Every time I go to Set Balık (and after many trial-and-errors this is THE place where I go for a fish meal) I keep wondering how other Istanbul fish restaurants could have possibly survive this competition. Off the tourist trails location, unusual fish dishes, loyal regulars, professional service and reasonable bill – Set Balık so well illustrates 5 rules of a good Istanbul fish restaurant.
1. Located off the tourist trails
However much attractive the fish restaurants under the Galata Bridge may seem you will not find there many Istanbulites who instead prefer enjoying their fish on the Bosphorus somewhere in Arnavutkoy or Sarieyer.
Set Balık have gone extreme and chosen to locate much further than even most Istanbulites would travel for good fish dinner. To get there you take a long scenic drive along the European shore of the Bosphorus to Tarabya – almost all the way to the Black Sea. And for what? For no Bosphorus view which is hampered by the parking! And this is the first rule of a good Istanbul fish restaurant.
2. Knows better than plain grilled fish
Let’s face it: there is no big skill in making grilled fish if you can put your hands on a fresh catch. And this is why most Istanbul fish restaurants have been plain lazy.
At Set Balık they give you a break from the regular Istanbul fish restaurant fare and show the real heights of the Istanbul sea food culinary. Without being too snob about it. They must turn tons of fish and sea food monthly as fish is served in all possible preparations.
First comes the abundant tray of cold starters: how about marinaded sea bass with mustard or mackerel in Japanese-style bread crumbles? Then follows the parade of the hot starters. And those are really chicky. At Set Balık they turn all the meat Turkish classics into fish dishes: here comes fish kokorec (ground intestines normally those of sheep), fish köfte (meat balls without meat), fish şiş kebab (cubes cooked on a skewer), fish pide (thin crusted pizza with flaked toppings) and the meal goes on.
For the mains you can treat yourself to chunks of sea bass fillet sauteed with vegetables (kemik üstü levrek) or gorgeous turbot cooked in tandır (be sure to call in advance to order).
3. Enjoys a loyal clientele
There must be conspiracy behind Set Balık: it is never on the loud “Top10″ lists and it does not boast flashy awards. But the people who frequent the place clearly know what they come for. You can’t get a table without a reservation in the evening. Set Balık is crowded with essentially the same crowd that religiously come and spreads the word in a quiet way.
Financiers of Levent, Armenian and Jewish families and old Istanbul intellectuals. Solid and established. During one of our dinners Ebru, an Özgür’s friend and PR professional, was quick on her food and refreshed herself with perfume before she headed out to kiss the hand of old reputed Istanbul journalist Aydın Boysan who was leaving after his dinner and got attention of dozens of diners who wanted to express their respect.
Such great value place could have attracted a cheaper crowd. But it does not. Because knowing a value of a good fish restaurant without ridiculous splashing of new money is a class thing in Istanbul.
4. Provides polite not imposing service
As busy as they get at Set Balık with hundreds of customers waiting for dozens of dishes to be served the waiters are trained for excellent service. While the dishes efficiently arrive to your table and the drinks are poured on time the waiting stuff at Set Balık always finds time to answer your questions and shed more light on the curious deliciousness on the plate. Dignified waiters to match the demanding cultivated clientele.
They are well organized too: a hostess guides you to the table and entrust you to a chief waiter controlling the table. An army of junior waiters assists and carries full-loaded trays back and forward – full dishes in and the empty ones out.
5. Does not give you any reason to worry about the bill
Unlike the other Istanbul fish restaurants where you may need to worry about stuff arriving to our table unannounced in Set Balık you can simply relax and entrust yourself to the hospitality. Every meal there is a feast poured out from the horn of plenty by the hospitable patrons. There is no menu. The dishes keep arriving to your table, you don’t really notice anyone writing down anything and at the end the bill comes with just a number. Which is about 60-70 TL per head with alcohol (gone up from 50-60 TL per head last year).
After talking to the hostess about their charging policy I have figured they actually write everything. But only for their own record. The bill gets calibrated depending on how much you eat and drink. And yet always comes to a reasonable number.
Now, how can you eat and drink that much of quality food and drink to your heart’s content for this money? What’s the economy of the place, I mean? Well, no credit card is excepted and it seems a fare deal for the customers willing to come with cash in hand to pay the mind-blowing fish meal at Set Balık.
Useful info: Haydar Aliyev Cd. No:18, Tarabya; close to Sariyer. Phone: 0212 262 04 11. Reservations. No credit cards accepted.