At Alancha in Istanbul, chef Kemal Demirasal serves up a history lesson as well as a superbly imaginative meal.
The path from champion windsurfer to professional chef is neither an obvious nor an easy one to take. But Kemal Demirasal, ex-pro windsurfer and a six-time national champion, has taken it with great imagination and considerable success. Setting out with a vision to celebrate the 12,000-year culinary history of his native Anatolia, a region that lies at the junction of Asia and Europe, and which gave birth to civilizations such as ancient Greece and the Ottoman empire, this self-taught chef already has two popular restaurants – one in Çesme (Barbun) and the other in Alaçatı (Alancha), and seems well on his way to a new kind of stardom: chefdom!
With the recent expansion of Alancha into the country’s capital, I decided to check out Kemal’s undoubted talents with a visit to Istanbul. This new restaurant is situated on the lower floors of the Maçka Armani Residence, where guests can first enjoy a pre-meal cocktail in the vibrant atmosphere created by a live DJ followed by the full gastronomic experience on the first floor with a terrace offering a glimpse of the River Bosphorus. The dining room itself is full of plants and flowers – appropriately enough, as the word ‘Alancha’ originates from the old-Turkish meaning a “grassy area among the trees of a garden.” It was here that Kemal took us on an exciting journey through the Anatolian history of food.
In fact, Kemal was bold enough to set up Alancha as the country’s first restaurant to serve only a tasting menu. Called the “The Big Migration”, it’s a menu that promises a veritable abundance of “Turkish delights”, starting with a few variations of local favourites such as lahmacun (often described as Turkish pizza) and Pişi (fried dough breakfast snack). After these, we took a leap backwards in time with dishes like the Persian-style Yahni (meat and onion stew), Phoenician-inspired sea bass, and a grilled “Greek salad”, all cleverly contemporised by Kemal without abandoning their Anatolian origins. The three-hour eating experience also featured Kemal’s version of local street food such as midye dolma (rice-stuffed mussels) and Söğüş (a popular lamb’s head “hangover” snack), as well as one of Turkey’s culinary treasures, the Antep pistachio, which was used to great effect in his innovative version of Baklava.
A visit to Alancha brings more than just tastes and textures – it’s a rich historical experience too. That’s because each course is hand-delivered by a member of the kitchen team who provides historical references and explains the inspiration behind each dish. The amount of effort that went into the meal was obvious, from the assiduous historical research to the design of each piece of tableware, complemented by a huge amount of time spent experimenting in the test kitchen.
After a week enjoying the wide range of eating experiences from quick bites off street vendors to luxury dining in Çırağan Palace, I was both enlightened and impressed by the richness of choice and the level of quality which Istanbul has to offer. But despite all the wonderful offerings, I concluded that Alancha has by far the most sophisticated menu in town; one that brilliantly showcases the history of cooking and its cultural influences, of Anatolia.
In short, after four years of effort, Kemal is flying the flag of modern Anatolian cuisine and has developed an extremely promising cuisine to share with the world. Alancha is definitely the one to watch!
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