The highly awaited Istanbul Michelin stars have been announced. The Michelin Guide, one of the world’s leading restaurant rating systems, came to Türkiye, but currently only for the city of Istanbul. Covering the whole of Türkiye will take place in the coming years, and the Istanbul list will be renewed every year. There will be new entrants to the list, as well as those who will lose their position. A total of 53 restaurants were selected in the first edition of Michelin Istanbul Guide, no three stars were awarded and the only two stars were given to Fatih Tutak’s Turk, and four restaurants got one star, namely Araka, Neolokal, Nicole and Mikla, and the Bib Gourmand list covered 10 restaurants. Neolokal also received a Green Star for sustainability, a Young Chef Award to Mürver, and the Michelin Service Award went to Sunset Grill& Bar. The arrival of Michelin to Istanbul was declared by the end of April, and the results were announced on Oct. 11. The list stirred hot discussions, and many food writers condemned the list as being far from accurate, missing many places worthy of entering the list, and being unbalanced. Of course, as always, some of the criticisms are biased and reflect only the view of the commentator, but it is also obvious that the prestigious guide could not avoid the pitfalls of judging Istanbul’s culinary scene in such a short time.
Istanbul is an exciting city in terms of food. The inspectors must have been a little stunned and even stumbled by the diversity. In gastronomy terms, the city has its own unique way of eating out, a diverse selection of eateries, ranging from street foods and single-dish restaurants to kebab joints, fish restaurants, and above all the favorite of locals’ meyhanes. Even the single-dish places constitute a world in itself, such as köfteci, offering only grilled meatballs; or pideci, serving only a selection of pide, flatbreads with various toppings, the Turkish answer to pizza; or the dönerci, sometimes a hole in the Wall place serving only döner kebab; or a mantı shop, offering only Turkish dumplings, and the list goes on expanding to işkembeci serving only tripe soup and the like. Last but not least, muhallebici, the iconic pudding shops that serve milk puddings, also offer satisfying plates, and the sweet scene becomes stickier to judge, if you think about all the baklava and sweet shops, expanding the range to bakeries and patisseries. It is hard to comprehend fully the whole profile of the culinary scene in such a city. Grasping the real essence of Istanbul’s eating places is hard enough, checking each worthy one is even harder, or practically impossible in a mere couple of months.
As said, it’s not easy to compare apples and pears. Michelin Guides International Director Gwendal Poullennec was in Istanbul personally to present the awards. When I asked him this question, he said that their aim is always to choose the best apple and the best pear. However, this target could not be fully met and the category of Bib Gourmand and Recommended Restaurants has become like mixed fruit salad, a truly “Tutti Frutti” selection. One of the most repeated criticisms was, “If these places can enter, why not these?” That was the subject that everyone talked about the most. Meanwhile, the inspectors seemed to be focused on the city center mostly. In many countries, and especially in countries like France, Spain and Italy, some of the most celebrated Michelin restaurants are in the countryside. In Istanbul, everybody expected a star or at least a recognition given to Casa Lavanda, which is way out in Şile, nearly a 45-minute drive, but still within the boundaries of the city. It is pretty clear that off-center places like Şile, or Silivri, or the Princess Islands remained under the radar of the inspectors. The joke of the night came from Sinem Özler, the chef of Seraf, one of the few women on the recommended list: “At least, we succeeded in bringing Michelin to Bağcılar,” she said, which was received with a big smile by many, since the neighborhood was not among the poshest places of the city, to put it mildly. When I asked how the borders of Istanbul were defined by the Guide, he could not give a clear answer to my question, instead, he said they sometimes have to focus on the center only. I wish they made it clear where Istanbul starts and ends.