Dining Like A Sultan
at Istanbul's Ottoman Hotel Imperial
“We boil plums,
add pomegranate flowers, bake them in an oven, strain the liquid, and
this is the result,” says Necati Yilmaz. He sets a little glass bowl
before us. We look at the dark purple sauce with some skepticism.
(“Boiled plums and flowers?”) Gingerly, we dip in our spoons and taste.
Surprisingly, it’s wonderful! Sour but, at the same time, with an exotic
sweetness, cool and refreshing. Unlike anything we’ve tasted before.
It is an early evening in June. The
sun has not yet set; the sky is a shade of lavender blue, and we are
seated at a table beside a garden wall, under a gold-colored market
umbrella in Matbah (“kitchen” in the Ottoman tongue), the winter garden
of the Ottoman Hotel Imperial.
This is the heart of historic
Istanbul. The Hagia Sofia – the Greek
Orthodox Cathedral dedicated by Constantine in 360 A.D. that became
a mosque in the wake of the Islamic conquest by Sultan Mehmet in 1453,
and then was turned into a museum combining the treasures of both
civilizations in 1935 as part of Ataturk’s secularization of Turkey --
is directly across from the hotel entrance. The beautiful Blue Mosque,
its multiple domes cascading downwards like a waterfall, is but a few
blocks away. And just beyond, the Bosphorus, separating European from
Asian Turkey flows southward from the Black to the Marmara Sea.
Istanbul as seen from the Bosphorus
the Hagia Sophia
A few hours before, we
had stepped outside our room in this 52-room boutique property (one of
the “Great Hotels in the World”) onto a terrace that looked out over
domes and minarets and a centuries-old madrasah. We heard muezzins
calling the faithful to prayer, a new voice picking up the melody before
the previous one left off. Now we were drinking Turkish champagne and
eating baked plums and pomegranate flowers on a patio punctuated by
brilliant floral displays. It is the end of our first day in Istanbul.
Already we have fallen under its spell.
Necati smiles at our
approval of the sauce. “It is part of the Ottoman cuisine,” he says.
“But remember, Ottoman is not only Turkey; it is also Georgia, Armenia,
Romania, the Balkans, Middle Asia, the Middle East, the Mediterranean.”
All of them will play a
part in the gastronomic adventure we are about to embark upon. By the
time dessert is served, we will have learned how this engaging food and
beverage manager of the Ottoman Hotel Imperial became a scholar of a
unique, complex cuisine whose dishes fed generations of sultans, how he
formed a partnership with a young chef who realized the possibilities of
centuries-old recipes, and how a hotelier was inspired to use their
combined talents to make his hotel a significant presence in a locale
defined by the treasures of it Byzantine and Ottoman past.
from a terrace at the Hotel Ottoman Imperial
under market umbrellas in Matbah
“Eleven years ago, I was a waiter in an Istanbul
restaurant and I became friendly with the chef, a man named Kadir Yılmaz,”
Necati began. “One day I saw him preparing something I did not
recognize. He showed me the recipe he was using in a small book, and he
told me it came from the palace (Topkapi Palace, the primary residence
of Ottoman sultans for some 400 years). I was curious so I went to the
palace myself. My uncle worked there, and he helped me get some of the
librarians to show me the archives. For the most part, I discovered,
palace cooks kept their recipes secret. Still, I was able to find some,
and that encouraged me to search further. I looked through documents of
cooks’ guilds, books by palace historians, and found hundreds of them,
going back hundreds of years.
“‘We are on to something big,’ I told Kadir. I would
copy the recipe, and he would prepare it. We would test dishes in the
restaurant’s kitchen and adapt them to modern tastes and techniques.
That was how the concept began. I got into it, but Kadir was the one who
Flash forward to 2006 when a handsome hotelier from
Troy named Serdar Balta becomes the general manager of the
19th-century, three-story building of orange-colored stone, originally a
hospital, then an inn for young travelers and students, and now the
Ottoman Imperial Hotel.
“As soon as I came here, I had an idea for the hotel,”
Serdar told us. “But I was not yet ready for it. Among other things I
wanted to renovate the kitchen and build a winter garden that would be
used as a restaurant. It wasn’t until about a year after the Grand
Opening that I began to think seriously about implementing my concept.
“My belief was that must pay attention to the setting
of the hotel and the rich history that surrounds it. All aspects of the
hotel must be on the same level. We had renovated the interior to
reflect the Ottoman palace theme. Now we must look at the cuisine. It
could not be ordinary; it must be very special, and I had to find the
best people in Turkey to do this.
He continued, “I heard about two men who were working
in a popular Istanbul restaurant where they were re-creating the dishes
of Ottoman palaces. I went to the restaurant, I ate there. What they
were doing was just what I had been looking for. I began to follow them;
I continued following them for four and half years.”
