Three years ago a culinary event happened in Ürgüp, Cappadoca.
That was when 25-year veteran of the Istanbul restaurant scene, Muhittin Üklü, nicknamed Muti, decided to open his eponymous restaurant amidst the spice shops of the town's more commercial strip.
Entering through a tunnel that takes you far from the clamor of the street, you find yourself in a spacious patio bounded on the far side by a cave wall with the three other walls from surrounding buildings, two of which are indoor seating at the restaurant and its kitchen.
You feel immediately that you have arrived in a special place---at once a hideaway gem and an open-air theater.
Music softly comes from the speakers, the mix chosen by Muti himself and emphasizing contemporary popular songs with Gregorian chant like orchestrations.
The tables are not overly adorned allowing you to fully feel the refreshing open air space all the more.
Nearly every night you will find Muti in the center holding court--as menu guide, sommelier and now and then assisting a guest with how to serve his creations.
And they are Muti's creations, whether it is a novel spicing on an ancient Anatolian recipe or a dessert of the day that he created with the market's offerings and the seasonal main menu offered at the time in his mind.
A one-time painter, Muti turned his strong creative urges to the culinary arts about a quarter century ago. He does not rest when it comes to his menu creations.
The menu changes with the season but recipes from each summer are distinct from one another, as are those in other seasons too. Muti will tell you that this is so because of his own energy that always seeks the new.
Most dishes served had been two or three months in the making, with 15 - 20 iterations before it was deemed worthy to serve.
That said it would be wrong to characterize Muti's fare as "nouvelle cuisine". Muti spends a good deal of time researching original Ottoman recipes.
The creativity comes in the way Muti re-imagines the herbs and spicing.
Muti explains, "In Ottoman cuisine there are many different herbs and spices and we keep to the traditional core principles. As is traditional we use fresh and dried fruits (apples, plums, quinces, apricots)in meat dishes. Almonds, pistachios and walnuts are staples as well. Grape molasses, pomegranate juice, and other sour fruit juices are added during cooking too."
While research into Ottoman authenticity is key, Muti will often find inspiration at the bazaar to try a new ingredient to augment the core recipe. Adding one ingredient or rebalancing the spicing and herbs is one of the ways Muti adds more dimension to the dish.
For example, our entree "Maklube" is a very traditional dish of baked beef with eggplant. The Muti twist is to add almonds giving it added texture and flavor dimensions. It certainly also makes a difference that they start with tender beef collar meat that is baked for about five hours and that the lentils Muti has added to this recipe are cooked with cinnamon for perfect spicing. Superb!
A few tips on how to have the best experience at Muti's.
First, sample as many of the 26 starters on the menu as your appetite will allow. We sampled small portions of five as well as a smaller portion of " Mantı", a traditional Turkish ravioli stuffed with minced meat, yogurt, and tomato sauce topped with a special Muti created herb paste of deep green.
All of these dishes that we sampled were not only excellent but distinct and combining to define the A-Z of Turkish flavors.
A second and related tip is to ask Muti to order for you. He knows his menu intimately and obviously steers you to combinations and orders of dishes that tingle your palate for each successive dish to come.
Third, also ask Muti to pair your meal with wines. He has more than 70 wines on his wine list, all Turkish. His ample experience as a sommelier is apparent.
Last tip-- don't skip dessert! You won't find dessert on the menu as Muti creates them daily, striving to keep to genuine Turkish flavors. For example, baked pumpkin is a traditional Turkish dessert but in Muti's hands it becomes a pudding with the pumpkin first cooked with orange peels, a swirl of tahini added along with walnuts. Instead of the traditional rose syrup Muti substitutes lavender for a milder aroma. All the way around, this is truly inspired.
Locavores take note. Muti does not highlight the locally-sourced aspect of his menu as would now be done in most high end American restaurants that take pains to be local. Because of his ardent desire to create the essence of Anatolian flavor all ingredients are sourced locally. If he cannot get an ingredient in Cappadocia that his research leads him to he works with an Istanbul grocer to source it within Turkey. If it’s not Turkish, it’s not on the menu.
Take this as either a warning or suggestion, as you will. We discovered Muti's on our last night in Cappadocia. If it had been our first night we would likely have been tempted to return every evening for dinner and clearly the best Turkish wines we sampled to date in Turkey.
If you are a devotee of destination dining add Muti's to your world travel list. By all means, stay for the spectacular Cappadocia surrounds.
Visit the Muti Restaurant website.
Muti by prokopia
Cumhuriyet Meydani No: 26 Urgup in Cappadocia Turkey
Tel: +90 384 341 58 08
Mob: +90535763 55 84
E-mail: I [email protected]
Photos: Peter Kachergis unless otherwise indicated