I wandered hand in hand with Tall, Dark and Handsome through the charming cobbled streets of Alaçatı; the hubbub dying down as the bustling main street morphed into a charming residential byway. Turning up a low but steepish hill, we soon saw the lights of Alancha on a terrace above us. Music and bubbling laughter floated down, but we could see little of the place itself. Intrigued, we rounded the hill and as we topped the curving flagstone steps that wind round to the impressive restaurant entrance we found the entire kitchen and waiting staff in two lines on either side of the pathway, waiting to exclaim in unison the traditional Turkish welcome “Hoş geldiniz” as we passed between the ranks. It was utterly unexpected and quite delightful, and with smiles on our faces we were smoothly escorted through to the bar for a pre-dinner cocktail. Seated at the bar we looked out over the city and dry landscape below. The cocktail master, Cenk, introduced himself.
The cocktails were a spectacle to behold. Cenk, expertly calm, poured viscous syrups from mysterious potion bottles, brandished a blowtorch, poured liquid nitrogen between various pots, pans and vessels and kept up a steady flow of engaging conversation all the while. Having enquired as to what sort of drinks we enjoyed he set to and produced a theatrical display and two exquisite drinks. I was presented with a Rosella – a blend of hibiscus and orange peel infused tequila, Cointreau, house-made orange and rose syrup, grapefruit and grape juice; decorated with a passion fruit and clove foam in a fantastic bright peach-coloured glass and with tiny pink flowers floating atop it. As if that wasn’t enough, the lip of the glass was encrusted with a deep purple hibiscus-infused salt. It was beautiful to behold and simply heavenly to sip.
Tall, Dark and Handsome was served with a Camur, Turkish for mud; a heady mix of black pepper seed-infused scotch whisky, dill-infused raki, a syrup of 42 infused spices, lavender bitters, marinated apple and aniseed foam; with liquid nitrogen added to create a fantastic smoking presentation in an archaic looking terracotta serving jug, with a matching tumbler to drink from. The flavours were subtle and delicious. It was a brilliant spectacle and after sampling one another’s drinks we took a handful of warm granola nibbles and looked around us. The sun was yet to set, and from our position on the rocky outcrop we gazed out over the town, the wind farm, the motorway and a glimpse of the sea running up an inlet. It was in many ways an unremarkable view, but the panorama afforded by the hilltop vantage point and the setting of the bar itself made the whole seem rather captivating.
The staff had a hipster vibe, with tight jeans, beige shirts and brown braces. The bar was open air with a rush matting ceiling. Logs were piled up with bottles of well-known alcohol brands scattered amongst them. Forget about ordering a standard drink. Everyone in the bar - men included - had beautiful drinks: pink martinis, purple drinks adorned with flowers, all looking delicate yet so aesthetically pleasing that even the butchest of moustachioed Turks could hardly feel shamed by them. Rarely has a place made a better impression on me.
We were able to observe the arrival of other drinkers and diners on the opposite side of the terrace, and we knew each time they were on the approach: the staff must have a designated look-out, as periodically they would down tools en masse and scurry to form the welcome lines that we ourselves had been greeted with, before melting away and back to their regular duties. Each arriving party seemed just as charmed as we had been by this idiosyncratic ritual.
The cocktails were so good we went for another each, and frankly they merit full description. I had Fume, a fig and clove-infused bourbon with the 42-spice syrup, a juice of mango, kiwi and pineapple, and a ginger liqueur. The glass was placed under a bell jar and a blowtorched smoked apple tree shavings that had been matured in red wine somehow combined with nitrogen to fill the bell jar with smoke in around the drink. TDH opted to test Cenk’s ability with the classics and requested a mojito, but he was rewarded with a fine twist on the standard version as we watched Cenk smash up cucumber and limes add some vodka and top it off with white wine. Fresh and wonderful.
With some reluctance, we left the excitement of the bar and made our way to our table on the edge of the veranda. Night had fallen, not that we had noticed with the mixology mastery show at the bar. Our circular wooden table was lit by a single bulb held up by a slender but industrial ironwork structure which wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of the Predator films. We each had a tiny wooden cutlery drawer with three forks and three spoons – a nice touch.
Can (pronounced Jan), our guide for the evening, appeared and delightfully explained a little about the restaurant and what to expect from the taster menu. The restaurant opened last summer and is the first restaurant in Turkey with a set menu as the sole option. All the produce is locally sourced or grown on site. I have to say we were pretty excited; the show put on by the bar staff had given us an idea of what might yet be to come and it was really quite thrilling.
