For some time now, I’ve been hearing more and more of this imaginative chef and his gem of a restaurant in Tepebaşı, which specializes in divine meze dishes. Mezes are the indispensable hors d’oeuvres that are an essential part of Istanbul’s dining culture. To give your restaurant such a name shows a high regard for these culinary delights and a confidence of knowing how to prepare the most delicious of dishes. After chatting to chef and owner Gençay Üçok while sampling a selection of his mezes , I knew he had both of these attributes.
Meze by Lemon Tree is the latest instalment in a series of projects started by major cultural travel agency, KD Tours, which continues today at Bodrum favourite, The Lemon Tree Hotel. Having also studied archaeology and trained as a professional tour guide, Üçok worked at both venues, managing the kitchen in Bodrum in the summer and taking his guests around archaeological sites and the natural wonders of Turkey in the winter. For the past year, he’s been more or less stationed in his 38-seat meyhane, where he reinterprets some of our favourite meze dishes.
“If you want to understand this country, you will eat like we do because we are a food-oriented culture,” says the affable chef as the sun warms his simple and elegant restaurant through its multi-coloured stained glass windows. He tells me the story of a VIP, with whom he waited in line to get a döner sandwich in Kasımpaşa, one of the oldest and poorest neighborhoods of the city, and the executive who made the mistake of ordering an apple for lunch and getting grilled for it. Lately, he has become the go-to person in Istanbul for international foodies, food critics, chefs and restaurant owners, who want to sample and gain inspiration from the culinary delights of Turkey. Hence, the customized culinary tours he organizes in collaboration with KD Tours.
Have you noticed the mussels sold on round trays along sidewalks, or heard of the famous kokoreç (roasted lamb offal), which sparked protests under the threat of being banned by the European Union for hygiene standards? Üçok is the guy who knows where the best mussels and kokoreç are made in the city and will insist on taking you there. Just don’t expect to be seated at a table with white linens! If you’re up for the challenge, he will take you to new culinary heights, beyond your gourmet repertoire.
Üçok also has something for food connoisseurs with a professional bent and a green mind: personalized, interactive culinary tours in Anatolia. For example, starting from Istanbul and ending at the cute coastal town of Kuşadası, where the chef spent his childhood, the Aegean tour will take you from local farmers’ markets to fishermen’s stalls, from apple orchards to okra fields. Make sure to book ahead as this opportunity to immerse yourself in the abundance of the Aegean land comes up only in the fall and spring.
Meze by Lemon Tree
Meşrutiyet Caddesi, 83/B
Tel. +90 212 2528 302