We Dined Like Sultans Inside An Ottoman Palace In Istanbul

Serving dish, Tugra restaurant, Istanbul, Turkey

Photo: Jennifer Polland /Business Insider

The Ciragan Palace, on the Bosphorus in Istanbul, has undergone many transformations. It was first built as a waterfront villa by Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha in 1719 as a way to escape the stifling summer heat of the city. Throughout the 1800s, several sultans built and rebuilt the palace to their own tastes. In 1909, the palace became the Turkish parliament building, but just one year later it was destroyed by fire.After that point, the Ciragan Palace sat neglected for years, mis-used as military barracks by the French and as a soccer field by the Besiktas Football team.

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But some time in the mid-1900s, the Turkish government began to take back and restore its historic sites, including the Ciragan Palace. Restoration work on the once-glorious palace began in the 1980s, and in 1991, the palace re-opened its doors as a luxurious hotel, the Ciragan Palace Kempinski, managed by the high-end Kempinski hotel brand.

Today, the hotel consists of the historic palace (home to 11 opulent suites and a fine-dining restaurant, Tugra) and an adjoining modern hotel. You can actually sleep in the old palace—if you can afford the price tag of several thousand euros per night. If not, though, you can still enjoy the palace by visiting for a meal in the award-winning Tugra restaurant.

I recently visited Istanbul and dined in the Tugra restaurant, and it proved to be one of the most memorable meals of my life. Tugra, which is the name of the calligraphic seal of the Ottoman sultans, is an homage to the Ottoman era. Here the chefs dig up recipes and dishes that the sultans once enjoyed, and serve them to modern diners in a historic palace setting.

The restaurant takes advantage of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, such as wild herbs from the Aegean mountains; black cabbage and corn flour from the Black Sea; lamb and dried beans from Middle Anatolia; free range cattle from East Anatolia; and fresh fish from the Bosphorus to recreate the delicious Ottoman-era dishes.

Who knew 600-year-old recipes could taste so good?

The Ciragan Palace dates back to the 18th century. After years of neglect and decay, the palace was restored in 1991 and re-opened as a hotel. Today the restaurant Tugra occupies the first floor of the palace.

At Tugra, you can eat on the grand outdoor terrace, which has glorious views of the Bosphorus and the Asian side of the city beyond.

Or you can dine in the elegant and romantic dining room. There are nice touches here like the floor-to-ceiling windows, large-scale historic paintings and tiny stools for women to place their purses.

The table settings are sophisticated and feature locally-made ceramic dishes and fine crystal and cutlery.

When we sat down, the sommelier greeted us with the extensive wine menu. He recommended that we try Tugra, a red Turkish wine. The restaurant's wine cellar holds about 200,000 bottles of wine—of that amount about 70,000 bottles are from Turkey.

The chef began the meal with a surprise amuse-bouche: mashed eggplant topped with ground lamb meat—a warm, creamy and flavorful concoction. A promising start to the meal.

Then came warm bread accompanied by a trio of spreads: fresh goat butter, a tomato-based dipping sauce and a salty spreadable baked cheese.

We opted to start with the mezze platter so that we could try a wide variety of traditional Turkish appetizers, like stuffed grape leaves, roasted eggplant, artichoke cooked in olive oil, Circassian chicken salad and more.

While we ate, we enjoyed some traditional music played on the kanun, a stringed instrument.

The main dishes arrived in an ornate silver serving dish and cover.

I ordered the grilled seabass, which came wrapped in grape leaves that had been grilled and spiced perfectly. When I cut into the neat little package, I found the very flavorful fish had been cooked perfectly.

This is what the lamb casserole looks like after it was removed from the clay pot. The meat was succulent, soft and incredibly flavorful.

When we were completely stuffed, we ended our meal with some rich Turkish coffee. If we had room, the restaurant also serves great traditional Turkish desserts, like baklava and semolina halva.

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