exuberance of the ensembles of set molten glass overhead. That and tasty sweets (Laz böreği is a cross between a crepe and warm mille-feuille) as well as a knowledgeable sommelier to talk you through a very long list of some unusual Turkish wines. Robert DuGrenier was also the consultant for the restored torch light atop New York's Statue of Liberty, which I reckon is a cool thing to have on your CV. An hour after we said goodbye I popped in to meet a friend at the Divan Pub, and there was Mr DuGrenier, with his sleeves rolled up, busy changing the light bulb on a lamp he had designed on one of the dividing screens. “It's much too bright,” he said, and of course it was.
Dinner, this time in another of Istanbul's new hotels. The Edition , at the start of the city's business district in Levent, is hotel as theatre. From the vast modern baronial entrance hall to the artfully sunken baths comes a husky whisper, “Don't try this at home.” The restaurant is the Istanbul branch of Cipriani, where the art deco mural, lacquered wood panels and dime-sized tables force you to pinch yourself to remember you are not in Venice at Hary's Bar or Harry Cipriani's in Manahattan. My host is Giuseppe Cipriani, grandson of the restaurant dynasty's founder - and, yes, he orders a Bellini but refuses to speculate as to how many of these peach and prosecco mixes he has drunk in his life. Did he always want to go into the family business? “My father gave us lots of choices, but never gave us a real choice,” he says.
We taste our way through the menu - some beef carpaccio, then baked tagliolini with ham. I need a few Bellinis myself to figure out whether Cipriani serve comfort food or whether it's comfort food because Cipriani serve it. The squid simmered in its own ink (seppie in techia col nero) has a sweetish bite and is a bit more challenging. But then for desert we are on familiar turf again: crêpes alla crema - a sugary glazed crepe with a crème patissière filling. Laz böreği by a different name?
Agatha at the Pera Palace Hotel
Meşrutiyet Cad 52, Beyoğlu, Istanbul
+90 212 377 4000; www.perapalace.com
Divan Lokanta at the Divan Hotel
Asker Ocağı Cad 1, Taksim, Istanbul
+90 212 315 5590; www.divan.com
Cipriani at The Istanbul Edition
Büyükdere Cad, Levent, Istanbul
+90 212 317 7787; firstname.lastname@example.org
Cornucopia Magazine, Issue 46, p.126