Martini of the Week 11: The Orient Bar at the Pera Palace Hotel, Istanbul

Agent Triple P likes Istanbul and it is always a pleasure to return there, as we did last month.  After Canada we think it is the country that we have visited most often. True, Istanbul is hopelessly over-crowded (nearly 14 million people or nearly 20% of the population of Turkey) and can be horribly noisy but the location for this week's (yes, we know we never actually post one a week) Martini, the Pera Palace Hotel, perched overlooking the Golden Horn, is quieter than some places that Triple P has stayed in the city.

The Pera Palace was built in 1892 specifically for travelers on the Orient Express arriving from Paris.  It was the first European hotel in Turkey and the first building, other than Ottoman palaces, to have electric lighting.  It also had the first electric lift in the city which is stil operating today.  It was closed in 2006 for an extensive renovation and reopened about  a year ago. 


They have done an excellent job on it although, sadly, as is often the case these days, the site of the restaurant has been moved from its original grand room to something more contemporary and characterless downstairs.  Nevertheless the food at the new restaurant  is excellent even if the decor is a bit at odds with the more traditional look of the rest of the hotel.  Triple P had splendid ravioli followed by guinea fowl for lunch one day.

Triple P and his companion, B, were sat in the Orient Bar; a great favourite of Ernest Hemingway.  Other famous guests include Ian Fleming, Great Garbo, Jackie Kennedy, Alfred Hitchcock and Sarah Bernhardt.  Famously, of course, Agatha Christie stayed at the hotel and penned Murder on the Orient Express there.  You can even stay in her old room and the restaurant has been re-named Agatha's.

The Orient bar today (or, rather, last month)

The decor of the refurbished bar is a bit relentlessly purple for Triple P's taste but, fortunately, there are enough original elements remaining to still provide a vintage experience.  When we last visited the bar was more yellow and traditional although it was looking a little tired, but the updating has been done well we think. 

 Orient bar about six years ago

In its heyday

The service was truly excellent and the only negative was the slushy jazz/funk muzak.  We are not suggesting that they should have gone twenties retro (or even Richard Rodney Bennett) but something more appropriate to the surroundings would have been nice.

Orient Bar terrace

On the evening Triple P and B were there it had been 27 degrees centigrade and so most people chose to sit out on the new terrace.  This was very nice and, indeed we sat there another night but Triple P wanted to experience the bar proper.  The lighting was engagingly dim and curtains blocked out the bright evening sunlight very effectively, making it seem later than it actually was.

B who was in a particularly expansive mood had a glass of the local (from the Marmara region), and trendily labelled ,Arcadia Suavignon Blanc-Sauvignon Gris.  She drank this in two gulps, justifying herself with a trying day, so we ordered a bottle.  Not as assertive as a New World Sauvignon and, indeed, it showed quite a lot of grapefruit taste.  Not in an English white grapefruit sort of way but in a fruitier red grapefruit sort of way.  Fortunately the grassiness of the Sauvignon Blanc took away what could have been a sweetly cloying aftertaste.  Wine is expensive in Turkey, due to UK-style high taxes, but this was certainly better value than the imported wines.  A normal bottle of French Champagne, for example was over £200 a bottle. 

At this point B berated Triple P for writing wine notes rather than paying her the attention she undoubtedly deserved in her white silk with cerise flowers cocktail dress.  This was certainly a better outfit than the following morning's effort which consisted of some, admittedly fetching, olive green shorts with white trim and a Freddie Mercury teeshirt.  Oh well, it was only for going down to the spa, we suppose.  Still, the elegant public spaces of the hotel suggest something more formal should be worn at all times.

Anyway, Triple P's Martini was gratifyingly cold and made with Absolut vodka.  It only had two olives, rather then rather increasingly prevalent three or even four and B kindly removed the second one.

We finished the evening with a very restorative (Triple P had had to get up at 4.15am to catch his early morning flight from London) cup of truly delicious Turkish tea.  Happily it wasn't full of sugar, as it often is.   Because of his fatigue Triple P retired early (around nine pm) whilst B gave him a demonstration of how harem girls serviced their virtually immobile masters in a series of gyrations which, she claimed, were the origins of belly dancing.

Most diverting!
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