In America, you don’t often hear chefs talking about “honest” food.
To enjoy Meze by Lemon Tree you should forget your American context and instead get into the Turkish mind of master Chef Gençay Üçok.
Otherwise you might arrive at Meze by Lemon Tree unprepared for the four to six hours the feast before you merits. Worse yet, you may neglect to put it on your short list of what to do in Istanbul.
When Chef Gençay says that the colorful array of meze (appetizer) delectables that his restaurant serves is “honest”, it is actually an invitation to relish the historic role of the meyhane in Turkish culture.
(Meyhanes are restaurants that also serve apertifs or other alcoholic beverages.)
Gençay says, “My partners and I wanted to create a traditional meyhane like the ones we enjoyed with our fathers thirty years ago—but with different food…Most meyhanes always have the same food and it is boring…We stay in the tradition of the Turkish, Mediterranean or you could even say Asian frame, but we are also experimental.”
The experiments begin every day at the nearby green grocer where Chef Gençay and his team go to order tea and take a tour of what has become available that day.
That’s one reason why the menu changes daily, with 14+/- new cold mezes each day. Every three to five months the warm starters change as well, except for those Meze’s longstanding and loyal local patrons insist stay available.
Chef Gençay continues, “Often I find great inspiration by walking through the city and coming upon different things.. For example, once I was in the back streets at the equivalent of a US dollar shop where I saw a big box of baby melons. It turned out that the watchman of the mall had brought them in from his relative’s farm, and people were buying them to pickle. We didn’t pickle them but instead treated them as a vegetable to be cooked in various ways until we had exhausted our supply.”
That Chef Gençay walks the city a lot became clear to us when in passing conversation we mentioned a sour cherry artichoke meze we had had on the opposite Asian side of the city far from his restaurant and he knew exactly which modest fish restaurant we were referring to, from a probable list of thousands of fish restaurants in this sprawling city of approximately 17 million.
From the cornucopia on display in the meze case, you would likely not guess at Chef Gençay’s frustration with the supply chain in Istanbul. He laments, “Sometimes we are attempting to cook gourmet style dishes with foods that are almost extinct…In 2003 a bluefish that I could get for 2.5 Turkish lira would today cost 26 Turkish liras and would not be quite as big. Our sardines, our sea bass are all farmed now.. Twenty years ago we ate tomatoes as one eats fruit. …Our seas are overfished. We don’t have the diversity of fresh produce…”
That said and with apparent pain, Chef Gençay emphasizes again that “Meze cooks honest food in terms of the raw ingredients. If I’m not convinced that I will enjoy a food I don’t share it with our patrons…”
The imaginative twists on classic Turkish meyhane fare at Meze by Lemon Tree span from new takes on old classics to innovative flourishes, perhaps drawing from his early French culinary training but going beyond to bring you mezes akin to Latin ceviche or caper-dotted seaweed dishes.
Think softened green peppers stuffed with smoked salmon and dotted with scallions and red peppers…
or a parchment-wrapped sea bass with tasty dried apricot morsels within.
Or cacık (tzatsiki) with somewhat larger cucumber and an unexpected refreshing extra crunch.
or a baba ganoush that seems to not just be from smoked egglplants but seemingly dripping with a delicious smoke taste.
or smoked crispy anchovies in a cocktail sauce with a splash of brandy.
Or think of an amazing combination of salted nuts, honey, bananas and more that renders its banana foster cousin banal.
Actually, the best advice is not to think at all, but rather sit back for the requisite four+ hours and have the Meze by Lemon Tree tasting menu (85 Turkish lira per person, about US$40, for unlimited cold mezes, a hot meze and one main menu item plus dessert—a meal that with wine in comparable high-end Chicago restaurants could cost $200US).
Chef Gençay and his two partners --Murat Hiçyilmaz, an architect and three-time novelist and Hakan Denizer, an archeologist and travel agent--have put much thought into Meze by Lemon Tree. The three had prior success in the gastro-hotel called Lemon Tree in the South of Turkey—hence the restaurant name--- and the need to make your reservation a week or so in advance speaks to their continuing success.
Opposite the historic Hotel Pera Palace, Istanbul
Make reservations ahead of time
Photos: Peter Kachergis