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The remote destination serving some of Turkey’s most exciting food

A menu highlight is the savory eclair.
Courtesy Çiy Restaurant & Konukevi via CNN Newsource
A menu highlight is the savory eclair.

By Feride Yalav-Heckeroth, CNN

(CNN) — Just off the D515 state highway to Kuşadası, a meandering asphalted road cuts through the pine trees and undulating olive groves of the Mediterranean landscape to reach the village of Caferli.

Few people would think to come this way, but it’s exactly here that you’ll find one of Turkey’s most groundbreaking destination restaurants, where the menu – connected to the natural environment – is unlike any typically found in a country known for its delicious food.

Çiy restaurant created by chef Damla Uğurtaş, overlooks an evergreen valley and Aegean Sea from its outdoor terrace, where tables rest in the shade of a large olive tree.

For Uğurtaş, who comes from the Turkish west coast city of Izmir, about 60 miles (100 kilometers north of the restaurant), the remote location is the result of her own meandering journey, one which saw her veer from a degree in English literature to enter the world of fine dining.

“Since the inception of Çiy, I dreamt that it would be located in a village, which reflected the character of the Aegean, in a place where we could feel the spirit of the trees and even the sea,” she tells CNN.

After graduating from MSA, a highly regarded culinary arts academy in Istanbul, Uğurtaş climbed the restaurant career ladder, becoming kitchen chef at 7Bilgeler, a renowned vineyard in the nearby village of Gökçealan.

But, determined to open her own restaurant, she undertook an arduous renovation and building project to transform and expand a collection of traditional buildings in the obscure village of Caferli into her innovative dining establishment.

Love for nature

From the main gate, the restaurant and an attached guest house appear like a village-within-a-village. Its natural stone structures and descending pathways stand among herb gardens and terraces overlooking the expansive valley.

The main building – which includes the restaurant on the ground floor and three rooms upstairs – is newly built, while three guesthouses on the property are renovated village houses.

All the interior design has been specially chosen down to the smallest details, from vintage furnishings and traditional carpets in every room to the small lace doilies that rest on the water glasses.

The restaurant itself is an anomaly for this unknown village. It’s a fine-dining endeavor with a tasting menu that is both shaped by the imagination of its chef as well as the ingredients of the region.

“Çiy is a reflection of my love for nature,” says Uğurtaş. “I prefer a cauliflower that happily resisted the cold in winter over a bland pepper that is harvested by forcing the soil. I tell the producers I work with, ‘I will only buy what grows beautifully, non-toxically and with a high yield in your soil.’

“Instead of expecting my farmers to produce ingredients they’re unfamiliar with, I ask for the best and most low-intervention product that they know and already produce. As such, I believe I leave room for them to do their job, while I do mine. The region is already multi-layered and fertile. Playing with existing products makes me happy.”

Translated to the plate, the chef’s dishes embrace simplicity, allowing nature’s flavors to present themselves fully, but are also enhanced through technique and experimentation, which lift them from flavorfully satiating to very memorable.

“I never imagined Çiy as a restaurant in a city, that’s why I always feel that we’re exactly in the right place,” she says. “Ease of access to our ingredients and producers is our biggest advantage, and since our priority is taste, this is the restaurant’s most defining feature.”

Uğurtaş’s savory éclair has powdered shrimp shell within the pastry, is filled with a shrimp cream and accompanied by a cup of peach kombucha. Her homemade pastas, which she learned to make while training alongside a renowned Italian chef in Istanbul, are topped with veal ragout, or composed of ancient grains such as Kızılca wheat and served with thinly sliced calamari in a sauce of egg yolk, Bergama Tulum cheese, olive oil and fermented mussel juice.

Plates are paired with wines from a list that focuses more on Turkey’s boutique vineyards.

The more casual lunch service at Çiy differs according to the day. On Sundays, there are brunches with croquembouche towers of puff pastries filled with cream and gilded with caramel threads. On Saturdays, the Çiy burger takes center stage with its homemade pickles, ketchup, peach mustard, and buttery bun. And on Wednesdays, Uğurtaş and her team, who already love to make their own sourdough bread, make a signature sourdough pizza.

Food for the soul

Preferring to define her food as “healing Mediterranean cuisine,” Uğurtaş is part of a newly burgeoning gastronomical movement in Turkey, which focuses on not only satiating the palate, but also the soul.

Chefs are leaving the cities to open restaurants in remote locations, closer to nature and to the rich culture and ingredients of the country’s different regions. Among them, Osman Sezener and his restaurant Od Urla, Ozan Kumbasar’s Vino Locale in Urla, Tuncay Gülcü’s Chayote and Serra Beklen’s Capra Çukurbağ in Kaş.

“Damla Uğurtaş is breaking new ground with her fusion cuisine in a very unknown location,” says Adnan Kaya, a columnist for Hürriyet newspaper focusing on Aegean culture. “This trend seems to be the new philosophy in Turkish gastronomy and Çiy will be among the pioneers.”

“We are aware as humans that the planet can no longer meet our demands and this is where chef Uğurtaş arrives with her healing cuisine,” adds Kaya. “She creates her own dishes without rushing, with true ingredients from the region, with respect to the seasons, and every member in her staff is integral to this, they all present their unique contribution.

“They all grow and learn together, becoming more beautiful with each day as they complete each other, produce together, cook and laugh. And this is reflected in the flavors. Let’s hope all restaurants can be like this.”

Guests visiting Çiy bask in its serenity, a far cry from the hustle and chaos of Turkish mega city Istanbul, which has until now been the driving culinary force in Turkey.

The restaurant sits quietly in its village, the soft hum of conversation on the terrace, the surrounding valley vast but silent. A cold signature cocktail rests on the bar, sipped by guests wearing the restaurant’s own fragrant mosquito repellent made from local herbs.

It’s a striking scene that makes it easy to believe that a small but significant revolution is taking place in Turkey’s food scene. One that’s closer to, and in harmony with, nature.

Uğurtaş says that customers who make the journey will be rewarded for their efforts.

“Hosting guests requires a detailed execution from top to bottom and in a remote village you can’t achieve this with food alone,” says Uğurtaş.

“That’s why a holistic way of living prevails at Çiy. We welcome our guests with a philosophy formed by the contribution of the village, the region, the people we work with and our own personal values.

“Every detail exudes this philosophy, from the fabric to the colors, the plates to the food, the staff to the music played, the glasses to the wine list. This is what I love most about my own restaurant.”

Feride Yalav-Heckeroth is a freelance writer based between Istanbul and Lake Constance and the author of her own guidebook, The 500 Hidden Secrets of Istanbul. Her writing has been published in Kinfolk, Brownbook, The Travel Almanac, Wallpaper*, Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler.

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