September 23, 2014

The Istanbul neighborhood of Karaköy used to be a bustling port; home to one of the busiest harbors in Europe. But with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the area fell into disrepair. For decades Karaköy, with its gaping naval warehouses, was a gloomy and forgotten dockland. The only people you’d find hanging out there were fishermen, junkies, and prostitutes. 

But all that began to change with the arrival of Didem Şenol. A chef, formerly of New York City’s Le Cirque and Eleven Madison Park, Şenol took a chance on Karaköy when she opened her first restaurant there in 2010.

The place, called Lokanta Maya, became a hit with the locals. Word spread about Şenol’s inventive menus, and her ability to deliver consistently outstanding food. Soon enough, Maya was drawing a crowd, every night of the week. Thanks to Şenol, Karaköy was on the map again.

"I live very close by, I live in Galata, so I was actually looking for a place that was in my neighborhood," Şenol explains. "I really liked the streets and atmosphere in Karaköy, so I went for it. Some of my friends thought it was very risky at the time, but I thought ‘if you do something good, people find you'."

And find her they have. So much so, that these days, reservations are a must. 

Şenol says offering local, seasonal food is one of the keys to her success. "Lokanta Maya is a casual, cozy, small restaurant," she says. "I suppose people feel comfortable here, but at the same time have food that has been prepared with passion and care." Regulars enjoy the grilled octopus. The coriander and bergamot-marinated raw sea bass is a favorite as is, for an appetizer, the hummus with homemade crispy pastrami. 

"I like to prepare food that doesn’t overpower the taste of the ingredients," says Şenol. "Tasty food with a balance of flavors. And I use everything: head to tail."

Since Lokanta Maya’s opening, Karaköy has welcomed a rush of entrepreneurs including hoteliers, artists, and restaurateurs (Bej, a nearby restaurant-bar, is now a popular brunch destination for Istanbulites). But Şenol insists she shouldn’t be given credit for the revival. 

"I’m not that visionary," she says. "And to be honest, I didn’t think Karaköy would be this popular. So many things are happening here now. There’s lots of construction. I think when change happens slowly, it’s great. People can digest it. It’s exciting, and the renovation of the old buildings is also good for the neighborhood. The only problem is everything happening so quickly. I hope the change here will be for good."

Şenol has now set her sights on Maslak, Istanbul’s business district. Next month, Maslak will be home to her new restaurant, Gram. "And next year, we’re thinking about having our own farm," Şenol says. "We’ll see what we can do."

Hilal Isler is a contributor to travelandleisure.com.

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