Considered the “Grande Dame” of luxury hotels in Istanbul, Cırağan Palace Kempinski is located on the European bank of the Bosphorus in a sprawling compound divided in two buildings. The first is a modern architectural hotel and the second is the eponymous Baroque palace. Somehow, both contrasting architectural styles fuse functionally as one traverses from building to the other.
The palace was constructed between 1863 and 1867 as a residence of the 32nd Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz. Throughout its long history the edifice underwent several changes, mostly according to the succeeding sultans’ tastes and imperial initiatives. In 1909, for instance, it was where the General Assembly of the Ottoman Empire conducted its business during its Second Constitutional Era. A year later, a fire almost razed it to the ground and after a period of abandonment, the site was eventually used to house French military barracks and even the football stadium for the Beşiktaş team.
In 1989, Cırağan Palace was rebuilt as part of an agreement between the Turkish government and a Japanese corporation that wanted to erect a modern hotel complex alongside what remained of the historic structure from the blaze. Two years later, the Japanese flipped their acquisition to Kempinski Hotels that further restored the palace to its original soft-colored magnificence in 2007. But even before the refurbishment, the gastronomically multi-awarded Tuğra Restaurant & Lounge already occupied the first floor main dining room of the palace. It was intended to be easily accessible to free-spending guests of eleven beyond-plush suites that are some of the most expensive accommodations in the world (for the others, reservation is definitely required).
Last month, I visited Tuğra to enjoy the ultimate experience of tasting Ottoman Palace Cuisine in a real palace setting. The restaurant’s overall muted pastels, gauzy white drapes, high-ceiling and soft lighting made the interior come off tastefully retrained and I was instantly delighted by the understated aristocratic elegance of the place. Sure it had some rich trappings that immediately grabbed one’s attention, but it would entail unimaginable expenditures to completely duplicate the fabulous antique furnishings of a sultan’s palace and there were only a few suggestive pieces of the era's opulence: glass chandeliers, framed Ottoman Rumi designs and Orientalist paintings, a big tapestry and colored cone lamps with Ottoman motifs dropping from the ceiling. The floor-to-ceiling windows were still there for one to easily imagine the sultan, his family and guests taking in the constant and enchanting activity on the Bosphorus or the domed silhouettes of Istanbul’s historic peninsula while partaking in the dishes coming from the fabled Ottoman kitchen.
Speaking of dishes, I noticed one major change in Tuğra since my last visit. I distinctly remembered that the Ottoman palace recipes that were being recreated from historical culinary archives were also offered in nouvelle cuisine versions for customers who didn’t like the heaviness of the original food. Under Ahmet Kara, the Chef de Cuisine since 2012 who rose from the ranks in the kitchen of Cırağan Palace Kempinski after 21-year service, there is no such choice. He wants to solely focus on making the traditional dishes with the right ingredients, tweaking native culinary methods as little as possible (though he does update the food presentation to appeal to modern palates). After savoring a few of the signature dishes, I couldn’t agree more with the decision.
* Almost Haute / * Haute Enough / ** Very Haute / *** Really Haute
Amuse bouche and Alinazik Kebab ***
At the start the meal, the waiter brought in mini-plated trio of Tuğra’s regular amuse bouche consisting of a medium-sized lavash bread, ezme (a garlicky mashed tomato puree), a tapenade of three cheeses (goat, feta and cream) and goat milk butter. He then followed up with a surprise extra treat from the chef: a flavorful take on warm and creamy Alinazik kebab, which consisted of mashed eggplant topped with ground meat sautéed in garlic and yogurt for a spicily flavorful result.
Classic Tuğra Treats **
Presented on a big decorative platter, they consisted of nine small plates coming in bite sizes: shrimp mastic pilaki with plum; lor mahlutu or mashed curd cheese with fresh herbs, tomato and pine nuts; fava beans; lentil köfte with herbs; stuffed vine leaves with onion; Circassian chicken; roasted eggplant; humus; and melon and white cheese with rose water. As samplings of the restaurant’s versions of traditional and favorite cold Turkish meze, they all tasted freshly and flawlessly made
Eight pasta triangles stuffed with minced meat were served lying on a sauce made of yogurt, tomato and spicy butter. The delicious filling escaping from the dumpling was a divine gift to my taste buds.
Traditional prawn casserole***
The wild mushrooms, onion, garlic, sweet pepper, tomato, butter and kaşkaval (a cheese from sheep) layered sumptuous flavors on the plump prawns. Oven-roasted, the casserole was given the extra aromatic goodness of slow cooking.
The eggplant was fried and stuffed with beef, fresh pepper, onion and tomatoes then cooked in the oven. It was served with buffalo yogurt and baldo pilaf. For a simple dish, it packed a good dose of complex earthy tastes. The menu noted that this warm weather light dish made its way into the Ottoman table in the 19th Century.
Testi lamb casserole***
This was the plat de résistance of the dinner, especially because of the show-time manner it was presented and served. Our waiter wheeled the small sealed clay jar containing the casserole and the garnishes on a trolley. With a visible flourish, he picked up the pot and carefully knocked the dough hat with a copper handle to break it. He then poured the rich content of deboned and tenderized lamb shoulder, young potato, wild mushrooms, green pepper, garlic, and shallot swimming in a mixture of tomato sauce and vegetable stock into the center of a round pilaf mold. Absolutely delicious.
Homemade Baklava Selection**
Chef Ahmet gave us the honor of presenting the dessert tray. He personally arranged the ice cream to go with the four different baklavas I chose. I found a marked difference in Tuğra’s baklavas from the many found in Istanbul and the quality of ingredients used must account for it.
|Venue name:||As Haute as It Gets: Tuğra Restaurant|
Çırğan Palace Kempinski, Çırağan Caddesi 32, Beşiktaş
|Opening hours:||19.00 - 23.30 (daily)|