Turkish restaurants give you a wonderful welcome, but too often I wonder if they either find visiting summer tourists too easy to please, or they didn’t think we are worth the trouble. The country has an immense supply of home grown vegetables and fruit, available in even the smallest village. Yet in the standard tourist place, it’s almost worth ordering a few more mezzes, and leaving it at that, without even considering the bland and unvarying main course of lamb kebabs, salad and chips and very often rice as well.
I know Turkish chefs can do better, but over many years, in tourist towns and villages, it has been hard to find more creative cuisine. You had to wait for the bigger places. Istanbul, a major city, offers a good choice of authentic cuisine.
Now, I’m happy to report, the culinary picture is changing. A good example of the serious attention to innovation in the Turkish kitchen is in a place not yet on the route of too many British people, the Cesme Peninsula west of Izmir. This is a concentrated example of Turkish holiday chic, a very 21st-century development in the country’s tourism. Here developers moved away from building featureless hotels for the mass market, and instead refurbished and renovated the hundreds of stone-built dwellings from the early 1800s and 1900s. It has all happened since the year 2000. By 2011 the New York Times named the peninsula among its top 50 destinations in the world to visit.
Alaçatı is a busy town, with many dozens of restaurants and hotels in small and sturdy refurbished stone buildings. Chef and restauranteur Kemal Demirasal found a rare empty spot, an unused hill-top top location, for his new restaurant, the Alancha. The location, with its high views over the fields and hills, and windmills, of this land at the very west end of Turkey, is memorable. The menu, to anybody used to the standard, unadventurous fare in tourist restaurants, is revolutionary.
They begin with the big operatic welcome. We walked there through narrow cobblestone streets, between old stone houses, and took a wide circular flight of steps for the final approach. There, suddenly, was the entire staff, standing at the entrance in two lines to greet us.
If there is time, they also give you a quick tour of the kitchen, and a view of the gardens where they grow their own herbs in elevated beds. Then, for a hint of what’s to come, a glimpse of the wood-fired oven and wood-burning stoves, fired by cherry and peach wood. The electric stove is used only for cooking sauces.
We were served cocktails at the open-air bar on the terrace, as dusk fell on the town below. A waiter led us to a solid, round wooden table, dimly lit under the immense starscape in the clear, Turkish night sky.
We chose the tasting menu, and put our trust in the chefs. We had to concentrate hard as the dishes were explained when they arrived. The meal began with multiple amuse bouches on the table. There’s so much to remember it’s worth writing down anything you recognise. This is sure to be an occasion you will want to tell your friends about. Our incomplete list included Trabzon butter and sourdough bread, zucchini flower dolma, and marinated sea bass with lime.
Later research online suggested some of the following: tahini cream with crunchy sardines; smoked pistachio purée, with walnuts and almonds, clover and lemon thyme; sea bass, geranium, purslane and strawberry vinegar; pulled lamb shank with wood-grilled spring onions, wheat crumbs, dried olives and celery mayonnaise; samphire, smoked goat’s cheese with fermented strawberry sauce.
The desserts included oven-roasted grapes, caramelized sesame seeds, lemon verbena and pine water, and pine ice cream, served in a bowl of pine cones. Then candyfloss, to bring out the nostalgic in most of us. Yet more use of simple, uncomplicated ingredients, presented with imagination and invention.
Afterwards I spoke to the owner, Kemal Demirasal, on the telephone, and asked him about his philosophy.
He said he was trying to create a fuller, more complete dining-out experience. “So we don’t just want people to say the food was good, but that the night was good. So dim light, and no music.
“For the food, we try to use local Anatolian ingredients, but we don’t want to serve Anatolian dishes, renovated. We are trying to figure out what we can do new with Anatolian, or Turkish ingredients, and how we can modify the way we cook.”
A key aspect of this approach is to employ the old techniques of cooking. “We are using wood, and best of all, charcoal. Smoking vegetables brings out new, unexpected tastes. That taste can be better than meat, which is what you always expect to be smoked. But when you smoke vegetables, they take the flavour of meat.
“Any type of vegetable carries the taste of smoke better than the meat. Most customers say the meat was great, but they add that they’ve never eaten such tomatoes, or cabbage, or salicornia (samphire).
“Our focus is on local ingredients, and more and more we’re focusing on vegetables and herbs. We’re trying out new combinations of vegetables, and seafood. Where we use meat and fish, they are all local. Over the coming years we will decrease the amount on the menu to, maybe, just a few fish and one meat.”
This is a restaurant that certainly suits vegetarians, but Kemal stresses it is not a vegetarian menu. “If you look at global gastronomy, wherever you go you can have sea bass, you can order tuna. Everywhere you go in Turkey, you can have lamb.
“But we have very special and unique herbs and vegetables in our region. If you come in spring, we have more than 1000 herbs that are special for this region. Maybe you’ve heard of Herb Festival in this town? The Alcata region is the richest region for herbs in Turkey. So we’re looking at how we can make more new things out of those, to give people a unique experience.”
He is complementing the food with 21st century local wines. “The wineries around here are very young, from around the year 2000. The vineyards will be maturing in the next few years. The wines should be better with each passing year.”
He quotes some impenetrable (to my ear) names, unique to this region of Turkey. “The wineries are not trying to make wine in volume; they’re concentrating on perhaps 10,000 bottles, and they want to make it good. Those owners, they’re trying to produce good wine, not to make money out of it.
“We want to do more than promote French or Italian wines, because the food belongs to this region. It’s appropriate that we should serve the local wine, which is from the same terroire.”
What impression would he like the diner to take away? Of invention? Of innovation? He says it has to be the experience, and that the food was good, although it isn’t necessary to like everything, because that’s the nature of experimental dining. However the dishes have to carry a taste. “If there is no taste, innovation doesn’t mean anything for us.”