Our first course arrived and was introduced to us by the pastry chef, Gökhan. We sipped our glasses of Segura Viudas Cava Brut Reserva and surveyed the plethora of plates being presented. Rough slabs of grey rock on which lay fried dough stuffed with goat’s cheese and a rose jam; lettuce with a butter and fennel, basil and parsley seed topping; a tiny lahmacun topped with raw meat – chewy with a kick of chilli heat; stone crab pickle with smoked eel – cool and salty; meat crisps wedged into a branch; vine leaf crisps with a cinnamon sauce – soft and creamy and almost like a pudding… it was quite fascinating; dainty morsels, varied yet complementary, all presented on bespoke-fashioned and endlessly creative organic and inorganic vessels.
After such an engaging start the dishes kept on coming and didn’t disappoint in either appearance, flavour or variety. Next up was a fresh pistachio pureé with walnuts, lemon and olive oil served on a slab of slate. It was delicately decorated and really tasty. Our waitress Merve was charming, with her notes in English written on her hand. The staff are all interns from Okulun Mutfağı MSA, an Istanbul cooking school, and were fresh and enthusiastic. The waiting staff seemed to take turns with the kitchen staff to present and describe the dishes, often in charmingly parroted English.
A heavy ice bowl with ears of wheat frozen right into it appeared, brimming with a cold soup of smoked chickpeas, wheat and green herbs, with flowers to decorate. An Urla Chardonnay appeared - the second of six wines.
I will not bore you with an exhaustive list of everything we ate – my head was almost spinning with it all at the time let alone in recollection, but two highlights were as follows:
A thick ceramic bowl, with brown, turquoise and green marble patterns and looking not dissimilar to an outsized soap dish, topped with rolled zucchini and raw sea bass with onion juice. Light, tasty, superbly textured and of the finest quality.
For TDH the Greek salad was the evening’s winner; and in truth a week later we were
both still talking about it. Olive paste was smeared in a rough circle on the plate, surrounding tiny dots of cheese cream, grilled cucumber, tomatoes, onions and thyme. Green bean juice was served at the table from the saucepan. It sounds mundane. It was outstanding. Salty and smoky, we both took a mouthful and looked at each other in a moment of shared wonderment. “How did they do it?” exclaimed TDH. “There is simply nothing to it but it tastes so GOOD!”
The dining experience was so intense and engaging that we barely looked around us the entire evening. Only at one point did TDH look up and remark upon the unusual yellow moon that hung very low to the horizon. The restaurant is cleverly lit and although one is perfectly aware that other people are dining, one’s focus is not distracted from one’s own table. Furthermore, the generous spacing allows for an even greater sense of tranquillity and focus on what is put in front of one as a diner, rather than that which surrounds.
The owner and visionary behind Alancha is self-trained chef Kemal Demirasal. He spent fifteen years as a professional wind surfer enjoying the famed Alaçatı winds. He then studied economics and moved on to a career in gastronomy. His hard work, passion and dedication have certainly paid off; and he has created something that should earn him worldwide acclaim. We have certainly sampled many tasting menus in Istanbul, London and elsewhere that have failed to make even nearly such a good impression.
But back to Alancha and the food! A beautiful fillet of swordfish appeared, a pida with brain cream and lamb’s cheek, and then the sweetbreads. We can both be a bit squeamish about offal. I couldn’t attempt to eat the sweetbreads and knew I wouldn’t even be able to try. TDH who, despite any misgivings, is always game to try at least a mouthful of pretty much anything, popped a piece into his mouth and stated in apparent anguish from behind his hand “Don’t look at me”. He proceeded to complete a lengthy and seemingly quite arduous chewing and swallowing process and, with a look of disgust, relief, and only the barest glimmer of triumph, he said “I think I want a clean fork”. I laughed so much I attracted attention and Can enquired as to the cause of such mirth. In his smooth and subtle way remarked not to “chew it for ten minutes, chew it for three or four – it’s not gum!”
A succulent lamb course and several glasses of wine further on and we were onto the desserts, where things started to feel even quite surreal. A honey mousse with a cocoa crumble and molasses sauce was presented in a matte silver bowl, not dissimilar to those you’re washed with at the hamam. Leaves seemingly like spinach, but with a name we failed to translate, arrived dipped in chocolate; next to them sat two new potatoes (yes, that’s right) stuffed with caramel mousse, and two paper wrapped caramels. Something called soap tree root sat in a fluffy pure white mass, looked and tasted like marshmallow and was accompanied by cold brewed coffee and honey cone with a pine milk cream and lemon thyme.
We’d just finished our glass of Moscato Frizzante when Cenk appeared to tempt us to a digestif, aptly monikered The Last Word, created in Prohibition days: an equal blend of Tanqueray gin, eerily green Chartreuse and Maraschino Luxado, with a touch of lime juice.
I will make no apology for the throroughness of this account. Every element of this magical experience merits detailed and precise recollection; and I challenge any one of you to spend an evening at Alancha and not to retell it in minute detail to anyone prepared to listen!