I don’t remember what year it was… It was one of those years when the name of Fazıl Say was starting to become recognized…
It was bonito season!
One night, after my wife and I had gone to a recital by Fazıl Say at Maçka Maden, we headed for the Nişantaşı slope, all the while humming the Say version of Mozart’s “Alla Turca.”
We were hungry… We entered one of the cute restaurants on the right.
The tables were full so we hopped onto two stools at the bar.
As we ordered, I informed the waiter:
– We’re coming from a great concert. Actually we wanted to cap off this mood with some bonito and a couple of glasses of rakı along the Bosporus, but we reckoned that’s a bridge too far, so let’s just nibble on whatever you have here.
– If you wish, we can make you a great grilled bonito!
– I was about to say ‘there’s no way you can do grilled bonito’ but held my tongue because he was so polite. ‘So, you serve fish,’ I said with a hint of condescension. You think it’d be okay to have fish in the middle of Nişantaşı?
– I say it would be great. Trust me; if you don’t like it, you can order something else afterwards.
How do you say no to someone who is so confident but expresses it so elegantly? I thought to myself, ‘Well, we probably won’t be poisoned,’ so I went ahead and ordered.
And guess what? The grilled bonito that arrived was one of the best I’d ever tasted!
Embarrassed by our prejudice, we expressed our gratitude and headed for home, this time praising the fish and the chef along the way.
I later found out that the owner and chef – or one of the partners – of the restaurant was a young guy named Mehmet Gürs, whose mother was Scandinavian.
I understood the distinction of him being half-foreign years later when I met him in person. Here’s the story:
For a very long time I have had this opinion:
One day, tourism will kick off in Turkey – albeit not in Antalya or Bodrum but in Istanbul! However, it will be crucial to act correctly to guarantee sustainability. For that to happen, it’s vital to offer good hotels and restaurants. Our restaurants should have their unique traits instead of imitations of western restaurants as foreign tourists can find better counterparts in their own countries. That’s why it’s crucial to develop meyhanes and restaurants that serve cheap, home-cooked meals!
In fact, we have developed greatly in terms of tourism, and from what I read in the papers, Istanbul has become the third most popular touristic destination in Europe after Paris and London. So, have our restaurants forged a unique character for themselves? At present, it’s not possible to say yes. There are some experiments and trends, and they need to be supported. Since I believe it’s very important for restaurants and taverns to serve foreigners “something they can only find here,” I’ve made it my business to send the establishments I visit little notes on how to make that happen. I also share my ideas with a small circle of friends whose hearts are set on the subject. In fact, this blog came to life after they constantly encouraged me to “go public!”
One of the things that we simply must offer foreigners is Turkish rakı. Just as people want to try ouzo when they’re in Greece, we need to make them sample a couple of glasses of rakı. Some of our restaurants, however – mostly those who see themselves as “cool” – see rakı as outside their concept and never serve it, or serve it the wrong way.
After a restaurant tour in Istanbul, I would send my opinions and criticisms to this closed group, noting which restaurant committed which particular faux pas. One of the restaurants I reviewed was Mikla, and Vedat Milor wrote about it in his column in Milliyet with the headline: “Serving rakı: Warnings from a friend.”
“Tanör’s criticisms are constructive; his goal is to help those who want to raise the bar,” Milor’s article said. “He readily offers consultation to youngsters he deems talented. It’s cruel to be kind; it’s better to hear the truth about rakı service from a friend rather than the enemy!” And then, he added a quote from me as an example:
“I asked for rakı at a restaurant and they brought me a single, watered down with ice. I asked the waiter for the brand of the rakı and he provided the answer.
“‘But son, did I ask for this brand of rakı? Why did you bring me this before you asked me which brand I wanted? Would you have done the same if I’d asked for wine or whiskey?’
“After that, the tragicomic part began: I asked for Yeni Rakı’s New Selection, but he brought me Yeni Rakı.
“‘Look son, this is Yeni Rakı, but not the New Selection; does Kavaklıdere have a single wine?’
“Just then, the untrained waiter pointed to the serial number on the bottle and said, ‘But sir, this is a new production!’
“On top of being ignorant about the brand, he also tried to fool me by saying it’s new! I called the chef to explain the situation, but his response was even more pathetic: ‘Sir, it’s because rakı doesn’t go with our concept!’
“‘Then don’t serve it at all,’ I said and added: ‘You’d better learn how to correctly serve the food and drinks on your menu.’”
This incident didn’t occur at Mikla, but since the name Mikla was mentioned, it could cause a misunderstanding. Do you know what happened? The next part is directly connected to Mehmet Gürs, who I previously said had a ‘foreign side’: Gürs, thanks to his foreign roots that made him a gentleman, sent me an email. With a maturity that completely flies in the face of our social structure where even constructive criticism that is made with the best of intentions is dismissed and almost conceived as hostile, he first thanked me for my criticism. After reproaching me with the line, “I wish you’d told me all this before” (in fact, I’d pointed out the flaws I’d determined to his staff), he hit the bull’s eye:
“Would you be so kind as to show us the right way to serve rakı by honoring us with your presence one day?”
What do you say to a perfect Istanbul gentleman who wants to achieve perfection, carefully listens to all the warnings he receives and asks for help without becoming defensive? I heartily accepted. First, I replied to his email saying he was one of the best chefs in Turkey and that I saw no reason why he won’t become one of the best in Europe. I added that he shouldn’t be upset about the criticisms of grumpy old men but should instead remain strong and enthusiastic, as such criticisms should not deter his ambition but do just the opposite. So I went to his restaurant and taught everything I knew to the pillar of the establishment, Madame Sabiha and her team, and showed them in practice what I wanted to see as a customer.
Today, people who go to Mikla will see that the restaurant has a “rakı menu” that boasts 19 different brands. Mikla’s rakı service is now impeccable.
Mikla, with its respect for local cuisine and local drinks and continuous quest for a unique approach, is well on its way to international stardom.