The men who made Matbah happen: (l to r)
F & B Manager Necati Yilmaz, Chef Kedar Yilmaz,
General Manager Serdar Balta
|“We noticed Serdar,“ Necati said. “He came to
the restaurant often, but did not say anything. Then one day he
telephoned us, asked a few questions. By this time, we had
developed a reputation. Soon after, he told us he understood what
we were doing, that it was what he wanted in his kitchen. At the
same time, we wanted to be in the heart of historic Turkey.”
It took another five years before Necati and
Kedar were set up in the Ottoman Hotel Imperial. Serdar, a
former professional football (soccer) player, understood he was
taking a risk in bringing them to the property, in transforming
the hotel cuisine into one specializing in Ottoman specialties.
But he decided to make the leap. Today the dishes served in
Matbah are all recreations of dishes served to sultans and their
parties across the centuries. “This is the only place where you
can find them,” Necati says.
Over the course of our stay at the Ottoman Hotel
Imperial, we dined on cold soup made of dried fruits with yogurt, spices
and aromatics; chilled grape-vine leaves stuffed with sour cherries,
rice, onions and pine nuts and cooked lightly in olive oil; honeydew
melon with chopped beef, white and black pepper, tiny raisins called
“birth raisins,” almonds and rice; fishcakes made with grapes, cinnamon
and nuts; chopped lamb meat cooked with honey vinegar, almonds, raisins
and apricots; grilled goat cheese served with oyster mushrooms; spring
chicken stewed with almonds, dried apricots, and grapes flavored with
honey and cinnamon; zucchini stuffed with walnuts and seasoned with dill
and verjuice (a juice made of sour fruits); a pudding made from wheat
flour served with a syrup made of roses and lemons; and an assortment of
halavahs made of wheat flour, cinnamon and honey.
include grape leaves stuffed
with sour cherries
Honeydew melon with chopped beef and
These were but a sampling of the thirty-four dishes
listed on Matbah’s menu, each accompanied by a detailed description of
contents and, in some cases, provenance. A notice at the bottom of
every page promises that should a dish not be appreciated by the diner,
there will be no charge for it. A highly unlikely possibility as the
blending of cooked fruits and nuts with meats and vegetables, the
variety and quality of the ingredients, the unexpected combinations all
enhanced by flavorful and aromatic herbs and spices combine to make
dining at Matbah a singular, memorable experience.
More than a delight to the taste buds, it is an appeal
to aesthetic sensibility. Brilliant flowers – geraniums, petunias spill
out of window boxes along the garden wall; perfumed roses bloom in
planters spaced around the winter garden. “A woman is like a rose,”
Necati says, making the connection between the rose plant beside him to
the beautiful young woman who escorts diners to their table and sees if
everything meets their satisfaction. “You look around, all the waiters
are men. But if you have just one woman . . .” he pauses and smiles as
she passes by – “that is something special.”
“Hotel restaurants present a difficult challenge,”
Serdar tells us. “Success is hard to come by as guests like to explore
other dining options outside and tourists, as a rule, don’t patronize
restaurants that are part of a hotel,” he said. “But over the past two
years since our concept has been put into play, we have become a popular
destination restaurant with 70% of our clients coming from outside the
hotel, many of them from the most famous five-star properties in
Istanbul. We have been in the television news; a newspaper chose us as
the most popular restaurant in the city. We’ve had write-ups in the ‘New
York Sunday Times’ and in the Japanese and Russian press.”
“We are thinking of starting a cooking class,” Necati
interjects. “We want to teach Ottoman palace cuisine. This is food with
a history; it is based on research, on finding things made hundreds of
years ago. That is our cultural heritage.”
“What do guests want to feel when they visit
Istanbul?” Serdar poses the question. He stops for a moment to consider
his response, then continues: “They want to feel the city,” he says,
“the culture, the music, the cuisine. By serving the cuisine of the
Ottoman palace, the Ottoman Hotel Imperial becomes a repository of our
culture in a central location, close to so many of the historic
“We are all partners in this endeavor; we are a good
team,” he adds. “It is difficult in this business to keep your chef and
managers in your hand. But we signed our contract with our hearts. A
promise from me is my check.”
Ottoman Hotel Imperial
Caferyie Sokak No. 6/1
34400 Istanbul, Turkey
Phone: +90 212 514 6151
Restaurant: Matbah, Ottoman Palace Cuisine
A Member of the Great Hotels of the World.
historic sites, Istanbul’s chief shopping area, including the famous
Grand Bazaar, is located in the Sultanahmet neighborhood.
the Ottoman Hotel Imperial receive a 15% discount for dining at
Matbah, free wireless connection, and the use of a laptop during
from the Ottoman Hotel Imperial is the Ayasofya Hamam (traditional
Turkish bath house) built in 1556 by Sultan Suleiman to honor his
wife. Redone in 2011, it is a palatial setting for traditional
scrubs, foam soaks, massages and other spa services.
Photos by Harvey
# # #
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights