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From Istanbul with love...

Even if you have never been there before, you will have seen it in so many movies that it will seem strangely familiar

brunch Updated: Nov 04, 2017 21:19 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Istanbul is the only major city in the world that straddles two continents, Asia and Europe
Istanbul is the only major city in the world that straddles two continents, Asia and Europe(Getty Images)

Even if you have never been to Istanbul, you probably feel as though you know it. Partly, this is because of its crucial role in medieval history. But mostly, it is because of popular fiction. The Orient Express (the train, not the restaurant) is always associated with Istanbul and the city crops up again and again in the books and movies that involve the train – ranging from Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train to Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express and its various film versions.

For me, however, Istanbul is the city of James Bond. The best of the Sean Connery Bonds, From Russia With Love, was filmed in Istanbul and the producers claimed it was Ian Fleming’s favourite city. Such Istanbul landmarks as Hagia Sophia and the underwater cistern all came to greater public attention thanks to the movie. 

James Bond, in the shape of Pierce Brosnan, was back in Istanbul in the forgettable The World Is Not Enough where the plot revolves around a scheme to destroy Istanbul with a nuclear explosion and the climax is set in the Maiden’s Tower on the Strait of Bosphorus.

Because nobody really remembers The World Is Not Enough, the Bond producers acted as though 007’s return to the city for Skyfall was his first visit there after the classic From Russia With Love. Of course, in the interim, Bond had gone from being a dark-haired Scotsman with a slight speech impediment to taking the form of the light-haired, tight-suited Daniel Craig. Whatever we saw of Istanbul in the film was soon destroyed as the motorcycle chases, shoot-outs and explosions dominated the action.  

Of course there are lots of other American/British films based in Istanbul (Inferno may be the best-known recent hit), but over the last decade or so, even Hindi films have chosen it as a favoured location. (Remember Agent Vinod?)

Istanbul is the city of James Bond as the best of the city’s landmarks came in the limelight thanks to the movies

There is a reason why film-makers love Istanbul. After Venice, it is the most photogenic city in the world. There are bits that are truly beautiful. Other parts contain architectural marvels. And even the grimy, crowded localities and side streets work well for action sequences. For instance, during Skyfall, Bond (or more accurately, a stuntman pretending to be Daniel Craig) raced a bike through the Grand Bazaar, scattering crowds and ending up (still on his bike) on the roof of the building.

It was because of all this, that the first time I went to Istanbul some years ago, I felt that I had already been there. The occasion was the launch of a new vintage of Dom Perignon’s Rose Champagne and the event was spectacular: they took over an old villa on the edge of the Bosphorus and restored it to dreamlike splendour.

Four Seasons, Bosphorus, is located next to the Bosphorus strait — a body of water that you might mistake for a river

I stayed that time at the Four Seasons, Bosphorus and as hectic as the Dom Perignon schedule was, there was something peaceful and relaxing about the hotel. It is located next to the Bosphorus strait – a body of water that you might mistake for a river – and on the other side you can see Asia. That’s literally true; Istanbul is the only major city in the world that straddles two continents, Asia and Europe. The locals have no difficulty in referring to “the Asian side” or “the European side”, though personally I still find this a bit strange. (The old city, with its mosques and much photographed and filmed locations is on the European side.)

I flew Turkish Airways to San Sebastian because a) it is the only airline I know of that gives you a jalebi (or the Turkish version) with every single meal and b) because it is a good way to get to Bilbao, the international airport for San Sebastian, from India. On the way there, I merely changed planes at Istanbul (where Turkish Airlines has a fabulous lounge).

Turkish food occupies a curious halfway house, it has neither the sophistication of European food nor the depth of Indian food

But on the way back, I decided to stop over for a few days.  I had tried other hotels in Istanbul over the years but nothing had matched up to the Four Seasons, Bosphorus, in terms of ambiance, warmth and efficiency. I decided I would go back there. It proved to be a wise decision: the hotel is even better and friendlier than I remembered.

On my very first trip to Istanbul, I had gone to the Spice Market, a bustling bazaar (not unlike say, parts of Mumbai’s Crawford Market or Calcutta’s New Market) and had been intrigued by the signs offering fresh caviar. Pushing my way past shopkeepers offering “Viagra for Sultan” (don’t even ask) and asking “four times a night, you want?”, I had gone to a couple of shops to try the caviar, which was vile and dodgy.

Then, the Concierge told me the name of a reliable caviar supplier and since then, every time I have gone to Istanbul, I have bought caviar from him (though the price goes up each time). Turkey has no domestic caviar production (though there is a scene set in a caviar cannery in The World Is Not Enough) and the caviar is smuggled in from Iran. Apparently this is not entirely legal but I am not sure how to reconcile the illegality with the many signs openly offering caviar at the Spice Market.

The Spice Market is a bustling bazaar and is like parts of Mumbai’s Crawford Market or Calcutta’s New Market (Getty Images)

This time around, the salesmen at the Spice Market do not greet me with offers of the stuff that kept the Sultan going or even with the usual cries of “Indian? Shah Rukh Khan! Shahrukh Khan!” Instead, they all bellow “ki haal hai?” Obviously, the Punjabification of the world has reached Istanbul as well.

I now try not to say very much about Turkish food because people who love it either get offended or treat me like a buffoon – or both. My view on the food of the Middle East in general and Turkey, in particular, is that while I have had many good meals and love individual dishes, the cuisine as a whole, strikes me as no more than a rough first draft for Indian food. You try their kebabs and their pilaffs and you realise how much these dishes gained once Indians added spice to them. In my mind, Turkish food occupies a curious halfway house. It has neither the sophistication of great European food and nor does it have the complexity and depth of Indian food.

That said, I enjoyed myself in Istanbul’s restaurants (I have never eaten as many fresh porcini mushrooms as I did at the Four Season’s Sunday brunch where they cooked them to order!) and was touched by how friendly and helpful everyone was. At the historic Develi restaurant, the manager left his table and stood on the road to find me a cab and ensure that the driver understood where I was going. Nearly everywhere else, the experience was as warm and pleasant.

The kitchen of the Nusret steakhouse run by Nusret Gökçe, also known as Salt Bae;

The exception was the Nusret steakhouse. Nusret has run a popular meat and grill place with a dedicated local following but ever since new investors bought into his company, he has morphed into a global phenomenon. A Western PR campaign has called him “Salt Bae” after the way he sprinkles salt on his steaks and his image has rushed far ahead of the food. (As have his prices.) I ate at his Dubai outpost when it opened and liked the food, but after all this “Salt Bae” nonsense, the Dubai restaurant is only packed out with credulous fools and eager tourists who want to take selfies for Instagram.

The Istanbul operation is a mess. It takes bookings but, in the manner of a Mumbai society obstetrician’s clinic, these are only vaguely indicative. You wait  over an hour or more past the time on your reservation for a table and they decide who to seat on a purely random basis.

But the night I went there were well-heeled and well-fed Turkish regulars who smoked fat cigars, rolled up their sleeves, clapped mustachioed waiters on the back and laughed loudly. So some people were having a good time.

The lokum (fillet steak) at Nusret steakhouse

This was not a category that included me. I’ll wait hours for a good meal but this was rubbish. A New York steak was undercooked, the fries were cold and the hamburger collapsed into a soggy mess within four minutes. Only the lokum (fillet steak) was okay. Overall, a godawful (and expensive) experience. Don’t ever make the mistake of going.

That was my one bad experience in the city of James Bond. But otherwise, it is a fun place with nice people. There are enjoyable times to be had at the local restaurants and if your ambitions are more upscale, you can always go to one of the city’s many sophisticated lounges or bars and have a drink.

A martini, of course. Shaken. Not stirred.

From HT Brunch, November 5, 2017

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